Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Orcas Alaska Style

Golden sunny skies woke me this morning and even though my eyes were still clouded in sleep dust, I bounced out of bed so I could go and standby and hopefully get on our Captain's Choice tour this morning. The Captain's Choice is our posh tour. The boat caps out at 16 pax unlike our single haul and cat's which cap @ 138. The trip is tailored for those with a strong interest in photography and bird watching, up close and personal. The bigger boats get crowded and when there is a sighting everyone excitedly crowds everyone else in hopes of that perfect shot. Anyway, I was very excited when I got on and I knew it was going to be a fabulous and magnificent day on the high waters of South Central Alaska. Captain Dan O who is also our Orca Id guy met everyone and took us down the M/V Misty where would spend the day gallivanting around chasing tails and feathers around Kenai fjords. It didn't hurt that the day was golden sunny and it appeared that the seas were calm, at least for now. Once we untied we were on our merry way in hopes of spotting those black and white friends of mine that call this their home. Actually today was literally a black and white day when I think about it. Not long after we began our venture out, another boat had spotted a Humpback. Lately the humpbacks have been further out, not so much in Resurrection Bay. This Humpback wasn't very active and we didn't get the opportunity to view it's fluke. Humpbacks can be Id's by their fluke and all the Humpbacks here in Alaska have been identified. Most of the resident Orcas as well have been id'd, yet there are more here than in the San Juan Islands, so recognizing them can be a challenging task.

Not long after that we got a report from another boat that there was a pod of Orcas. Lo and behold it was the AK6's one of the more commony sighted pods in the area. This family has gone through a lot of changes apparently, however due to the excellent ID knowledge of Captain Dan O we knew exactly whom we were viewing. There was the big Male Eldorado, and his Mom Cheval... also followed by another male whose Dorsal fin is seen in my photo here named Hive.... funny he doesn't exactly look like a bee... they traveled with us for quite awhile and there was a lot of fun activity as you can view in my short video I took. Also, Dan put the hydrophone into the water so we could listen to them. It really was joyful and brought tears to my eyes. This was a great start to an absolutely amazing day ahead. As we headed out of Rez Bay as I call and about to get closer to the Aialik Cape we spotted another group. This time we were seeing the AD8's.. also pretty awesome. AD22 known as Skana was showing some signs of maybe a possible dance out of the water, yet we were pretty happy to just be with them.
Once we went around the cape we entered Aialik Bay en route to the largest tidewater glacier in the park, The Aialik glacier. Before getting closer to the glacier, another group was spotted, although Dan did not know these whales and since they were resting we kept our distance even more and continued to the glacier. Dan climbed on top of the boat to spot a good navigational route through the ice, I am sure a challenging venture, yet he did a fabulous job and we made our way within a quarter of a mile. Observing the glacier and a few thunders later we viewed some calving. This was also our lunch spot and to quietly observe the Mother Harbor Seals and pups hauled out on icebergs. The day could of not been better. We lucked out with great weather, lots of Orcas and two pods of Dalls Porpoise who rode our wake for quite awhile. A simply fantabulous adventure. I feel such gratitude to have all these opportunities to see this vision of beauty all around me.

The day continued it's course of outstanding weather, we had sunny skies the entire day, however we did run into some choppy water. Even though the sun was golden and nicely warm, the wind began to kick up so we had some chops.. Not to worry it only last 20 minutes or so, then you are back in a bay where it is protected. The Captain's Choice tour tends to attract people who are Bird Watchers and or Pro or almost Pro photographers. We had some French people on board who really wanted to see Pelagic Birds, and believe me there were more than enough Puffins for everyone. It was awesome as usual with all of them flying low or swimming gracefully in the water. After a full day, the tour is nine hours long, the boat was beginning to rock me to sleep, and I kept catching myself nodding off and almost falling off my seat. Thankfully this was on our way back in, and most of our sightings had been earlier in the day. All I can say is Awesome, Amazing, Incredible and stupendous.... can't really describe it.

Today was mellow, just hung out in town and then went to a Sales Workshop which I was paid overtime for. I am glad I did the trip yesterday since today seem to really be one of downtime. So stay tuned for further adventures and reports of my glorious adventures.

Don't forget to watch the video, I took this early in the day, and Captain Dan O had just dropped the hydrophone in the water to listen to the Orcas. Awesome and amazing it was.... brought tears to my wee eyes......

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Road to Wander, Trip to Denali and Talkeetna

Well lucky little me, another adventure under my wing's or belt whichever you may prefer. .. I was very fortunate to be able to secure a couple of extra days off and head up to Denali National Park and visit my old haunts from summer 04. From Seward I hopped on the Park Connection Bus which for our staff is free a great benefit for sure. The trip is long, almost 8 hours with an intermediate stop in Anchorage to change to a different coach. In Anchorage they gave us a free pass to the Anchorage Museum which has a great Native Alaskan Exhibit which I thoroughly enjoyed. We had about an hour and a half in Anchorage so I was also able to grab a bite to 3:00 we all hopped back on the bus and continued to Denali with one more stop in Talkeetna which is a true Alaskan town. The town was the inspiration for the former television show, Northern Exposure where we only had a brief stop to drop some people off and pick up a couple others.. not to worry I would be spending one night here on the way back. The ride up was beautiful, although it really didn't show promising signs of any sunshine until we were almost to Denali. The lodge in Talkeetna has probably the best view of Mt. McKinley from it's deck on a clear day and this wasn't one of those days. As we neared Denali the sky began to brake and some blue was peering through. We arrived in Denali around 8:30 and I had to wait until 9:30 for my shuttle to the Denali Morning Hostel where I was going to be staying for the next two nights. The row of gift shops and Restaurants on what is affectionately called "Glitter Gulch" looked pretty much the same that I remembered from my summer season of working in the park in 2004. Some new markets had popped up and the Princess Hotel added a new section, other than that it was still pretty much a made up town that draws thousands of tourists every year. I stopped in the market to pick up a few goodies for the next couple of days and then the Shuttle arrived around 9:30. The hostel is 13 miles south of the park on the Nenana River, 6 miles south of where I used to work at McKinley Village. It was rather charming, with a large Octagon that housed the community kitchen, bathrooms and some private rooms upstairs. I was going to be staying in one of their walled tents so I could have my own private space. I felt as though I was in the movie Mash, old army type cots which big old sleeping bags, which I was thankful for to keep me warm as the nights were quite chilly. The setting was beautiful right on the river and I imagined a Big Moose hanging out on the river at night which did not happen. Despite how tired I was, I was not able to sleep at all that night... I managed to squeak in two hours or so of shut eye. Even with the lack of sleep, I awoke early so I could get the Hostel's first shuttle out so I could go out into the park. I decided on a 8:00 am. shuttle to Eielson where the Visitor Center out there has been completely revamped. Eielson has an amazing view of Denali on a clear day, and we were extremely lucky as the sky cleared that morning and we had the mountain out early on. I was the first one to spot it and we had a good view on many stops. Great start for a fabulous day. Our first animal viewing were 3 Bears fairly high up on a hillside. Even though they were high we could still see them with our naked eye. What was really amazing is that someone thought they had spotted another bear a little further over, and it turned out to be a Wolf. I was very excited about that.... It was a solitary Wolf and a beautiful light Gray in color. ... too far away for any kind of decent photo, yet I was able to observe the Wolf well with my binoculars. Mind you we were around mile 30 at that point, so the morning held lots of promise. A little further up we spotted several Dall Sheep Ewes pretty high up on the mountain, I attempted a photo which came out blurry, yet you can still tell what they were. We also saw a Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska's State Bird, Four Golden Eagles, A Pika a member of the Rabbit family hanging out on a lower cliff side, a Red Fox, a young Bull Moose, and then the most exciting was when we were past Polychrome a few miles and noticed a Bear very close to the road...another shuttle had also stopped, and we both just stayed quiet and still. The Bear which turned out to be a Mama and a yearling cub walked literally next to our bus, it was pretty awesome seeing her beautiful coat and face so close. The Grizzlies in Denali are known as Toklat Grizzlies and are very light in color. They are really quite blond and some only way 300-400 pounds. Considerably smaller than their more southerly Brown Bear cousins who are twice the size. The size difference is due largely to the difference in diets. The Denali grizzlies feed on roots, shrubs, ground squirrels and early on young moose and caribou calves. Although Caribous are usually too fast for them to catch up with. Their cousins due south of them feed on Salmon so this is why they are so much larger in size. The day was pretty spectacular as we saw all the biggies of the larger animals who inhabit the park. We also saw some of the smaller ones who are equally important to the health of the ecosystem in Denali. I was pretty tired by the end of the day with no sleep, however I had made plans with a friend who is working in the park this summer to connect,so I had a late in the day latte which helped me stay awake a bit longer. In any case it was awesome and a very lucky day, considering I was only going to be getting out in the park that one day. That night after a hearty soup dinner I zonked out and slept the entire night.

The next morning I awoke again early as I was going to be catching the noon train to Talkeetna and wanted to visit the new visitor center that was completed in 06 after I left the park. It worked out well, since the visitor center is located next to the train station. The new Visitor Center is great. It is constructed out of all recycled materials inside and out which I thought was pretty amazing. The movie they showed was breathtaking and it really brought tears to my eyes because it was so beautifully crafted. After spending time in the visitor center I grabbed breakfast and spent time looking around the Alaska Geographic Bookstore which had all kinds of cool things Fun way to pass the morning.

My train ride to Talkeetna was also fun. I had ridden the Alaska Railroad when I worked in the park summer 2004, yet only the portion between Fairbanks and Denali. The ride between Talkeetna and Denali had some beautiful scenery following the Nenana River and the Talkeetna Mountains. We also went over Hurricane Gulch which was a huge gorge that was carved out by glaciers with a massive river flowing downwards. It was spectacular. No view of the mountain though as it wasn't quite clear enough. The ride to Talkeetna took four hours so this trip I had my share of buses and trains. Alot of time traveling, yet it was a great way to see things. We arrived in Talkeetna just before five... the shuttle to the Alaskan Talkeetna Lodge was waiting when I arrived. The native corporation that owns the company I work for, also owns this lodge so I received a substantial discount. The lodge is barely 10 years old and really gorgeous.. On a clear day they have the best view of Mt.McKinley. I checked in and got my things settled in my room and then went up to catch the next shuttle into the downtown. Talkeetna was the inspiration for the television show Northern Exposure which was one of my favorite Television shows so I was excited to check it out. The town only has a couple of hundred year round residents, yet in the summer it booms with all sorts of activity vendors, from flight seeing and glacier landings, to river rafting and jet boating. They are are all over the town, along with numerous Moose sculptures, and quaint shops. I ate at a famous grill which has the worlds largest Hamburger for the biggest state.. what a hoot. the thing was piled high, and I hope the people who are them..shared them.. I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the town as it was really quite cute. I enjoyed it. After my little sojourn around I went back to the lodge, watched some television as i do not have one and passed out... lots of activity in a couple of short days... yet very fun days...

This morning I awoke and caught the Park Connection back to Anchorage and then home to Seward. I am beat to say the least, yet it was an action packed and great experience once again.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Kenai Fjords Adventure

This past week I had the great opportunity to stay at our Wilderness Lodge on Fox Island in the middle of Resurrection Bay as well as cruise to the Northwestern Fjord which is the furthest fjord in the Kenai Fjords National Park that has multiple tidewater glaciers. How lucky can one get to have a job that allows them to stay at an 800.00 a night lodge on a remote Island, get fed some incredible food and relax in an unspoiled wilderness. No phones, no Internet and no electricity. Our lodge is solar powered which I think is great and you have a chef cook for the small number of guests that are staying. Wow what a treat and I have to rave about the food as it was outstanding. Being treated like royalty and pampered was most certainly a gift.

I spent most of the day relaxing and hiking along the very rocky beach that fronts the lodge. Most of the beaches here are rocky and of volcanic origin as there are no sandy beaches to speak of. It was most certainly a wonderful treat and I cannot stop gushing about it. The following morning our 9 am boat, The Alaskan Explorer arrived and a few of us that had stayed the night boarded the boat for our cruise to the Northwestern Fjord and glacier. We are the only wildlife cruise company that goes to this area and it is 150 miles round trip to get there. I feel so lucky as that day was truly remarkable, both the weather and the seas cooperated and we saw such abundance of wildlife that I could not stop smiling. The route of this trip follows Resurrection Bay south and continues out into the gulf due west towards the Chiswell islands before reaching the fjord and up to the Northwest Glacier. The Chiswell Islands are teeming with Birds right now, everything from Common Murres to literally thousands of Puffins. I was elated to see this many Puffins, as well as some rare Kittlitz's Murrelets and Red Faced Cormorants. What really got my heart gleaming with joy was when we encountered one of our resident Orca pods. When we spotted them, thanks to another boat that was already out there, they were in rest mode. When Orcas rest, they huddle together very closely and swim slowly. They are actually not sleeping, as they are not involuntary breathers as we are. Anyway at one point they began to porpoise and were more in a faster travel mode, most likely following one of the Salmon runs we have currently. I feel pretty fortunate as I was able to get a couple of good photographs as you will see. We have several family groups that reside the majority of the year in this area, and through some careful id'ying I was able to identify the large bull who was ahead in the group as AK-1 or Skana as he is named. The Orcas stayed with us for quite awhile, yet we had to keep heading west to make our destination. We also had several humpbacks, actually 20 total by the end of the day on our trip, including a mother and a calf. We got lucky to see the fluke a few times, although my camera was not quite fast enough for that photo, however I did get some dorsal shots. That was very exciting to see so many. After about three hours of cruising we arrived at our destination, the Northwest Glacier in the Northwestern Fjord. A breathtakingly beautiful spot, and also an area that is a Harbor Seal pupping ground. I was amazed to see so many hauled out on icebergs that was quite endearing. We stayed at the glacier for about a 1/2 hour and it did calve a few times. Hearing the thundering from within the glacier was quite intense. After our visit with the glacier we continued at a slow pace through the fjord where there are at least three more tidewater glaciers in the area. Also are some hanging glaciers which you begin to wonder if they will come crashing down at some point. In any case this area was truly of spectacular beauty and I was in awe. We stopped at one area that had amazing waterfalls cascading down into these turquoise pools of very icy and freezing water. Although they looked enticing I am sure you would freeze within a few minutes. At this point as you stared out into the gulf of alaska the sun was beginning to shine brightly and deep sea blue skies were looming across the horizon. Since the seas were pretty calm Captain Bog decided to take a different route back and we spent a fair bit of time out in the Gulf of Alaska, perhaps hoping for a possible Fin Whale or other sightings we hadn't yet seen that day. We did have a couple of groups of Dall's Porpoise who often loved to park take in riding the wake of the boat, however these guys were in fishing mode so they were not interested in us. We then headed back into the Chiswell Islands and the captain decided to quietly approach one of Haul outs where Steller Sea Lions have their pupping grounds. We turned off the engine and observed them for a bit, seeing a couple of new pups so that was pretty sweet. Steller Sea Lions are endangered and their numbers have dropped 80% here over the last several years. Alaska Sealife Center does research out here in these islands and looking at all the factors that are surrounding this decline. They are not sure as to what exactly has caused it. A number of reasons could be involved, toxins, predation possibly by Transient Killer Whales, although they are not common in this area, so they do not really know. In any case it was pretty special to see the pups, and hopefully there numbers will continue to climb.

As our day began to come to a closure and we were coming around Cape Resurrection back in to the bay, we spotted Orcas again. Probably our friends from early, yet this time they were Porpoising more and there were more in the family group. Resident Orcas live in much larger family groups than transients and stay together with their pods all their lives. When several families come together usually later in August they call this superpod and months later new little calves pop into the picture. So I am excited to get out then and hopefully see superpod. They were with us for quite awhile, yet we had to continue our way towards home. once we got back into the bay, and were near one of the many coves, the captain spotted down very close to the water's edge a Mountain Goat Nanny and her kid, actually there were two Nannie's and two kids. We watched them for awhile and one of the little kids was struggling getting back up to it's mom that was up a notch on the hill, yet finally after a few attempts it made it... so so cute. Anyway, I have to say that this day far exceeded any of my expectations. So amazing were the thousands of Puffins, Murres and other birds that call this their home, and we must remember that we as stewards are in their home. We are visitors and respect and gratitude for being able to view such beauty is a gift from Mother Earth, that allows us to be so close to the amazing wildlife that this planet has. I feel blessed and lucky to be able to share this with each and everyone of you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Surprise, Surprise (Glacier that is)

Life is a Surprise and I was prompted to titled this post Surprise, since on Tuesday a number of us from work visited the Surprise Glacier in Prince William Sound. Mind you this was a training trip for work, to be able to call a Cruise on the Majestic Prince William Sound work is probably baffling to most. Departing Seward in the Early morning in route to Whittier just a hop, skip and a jump from Anchorage. Here you go through a 2.5 mile tunnel that opens and closes every fifteen minutes, and historically has even had cave In's. A bit mind boggling to even fathom going through such a thing. In some ways it reminded me of a hike I did when I worked in Glacier National Park called the Ptarmigan Tunnel. Entering on one side a very specific type of environment and literally coming through and seeing the light of a different world. Our driver was very nervous, as he kept telling us that our allot ed time for getting there was too short and we probably would not make the 10:30 tunnel opening.,, I had no time for such pessimism and kept visualizing us gliding through the tunnel and cruising through the sound. Lo and behold we made it as I had seen.. and the day was amazing. Though the sound has less Wildlife than where I am in Kenai Fjords, the scenery was much more dramatic. Cruising through here is so placid, and the water is like a jewel that glistens in the dim light. The entire way you cruise through small passages and are surrounded by dense Rainforest's of Hemlock and Sitka Spruce. Along the way we passed a few Sea Otter Rafts where the cuddly little critters were hurdled together in groups of 4 or more on icebergs floating in the sound. Here in Prince William Sound the Sea Otter's are much more skittish and as soon as they hear the boat they dive down. We tried to be quiet when we neared them, and we did have a couple of good sightings. We also got very lucky through one of the passages and spotted a Humpback Whale very close to the shoreline who graced us with visions of her fluke and made a few appearances.

The Wilderness Explorer as the journey is named is definitely a pristine wilderness. We reached our destination of Surprise Glacier after about 4 hours of cruising. Several Tidewater glaciers are in this area with Surprise being the largest. We stayed there for awhile waiting for the glacier to calve, listening to the eminent sounds of thunder coming from it's core. The day was a memorable one and I still find it hard to believe I was paid to go on this trip. I feel pretty grateful for this job and the perks I have.

After the day was over, in a last minute decision I decided to go to Anchorage for the night and have a taste of big city for a bit. The ride to Anchorage from Whittier follows the Turnagin Arm which extends out from Cook Inlet. It was a time of day and the light was reflecting through the clouds and it was a beautiful ride into the city. Turnagin Arm has two low tides a day, and it was a low tide when we passed by. I had been hoping for a high tide since this is when the Beluga head out from Cook Inlet down the arm to follow the traveling herring. I love them and had really hoped to catch a glimpse, hopefully someday I will.

After spending the night in Anchorage, going out for a meal and running errands the following morning, I took an afternoon shuttle back down to Seward. This was the first time ever that I had been on this road when the sun was shining and there was blue skies. Mostly it has been great, so I felt pretty lucky to see it in a totally different light. The scenery once again was magical and I kept snapping away on my camera. The tide was still a bit low and was slowly starting it's journey back out. The driver even mentioned the possibility of seeing Belugas which would of been awesome. It would of been perfect as the sea was so jewel like and calm and it would of been easy to spot them. Just to let you know the Cook Inlet sub species of Belugas are on the endangered list after a long battle with federal bureaucracy they won their rightful spot on the list. Their population has dwindled dramatically since the 70's even when sustenance hunting was halted. Once numbering in the thousands, they are down to barely 300. Their waters need to be cleaned up some of the officials are still fighting the battle of wanting to drill in the inlet... thankfully this has not yet happened.

So this was another beautiful weekend for me. Gorgeous scenery and the blessings of being in a magical place.