Mitkof Island – We Live Here

Cruising around interesting places all over the Alexander Archipelago (also known as southeast Alaska), sometimes we forget how good we have it right at home. Mitkof Island is pear-shaped, about 10 miles wide at its widest by 17 miles long, with Petersburg located on the northwest tip.

Most of Mitkof is part of the massive Tongass National Forest, and some parts of the island were logged in the 1960s and early 70s. Logging roads are still maintained by the Forest Service to provide access for recreation – such as the Three Lakes area and one of my favorite easy hikes on the island – Ohmer Creek.

After cruising all summer, returning to the hustle and bustle of town was a little overwhelming so I took advantage of a beautiful day to head Out the Road with cameras and drone for some hiking, flying, and berry picking.

My first stop was to the middle of the Three Lakes – named Sand, Hill and Crane. The lakes are connected by trails, and Hill Lake also has a spur trail that runs down to Ideal Cove. Moose, black and brown bears, porcupines, grouse and deer are the most common animals on the island, though I didn’t encounter any this particular day. (Usually we see more deer in town than Out the Road.)

Hill Lake

The Forest Service built a little dock complete with a rowboat and a picnic table at each lake, and in the video below you can see some of the boardwalk where the connecting trail traverses the squishy muskeg. The video starts at Hill Lake, flies south to Crane Lake, then north to Sand Lake. As the drone gains altitude you can see the panorama of the Coastal Mountain range as well as the entrance to the Le Conte Glacier inlet.

After flying and a picnic lunch, I spent a little time picking red huckleberries and high-bush cranberries. A friend makes a delicious homemade ketchup from the high-bush cranberries, so I wanted to get enough to try making some of my own.

High-bush cranberries

The drive along the logging roads is so beautiful, coming around a bend and seeing a distant snow-capped mountain framed by trees, or savoring the sunlight dappling the forest understory.

Before heading back to town I decided to hike part of a favorite trail – Ohmer Creek (marked on the map at the top).

Venturing along the creek in one direction I found some humpy (also called pink) salmon trying to make their way upstream in the shallow water. You can just see the humps on their backs sticking above the water.

I was surprised that I didn’t see any bears – I must have just missed them because these fish were easy pickings. After hanging with the salmon for a while I headed in the other direction, into the thicker forest.

The bunchberries (also called dwarf dogwood) were ripe all over the place – they’re edible, though they’re not tasty to eat.

I launched the drone and got a terrific bird’s eye view of the creek, the muskeg, the mountains and the endless forest. The drone offers such a different look at familiar things, and makes me fall in love with this place even more. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we get to live here.

Tebenkof Bay – Beautiful Skies

Named after a Governor of Russian-America in the mid-19th century, Tebenkof Bay has been a home and hunting/gathering area for Tlingit people from Kake and Klawock for hundreds of years. It’s a big bay, with lots of islands and narrow passages, mountain lakes that drain into marshy meadows, and a number of neat places to anchor. The cruise from our anchorage in Explorer Basin to Shelter Cove in the back of the bay took over and hour – it’s a surprisingly big area.

As soon as we got the anchor down I grabbed the drone and flew around the cove to get the lay of the land before I ventured out in the kayak. If you follow around the perimeter of all the nooks and crannies, it’s about 5 miles of paddling. I was particularly hopeful about the shallow streams in the back meadow – good bear territory since there were plenty of salmon in the water, but no joy. Regardless, it always amazes me how rocks-trees-water can be arranged in so many beautiful ways.

Today’s post is primarily about the sky. Dramatic by day…

…but really jaw-dropping by night!

The light at the bottom of the photo is our boat, and I hope you can see the Big Dipper – it stands out a bit more brightly just to the left of center. Our daylight is shrinking fast now, by 5 minutes a day, but the optimist in me likes being able to see the stars without having to stay up half the night!

In the daylight I found a good spot on shore that faced north to practice my star photography, and I used the kayak to get there once it got dark. I had a radio so I could talk with Jim, bear spray, tripod, camera, star tracker and head lamp – quite a load of stuff. As luck would have it, the tide was rising in the evening. I set the tripod high up on the beach and pulled the kayak up as far as I could, but by the time I wrapped things up I was standing in the incoming tide.

I spotted a funny glow on the NE horizon while I was trying to shoot stars, and sure enough… it was an aurora!

You can still see the glow of our boat low in the frame, and the Big Dipper above it. The white band shifted and danced a bit, and reflected in the mirror-smooth water. Yowza!

As it got darker I could see the Milky Way, though that white aurora band crossed the sky and bisected the Milky Way for a while. It’s a great problem to have when your Milky Way shots are spoiled by the aurora. Eventually the white band disappeared and I could get a few images.

I planned to go out the next evening and find a better position to shoot the entire Milky Way across the sky with a wider angle lens. The night was clear and pleasant, I got my gear set up farther up the beach (it didn’t help – the tide still caught up to me), and I was all set for stars when this happened…

It danced, it undulated like a curtain in a breeze, it shot colors into the sky. We had a show for almost two hours! It was so exciting that I completely forgot about the Milky Way. The tide finally chased me off the shrinking beach and we sat up on the boat deck just watching the light show. Magical.

We don’t get to see the aurora down here in Alaska’s “panhandle” as often – sometimes the aurora just isn’t visible this far south, and our frequently overcast weather hides it when it is. As fall turns to winter the aurora tends to show up later (after midnight) and it’s not as much fun waiting in the cold, so these autumn gifts of pleasant evenings and earlier light shows are treasures to savor.

Bear Harbor & Explorer Basin

Sorry about the long hiatus – it’s been crazy-busy around here.

As we left the town of Craig after a good break hiding out from the weather, we enjoyed all the fresh fruit and veggies we picked up at the grocery store. We’re often away from towns for weeks, sometimes a month or more, and we’ve learned a few tricks about keeping perishable foods for a while. Starting off with produce that arrived by barge from Seattle adds some challenge – our fruits and veggies have had a hard trip just to get here. Produce we buy in Sitka (a bigger town) or Juneau lasts a lot longer than what we buy in Petersburg or any of the smaller towns, but using “green bags” to let the produce breathe and checking it daily to remove anything going bad helps a lot.

Up here a loaf of average store-bought bread costs over $5, not to mention the space to freeze and store it, so we have a bread machine and enjoy that lovely baking aroma when we need more. Fortunately we have an extra freezer and a vacuum packer so if we get to Costco we can stock up with enough meat, cheese, and frozen veggies to last the whole summer. We like to cruise so that we don’t NEED to go to a grocery store, and we learned how to go for months on our own when we used to cruise in the Bahamas.

The chart below shows our winding path from Craig on Prince of Wales Island, through the lovely El Capitan Passage and into Affleck Canal on the south end of Kuiu (pronounced “koo-you”) Island. Friends recommended a visit to Bear Harbor, and since I was running a severe deficit of bear sightings this summer I was ever hopeful!

Even in the nooks and crannies of El Cap Passage we saw whales every day, as well as lots of sea otters. It was late August, and that marks the beginning of the mating season for the otters. We often saw otters in pairs or even threes, sometimes with a distressed female squalling from being bitten on the nose and face by her suitors.

As soon as the anchor was set in Bear Harbor, I was out in the kayak with the big lens in hopes of seeing lots of large black furry things. The day was glorious and the scenery sublime.

Canada geese, mergansers, goldeneyes and chittering kingfishers swam and flew around. I was able to venture into the far back meadows in the shallow creek on the high tide, and some bird movement caught my eye. At a distance I thought it was a young eagle so I quietly paddled closer to shore, trying to stay hidden by the tall grass. It wasn’t an eagle… it was a sandhill crane!!!

In fact, there were five cranes, on the early end of the migration south for the winter. We usually see (and hear!) them for about 2 weeks in September and April as they move through, but they’re often flying high over the mountains. I could have gotten a better photograph if I stood up, but I didn’t want to spook them.

After venturing deep into perfect bear territory in the kayak – shallow water with plenty of salmon, surrounded by tall grass – boy, was I nervous and I made sure to make a little noise so I didn’t surprise anything – no bears. Paddling back towards the boat I spotted one black bear in the distance, and that was it for Bear Harbor… but the sandhill crane sighting made up for the dearth of bears.

August is more commonly known as “Fog-ust” up here, and we started to have murky conditions more often. This is what it looked like as we started to pull the anchor to leave in the morning (with much heavier fog out in the channel)…

…but 15 minutes later much of it lifted. I like the mysterious feel of the foggy fingers laying on the trees.

We cruised south, around Cape Decision (the purple exclamation point on the chart above), and then north up the west coast of Kuiu Island. There were numerous trollers out fishing – we saw as many as 15 at a time. Trollers tow several long lines with many hooks to catch salmon, and the spacing of the hooks and microvoltages on the troll lines help focus on a particular species of salmon. As each fish is brought up, it is immediately dispatched, gutted, bled and packed in ice. Trollers catch the beautiful whole fish that you see in high-end fish markets or fancy restaurants.

We saw lots of whales, and had to contend with a bit of swell and wave action since we were right at the entrance to the ocean. It was a long day’s run, but we ended up in Explorer Basin in Tebenkof Bay (marked on the chart above). Surrounded by the Windfall and Troller Islands, Explorer Basin is a lovely area with views across Chatham Strait to the mountains of Baranof Island. Here’s a little drone footage to show you what it looks like.

If you noticed lots of white dots in the water towards the end of the video – those were jellyfish… hundreds of them! Moon jellies as well as lion’s mane jellies.

The evening was clear and beautiful, and as the days are getting much shorter we had to interrupt dinner to get some photos of the sunset.

Clear nights and short daylight means more chances for stars and other gifts of the night… so stay tuned for more from Tebenkof Bay.