Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bubble Nets and Orcas in Southeast Alaska

Creek Street, Ketchikan
Sunset at 9:45pm in Alaska
  After a wonderful break spent hiking Mount Rainier and the Grand Canyon it was time to head back to work aboard the Wilderness Explorer in Southeast Alaska. It felt good coming back with most everything dialed in and done at least once. Also the company put me up at a swanky little lodge overlooking the cute town of Ketchikan where I was to meet the boat the following day. So I took the time to decompress from camping for two weeks, got a hot long shower, and even slipped in a 3D showing of Jurassic World.

Male Orca
Pod of Orcas
  The next week was a blur of wildlife and activities with both rain and sunshine. Whale sighting occurred almost every day including a great orca encounter in the calm waters of Sea Otter Sound, and my first ever sighting of Humpback Whales bubble net feeding!!!! Luckily one of my fellow crew mates rushed down below to wake me up around 5:30 in the morning so I wouldn't miss it. I even managed to snag a picture!
Bubble Net Feeding Humpbacks
Humpback at our bow
    Bubble net feeding is an amazing show of cooperative feeding among humpbacks. One will swim down below a school of fish and create a circle of bubbles. As the bubbles rise it entraps the fish and forces them to school very densely. Then all of the whales swim strait up through the bubbles with their mouths opening swallowing all of the fish into their huge mouth.

  Beautiful vistas, reflections on the water, massive old growth trees, and misty mountains graced our trip this week. Now it is time to break some new ground with a trip from Juneau to Sitka taking in some of the sights of Glacier Bay National Park, Icy Straight, and the beautiful city of Sitka. I hear there is even a surfable wave in Sitka. Something that might be worth checking out.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon
A geologist's dream

 It is hard to put into words or to capture with a camera the immensity of the Grand Canyon.  Stretching for 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile 6,093 feet it is easily visible from space. It has been named one of the natural wonders of the world and the National Park and Indian reservations that encompass the canyon draw millions of visitors a year.
60 Mile View
Long Shadows in the Canyon
 There are several ways to experience the canyon. Most visitors drive in to the Grand Canyon National Park and peer over the edge from the South Rim. A small fraction of these test their limits by hiking down almost a mile towards the canyon floor. This is also where some adventurous visitors start, by rafting the mighty Colorado River. Famed for its incredible view and notorious rapids, one could spend close to a month rafting through the canyon, never seeing the same place twice. Visitors coming from Vegas now has a new way to experience the canyon with the transparent "sky walk." This glass walkway leads out from a  visitor center arcing its way out over the canyon giving a unique perspective. Although for $80, 4.5 hours drive from the Grand Canyon Village, and not being allowed to bring out a camera it is not highly recommended. The better way to get a bird's eye view is to head up in a whirly-bird, or helicopter.

Rain over the Canyon
Horseshoe Bend
Geology: The Grand Canyon is a fissure in the Colorado Plateau that exposes uplifted Proterozoic and Paleozoic strata. What this means is that layers of multi-colored rocks line the canyon walls dating back millions of years. These rock layers record much of the early geologic history of the North American continent.
Desert View Lookout
  The great depth of the Grand Canyon and especially the height of its strata (most of which formed below sea level) can be attributed to 5–10 thousand feet (1,500 to 3,000 m) of uplift of the Colorado Plateau, starting about 65M years ago. This uplift has steepened the stream gradient of the Colorado River and its tributaries, which in turn has increased their speed and thus their ability to cut through rock.

Changing Mood of the Canyon
The Old Grand Canyon Train
Elk in the sun
Another Canyon Overlook
Having just spent 12days at the canyon i came to realize that even though the canyon has been forming for millions of years it is undergoing constant changes. New storms bring more erosion and visible changes while the angle of light hitting the canyon walls brings an ethereal change throughout the day and into the evening. The temperature can vary over twenty degrees from the top of the rim to bottom. And once at the bottom you can step from scorching dry heat into a raging ice cold river. Although as I sit at 30,000ft flying back to Alaska  I realize the biggest change may have been me.
Seven Natural Wonders of the World:
Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, Harbor of Rio de Janeiro, Mount Everest, Aurora, Paricutin Volcano, Victoria Falls

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Grand Canyon: Rim to River and Back Hike

   A lot of people come to stare off into the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Many venture down one of the trails leading deep towards the canyon floor. Most turn back after a mile or two, and some might even make it down to a solid turn around spot like Indian Gardens. Even though I knew I would be here for almost two weeks I knew I wouldn't have much time for really big hikes. So with one of my extreme team campers from Catalina I ignored all the signs warning against hiking from the rim to the river back up the rim in one day, and off we went.

Bright Angel Trail Head
The Long Way Down
  The Bright Angel trail is considered the premier hiking trail into the Grand Canyon. It starts on top of the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village, just behind the historic Bright Angel Lodge. Going from rim to river to rim is warned against for very good reasons. The total elevation change is around 9,000ft down and up over the span of 16 miles. You can find water along the way at different rest houses but there is a six mile stretch past Indian Garden down to the Colorado river and back where drinkable water is absent. It did not escape my notice that all the warning signs had a picture of a fit guy in his mid 20's and read, 'this is the kind of hiker we saved over 200 times.'

Most Dangerous Wildlife
  The temperature and dehydration can be the real dangers of this trail. Even if temperatures are in the upper 80's at the beginning of the trail (6860ft elevation), it can be well into the 100's at the bottom of the canyon (2480ft elevation). We made sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen, although I did end up regretting the lack of a hat. The other big danger of the trail....animal attacks! Although the most common animal attack is a bite from a squirrel! Don't feed the squirrels.

Still Going Down
   The trail itself is a pretty consistent sloping grade. Going down is deceptively easy but after a few miles even that starts to wear on the muscles. But all you have to do is stop, whip out the camera, and soak in the incredible views. There is almost no way to take in the true scope of the canyon until you descend deep to the bottom of it. I can only imagine what the first adventurers to set eyes on the Grand Canyon must have thought.

Beginning of the climb up
Made it! The Colorado River
   After many water breaks and switchbacks we came to our destination, the might Colorado river. It was red with erosion from previous storms and very cold. There was a sign saying 'no swimming' but I had to go test the waters at least a little bit. It was most refreshing and a much needed revitalization for the long trek up still to come.

Mule Train
View down the canyon trail
  The way back up is daunting all the way till the very end. You have to stop and soak in the views if for nothing else than to catch your breath. People still catch mule rides down and up on this trail and we came across a mule train as we approached the lush Indian Garden section. They are pretty mild mannered for mules so we just stepped off the trail and watched them pass a few feet from us. The Havasupai people originally used this trail to reach the fresh water springs at the lush section known now as Indian Garden.

Overlook of the top of the Bright Angel Trail
Near Indian Gardens

  I saw many people on the trail who did get in over their heads and were having a very tough time climbing back out. But we didn't see anyone else doing the rim to rim hike like us. We set a torrid pace and finished up only 7.5 hours after we started. Afterwards we had to celebrate and reward ourselves with ice cream from the famous Fountain shop back on top of the rim. There are some pretty amazing hikes around the world but this has got to be top five. I can't think of any better to say welcome to the Grand Canyon.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Located a few miles from Lake Powell on a Navajo reservation, the mysterious and beautiful Antelope Canyon has delighted onlookers and photographers since its discovery. The slot canyon was formed from flash floods eroding away the Navajo sandstone. The layered and corkscrew formations left behind a like nothing else I've seen in nature. But the part that really surprised me was the fact that standing on the ground above the canyon one would never know the extent of what lies beneath without slipping down into the slot. It looks like a fault line crack, a couple feet wide, easy to jump across. But the canyon goes thirty to fifty feet down and in some places opens up into quite wide subterranean rooms.

Exiting the Lower Antelope Canyon
Many tour groups run guided trips through the upper and lower antelope canyons. You can go on a special photography tour which is longer, more expensive, and tripods are allowed, or you can go on a general tour with is only $20 but no tripods allowed. My friend Marguerite set up a general tour of lower antelope canyon for us so all these pictures were done with no tripod. It was a little difficult since not a lot of light reaches the canyon floor but I was able to capture some of the ethereal beauty of the place. It would have been amazing to have been one of the first people to stumble upon this long hidden secret gem. And it makes me wonder how many others like it might be lurking out there just waiting to be found.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Exploring Mt. Rainier National Park

Forest of the Pacific Northwest

  Having a few days off back in Seattle and looking for some down time after a whirlwind month and a half of no days off at my new expedition leader job I decided to go for a solo exploratory mission to the nearby Mt. Rainier. I had seen the snow covered summit from the plane when I first flew into Seattle and it has been calling me ever since. I knew there was all kinds of hiking trails and camping opportunities, plus some pretty cool wildlife to be sighted as well. I also hoped that on a rainy, foggy midweek day in early June the mountain crowds would be virtually nonexistent.

  There are a couple of very cute towns on the way to Mt. Rainier National Park with little general stores and churches. I stopped into one general store and saw they still had VHS movies to rent which is about as small town vibe as you can get. I stocked up on some essentials (cookies and beer) and headed off into the park. I figured a plan would present itself once I was inside.

The historic Paradise Inn with old fashioned cars parked in front.
NPS Photo of the Lodge at Paradise
  Driving deeper into the park I passed meadows, waterfalls, and towering trees emerging out of the fog. I could feel the road constantly angling upwards as I got closer to my destination, Paradise.
Mama Goose
  The story goes when James Longmire's daughter-in-law, Martha, first saw this site, she exclaimed, "Oh, what a paradise!" It is well known for its meadows filled with wildflowers and accessibility to hiking trails. A visitor center and lodge are also here so I figured it would be a good place to base myself. I also quickly found out that Paradise, located at 5,400ft, is currently the lower limit of the snow line.

 Even though it was closing in on 8pm there was still plenty of light so I hit some of the shorter trails around the Paradise area. I found a small creek and a large waterfall, and noticed that the trails were pretty clear of snow although the hillsides were not. I planned to go for a longer hike in the morning so I headed back to the lodge to grab a bowl of chili, sip my beer, and enjoy a nice read by the fireplace. It was just what I wanted, some quiet time to myself out in touch with nature.

Where are my snow shoes?
High up on Mt. Rainier
Elk in the meadow
  The next morning I woke to more fog and rain but I was not to be deterred. I put on my waterproof jacket, grabbed my waterproof camera bag, and hit the skyline trail. This trail goes for about six miles and eventually loops back to the lodge at Paradise. I knew it went higher, almost 7000' in elevation but I was not prepared for the amount of snow I would be crossing. I needed snowshoes for some of the snow banks I was crossing. The trail was visible at some times but only marked with raised red flags in others. Add to the fact that it was about fifty feet visibility in some places due to the rain and fog and my hike turned into more of an adventure. The only other person I came across the entire morning was a ranger coming the other direction putting up more red flags. I thought he might say something as to how unprepared I looked (trail running shoes, blue jeans, no backpack), especially since I had just passed a little shrine for a few missing hikers, but he didn't pause for long. Apparently the hikers went missing this past winter and no trace has turned up.
Barn Owl
Simple Life in the Woods
   I enjoyed the solitude and the exotic surroundings but also felt just fine back at the lodge sipping a hot coffee after the hike. I did make it out of the fog as I headed to lower elevations. I did a few more hikes through the old growth forest that it so hard to find these days. Those that remain not only provide an incredible habitat for wildlife but also a look back in time, so of the trees being over a thousand years old. The world was a very different place back then. Some things have changed for the better, or at least the 'easier', but seeing so few of these massive old growth trees remaining makes you wonder 'at what costs'?
Agile Lynx
The Beautiful Fog

Black Tailed Deer