Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Exploring El Capitan Cave: Southeast Alaska

  El Capitan Cave is the largest known cave in Alaska, and is also the first cave in Southeast Alaska where fossil bones were discovered. A wooden stairway has been constructed up the long hillside to the cave (see photo below), and tours are provided for visitors by Tongass National Forest. A gate has been installed in the cave to prevent visitors from falling into pits or being trapped behind a portion of the cave that floods during storms. It is located on Prince of Wales Island. 

 We stopped here this week after a nail-biting transit of the narrow, shallow Dry Pass. Not many people will take the big boat through this narrow channel leading up to El Cap, but Capt. Dano navigated the pass with expert precision. We could almost reach out and grab leaves off the trees, and to add to the early morning excitement we were getting our first glimpses of playful sea otters swimming along the shorelines. I even had passengers tell me they were seeing sea stars out of their portholes since we were so close to the edge of the narrows. 

One of my favorite pictures from inside the cave
Learning about the cave from the ranger
370 steps leading up to the cave
 This led us to one of the most unique parts of Southeast Alaska, cave at El Capitan. The karst geological formations here have been dissolved away by the acidic water which collects in vast bogs called muskegs. As the acidic water runs through the limestone karst these massive sponge-like cave systems develop. We went into the biggest cave and immersed ourselves into total darkness except what our headlamps illuminated. 
We were met at the bottom of 370 steps by two young National Forest rangers who gave us some amazing interp on the local flora and fauna on our way up the steps and then led us safely through the cave system. 
At one point they had everyone turn off their lights to show just how dark the early inhabitants would have found this place. Remains of a 10,000yr old young man as well as a larger version of a black bear were found inside the cave when they first excavated the cave system in the early 1990's. I made sure to plug myself into the cave exploring schedule for the day and got a chance to try my hand at some long exposure cave photography. Luckily I had some willing models to stand still for pics so I got a few to post for you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Glaciers and Icebergs, Southeast Alaska

  After a few weeks of beautiful weather and exciting wildlife encounters its hard to pick out one highlight to write about in my quick time at port. But looking through my recent pictures a clear choice became obvious, glaciers. On each of our trips we spend a day at a tidewater glacier. These are glaciers that flow down the mountain and enter the sea at their face.
   Sometimes just getting to the glacier can be the real adventure. Long, narrow, steep fjords showing the glaciers advancement in the past can be clogged with floating ice. Some of these icebergs can be larger than our ship, while others are in their last few days before melting to oblivion. Others show off the intensely pressurized ice inside the glacier in an almost otherworldly blue color.

  But if we can make it to the glacier face, the true vastness of the glacier can be known. These glaciers snake their way high up into the snow fields where they are born as a single tiny snowflake. And if you are patient, you might even get to see a piece of the tidewater glacier crack, and then break off in a mighty splash on its way to becoming an iceberg. One such calving event that I saw involved a massive overhanging section of the glacier face that collapsed all at once and disappeared beneath the opaque water. A second later it shot up out of the water to six or seven stories high, water streaming off of it like it was the US Enterprise or out of some Michael Bay Hollywood blockbuster. The sheer size and power of the event caused me to never question the quarter mile safety perimeter one must keep from the face.
  These pictures are from Sawyer glacier and Dawes glacier.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Northern Lights in Alaska

The Northern Lights
    Even though I am in the northernmost state of the United States, and even though I was expecting to see amazing things this summer in Alaska, for some reason I wasn’t convinced that I would be seeing the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the “Northern Lights.” But here we are, week one of the Alaska season and we have seen them twice! Well, some people saw it twice…
   Day two of our weeklong adventure cruise between Ketchikan and Juneau the passengers were awoken in the wee morning hours by the on-duty mate to a call for Northern Lights.  Unfortunately I was either not awakened…or too tired from working too hard. Needless to say I was pretty bummed that I missed them, but very excited that most of the guest were able to witness it. Some guest grabbed some great pictures as well. I crossed my fingers that we would not only have another clear night, but that the light show would happen again.
  Day three was it. It was pretty clear at sunet and slowly getting clearer as the night went on. I was too excited to go to sleep so I stayed up working on the millions of tasks that I try and keep on top of as expedition leader.  Finally around eleven I laid down in bed only to find myself too anxious to fall asleep.  Just before midnight the call came in….. Northern Lights!

  What luck. Great weather conditions, no moonlight, and a well times solar flare provided an incredible light show for us. It started off strong with hues of neon green covering the southern part of the sky near the horizon. I snagged a few pictures and then put my camera down to help all the other budding photographers fiddling with their cameras in the dark. The lights came and went and came and went so after two hours everyone was pretty dialed in and getting great shots. They were very appreciative for the nighttime impromptu photography lesson and I did manage to sneak in a few shots of my own when the lights would do some new spectacular array. At one point they were just pulsing and flowing across the sky. It was a long time coming and I imagine those couple of hours out in the middle of Southeast Alaska, helping those people get incredible photos is going to stick with me for a long time.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Northbound Thru the San Juans

View from the Bridge

 The adventure is underway. Our first stop on our Northbound to Alaska is a quick town stop in the San Juan Islands. Friday Harbor is a quaint village nestled on San Juan Island. Even though it is the commercial center of the islands the description of "bustling" would be a bit of an overstatement. Boats of all kinds are tied up in the harbor and big ferries come in every few hours.

A statue of a seal named "Popeye" overlooks the harbor at the end of the docks and the actual seal Popeye still haunts the harbor on a daily basis. She awaits food handed to her from the nearby seafood stall. Popeye lost her eye many years ago but hasn't let that stop her from having ten different pups!


Friday Harbor
  We had the morning to walk around so I was able to snap a few pictures of the beautiful town. I also picked up some local beer from the Island Hoppin Brewery to do a special beer tasting on our Northbound since we only have 16 passengers.

After a quick stop in Sucia island for a bonfire we turn up the engines for the long haul thru Canadian waters to Southeast Alaska!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Sights of Downtown Seattle

Pike Place Market
Fresh Seafood at Pike Place Market
  A rare afternoon off sparked a quick sightseeing trip through the quirky downtown waterfront district of Seattle. I figured Pike Place Market would be a good place to start. A Starbucks sat across the road but I was told that it wasn't the first, but if I wanted to see the first it was only two blocks away. I stepped inside the market to see stalls ranging from African masks and trinkets to all kinds of flowers and of course the famous fish tossing stalls as well. What I assume were salty fishermen lined the stalls in the grundens (at least they looked like salty fishermen.)

Gum Wall, Post Alley
Seattle Aquarium
  There were a couple of good overlooks from the market down to the waterfront so my next mission was to find a way there through all the construction. Going down through the Post Alley I came across a bizarre site which turned out to be the famous Gum Wall. People have color coated the walls with chewed gum giving it a very disgusting but artistic facade. Several people brought gum here just to chew and add to the decorations. I think my sister Lea would like this kind of site.

Downtown Seattle Waterfront

Seattle Great Wheel
Inside the first ever Starbucks
  The dominating feature on the waterfront is the Great Wheel, a huge Ferris wheel near the Seattle Aquarium. I spent some time here soaking it all in before heading back into downtown for a quick jaunt through the very first Starbucks ever. It was a happening place, much like Seattle.

  Heading back to the ship I couldn't help but stop and admire the reflections of all the boats in the glassy calm water of Fishermen's Terminal. Now it's almost time to say goodbye to sunny Seattle and ship off for an adventure filled summer in Alaska.