The Log of Moira

 

Alaska (July - September 2013)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.

 

I had long wanted to travel to Alaska, and our opportunity finally came in the summer of 2013.

 

Putting Baby to Bed

 

The summer began in Charleston, where we rented an apartment close to the downtown through VRBO.COM. Using the apartment as a base of operations, we could work on the boat during the day in the Charleston City Marina <Larry: taking care of 9 months of deferred maintenance> and enjoy Charleston in the evening.

 

We wanted Moira to be in an environment relatively protected from of hurricanes while we were gone, and there were several heavy-duty projects that could only be done “on the hard.” So after several weeks, Larry drove Moira some dozen miles up the Cooper and Wando Rivers to the Charleston City Boatyard, which supplies technical talent and muscle for the marina. <Larry: The City Boatyard provided a place relatively protected from hurricane storm surge, gated storage, and technical and muscular help when we needed it. The tradeoff is that it is rather remote from downtown Charleston, about a 30-minute commute.>

 

We left Charleston on July 28th and would not be back to the "lower 48” until September 15th, and not back to Charleston until October 1st.

 

To break up the trip across the continent, we stopped for a couple of days in Chicago to visit Larry’s mother, and then overnight in Seattle, before the final leg to Anchorage.

 

Making Reservations

 

For a first trip to Alaska, it worked well for us to have reservations in place well in advance for each night of the trip. Alaska is very busy during the summer months, and I found that, in order to get the accommodations and tours I wanted, I had to make reservations at least six months ahead. Any less lead-time would have limited our options a great deal. Many trips I was interested in taking, such as Denali Park, and the cruise ship we selected, would have been unavailable to us without reservations made six months in advance. Starting earlier would have given us even more options than we had. So be aware! If you wish to visit Alaska in the summer, plan ahead!. (Don't laugh too much about the “in the summer” part…there are other times to visit Alaska. I am told that Homer in the winter is delightful!)

 

My preference is to rent houses or condos, where cooking facilities are available (I love to cook for my Man) rather than in hotels, though we did stay in several remote lodges which worked well for us. I decided to use our overall good experiences with HOMEAWAY.COM and VRBO.COM to research what was available and to make reservations. The places we were able to rent through the internet connections worked well for us. Each one was adequately represented on the internet—no important surprises—and the landlords offered us good local travel advice, such as the best places to buy fresh seafood.

 

I enjoyed reading Michener’s Alaska and John Muir's Travels in Alaska (Muir urged San Francisco travelers in the late 1800's to see Alaska). I used two travel guides extensively: DK Eyewitness Travel Guides Alaska and Fodor's Alaska. Both were excellent. I also found that Alaskans were full of information and freely gave advice which was very useful. For example, several tour operators and B&B owners mentioned Alaska Wildland Adventures, whom I found very helpful. I booked our trip to Kenai Fjords National Park through them. I’m sure they would have been delighted to book our entire trip, but I enjoyed discovering interesting places to visit during talks with a variety of people in Alaska, and then using the internet to book places myself.

 

We’re Talking Big!

 

Making reservations forced me to became well aware of the huge size of Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas and one-fifth of the area of the entire United States. Yet the population of Alaska is only 700,000, of which 290,000 live in Anchorage (not in the capital, Juneau). It was hard to get a handle on the size of this state. It is just so big. Until you try to make a travel plan and realize how small an area you can actually see in 6 weeks, the bigness of the state is difficult to comprehend. <Larry: Alaskan bumper sticker: “Claustrophobia: How an Alaskan feels in Texas.”>

 

Much of the beauty of Alaska is rarely seen by visitors, as so much of the state is in pristine, remote National Parks or refuges, and much of the sense of remoteness comes from the difficulty of car travel. There are few roads in comparison to a state in the lower 48. The scarcity of roads is not due to lack of funds but to the presence of permafrost, which makes building and maintaining roads a difficult and expensive process. It is usually much cheaper to travel any significant distance by air, and much of Alaska is reachable only by air or boat. <Larry: When we were there, Alaska Air had no baggage limit or excess baggage charge for intrastate travel, because that’s how the locals bring their purchases home from shopping in the Big City.> When looking at the development of the state, keep in mind that what we call civilization has only affected 160,000 acres of land out of 365 million acres in Alaska. This is a mighty big state with a very small population!

 

Seasons

 

August and September turned out to be a good time of year for our trip. The weather was clear, allowing us to see Denali <Larry: the politically correct name for Mount McKinley> clearly in all its glory for two days, though we were told that many visitors to the Park never see the mountain at all because of cloud cover or bad weather. Also, in August and early September, we were not bothered too much with the many varied bugs that can plague the tourist in Alaska. In Denali, for example, we were issued full mesh head covers to protect the face and head from mosquitoes. We used them on walks but did not need them when enjoying the areas around the lodges or houses where we stayed. Thank goodness for that, because I am highly susceptible to all sorts of biting bugs including mosquitoes! We were told by our guides that in June and July mosquitoes were rampant and bothersome, though Alaska's mosquitoes do not carry disease.

 

It is important to comply with suggestions for clothing to be brought along. Many of the remote lodges give detailed instructions on what clothing to bring, such as tall rubber boots, jackets, long johns, etc. We paid attention, and were glad that we did. We used everything we brought. Guests who did not take the advice tended to be wet, cold and uncomfortable. <Larry: In some cases, lodges loan (or rent) heavy boots and such. Ask ahead.>

 

Anchorage

 

Anchorage, AlaskaWe started our tour in Anchorage, the largest city, though not the capital. Larry characterized it as “Bozeman, but without the charm.” Lots of that image comes from the large amount of land given over to surface parking lots, a legacy of the devastating earthquake in 1964. The architecture of Anchorage was not inspiring and very “suburban strip mall classic.”

 

On the other hand, good efforts have been made to produce attractive and vital buildings open to the public, such as the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Imaginarium Science and Discovery Center, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

 

If you are looking for authentic native products, particularly art, look for the "silver hand seal" a tag certifying that the product is an authentic Alaska-made product. The gift stores associated with the attractions just mentioned carry these authentic products. Many such wares are quite extraordinary and beautiful. Moira has few places to hang art, which limits our ability to collect such treasures.

 

As we talked to residents of Anchorage, we learned that this is not a place for the fainthearted. In the summer the out-of-doors was often delightful, with clear nights, beautiful skies, and crisp air. But one needs to remember that from January through March the sky is dark…dark…with no sunlight for nineteen hours and then dim light for four or five hours. In April, four or five hours of dull light comes to welcome spring. Summer is bright and the light lasts late into the night. There are baseball games at midnight. We were told that corporate recruiting is often timed so that new employees arrive in spring. Once they experience the summer the new arrivals are often capable of handling the long winter. If they come during the winter they often quit and return home before spring. <Larry: We were also told that the long nights are a major contributor to the fact that Alaska has had the highest suicide rate in the nation. In recent years, it appears that Montana and Wyoming are vying to overtake Alaska for this distinction.>

 

In Anchorage, we stayed at "Ten Ten on the Green," a comfortable room with kitchenette in a private home facing Delaney Park, once Anchorage’s airport. From our room it was an easy walk to downtown. We had wonderful dinners highlighting fresh fish.

 

The best restaurant we tried was Marx Brothers Café, located in a small, unassuming house at the side of downtown. They are booked up far into the future: if you want to give them a try, make reservations before you get to Alaska.

 

We also had an excellent dinner at the Crow's Nest, atop the Captain Cook Hotel, one of the few mid-rise buildings in Anchorage. Again, we made reservations long in advance. While we were sitting at the bar before dinner we were approached by the maitre de who quietly advised us that sandals on men were not permitted (he was looking at Larry's boating sandals). <Larry: Sexism at its finest: sandals for women were perfectly OK. Now, who’s oppressed?> We were astonished: we were not advised of such a dress code when we made the reservation and certainly did not carry around with us a spare pair of conventional shoes, and our hiking boots were in our luggage back at the room. We almost walked out, but the restaurant had a beautiful view of the mountains surrounding the city Denali Kantishna road; meadow on top of subterranean iceand we were not prepared to seek reservations elsewhere. Our host had a solution. Instead of a rack of ties or jackets for déclassé guests, this restaurant had a shelf of shoes! Larry grudgingly agreed to wear a pair of their shoes during dinner. <Larry: The restaurant is on the umpteenth floor of the hotel. As we were eating, we felt the telltale sway of an earthquake. No big deal to a long-time resident of Southern California.>

 

Denali Park

 

Anchorage was a good stop on the way to Denali National Park, the home of Mt. McKinley/Mt. Denali. There is a bus that takes you from the street outside the history museum to the entrance to the Park. We took the bus to the Park because it coordinated with our connections into Kantishna Lodge whereas the train did not. On the way back from the Park we took the train, which was slow but entertaining, and gave us views of scenes not available by bus.

 

Denali Park was established in 1912, not because of the mountains and the wilderness, but to save the Dall Sheep from extinction. The sheep were being slaughtered to feed the miners around Fairbanks. Fortunately, both the Mt McKinley/Denalisheep (as a species) and the Park survived.

 

It often takes more than a couple of days to see Mt. Denali at all, and some visitors never see it, but we were lucky. For the first two days we were in the Park we saw Mt. Denali, “The High One” in the Athabaskan language, clearly in all its brilliant glory. It was just extraordinary. At 20,320 feet Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. It was named Mt. McKinley after the president, in 1896. <Larry: For my money, Mt. Brooks is a more impressive peak.>

 

At the entrance to the Park, you transfer to a bus that will take you to your lodge inside the Park. <Larry: Private automobiles are prohibited beyond a few campsites near the Park entrance.> The road into the Park is closed by September 15. After that, snow machines and skiing are allowed, as well as snow camping. There is often 3 to 6 feet of snow in the winter, with temperatures that can fall to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. <Larry: On the bus ride from the Park entrance to the Lodge, we passed a remarkable geological formation. An area of thick glacial ice had become covered with dirt (through wind and other weather action). Plants had sprung up on the dirt, and now the ice is buried below a forested meadow. But the ice is still down there (first photo in this section, green area in foreground).>

 

The bus rides within the Park are not your Greyhound bus rides. The approach Denali Park has developed is to cage the humans in a bus and let the wild animals Grizzly bear, Kantishna road, Denali parkroam freely. While in the bus, we saw grizzly bears running 30 miles per hour across the tundra, moose, trumpeter swans, Dall sheep roaming on high rock walls, eagles, ptarmigan (the state bird), and caribou. <Larry: Denali tour guide joke: “What’s the difference between reindeer and caribou? Reindeer can fly.”> The bus trips were an excellent introduction to wild southern Alaska.

 

The drivers were full of information on geology, mammals, vegetation, insects, and views of Denali. The bus drivers were obviously talented individuals, often coming to Alaska for the summer driving season. Our driver was from Indiana, 70 years old and going strong.

 

Kantishna Lodge

 

There are two main lodges inside the park. The lodges, North Face Lodge and Kantishna Lodge, about 90 miles inside the park, are known for providing a comfortable stay in the wilderness, with good food and excellent guides. We chose Kantishna Lodge because North Face Lodge was full when we requested reservations 6 months prior to our stay, and because Kantishna has a bar whereas North Face is dry unless you bring your own booze in. The bar at Kantishna was run by John, who had been a barkeep for twenty years. He provided great drinks mixed with stories about his adventures from Puerto Rica to Alaska.

 

Denali Kantishna hike on tundra, SusanWe stayed at Kantishna Lodge for 6 nights, which worked out well for us. The inn kept us fully involved with activities in the Park. They offered several tours every day, giving a choice of various levels of physical activity. Usually, hikes were several hours long, and often included lunch. <Larry: Hiking on the tundra was a spongy experience, rather like hiking on an innerspring mattress.>

 

Alaskan Geology

 

The mountain ranges throughout Alaska in some ways define the state and the Parks that have been established. Being inside Denali Park gave some sense of the size and magnificence of the mountain ranges. Mountain ranges surround Anchorage. The Alaska Range lies to the north and east, over 400 miles long. To the south the Chugash Range takes over. And these ranges are just the beginning. There are 18 National Parks in Alaska. Most have magnificent mountain ranges.

 

Spending time in Denali helped us understand the process of biological succession which frames so much of the Alaskan landscape. The process is driven by the 100,000 Alaskan glaciers as they advance and retreat. <Larry: As the retreat of the glacier uncovers new land, various species of tiny plants and lichen colonize the space and begin to break down the barren rock into soil. Over time, as the surface becomes more hospitable, larger plants move in and take over, to be replaced in their turn by others.>

 

Part of the landscape that is left by a retreating glacier is permafrost, land that has been frozen for at least two years at a depth of anywhere from two to 15 feet below the surface. Permafrost underlies much of Alaska. When permafrost melts, whether because of retreating glaciers, climate change, or manmade construction, it has a tremendous impact on Alaska: erosion, landslides and sinking of land under roads and houses. Permafrost and its behavior are one reason that roads are not more common in this state.

Anchorage fireweedSitka fireweed, gone to seed

The retreating glaciers leave behind such beauties as fireweed, a delicate flowering plant with a brilliant red flower that survives into the fall, turning into a spray of light filaments looking like a dandelion gone to seed. The fireweed is present throughout the Park. It is said that when the last of the fireweed has gone to seed, winter will arrive in six weeks. The week we were in the Park, the fireweed were definitely going to seed so I did believe that snow in six weeks was possible.

 

While most glaciers in Alaska are now retreating, the natural process is cyclical, and the expectation is that the glaciers will eventually advance once again. How climate change may alter the cycle is not yet understood. <Larry: Whether humans will be around when “eventually” happens is also not known.>

 

Kenai Peninsula, Seward, Homer

 

After we returned to Anchorage from Denali by train, we rented a car in Anchorage and headed south and west to the Kenai Peninsula. We had heard in the past about Homer and Seward as good places for cross-country skiing, and wanted to see both places in the summer. We drove to Seward, an easy drive of several hours, and checked into the Windsong Lodge, just outside of town. Seward is a beautiful small town with wonderful views of water and wild lands. Seward is home to Exit Glacier, and gave us our first contact with glaciers on this trip. Exit Glacier is a short drive out of Seward, and is the only glacier on the Kenai Peninsula accessible by car. We drove up to the visitor center and enjoyed a day of up-close experience Kenai Lodge black bearwith this magnificent, though retreating, glacier.

 

The other significant place to visit in Seward is the Alaska Sea Life Center. This is Alaska’s only public aquarium, and is as a renowned sea-life rescue center. It was a well-done center, and gave us a good education in Alaska wildlife and geology.

 

Kenai Glacier National Park

 

We had come to Seward to spend several days inside the Kenai Glacier National Park. We signed up with Alaska Wildland Adventures, which arranged for us to stay for three days and two nights at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, which they operate, and which is the only lodge in the Park. From the minute we got on their boat in Seward until we returned, the trip was magical, showing us glaciers, beautiful scenery and an array of mammals, both on land and water, birds and plants. This tour continued our experiences with tidewater glaciers. The lodge provides stunning views of Pedersen Glacier. A guidebook described a visit to the Park to be a 'sensory feast'. This statement perfectly described our visit. Whales, puffins, oystercatchers, sea otters, sea lions, black bears were our companions; serene waters, glaciers, bluff cliffs and over 600,000 acres were there to explore with expert guides at hand.

 

<Larry: A group of us hiked from the lodge to the lake at the foot of the Pedersen Glacier under the supervision of a guide. Another group with a guide had taken Pederson Glacier, Kenai Glacier Lodgekayaks to the same lake. While we were there, the Glacier calved a large block of ice, which set up very large waves in the lake. Fortunately, none of the kayakers was injured.>

 

On our return to Seward we again took to the road, ending up in Homer. Homer is a small town, surrounded by forests and Kachemak Bay. Through VRBO.COM we had rented for four nights a small, delightful house on a bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay near Homer, with views of the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula. The house was about 10 miles outside of Homer, and we took this opportunity to explore Homer and its outskirts by foot and car

 

From Homer we were able to cross Kachemak Bay on the Danny J to explore a delightful small town called Halibut Cove, mostly built on stilts, which is the local artists' community. In Halibut Cove we enjoyed a luscious lunch at The Saltry Restaurant. After lunch there was time to explore numerous artists’ lofts and stores. We found a pair of copper bas relief plaques, a dragonfly and an egret, that now decorate Moira’s bulkhead.

 

Prince William Sound, Whittier

 

From Homer, we headed toward Prince William Sound, stopping first at Girdwood, a resort town in the Alyeska Ski and Recreation Area located at the edge of Chugash National Forest. We rented a condominium as is frequently our practice. I discovered the condo through VRBO.COM. The condo allowed us to explore the area easily, and provided an attractive space to stay and cook, while enjoying a casual lifestyle not usually found in hotels.

 

Girdwood is a short drive from the tunnel that provides access to Whittier, the entrance to Prince William Sound. I wanted to see the Sound because of its reputed beauty as well as the reputation it gained from the disastrous oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. While we saw no visual evidence during our trip, the captain of our tour boat did speak of the terrible damage and the continuing long road to recovery. <Larry: Perhaps if we had been better biologists, or had seen the Sound before the disaster, we would have been better able to pick out the signs of damage.>

 

Whittier, AlaskaThe town of Whittier, named for the Whittier Glacier, arose in 1943 because the US Army needed an Alaskan base, and this ice-free port fit the bill. The

Army built the 2.5-mile long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to provide access to Whittier from the other side of the mountains. <Larry: The tunnel is unusual in that it is a one-lane tunnel that carries cars and trains in alternation: typically cars travel in to Whittier on the half hour, cars out on the hour, now and then a train preempts the roadway, repeat. It is the longest highway tunnel in North America.> Along with the port, Army quarters were built, huge, bulky, and without architectural grace, which today are used as condominiums by local residents.

 

The Army left Whittier in 1960, and Whittier's economy since has been based on tourists. Visitors enjoy access to the many glaciers and extraordinary birdlife, whales, sea lions, bears, and thick spruce forests.

 

You might think that visiting a glacier up close is easy. Not so. During our Patagonia trip we did a stroll on a glacier with the proper equipment including shoes with spikes, and knee and elbow pads. What I found was that is extremely difficult to walk on the icy slippery surface. Our guide kept close to me at the end of the hike, with his strong arm guiding me off the glacier. So beware. Viewing from afar may be the easiest approach. On the tour boat out of Whittier, we found that viewing the glaciers from a seated position is a breeze. It got us close to see the beautiful colors of the glaciers, the size and the calving off the front of the glaciers that was a magnificent sight. Huge chunks of ice fell off the face of the glaciers, often turning over and causing sizeable waves.

 

After Whittier and the beautiful Alyeska mountains we drove back to Anchorage. We stayed at the Spring Suites, because they had a shuttle to the airport. Our next destination was Sitka, reachable by air or ferry, and it was the embarkation point for our cruise on the Sea Lion for the next two weeks.

 

Sitka

 

Sitka is a stunning location, with the city facing a beautiful harbor studded with green islands and backing up to mountains. The weather for two days was bright and clear with perfect fall-like days. It was hard to imagine this place in middle of winter, though folks we talked with gave us some vivid impressions. This is a fishing port, a processing center for fish, and a tourist center. The tourists disappear by late September and the fishing industry slows. The town just about shuts down for the winter. While in Sitka we enjoyed the Sitka National Historical Park with its totem poles and fine visitor center. The totem poles provide an eloquent record of tribal lineage of the indigenous Tlingit people. While in Sitka we learned of the historic Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act that provided to Alaska’s tribes 44 million acres, giving native Alaskans shareholders a stake in the riches of Alaska, especially in resource-rich areas like the north shore and the southeast.

 

The Russian exploration of Alaska in the 1800’s still has its echoes in Sitka. The Russian bishop's house and the St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral give an architectural glimpse of Sitka of the mid 1800’s. The Russians came in 1799 to capture the sea otter, for the pelts that produced fine fur then fashionable in Europe and Russia. Today, sea otters are as rare in Sitka as Russians.

 

<Larry: Another striking impression from Sitka was the then-underway spawning run of the salmon. We were told that, when salmon begin their trek upriver to spawn and lay eggs, they stop eating. Lust may make you lose your appetite, but this seems a bit extreme. In any case, by the time the salmon reach the end of their trip, there is not much meat left on the bones for a hungry riverside bear to enjoy. One way or another, after the salmon spawn, the salmon die in the streams by the thousands, which at least allows them to avoid the problems of parenthood.>

 

The Sea Lion

 

Our Alaska cruise was the last two weeks of our trip. At its end we would be back in the "lower 48 states," in our case the beautiful city of Seattle in Washington. I spent a lot of time picking our cruise.

 

National Geographic Sea Lion, Rudyerd Bay AlaskaNeither of us was interested in an elaborate dress-up cruise, not only because we did not have the clothes, but also because we were interested in activities that got us close to Alaska rather than being penned-up on a luxury cruise ship. I did talk with several luxury cruise ships to understand how their passengers spent their time. I could not get a representative of the bigger ships to talk about Zodiac excursions or kayaking trips, hiking outings, or picnics ashore. There were outings when the cruise ship was in port, some of which sounded fascinating, but we did not think that style of living was what we wanted. In addition, after living on Moira, with lots of involvement and interaction with locals, I did not want to get on a ship and be isolated. <Larry: Countless times, we have been anchored in some port when a cruise ship arrived, and have watched the locals—at least those not in the tourist trade—“duck and cover.”>

 

I started looking at smaller ships which seemed to have regular off-ship outings. We found on our trip to Cape Horn that small cruise ships can provide what we are looking for. We also discovered that as the ship gets smaller, the price goes up! The casual scene that pervaded the smaller ships appealed to us. We finally found the Sea Lion, operated by Lindblad National Geographic Cruises, and I felt that the trip would be the peak adventure of our trip. The Sea Lion is 152 feet long, with 62 passengers in 31 cabins. This was not a Princess or Renaissance cruise line!

 

While more expensive than many other options, the price included everything except booze. There were no extras and no need for cash on the boat. The boat was attractive and comfortable. Our cabin was small, but then we were not in our cabin except to sleep, shower and dress. The food was excellent, with informal seating that allowed us to meet all the passengers. There was no need for fancy clothes and no elaborate events. Cocktail hour included some interesting food options, and the mushroom appetizer was so good I asked for the recipe.

 

But what really impressed us was the attention to detail on this remarkable ship. Every day began with a daily program delivered to our cabin. There were generally two events during each day. Since this was a photography-oriented tour, there were professional photographers on board to assist. <Larry: They were happy to help you get the most from your equipment, whether you were shooting pictures with a Canon cannon or the camera in your cellphone.> Five naturalists accompanied us on trips and helped interpret the mass of experience that each day brought. There were Zodiac trips, kayak trips, swimming (once), hikes, and visits to native villages, small towns and cultural centers. These trips involved moving 62 passengers on and off the ship twice every day, accompanied by guides who were professional photographers, naturalists, and specialists in the native peoples of Alaska. While this was billed as a photographic tour, there was as much emphasis on native culture, geology, plants, bird life, and mammals as there was on photography. Every day, we were impressed with their execution of the Sitka raptor centerlogistics. <Larry: For example. As you picked up your life jacket in preparation for boarding the Zodiac, you also picked up “your” numbered tag from a board on the bulkhead and attached it to your life jacket. You can’t get into the Zodiac without your tag. Upon reboarding the ship, you hang the tag back on the board. The ship doesn’t leave until all the tags are in place.>

 

The cruise showed off southeast Alaska's islands, bays, and fjords, then continued to British Columbia, the San Juan Islands, and finally Seattle. The smaller Sea Lion was able to explore the isolated coves and fjords that the bigger ships could not. Occasionally we saw one of the big cruise liners, such as in Glacier Bay, but the bigger ship would turn around while Sea Lion continued further into the Bay. We were there to explore and see the sights up close, and that is exactly what they delivered. It was not uncommon for the tour leader on duty or the captain to decide that we really needed to watch some event a bit longer, so they turned the ship around to enable us to linger over the experience. Their flexibility made the trip special.

 

Our trip began in Sitka on the afternoon we were to embark, with a tour of the city's special spots organized by the Sea Lion’s guides. We were enchanted to see the Alaska Raptor Center, an important vetirenary center which sees to the rehabilitation of injured raptors. We were able to see, at close range, large birds that were now healing, or those enjoying enforced retirement, sitting on the well protected arm or hand of the trained staff.

Sea Lion cruise, humpback whales bubble-net feeding

Our first morning out of Sitka on the Sea Lion we were awakened at 6am rather than the usual wake-up call of 6:30am. Our tour leader urged everyone to go to the bow of the ship to watch a most extraordinary event, the rarely-seen bubble-net feeding behavior of adult humpback whales. In this social behavior, the whales submerge as a group to create a vortex of bubbles that forces a school of fish into a tight ball and up toward the surface. The whales then open their mouths and rise vertically to the surface, devouring the ball of food. We saw 6 to 8 whales close together, pushing together to herd their food supply. It was a fascinating experience which we watched for over two hours. While we were watching this spectacle, the staff organized a later breakfast, bringing coffee and tea to the bow so we could continue to watch the event. All of this occurred off of the northeast coast of Chichago Island, a known habitat of whales. <Larry: We learned to pay attention to the quiet rumble of the ship’s engines. Any change in pitch usually meant that the captain had spotted something interesting and was maneuvering for a better look.>

 

Another highlight of our trip was our visit to Glacier Bay. This is an wonderful area of great beauty with coves, fjords and bays full of life, with shores of high cliffs covered with thick spruce forests, many of which are old growth. Glaciers once completely filled Glacier Bay, but in the last 200 years the glaciers have retreated 65 miles, allowing ships to explore this lush, diverse bay. The first event this morning was the sighting of brown bears with their cubs turning over stones on the shore looking for crabs to eat.

 

We were able to see glaciers calving, huge blocks of ice crashing into the bay, causing impressive waves. Sea lions, sea otters, mountain goats, nesting sea birds and whales moved this way and that, challenging the ship to follow.

 

Our cruise stopped at Juneau, the capital of Alaska. We were able to visit the Mendenhall Glacier (about 15 miles from Juneau) which has been retreating over the last 60 years, forming a large, beautiful lake at its terminus. The visitor center was excellent, with trails leading to the glacier. The Alaskan State Museum offered an overview of Alaska with much attention to the native populations and their extraordinary art and culture.

 

John Muir wrote about the beauty of Holkum Bay, which is the entrance to Tracy Arm Fjord and the Sawyer Glacier. Our view of Sawyer Glacier was from a seat on a Zodiac. We had the unusual experience of seeing the glaciers calve from the front (ice falling from above the water) and underneath (ice rising from below the water). Once the glacier calved, the 10-story office building-size block of ice crashed into the bay then turned over and fell again to the bay. All of this tumbling about caused a series of waves coming toward; our guide motored the Zodiac quickly away from the glacier.

 

After the glorious Tracy Arm exploration with glaciers of all sizes, it was time to move on to Petersburg and the Wrangell Narrows. Petersburg is a fishing village of 3,000 inhabitants. Because Petersburg was founded by a Norwegian captain, it became, over time, a Norwegian-American village with many Scandinavian immigrants who fished for a living. Petersburg remains a fishing community producing over 100 millions pounds of processed fish. One of naturalists on Sea Lion had been a commercial fisherman at one time, and was able to give us an interpretive tour this working harbor. Fishing boats are designed and structured for the type of fishing undertaken. If you’re fishing for swordfish, your boat is very different from the boats that pursue salmon or lobster. Around Petersburg are excellent examples of muskeg, a typical ecosystem of southeastern Alaska, a bog that expands rapidly in wet years, often encroaching on the hemlock forests, absorbing and killing trees. The muskeg was hard to walk on but fascinating to study.

 

Our last day in Alaska was in the Misty Fjords National Wilderness, 2.5 million acres where the effect of glaciers is seen, but not the glaciers themselves, because the glaciers disappeared during the last ice age. In the glaciers' place are beautiful fjords, deep green waters filled with wildlife. Misty Fjord is well named, as one-half inch of rain, mostly mist, occurs every day. The combination of mist and dreamy deep forests was quite a sight that kept us on the bow all morning.

 

Alert Bay big house ceremonyThe next morning we were in Canada, arriving at Prince Rupert in early morning. The highlight of the day was a visit to the museum of Northern British Columbia, including native dancing in a longhouse, much like a community center in a small American community. <Larry: Here we learned about the Indian Act and Potlatch Ban of the mid-to-late 1800’s, which (among other things) prohibited the practices of wealth-distribution that were the foundation of much of Indian society, a prohibition that lasted well into the mid-1900’s.>

 

Our next days were exploring the inland passage along British Columbia. The highlight of this passage was maneuvering through Johnstone Strait, known for sightings of whales, and it did not disappoint. From our entrance in to this area the waters were alive with killer whales, humpback whales, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. It was an extraordinary sighting once, and sightings continued through our passage. We were told that these multiple sightings up close were quite out-of-the-ordinary.

 

Our afternoon passage through the San Juan Islands seemed ordinary by comparison, though I could see that it was a very beautiful cruising ground. Maybe someday Moira could one day explore it! We had time to briefly explore Friday Harbor, then we were on to Seattle, arriving in the early morning.

 

From the cruise ship dock we explored Seattle for a bit, ending up at another VRBO property in Ballard Locks, a good place to end our cruising days for this summer.

 

 

Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.

 

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