Southeastern Alaska 1999
July 2: Launch
Highway 395 stretches out before us once again. It is an artery that extends from southern California to Washington State as a sinuous back road. We have often come close to navigating its course from one end to the other. We live close to its headwaters in San Bernardino County. It has served us well on many occasions as we escape the searing wind driven summer days in Death Valley to cooler, moister climates to the north. The time has come to load up the Gofort and go for it once again.
The first day's drive is an easy break in. Leaving late in the afternoon on July 2, 1999, we wind our way north on 395 to Bishop, departing from our usual route to travel up Hwy 6. We pass volcanic tablelands of rhyolitic tuff, deposited 700,000 years ago when a local volcano blew its top in an eruption that made Mount St. Helens look like a burp. The ski town of Mammoth Mountain lies within the caldera left in the wake of this eruption, and the geologic fun is not over yet. Long Valley promises to rumble again. Winding towards the Nevada border, we feint back towards California by taking a hard left in the town of Benton, a sleepy enclave that fairly bustles in comparison to the hamlet of Benton Hot Springs.
The reason for this side trip is a tribal gathering, an extended family rendezvous in a primitive camp under cottonwoods and poplars beneath the aerie of Boundary Peak. The attraction includes solitude, freedom, and scattered redwood hot tubs, as well as good company; good eating at potlucks in support of barbecued chicken and good drinking in celebration of our nation's birthday. Exploring our freedom to bear arms, a highlight of the fourth fest is the potato gun competition, where pioneering craftsmen can show off their engineering ingenuity and aiming competence.
National birthday celebrations complete, we depart Benton Hot Springs on the 5th of July and wind across Hwy 120 to once again connect with our friend Hwy 395. I recommend Hwy 120 as one of the prettiest back roads in California. It climbs out of Benton Hot Springs into lofty chaparral, crossing canyon cut volcanics, skirting the some of the most recent volcanics in California, the Mono Craters, and finds its terminus at Mono Lake, one of California's most famous lakes. Benton Hot Springs and Hwy 120 were in fact the gateway to my future some twenty years ago, when I first ventured into Eastern California and discovered the valley that would later become the most significant place in my life.
A few days of hard driving north through Oregon and Washington find us falling short of reaching the far end of 395 (this always happens) as we veer to the west to pick up Hwy 5. This interstate will lead us to the Canadian border crossing and point us at the ferries that will carry us up the Sunshine Coast of British Colombia. While we have never reached the end of 395, we will reach the northern terminus of Hwy 101 when we join our friends Ted and Joanie in Lund, B.C. After two days of hard driving, it feels good to drive the Gofort onto a B.C. Ferry and let the Captain do some transporting for a while. Two ferry trips are required to locate Ted's enclave and us on the remote Sunshine Coast, in Lund, where some claim Hwy 101 ends, and others claim it begins (photo).
This is in part another birthday celebration. Ted is scheduled to turn 50 on July 10, 1999, and we have run some tequila across the border to help ease him into his senior status. Meanwhile much needs to be done. Ted and Joanie are anxious to join the twentieth century here in rural B.C. while it is still a viable option, and have enlisted me in helping them pick out a computer. They have done the groundwork and after a series of phone calls to Vancouver and other likely tech-centers, Raymond wins the day at CyberCom and promises to dish up the rig of their dreams. It should even arrive while we are still in town so that I might help them find all the appropriate places to put to those parallel port plugs and serial ports. SCSI scanners and Trinitron tubes promise to make this a system that will carry the kids through the days of bad weather (they claim it rains here though I have never seen it) and keep them in touch with their friends and family.
Ted's compound has a great view, as it is built upon a cliff overlooking the Georgia Channel, and the day before the party he has 12 yards of fill delivered to help level things out a bit. The hitch is I have to move my truck so that there is a place to dump it. The second hitch being, we have to move the dirt around so that I can resume my parking spot. Many hands make light work and soon all 12 yards are equally distributed around the big yard!
Having spruced up the property in the nick of time, Ted's mom Violet arrives to a scene reminiscent of the Doctor Seuss tale of the Cat in the Hat where the kids have mitigated a mess moments before the arrival of the parents so that things appear as if nothing has happened in their absence. Violet is a sweet lady whose heart is a big as the country, and she runs a cat rescue and adoption service (photo) in Gibson.
July 10: B-day
More details may be filled in here. Suffice it to say we love Ted (photo) and would not let him turn 50 without trying to make him feel a little older the next day. Pitchers of margaritas, prawn mousse, Joanie's garden salad (photo) and a deep fried turkey (photo) keep everyone in good spirits!
July 11: Lazy day on the water
Enough sitting around waiting for the next meal! Time to take the bikes out and head out for a roll-about. Let's explore the town of Lund (photo). The town lies on a small harbor where local and visiting boats find calm water. It is not a large town, and appears even smaller these days as many of the businesses have closed as a result of poor management on the part of a sole proprietor. There is a pleasant little establishment called the Starboard Café(photo) on the far side of the harbor. Locals rave about the quality of the food available at this recently opened restaurant. It is only accessible by a pleasant walk along a footpath and boardwalk around the end of the harbor. A small creek enters at the head of the harbor, some of its waters being diverted through a small weathered shack where lucky fishermen may clean their catch. The entrails of the fish are carried down a small sluice and emptied into the shallow water of the harbor's edge where seagulls are busy fighting over the morsels. Today a lucky fellow is cleaning a spring salmon while the lucky seagulls squawk and squeal over various parts. A good sized piece of something that looks more like an octopus than fish guts has the attention of various gulls in turn. As we observe the gulls working on diving, grasping and moving away with the goodies I find it curious that every time a gull starts to move the meal the entire flock will move off in unison, sweeping off in an arc, leaving the prize behind. Doesn't take but two of these occurrences to see the reason why. There is a bald eagle in the trees above, keeping a close watch on the progress of the gulls, and with each attempt on the part of the gulls, he swoops down to overpower the situation should the time be right, invariably being chased back into the high limbs of a pine tree by several crows. After several of these incidents, the gulls have moved the pile into sufficiently shallow water where the eagle can approach with talons poised for a snatch, and after two passes successfully hijacks the pinkish prize before disappearing over the edge of the harbor's mouth to enjoy his meal in peace.
Summer may be over already! The morning is cool and breezy, and the madrone trees are shedding their leaves. The sound of these heavy leaves hitting the roof of the camper sounds like the beginning of rain, something we definitely don't want! Upon emerging from the back of the Gofort however, we see that rain is far from being a threat. In fact the air is as clear as can be, and we can see the snow capped peaks of Vancouver Island (photo) across the channel without a trace of haze to obscure the view. The leaves covering the newly terraced ground conjures up a desire to watch football games and prepare for Halloween. The cool temperature is easily compensated for by dunking in the hot tub while pouring hot coffee.
Despite a chilly start, the day develops nicely. Some time is spent reading a book entitled Dragonfly, which is an account of the crisis aboard the space station Mir. Nothing like a good thick book to keep a body company over vacation. We also begin sorting out equipment and provisions we will take to Alaska. It is good to set up the North Face Stratos tent once again. Parts are accounted for, everything fits together nicely and no mice have found their way into the fabric during the tent's hiatus in the shop loft.
Between such chores I attend to an ongoing chore, which is working on my thesis. I have been banging my head against a ground water flow model: a mathematical simulation of how, and how much water flows through our aquifer back home. Today I make a major breakthrough in configuring the code for the simulation, and finally the model begins to behave in the way I expect it to. This accomplishment is looking like the high point of my day.
Luckily for me however, the weather has regained some semblance of summer, and Ted and Joanie suggest that we take the skiff (photo) out and set some prawn traps in the channel. The high point of my day has just gotten a lot better!! As the saying goes, the worst day fishing is better than the best day working and being out on the water, over blue waves and under blue skies, the wind piling swells up into the front of the boat and then carrying the spray about the gunwales makes a body glad to be alive. The only thing better is getting to assume command! (photo) Traps being set, we head for harbor and hope for the best, planning on returning tomorrow to pull up those tasty little bugs from the channel bottom.
July 13 Well those prawn are safe from us. We do not return to the traps as scheduled due to high winds. In addition to the winds arriving, Ted and Joanie's new computer has arrived, and some time is spent setting up the equipment in anticipation of installing software and giving the kids a crash course in navigating cyber space. It is not to be however. Turning on the computer does nothing but start the motor fan. What a disappointment! Adding to the disappointment is finding the store from whom we bought the computer has closed fifteen minutes early, so we can not inquire about the dilemma until the next day.
July 14 Check out CyberComs' (photo) website. After checking it out, remember the name and beware. This is the kind of nightmare you read about in computer magazines. In addition to the store not keeping the hours it advertises, they sent the wrong monitor, though charging for the upgrade. As a matter of fact, they charged for a few things that yet remain a mystery, as the total bill came out higher than the quote. When contact with the manager was established, he suggested opening the tower and making sure the CPU was fully seated. Good call. Not only was it not seated, it was flopping around inside the case tethered only by a few electrical connections. Hey, here are three other plugs which aren't connected to the mother board. After cinching up these little problems the tower must be opened again and the graphics card properly seated. What do you know? The graphics card isn't the one on the invoice! Go figure. Nor can we find the promised Zip disk to go with the internal Zip drive that was installed. The manager (Raymond) blames the shipping company for the loose components. The billing questions are another issue. Byte me!
The story may have a happy ending. Having seated the CPU and miscellaneous cards and plugs, the computer appears to run fine, the SCSI scanner and printer both work without a hitch, the software loads, and Joanie (photo) receives a crash course (that might be the wrong phrase to use around a PC) that leaves her smiling.
Those prawns are still safe.
July 15 I don't know what happened to the weather, but as I sit here banging on my laptop, drinking my coffee, I look out the window to cold Grey skies, not a break in the overcast to be seen. I am hoping that this condition is not prophetic of our future. Today we depart the Sunshine Coast of British Colombia to travel south to the port of Bellingham where we will board the Colombia tomorrow and travel north on the Alaska Marine Highway System through the inside passage. I have often said there are two types of people in the world: optimists and pessimists. An optimist believes he is living in the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears this is true. I will continue to be an optimist. The weather reports don't call for rain past tomorrow, and regionally the maps show sunshine to the north.
With any luck, the next posting will be from Haines, Alaska. We are due to land on July 19.
Those prawns are still safe.
I remain cautiously optimistic.
The journey from Lund, British Colombia, to Bellingham, Washington was uneventful, which is often a good thing. We did run into rain, but reports indicated that this region of Canada was experiencing some of the best weather to be had, as it was snowing in Jasper and Banff to the east. I pulled the Gofort into the long term parking lot for the Port of Bellingham Terminal where our ship is scheduled to arrive at 6:00 AM the next morning. I want to be sure that I have a good place in line for the boarding, as I prefer to pitch my tent under the roof of the deck above rather than the open deck on the off chance that we might run into rain.
Boats are marvelous instruments for moving between points, and I have invariably been drawn to them given the option. While I used to backpack the Grand Canyon at least annually, after my first boat ride down its length I retired my pack in favor of the float mode. My first trip to Alaska was with truck and camper and in six weeks I logged 8,000 miles, seeing great quantities of country, but through the windshield at whatever clip the road would bear. Two years ago we opted to float the boat north, and now the choice is a no brainer.
Not that I can see any country at the moment.
I arose early on the morning of June 16, hefting my pack, video camera and computer into the ferry terminal to get that good seat. No problem, I am the lone traveler at this hour and get the first spot. I expect the hordes to be along any moment, despite the lack of the Colombia which was due an hour previous. I have been told the ferry will depart at noon. Within ten minutes I am inundated with company. A lady who has traveled four days by bus from Florida is anxious to travel to Ketchikan to join her fiancé. We pass the time pleasantly trading jokes and stories in anticipation of the rush. An hour later, the ticket office opens, and an inquiry about the boat indicates it is currently due at 10:30. Also it seems that the noon departure was a miscommunication, as the boat will not depart until 6:00 PM and loading is unlikely before 4:00 PM. No matter, I have a good spot and a good book and have spent far longer in airport terminals with a less promising future.
We do indeed board at the promised hour, and a good tent site is procured amidst the mad scramble and shuffle of anxious travelers, some experienced in deck passage, some gaining experience. Pitching a tent on the back deck of a boat may not sound like the ideal cruise mode, but there is a lot to be said for it. Certainly travelling on the Alaskan Marine Highway System is the most economical and versatile was to travel the length of Southeastern Alaska. Many people choose this mode of transportation, and as such staterooms are always in very short supply. In fact, the ferry was completely booked for cars, staterooms, and even walk-on passengers this day, making me glad to have made reservations previously. (On the journey south reservations are generally not required. Should this prove wrong, I may have to become a resident of Alaska.) Most of the people who cannot afford a stateroom find a couch or floor space in one of the forward observation lounges, or a recliner in the solarium on the upper deck. I have found it preferable to just pitch a tent, hob-nob with the hobos, make friends and swap stories, have a few square feet of private space to leave my goods, and feel the rumble of the engines vibrate the floor beneath my sleeping bag pad as I retire in the evening.
Things are looking good in that respect. As we depart port and wind our way through islands northbound, it appears that the roiling overcast is all to the south, and the horizon to the north is ablaze in the sunset's orange hues without any sign of cloud.
This morning I awake at 5:30 AM Alaska time (the boat is considered Alaska soil, and we are advised to set our watches an hour earlier....I hate getting up at 5:30!) to see the promised sunshine turning the roof of my tent a bright green and pouring warmth into my tent. I arise anxious to see the country, as we are due to be travelling in the Johnstone Straight, a narrow passage between Vancouver island and mainland British Colombia. Indeed the sun is overhead, but a fog surrounds the ship, and before long we have plunged completely into the shroud.
I am cautiously optimistic that as the sun gains purchase in the sky it will defeat this early morning shroud and deliver the countryside to us.
Morning deck thoughts (pays to have a pencil sometimes):
North Face, Marmot, Ridgeway, Kelty, Walrus, Peak, Wilderness Trails, Coleman; the names are as varied as the colors within the mogul field of nylon domes that surrounds me on this subdued gray morning. The deck shivers and rumbles in rhythmic vibration while campers continue to slumber within their domed enclaves. There is no sun to signal them to rise. They will perceive no change in hue or luminescence upon the roofs of their tents or under the lids that define the boundary of their dreamscapes.
The morning is not cold, rather cool and moist and my breath cascades forth in visible clouds as hot coffee compensates for the morning chill.
The sound of zippers heralds the emergence of ruffled hair and swollened eye neighbors who will find their way into morning rituals and routines. Rights of passage into the first day of the rest of their lives. Today is the tomorrow we all dreamed of yesterday, and, sunshine or not, it is bound to be a splendid day.
We make our way at 17 knots through Johnstone Straight, up Queen Charlotte Straight in Queen Charlotte Sound. I can define the very moment we make the crossing into the sound by the sudden roll of the deck. As I stand talking with neighbors about near and distant futures to the north, I suddenly loose balance and quickly catch myself before timbering into an unsuspecting camper's tent. We have left the Inside Passage, a narrow waterway which tortuously provides sheltered passage through the western coast of Canada, and entered the Sound, exposed to the Pacific Ocean and the whims of swells which can rock a (very large) boat from side to side. The boat's roll is an interesting demonstration of inertia and vectors, as walking the length of the deck I and my fellow travelers appear as if drunken lubbers finding their way home after the bars have closed.
What do you do with a drunken sailor? -- Put him at the helm of an Exxon tanker! -- Put him at the helm of an Exxon tanker, -- Er-lie in the morning!
At 11 AM we break through the fog and the sun appears. The end of the fog heralds our departure from the Sound as well. The fog bank recedes into the distance to the south as we continue our way north. It is visible for an hour, but why look back? Nothing but blue skies ahead! Our neighbor on the tent deck wonders why she has waited so long to make her first trip to Alaska, now that she can see the country she is travelling towards. As John McPhee put it, into the country.
We have had a wonderful journey through the inside passage and we are now enjoying the town of Haines, Alaska (link). For the most part we enjoyed good weather as we traveled north. We stopped in the town of Ketchikan on the morning of July 18, enjoyed a nice breakfast, restocked some snack supplies, and glanced at the newspapers on the stands. Towns on the panhandle of Alaska are comparatively isolated, and can usually only be accessed by boat or plane. Roads within towns serve as conveniences for the town, and rarely connect with any neighboring towns. As such, the latest newspapers contain nothing of the news that JFK Jr. has been lost at sea in a plane crash. Luckily, life goes on for the rest of us, and the journey continues north, through Wrangell, and Petersburg, both of which we will be visiting on our return journey. Days are spent leisurely, catching up on reading, listening to interpretive programs provided by rangers of the National Forest Service who travel with us, and generally watching the world go by.
As we watch the world go by, we fail to see some of it approaching. Sometime during the early hours of the 19th, the inevitable weather of Southeast Alaska catches up with us, and we awake to rain, gloomy skies, and none of the views that we have cherished so far. This is indeed quite a disappointment, as the trip up through the Chatham Straight and Lynn Canal between Juneau and Haines is in my opinion, one of the most scenic portions of the trip. (Of the four times I have traveled between these points, I have seen the country twice....not a bad average.) We all count our blessings that this is to be the final day of our trip north, and pack up soggy gear in anticipation of departure in either Haines or Skagway, which lies at the northern terminus of the ferry route.
By the time we arrive in Haines, the rain has abated, and the clouds seem to have lifted in proportion to the amount of rain that they have released on us so far. We are greeted by Norm, who runs the Fort Seward Bed and Breakfast where we will be spending the next eight days.
The B&B is located above the parade fields of the old army post, Fort Seward, which was in operation at the turn of the century (the last one!), and at that time served as the chief surgeon's house. It enjoys a commanding view of the Lynn Canal, a fjord left after glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. As we climb the steps, cross the front porch, and pass through heavy doors into the foyer, we can see beautifully appointed rooms awaiting their guests. We are not their guests, and are directed to the staircase, and subsequently down to the end of the hall and the room on the left. Gone are the views, gone are the appointments. What we do have amounts to a storage closet with a bed. There is no closet to use, as an older Westinghouse refrigerator, decorated with bumper stickers and decals occupies what once was the closet. It is not plugged in, nor can the door be opened from its present position. Shelving material and hardware items are stacked upon it. There are no dressers in which to put clothes. In their place is a kitchenette, which is about as functional as the refrigerator. Though we have a sink and a stove, there are no utensils, no plates, (we do have three glasses), and the cabinets are repositories for more miscellaneous hardware items and scraps of building material. The room does come with a mirror, but it leans on the top of the stove and is still in its cardboard case. There is one chair, and a table upon which sits a black and white TV. (For you young people, that is a TV that uses a picture tube that displays in grayscale.) The double bed is crammed into the corner of the room in an ill defined space under large windows.
Actually, we love the room. It fits our style, though I am concerned about how the proprietor knew that. There is a lot to be said for it, and the hospitality shown by our host. The room is only 2/3 the price of most B&Bs in town or the Fort's hotel. Since we are staying eight days, this becomes significant. The room also has been outfitted with a phone line connected to Norm's modem, and I am invited to use it as I like. This is a significant perk for me! (The connection consists of a phone line coming through the window, and fits the décor of the room perfectly.) We also have been invited to use the bicycles on the porch. The bicycles are ten speeds in reasonable shape, and we have been making good use of them every day.
The room situation did improve shortly after we checked in, and shortly after some hints were dropped. Every time I walked in the room it seemed to have undergone some transformation. A coffee pot (with coffee grounds) appeared. (I have since had to raid the downstairs kitchen to restock the grounds, but what the hey?!) The refrigerator was moved so that we could open the door. (It was not plugged in, but that problem was easy to fix.) The mirror was moved off the stove and over the sink. (It still rests on the counter and one has to kneel before the sink as in prayer to some fixture god to use it, but what the hey?!) We were even provided with utensils such as knives and forks. (We don't have any plates, bowls, or pans, but what the hey?!) Closet space was made available to us, though it is a storage closet located in the hall. (I know it is a bonafide storage closed because it is smaller than our room and doesn't have a window.)
Would we stay here again? Probably not. The front porch and view, the modem connection, the use of bicycles, the price (I was told that price would not include the breakfast portion of the B&B, but, what the hey?!, they don't use real syrup anyway) all serve to help offset a myriad of cut corners and a level of hospitality that suggests tolerance of the necessary evil of tourism. (Hey, (I keep trying to remind myself), this IS Alaska! I eventually tire of convincing myself of this fact in the face of seeing that quality for the money spent is available here on the frontier.)Subsequent investigation uncovers a little known, and superior option. The Fort Seward Condos (link) can be reserved with sufficient advance notice and supply several bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen and porch for a similar price to our current B&B.
Time is moving along much too quickly. We only have three full days left in Haines and the challenge will be to accomplish all that still needs and desires to be done.
The weather has been cooperating with us as well as can be expected. Locals say it is a cool and damp summer, most likely the result of La Nina...El Nino's little sister. I am glad for all the weather, as during our last trip the days were all exemplary, and I was seduced into thinking that I might like to live in Haines. This nagging desire is in large part why we are spending eight days here this summer. A reality check is in order. So far so good! Even the bad weather is tolerable, and we have spent some time each day looking at offerings on the real estate market. We have decided to come spend Christmas in Haines this year, and get a full dose of the reality of life in northern latitudes.
Every so often the weather does surprise us. Two days ago while biking about, the sun came out, so we decided to bicycle up the road eight miles to Chilkoot Lake, and extension of the Lutkin Inlet off the Lynn Canal. Upon looking at a map, I have no doubt that a slight increase in sea level would rejoin the lake and inlet, but for now they are connected with a sediment laden stream in which coho and sockeye salmon are running to their historic spawning ground. It is fun to watch these fish break the surface as they make their way upstream. At the head of the stream, looking out over a picture perfect lake, the fishermen are wondering what has happened to all the fish we have seen downstream. Likely they have been trapped in a weir which is being used by the local fish census bureau in the name of management. What we do not see is a brown bear sow and two cubs that have been reported in the area. Looks like the perfect spot for them, next to a salmon laden stream, but to our disappointment they are off picking berries somewhere else. I will have to take advantage of some other photo-op. Back to town (eight miles again along the Lynn Canal but with a headwind this time) and the all you can eat salmon bake (who needs to fish?) under the tents on the Fort's parade grounds. While I am hoping that all this exercise will afford me the all I can eat option without too much of the liability, my pants have been telling me otherwise.
On to the next photo-op! Yesterday we rent a car in town and ride the road out of town. (Haines is one of two towns in southeast Alaska that has a road that goes anywhere.) It is about 35 miles to the Canadian Border where a brief run through British Colombia takes us quickly into the Yukon Territory over Haines Pass. Haines pass is a mere 3300 feet in elevation, but delivers views that are normally only available from 10,000 foot passes. The glacial morphology on this pass is textbook quality, and I turn our trip into a long day in an attempt to capture everything on film.
Today's agenda: kayak trip down the canal
We are in Gustavus! As Burns wrote long ago, "the best laid plans of mice and men (go off astray)" as often as not, and our plans took a turn themselves. We never did do our kayak trip, as last reported, due to poor weather. (Locals might not consider it bad.) We also decided to spend a few more days in Haines than originally planned. Just having too much fun I guess, and with each day we got a little closer to the heart of the community. As I am considering making Haines my home someday, this seemed like a good thing, so the decision was made to carry on with our real estate search and hope the weather improved before embarking on our trip to Glacier Bay.
We got our homework done, and the weather did improve. Even the bad weather is ________________________________
We start the day by boarding a small piper and taking off out of Haines for the town of Gustavus, the gateway community to Glacier Bay.
We are excited to be the guests of the Glacier Bay Country Inn, a private lodge located just outside the park boundary. After staying in less than sterling-for-the-prices accommodations in Haines (I still like Fort Seward B&B the best after looking over some of the nearby B&Bs and suffering the accommodations of the Hotel Halsingland (it is up for sale, I don't recommend the purchase)), the Country Inn is exquisite. We have a small cabin, and the lodge is custom built to include homey dining facilities, nicely appointed rooms, and a reading loft and library. Pricey perhaps, but all meals are included, no corners are cut, and hey, its vacation! This is bush country, built upon glacial outwash plains. When we arrive at the inn from our flight, we can see our first bear feeding on the strawberries out on the edge of the field, which as it turns out, is the landing strip for small aircraft. A wonderful lunch is immediately provided in brown paper bag, and we are whisked off for a day of whale watching. On the way to the dock, we see a black bear cub crossing the road. So far this day I have seen more bear than I have seen during several trips north.
We hit pay dirt off Adopholus Point on our whale watching trip. I have decided to title my video Cetacean Satiation as I have plenty of footage of a pod of humpback whales sounding and diving as close as 40 feet from our boat. We also get to see cute little harbor seal, adorable sea otters and of course the ubiquitous and stately bald eagle.
Back at the Inn dinner is served at 7:00. It is my delight to find that the meal is prepared by their world class chef, John Emmanuel, who personally visits each table to ascertain the satisfaction of his guests. After dinner we retire to the front porch of our cabin for a view of the sunset that promises to last well into the Alaskan evening. I can hear the bells jingling along the road leading up to our cabin, and realize it must be one of the guests out for a stroll, practicing the mythological precaution of alarming bears to his presence, and driving them off with the maddening sound of those bells. (I have heard varying reports as to the effectiveness of using such bells.) As he is approaching the cabin from behind us, I let out a load deep growl. The bells stop. I hear them resume and approach, and I let out another course growl. The bells stop once again. I poke my head around the corner to see how the guest is fairing. He spots my inquisitive glance, assesses my grin, computes the evidence, and gives me an amused smile in return. The gentleman is a German tourist, and our universal language is sufficient to carry the moment.
Tomorrow we are going kayaking! (How many times have I thought that before?)
I have had a great night's sleep. It is a real pleasure to finally find a bed that my feet don't hang over. (I keep reminding myself, it IS Alaska!) I am delighted to awake to a perfectly blue and cloudless sky, a rare occasion in this country. Perfect kayaking weather! (Good thing we have some sunscreen!) Glacier Bay Kayaking picks us up at the lodge and shuttles us up to the Park, where we will launch into Bartlett Cove. Cetacean madness is soon to resume, as several Humpback whales are playing in and around the cove. The humpbacks are easy to spot. As they break the surface of the water and exhale, they send a plume of mist into the air like a vaporous geyser. Their backs arch into a high hump as they slip back beneath the surface, to rise and blow again, a process that is repeated perhaps four or five times before they dive into the depths of the cove. This dive is signaled by their tail fins rising high into the air and slipping quietly back below the water's surface. They will remain submerged for four to eight minutes before breaching again. On several occasion they breach in playful leaps up into the air, as if attempting to free themselves of the confines of sea and embrace the world of silence above. The fall from their temporarily found grace is accompanied by the the thunderous roar and explosion of water as their mass displaces several tons of water. Humpbacks look large as exhibits in museums, or in books with people drawn in to scale. In the vicinity of a kayak they assume a scale and power that can only be appreciated first hand.
The day upon the water is an Alaskan dream come true. The players include harbor seals who pop up for occasional glances at us and black bear searching for edible delicacies upon the beach, in addition to our larger friends.
Another perfect day! Our fortune is great, as we are to travel up the West Arm of Glacier Bay aboard the tour boat Spirit of Adventure. Glacier Bay is a wilderness of fjords left in the wake of retreating glaciers which covered the region 1500 to 200 years ago during the Little Ice Age. Glaciers still feed into the various arms and inlets of this magnificent park from the Wrangell St. Elias Mountains. This wilderness is unique as it has been afforded the status of a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. No roads penetrate this wilderness. It is and will remain the domain of all creatures and processes that have been displaced by our relentless pursuit of civilization. While traveling to our glacial destinations we are treated with what has become the standard displays of harbor seals, sea otter, and humpback whale. Of special interest on this trip are a variety of bird, including puffin and a hatchling bald eagle that has not yet learned to fly. (This eagle has received daily scrutiny by the lucky employees of the Park who make this trip regularly.) A colony of Stellar seal can be seen sunning themselves on glacially polished rock. A real treat is afforded us as we have an opportunity to watch a brown bear sow (same as a grizzly bear only bigger) and her two cubs. Mother is searching for barnacles and trapped fish by overturning rocks on a debris fan by the water's edge. Her concern is for food for her cubs, and she is not concerned by our presence off shore. The massive size, power and beauty of Ursus arctos horriblus is beyond comprehension, but I find myself appreciating the incomprehensible just a little more as I observe this family in the wild.
We visit the destinations of our voyage in turn, the Margarie Glacier, the Grand Pacific Glacier, the John Hopkins Glacier, and the Reid Glacier. Each seems to have its own personality, its own beauty. Each offers a display of glacial calving, with a thunderous report as a wall of ice collapses into the sea below, sending out huge waves and generating icebergs. Rivers of muddy meltwater can be seen thundering out of their bases, delivering the glacial flour sediment responsible for the malachite colored waters of the inlets and fjords.
As we begin our homeward run, I spend an easy hour sitting on the back of the boat watching the skyline of the Wrangell St. Elias mountains. Cirques, ice fields feeding glaciers, u-shaped valleys carved by glacial ice, (some still holding glaciers), speak of processes of progeny and denudation, the processes that thrust the earth towards the heaven and relentlessly seek to level it once again. The view that recedes before me is one of the most striking vistas I have ever beheld in my life, and I sit quietly and contemplatively allowing this scene to impress itself into my mind and memory in the hope that I might be able to carry a recollection of its majesty in my heart that I can occasionally remember and draw upon. A well from which I can draw quiet and peace when my soul finds itself in need of some restive relief. I use a lot of film as a means to help my chances!
As we dock back at Bartlett Cove the day is far from over. Another Piper aircraft awaits us at the airfield to return us to Haines. The weather is perfect, so the pilot decides to fly us directly over the Chilkat Range and ice fields that feed glaciers on either side of the mountains. I have never experienced so breathtaking a flight! Our flight plan takes us up into Glacier Bay and the Muir Inlet. The pilot senses my excitement as I work the video camera non-stop from the shotgun seat, and treats us to a tight turn over and around the base of the Riggs Glacier, enabling me to peer directly into the deep blue crevasses which open as this river of ice turns into an icefall as the glacier drops from its source to the inlet below. Swinging south again and skirting McConnel Ridge (when I say skirt I mean shave!) we travel up the McBride Glacier, which has recently calved a heard of bergs that literally choke the mouth of the small inlet at its base. Six side glaciers feed into the McBride. The aerial view of these confluences perfectly show the evolution of medial moraines from lateral moraines. Blue sky and white snow are all that can be seen over the nose of the plane as we reach the ice fields that feed the myriad of glaciers to east and west of the Chilkat divide. The deep blue of snow sublimated to ice can be seen in ribbons where winds have swept the snow from the field. Down the Davidson Glacier we join up with the Lynn Canal, turn to the north and view Rainbow Glacier terminating and feeding a waterfall at the same elevation at which the plane is flying. (The Rainbow Glacier is a hanging glacier, left orphaned after the main glacier which formed Lynn Canal retreated as a result of warming climate.) Our journey up Lynn Canal delivers us to the airstrip at Haines and a continuation of our adventures there.
It is time to bid Haines a fond adieu, and we board the ferry for points south after supper, pitch our tent on the back deck and await our departure for Petersburg. The weather is still perfect. As we head down the canal, hanging glaciers can be seen feeding falls of meltwater. The walls of the Lynn Canal are steep, and one must crane the neck to see the peaks above. As the summer season is winding down, evening darkness falls upon the land earlier each day. The lighthouse on Eldon Rock can only be seen by virtue of the beam it sends to passing ships. We are fortunate to have a musician on board, and soon we have a circle of newly found friends sitting around the back deck singing the good old songs and around the missing campfire. Things are changing. I am forced to double check maps, and yes, as I look to the north I see the red glow of daylight on the northern horizon, and to the south, the seemingly premature darkness which will continue to accompany us as we travel to lower latitudes.
The next day I notice another change. The water of the passage has turned from green to blue. Gone is the suspended sediment ground from rock by glacial action which changes the hue of water. We will encounter this suspended glacial flour again as we continue south and approach the town of Wrangell, but for now I find myself noticing the all the small changes that suggest we have reached the limits of our journey and are drawing back in towards our home.
The weather continues to grace us with warmth and blue sky. Early morning finds our boat pulling into the town of Petersburg, the town that fish built. Here we will enjoy a reunion with our friends Glen and Val, whom we met two years previously in Wrangell, and enjoy the hospitality of the Water's Edge Bed and Breakfast. I would like to give my full and hearty endorsement to this wonderful accommodation. Kathy and Barry Bracken are wonderful hosts, and the view, quiet location, use of bicycles and canoe, and homey arrangements make this one of the nicest B&Bs we have ever visited. Four days will pass easily and comfortably.
The weather this morning looks entirely too much like Petersburg, so we are departing for Wrangell in the hopes that heading south will yield sunshiny skies. As the trip will only take us a few hours, my hopes are not over inflated.
Petersburg has turned out to be one the high points of our trip, and will remain one of our favorite towns in Southeast Alaska. Allow me to recount.
First order of business is to visit our friends Val and Glen at the Alaskafe, where gourmet fresh ground coffee may be enjoyed in a cozy atmosphere that has led many to ask the proprietors if they live at their business. While Val and crew serve java and eats in the front, Glen and company clip hair in the back. Today is the day I will resolve the conflict that has consumed my waking and dreaming hours for almost a year. I have decided to let Glen give me a haircut. Gone now is the ponytail. Here now is the conservative ease of short hair that is ready to go first thing in the morning, and directly out of the shower without the need for arm breaking tangle removing gyrations that I have become accustomed to. Glen has done a fine job for me and I am ready to discover Petersburg with a completely fresh outlook on life!
I feel so spiffy I head down the street to purchase a new watch band. Upon walking into Lee's on the main street Nordic Drive, Heidi asks if she can help me. She may be a long time working up the courage to ask that question of any customer again! While standing at the counter wrestling with removing old bands and trying to determine how to install the new improved version, a fellow walks up and stands next to me and naturally falls into the game that we are playing. This fellow and I seem to have some affinity, and simpatico strikes up a playful exchange between us and often aimed at Heidi, who has claimed to be the queen of watchband engineering, but who, under the gun, has exposed herself to some merciless, though good natured ribbing. After twenty minutes or so of fun, this newly found friend announces he must depart to run some errands. I extend my hand and ask his name. He replies, "Cary." Bells go off, I inquire further, and discover this gentleman has been on my e-mail list for years, and that he has been awaiting my arrival in town for some months upon reading an account of my Alaskan travelogue from 1997 wherein I made reference to the Alaskafe and Petersburg. He had contacted Val, who had contacted me, and though we had never met, had each looked forward to meeting the other on this visit. Hugs were immediately exchanged, and jovial exchanges continued on into the afternoon.
While in Petersburg, I recommend an easy day's entertainment seeing the Mitkof Island in a rented car. The island is not large, but a full day can be spent seeing a myriad of attractions in and around the Tongass National Forest. Our trip took us to a salmon ladder, (like an escalator for fish, only it goes the wrong way, forcing the fish to jump from one pen to the next on their quest to spawn...gotta work for that kind of fun), and Blind River Rapids (take your rubber boots to run the rapids, no raft needed here) where we see lots of Chinook salmon frolicking in the shallows and eagles moving about their business.
Down the road we visit a fish hatchery, where millions of Chinook salmon are manufactured each year. The operation is quite interesting, all stages being easy to identify on a stroll around the factory. Salmon are diverted from the stream up a fish ladder into a holding pen. Suitable adult salmon are selected from there for egg and sperm harvesting. (This harvest is fatal to the fish, and I knowingly ask the technician who is in the midst of selecting and preparing for the harvest How often do you harvest the eggs? He winks and knowingly responds, More than once a year makes them nervous!) Fertilization and incubation take place in a less than romantic looking modern facility and yield the prodigious quantities of salmon minnow which will await their release into the local streams.
Mitkof Island supports what is classified as a tropical rainforest. It is our good (?) fortune in that as we are about to enter this unusual floral zone, we hear peels of thunder quickly approaching. We are also fortunate that next to the Hatchery we find a picnic area with shelters, enabling us to enjoy a tasty lunch of king salmon salad while we watch a the ensuing downpour in dry comfort. The day gets the heavy rain out of its system, and we are soon able to continue on.
We discover an attraction worthy of note for future reference: a trumpeter swam observation shed overlooking a quiet water slough where the swan can be observed in great numbers during the winter months. Local conditions prevent the water in the river from freezing, and the swan take advantage of this feeding ground much in the same manner that Eagle take advantage of the Chilkat River in Haines.
We leave the pavement and pick up an excellent dirt road which will loop up through 21 miles of the Tongass National Forest. Three lakes are easily accessed from the road via elevated plank walks through the rainforest. Just enough drizzle remains to give the rainforest an air of credibility. Sphagnum moss provides a thick spongy cover on the muskeg forest floor. A lichen known as Methuselah's beard, which resembles Spanish moss hangs from the conifers. Some branches are draped with thick dark moss-like liverwort, giving them the appearance of a tarantula. The trail takes on a very sexy appearance, as many of the planks are adorned in black fishnet, presumably to improve footing. Each lake has been graciously supplied with a Forest Service row boat, allowing us to take a quiet trip out into the middle of the lakes and wait for the appearance of moose, bear, or other interesting wildlife. For better or worse we see none at any of our stops. As we continue down the road our last treat is an overlook of LaConte Glacier, one of the fastest moving glaciers in the country. The glacier is too far in the distance for us to see it moving today.
Our last adventure in Petersburg will satisfy a need that has yet to be realized on our trips to Alaska: fishing! We charter a boat for halibut fishing, and head north on yet another perfect day early in the morning. Hook and Eye Charter is run by an engaging and pleasant fellow named Sean Riley. Sean is good company all day, politely laughing at all our jokes, and graciously assisting us neophytes from the desert in the art of halibut fishing. We have a successful day, and land three chicken halibut dressing out at around 39 pounds. I did have the great pleasure and excitement of landing the big one, which unfortunately slipped off the gaff hook before being hauled into the boat. Our halibut expert estimated a weight of 50 pounds, and now I can honestly engage in fish stories about the one that got away.
Now we are once again on the ferry Taku, heading south for Wrangell (link), which will be our last stop in Southeast Alaska. The rain is being driven horizontally, and the shore can barely be seen through the Wrangell Narrows. A great opportunity to sit in dry comfort and catch up on the travelogue.
Anan. The Tlingit word means a place of sitting. This is the place where Tlingit Indians would come and sit while the tide fished for them. At this place an estuary has formed where a large stream finds its way to the channel from which salmon will enter and travel upstream to spawn and die, ending their cycle for the sake of their progeny's future. At the mouth of this estuary the Tlingit would construct a fish pen which would be submerged during high tides. This is when the Tlingit would sit and wait. As the tide dropped, the salmon would become trapped inside the pen, which narrowed down away from the estuary so that the salmon would be funneled into a net as the tide continued to drop. When the water was low, and the net was full, the Tlingit would stand up and collect their net full of salmon.
Anan. The name of the island which we have come to visit today. As we walk up the trail from the mouth of the estuary, we notice several things. Birds are to be found in abundance. Mature and juvenile Bald Eagle, raven, crow, seagull. The forest once again resembles a tropical rain forest. Varieties of true moss blanket everything lying on the forest floor. Standing trees are mantled and adorned with lichen resembling Spanish moss, and moss-like liverwort. Devil's Club grows to heights of over six feet, and loom above me. Swamp cabbage covers the low places in the muskeg. Paths of beaten vegetation can be seen running off perpendicular to our trail. This is where the bear travel. The bear also travel along our trail, and we have been warned to travel in a group and keep up our conversation to alert our furry forest companions to our presence. Anan Island. The place of sitting has become a place of watching. Here visitors can see black bear feeding upon the salmon run from the safety of an enclosed and "secure" observation station (link) above the river.
I have heard of salmon runs. Today I have seen one. I have never seen anything quite like it. The stream runs down through falls of boulders as streams will. The stream looks normal enough. Upon closer inspection, I notice movement in the dark waters of the back eddies and stream sides. Upon closer inspection, I notice the dark color is a result of salmon packed so tightly as to resemble sardine. Upon closer inspection, I notice this packing arrangement is not confined to the quiet water. Indeed, the main channel of the stream is a veritable river of fish, moving upstream against the current. As we approach the observation platform, we see a bear standing upon a large fallen tree which hangs over the river from the opposite bank. My camera is becoming anxious. A few feet of footage and I finish the climb to the platform. From here I can count six black bear fishing and feeding or staring into space, I presume too full to eat another bite for a bit. This is a gorge fest for the bear, who casually fetch and feed upon selective parts of selected fish. The bear will not bother with male salmon, and often release them upon catching them. Their prey is the female, and the bear can be seen to favor the brain and eggs of the female salmon, as they have the highest fat content. The rest of the fish is casually tossed aside, and the banks are steeped in carcass, testifying to this discriminating diet. Herein is the scavenger's dream come true, and the reason for the myriad's of raven, crow and gull that we have seen. Upon asking the ranger why the birds don't seem to be eating more, I am told that they can't. He has seen birds fill themselves to the point that they find it impossible to fly. (I am surprised and delighted to discover the ranger loves to stomp around our desert back home, and is familiar with many of my favorite haunts. It is a delight to find we have many friends in common, and that he has heard of me from some of these mutual friends. I keep discovering how small the world is as I try to explore its outer reaches!)
It is a great day for us, and a great day for the bear, who have helped us round out our wildlife experience on this trip north. The only thing we have yet to see is moose and wolf. We shall see what tomorrow brings as we head up the Stikine River.
It looks a lot like Wrangell, Alaska this morning as we open our eyes. Grey sky, low clouds, drizzle sometimes working up to rain. Good day for a trip up river? The point is debated over breakfast. The alternative? Walk around in the rain, buy some garnets when the ferry comes in this afternoon, go online at the library to check my email and possibly visit the museum which we have seen two years previously. Or, sit in a covered boat, travel up the river, view glaciers, dig up some garnets in a rain forest, sit in some hot springs, look for wildlife and hope the day gets better. While I would prefer the perfect day, we have been admonished that while in Wrangell one should not wait for the weather. The decision is easy to make.
The Stikine River (link) enjoys a level of notoriety. It is the fastest free flowing navigable waterway in North America. It journeys through the Tongass, the largest National Forest in North America. (If memory serves correct, it is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.) The Tlingit Indians used this river to access the interior continent, what is now British Colombia, and their neighbors and cousins the Athabascan nation for purposes of trade. The waters of the Stikine are muddy brown, choked with sand and sediment derived from erosion by fluvial and glacial processes upstream. As the river empties into the waters of the Inside Passage, the velocity of the water decreases causing the river water to loose much of its energy, and as a result, drop its load of heavier sandy sediment and form a delta. The finer glacial flour remains suspended in the water giving the waters around Wrangell a distinctive green color.
We travel up river in a 22 foot jet boat operated by Eric, of Breakaway Adventures. Hats off to this fine company for two days of marvelous excursions. It turns out to be a fine day, even if the weather improves only marginally.
The river provides access to Shake's Lake, named after a Tlingit chief of the region. Within the confines of the lake we encounter the largest icebergs we have seen on this trip. The bergs are large enough to walk around on, and Eric has provided Santa hats for a Christmas card photo-op. A large chunk of berg is broken off and placed in the bow of the boat, I presume as a source of souvenirs for us. The bergs have calved from Shake's Glacier, which displays ribbons of lateral and medial moraines as it terminates in his lake, and we are able to pull up to this interface between water and ice for a close inspection.
We are off to our next point of interest, Shake's Hot Springs. (Shakes must have been quite a fellow for all the fine places that have been named in his honor.) On the way we are treated to the wildlife viewing that I had hoped for. A bull and cow moose are feeding on the river's bank! The bull sports a large rack, and obliges my desire to round out my wildlife documentation, if only briefly. Eric informs me that I can finish my wildlife checklist by returning this winter, when I will undoubtedly find the wolf at his door. Up river we dock and enjoy a short hike through old growth Western Hemlock to the springs. Many of the older trees have diameters of five feet or more, and are mantled in liverwort and hanging lichen. The hot springs consist of two large redwood tubs, one indoor and one outdoor tub. We opt for the outdoor tub, and Eric has brought his chunk of iceberg for the occasion. I must admit this is a first for me, sitting in a hot tub with an iceberg floating in the middle of it!
We return to town, sadly realizing that this is the last night we will spend on Alaskan soil. Tomorrow the ferry will arrive to take us south, allowing us a few more days of adventure with a new slough of interesting and nefarious characters and sightseeing. Our last ride on what the Tlingit call the Blue Canoe will deliver us to Bellingham, and the conterminous United States, where friends and colleagues await our return, and a new school year looms. I am looking forward to teaching again, and looking forward to sharing some great stories, insights and video with the sea of anxious and enthusiastic faces that will soon be filing through my classroom.