Sunday, July 29, 2018

Up Close with Steller Sea Lions

Sea Lions and the Safari Quest
  They are big. Real big. Think twice the size of an adult male brown bear. They are the lions of the sea, otherwise known as Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus). They are the largest of all sea lions (or eared seals), and named after the famous naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller.

Airborne sea lion in Alaska
   In the middle of Frederick Sound, a place known for whales, are a couple islands named The Brothers. Here a number of steller sea lions have set up a haul out, providing a great wildlife encounter. It is just the boys, fighting and barking at each other in an endless game of king of the hill. The females and pups are at some far off beach rookery.

   Whenever the weather conditions are nice and calm we take to the skiffs for a closer look at the haul out. Once we get downwind the smell is unmistakable. The big males fight off the smaller ones for the best spots. Some of the younger ones playfully swim around the boats. And suddenly, whales and bears and seem far away in everyone's mind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Glacier Sightseeing by Float Plane in Alaska

Me and Dirk ready for adventure
  There are only two real ways to get around Southeast Alaska; a boat or a float plane. Boats here range in size from tiny fishing charters to jet boats screaming up shallow inlets to some of the most massive cruise ships on Earth. But float planes on the other hand are pretty much all tiny and not for the faint of heart. Due to a last minute guest cancellation, my buddy Dirk and I were able to score a ride in one of the smallest float planes that offers scenic tours.

Huge Icebergs below
  The tight quarters inside our amphibious ride could hand a pilot and passenger up front, with 2 more passengers in the back. The company is Pacific Wings and their pilots provide great commentary along the way. I found the windows were much better to photography out of since they weren't as curved and reflection filled as scenic helicopters I've been in. We were all excited to have a beautiful, clear day for this impromptu adventure. I made sure to have my camera in hand, my trusty Canon 5d mark ii with a 17-40 zoom lens ready for adventure.

  We started out by following the winding and shallow looking Stikine River. The entire system was huge, with animal tracks crisscrossing the green embankments on either side of the muddy river. We passed over aqua-marine colored glacial streams entering the main river as well as some secretive hot springs that would take some serious jet boating to get up to.  You can add that to my list of future adventures.

  Then we started following one of the glacial tributaries past huge icebergs trapped in a lake to the face of the glacier itself. That is when we started gaining altitude, flying high up among the jagged peaks and monolithic mountain tops. We were staring out at the birthing place of these massive glaciers.

LeConte Glacier slowly flowing down the mountain

LeConte Glacier
  It was a sight to behold and one I am so glad I had my camera for. The frozen landscapes are almost too massive and unearthly to comprehend. Even now, looking back at the photos, it is so amazing to see what nature can turn a snowflake into. We followed LeConte Glacier down to its terminus, just in time to see a massive calving into the fjord. After four years leading tours in Southeast Alaska it was my first time finally seeing the face of the elusive LeConte Glacier. It was the experience of a lifetime and one that I won't soon forget.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Invited In to the Native Tlingit Village of Kake, Alaska

Getting an insider tour through the native Tlingit village of Kake, Alaska. 

First look at Kake, Alaska
In the middle of Alaska's inside passage lies a village where native Alaskans have been living for thousands of years. The Tlingit culture has been going strong in the Kake region all this time partly because of the sheer amount of resources and food here, but also because of their ingenuity in harvesting and keeping that bounty through the long winters. 
Settling for grass at the moment
 The long winters also brought a bounty of another kind to this small community...a bounty of time. With daylight hours numbering close to the four hour mark in the heart of winter there was plenty of forced leisure time around these parts. That is when the weaving, carving, dancing, and story telling really took hold. This was the culture that we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this week on the Safari Quest.

 Pulling up to the village of Kake, whose residents number in the 500-600s, looks like a quaint fishing village from the outside. A couple of rundown canneries hint at a history of booms and busts in the area. The logging industry also hit the wall in the mid 2000's with a combination of falling timber prices and raising electricity costs for the mill. The families that are here focus a lot of their time on the different hunting seasons. Right now they are getting very excited for the incoming salmon runs. And they aren't the only ones.

Down near the salmon streams, flocks of eagles chatter from the tree tops as they wait for the delicious salmon to return as they do each year. Seals and sea lions cruise by checking out the scene from the estuaries, taking a bold risk as the native Tlingit's are still allowed to hunt things like seals and sea otters. And just upstream black bears hungrily eat the sedge grass as they wait for juicier fare.

Master Carver Mike Jackson
  Our first stop was at a master carver's, Mike Jackson. Here yellow and red cedar trees are turned into animal filled totem poles telling stories of old and marking celebrations of new. At $1500 per foot you can commission your own Tlingit made totem.

  Falen, was our guide through the trip. One of the few native Tlingit speakers in the world, she is focus on saving the language by teaching the younger generation as well as taking people like us through the village to experience this bastion of remaining Tlingit culture. As we sat under their 128ft totem pole she recalled one of the stories encompassed in the massive work of art. As she finished her story a bald eagle landed on the very top of totem, giving it a living top piece for a few moments.

  The last stop of our tour was possibly our most entertaining. The Kake dancing group, in full regalia danced several songs for us from both the eagle and the raven clans. Then they finished by inviting the group out onto the floor to share in the exit dance. It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by the incredible beadwork, carved headdresses, beating drums, and the realization that these dances have been passed down for thousands of years.

Friday, July 20, 2018

LeConte Ice Garden: Ice Exploring with some cool kids

In awe of the glacial blue
  It is the middle of summer which means Alaska is heating up, both in temperature and in wildlife sightings. And with all the kids being on summer vacation it is a great time to expand their world view with a trip to the Alaska wilderness. The Safari Quest is our smallest vessel in the fleet, with 22 passengers and 10 crew, making it perfect for an extended family vacation. The last three weeks have all been private family charters on the Quest. Not only has it been amazing to see families spending such amazing quality time together, but getting the kids unplugged from wifi and internet means the wilderness experience can really take hold. 
Exploration Time
 This week we had 9 kids on ranging from 17 to 5 years old. The activities ranged from bushwhacking past piles of bear scat, skiffing up rivers into glacial lakes, to kayaking around ice while watching a tidewater glacier calve into the water. Each activity pushed the kids a little out of the usual comfort zone, giving them the opportunity not just to learn a new skill, but to also expand their boundaries. The week culminated in a skiff and stroll through grounded icebergs in a place called LeConte Bay.

  Watching the kids walk amongst the natural ice sculptures, eyes widening at each new design was uplifting to see. There wasn’t a cell phone in sight. The oldest would try and climb the ice while the youngest was busy licking it to see if they tasted different. Tiny crabs skittered from below their feet as the low tide uncovered more than just grounded icebergs. Then all at once everyone looked into the bay as the sound of thunder reached us as a massive floating iceberg broke apart into a hundred pieces. The skiff ride back was unusually quiet for such an energetic group. Everyone was taking it all in and trying to comprehend this otherworldly land that only Alaska can provide.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Bubble Net Feeders are Back
  It has been a year since I have seen bubble net feeding in Alaska. But this show took us all by surprise. Last week we barely saw any humpback whales at all. We had a few far off tails from whales on the move. So when I spotted a group of several blows all together I made sure we altered course to give the guests a better look. Turns out it was a good thing that we turned because right after everyone walked out to the bow to see them we saw the circle of bubbles forming.

  What followed next was awe-inspiring. The entire group of whales erupted from the center of the bubble ring, mouths wide open, tiny fish jumping everywhere trying to get away. This was bubble net feeding, and it was happening right in front of us. Not a bad start for day 1 of the cruise.

   We stayed with the whales as they continued to bubble net feed 11 more times. I was also able to deploy our hydrophone so we could hear the bubble net feeding as well. The feeding screams reverberated through our ears as we watched the whales perform this amazing, choreographed feeding behavior. To make it even more special we realized that we were all alone, no other boats for as far as we could see.

  You can see and read about the few bubble net feeding encounters I have had over the years here: Bubble Net Encounter Blogs

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Three Glaciers in Three Days in Southeast Alaska

   As always with UnCruise, our itinerary leaves a lot of room for flexibility and inspiration. The group this week was really into glaciers after their opening day flightseeing trip over LeConte Glacier near Petersburg, AK. So our bold plan was to show them three glaciers on the last three days, all experienced in completely different ways.

  Up first was Dawes Glacier. At the end of a beautiful fjord named Endicott Arm, a great tidewater glacier stands guard as it has for thousands of years. It slowly marches its river of ice down and through the mountains until ending in the ocean with a 200ft tall face that often calves great chunks of ice into the water. Here we took advantage of the calm, windless conditions to explore by kayak. We saw calvings, a shooter, and had a visit from a much appreciated cocoa boat serving hot cocoa with kahlua. Kayking through the ice and watching a glacier calve made the guests wonder what could possibly top this.

  Next up was Baird Glacier. Less that a decade ago we were able to give guests crampons and actually walk on this glacier. Since then it has receded so much that now a terminal moraine and a vast glacial lake make getting to the glacier impossible by foot. A couple of glacial outwash streams work their way through the land of the moraine. They would provide a way to boat up to the lake, the only problem being that the streams are very shallow, filled with boulders brought down by the glacier, and thanks to all the glacial silt in the water the visibility is zero. So you don't know if you are headed into 6 inches of water or 6 feet. Our goal was to skiff up this river and make it into the lake. It was an adventure.

  After tapping a few shallow spots on the way up both skiffs made it into the glacial lake. It is filled with giant icebergs grounded and slowly melting. We skiffed up to many of these, admiring the different shades of blue and designs that the ice made. I usually make it here about once a season, and this time was the first time I have been able to skiff all the way to the face of the glacier itself at the back of the lake.

   After soaking up the incredible remoteness of this little visited place, we headed back down the river, which proved to be harder than the way up. The tide had drop and rapids had formed. Our deep v-shaped hull of our skiff proved difficult to manage as we got hung up on shallow unseen rocks, turned sideways, and pushed by the rushing current. As the current grabbed us it sent us towards rapids dropping a foot and a half in height...and right into an exposed rock. I noticed most of my guests had dropped to the floor as we entered the rapids and the prop was missing a small chunk, but after that it was smooth sailing. There are always bonding experiences during the UnCruise trips but this one really brought the guests together. At the end of the trip, among all the highlights, this adventure skiff tour turned out to be the most popular.

  On the third glacier day we took the skiffs into the LeConte ice garden. This is an adventure that I came up with years ago after finding out that if you stay in the low tide area of the shoreline you are not technically in the Tongass National Forest. I noticed at low tide in LeConte Bay the icebergs from LeConte glacier are often left stranded by the receding water.

   So we skiffed over to the shoreline and let people walk around natures own ice sculpture garden. The formations are amazing and all different. They are changing all the time as they melt and morph. Being able to walk amongst the ice raises rare opportunities for photographs like these. It is a heck of a way to end the week.

   Taking the small boats through Le Conte Bay to see truly massive icebergs is a sight to see. You can see the skiff in the picture below to give you an idea just how massive some of the formations are. To see more of my best pictures from Alaska check out my photography page here: