And Now For Something Completely Different

It’s autumn… it’s typically the rainy season (which is good, because we need the water)… and that means it’s time…

…to head south and jump in the RV for another kind of adventure. First stop is Yellowstone National Park. We planned for five days to explore just a little bit of the nearly 3500 square miles in our nation’s first National Park.

Yellowstone is known for a wide variety of geothermal features as well as wildlife. Where to begin? Well, some of the wildlife isn’t all that hard to find. It’s important to remember: DO NOT honk your horn.

Bison are iconic residents in the park, but it’s important to remember that they are wild animals… very very large wild animals, so don’t get too close. Thank goodness for long lenses.

You might notice the snow in the background – it was cold and it continued to flurry and snow on us now and then through the day, but the fall color…

…and the beautiful scenery in the Lamar Valley was worth a little cold. The wildlife was too!


We almost didn’t see this coyote – it was so camouflaged in the brush, but the motion gave it away.

We explored the Lamar Valley late in the afternoon hoping to see more wildlife – particularly bears and wolves, but we had to “settle” for sublime scenery.

No first day in Yellowstone would be complete without some geothermal action so we spent some time around Mammoth Hot Springs.

The stark landscape contrasts with the bizarre colors caused by heat-loving bacteria in the pools.

Some of the bacteria form thread-like strands that collect together to form mats.

The cold temps made prolific steam as the hot spring water hit the air. Mammoth Hot Springs is pretty mellow, as geothermal features go, with pools overflowing into more colorful pools. Around other parts of the park the geothermal action is a bit more lively. Take a look:

Stay tuned… there’s a lot more of Yellowstone to show you.

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.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

If you’ve been reading the Blog since mid-May, you should have a pretty good idea of how we spent the summer… and when all was said and done, we cruised 1500 nautical miles this summer. Except for a couple of days in Juneau, two weeks in Sitka and maybe a day here or there, we anchored out most of the time.

Here’s a chart of southeast Alaska (aka “the panhandle”) with this summer’s route.

On one of the last legs we had to stop the boat and steer around this sleeping whale. (That’s not a log… logs don’t breathe!)

We stopped to visit the town of Kake on Kupreanof Island since we had never been there before. Kake is a Tlingit town with a population of about 450 people. If you look at the photo below you’ll see a tall antenna tower, and just to the right of it is a record-setting totem pole. It was 136′ tall when erected in 1971, though a wind storm snapped off the top portion in 2015.

It was pouring down rain, though we dressed for it and took a long walk. Someone from the town agreed to meet us part way to collect payment for dockage, and he very kindly offered to show us around town a bit. It doesn’t take long to see the sights, but with the hills and rain we were very grateful for the impromptu tour. The highlight wasn’t the beautiful totem though, it was the black bear right in town, trying (unsuccessfully) to break into the trash container by the coffee shop.

It’s always bittersweet to see the summer cruising season end – we’ve loved our quiet days at anchor, but we miss our friends back in town too. After topping off the fuel tanks we settled back into our spot in Petersburg, ready to jump into the Rainforest Festival that started the next day.

Botanist Mary hosted a “muskeg walk”, and we love to learn new things about the bog plants that inhabit so much of our area.

Mary helped us spot some tiny sundew – a carnivorous plant that’s about the size of a pea.

Ketchikan artist Ray Troll gave a lecture about fossils in southeast Alaska, which he hunts for with his paleontologist buddy Kirk Johnson, who just happens to be the Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History! His artwork, humor, enthusiasm and deep knowledge made for a terrific evening.

You probably don’t know that there’s a garnet mine on Mitkof Island (and also on nearby Wrangell Island too). The owner of the private mine brought some garnet-bearing rock, mica-schist, for us to gently hammer to extract some garnets. What fun (and mashed fingers)! These garnets are over 100 million years old!

The following weekend Petersburg’s Muskeg Maleriers group – the ladies who do the traditional Norwegian rosemaling painting – hosted a gold-medal-winning teacher from Minnesota to teach some advanced classes.

Rosemaling is prevalent around town (Alaska’s “Little Norway”), decorating storefronts, window shutters, and on nearly every surface of our Sons of Norway hall!

The guest teacher graciously agreed to teach a beginner class where we learned a little about the Os style of rosemaling.

It’s fun to see how a piece evolves from some simple strokes of color. The secret is in all the delicate line and accent work that really makes a piece “pop”. I’ll never be a decent painter or any kind of rosemaler, but I sure had fun!

Now it’s time to start getting the boat ready for winter. The fishermen are returning to the harbor, and the last of the big lion’s mane jellyfish are drifting through…

…they look like big beautiful flowers.

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.