Friday, July 28, 2006

The Boat Ride

The end of the Bread Loaf Juneau season includes a chartered boat ride out of Auke Bay and up the channel. The idea is to have dinner and drinks, celebrate whoever is graduating, and see some marine life.

But before we get started, I am compelled to point out one of the boats that was in the harbor with us as we were getting ready to leave.

Of course, concerns of food and revelry took a quick second seat when we found our first group of Humpback Whales. First, we found a group of three or so, who very nicely obliged us by surfacing and spouting on and off for quite a while.

Humpbacks have a double blowhole, like a pair of nostrils, so the spouts are actually two jets of spray. You usually can't see that very easily, but it's almost visible in this picture.

Then, of course, it was time to find some whales who wanted to show off their tails.

It's worth pointing out that we've had about nine or ten days of unremitting rain and overcast skies. Then, on the day of the big boat trip, the sun blazes, the temperature climbs to 72, and there isn't a cloud in the sky. Not so bad.

We found a couple of groups who were willing to show off.

While I'm wary of personifying whales, they seemed to have a knack for flipping their tails in front of nice scenery.

Every time a whale's body broke the water in the characteristic slide that preceded a tail flip, the whole boat full of people began to "oooo." When the tail flipped up and over, the whole boat cheered. It was an immense experience.

I swear: this is the last tail picture. This whale came at the boat and ended up quite close before this final dive.

It's also worth mentioning at this point that Humpies are baleen whales; they feed by sucking an immense amount of water into their mouths and then straining out fish or krill.

They typically come up under a school of fish or grouping of krill and fill their mouths as they come flying up through the water. This behavior is called "lunging."

John Muir, the turn-of-the-centry glaciologist and naturalist I quoted in my 7/2 entry, would have my head if I raved only about whales and didn't put any glaciers in my journal. Here's a particularly glorious glacier. Happy, John?

We were also privileged to see a fascinating feeding behavior called "bubble net fishing," in which a group of Humpies swim around in circles below a large school of fish. They exhale air from their blowholes and create a wall of aerated water the fish see as a barrier. Thus, they concentrate their prey into one column and all lunge up through the school at the same time.

As many as a dozen whales can team up in this fashion; here we had about five, I think. In this photo, they're just finishing the lunge.

I thought the cheering for the tail flips was boisterous, but the three rounds of bubble net fishing we saw brought such breathless anticipation as the gulls circled the area they knew was about to be boiling with terrified fish, and when five giant whales subsequently broke the water, they got a round of cheers.

Cody caught the same bubble net lunge at almost exactly the same moment. This is a different picture taken with a different camera; we just managed to click the shutter at almost the same instant.

Cody, you'll notice, has the superior lens. You'll also notice that he clicked a fraction of a second earlier than I did; the seagull that's almost directly over the highest whale's jaw here is just a hair further along in my picture.

There were people on the boat and great conversation; there was great food. But let's face it: the whales win.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Trip to Haines, Entry #3

There are a few more pictures and ruminations to collect about our Haines trip, and since the last few photos seem finally to have trickled in, today seems the day for it.

I also have a large paper due Tuesday, so today is also an excellent day to procrastinate, though I think I can make an excellent argument that this is somehow foundational work for the paper.

Anyway, we were somewhat overloaded in our trip from the ferry to the Chilkoot camp, so I volunteered to ride in the Ford Excursions's cargo area. Under the cargo.

These were our guides to Tlingit life and culture, Nora and Richard Dauenhauer. Nora is a clan elder, author, and poet, and she and Richard work to preserve Tlingit language and stories.

They were kind enough to share their poetry and the region's stories.

We visited a Chilkat culture camp on the other side of the range in the town of Klukwan. The people there are trying to carve out a living and hold onto a unique and ancient culture, and this camp is a way to both preserve and share it. They're still getting things up and running, but they built this longhouse by hand, using traditional techniques.

These totem poles will be painted and fitted to the front corners of the longhouse once they're finished. Each pole carries representations of different clans; the one in the center here is killer whale. You can tell by the blowhole above his eyes. When he's finished, he'll also have prominent teeth, which is how you can tell him from a baleen whale.

On a side note, Raven and Eagle represent not clans, but moieties. You can be a member of any number of clans, but you're also either a Raven or an Eagle. Both clan and moiety are passed down matrilineally. You're supposed to marry the opposite moiety, so a Dad typically finds himself the sole Raven or Eagle in the house; this is a source of much hilarity.

This is Kimberly Strong, inside the longhouse, explaining its construction, traditional purpose, and contemporary purpose. She, too, is a tireless advocate for her region and her culture.

The wallscreen behind her carries a number of important icons of Tlingit art. Raven, on the lower left, is a mischievious creator figure. Eagle, on the lower right is his friend and equal. There's Halibut in the middle; it's an important fish for subsistence, but I haven't yet heard any stories in which it's a character.You also see the ubiquitous Chilkat face, representing humanity, repeated across the center. In between are pictures of the bentwood boxes that would be used for storage by families living in the longhouse. The copper tokens nailed to the screen are tows, used for a while as money.

The large face and widespread arms at the top represent the spirit of the longhouse, nurturing and welcoming all who enter, a promise fulfilled by each person of Tlingit descent we met on our trip.

Kimberly also taught us how to prepare a salmon for the smokehouse. She's Tribal Council President of Klukwan, but that doesn't mean she doesn't get her hands dirty. Apparently she's a particularly respectable fish dresser, though I'll admit to lacking the expertise necessary to judge her in that area.

This is Valentino, an Italian butcher who expatriated, married a Chilkat lady, was adopted as a Tlingit, and appears to be really enjoying life. He's a short man, but that's still an enormous King Salmon—around thirty-six inches long. Valentino's butchering skills get a good workout when the fish are running, and he handled them like a pro.

I've chosen not to include any of the somewhat extensive set of fish-butchering photos people took of Valentino's rather impressive skills. You're welcome.

On the right here is Lani Hotch, a weaver and contributor to the culture center, which does not yet have a weaving area. Lani was kind enough to have us in her home, at her private loom. She's weaves mainly in the Ravenstail style, represented in the geometrically-patterned blanket you see her modeling on the right.

Here you see her demonstrating some of the techniques of Chilkat style weaving, which she does less frequently than Ravenstail but to my eye, no less competently.

What would a journal entry on Haines be without a single reference to bears?

Mary, with a superior zoom and good timing, was able to take one of the better bear photos. You can even see the grass he was grazing on.

And there was, fortunately, enough time to write some things down, so I've got a couple kinds of memory to draw on to both create these entries and to do what I can to preserve and share what I was lucky enough to see and learn.

The Tlingit stories, artwork, and weaving I saw are part of a noble and beautiful culture, and it would be an ugly chapter in our story if we forgot them, particularly when they have such a long history of wisdom and coexistence with the wild world.

Thanks to Mary and Mark for the pictures in this entry.

Friday, July 21, 2006

You Guessed It: Glacier

This is Cathy Connor, a professor of geology at University of Alaska Southeast, the campus which Bread Loaf Juneau calls home. She took us on a walk up to Mendenhall Glacier to talk about the local rocks and, specifically, the glacier's role in shaping the landscape.

We took the same trail I hiked on 6/24, except this time it was raining with a gentle intensity that defies clichéd descriptions of rain. It was neither driving nor pouring; nor was it lashing, tempestuous, or torrential. It did not come down in sheets nor did it let fall cats and dogs. The closest I can come to an accurate description is "a soaking rain." There was a lot of water falling from the sky, and though it was not joined by a great deal of wind, it saturated every fiber of both clothing and being after a little while.

It was temperate enough that I made the decision to forgo my raincoat. I didn't want to spend the walk fighting to stay dry with the hood up and the blinders on. I decided to be endued with water and to trust my high-tech clothing to block enough of the chill glacier winds.

It worked.

The rain swelled this waterfall outside its usual track with rain, but this Monkey Flower (from the much-debated Mimulus genus) was growing in the middle of the original waterfall's course.

The glacier has receded visibly since the last time I was here. Summer is a time of faster recession, for the obvious reasons, and a glacier melts and calves particularly fast when it meets water like this.

Still, to see the areas on bare rock retreat a good ten feet and the area on the water retreat even more than that in only three weeks made it easy to believe that global warming is melting the glacier faster than a normal post-ice-age retreat.

Charles has a gift for striking photogenic poses; here he is a few feet up the shore from the lake. The white ice is called firn, and the lower, blue ice is true glacier ice. It's blue because it has had most of the air compressed out of it. When it gets re-exposed to the atmosphere, it slowly expands, aerates, and turns white again.

A snowflake is a typical ice crystal; a freezer ice cube is a whole series of small crystals stuck together. In a glacier, the immense pressure, together with the melting and refreezing that typically take place, forces the smaller crystals into alignment, and they join up into larger crystals. Cathy commented that the blue, compressed ice has more of a mineral quality to it; the ice crystals are positively enormous, and you can see the water's true color.

Hiking with a geologist put me in geology mode, and I found this really neat rock. Cathy says the red bits are garnets and the black are probably tourmaline. The exposed rock and moraine right next to the glacier are a hodgepodge of rocks from a vast array of eras and areas, brought to the surface both by tectonic process (Alaska is getting higher) and by the immense power of the glacier.

I wasn't too much in geology mode. We got a good look at a Spotted Sandpiper, who flew back and forth, piping. He was probably trying to protect his unfledged hatchling, who made a break for it from one small stand of alder bushes to another.

We didn't stay so long at the glacier that the cold breeze coming off of it made me truly miserable in my wet high-tech gear. I was just comfortable enough to be truly content. Then a brisk walk back to the trailhead and off to a long, hot shower. I may have been philosophically inclined to get wet, but that didn't mean I had to stay that way.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Glaciers and Kayaks (but not together)

This is Matt Brooks. He's a naturalist, glaciologist, and avid birder. I'm not sure if he has degrees in all three, but I wouldn't be surprised, since he certainly knows his stuff. He took our Wildness class on a walk below Mendenhall glacier in order to talk about the role of post-glacial succession in habitat formation.

As a glacier withdraws, it leaves behind it different kinds of ground: bare rock, moraine (gravel and sediment), etc. Different mosses and lichens make a home there, and then larger shrubs and trees. Mendenhall glacier has been withdrawing steadily for quite a while, so the area below it has a textbook array of different kinds of forest.

Matt's main interest and expertise was birds, but after the first week or so of July in southeast Alaska, the birds are finished marking out territories and finding mates, and they've gotten down to the business of raising babies, so there aren't so many kicking around, and practically nobody's calling.

We were, however, able to see a large number of Artic Terns, which spend their summers nesting at the base of the glacier. We even got to see a few of them mob a Bald Eagle. We also got to hear Hermit Thrushes, Chickadees, and caught a good look at a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

This is the same glacier I visited in my 6/24 entry, but this picture is taken from the other side of the lake.

According to Matt, we're probably already in an age of glacial recession, so it's almost certainly not due to global warming alone that this glacier is shrinking. However, the last twenty or so years have been, overall, much warmer, so the glacier's receding much faster than normal.

As Matt points out, he's a federal employee, so if he can state unequivocally that global warming is an issue, no matter what the political leanings of the federal administration, it seems obvious that it's happening. The question now is what the negative effects might be and how we should address them.

This morning I went kayaking with (from the left), Sam, Palmer, and Mark. We rented boats from the Rec center, and, with one person at the front of a pair of boats and one at the back, we went down to the water. We went a slightly shorter way than I did last time (since we didn't have to be wheel friendly), but it still wasn't the easiest of walks.

Once we were on the water though, we slipped easily through the calm harbor waters and south, away from Auke Bay.

We circumnavigated a small island, and since at least a couple of the five species of salmon are now running fiercely, the eagles are everywhere. This pair was sharing a fish and warding off the crows who were trying to steal it.

Salmon lept out of the water several times a minute, so far and so high that you could literally tell the species as they hung in the air. I spotted Silver and King Salmon.

After we rounded the island, we turned back towards town and home. That's Mt. McGuinness you see just to the right of Mark. I'm hoping to hike up it on the next clear day.

On the way back, I spooked a flock of Pigeon Guillemot, who took off with some noisy clapping against the water, and a cute little Marbled Murrelet popped up about two feet off the port bow, looked extremely surprised, and went straight back down.

On our way back, we noticed the backs of a pair of Harbor Porpoises breaking the water. We caught a quick glimpse and counted ourselves lucky, but they took an interest in us and spent almost 10 minutes circling the boats underwater, coming up to breathe once in a while. I got lucky and caught this one about twenty feet away.

Though the fin may remind you of a dolphin, these guys are from a different Family entirely. In fact, Killer Whales are more closely related to dolphins than porpoises are.

They lost interest about the same time we did, and they continued on their way right as we did. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that I have exactly the same attention span as a porpoise.

The last member of the wildlife crew who deigned to be so easily photographed was one of about eight Harbor Seals whom we displaced because they were relaxing in the shallows where we took out our kayaks.

They lazily drifted away, popping up like adorable periscopes from time to time to check us out.

Good day.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Trip to Haines, Entry #2

First, my sincere apologies for not writing in several days. It's the middle of the term and the workload has come down on me a bit severely this past week. Hopefully things will lighten up, but until they do, your kind forbearance is begged.

One of the highlights of last week's trip to Haines was our quick power-hike up Mt. Ripinsky, the highest peak on the small range that divides the Chilkoot and the Chilkat rivers.

It was our first day in Haines, and we wanted to be back for dinner, so we only had three hours to hike up and down the 3.2 miles and the 3000 vertical feet to the south summit.

Three hours wasn't quite enough, but let me first point out to you the mystery of this sign, which says the Ripinsky trailhead is 3/4 of a mile to the right, at "PIPE GATE." Now, if a "pipe gate" is some thing I should know as a well-educated individual, feel free to chastize me, but I had never heard of one before. Turns out, it's a gate made out of a pipe. This might not seem like much of a mystery to you, but it stymied seven graduate students and a tenured professor, so make of that what you will.

This ubiquitous and beautiful flower, commonly termed fireweed, is also known as willow herb or Epliobium augustifolium. It acquired the first name because it colonizes fire-razed areas quickly, and its scientific name appears to refer to the fact that the flower begins to bloom from the bottom in mid-July, and, like a clock, counts down the days of summer as it blooms to the top. I'm told that, in August, the flowers turn white and finally die, making the "fire" in the name truly appropriate however much the "weed" remains a misnomer.

At a few hundred feet above sea level, the forest was very typical of what you see in southeast AK—the temperate, spruce-dominated rainforest. It can take a hundred years for a spruce to grow to even the skinny specimens you see here, which makes the current, dramatic deforestation of Alaska's old-growth woods very troubling. It takes a long time to regrow an 800 year old tree (at least 800 years, it turns out), so they aren't a "renewable resource" in any meaningful sense of the word.

Another thousand feet up and the trees start to become dwarfed by the seasonal winds. The weather's also dramatically different. From sea level, things are overcast. By 1500 feet, however, you're starting to break into the clouds themselves.

You may be pitying me on account of the weather, worrying that my hard work to hike and my rare opportunity to be in this place were compromised by the lack of views and the wet weather. Not so, good friends; mist carries its own holiness.

The mist gives the path and the trees an unearthly feel, and it frosts the lupines with the delicate jewels of clear water droplets. Part of me is sorry that the pictures can't share that reality properly, but part of me recognizes that the beauty is inseparable from the place and the moment, and that neither place nor moment can truly be carried back.

It's exactly that ephemerality that gives the beauty much of its poignance and power.

The mist swirls, and the eye and mind are able to fill in the trees and flowers, the heather and mosses and the lodgepole pines. What shows up on a camera as a flat gray impediment to sight gives, in reality, an elusive and constantly shifting beauty to the scene. I would not have traded that sublimity for a clearer, drier, warmer day.

The moisture kisses the skin as it kisses the lupines; it embraces the intruder and makes him part of the landscape.

Perhaps we look a little more "wet" than "kissed," but you're going to have to trust my words and our smiles.

Here you see me with Zoe, my hiking parter for the majority of the trip.

This is, perhaps, the time to mention that a prevalence of bear scat on the trail indicated that bears use the trail extensively for travel and forage; though all evidence of their presence seemed to date back to last summer, their footprint on the place still added a certain dread to the aforementioned holiness.

Some people hike for the views; some hike to bag the peak. Now, I just hike to learn my size and place and try to bring back some humility with me, either engendered by a sweeping vista and my own sense of smallness in relation to it, or by, as in this case, a visit to a quiet, sacred Eden, walled off from all care by mist, but full in its smallness of danger, resonance, and startling beauty.

Zoe and I didn't make it to the top. Two hours' hiking put us perhaps about 1/4 mile and less then 500 vertical feet from the summit, but we had already overstayed the time, so we reluctantly turned back. I suspect her regret stemmed from the same place as mine: we didn't need to hit the peak for its own sake, but we wanted to steal a little more time in the clouds before having to float back to earth.

We rushed down and were still almost forty-five minutes past our stated return time. No harm done, though, since the point of the whole weekend was to experience the area and learn what we could, not to rush from landmark to landmark or hold meetings and keep deadlines.

Almost out, we stopped at a bridge to collect stragglers and take photos. You've got Il Professore Mark Long in the foreground, then Evelina, followed by me, Zoe, and Charles.

Alas, the signs of civilization crop back up one at a time. Not too many, though.

Our intrepid vehicle, a Ford Excursion, borrowed from the University, that carried us all around Haines. It brought us back to the Chilkoot camp.

The University is a government institution, so wherever we went, our business was made official by our license plate. That includes a sojurn up Ripinsky, apparently.

Many thanks to Palmer for the bulk of the pictures in this entry. There's also one by Zoe.

There's still more to recount of Haines, though I'm nearly a week back. Fortunately, the week has been full of work, study, and other thoroughly unjournalable pursuits, so once I catch up on Haines, I'm up to date.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Trip to Haines, Entry #1

Over the weekend, my "Searching for Wildness" course went up to Haines, AK and the surrounding area to immerse ourselves in a wilder part of Alaska and to get a chance to experience some aspects of the culture of people who existed there long before any European explorers "discovered" the place. We left the Auke Bay ferry terminal at 8AM and crossed, incidentally, the line of my kayak outing from the other day before leaving Auke Bay and heading north.

Most of my pictures from the trip are from the ferry's back deck. It was one of the new "Fairweather" class of ferries that can truck at over 35 knots in good weather, so the trip to Haines takes just under 2 hours. Here you see us crossing almost the same spot I took my kayak picture from. The weather's a bit different this time, though. It's not really raining; it's that unique Southeast Alaska overcast weather.

As we continued out of Auke Bay, the view of the harbor changes. That's a bigger view of the glacier in the dead center of the picture.

For all of you folks jonesing for more pictures of me, Evelina was kind enough to snap a shot or two on the ferry which she subsequently labeled "debonair." Make your own decisions on that one.

In our swift journey, we covered dozens of miles of water. The whole profusion of islands is covered in glaciers or the ancient tracks of glacers, huge tears in the mountainside that still have meltoff streams and rivers coming down. It's a landscape unlike any other I've ever seen.

Glacier after glacier passed us by, and I re-learned something by sight that I had already read: glaciers come in infinite variety and color. The mountains, by their locations, contours, and compositions shape the natures of their glaciers just as much as they are shaped by them. Their colors, their altitudes, the plant and animal life that spring up in their receding tracks are all unique to each glacier and landscape. The mountains and glaciers tell the story of thousands of years in the birth of landscapes, easily visible to the naked eye.

The islands and glaciers weren't even the point of the trip, just a gift along the way. We drove a few miles northeast of Haines, up the Chilkoot river, to stay at a small camp whose purpose is to educate folks on the culture of the local Tlingit people. Nora Marks Dauenhauer, a clan elder, was our host and guide, along with her husband, Richard Dauenhauer. The Chilkoot river comes down the east side of the mountain range and the Chilkat river comes down the west side. Each has a distinct history.

On the right is the view of the Chilkoot river from the back of the camp; it's icy cold and green-gray with glacial silt. In the upper right corner, there's a bald eagle in the trees, but you can only barely see him as a white dot. He was our constant companion, looking at the deepest part of the river for hours each day.

Yes, there were bears. We had to take all kinds of bear-related precautions at the camp, including not having any food or other attractive items in our bunkhouse that, incidentally, had no latch and could have been nosed open by a 20 pound, unmotivated beagle, much less the 17-ton mama grizzly who tore the door off the camp's smokehouse last season. To your left is a picture of the mouth of the Chilkoot with a grizzly in the dead center. This is about 1/2 mile downriver from where we were staying.

He's a "little" one, probably a 3rd year cub. These are, once again, crops from my 3x zoom, so you don't get a lot of detail, but it's a pretty good distance to photograph a grizzly from. You also don't get scale, but I wasn't going to hug this particular landmark. I estimate him at a couple of hundred pounds.

He's cute as heck, grazing away on the river grasses, but grizzly cuteness is proportionate to distance. The same sized bear, when he appeared at the camp later that day, was a little more pulse-quickening.

That's it for the first entry on the Haines trip. We also went to the village of Klukwan, which used to be one of the five great villages of the Chilkat people, and is now the only remaining one. There's a cultural center there where some of the folks keep their traditional ways of living alive, so look for photos of the longhouse, the Chilkat cultural center, and lessons on salmon butchering in subsequent entries.