Monday, September 6, 2010

Alaska Highlights

Signature Quote:We are not going to die.” (Expedition leader Karl … as a pod of humpback whales suddenly turned onto a collision course with our skiff.)

National Geographic Moment I: Brown bears catching pink salmon below the falls at Pavlov’s Bay.

National Geographic Moment II: Bubble-netting humpback whales surrounding the skiff with their bubbles. Time to reverse.

Best Amphibian: The western toad, formerly known as the boreal toad. Green as moss, but even great camouflage doesn’t work if one hops across the trail.

Most Impressive Creature: The Dall’s Porpoise. Seriously. Brown bears, humpback whales, and 376 pound halibut are impressive creatures. But the Dall’s Porpoise is the fastest sea creature we have ever seen. Think torpedoes that sending up rooster tails of spray as they zoom by. So fast that no one on this adventure even got a photo of them.

Best Glacier: Dawes. A symphony of blues and whites in the rare Alaska sun. Very cooperative in calving, shooting, and sliding. A great kayak.

Worst Glacier:
McBride. It calved so much that we couldn’t get near it.

Best Book: John Muir, Travels in Alaska.

Missed Connections:
Orca, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Moose, Black-tailed deer, Hoary Marmots, Mountain Goat.

Funniest Critters: A flock of juvenile Harlequin ducks, rendered nearly flightless by their molt, flapping across the surface.

Moment of Unexpected Levity: A 3-minute safety briefing to start a 2-minute bus ride.

Gem of a Store in the Morass that is Tourist Juneau: The enamel pin and zipper pull store of Bill Spears.

Best Warning:
At the Mt. Roberts trail head in the hills above Juneau (paraphrased): Keep dogs on leash. Unleashed dogs that run ahead on the trail, may come running back to their owners with a bear in pursuit.

Our Last Day of Adventure in Alaska

Thursday morning began with a hike through bear country in Idaho Bay. We didn't meet any of the furry critters, but we did find remarkable evidence of their presence.

Brown bear often step in the exact same spots year after year, following in the steps of their elders. You can see those tracks in the first photo.

Later in the morning, we headed to Dundas Bay for our longest kayak of the trip. We certainly needed the workout after eating so well on the boat.

This is a rare photo of Esther and Donald both paddling.

After a couple of miles (against the falling tide), we found about a dozen sea otters scattered across the water at the base of an island. The babies are quite large by this time of year, and some of the moms seemed a bit over-matched by their soon-to-be-independent pups.

Several harbor seals were also cruising the waters. As best as we could tell, this particular seal enjoyed sneaking up on mother sea otters and scaring them. A moment later, mama otter and her pup disappeared below the water in a cloud of spray.

Note: The first two photos are by other travelers on our expedition.

An Unexpected Amphibian

On the way out of Glacier Bay, we stopped at Barlett Cove, home of a excellent dock (where one fisherman had a 376 pound halibut), a visitor's center, and a beautiful trail through the temperate rain forest.

The trail begins with a stone marker that was placed at sea level in 1966. It now stands much higher. Why? Because the land is still rebounding from its centuries under the glaciers.

And then into the forest, where every surface seemed to be dripping with moss, lichen, and fungi. I kept expecting a hobbit to appear. Instead, we found something better: Alaska's only hopping amphibian, the Western Toad (formerly known as the Boreal Toad).

I don't think I would have spotted him if he had stayed still. His green color blends perfectly with the moss and lichens. But Mr. Toad decided to hop, which gave me a chance to pick him up to share with our fellow travelers.
When we reached the Visitor's Center, we realized how uncommon the toads are. On the bulletin board by the main entrance, the National Park Service posted a flyer asking for information about any toad sightings.

But that's not all it said. In bold letters, the flyer also advised: "Do not touch or apprehend. Toad carries deadly fungus."

Yikes, that seems like the sort of thing they ought to tell you before you can get on the trail. I was going to wash my hands anyway, but this added some urgency. And then a light bulb went off, and I realized that they meant deadly to other toads. That made more sense. And is a good reason I won't pick up any more Western Toads.

One Slight Problem Visiting McBride Glacier

After our up-close look at Dawes Glacier a few days earlier, we had high expectations for our visit to McBride Glacier up Muir Inlet in the eastern arm of Glacier Bay.

McBride is off the beaten track. Indeed, our park ranger for the day hadn't been up there all year. Too bad we ran into one little problem: McBride had been calving so much during the recent warm spell that the route up to it was blocked by an armada of icebergs.

If look in the center of the photo, you can just make out the right edge of the glacier on the far side of a mile or two of icebergs.

Cruising Up Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay stretches more than 60 miles from its mouth at Icy Strait to the base of the tidewater glaciers at its northern end. Quite impressive, particularly when you consider that it didn't even exist just 250 years ago.

When the founders gathered to sign the Declaration of Independence, glaciers reached all the way into Icy Strait. Glacier Bay had not yet been born. By 1800, the bay was 5 miles deep. When John Muir visited in 1879, the bay had grown by another 40 miles. Since then, it has expanded another 20 miles, as the glaciers continue to retreat.

For travelers, that means that getting to the glaciers takes time. But there is plenty to see along the way. South Marble Island, for example, provides a safe place to breed for Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, Horned Puffins (much rarer in these parts), Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres, and other feathered critters.

It's also a spot where adolescent sea lions play king of the mountain.

Real Alaska Weather

After communing with whales in the morning, we set out for a lengthy journey to St. George's Island, where Icy Strait meets the North Pacific. Our proximate goal was to see more critters -- huge male Steller's sea lions, puffins, porpoise, and sea otters.

Even more important, however, is that this journey finally exposed us to real southeast Alaska weather. As we got closer to the ocean, rain, mist, and clouds replaced the sun that had blessed us in previous days. Lots of fun -- at least in small doses. And a great opportunity for some landscape photography when we anchored behind Lemesurier Island at dusk.

We Are Not Going to Die

The highlight of day 6 was a close encounter with a pod of humpback whales. The whales were using their bubble netting technique, in which they blow a wall of bubbles to corral a school of tasty herring, chase them to the surface, and engulf them. Our guide Karl explained that the alpha female coordinates the action using her song to synchronize the pod's actions. Apparently they are quite selective about which whales they are willing to bubble net with.

After chowing down, the whales would swim abreast, take some breaths, and then dive for more. We had a great time trying to guess where they would resurface.

Our first surprise came when the pod was feeding very close to the shore in False Bay. After traveling a few hundred yards, the pod suddenly turned 90 degrees and headed toward our skiff. The photo above shows one whale about ten feet from the skiff. After that shot, I put down my camera to enjoy the sight of the fifty-foot critters as they passed a few feet away.

Happily, Esther was filming with her Flip. Her video captures both the closeness of the encounter and the delight of our fellow travelers:

And here's how it looked from another skiff nearby:

If you want to hear the alpha female singing as she coordinates the pod, check out this video. If you listen to the end, you will hear her change pitch, signaling for the whales to surface.

We almost had an even closer encounter a few minutes later. As the skiff lay idle in the water, we noticed large bubbles coming up all around us. The whales were herding herring directly below us. Karl put the skiff in reverse to get out of the way. And as we looked into the water, we could see the white pectoral fins of the humpbacks as they called off their ascent perhaps ten feet under the water.