Friday, October 30, 2009

Bear, bear, and more bear

And I thought 2009 was going to be the Year of the Whale. Bear sightings had been few and far between this year - almost non-existent when guests were aboard. Where were the bear? We found them in Pavlof Harbor on Chichagof Island in August.

Pavlof is one of the more scenic anchorages in SE Alaska. We usually anchor in front of a small waterfall with its adjacent fish ladder. The steep-sided valley behind the falls is flanked by towering snow-capped peaks and holds a good-sized lake fed by Pavlof River. Several salmon species return to spawn in the streams above the falls and this month the water is teeming with fish. King salmon loiter just outside Pavlof in greater Freshwater Bay, on their journey to larger rivers. Inside the harbor dark clouds of schooling pinks ripple the water’s surface as they dart about, waiting for high tide to tackle the climb up falls or fish ladder on their way to the spawning grounds. Occasional coho leap skyward in silvery arcs and nose back down again to disappear quietly beneath the surface. Pinks noisily jump and flop back down on their sides or cavort in repeated surface jumps like skipping stones. Dolly Varden mass below the falls, swirling about in the shallow water, perhaps gathering to feast on the salmon eggs that wash downstream. Sockeye will return here too, later in the month.

We like to dinghy in close to the base of the falls and drop a small anchor to hold us in midstream in the current, just off of the shallows. We spin cast for Dolly Varden or coho, or just sit and wait hopefully for a bear to appear. Years ago we would pull the dinghy up on shore and spin cast from the bank, but it’s hard to concentrate on fishing when a bear is working the same side of the stream! Now we stay in the boat.

On the first day we were entertained by a young grizzly who was indecisive about where to fish - along the bank, at the fish ladder, in the falls, or in the several small pools scattered throughout the shallows. While aware of us, he kept a comfortable distance. Aware of him, we liked this comfortable distance, even as we mentally rehearsed the fast up-anchor and motor-out-of-here drill. Be prepared, just in case.

The next afternoon we had just anchored in the same spot at high tide when Capt Ron remarked “Keep watching the bushes behind us. That’s where the bear trail comes out.” He began spin casting and I looked up to see two cubs wander down the bank to the water’s edge. Where was mama bear?! We didn’t want to be between her and the cubs! Finally Ron spotted the sow as she remained in the shadows just outside the bushes above the bank. Omigosh! Grab the camera and enjoy the antics of this trio as mama grizzly fished to feed her family. Neither cub liked to get wet so they climbed and clambered over rocks, logs and fish ladder walls to get to their meal. One cub was more adventuresome than the other, wandering farther away and then romping back to catch up. These grizzlies were an unusually light color, a blonde/beige mix that absorbed the low rays of the afternoon sun and shot off a glistening halo. Hollywood special effects couldn't have done it better.

On day three the young grizzly returned to fish again, crossing the shallows and wandering from bank to bank. He appeared to be nervous and wandered off into the brush above the fish ladder just before the family of three appeared on the opposite bank. Clearly these grizzlies don’t socialize and dine together.
We spent four days anchored in Pavlof Harbor and trolled for salmon, ate a lot of salmon, spin cast for Dolly Varden, visited with friends and did some dinghy explorations and photography...

… but it was really all about the bear watching.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Guest Log: July-August

Whales, wind and weather!
(click on any photo to enlarge - especially on the whale and bear shots)

There we were, across the parking lot from the dock ramp, chatting with a fisherman and fish store owner, and watching for the airport van. Oops! The van no longer operates, so Sarah and Gerry shared a ride from the airport with a local resident, and we missed their arrival. Some welcome to SE AK when you have to phone your hosts to let them know you’re standing in the cockpit looking for them!!

We toured the town, checked out the local sporting goods shop and walked the docks. Seafood ruled the day with salmon bisque and lox on crostini for lunch, smoked salmon snacks, and barbecued salmon with Ron's special sauce for dinner. Overkill? maybe, but after M/V Salty Dog gifted us a freshly caught coho it seemed a good idea to postpone the chicken enchiladas and chorizo Spanish rice until the next night. Fresh is better with fish!

Hoonah's Russian Orthodox church.

Radiance of the Seas, with a background haze of smoke from the Yukon fires.
(Note: the photo is from the return trip to Hoonah, but I can't get it to move to the end of this entry!!!)

Neka Bay, Port Frederick
We were barely out of the harbor, just south of Hoonah's Grave Island, when we spotted a pod of whales cruising along the shore. We followed them for several hours, giving Gerry and Sarah their first look at humpback whales bubble feeding, breaching, fin slaping and surface cruising. Gerry shot some terrific breaching photos and his 500mm lens filled the frame with amazing detail. The whales changed a routine, hourlong scenic trip into three hours of excitement.

I've read that whales have unique tail markings. This should be easy to compare to earlier photos.

I wonder how comfortable those fishermen are, sitting in a small boat so close to such large whales?

Nat'l Geographic info: In Alaskan waters, humpback whales work as a team to catch their meal by blowing a net of bubbles. The endangered mammals actually herd herring with a ring of bubbles, trapping them. Then, the whales rocket to the surface, mouths open, to capture the fish.

Elfin Cove
We had an sunny early start with a favorable current and planned to transit South Inian Pass near slack. That was the plan. Then we had a repeat of whale watching in Port Frederick so we lingered. Two pods were bubble feeding separately and then converged. More whales were spotted from Pt. Adolphus to South Inian Pass. We saw spouts from fifty separate whales today, including four orca (killer whales) at South Inian. We missed our timing, but it was worth the longer, slower cruise.

The day turned cloudy early on and fog caught us as we approached Elfin Cove. We tied up to the only open slip at the head of the dock - a lucky moorage though the extreme minus tides left us briefly with a little less than three feet under the hull. Elfin Cove is much quieter, less populated and considerably more neglected than it was on our last visit. Instead of an active fishing community it just seems to hold transient trollers, a few summer cottages, a sprinkling of liveaboards and a bunch of fishermen at the several lodges. The store alone seems remarkably unchanged.

Sarah, Gerry and Ron fished mid-day, catch-and-release with some pinks and a mess of rockfish in a full day of heavy fog. Fishing lodge guests were stranded since seaplanes couldn’t get in or out, though you couldn't tell it from their smiles at the thought of an additional day of fishing. It was difficult for us to remember the sunny days of last week.

Dundas Bay
Dundas Bay is within the Glacier Bay National Park, but water access is not regulated here as it is in the waters of Glacier Bay itself. I couldn't remember the last time we were in Dundas, or in Glacier Bay proper either. What a surprise to check the logs and discover the dates were 2003 and 2005 respectively. It was more than time to revisit and recheck those wonderful memories.

The water was dotted with sea otter as we entered the bay - that did not sound positive for crabbing there! We first cruised the west arm for some glacier viewing, and then ran to the head of the bay to anchor. We set several traps but only caught a dozen prawns and zero crab - could it be the otters? There are several studies currently researching this topic, but cruising boaters already have an answer.

One black bear roamed the beach but no grizzlies appeared. This youngster ignored us at first, but grew nervous as we idled offshore for photos.

Then the bear hid and watched the bear-watchers.

The Fairweather Range is spectacular, with its jagged peaks, looming ice fields and many glaciers. And check out the fog rolling in to surround us - again! It (the fog) was sneaky as it shot tendrils around hillsides and sent wisps down canyons, peeking over ridgelines before it rolled its mass up the inlet.

Note the two different shades of green/blue as the glacier-fed water of the Dundas River meets the saltwater carried in from the Gulf of Alaska by Cross Sound.

Excursion Inlet - some history (from wikipedia et al)
Excursion Inlet originally held an Alaskan native village. Oral history reports the Huna Tlingits occupied Glacier Bay for thousands of years until glacial advance forced them out into Icy Straits, Excursion Inlet, and the Pacific coast. During World War II Excursion was used as a prisoner-of-war camp, and a strategic base for the Aleutian Campaign. The inlet has had a fishing cannery since 1891. The current plant, constructed in 1918, still functions today. processing pink and chum salmon, as well as salmon roe, salmon caviar, halibut and sablefish. It is located near the mouth of the inlet, about 40 miles west of Juneau. Its seasons run from late June to mid-September. Excursion Inlet Cannery is one of the largest fish canneries in the world and was acquired by Ocean Beauty Seafoods in 2003.
Excursion Bay's western shore is within the boundary for Glacier Bay National Park but water access to the bay is not controlled as it is in Glacier Bay proper. We headed for the cannery dock on the eastern shore. Several packers transited the inlet and tied to the same dock during our two day stay. Their task was to pick up salmon from the fishing fleet and deliver the catch to the cannery. Swirling clouds of squawking, feeding gulls filled the sky and celebrated the cannery activity as they gorged themselves on the slurry pouring into the saltwater. Scenic but noisy.

A few sport fishermen arrived to moor overnight, but the dock felt deserted after the packers left.

This is all that remains of the old World War II pier.

Sarah always looks stylish, even in foul weather gear. The weather was sunny but cool with a biting wind so rain gear functioned as good wind protection on fishing trips.

Sarah, Gerry and Ron tried fishing from the dock, then fishing from the dinghy. They saw a lot of action from the pink salmon and small halibut they couldn't keep off the hooks.

We kept one small halibut and enjoyed it for dinner, topped with tapenade and wrapped in prosciutto. Really big halibut are a fun challenge to catch, but I think the little guys make the best eating.

The sunshine was such a treat and inspired several shore excursions; touring the cannery grounds, exploring the beach, walking the roads and trails, investigating the museum and checking out the ice cream supply at the company store. Winds buffeted the dock and kicked up whitecaps on the inlet water, but who cares when you're moored and it's sunny?

Swanson Harbor on Couverden Island was the next stop, and we bounced and rocked as the wind really kicked up. Smaller boats moored across the small dock were happy to have us as a breakwater and wind screen. The weather forecast for the next few days prompted us to return to Hoonah a day early, rather than risk a run in really ugly water to meet the airline schedule. August's fog and changeable weather have arrived waaaaaay too early.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Guest Log: July

The kids' cruise...

Spring 1952

Ron's two sisters arrived in Sitka on an 80 degree afternoon, and poof! there went our cautions about traveling light, using collapsible luggage and packing warm clothing to layer up in Alaska's cool summer weather. But who's complaining? not me. Those bags held some clothing (and only a few pair of shoes), Mustang suits to donate to the boat, and fresh ears of corn and poblano peppers which we devoured almost immediately.

This is traveling light?

We strolled along the waterfront to downtown Sitka, checking out the scenery, historic buildings, and ever present eagles and ravens. A scenic tour? no, just an excuse to head to the drugstore soda fountain for huckleberry ice cream in waffle cones.

Then it was time to check out the boats in the harbor. This vessel caught our attention with it's unusual design for NW cruising and the small chopper on top.

A sailboat of classic design had been converted to a longliner that will fish deep in offshore water for halibut or black cod (sablefish). We paused to watch the crew slowly bait each one of hundreds?thousands? of hooks with a chunk of pink salmon. It's a tedious and smelly job that takes days.

Then we were invited aboard the Miss Corrine to check out it's automated baiting system. Now that's a whole different approach!

The scenic cruise along Sitka’s outside islands turned out to be a trip inside a fog bank for almost all of the thirty miles to the entrance to Kalinin Bay. Ron spotted a grizzly sow and two cubs on shore inside the bay and then the fog melted away and sunshine took over. How good can it get?

It takes a lot of camera clicks to capture a breaching whale out of the water. Too often you hear a blow or a splash and just catch a fin, or the back, or one more tail shot, or worse yet! just the splash when you're too late.

Kathy caught the perfect shot with this one.

A grizzly sow and three cubs cavorted inside Baby Bear Bay - so where were they two weeks ago when we were here with Mom and Hilary?!

Donna and I kayaked the nearby coves, probably laughing and talking enough to warn off any wildlife.

We kayaked again in the morning and then we all cruised south in Chatham Strait aboard the big boat for another wonderful wildlife day. A pod of six humpback whales breeched and showed lots of fins and tails around Lindbergh Point. Pacific white-sided dolphin and more humpbacks showed up in Chatham Strait. Another pod of whales, this time orca (killer whales), worked the Takatz Bay entrance and pink salmon were jumping like crazy inside the anchorage. The bay was packed with dozens of seiners - whose crews are occasionally known for their wild life between openings.

Ron caught two chum salmon - yum, salmon for a few dinners and the fish frames to use for crab bait. We put our crab pots down among dozens of others and only harvested one crab. I had no luck when I tried to trade a fresh loaf of French bread for some crab, so we made do with salad, cracked crab, grilled steak and fresh bread for our late dinner. I did cheerfully give away the extra baguette to a seiner skipper who came by to warn us that a fish opening was scheduled at 0500 the next morning and we were anchored on prime netting ground.

Oh yeah, rise and shine at zero dark early today! A 0315 wake up call followed by a speedy exit out of Takatz put us in range to view scores of seiners set and pull their nets after the starting countdown was broadcast over the VHF radio… and at least a few of us stayed awake to watch the boats complete a few sets. The fishing outside Takatz and Hidden Falls did not net many fish for the first hour or so of this opening.

Magoun Islands anchorage
Just a few miles NW of Sitka, this area is a favorite spot to begin or end a Sitka-to-Sitka trip. It feels remote without being a long run before or after a long plane ride. Donna and I set out in kayaks intending to explore the nearby bays but instead we were totally sidetracked by the sight of blueberry and huckleberry bushes along the shore's high tide line. The branches, arching down just barely within reach, were loaded with tempting, big, ripe, tasty fruit. We paddled and picked and harvested berries without stepping on shore - and never had to worry about running into a berry-picking bear. (note: One grizzly romped along the beach just before we upped anchor in Magoun the next morning.)

Warm sunshine, one last whale sighting and a bear on the shore... pretty good memories for July's guests and a perfect way to end their visit to SE AK.