Whales and The Big City

We took care of a lot of chores and little repairs in Hoonah and we were ready to start exploring places farther east and north.  Since we would be in the vicinity of Juneau (capital of Alaska, population 32,000) we decided to stop for a few days to visit the big box stores (Costco, Fred Meyer, Walmart, Home Depot) – the only ones in all of SE Alaska.  It was time to re-stock the freezers and pantry for the next few months of cruising so we viewed this primarily as a “business trip”.

As we rounded the lighthouse at Point Retreat to head down to Auke Bay, Juneau we got a nice push from the flooding tide.  Approaching a narrowing of the channel we saw a few small boats and a big private yacht just drifting.  We slowed down, and were very excited to see a large group of whales – at least a dozen, blowing and diving.  We put the engines in neutral to drift and watch them.  At one point they all dove deep – when you see their tails, they’re diving deep and are usually out of sight for a while.  We waited patiently expecting them to start blowing again but instead they all burst up out of the water with mouths agape – not far from us.  20140717 370 whales bubble net feeding psrThis behavior is called “bubble net feeding”, where the whales dive down near a school of bait fish and blow a large ring of bubbles to contain the fish.  Then the whales swim up through the middle of their “net” ring and gobble up as much as they can.  You can see how distended the one whale’s throat is in the photo above.  The whale uses its tongue to push the excess water out of its mouth, using its baleen as a filter to trap the food but allow the water to go out.

This was a great show!  The whales blew and swam on the surface for a few minutes and then dove again.  The big question was – where would they appear?  Sometimes the seagulls flying overhead would give the first hint, but not always.  We were scanning the horizon and I had the big telephoto lens ready… and the whales came bursting up right next to ADVENTURES!20140717 306 whale mouths psrYou can see the fine comb-like baleen in the photo above – it’s all gaping mouths because they were so close to us.20140717 311 whale mouth closing psrYou can even see the barnacles on this whale’s throat.  Every time the whales came up we could hear people on the other boats in the vicinity cheering, oohing and aahing.  The show went on for about 20 minutes as we all tried to anticipate where they would appear next.20140717 364 whale head and mega yacht psrThe whales started moving farther north and we were heading south, so we reluctantly put the engines back in gear and continued on to Juneau, still shaking from the adrenaline rush. 20140717 406 whales bubble net feeding and mountains psrFrom the delights and thrills of the whales we headed into Auke Bay – a municipal marina on the north end of Juneau.  We could see part of the Mendenhall glacier on the way in, and we marveled at a glacier that’s only a 15 minute drive from downtown Juneau.  We called on the radio for a docking assignment and were told – just find a spot anywhere on C or D dock.  “Where are C and D docks?” we asked, explaining that we had never been here before.  “Oh, you’ll see some signs,” was the best help we could get, and as we came into the harbor we saw that it was choked with commercial fishing boats, guide boats, tourist boats, local boats… you name it.  We figured out which were the correct docks, but we had to dodge boats that were backing all the way out of fairways as they were looking for a spot to tie up… it was chaos.  Finally we noticed that a boat was getting ready to leave so we stood nearby to claim the only space we could squeeze into.  As I’m trying to back into the tight spot a local in a little boat starts yelling at us (we never figured out why), and a commercial fishing boat cruised right between us and the dock with very little room to spare.  Once we tied up we were rocked by boat wakes as traffic zoomed by far faster than the posted speed limit.  Welcome to The Big City.  We had to string almost every power cable we owned to the single power pole 120′ from where we were tied up.  But, we were here to restock provisions so we tried to ignore the rude Big City attitude.  It reminded me of Miami (not in a good way), but it was pretty in the early morning when it was quiet.20140718 487 auke bay psrWe rented a car for two days and ran through our lists, commando-shopping and hauling five large dock carts full of stuff down the steep ramp and out to the far hinterlands of the dock.  With shopping finished the first day we could take some time to explore a little, and the Mendenhall glacier was top on our list.20140719 528 mendenhall glacier closer psrThis glacier has been retreating very rapidly over the past years, and you can see the big patch of bare rock where the glacier had scoured the vegetation away, but it’s now exposed.  We could walk out to the roaring waterfall next to the glacier…20140719 520 mendenhall and waterfall reflection psr…and enjoy the wildflowers on the path along the way.



Nootka Lupine

Nootka Lupine

After visiting the glacier we drove downtown and across the bridge to Douglas Island, the site of an abandoned mine, homes, and a ski resort.  Some residents are very serious about skiing.20140719 593 douglas island ski fence psrWe explored downtown a bit – it’s a cruise ship destination so there are lots of the usual cruise ship stores.  I’ll never understand why anyone would want to travel to far flung places just to shop for overpriced diamonds and watches.  But hidden among those kinds of stores are a few “gems”, and you can find the real town by seeing what remains open after the ships depart every evening.  We enjoyed one of the touristy things – the tram ride up to the top of Mount Roberts.  We tried to get a discount by arguing that the mountain was named after someone in the family, but they didn’t believe us.  mt roberts tramWe had a great view of downtown, despite the drizzly misty weather, and we saw a mother grouse and her chicks while hiking around the top.20140719 609 welcome to juneau psrYou can see the map of Alaska on this welcome sign – we’re cruising in Southeast Alaska, which is also called the “panhandle”.  Juneau is marked with a gold star, and you can see the islands and waterways of the Inside Passage.

Where the North Wind Doesn’t Blow

After the frenzy of ice and wildlife in Glacier Bay we needed a little pause to do some maintenance, small repairs, and wait for some weather to pass.  The small Tlingit town of Hoonah is about 30 miles from Glacier Bay on Icy Strait, and it’s a perfect spot to tie up behind their big rock breakwater and catch our breath.  “Hoonah” is Tlingit for “where the north wind doesn’t blow”.20140701 10213 hoonah psrHoonah has about 850 people, but its population doubles or triples two or three times a week in the summer when cruise ships come for the day.  The ships anchor off the point outside the harbor and they use tenders to bring passengers ashore to an old cannery that has been re-vamped with native cultural shows, cafes, a little museum, shops, and the world’s longest zipline.20140702 10286 hoonah zip line wide psr RESIZEFor $129 you can have the experience of zooming along a 5500′ wire with a 1320′ vertical drop at speeds up to 65 mph, and it’s all over in 92 seconds.20140702 10289 hoonah zip line people psrWe like Hoonah – it has a very laid-back atmosphere and people are friendly.  The Huna Tlingit originally lived at the mouth of Glacier Bay, but during the Little Ice Age when the Grand Pacific glacier advanced to cover the entire bay they were (literally) pushed out.  The Huna Tlingit still consider the park to be their land and they have had a rocky relationship with the Park Service until fairly recently.  The situation with the park is still not ideal, but it seems to be headed in a positive direction.  The Park Service and the tribe are working together to build a Tribal House in the park, and we got to meet some of the Tlingit carvers who are creating the wall panels and totems.  They’ve been working on the project for about three and a half years, and the wall panels and totems we saw were exceptional.  The carvers were gracious and insightful, and we could have talked with them for hours.  20140702 10301 hoonh school totem 1 psrAlthough the designs are very traditional some of the execution has a subtle contemporary flair to them, and we saw more obvious signs of that modern style in the totems in front of the town school.  Notice the octopus eye and tentacle on either side of the bear head in the photo on the left.  20140702 10304 hoonah school totem 2 psr






I really liked the different style and particularly the nod to the octopus, especially since the giant Pacific octopus are unique to this region.  Totems can represent several different things – they can tell a story, commemorate an important event, or honor an ancestor.  Each one is a statement by the artist (carver) but it also tells us something about the time and place where it was carved.  It is a privilege to talk with the native carvers and learn more about the nuances of their craft – they seem very open and happy to share.

Right at the entrance to the inner harbor in Hoonah is an island with an active cemetery.  As we were coming in I saw a bald eagle sitting at the foot of a fairly fresh grave – it didn’t have any grass growing on it yet.20140701 10228 hoonah eagle at grave 3 psrI was very moved by the scene, and when I showed the photo to one of the harbormasters he said “Oh, it was probably an ancestor keeping an eye on things.”  The two major Tlingit moieties in this area are Eagle and Raven, and there are plenty of both in town.20140703 10022 squawking raven psrThe more I learn about ravens, the more I like them.  They’re clever and expressive, making such a range of noises – klonks, barks, screams, and things that sound like they were created electronically.

Eagles are very plentiful in town, and we would sometimes see as many as two dozen (!!) perched on the breakwater in the evenings.  20140714 091 eagle on breakwater psr RESIZEIt goes without saying that these are magnificent birds, and it’s such a thrill to be able to watch them swoop just overhead, make a tight banking turn to grab a fish, or tussle with another eagle in mid-air over possession of food.  We always stop to watch and admire them, but the locals do too.  I think it says a lot about these people when a bird as common (here) as a seagull still captures the interest of the people who see them all day, every day.

About four years ago a pair of eagles built a nest in a tree right in town, almost across the street from the school and behind the marina.  We could watch the nest with binoculars right from our pilothouse and whenever we noticed that the nest action was interesting I would grab the long lens and run up the dock.  The pair has returned every year and this year they have two fuzzy little eaglets.  We couldn’t see them most of the time since they were in the deeper part of the nest, but occasionally one of them would perch up on the edge of the nest.20140709 10922 eagle feeding 2 eaglets psrWe had a stretch of very rainy days in Hoonah, and when the rain stopped for a little while some of the eagles found places to perch and try to dry out.  I think this one looks pretty cranky, but after days of steady rain and chores we could sympathize.20140712 019 wet cranky eagle psr The weather started to improve, the sun came out, and I just had to go for a nice long paddle in the kayak.  We had a 22′ tide that day so I had to wait for a few hours until there was enough water to get into the shallow back bays.  I headed out past the cemetery and around the back of the island, and as I was drifting close to shore on the flooding tide I looked up and saw this little fawn.20140716 210 fawn psrIt was just walking down the beach and didn’t seem afraid of me at all.  The wind and current were pushing me at about the same rate that the fawn was walking so it was a great chance to just watch and photograph it.  I started looking around for its mother and found the doe about 200 yards back, just strolling along.  Eventually the fawn waited for its mother, and tried to get some milk.  She wasn’t interested in letting him eat, but she was very tender and attentive towards her little one.  20140716 219 doe and fawn snuggling 2 psrThe encounter with the deer was a lovely surprise, and the hummingbirds, kingfishers, spotted sandpipers, black turnstones and surfbirds capped off a really good week.  20140714 116 surfbird and sleeping turnstone psr