Sunday, July 28, 2019

Waterfalls and Mountains: Red Bluff Bay, Alaska

  Baranof Island is the 10th largest island in the world, slightly larger than the state of Delaware. It was named in 1805 by the Russian Imperial Navy to honor Alexander Baranof. Sitka is located on the west side of the island, while the rest is covered in temperate rainforest and controlled mostly by the Tongass National Forest. The southern part of Baranof is my favorite, as it is designated a Wilderness area by the National Forest which gives it the highest protection in the 17 million acre forest. This week on the Safari Quest we explored a small part of this wilderness area by boat, kayak, skiff, and paddle board.

  The entrance to Red Bluff Bay faces east towards the whale-rich Frederick Sound. Red Bluff is named after the hillsides near the entrance and their distinctive reddish coloration due to the high levels of chromite. The opening to the fjord doesn't look big enough for a ship our size, but for those in the know an amazing wonderland exists inside.

Marbled Murrelets
   Waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet down the cliffs into the protected bay cascade out from the rainforest. Snow capped peaks provide the background and the meltwater for the waterfalls. Salmon make their way towards the back of the bay, which means bears also make their way to the streams. This visit we didn't see any bears but a few Sitka black-tailed deer did make an appearance.

   We anchored here in the evening just before dark. Waking up in this majestic place, surrounded by nature, and realizing that we were the only ones pretty priceless, and very Alaska.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sleeping Whales Wake Up and Go Wild!


  Fortune favors the bold…the early bird gets the worm…

   Here at Uncruise it should read, ‘never let a little rain hold you back.’

        It was a beautiful drizzly grey afternoon as we pulled into Steamboat Harbor in Southeast Alaska. We had just seen dozens of humpback whales out the window during lunch. The conditions in the bay were perfect for open paddle, but with whales just outside the bay and within striking distance of a skiff, I also offered up an impromptu skiff tour for the guests. 

    Folks looked outside as the rain drops gathered on the railings of the Quests. They peered around inside at the beautiful lounge, bartender mixing drinks, and the library upstairs looking particular cozy for curling up and reading a book. I got the skiff ready and waited for the incoming guests to gather up… and waited… and waited… 

    One brave guests showed up. And it would go down as one of the greatest decisions of Linda’s trip. So the two of us headed out on a private skiff tour for one. We cruised up Cleveland Passage checking the shoreline for bears and other furry creatures to no avail. We finally turned around to head back out to where we saw the whales earlier. We came across two humpbacks at the surface, floating and resting like a couple of logs. I shut off the engine and noiselessly drifted by them, listening to them breath from time to time. 

    Just as we started up the engine to leave we heard a huge explosion from behind us. The two whales had woken up in spectacular fashion. A huge breach. And another. We jetting back over and hovered about a hundred yards out. The two whales turned out to be a mom and calf who continued to breach, chin slap, and pec slap for about twenty minutes! After nine seasons with UnCruise it was one of my most special whale encounters ever. And Linda had it all to herself.

    One bold decision to go. Bragging rights for a lifetime.

    This is UnCruise in Alaska.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Climbing Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's Highest Peak

    From our spot in Jeffersonville, Vermont I can see the highest peak, Mount Mansfield. It is not just the tallest summit in Vermont at 4,393ft, but it the same mountain where the famous Stowe ski area can be found. I have always looked at the mountain, which resembles the profile of a giant face looking up towards the heavens, and wondered how I could get up to the summit. During this visit to Vermont I was determined to make it happen, so after a bit of research I did just that.
Crossing beautiful streams on the way up

   My calves are still burning as I am writing this, several days later, but the pain is all worth it knowing that everytime I look up towards the mountain I will remember standing on top of it and soaking in that 360 degree view. Here is how I made it....

Breathing hard on the way up
   A short 25 minute drive away from Jeffersonville is a place called Underhill State Park. It is located at the base of Mt Mansfield and houses several trails leading up to the summit, which is actually the chin of the giant face. Upon arrival at the parking lot I was pleased to find an open spot, aparantly the small lot can get filled up fast, especially on weekends. I chatted with the park ranger, paid my $4 parking fee, and enquired about the different trails. I was intrigued by the Laura Cowles Trail as it appeared to be a bit shorter than the popular Sunset Ridge Hike to the summit. The ranger said it is steep, then he added, 'its very steep'. I said, 'sounds perfect. I can take one trail up and another down and see twice as much.' He suggested I take the Laura Cowles trail up rather than down...I soon figured out he was right. 

Where the trails meet
   The trail meandered its way up through a beautiful forest, along a tumbling creek until splitting from the main sunset ridge trail. From there I followed the creek which was more like a waterfall for about 3000' straight up. At some points the trail and the waterfall seemed to combine, so I worked hard to keep on the dry rocks as best as I could. On hikes like these where you are hopping from rock to rock, having the traction of dry shoes can be a lifesaver. If the trail had been any steeper I would have needed to use my hands in order to scramble, or climb instead of hiking (hence the sore calves.)

   The stream became smaller and smaller until finally I reached an altitude where the rocks were covered in a thick blanket of moss that continuously seeped out water like an oversaturated sponge. It was pretty wild to see, especially since it was a beautiful sunny day without a single raincloud in the sky. Yet here was the headwaters of the everpresent river down below.

Alpine summit environment
Summit of Mt. Mansfield, VT
  Finally I busted out of the treeline to an amazing view out over Lake Champlane backed by the Adirondack Mountains. I made my way along the rocky ridgeline through an interesting alpine environment. The rangers had roped off a lot of the non-rocky areas in an effort to preserve the rare alpine species that live here.

     A USGS survey marker was at the very top of the summit. I was surprised by the number of folks up here, as I hadn't passed a single person on the trail up. I later found out that there is a much easier way to the summit, one that most of these folks had taken. Over on the Stowe side of the mountain you can drive up the toll road which takes you to the very top of the Stowe ski area lifts. From here it is short climb followed by an amble along the ridgeline to the scenic summit. I stopped for a hearty picnic lunch at the top, soaking in the beautiful weather and cool breeze. And after a few pictures from the summit I raced down the Sunset ridge trail, passing folks on the way. I felt like I was setting a pretty fast pace to try and get back home before Catalina woke from her nap. That pace was definitely put into perspective as I crossed paths with a trail runner literally racing up the trail.

  In the end it was a great half day's adventure. In fact the total time I was up and down including lunch was three hours. And I made it back before Catalina woke from her nap. Mark that as another great Vermont adventure.

The summertime view of Stowe ski resort, from the Chin

Friday, July 5, 2019

Shakes Glacier Jet Boat Adventure

Our jet boat
Unusual walking spot
 After spending a day jet boating up the Stikine River, over a terminal moraine and into a glacier lake I realized that I am a pretty cautious captain...compared to these guys! If you ever come to Wrangell, Alaska this adventure should definitely be on your list.

Grounded 'berg
Pushing icebergs
  You board your jet boat at the dock in Wrangell. Everyone has seat and even seat belts, which is a bit unusual for a boat. Instead of propellers that spin under the boat making it go fast, this style of boat has water intake that it shoots out in a stream kind of like a jet ski. Manuevering is with a giant joystick and the draft, or depth of the deepest part of the boat, is only 12 inches. This is perfect for heading up the silty and shallow Stikine River.

Grounded 70ft deep
Wine, salmon, and cheese
  Shortly after leaving the island of Wrangell and heading towards the mainland I watched as the depth sounder started giving shallower and shallower readings. We were speeding right along as the water got to about 5ft deep. I would have been very nervous. And it was high tide! What do they do at low tide? Our captain new right were to find the "deepest' channel and we made it past the delta into the mouth of the Stikine river. "Now's where it gets tricky." he said.

Beautiful day in Alaska
  Just past the entrance to the fastest free flowing navigable river in North America, we came across another shallow section called, the 'stump graveyard.' Ground logs were everywhere here. I would never take a skiff or zodiac into these waters. Once we were past the stump graveyard we jetted up the river, taking several side passages on the way up. The captain pointed out several of his favorite salmon fishing grounds and we stopped at several forest service cabins for bathroom breaks on the way.

   The next big challenge was making it over a terminal moraine, downstream from a huge glacial lake created by the receding Shakes Glacier. I had flown over this area during a surprise impromptu float plane adventure a year ago, saw the glacial moraine from the plane, and swore that noone would be able to take a boat past it, as it looked too shallow. You can check out the float plane adventure here. But sure enough, we took the jet boat at high speed right over the moraine, past the grounded ice bergs, and into the glacial lake.

Waterfall cascading onto the boat
   From here is was a relaxing ride, pushing ice bergs, washing the boat by driving into a waterfall (see photo below) and having a picnic of wine and cheese and salmon while admiring the glacier that created it all. We left behind grey skies and rain in Wrangell to enjoy some blue skies and sunshine tucked away between the mountains. I still can't believe we were going 35mph in water that was sometimes 2ft deep. I have to put this down as one of the most unique Alaskan adventures that you can experience.

   Check out Alaska landscape photos here.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Haines, Alaska Thru the Lens

4am Sunrise coming into Haines
Silver Muse at the Haines dock
  Haines is a wonderful small town at the top of Southeast Alaska's famous Inside Passage. Yet in my extensive travelings within the Inside Passage over the past five years I had never been there. So I was quite excited to have Haines as a port stop for my new itinerary on the Silver Muse. It has a population of just under 2,000 people, and is famous for having over 3,000 eagles at certain points of the year. Dramatic mountains form the backdrop of the town with glaciers tumbling down out of them.

Alaska Trainquility
Lupine in bloom
  This week I started off the voyage with a lecture on photography. So I made sure to sign myself up to escort the "Haines: Thru a lens" tour to further the experience for our guests. I also thought that it would be a great way to see some of the best locations in Haines and get the scoop from a knowledgeable local.

A fine day at work
    I was in luck. The rain held off, but the dramatic clouds remained which created a wonderful backdrop to the landscape shots. The water of Chilkoot Lake and stream were turquoise blue thanks to all the glacial melt upstream in the mountains. And to cap it all off the wildflowers were in full bloom. Purple lupin, yellow buttercups, and deep brown chocolate lilies added beautiful color to an already beautiful scene.

Chilkoot Lake, Haines
  Most of the big ships miss this port as they head fourteen miles north to the town of Skagway. If you ask me, Haines is much more my kind of town. I felt lucky to be able to catch it thru my lens and I look forward to coming back again.