Blows and Boats

Leaving Pack Creek we have to spend several hours cruising through Seymour Canal – an area known for good whale activity, which did not disappoint!We saw lots of blows towards the east side, and before we even headed over that way some more whales showed up pretty close to us!We kept our distance and watched them for a while as we cruised south.  After all the great bear action, it was fun to see a different kind of mammal up close!

We stopped back in Juneau, careful to time our arrival in Auke Bay harbor.  Auke Bay’s transient dock space is completely uncontrolled – you just tie up anywhere you can find a spot big enough, and hope that there’s some room in the nearest shared power box.  It’s not our favorite place, but it works when we need to go to The Big City.

Auke Bay is also where the whale watching and charter fishing boats tie up when they’re not taking cruise ship tourists out for an adventure, so we try to time our arrival when those boats are usually out.  Fortunately for us, we found the last big spot about 1/2 hour before the local gillnet fishery closed and all the gillnet boats headed into port!

The gillnet boats are typically 32-40′ long, and there were so many that they had to raft to one another – three deep!  If you look in the background on the far right you’ll see this monster… a 160′ yacht with four-person helicopter (and several other toys)!There were a few other large private yachts out on the breakwater dock – they come and go through the summer cruising season since Juneau is a good place to swap guests and to re-provision.

About two hours after the Invasion of the Gillnetters calmed down, the seine net fishery in nearby Amalga Harbor also closed, and the monster 58′ seiners swarmed the already-crowded harbor!

The fishermen are pretty good about helping one another, rafting boats together and helping anyone who might be trapped by the bigger boats.  It’s a pretty cooperative arrangement – sometimes stressful, but it works.

It’s not always this crazy in Auke Bay, but when the fishing is active nearby and the downtown harbor is full of cruise ship passengers wanting to see whales or go fishing, it’s a lively, fascinating place.

We lucked out with continued great weather – it has been a very warm and dry summer up here, which is not good for the salmon.  But it sure is pretty.  Here’s a view of the Mendenhall Glacier across a field of wildflowers.We’ve seen the Mendenhall many times, but if we have a rental car we always go up to check out the ranger lectures at the Visitor Center and to hike the trails.  This trip we also stopped to take a self-guided tour of the Alaska State Capitol – something we’ve not done before.  It’s not a very fancy building, as Capitols go, but there’s a lot of wonderful artwork on the walls from all over the state.  There’s no security, no receptionist (except at the Governor’s office – she was very nice), and it’s all just very laid back.  Very Alaskan.The weather was just too nice not to take the tram up to the top of Mount Roberts……and the visibility was so good we could see all the way to Auke Bay!

B is for Bears

Bears – I can’t get enough of them, so we headed back up to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island to hang out with them (as well as the rangers – they are the most marvelous people).  The drought has not helped the salmon streams, the salmon numbers are low, and they are late!  But at least the fish are starting to arrive, stirring up the water at the mouth of the creek in a frenzied bio-mass.  The bears give chase……and they wait patiently for the incoming tide to bring a fresh load of fish into the shallows.Sometimes it’s too tiring to wait for fish, and it’s better to find a higher spot and take a little nap.That is, until your cub comes along to snuggle……or to be a little brat and play-fight!Who, me?The bears seem to get along when everyone is hungry and there are fish in the stream……and the ravens and eagles stick close to the action to get whatever is left over.  I thought it was so odd to see this eagle walking through the grass along the stream – a sneaky eagle?All the things we get to see are beautiful, but I think bears are the best.

Thomas Bay’s Treasures

Formed by the Baird and Patterson Glaciers, Thomas Bay is about 17 miles from Petersburg.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, just because a place is close to home doesn’t mean that it isn’t something special.

To get into Thomas Bay we crossed the shallow bar – the terminal moraine of the Baird Glacier, and we headed towards the vertical mountainside.  Close to the mountain we turned north to see the expanse of gravel bars that marks the outflow plain of the Baird.  Turning the corner, we tucked into the aptly named Scenery Cove to drop the anchor.  It’s a gorgeous little nook, but pretty deep. Fortunately we found a high spot that was big and flat enough to get a good anchor set.

So much of boating and exploring is all about “local knowledge”, and this visit to the Baird is no exception.  Our hairdresser and her husband have seen us up in Thomas Bay from their boat before, so she told us that the meltwater lake in front of the Baird is accessible by boat now.  We wouldn’t have tried to get closer to the face if we didn’t get that tip from Liz!

Navigating with the dinghy through opaque glacier outflow is not easy.  Even though the dink doesn’t draw much water, we still ran with the outboard tilted up a bit and paused to check the depth often.  I have visions of silty bars and hidden rocks ripping the lower unit off the outboard, so we proceeded slowly… and the reward was worth it!We found a safe place out of the current to anchor the dinghy on a rising tide and climbed out on a steep silty beach.  Fresh bear scat and some porcupine footprints reminded us that there’s plenty of wildlife around, even though parts of the landscape looked stark and rugged.The wind kicked up clouds of fine glacial flour into the air from plains like the one in the photo above, but we also found thickets of brush and a wide variety of lichens.I loved these silvery swaths of lichens, dotted with pretty pink-purple dwarf fireweed……which is a “pioneer plant” commonly found after a wildfire or glacial scour – it helps to fix nitrogen into the soil to make it more hospitable for more varieties of plants.We spotted a number of small spruce trees coming up – somewhat surprising to find in this harsh looking landscape.Life abounds here – including nesting birds that hide their eggs among the cobble.  These are tern eggs, though we suspect they may be abandoned – we didn’t see any birds fussing at us.  We were careful to watch where we walked to make sure we didn’t step on anything delicate.The Baird Glacier is no longer a mighty shaper of the land, but it’s still beautiful and interesting to explore its gravel bars and see the life that comes to occupy the scoured landscape it left behind.If you’d like to learn more the US Forest Service has a Baird Glacier Story Map with photos and in-depth information to explore.

The day after visiting this glacier we anchored off the southern delta in Thomas Bay – left behind by the Patterson Glacier that’s now high up in the mountains.  Near the anchorage is the beautiful Cascade Creek and a nice hiking trail.The trail follows the creek and eventually leads up to some mountain lakes, though we didn’t climb that high.  I just love a good walk in the woods.  The light was just right to reveal a chubby-cheeked face in the forest (exercise for the imagination).We spotted lots of ripe berries, particularly salmonberries and blueberries, but all the easy to reach ones have been taken.  I have to weigh my love for berries with my desire to avoid broken bones.

Petersburg’s Local Glacier

While spending a few days back in Petersburg we decided to use a gift certificate I gave Jim for a trip to our “local” glacier, the Le Conte, about 15 miles away.  Normally the Le Conte inlet has quite a bit of brash ice and it’s not at all safe or sane to take our boat in there.  Several captains in town run small aluminum boats with protected props or jet drives to get to the glacier – that’s the way to do it. 

There is a shallow bar at the entrance to the glacier’s inlet – which is the terminal moraine – the farthest point the glacier reached, plowing rock and rubble like a gigantic bulldozer.  Often big icebergs will run aground in the shallows at the bar, and today’s trip had a few……especially this massive one that was the size of a house.Proceeding up the inlet, we saw a U-shaped valley off to the side – a clear sign that it was carved by a glacier, now just a small ice field and melt stream.The Le Conte is the southernmost tidewater glacier in North America – “tidewater” means that the glacier’s snout comes down to the sea.  The Le Conte is unique in that the ice is very deep – as much as 800′ under the water, while the visible part of the glacier is about 300′ high.  Most people are familiar with glacial calving – where chunks of ice fall off the face……but the Le Conte also calves from underwater, producing “shooters” that can erupt in spectacular fashion.

Glacier ice can be white, clear, gray, black, or blue……and this huge iceberg that calved off as a shooter really shows how intense the color can be. Glacier ice is the preferred haul-out for harbor seals – they’re safer from predators where the ice is thick.  They’re curious, but wary.

We spotted hundreds of seals resting and sleeping on the ice – a variety of fat sausages in speckled colors.

A trip to the Le Conte is a special treat, and each time can be so different.  Sublime.