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

Glacier Bay – the Wildlife

We’ve been seeing a great deal of wildlife up here in SE Alaska, but the concentration of wildlife in Glacier Bay is pretty overwhelming.  Humpback whales are numerous – particularly when the tide starts flooding, bringing herring and other food on the incoming current.20140624 8934 whale tail underside psrWe saw humpbacks everywhere.  A group of 4 or 5 were hunting in Bartlett Cove (the park headquarters) for days.  When we were anchored near Reid glacier we had one whale hunting in the cove all one morning, and then two came to hunt the following morning.  I was paddling my kayak and I watched them – they typically blow about 4 times and then dive deep, which is when you see their tail appear.  It would be quiet for a little while and then the blowing would start all over again.20140628 9237 whale blow and adventures psrFinding whales is pretty easy – just look for the white puff of mist when they breathe, and in the coves and near vertical rock walls you can really hear the sound reverberate.  Sometimes they will breach – leap entirely out of the water, and that is a sight to see – the splash and noise are impressive.  An adult humpback is about the same size and weight as our boat, and we learned that they are passive listeners – they do not echo-locate, so the rangers tell you to make some noise so they will know where you are.  Ever try to paddle a kayak in a noisy manner?20140628 9218 reid whale tail psrThe bird life is varied and plentiful, with bald eagles…20140705 10406 eagle on ice 2 psrBlack oystercatchers…20140627 9167 black oystercatcher in flight psr…little murrelets, murres, loons, harlequin ducks, northern shoveler ducks, black legged kittiwakes, and sea gulls who attack.  Both Jim and I were attacked by gulls – Jim was hiking and there were some gull chicks nearby that we never noticed until the parent gull made some screaming swoops at Jim’s head.  Another time I was paddling near the oystercatchers and a gull made several bombing runs at me – precision pooping.  I never figured out what I did to provoke him, but he went after me no matter how far away I moved.  Luckily the long paddle helped me divert the gull a bit, but I didn’t escape completely unscathed.

The puffins are some of my favorite birds – so compact and colorful.  We’re used to seeing the horned puffins in Nova Scotia, but the more common type here are the tufted puffins, with long yellow feathers swept back from each side of their head.20140625 8983 tufted puffins psr20140708 10828 horned puffin psrWe saw puffins in flocks around rocky areas, and their bright orange beaks were unmistakeable when they zoomed past us in flight.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a lone horned puffin among all the tufted puffins – I think they are unusual to find in this part of Alaska.

We have been hoping to see some mountain goats for a long time, scouring the rocky areas with binoculars rain or shine.  We finally lucked out, finding a big male and his harem of five just past an eagle’s nest that we found the previous day.  I keep looking at that shaggy coat on the male, wondering what that wool would be like to knit with.20140706 10536 mountain goat and harem psrWe’ve had a few bear sightings in Glacier Bay, but we got very lucky exploring up in the less-visited Wachusett Inlet.  Jim spotted a younger brown (grizzly) bear right near the inlet’s entrance, and we were able to bring the boat very close to shore so we could watch him.  He kept an eye on us, but the big boat didn’t seem to bother him very much.20140705 10435 young bear paws and claws psrNotice the size of the claws on this young bear!  He was turning over rocks to find clams and mussels in the intertidal zone, and then he moved up to the grass above the tide line and munched on sedge.  At the far end of the inlet, almost to the head we saw a very large brown bear who came out of the woods and sat down on the side of a creek.20140705 10472 sitting brown bear and stream psrIt was so funny to see him sitting like that, but he was watching the rushing water intently for quite a while, and as we started back out the inlet we saw him run into the creek and pounce on a big salmon.  He made quite a splash, but then he took his fish and headed back into the woods to eat it.  The salmon are just beginning to run so we expect that we’ll see more bears fishing for the rest of the summer.  We saw a black bear fishing in a creek near where we anchored for the evening – the first black bear we’ve seen in a while; we’ve mostly seen the larger brown bears.

We heard occasional reports of orcas in the park, but we only saw some briefly once.  They seem to be scarce this year.  20140625 8961 beachmasters barking psrA more plentiful predator in the water is the Steller sea lion – a species that is much larger than it’s California cousin.  The beachmasters can be quite large – 1500 lbs or more.  Although sea lion colonies are loud the big male beachmasters (there are 3 in this photo) are easy to hear above the din.  Sea lions seem to spend a lot of time napping in piles, and making noise…20140625 9065 sea lion primal scream psr…but we can always count on the young ones to give us a great show as they frolic in the waves.

I think some of my favorite animals are the sea otters – they are just adorable.  They lay on their backs with their big flipper/feet sticking up to eat and sleep, individually or sometimes in large groups.  20140704 10084 otter big feet psrThey dive underwater to hunt for shellfish and crabs, sometimes using a rock to break the shell.20140630 9910 sea otter eating clam psrThe otters carry their pups clutched to their chests, though the pups are getting pretty big and it’s funny to watch a parent make the young one chase after it – a little tough love.20140704 10367 otter mom and pup psr

Exploring the Ice – About Glaciers

We have seen and experienced so many different things in Glacier Bay National Park that I’ve been struggling to decide which stories to tell.  The wildlife is so plentiful and varied, but for this post I’ll focus on the glaciers since they represent history – they are creating and changing history as they advance and retreat.20140627 9401 glacier bay river of ice psrIf you look at the photo above you can see a glacier winding its way through the mountains, and at this distance it looks like its description – a river of ice.  A glacier is formed when snow falls upon snow, eventually piling up and compressing until it forms solid ice.  Over time ice continues to accumulate and compress until the weight of the entire mass (now a glacier) begins to move, scouring the land underneath it and pushing dirt and odd rocks ahead of it (glacial moraine).  Did you know that once a glacier retreats the land rises?  It’s called “glacial rebound” and the land at the mouth of Glacier Bay continues to rise at the rate of a few inches per year.20140627 9454 grand pacific glacier psrThe photo above shows the Grand Pacific glacier, which is retreating.  Its face will probably cross back into Canada in my lifetime.  You can see the curving ice river towards the left, and the face which is almost entirely covered by dirt and rocks.  The bergy bit floating in the foreground calved from the Margerie glacier just to the west.  Of course, the photo doesn’t give any sense of the massive scale of the glacier – until you see a recognizable object up against it, you can’t imagine how big it is – the Grand Pacific is 2 miles wide at its face, it runs for a length of 34 miles, and it is between 60-180 feet thick.

This photo shows the smaller Reid glacier, only 3/4 mile across and less than 10 miles long, and if you look carefully you’ll see some people near its face – they look like tiny dots.20140628 9259 reid glacier and ants wide psrGlaciers don’t look that big until you start to approach them, and you find yourself going and going and going and it never seems that you get closer.20140628 9258 reid glacier and ants psrI’ve read that the ice on the face of these glaciers is approximately 200 years old – so we felt like we could reach out and touch “history”.  We were able to hike up to the edge of the Reid glacier, and we can tell you that “history” is very cold!20140628 9640 jim touching glacier psrWe were actually able to anchor in the basin created by the Reid glacier, and the mouth of the cove was formed by the terminal moraine – the biggest pile of dirt and rocks pushed along by the glacier before it started to retreat.  We were anchored a mile from the glacier face, and the water in the cove was an opaque turquoise turning into a putty color closer to the face – caused by all the silt from the glacier.20140628 9563 reid glacier mud flats psrAt low tide it was interesting to see the fine silt and rocks carried by the glacier, and looking outwards it’s easy to see the classic “U” shape of a glacier-carved valley.  (Water carves land in the shape of a “V” and glaciers carve a “U”.)20140628 9619 reid glacier cut valley and flower psrHere you can see how scoured and barren the land is when a glacier retreats.  The foreground is mostly boulders and rocks, with just a few small scrubby plants starting to take hold – a dwarf fireweed in this photo.  Glacier Bay is a perfect laboratory to study “plant succession” – how plant life establishes itself as a glacier retreats.  If you remember from the last post, I mentioned that all of Glacier Bay was covered by a single massive glacier only 250 years ago.  The plant life found at the mouth of the Bay is the oldest since that land was uncovered first, and it is now a lush forest.  With so many glaciers in various stages of advancement and retreat, some hanging in the mountains and some tidewater glaciers coming right to the sea, scientists can study all phases of plant succession in real time throughout the park.

The park manages some of the areas in the Bay because of wildlife, and one of the inlets was closed until July 1 for seal pupping.  We were able to head into the inlet to the Johns Hopkins glacier a few days after it opened, though it was choked with brash ice.  Even a small chunk of ice the size of a softball or basketball can bend a prop blade, so we had to be very careful and pick our way through.  It’s also important to keep looking behind since the wind and tidal current will move the ice around, so a nice clear path going in might not be so clear on the way back out.20140706 10751 adventures going through brash ice psrIt was a fun challenge to pick our way closer to the beautiful Johns Hopkins glacier, and we saw other smaller glaciers along the way, as well as some seals still hanging around on the bigger bergy bits.20140706 10550 seals on ice psrWe had a number of great grand adventures in the ice, exploring just a few of the glaciers in the park.  20140706 10719 jim video brash ice psrOf course we had to scoop up a few small pieces of glacier ice for our evening cocktail, and of course I had to put some key lime juice from the Florida Keys over the glacier ice to celebrate the distance we’ve come.20140627 9559 glacier ice for drinks psr20140627 9707 glacier keys drink psr