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Friday, August 28, 2009

Sitka Conservation Society

Before heading to the Raptor Center on Tuesday, we checked the weather forecast. Rain was predicted for every hour through Thursday morning. If we wanted to go to the Raptor Center, we couldn't wait for clear skies. And the marine tour we had scheduled for Wednesday evening promised to be wet.

Wednesday morning dawned with continued rain. When we set out for Whale Park, the rain had stopped, but the skies remained overcast. We wanted to looked for marine wildlife once more, but apparently the whales and friends didn't want to be seen. We saw lots of trees in the surrounding wilderness, some little ducks, and starfish.

Thursday morning brought strong winds that rattled the cottage, followed by steady rains. Somehow, though, when we walked down to the dock on Wednesday evening, the clouds had cleared out and the sun had emerged, as if on schedule. The air was cool, and the winds would be whipping on the boat, but at least we would be dry.

The three-hour tour had been originally scheduled for two weeks earlier. For some reason it had been postponed. This was the last tour of the season given by the Sitka Conservation Society. We had heard about the tour from a local bus driver, and at $30 per person, it was much more affordable than any of the offers from the tour companies we had researched. Most of the thirty or so participants were locals, and many of them had taken the tour before. We were thankful to still be in town to enjoy it.

We boarded the two-deck boat and found our spot along the rail outside on the upper deck. The boat offered warm beverages and snacks, along with binoculars for use, and educational materials. Of course, there was also merchandise for sale, to help fund the Conservation Society in its mission to protect the temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska and Sitka's quality of life. Off to sea we went.

Almost as soon as we were out among the islands, the boat slowed down and turned around. A small group of otters had been spotted, and the captain chugged back to give us a better look. They were difficult to see as they were among a patch of floating kelp, and they like to float on their backs. At one point, a harbor seal popped its head up and then disappeared.

The boat moved in and out around the islands. The views were similar to the ones from the ferry, but with a smaller vessel our captain had the ability to navigate into much tighter passages. The naturalist aboard provided an informational narrative about the features we saw along the way. Everyone was on lookout for wildlife. On a grassy beach in the distance we were lucky enough to spot through the binoculars a deer standing and observing her surroundings. Her colors matched the surroundings so well that we couldn't catch sight of her with our naked eye.

The water in the sound and channel leading away from Sitka had what we would call a light chop. The boat was not greatly affected. The water grew calm through the interior passages. Then as we turned to head back into open waters, the sea began to roll. At high speeds, the boat bounced along. We clung to the rail to get down to the lower deck and sit in the front. Out the window the water rose and fell around us in great but smooth peaks and valleys.

Back on the upper deck, we continued to scan the horizon for wildlife. We happened to be near one of the tour lookouts, who directed us to look in the direction she had spotted something. And sure enough, we saw the spout of a whale. After another moment, the captain cut the engines and turned the boat to move in closer. Another smaller boat had spotted the whale, and also pursued from the other direction. The naturalist counted six minutes, and then the whale resurfaced further to the left. Again the captain idled the boat closer. Everyone watched and waited for another six minutes to pass.

We continued to look all around for the appearance of other wildlife. While gazing out to the right, we heard the spout of the whale close on our left. We turned to see its back almost right beside the boat. The first attempt at a photograph was a failure. We recovered just in time to capture its fluke on the dive down.

The naturalist proclaimed that to be a final wave goodbye from the whale, and the captain turned the boat back toward Sitka. To the stern, the sun was setting behind Mt. Edgecumbe. As we watched the view, the whale made another sudden appearance. They are unpredictable and instantaneous, but once again we were able to capture its fluke as it took another deep dive.

We turned into the harbor. Just before crossing the breakwaters, we spotted another more active group of large otters. We watched them frollicking. After disembarking, we walked around to the closest point overlooking the harbor to continue watching the otters as they twisted and twirled and dove and flipped around in the dusk.

Like us, several other people climbed the bridge to admire the sunset. The great Raven had given us perfect weather for what had been a one-of-a-kind experience. Thinking back to the Raptor Center, we believe that it is not so much seeing the birds that people report is the highlight of their vacation; it is the up-close experience of any wildlife. Seeing the whales on the tour, and the ferry, even for just a few seconds, was the highlight of our vacation. The best had truly been saved for last.

Tomorrow, we will have some final thoughts about our Alaskan adventure.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Boat Etiquette

I learned that the polite thing to do is to allow the locals to dock their smaller boats closer to land. I parked my ship out beyond the breaker, where it won't get all dinged up.

Raptor Center

In the middle of a downpour we set off on foot for the Alaska Raptor Center. It is the only full-service avian hospital and educational facility in the state. Thankfully, we didn't have to walk more than a few blocks.

There are several pens outside where the birds are kept, some in groups and some in isolation. Many of the paths through the forest where the birds are kept were closed due to bear activity.

Inside we saw four or five birds sitting around the flight center. This is a large enclosed open-air space where the birds are left to stretch their wings. A few of them had lost parts of their wings and would never regain the ability to fly. These are the permanent residents, for they would never be able to hunt and survive in the wild. A couple were recovering from unfortunate encounters with automobiles and power lines, and these would soon be set free.

We had seen more eagles in the evenings outside our inn at Eagle Bay. They perched at the tops of trees, hopped along the ground with the gulls during low tide, and floated in the breeze. Many were obviously large. Despite their injuries, the variety of birds at the Raptor Center are healthier and longer lived, thanks to regular feedings and medical care.

The other main function of the facility is to provide education about the birds. We sat in a room to view a short video that showed active raptors in the wild. Then calmly we sat and watched as a young woman walked in and sat down with a bald eagle on her arm. The eagle, even when hunched on its human perch, stood half as tall as the woman. On stage, the eagle sat alert and watchful of every movement of the audience. The woman told us a little about this eagle's history, fed her some fresh snacks from a pouch, and answered questions. A few times the eagle spread her wings, but usually remained calm and still.

The informational pages published by the Raptor Center say that many visitors report "that seeing live birds close up is the highlight of their Alaskan vacation." We enjoyed it as well.

Riding the bus home the next day, we talked with someone who works at the Fortress of the Bear. In our mind, the two places are easy to compare. The price of admissions is similar. People are on hand to give information about both creatures. Birds and bears are kept in captivity among natural habitat. But seeing the eagles was much more satisfying than seeing the bears. Somehow the experience of the Fortress was more like being at a zoo. Seeing the eagle handled directly in front of us was much more impressive.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mendenhall Glacier

Previously on the Juneau junket: Juneau

Welcome to another part of the largest forest in the United States, the Tongass National Forest. Among these 17 million acres of temperate rain forest, we discovered the awesome Mendenhall Glacier.

The ice was originally know as Sitaantaagu or Aak'wtaaksit by the Tlingits. It has been steadily retreating, over two miles, since 1500, and is predicted to continue its retreat in the near future.

The ice first came into view as the ferry pulled into Auke Bay. Then as we approached along the road, around the bend the ice reappeared from behind the trees.

At the base of the glacier, chunks of ice are calved off and go floating in Mendenhall Lake. Also a small waterfall at the bottom right corner spews into the lake. Further off to the right, emerging from the surrounding mountains, pours a large waterfall.

The water is cold to the touch. The air temperature at the rocky point facing the glacier is noticeably cooler than near the visitor center, as cold air rushes down from the mountains and replaces the warmer air. We sat at the point for quite a while, waiting to witness some live calving, but the ice didn't oblige.

Many of the creeks in the area are full of salmon. The beavers have also been busy with their dam building projects.

While heading back to the bus, we followed a trail along the road, through the forest and over the creek, and were pleasantly surprised to see a bear cub fishing for dinner. He followed the creek further into the forest, and we headed out, not keen on encountering the mother who we assumed must be nearby.

The newspapers and oral reports have been full of bear sightings, and we had begun to wonder if we would see one in the wild. Our Juneau junket not only resulted in the bear sighting, but also several whale sightings, and an up-close experience of a glacier. Despite the drawbacks of the city itself, the trip was great. Seeing Alaska by water is wonderful and definitely one of those things not to be missed.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Previously on the Juneau junket: Alaska Marine Highway

We stayed at The Breakwater Inn right near downtown. The room was large with a king-size bed, a table and chairs, a desk, a television inside a cabinet, an easy chair, matching nightstands, and a full-size bathroom. The walk-out balcony provided a view out across one of the boat harbors. Rooms on the other side of the hotel lacked balconies and looked back into the residential areas and beyond to the numerous streams of water running straight down the sides of the hills.

Several blocks away on the other side of downtown the cruise ships were docked. That was also the main tourist area of the city. We didn't explore that area, not because we weren't tourists, but because we ran out of time.

The city had many large buildings, comparable in size to those in some suburbs of Chicago, but most appeared to be older 1950s-style construction. With the glacier over ten miles from downtown, the city has a sense of suburban sprawl. Malls and major big-box retailers are spread out along the route between those two focal points.

The portion of the city we saw lacked the charm of Sitka. And the scale of Sitka is more appealing.

Before we arrived, The Breakwater Inn did not respond to any of our emails inquiring about shuttle service to and from the ferry terminal. As it turned out they do offer this service, by appointment only -- if either of our two readers decide to stay there in the future, call ahead and make an appointment. You will save a lot of time, money, and frustration.

The newspaper in Sitka prints all the calls that come in to the local police department every day. Recently half of those calls have been about bears. We had not seen any bears in the wild, which was disappointing, though good for our safety. But in Juneau we saw an interesting sign that seemed to confirm the bears were out there: Bear Xing.

Next on the Juneau junket: Mendenhall Glacier

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Alaska Marine Highway

Previously on the Juneau junket: Transportation Terror

Route 66 may have nostalgia, but the Alaska Marine Highway beats it for sights and the sheer joy of travel. The highway system has been in operation since 1963 and provides safe, reliable, and efficient transportation of people, goods, and vehicles among thirty Alaska communities, Canada, and the Lower 48.

Our trip to Juneau began just after midnight on the MV Taku. The vessel was built in 1963 and renovated in 1981. It had three passenger decks -- cabin, boat, and sun -- and one vehicle deck. We hung out on the boat deck, that had a recliner lounge, writing lounge, cafeteria, and a viewing area. While riding through the darkness, we curled up on the floor and tried to sleep. Once the sun started to appear, we sat in the viewing area to take in the sights. The sunrise was partially hidden by clouds, but the colors were wonderful. After breakfast at 7:00am, we sat back to relax.

After a while we began to see the evidence of whales -- spraying and spouting of water in the distance. Watching closely, we could see the backside of several. They would alternate several times, spraying and then showing their backs, and at the end we would see the tail as it dove back down. In a stretch of ten minutes we saw about ten whales, and the spouting of many more. Never knowing when or where they would appear made photographing difficult. Later one appeared almost directly in front of the vessel and we saw it close along the side.

As we approached Juneau, the first thing we noticed was the Mendenhall Glacier nestled among the mountains in the background. The photograph doesn't really do justice to the view, especially the color, even in overcast skies. The ice is directly in the center of this image. We docked after a nine-hour journey, about thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

The next morning we rode the FVF Fairweather back to Sitka. This vessel was built in 2004. Though it was smaller, with only one vehicle deck and one passenger deck, it offered more modern conveniences. A playroom for children also showed movies. Seating was arranged in areas with tables, bistro-style settings around the food nook, and airline-style seats in the viewing area. Throughout the deck a series of screens showed a map of our journey with accompanying information and statistics.

Again we were able to spot the evidence of many whales spouting in the distance, but only saw the backs of two up close. But what was in the dark on the leg out we could now see: lots of pretty views through the tight straights and channels. We crossed lots of other leisure and fishing vessels, as well as passing one barge. At one point the mountains and islands parted and the highway opened directly to the Pacific Ocean.

It was pleasing to us to see that there are still a lot
of wild places that man hasn't yet conquered with concrete. And it was great to be back to our own little home away from home in Alaska.

Next on the Juneau junket: Juneau.