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.

Bears and More Bears

Anyone who has been following the Blog for a while knows that I adore bears, so we headed to Pack Creek to visit with the wonderful rangers and to hang out with some of Admiralty Island’s brown bears.

Run by the Forest Service and Alaska Fish and Game, Pack Creek limits visitors to no more than 24 people per day during high season (when the salmon are running).  Most people arrive by float plane with a guide from Juneau, and for those of us arriving by boat, they have a “clothes line” that we can tie our skiffs to in order to keep the boats in deep water – to manage the big tidal changes and to keep nosy bears from shredding our boats.  One day we tied up to the secondary “clothes line” and apparently we didn’t run the skiff far enough out.  So much for going back to the boat for our lunch!  By dinnertime it was afloat again, and one of our ranger friends made sure to keep any bears away.The salmon are late this season and the unusually dry weather isn’t helping either, so the bears were clamming and eating grass.  A few fish have made it up the stream, but most of the time the bear’s chase was half-hearted.This bear would stand up to get a better view of the fish, and sometimes walk around until she spotted something worthy of pursuit.This bear had a more relaxed approach to fishing, sitting and waiting for a big one to come along.While visiting a different creek in the area this sow and two cubs started heading our way……until we firmly told them to go in a different direction.  They thought about that……and all three of them wanted to get a much better look at us before they finally broke off their approach.Back at Pack Creek we enjoyed watching a sub-adult pair of siblings: Java (a girl)…and Joe, a boy and a serious fluff-ball!These bears are about two and a half years old, recently sent out on their own by their mother.  They tended to stick pretty close together a lot of the time as they’re figuring out how to manage in the big wide world. 

The weather has been sunny, warm and dry – enough so that even the bald eagles jumped into the water to cool off.  We saw two of them do it, and friends said they’ve seen the same thing for the first time ever.  It’s a hoot to see these majestic birds splashing around like a little bird in a bird bath!We were surprised that more bears didn’t cool off in the water, especially wearing those beautiful fur coats, though a few did.  This one really enjoyed herself, splashing her face and playing in the water.  Rain or shine, the experience at Pack Creek is always exciting and magical, made even better by the rangers who generously share their deep knowledge, experience, and love of the bears.