Moose Season Opens Today

We’re tied up to a refuge float in a rocky little cove at the intersection of Icy Strait and Chatham Strait after a very long, foggy day yesterday.  We had to find our way into this new-to-us spot in pea soup fog with less than 100′ of visibility – not our favorite thing to do, though we can manage it safely.  Today’s forecast called for more fog in the morning and then rain, so we decided to stay put.  A local fellow saw us and came over in his boat to see who and what we are, and he made sure to tell us that moose season opens today.  It’s exciting news for people in SE Alaska, though not so much for the moose.  The local fellow mentioned that a moose ran along the spit right near us just last week, with a brown bear following shortly afterwards – so we’re keeping an eye out (and camera ready) just in case something exciting happens.  (Ten years ago I spent far too much of my life on conference calls and making PowerPoint slides, and if you told me that news of moose season opening would be the highlight of our day… well… let’s just say “we’ve come a long way, baby!”)

We’re on our way back to Glacier Bay National Park, and as usual the blog is hopelessly behind reality.  Our excuse is that we’ve been busy having more adventures, and I’m planning to use some rainy days this week to catch up on photos.  We took a little side trip to the main part of the state, flying to Anchorage and venturing out to explore Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali National Park.

To wrap up the last adventures with the bears at Pack Creek, I forgot to mention one of those “small world” events.  Here we were, in a very remote place with a handful of rangers and only 24 people allowed to visit and we bump into a fellow member of the DeFever Cruisers club – Larry from Juneau who owns “CARINA”, a 1964 DeFever 42 that used to be Art DeFever’s personal boat.  20140816 1056 carina 6 rCARINA is in great shape, and we hope to get a tour of her the next time we’re in Juneau.  It was hard to remember that happened after all the excitement with those bears!20140816 1270 sub adult eating fish 2 rOur trip back down Seymour Canal was as rainy and misty as the trip up, though the wind was stronger than we expected and the wind opposing the ebbing current made for some ugly seas.  Whales were breaching in the canal all day long again, despite the nasty conditions.  It was just too rough to take photographs.  After a long day we tucked into a nice secure anchorage, glad to be out of the weather and we took a lay day to let the conditions settle down.

The next day we headed to the town of Petersburg (where we’ll spend the winter), and we had glassy seas.  We saw lots of whales in Frederick Sound on the way, but it was a funny contrast from the wild breaching we saw in Seymour Canal since all the whales we saw were (literally) sleeping.20140819 1467 lazy whale blowing rI learned a bit more about whale behavior from a University of Alaska marine mammal expert visiting Petersburg for the annual Rainforest Festival.  Apparently whales sleep on the surface or just below the surface, popping up to take a breath periodically.  It’s another thing to keep an eye out for – we wouldn’t want to bump into one of these guys.

The approach into Petersburg always guarantees sightings of Steller sea lions – they love to haul out on the two big buoys that mark the entrance to Petersburg harbor.  How did that little guy get up on the shelf?20140819 1479 petersburg buoy and sea lions r The Steller sea lions are much bigger than California sea lions – the Steller males can get up to 2000 lbs and females 800 lbs.  We see them cruising around the harbor all the time, and that guarantees that I won’t dive under our boat anywhere near them.  The U of A expert told us that they love to harass divers.

The fishing season is winding down, though a few boats are still working.  It will be interesting to see what happens through the winter, and if the sea lions will stick around when there are fewer fish to steal.20140819 1482 petersburg fish offloading rThe days are getting noticeably shorter now – we lose over 5 minutes of daylight every day.  The devil’s club and the few deciduous trees are starting to show some fall color.  It will be very interesting to see how quickly the fall season transitions to winter.

Leaping Whales and a Brown Bear Adventure

Our next adventure (because, clearly, we haven’t had enough fun yet) was a cruise up to the Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area on Admiralty Island.  Run by the US Forest Service and Alaska Fish & Game, Pack Creek is an area where a population of about 22 brown bears have become somewhat habituated to humans – they consider us a part of their normal landscape and they don’t disrupt their normal activities because of human presence.  This last point is very important since the business of being a brown bear means eating as much as possible in the short summer season in order to survive hibernation through the winter.  If human presence disrupted their feeding activity, they might not survive.

We’ve been very excited about going to Pack Creek, and were finally in the right area so we could make the day long cruise up there.  Our minds were busy anticipating all those bears and photo opportunities when… HOLY CANNOLI!!!!!… a humpback whale as big as our boat breached completely out of the water not more than 50′ off the port bow.  The whale proceeded to breach about 4 more times in succession, fortunately moving farther away with each leap.  It took me a few moments to grab a camera and run outside, so this shot was one of the whale’s later breaches. 20140817 1432 broaching whale and adventures rFor the entire 23 nm trip up Seymour Channel humpbacks were leaping out of the water, giving us an incredible show.  I might have had many more photographs but it’s difficult to anticipate where the next whale might leap up, and with the hard rain it wasn’t fun to stand outside and wait for too long.20140817 1446 broaching whale 2 r20140817 1447 broaching whale 0 rHow do we top a day of leaping whales?  We get close to brown bears.20140816 1182 mother bear face psrAccess to Pack Creek is by permit only, and there’s a limit of 24 people per day during the salmon run season when the bears are most active.  Half the permits go to commercial guides from Juneau who bring customers over by seaplane for a few hours, and the other half are available for people who come by private boat or air taxi.  There are a few rangers stationed ashore, armed with a 30-06 as well as bear spray (just in case) and I give them a lot of credit since they’re out in the open, rain or shine.

We took the dinghy up to the designated landing beach, and followed the ranger’s whispered instructions about tying it to a huge “clothesline” to send the dink off to deeper water a) because of the large tide, and b) to keep the dinghies away from the bears.  If you’ve ever caught a fish or had any food in your dink, the bear can probably smell it.  As soon as the dinghy was tied up the ranger told us to keep quiet and to quickly go sit down, so we sat and looked over to see a brown bear sow (mother) and her first spring cub (born in February-March) walking down the beach along the treeline, towards us.  Wow.  We couldn’t talk if we wanted to – it was just awesome.  The little guy tried to follow mom as best as he could, but he got stuck trying to climb over a tree branch and he was determined to go over it like mom did, even though he could have just walked around the end.  The bears eventually walked past us and out into the intertidal zone to dig for clams, and then meandered into the woods.

What a welcome to Pack Creek!  The ranger gave us a little safety briefing and explained the procedure for moving around.  We read that there were no restrooms or any facilities – it’s a very primitive place – we cringed when the ranger pointed to a clump of rocks farther out the beach spit and told us that was where the ladies go if they have to… y’know… “go”.  You can’t go into the woods since that’s where all the bears are.  (Later on we’ll hike through the woods, but only in a group of 4 or more.  The rock clump is preferable to taking 3 other people into the woods to accompany someone to pee.)  Fortunately we planned to go back to the big boat for lunch and a break, then return in the afternoon so we hoped to avoid the necessity.

The ranger told us that the stream-side viewing area would be a good place to start, and he contacted the ranger there to arrange for our safe passage.  The other ranger gave the all-clear and we were told to walk along the tide line – the “human lane”, about 10′ from the beach at the tree line – the “bear lane”.  We walked right along where the sow and cub had just been, and were met at the other end by another ranger with a gun and radio.20140816 1121 mother and 2nd year cub psrThe stream was full of pink salmon, also known as “humpys”, and there were about 6 bears crunching loudly on fish, as well as sea gulls, ravens, and eagles.  The photo above is a sow and a second spring cub – the cub will stay with the mother until they are about 3 years old.  20140816 1223 bear pouncing in water r20140816 1196 1st year bear cub ROne sow caught fish for her first spring cub, but the sow with the second spring cub expected her young one to do a bit more for himself.  The whole experience was incredible.  The only negative was that a group of serious photographers had set up tripods cheek-to-jowl across the rather small “human area” by the stream, yet none of them were actually standing by their cameras… making it a little hard for us to find a clear lane to view and take photos ourselves.  20140816 1045 funny bear hat rThe ranger told us that the  photographers would be gone in the afternoon, so we knew we could return for a more quiet viewing experience later.  At least one of the photographers had a good sense of humor with his bear hat!

We were escorted back along the beach to our dinghy and we took a lunch break on ADVENTURES after a fantastic morning with the bears.

The afternoon was more peaceful, and we were glad to hear that the tripod people were up at the observation platform much farther up the creek.  The beach ranger again radioed the creek ranger and was told that the path was clear for us to walk the tide line to the creek viewing spot.  Only now the tide was higher, and we had to walk a lot closer to the morning’s “bear path”.  We had the viewing area all to ourselves, and we just loved watching the bears fishing, teaching young, napping, and munching.20140816 1213 looking at bears rThe day was getting late and we wanted to hike up to the observation tower, so once again the rangers checked the path for our return to the beach.  We got about 1/3 of the way there – now walking right where the bears did up against the tree line since the tide was almost all the way up, when the ranger spotted a pair of bears coming our way.  She told us we’d have to go back and wait for the bears to pass, and she was a bit nervous.  Apparently these two are sub-adult sisters – “teenagers” – with a teen’s habit of testing boundaries and acting up.  There was a chance that these two might act more provocatively towards us, though the rangers said at worst some bear spray might be needed to discourage them.  The 30-06 was kept ready.  I kept my finger on the shutter button.

Fortunately the sisters walked past us and went into the stream, and we were rewarded with a wonderful show as they pounced on fish and made faces, and watched for other bears – the morning’s cubs were cute, but these gals had a lot of personality!20140816 1249 sub adult with humpy r20140816 1234 sub adult sister standing with fish rThe sisters moved off and it was safe for us to go back up the beach again, wading in ankle-deep water against the tree line with the tide at its highest.  Back at the beach the “ladies room” rocks were well underwater, and the tripod gang was waiting for their seaplane to take them back to Juneau.  Now it was time for us to hike to the observation platform higher up the stream.  Through the woods.  And we would have no ranger escort, though we had to be in a group of 4 or more to make the hike for safety.  We had our bear bells and spray, and we’ve learned how to be “bear aware” so we felt fine about it.  The only hesitation was when the ranger mentioned that they had some occasional problems with a territorial female who might come a lot closer than bears typically do, but they assured us she would go away if we clumped together and waved our arms a bit, and they said they hadn’t seen her in a few weeks.  Right.  With lots of hand clapping and calls of “Ho bear!”, we made our way through a lovely old-growth forest to the viewing platform.  We could see lots of humpys in the water, but no bears.  Not a one.  We did see a beaver dam and the beaver though – the biggest excitement of the woodland part of our adventure.  After the wonderful day we had – we couldn’t really complain!