Hot Springs, Orcas and Rain

The weather has definitely changed its pattern after the warm, dry, sunny May, June and early July.  The rainforest has gotten too dry so rain is welcome from that standpoint, but it makes for a soggy experience for us and our visiting friends.  Fortunately the misty clouds hanging on the mountains can be just as beautiful as sunny weather, and our friends have a great attitude about it all.

Coming out of Peril Strait without experiencing any perils, we turned south towards Baranof Warm Springs.  Along the way we spotted a tall dorsal fin – an orca!  As we slowed the boat to watch we noticed a number of them all around us.20150720 8965 orcas 5 rA pair of males with their tall dorsal fins were farther away, but we had a mother and two young orcas right in front of the boat, and others between us and the shore.20150720 9039 orcas 9 r20150720 9000 orcas 12 rThe males started tail-slapping, making huge splashes…20150720 9086 orca tail slap 7 r20150720 9050 orca tail slap 3 r…and then one of them breached – a dramatic sight! 20150720 9072 orca breach 3 closer rWe just drifted with these orcas for about 30 minutes, and we were going crazy trying to figure out where to look – little orcas, groups of orcas, splashy, flashy orcas on all sides.20150720 8981 orcas 3 rEventually the orcas swam off, leaving us breathless.  We’ve seen so many orcas this year, though they are usually a pretty rare sight in Southeast Alaska.

We finally made it to Baranof Warm Springs, a tiny little boardwalk settlement on the east side of Baranof Island, on the opposite site of the island from Sitka, with 5000′ mountains in between.  Warm Springs has a roaring waterfall and a natural hot spring, with a state dock and a little bathhouse where you can enjoy a private soak in a huge metal tub, plumbed to the hot spring, while gazing at the mountains and waterfall.  Alternately you can hike up to the natural hot pools in the woods which sit right next to the top of the waterfalls.20150720 9117 baranof warm springs pool 2 rWe enjoyed a nice soak in the hot water and were happy to stretch our legs after two days underway.  We met some nice Canadians from Victoria on the dock and invited them for cocktails, and we had a good laugh at and with them.  Three people on a 32′ sailboat for weeks can make people a little starved for outside human contact, and they were so desperate to talk to (mostly at) us – it was funny, and we’ve been there ourselves so we understood.

We had a foggy cruise from Warm Springs down to the beautiful Red Bluff Bay, with blue skies above and pea soup in front of us.  Luckily the fog lifted as we wiggled around the islands at the entrance to the bay, and we nosed ADVENTURES right up to the tall  waterfall, always amazed that we can just about get the bow rail in the cascade while still in 150′ of water.  20150723 9195 red bluff bay waterfall r

The whole bay is so pretty – snow capped mountains, a steep bowl cut by tiny silver ribbons of water, and a broad green meadow.  A month earlier we saw lots of brown bears eating grass in that meadow, but now berries are ripe so the bears are up in the woods gorging themselves on a much preferred food source.  The salmon are late this year so the bears have to wait a couple of weeks for fish.  High winds and waves out in Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound kept us an extra day in Red Bluff, but we were quite happy just to kayak and relax.


20150709 8951 seiners 1 rOn the way to Sitka we watched the purse seiners dancing around each other, trying to find the salmon.  The fish are coming in late this season because we had an early, warm spring – so the fish stayed in deeper water to keep cool.  The fishing has been slow, but it’s starting to pick up now.  We arrived in Sitka in between openings, so the fleet was in and the docks were jammed with boats.

Sitka has 5 harbors, and it gets a cruise ship or two several days a week so the town was buzzing with activity.  We were docked at the far end of the harbor, away from town, but the extra walking was good for us.20150716 8793 sitka harbor rAfter enjoying so much sunshine over the past month, we paid the price with rainy weather and cooler temperatures – not quite the conditions we wanted for the arrival of our friends Lisa and Tom.  Fortunately they’re real troopers, and rain or no rain we set out to walk the town and take in the sights.

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We lucked out since the farmer’s market was open and we could sample local and regional foods such as reindeer hot dogs and beach asparagus.  Rhubarb is a popular item since it grows so well in SE Alaska.  We noticed that the salmonberries were ripe and plentiful along the walkways, and we enjoyed snacking on them as we explored.  A salmonberry is similar to a raspberry with a milder flavor and an orange-y color.  Arriving in the center of downtown we looked at the Russian Orthodox church and spotted two bald eagles sitting on the cross above the church.  It’s a fun sight since the double eagle is a Russian symbol.

20150717 8807 sitka st michaels church and eagles rWe spent the rainiest time exploring the Sheldon Jackson Museum and the new Sea Life Center, poking around a few of the shops along the way.  The second day was gloomy but not as wet so we headed up to the Alaska Raptor Center to see the work they do rehabilitating eagles and other birds.  The goal is to release birds back into the wild if possible, but the Center will give them a permanent home if they can’t live without assistance.  It’s a great chance to see these magnificent birds up close, and to learn more about them.  Some of the permanent resident birds live in enclosures in the woods, and the easy hike through the woods and the muskeg was a great first introduction to the deep greens, mosses and lichens of the northwest forest.  The bears must be happy because the many types of berry bushes were loaded!

20150718 8925 sitka totems 17 rThe Raptor Center was a highlight, but so was the Totem Park which we had not visited before.  We knew the Park Service had a totem collection, but we had no idea that they would be arranged in little nooks, spread throughout a lovely trail that meandered through the woods.  The totems and interpretations of their symbols were very interesting, representing styles from the three different tribes in the region: Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.  Bears, beavers, eagles, ravens, wolves, frogs, orcas, and humans are all common images to find on these poles, but the arrangement and placement can have significance to either tell a story or commemorate or memorialize a person.  The totems are cared for as well as possible, but the Natives who carve them expect them to have a finite life, and they will carve other poles to replace ones that age away.20150718 8906 sitka totems 12 r

20150718 8915 sitka totems 22 r20150718 8905 sitka totems 13 rA raven, one of the Tlingit moiety symbols, flew overhead with a bit of salmon – an appropriate omen after gazing at all the totems.20150718 8927 raven 2 rA local Tlingit lady was showing some costumes and beading techniques at the Park’s Visitor Center, and we enjoyed talking with her and learning a bit more about the meaning of various parts of their traditional dress.  It was a nice introduction to Alaska for our friends, and some new discoveries for us.

Hoonah, Tenakee Springs, and Peril Strait

20150708 8742 hoonah troller misty morn rWe had some glorious days in Glacier Bay, but it was time to leave and look for new adventures.  Hoonah is a good place to stop – it’s not too far from Glacier Bay National Park and we pass by some prime whale feeding spots on the way.  We were just in Hoonah a few weeks ago, but we were quite happy to return to see if there was any action in the eagle’s nest (none) and to visit the wonderful Tlingit carvers.  Throw in lunch at Chipper Fish and it’s a great day all around. Just as we sat down to wait for our lunches to come out, a great kerfuffle erupted on the street and a crazy parade trooped right by the window of the restaurant!  It was the New Old Time Chautauqua performing group!  We had read about them visiting Petersburg after we left, and we were sad to have missed them… so here was our chance!  20150708 8702 new old chitaqua 9 rThis group is all-volunteer who tour around various parts of the Pacific Northwest each summer, performing, amazing, and entertaining children of all ages.  The community had a pot-luck dinner for the performers, and the Hoonah Tlingit did some traditional dances to return the favor.  We enjoyed the parade and sample acts, and we joined the townspeople in the high school gym that evening to watch the full show.  Wonderful, fun, and funky!20150708 8717 new old chitaqua 4 rIt was nice to have some cell phone service and a little Internet to catch up on the world before we headed back out into Chatham Strait to check out new place for us – Tenakee Springs.  Tenakee is a very small community with about 65 people who live there year round, and it’s known for its hot springs.  20150709 8756 tenakee springs rThe hot springs are piped into a bath house building, and the community decided to organize things so there are set hours for men and women.  We prefer the more flexible and private setting at Baranof Warm Springs so we didn’t partake, but we enjoyed walking down the little main “street” (dirt road) and seeing everyone’s flowers and gardens.  In addition to the hot springs, Tenakee is known for the ATVs that everyone uses to get around.  Even the ambulance and “fire truck” are ATVs.20150709 8784 tenakee ambulance and fire atvs rThe ambulance is the boxy ATV on the right, and the fire response is the trailer behind the ATV on the left.  There’s also a fire house – we’re not sure what’s hiding behind the funny garage door.20150709 8772 tenakee vfd rThe Post Office in town also has its own Postal ATV, which is parked right next to the seaplane dock and the helipad.20150709 8757 tenakee postal atv rI’m not sure how much of a real threat of tsunami there is in Tenakee, but we appreciated the sign on the community bulletin board:20150709 8769 tenakee tsunami sign r20150709 8760 tenakee teacup planters rWe found a very small grocery store stocked with all kinds of fabulous gourmet treats, as well as a large shed with an open doorway that serves as a community book, video, and clothing exchange.  The bakery in town is famous for its cinnamon rolls, and of course we docked right after they closed, so we delayed our departure in the morning so we could get some fresh hot treats – first out of the pan!

From Tenakee we headed back out into Chatham Strait and then turned west into Peril Strait – a not very perilous place to travel, though there are some strong currents in a few spots that require attention, and one place where we have to wait for slack current to pass safely in order to get to Sitka – our next port of call, and a place where we can restock groceries and enjoy some meals out.

Glacier Bay Part 3 – The Finale

20150705 8273 adventures at reid r20150705 8466 semipalmated plover 2 rWith the concentration of wildlife and grand scenery at every turn it’s easy to get “overstimulated” in Glacier Bay, and after days of constant excitement I start to feel pretty wiped out.  After watching the nursing brown bear, mountain goats, and glacier hike with the black bear all in a day and a half, I needed a little down-time so I put the kayak in the water and grabbed a camera to photograph some wading birds on the nearby shore.  This semi-palmated plover really blended in with the gravel beach, and the least sandpiper was even harder to spot, though there were several in the area.20150705 8304 least sandpiper 3 r20150705 8265 arctic tern rBlack oystercatchers were napping in the shade of a big rock, and a kittiwake flew overhead, chirping at me so I must have been getting too close to its camouflaged nest.  I paddled to a different part of the shoreline but some arctic terns started raising a big fuss and dive-bombing me – at one point I only had the camera to defend myself, waving it in the air to keep the bird away.  As soon as they flew off I moved away from the shore since I suspect this was another case of defending a nest close by.  So much for a relaxing paddle!

There were some interesting rock formations across the cove which looked like a more benign place to paddle and unwind.  As I was half-way across the cove I heard a loud, sharp exhale and a big splash…20150705 8316 orca 3 tail slap r…orcas blowing and tail-slapping!  In some parts of the Pacific Northwest orcas are more common, but in SE Alaska it’s a real treat to see them.  We had been hearing reports of sightings in Glacier Bay over the past week and we spotted a lone male several days earlier, but this was a small group right in our cove.  The sheer rock walls amplified their loud exhales (“blow”) so it sounded like they were all around, though they’re easy to see with their striking black and white coloring.20150705 8351 orcas 8 rWhen I’m paddling in an area where whales are present I periodically slap the side of my kayak to alert them to my presence, since humpbacks use passive listening rather than the more common echo locating that other types of whales and dolphins use.  As I slapped the kayak in response to hearing blowing I realized that the orcas are echo locaters so they probably were already aware of me, and I began to wonder what they might do, and if the slapping would attract them (not a desirable thing, I think).  I got a little nervous every time they disappeared for a few minutes, wondering where they might reappear.  The first sign that they’re back on the surface is the sharp sound of their blow, and I was a comfortable distance from them as they dove and surfaced.  Until…20150705 8415 orcas scary close r…they appeared about 30′ away from me, and I couldn’t un-zoom the lens fast enough.  The sound of their blow so close was quite startling, and my heart was pounding as I wondered if they might decide my kayak was a plaything.  They just came over to either give me a little scare or to just say hello before they began moving out of the cove towards the wider bay.20150705 8422 orca and mountains 2 rWhile all this was happening I was hoping the rest of the crew aboard ADVENTURES heard or saw the orcas, and I felt badly that I didn’t have a radio with me to alert them.  Sure enough, when I asked if they saw the orcas they thought I was joking until I showed them the photos.  Pounding heart PLUS guilt!

We saved the big dramatic glacier experience for last, waking up to another bright sunny day for a visit to the Johns Hopkins Glacier.  Last year, the inlet to the Johns Hopkins was always choked with brash ice and we couldn’t get very close, but this year the inlet was wide open and we had the morning sun to light the eastern-facing glacier.  This is part of the Johns Hopkins and the smaller Gilman Glacier.20150706 8559 gilman and jh glaciers rSeals were scattered on the brash ice near the face of the glacier, and we’re only allowed into this inlet by the Rangers after the seal pupping season has ended.20150706 8670 seals and brash ice rThe seals swam behind us, always shy, and diving when we turned to look at them.  We really enjoyed the beautiful warm day, and Hank (the consummate Floridian!) was in bare feet on the bow while Jim scooped up a small piece of glacier ice to look at.  We had to navigate around a few bergy bits, and we marveled at the shapes and colors of the ice.20150706 8576 bergy chunk rWe stopped by the Lamplugh Glacier (my favorite) for a few last glacier photos before we headed back down the bay.20150706 8626 adventures and ice r