Chapter 7. Coastal Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Shari) The shoe on the other foot just has to drop because this gorgeous weather cannot hold out much longer. Our Alaskan friend Sally says, don't tell anyone about it. She wants to keep Alaska for residents and let the tourists think it is rainy all the time. After arriving in Seward, we head to the Alaska SeaLife Center, an impressive educational marine facility built with the Valdez oil spill money. Finally I know the difference between a sea lion and a seal. I guess you will just have to come to Alaska to learn it too. Ha! I also get to see the birds that Bert talks about all the time. Previously they were just black spots on the horizon to me. In this natural setting I am able to see the white and black markings on the guillemot, the red bill of the oystercatcher and the red legs of the kittiwake. The cutest sight, still, is the puffin and I spend most of my time watching its behavior. We meet our friends, who now live in Alaska, for cocktails at R-TENT and dinner later. We have a wonderful time and I always feel jealous of their life up here. Every time I am with them I want to move. They are thinking about getting a boat; therefore after a delicious dinner, we walk off the filling meal by perusing the boat harbor, looking for "For Sale" signs. Four or five men are enjoying after dinner drinks on their deck and they invite us aboard. I love the boat and I think Sally does too. The price seems right to me - about the same price as a similarly fitted RV. We all start to dream of a life with a boat. Of course, I say they should buy it so we could come to visit. Ha, Ha! The owner gives us all sorts of advice and takes us to look at a boat just like his that he knows is for sale. If only I were younger. We come back to R-TENT for coffee and they give us something to think about. Do we want to come back up here in August to house sit for them for 6 weeks? This is so tempting that I have to think about it for a while. I would welcome any opinions from my readers. We would leave our RV at an RV park in Prince Rupert and take the ferry up to Haines. Then drive from Haines to Cooper Landing where the house is located. The silvers will be running in Seward and the berries will be ripening on the roadsides. Neighbors supposedly would welcome us with open arms and show us around. Wow! What to do?
(Shari) Finding our reserved table, we put our backpacks down and head for the outside deck. We have an 11:45AM sailing out of Seward to look for birds, whales and glaciers for the next eight hours. Again, it is a gorgeous, gorgeous day. As we leave the harbor, the captain points out the Sea Otters next to the boat. Soon someone sees a long protruding dorsal fin and it is our first whale: an Orca or Killer Whale swimming in a pod of four or five. Our group is fluid and we exchange places from outside front left to inside at the table, to back outside, back right, etc., stopping only for a delicious dinner buffet of all-you-can-eat salmon, prime rib, salad, sour dough bread. Our boat captain decides to give us a treat and take us to Northwestern Glacier, one not normally seen by tour groups. We are not disappointed and marvel at its beauty: 2000 ft. high and 3500 ft. across, it makes us feel so insignificant. We catch it calving (term used when a chunk of ice falls off into the water) and just as we are departing we see a waterfall of ice crystals falling into the water. I watch it for 20 minutes until the boat takes a turn and it is out of my view. As we head home, we see a group of Humpback Whales who are breaching, coming completely out of the water, slapping their fins on the surface and just having as much fun as we are watching them. The show lasts longer than our captain is willing to spend and we boat onward. Next stop is the Chiswell Islands, where Pat chalks up more species for her life list. Lazy Stellar Sea Lions entertain the non-birders in the group. We arrive at the dock an hour later than scheduled but the extra time was well worth it. We saw much more than we had hoped to see.
(Shari) Dave told us that the reds are still running in the Russian River and should not peter out until July 4th. Of course, you know who wants to go. So it is 5:30AM and I am getting ready for a fishing trip with two men. Bert will stay with the rest of the group to see some of the sights around Seward before departing for Homer, where Jim and I will meet them later this afternoon. Jim and I meet Dave at a restaurant near his home and after some coffee we drive to the Russian River parking lot. Here we park and buy tickets to ferry across the river. It seems that the fish like that bank more than the closer bank so everyone stands in line to ride the current-drawn ferry across. We wade in ankle deep water, past earlier risers than we, to stake our claim site for the day. I certainly have forgotten how to fish for these dudes and it takes me an hour to get the hang of it. By that time I am bored and my arm hurts. It sure does not look like any action around here today. But wait - Jim has one on. It is a beauty too. Thirty minutes later Dave pulls one in. Don't you think it is my turn? Fifteen, then 45 and then 90 min. pass and still no fish. I need a break. All I have done so far is lose two lures and gain four while snagging on a rock where others had been in previous days. 12:30 PM and I eat my sandwich. 1 PM and I start a crossword puzzle. 1:15 PM and Jim catches another one. It has been three hours since the last fish caught. I do not know whether I should applaud or get mad. Now it means we have to stay longer. I am ready to go home. At 2:20 PM I ask for the car keys and my ticket to cross the river on the ferry. I am tired, hungry and have to use the bathroom. I tell the men, I will wait in the car. I am a catcher and not a fisher. Today has been a day of fishing and too much work for me. They are only 30 minutes behind me and at 3 PM we head for Homer and meet up with the rest of the group. After arranging boat trips and having a meeting, we finally eat "our" fresh-caught salmon at 9 PM. It is scrumptious and totally moister than store bought or even frozen ones.
(Bert) While Shari and Jim fish with Dave, the four of us head to Exit Glacier, one of the few glaciers that you can hike to its firn line and walk across the terminal moraine. Posts with years mark the recession of the glacier through time, showing just how fast Exit Glacier has exited (the name comes from its convenience as an exit after exploring the Harding Ice Field which lies above the glacier). We've seen glaciers from many perspectives now, each fascinating in its own way. This morning in overcast skies the intensity of the blue glacier ice is amplified. Pat suggests that I increase the f-stop (longer exposure) on my camera to capture the blue color, but even then it falls short of the true beauty of the deep color. Leaving the glacier we head to the small Seward airport in search of birds. Instead we find a Wild Iris marsh adjacent to Resurrection Bay, with a cruise ship docked in the distance. Walking through the marsh is better than stepping through a floral garden cultivated by a hundred gardeners. Thousands of blue irises poke above marsh grasses; remnant dark tree stumps add contrast; Chocolate Lilies, Wild Celery, Beach Peas add variety; every square inch of the marsh is covered in nature's beauty. After retrieving our RV's we take a leisurely trip to Homer, stopping frequently. We visit a nesting site for Three-toed Woodpeckers, find the nest hole, but the woodpeckers have already fledged. Wally and Virginia are lucky enough to find one further down the road, but the rest of us miss the opportunity. At Soldotna we stop at Fred Meyer's for groceries and gasoline, but it is a real zoo of RV's completely encompassing the large parking lot. Tourists have arrived in Alaska in full force and with the nearing of the July 4 holiday, Alaskans have joined them for a vacation on the Kenai Peninsula.
(Bert) Although I've seen them before on previous trips to Alaska, somehow I've never been able to photograph a Red-faced Cormorant. One year my camera malfunctioned; another year we were out of shooting range on each pelagic trip. This time as the boat approaches the island, the cormorants are the first ones I zero in on. I can see their red faces and double crests, so I start shooting. Later I notice the cluster of six is a mixture of Pelagic and Red-faced, a nice comparison. There are more on the island - nesting on narrow ledges with thousands of murres and kittiwakes - but only the first few are in good light. Birds are everywhere: feathering the bald island, swimming the chilly waters, flapping airspace and hovering for a landing. We can see them, hear them and smell them everywhere. A Bald Eagle rests on one ledge, mid story between tide line and skyline. Only in the surrounding 30 ft. do no other birds approach: safety by distance. Tufted Puffins are the colorful clowns of the show. A few rest near their burrows in the soft, grass-covered ground atop the rock island, but most float on the rolling sea. When our boat approaches too closely, the puffins attempt to fly away to safety, but they struggle to get their fish-bloated bodies airborne, pushing water like an overweight skier pulled by an underpowered speedboat. We leave the island too soon for my taste, but other passengers are more intent on visiting the artist colony across the bay. After lunch at an open-air restaurant overlooking the cove - a dining experience I suspect Shari will write about - I hike around the area. Flowers, charming vistas and a good variety of birds enhance my hike. The best though is a hen Ring-necked Pheasant trying to keep her large clutch of chicks in tow. We do not discover each other's presence until we are only 15 ft. apart. I move slowly, as does she. But the furry balls of ochre yellow and striped black scurry everywhere. Sometimes I'm so close that my camera only captures the pheasant's head and neck; she seems unperturbed as long as I'm still. After what must have been 15-20 min. I retreat slowly, just in time to meet the boat at the dock for our return trip.
(Shari) It turns out to be an expensive lunch, but a trip well worth the money anyway. I had visions of dozens of cute artsy shops along a boardwalk. Instead, only three shops make their home on the island, and one of those too far for me to walk after such a big lunch. At noon we met at Ramp One for the Danny J to take us across the bay to Halibut Cove. Again the day is perfect with sunshine, warm temperatures and sparkling seas. Our crossing first takes us to an island loaded with nesting birds. Pat finds another lifer and tries to contain her enthusiasm, since some on this boat of 20 passengers are not birders. The bird is a crested cormorant; we have a good long look at its funny crested head, and I deem it a worthy specimen to add to my list too. Upon our approach into Halibut Cove, I am reminded of those cute Atlantic seaboard villages along the shore. Here 120 people live here, 60 all year round, with transportation to the mainland only by boat. Houses are scattered around a cute bay, and I wonder what holds some of them up. Built on stilts or coming out of the cliff, they have a commanding view of the surrounding cove. A long boardwalk connects the shops and houses on the west side of the island and the cute restaurant where we have lunch is at the opposite end of where we dock. A good 5-min. walk gets us to our outdoor table and Bert and I and three others order the buffalo burger and salad. Pat has clam chowder and Nancy has halibut with pesto sauce. All are delicious, but too filling. We are given 2½ hours until our boat departs but after a big lunch, in an area of only two shops, it is too much time. Bert has the energy to take a walk on some of the paths. Next time I think I will take a picnic lunch and join him on the walk.
(Shari) Bert's eye is distracted at this early morning hour by something moving past our window. A moose casually walks through the campground. Maybe he is going fishing too. Why else would he be up and about at the ungodly hour of 5 AM? Our boat leaves the harbor promptly at 6 AM for our half-day halibut-fishing trip. In chilly winds and white-capped waves, we motor for two hours to reach the school of fish. The first mate baits our hook, shows us how to hold the 2-lb. lead weight so as not to knock anyone in the head, and reel in the fish from 90 ft. below. You can see the surprise on his face when he realizes he has a fish on his hook on this teaching run. The tide is just changing and the halibut are biting like crazy. No sooner does the baited hook hit the bottom than a fish grabs it. But it is not all that easy to crank in 90 ft. of line with something that feels like a horizontal barn door hooked on the end. My first fish is a little over 10 lbs. and I deem it too small, so we throw it back. Pat is the first one finished fishing in our group. She keeps her first ones. Jim soon follows. Virginia and Wally get the biggest fish in our group, estimated to be 27 lbs. These halibut seem smaller than the ones we caught four years ago, but harder to pull in. Every fish is harder to reel in than the one before. I quit fishing, not because I have a big fish, but because I am pooped. Of the eight fish I haul up, I think the two I keep are around 12 to 15 lbs. each. One young lady had her husband pull in her last fish for her. She was too tired to do it herself. Finally we are told to wind it up and the last fisherman, who was trying for a really big 300-pounder, has to settle for one of 20 lbs. It was his eighteenth fish to catch. When we get home, we have fresh halibut fried in beer batter and coleslaw. I have packaged the rest into 24 bags of meals for the freezer, plus enough for tomorrow night's group dinner. Yum!
(Shari) A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I wrote last. We are now in Valdez. During the past few days we have traveled over 500 miles, again enjoying beautiful weather and beautiful scenery. Bert presented a workshop on wildflowers and he lead an owling outing. We were successful again, getting a good view of the Great Gray Owl in flight, as it hunts over the darkened forest shortly before midnight. Today, in Valdez our RV's overlook the small boat harbor where all hours of the day and night the boats come and go. Across the harbor at the Peter Pan fish cannery, live salmon reach their canned destiny as they are sucked from the fishing boat tanks, up into the holding tank before plummeting down a chute into the confines of the cannery. The boat operators are now working for the hatcheries. They fish for minimum wage until the hatcheries reach their break-even point. Only then can they fish for themselves. A unique symbiotic arrangement, both need each other to survive. At 9:30 AM, I have my fishing pole ready and Bert has his knife. We are off to catch herring and Bert will clean them as I catch them. He carries my pail to the pier and wanders off while I am to catch some fish. At least that is the theory, but when he comes back, he looks into my bucket and sees nary a fish. "They are not biting," I tell him. "No one else has gotten anything either." Ninety minutes later, Jim joins me and with his first cast he hooks a fish, but looses it while reeling in. Then I have a strike, soon followed by a second. But I also loose them. The pier is about 10 ft. above the water and the fish easily falls off the hook as I bring them up. Soon, I call it quits, giving Jim my herring rig to use this afternoon. After lunch, it is time for our boat trip. We are seven of the 43 passengers joining Captain Fred on his vessel today. We chose this tour because his boat is smaller and the tour is more intimate. We see an Orca Whale up close and personal and can feel the wave produced from its tail as it breaches, a thing it does over and over again. Later, Captain Fred takes his boat within touching distance of the walls of more than one puffin cave. We are able to see puffins up close and personal too. Both Tufted and Horned puffins delight us as they fly in and out, swim in the water and roost overhead on small ledges. For me, the best of the trip is saved for last. We see North America's second largest tidal glacier. We get so close to an iceberg from that glacier that Nancy gets a hunk of ice for her martini! The differing colors of the icebergs amaze us. How can anything be so blue when frozen and crystal clear when melted? Captain Fred motors around the icebergs looking for a "lead" that would enable us get closer than our present seven miles from the face of the glacier. Unfortunately, today, solid icebergs block the path. I feel like I could be in the movie the Titanic. Here we are surrounded by these huge pieces of ice, all alone without another boat in sight, and it is soooo quiet and still. I am hoping Captain Fred does not find a path and I wish he would not get so close. What if we get in there and the icebergs float back to block our way out? What if one of those big icebergs punches a hole in the boat? I am relieved when we leave and head home.
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