Saturday, October 5, 2019

Hiking Olympic National Park with UnCruise

A Taste of Alaska in Washington's Olympic National Park

View from Hurricane Ridge
Inside the forest at Lake Crescent
Port Angeles describes itself as the gateway to Olympic National Park. This is where we dock the Safari Quest on the last day of our Pacific Northwest trips here in Washington. Scenic, 5000+ ft Hurricane Ridge is a 45 minute drive, and the glacially carved Lake Crescent is only 30 minutes away, giving us two great options to choose from.

  I have been taking my groups to Hurricane Ridge, to explore the totally different environment that one can find at 5000+ft . Mountain firs and hemlocks abound, grey jays jabber from the limbs, and Mt Olympus pokes up from behind the remaining glaciers deep within the park’s 1,000,000 acres.  During the spring trips we encountered 10ft snowbanks… I’ll be sure to bring snowshoes next Spring. During the fall we found that we could escape the heat from below and exchange it for nice crisp mountain air above.

Walking the ridge, 5000+ ft
 However, this week the rain and snow had settled in high in the mountains and on Hurricane Ridge, so I decided to switch things up and take the group south and east from Port Angeles to Lake Crescent.  I expected the lake to be clear and beautiful, as it was carved out by a glacier and has an unusually low nitrogen content making it difficult for phytoplankton to grow and murk up the water. What I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the forest on the trails around the lake. 

  We hiked the moderately easy 1.5 mile trail to Marymere Falls, and almost instantly I was transported to an ancient old growth forest of Alaska. The trees were impossibly strait and tall. We reached a douglass fir that took five people with outstretched arms to wrap around. Then we reached a bigger one. Then there was a seven person western red cedar. The big leaf maples were in full fall colors, reflecting off the river below the falls. My photographers in the group just couldn’t get enough. I’m surprised I was able to get them back to the bus at all. 

  We finished the visit with some free time around the Lake Crescent Lodge. Some folks sat by the fire, while others walked the pebbly beach lakeside, while a few others dug into the legends and history of the area, even finding out the storied history of the phone booth at the Lake Crescent Lodge.

  We just get to break the surface of what Olympic National Park has to offer… and after today everyone wants to come back for more.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Kayak Bliss at Sucia Island, Washington

  The UnCruise Pacific Northwest trip holds some real gems for our typical adventure travelers. There are places where we can kayak, stand-up paddle board, beach walk, and go for a skiff tour all before lunch. We can hike up ridge lines and quite often end up atop the tallest summit in the island archipelago. The wildlife abounds and the geology stuns. Some days are just so perfect here that even a casual kayak excursion can be etched in your mind for years to come. And for someone like me, it is always nice to have a few pictures to make that memory last even longer.

 This week we had such a kayak around one of the northernmost  San Juan islands, a little chunk of wilderness called Sucia Island. It is a state marine park, filled with well maintained trails for hiking but lacking the crowds that generally go along with such trails. There is no way to get to the island except by private craft…and there is no way to get there quite like the luxury and comfort of the Safari Quest.

 After a morning of long hikes and easy meanders, we geared up for water activities after lunch. I took a group of twelve kayakers out into glassy calm conditions. The high tide allowed us to get up close to the shoreline which Sucia is famous amongst geology circles for. The island is a rare combination of sandstone and siltstone sedimentary rocks here in the archipelago, and the winter storms have eroded them into mesmerizing shapes. The reflections of the rocks off the calm water made the scene even more surreal.
We made it out to an offshore island almost completely covered by the high tide. The tiny bit of exposed rock was itself covered by bellowing sea lions…almost the same size as our kayaks. Timid harbor seals stalked from around the shallows until we turned to head back to the shoreline of Sucia. It was then we realized that just under the waters edge the rocks were covered in purple and orange sea stars, a marine park indeed. A final surprise of a sea lion surfacing right next to our kayaks was the icing on the cake for this otherworldly experience.

 There is something so quiet and calming about sea kayaking in these conditions. It is why I love Alaska and now why I love the Pacific North West as well.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Hiking the Eagle Cliff Trail on Cypress Island

Hard Charging Mountain Climb
Near the top of Eagle Cliff
  As the expedition leader aboard the Safari Quest one of my many daily challenges is to find destinations that can offer multiple level s of challenge to the guests. This may be a choice between a kayak and a skiff tour, a beach walk or a long hike, or maybe even a climb up a mountain vs driving up. The more options that guests have for activities means it is easier to self select which group to go out with. One of the great things about the Pacific Northwest itinerary is that every spot we go to gives us multiple options of difficulty level so I can easily personalize the activities for the passengers we have on that week.

Hard Chargers on the Summit
   This week we had a group of hard charging hikers onboard so I searched for a good challenge. It came in the form of a mountain ridge climb on the little known Cypress Island, one of the 172 San Juan Islands. The total hike is only around four miles, but a nice steady uphill leads to one of the most stunning overlooks in the island chain. A 750’ rocky precipice juts out over the Rosario Straight. It is called Eagle Cliff…which it may be called because you look down upon soaring eagles flying over the low lying forest below. 

Didn't even break a sweat
View from the top
  The guests were breathing hard by the end but everyone agreed it was worth every step.  We finished off the experience by cruising on the Quests right under the cliff. It was fun watching all the hard chargers point out the cliff summit to everyone else on board.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The whale action has been intense lately in Southeast Alaska. I've been traveling the waterways of Alaska's Inside Passage
  on the luxury adventure cruise ship Safari Quest. I absolutely love getting people out with the humpback whales on our small skiffs. The low vantage point, almost water level, gives a whole new perspective of how big these animals really are. When you are in a small inflatable boat the size of a suburban, and you are surrounded by animals the size of city school buses you can't help but feel in awe of their sheer size and power.

Today was one of those lucky days where we had so many close humpback whale encounters from the skiff, and the water conditions were so calm, that I was able to get a bit creative in my whale photography. We were able to position our skiff to view the diving humpback whale in between us and the Safari Quest. I always like to think about the backgrounds in my pictures to see if I can use anything to help tell more of a story or give it more of a sense of place. 

  I know the passengers on board this week will always remember this experience...especially since we also got to see killer whales during the same skiff tour! You can read about that experience and see photos here: Killer Whales From Water Level Post

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Leaping Humpbacks

  Things are hopping here in Southeast Alaska at the moment, and by 'things' I mean 80,000lbs humpback whales! Frederick Sound in the middle of the Inside Passage seems to be the place to be. At one point last week we were surrounded by the leviathins. However one whale stepped up to really steal the show. So much so, that at one point a whale swam under our bow and hardely anyone took notice because they were still watching the showoff.

Whale Photos
  Once or twice a year I come across a humpback who breaches over and over again. I talk about these rare occasions during my photography talks. These repetitive breaches are a photographeres dream come true. It is still quite hard to determine where and when they might breach next but they give you multiple chances and you have some idea of what distance away they might be. Eventually everyone on the bow was able to snap at least a few pictures of this great whale as it breached away the afternoon. 

  I often get asked where do the whales breach the most, in Hawaii or Alaska. Its always a toss up, although today Alaska really took the cake.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mom and cubs
  I havn't seen a lot of brown bears yet this season but this one encounter more than made up for it. We were exploring the shoreline of Baranof Island, one of the ABC Islands famous for their dense population of brown bears.

   We had seen a few bears from a distance, but nothing up close. That is before we rounded the point of a peninsula jutting out and came almost face to face to with a family of Ursus Arctos, or brown bears. A mom with three cubs was hanging out on the rocks. They didn't seem too bothered by us drifting by, or our other skiff motoring up to join us in the show.

  The cubs occasionally wrestled a bit while momma bear snagged a salmon out of the water every few minutes. We were near the Hidden Falls Hatchery so the salmon return is quite plentiful here. The entire family of bears looked very well fed. 

Brown bear cub antics

  We all delighted in the encounter. It was another experience of being all alone with the wildlife which Alaska is so amazing at offering. We stayed with the family for a good 20 minutes before heading back to the boat...anxious to see what our photographs looked like.

   There's nothing quite like a good brown bear encounter from a skiff. It is the perfect way to get close and feel comfortable to a 600lbs predator. Everyone felt very lucky.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Northern Lights in August!

  I still can't believe it. We had a couple of very clear nights last week as we sailed the Safari Quest through Southeast Alaska. Not only did that bring some beautiful sunsets, but one night it brought something even rarer, Aurora Borealis!

   To see the Northern Lights you need a combination of factors. You need a clear night sky, darkness, and a perfectly timed release of charged particles by the sun. There are a few apps out there that are getting better at predicting the chances and intensity of the northern lights, however just getting a clear night sky is a task in itself here in Alaska. It is the rainforest, which means low hanging clouds almost all the time. Plus it is still summer, so the days are long, and the nights not very dark.

  Our night deckhand shocked me with a midnight wake up call for northern lights. I lept out of bed, threw on my clothes, grabbed my camera and bolted up on deck. I was amazed further at the intensity of the lights. They stretched from horizon to horizon, clearly visible with the naked eye. They persisted until everyone had had enough and slipped back into the beds.

  Not too shabby for my last week up in Alaska this season. 

  You can read about the first time I saw northern lights here, back in 2015.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Huge Glacier Calving Caught on Tape

  It takes a lot for me to switch from still photography to video mode on my Canon 5d but this event was worth it. We had spent the morning kayaking up to Dawes Glacier from about four miles back. We weaved our way through the ice, sometimes hearing small calving events that still sounded like thunder off in the distance ahead of us. When we finally got closer I was able to capture the end of a huge calving event including a couple of shooters rising up from below, with our skiff in the foreground for a little perspective.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Orca Encounter from Water Level

Orcas from Water Level

    Today was our morning to cruise for charismatic megafauna, aka really cool big animals, in the whale rich waters of Frederick Sound, Southeast Alaska. We were nearing a group of islands called the Brothers Islands which are well known for having a stellar sea lion haul out. I often like to take the small groups aboard the Safari Quest to these islands and then get a more intimate experience by loading into our small skiffs. As we neared the islands this morning however, I knew it was going to be a skiff ride to remember.

   As we slowed down the Quest to load the skiffs the captain and I were both looking in the opposite direction from our destination islands. Sure enough there they were again, surfacing and heading our way. It was a pod of transient orcas, or killer whales. I can count the number of times I’ve seen orca from a skiff on one hand, so I was anxious to load everyone up. We quickly got all the guests into their lifejackets, onto the two skiffs, and off we went. A skiff ride to remember indeed!

   The orca circled around us for what seemed like an eternity. What they were actually circling was a distressed male sea lion. It looked like they may have injured it as it was having difficulty breathing and wasn’t trying to escape. But in the end the orca mysteriously left it behind as they eventually started moving out heading south across the sound. At one point the orca disappeared for a few minutes and then popped up with a loud ‘whoooosh’ about 10 feet behind our little skiff. It took everyone by surprise, myself included. It felt good not to be a sea lion in that moment. 

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