Bears, Whales and Ice

What – MORE bears? Haven’t we seen enough already? (No, you haven’t.) We were on our way north up Chatham Strait, and just had to make a stop at Pavlov Harbor on Chichagof Island – it’s a good stopping point on the way to Juneau via the northern route. And Pavlov just happens to be a great place to see brown bears!

Sow and her two cubs

We only had one afternoon to hang out with the bears, and the action was a little slow at the falls, but still… bears!

We couldn’t stay longer – we were meeting friends in Juneau and had to keep going, but it’s a safe bet that there will be more encounters with large brown furry things before the summer is over. In the meantime, we saw another large mammal – the humpback kind. This one was pec-slapping – making a pretty good racket by slapping its long pectoral fins back and forth. In the video, you can hear the delayed “whomp” after the fin hits the water. We could feel it!

We continued on towards Juneau, rounding the top of Admiralty Island to see the lighthouse at Point Retreat.

Making the hairpin turn around the point, we could see a fog bank towards Juneau. It was pretty to see, and fortunately it cleared up before we got there.

We met dear friends from New Jersey in town – they were there on a cruise ship for the day, so it was pretty cool to spend a little time with them. On our way out of town, we passed by a huge private yacht that we saw a few times over the summer. “Dreamboat” is 295′ long, built in 2019 for $180 million, and is owned by Arthur Blank – owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team. Tough life. The tender (small boat) shown in the second photo is probably 45′ long, and it’s just one of a fleet of boats carried by the mother ship.

Dreamboat

Preferring glaciers to yachts, we headed south down Stephens Passage towards Tracy Arm and the Sawyer Glaciers. As we crossed the shallow bar at the mouth of Tracy Arm, we could see the Sumdum hanging glacier. The name comes from the Tlingit language and represents the booming sound of ice breaking off.

We anchored nearby in a protected cove, and I headed out in the kayak to investigate some large blocks of glacier ice grounded in the shallows near the entrance bar. The colors and shapes are amazing, and the blue of the ice really stood out against the gloomy sky.

When you look closely, you can find some surreal formations and shapes, rocks trapped in the ice, crystal clear ice, blue ice, and all manner of textures. It’s mesmerizing.

Unfortunately, our plans to visit the Sawyer Glaciers were thwarted by the weather forecast. A big front was heading our way, and the wind was going to blow hard for days. We needed to move to a well-protected anchorage, and position ourselves for a planned trip up to Pack Creek a week later, so we cruised across Stephens Passage and tucked into Gambier Bay well in advance of the storm. It was an easy ride across, and we had a nice whale escort.

We’ve Been Too Busy…

…having adventures. Sorry about neglecting the Blog for so long. At some point, the pile of photos got pretty overwhelming, and it came down to choosing to stay on the boat and edit them, or go out in the kayak and shoot more.

We stopped in Wrangell to return the tent we borrowed from friends (and to visit them!), then decided to try a new (to us) route up to Frederick Sound – Rocky Pass. It’s shallow and has a good bit of current running through it, so there’s a certain amount of timing so one arrives at the infamous Devil’s Elbow at high slack current, and then the northbound traffic gets to buck a building current through The Summit. We decided to stage in Totem Bay while we waited for the right time, and I enjoyed a little paddle to see some of the weird rock formations that give the bay its name.

We managed to get through Rocky Pass without incident – glad to get that first experience behind us, so now we know what it looks like and what to expect. We tucked in behind a nameless island for a late supper and a pretty sky once we made it through the pass…

…and we stayed there an extra day since some weather moved in and it wasn’t very nice outside! From there, we cruised to Honeydo Cove, across from the village of Kake. Honeydo is a nice spot, tucked mostly out of sight, yet with a little view out to Frederick Sound. When it’s quiet we can hear whales blowing out there, and there are plenty of rocky islets to explore with the kayak.

I found a flock of pigeon guillemots, which are neat birds since they have very red-orange legs and, as you can see in the photo below, that same bright color inside their mouths.

I found a lone harbor seal napping in the “banana pose” – a funny position seals often adopt.

I spotted a group of river otters in the distance, and a sea otter cruised closer by, less interested in me than the seal was.

After a relaxing couple of days we cruised over to Baranof Island, to a favorite spot in Takatz Bay by the waterfalls. Earlier in the season I observed a brown bear and her three cubs, and I was wondering if they were still around. I paddled towards the low waterfall and the tidal flats, guessing that mid-way through the falling tide would be a good time for bears to look for fish. Bingo! I returned the next day at the same state of tide and found them again.

That water is cold!

The fishing wasn’t too successful, so they climbed out of the chilly water and munched on grass for a while. I had to pay attention to the falling tide – the kayak was briefly stuck on a rock when the sow was moving in my general direction, and that got my heart pounding a bit.

2nd year cub

Do you know how hard it is to get four bears to all look up at the same time???

Cubs play-fighting

More bears… sorry, but I just can’t resist. We actually saw other things this summer – stay tuned.

Wrapping up McNeil River Bears

Thanks for “bearing” with me as I recount some of our adventures at McNeil River Game Sanctuary and Refuge near Homer, AK. It’s amazing how many photographs a person can take in four and a half days. But who can resist these faces?

It’s a long, involved trip just to get to McNeil, but it was worth it, even with a day of 30 knot winds and horizontal rain. We didn’t miss a minute of bear viewing, no matter what.

Sign inside the cook cabin

Fortunately, although camp was pretty basic, the cook cabin was a nice warm place to hang up soggy gear and to escape the elements for a little while…

…and we were so tired after a long day, hiking out and back that we didn’t have any problems sleeping.

And there was one more treat that we didn’t expect – a wilderness sauna! We just assumed that we would be smelly, grubby creatures for the flight back to Homer, but were thrilled to find this nice little cabin off to the side of the camp. We could get warm and we could get clean!!

Camp sauna

The big pot had the hot water, the blue bucket had cold water (all from the little pond just outside), there was a pan and scoop for mixing the perfect combination of hot and cold water, and a choice of biodegradable soaps. When you’re finished, you just have to top up the pot and bucket with water from the pond, ready for the next person.

View of the pond from inside the sauna

We had some decent weather towards the end of our stay, getting to see more of the volcanoes that dot the region. Just to the south is Katmai National Park, which includes the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

We saw lots of wild iris and other wildflowers in bloom as we hiked along, savannah sparrows and ground squirrels. Just before we arrived, another group got a momentary glimpse of a wolf!

Ground squirrel

We were so disappointed to miss the rare wolf, but we came for the bears and their many faces and behaviors. I photographed this guy (below) when he was making a “drive by” – a close pass as he ambled along. Probably just as curious about us as we were about him.

Mating didn’t distract other bears from fishing.

The eagles were plentiful – cruising around, ready to grab scraps or a dropped fish. But like the eagles, it was time for us to fly.

We were sad as we trudged back up the trail to camp on our last day, but the plane can only land at high tide and it’s a short window. As camp was coming into view in the distance, the bears had one last gift for us – a sow and her two young cubs.

This sow was a good at fishing using the “snorkel” method, wading in deeper water and sticking her head under to look to for fish. Her cubs didn’t look too excited about getting wet, whining and well… grizzling! We had a little time to spare, so we settled down to watch this unexpected treat.

Eventually the cubs got in the water as their mom swam farther away, but they were getting in her way and spooking the fish. Apparently she felt comfortable about our little group sitting quietly, so she parked the cubs on shore just below where we were sitting. This is indicative of habituation – where the humans behave in a very consistent manner over days, months, years – carefully cultivated at McNeil. We travel in small, tight groups, along the same trails at the same times of the day so we become a predictable part of their environment. That is the magic of McNeil (and other places such as Pack Creek in southeast Alaska).

What are you looking at?

All good things must come to an end, and just as we were running out of time, the sow gathered her two fluffy cubs and wandered off… a magical ending to an amazing adventure.

deHavilland Otter
Gear – note everything is in waterproof bags
We’ll be back!

Bonanza of Bears

Sorry for the lag time between posts, but we’ve been off the grid more than on it this summer. And my other excuse is that it takes a long time to wade through the gigantic pile of photos that I took in the four and a half days we spent at McNeil. Yes, I’m still posting McNeil photos… and there will be one final post after this one, to wrap up that special trip.

Despite their considerable size, brown bears are remarkably agile, lightning fast to react, and amazingly quiet as they move around. They can hit speeds of up to 30 mph for short distances, and they’re good swimmers. They’re smart, observant and expressive – and that’s what compels some people to spend hours or days watching them, and to enjoy just spending time in their company. I never get tired of watching bears.

Today, I’m just going to blast you with bears – fishing bears, growling bears, wet bears, close bears, cubs and cuteness. It’s a love-fest with large brown furry creatures. Enjoy.

Bear paw vs. human’s size 8 boot