Chapter 8. Coastal Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Bert) From Anchorage we drive south, stopping first at Beluga Point to see Dall Sheep grazing high on the cliffs and a grand view of Cook Inlet where it meets Turnagain Arm. Around the arm, the highway treads the lips where lofty mountains kiss muddy water at high tide. Shari tells me snow covered the mountains when they drove through here three weeks ago. Now it only fills a few deep crevices in the gray alpine mountain tops and a bit of the green subalpine. We stop at Turnagain Basin where Fox Sparrows sing from the willows along the meandering creek. Chris T. gazes up at the cliffs, wondering if they hold the Rosy-Finches he has not seen in Alaska. They might, but it must be at least a strenuous two hour steep hike to the alpine from where we stand, so the discussion remains hypothetical. We camp a few miles short of Seward and then take cars through town to the SeaLife Center. We learn from the many exhibits about the denizens of the sea. I spend the most time, however, at the two story aquarium where seabirds rest on rocks or dive deep to feed. A photographer’s paradise, I can get close-up head shots of ducks, puffins, murres, guillemots and gulls that usually can only be seen at great distance. A feature pointed out by Ralph and others is the way feathers on the King Eider form two horns on its back, something I’ve not seen in the wild. Then again, I’ve never gotten as close as 6 ft. from a King Eider before.
(Shari) I finally have to say enough is enough and not attend a function. I send Bert off with the group to the Sealife Center as I have not done any caravan paperwork since Tangle Lakes on the Denali Highway. If I wait much longer I will forget what receipt goes with what vendor. The way it is I have way too many receipts to sort through and put in their respective categories. But I get it all finished by the time the group returns and starts bringing finger food for our potluck. Tonight we also have another treat. Richard and Bill have agreed to accompany us on a sing a long. Bill sings a song about the caravan that is still a work in progress since the caravan is not over yet. It starts to drizzle and yet we do not want to retire so Bert presses our magic button and our awning rolls out to keep us dry. We quit not because we are tired but because we are cold and know that we have a day full of activities tomorrow.
(Bert) The Dall Porpoises crisscrossed the bow of the boat, silently spirited submerged as black-and-white ghosts a few feet below the clear water, then burst to the surface with a hiss and a spray of water, only to repeat these actions dozens of times. They lead the boat, like a dog chases cars, seemingly just for the fun of the race. We’d already seen a Harbor Seal, a lounging Sea Otter and four Mountain Goats as we left Resurrection Bay, and now two schools of a dozen porpoises. We’re off to a great start! Bill has been keeping a comical list of mating birds and is quick to point out an addition: a pair of Horned Puffins. My camera is quick to catch the action as they do it in the sea, the female submerged to her neck and the male flapping his wings to keep balance. We pass Bear Glacier and its “racetrack” medial moraine reaching all the way to the ocean. Many of the tall mountains hold hanging glaciers; tops on others are completely covered by glacial ice. Turning direction and following the coastline, Captain Dan stops at a Stellar’s Sea Lion colony. Lazily lounging on flat gray rocks, the sea lions look like pale brown slabs of liver, not even lifting a head as they sleep in the morning sun. Some of them are grievously marked with deep tattoos and one lies in the open, showing “=360” stretched across the length of its body. The first character is a symbol designating its birth island, the latter symbols simply tracking numbers.
From the stern of the boat, Shari sees a fluking whale. The captain heads in its direction and we wait to see the Hump-backed Whale resurface, spouting a plume of wet air. Although we only see part of its back, Dan tells us the whale is longer than our boat. I find it difficult to time my photos with the erratic spraying breaths, so I revert to movie mode and get the full action.
Rhinoceros Auklets are our next sighting. Rather comical looking birds, closely related to puffins, the black alcids have white racing stripes across their heads, offset by orange bills and an odd white rhino-horn feather sticking up from the base of the bills. For the past 45 min. we have seen Aialik Glacier ahead of us and now come upon small floating icebergs that clink as they hit the boat. Black-legged Kittiwakes use the bergs as convenient resting spots. With each mile, the glacier looms larger and wider. In another 15 min. we are within a quarter mile of the crumbling and calving wall of glacial ice. Our view of the glacier is temporarily postponed when we find Kittlitz’s Murrelets swimming in the ice water. Dan reviews the discriminating marks that separates these from the much more common Marbled Murrelets and by patiently waiting with engines turned off, we are quite satisfied with our relatively close and long views of this hard-to-find species. While lounging on the deck or in the cabin eating lunch, we have a panoramic view of the mile wide front of Aialik Glacier. Perhaps 500-ft. high at center front, the creaking wall of ice is overwhelming. Our eyes catch sight of tumbling ice falls before our ears hear the crack and splash. The air is still, chilling as the inside of a freezer, as we absorb the scene for an hour before another boat arrives and we head back out. Along a rocky shore we watch a Black Oystercatcher with its red pencil bill. My photos show this one is color banded: red over blue on left leg and light blue over blue on right leg. In the waters nearby swim Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, one of the largest of plankton and certainly aptly named.
Next destination is the Chiswell Islands, one of the best Alaska coastal areas to see nesting seabirds. We already saw Double-crested Cormorants in Resurrection Bay and now we find dozens of Pelagic Cormorants and many Red-faced Cormorants, the later a life bird for anyone who hasn’t visited Alaska before. Tufted and Horned puffins sprinkle the skies with black dots and adorn niches on the steep cliffs. They fish until so bloated they cannot take flight; the hungry ones slice the air between our boat and the rock walls. Floating near an island are four Parakeet Auklets who give us the great pleasure of not escaping our view. My views of the orange-billed alcids are probably the best I’ve had, as most others were fast birds in flight. Next, the boat reaches the cliffs where the murres nest. We’ve been seeing Common Murres in flight most of the day. Here they nest on the rock ledges and among the myriad commons we seek the few Thick-billed. Dan points out their particular ledge and we strain to see the telltale white facial line that most easily separates these from Commons. The bouncing of the boat makes the task difficult, so I take long-range photos with my image-stabilized camera, hoping to see the mark photographically. A long day at sea, most of us snooze on the ride back to the Seward harbor, stopping briefly for a Pacific Loon, and then are refreshed later while dining at a restaurant overlooking the marina.
(Shari) “What should I do?” I ask. Our Captain Dan says eat your lunch, then he says to look right for the Kittlitz’s, then he wants us to “Look, look, look at the glacier.” We are eating our lunch at Aialik Glacier about 4 hr. into our 9 hr. trip. I can’t do it all so I wrap my turkey sandwich back in its covering and move to the bow of the boat. There I see the glacier AND the Kittlitz’s Murrelets. We have already seen Humpback Whales “blowing” and “breaching” and porpoises playing in front of our ship. Our group completely fills the boat and we can tailor the trip to our interests: birds of course. But we can also see the other wildlife that just happens to be in our path. We luck out today, in more ways than one. First of all, the weather forecast was for rain. Last night was so cold and coupled with rain and wind would have made the trip miserable. However, we have wonderful sunshine in party cloudy skies and calm seas in the morning. Even afternoon seas are only party choppy. Second, we see all the target mammals that I want to see. Third, we see the glacier breaking free or calving and fourth, we see the birds. An added bonus this year is the porpoises. They come to greet us, play around and around the boat and then when we leave, follow us for a while as if to say, “Please stay longer and play with us.” It is so cute. Bert is not frustrated this time, since Captain Dan knows we want to see the birds and he stops for the murres and the kittiwakes and even searches out the three types of cormorants and the Parakeet Auklets. To end an already perfect day, 12 of us stop at a seaside restaurant for seafood of course. Bert and I share the seafood sauté, a mixture of Alaskan shrimp, clams, crab, salmon and rockfish on a bed of rice and veggies. It is very tasty especially as it is washed down with Seward’s own micro brew. Since we have only two cars for 11 people, Pat sits on Terry’s lap. I have not done anything like that since high school when we’d cram people in a car. I wonder why it felt a little more crowded now. Hum! I’ll have to think on that. Ha!
(Shari) Before we leave Seward we visit Exit Glacier, only a short drive from camp. Much of the area has been improved since my last visit eight years ago and the main path is paved most of the way to the glacier. A nice visitor’s center that conducts ranger hikes and talks is now at the entrance and a large paved parking lot has been installed. We arrive early and nearly all of the spots are empty. We hike at varying speeds and most choose to take the overlook path, a 0.7-mi. hike uphill. As we huff and puff up the slope we wonder if we had made the wrong decision but are assured when we reach the top that the view is worth the effort. We hike back down and I cannot fathom how much the glacier has retreated in the past eight years. It must have shrunk 40% and retreated 50 feet or more. Unbelieveable! We return to camp, hitch up and all depart by 11 AM. Bert and I make tracks to the campground since we know we have phone calls to make. Luckily everyone comes in individually since parking is tight. We squeeze into the narrow spots on the hill overlooking the bay. The fog lifts and we have a nice travel meeting/social enjoying the beautiful scenery of water, mountains and sea life spread out before us.
(Bert) Bill motions to me through the window as I type my daily journal. I crack open the door and he asks if I’ve seen the Stellar’s Jay. Not yet this trip, so I put on shoes and a warm jacket and follow him to where a third-year Bald Eagle rests in a White Spruce. Bill says the eagle dropped a fish when the jay started harassing the eagle. Now the small jay - not much bigger than the eagle’s head - continues to scold in the upper branches, hopping from limb to limb. Meanwhile, a Varied Thrush watches the scene from the next tree. Having enough of it, the eagle swoops to the ground, presumably to retrieve the fish, and continues flying.
Before departing in our RV’s, we drive to nearby Exit Glacier, one of the most approachable glaciers in Alaska and with a long history of visitation. Named “Exit” because it forms the downward exit from the high Harding Ice Fields from which many Alaskan glaciers flow, even as we approach on the road we see road signs marking the year of the receding firn line, starting with dates in the 1800s. Shari and I note the glacier looks smaller even in the 10 years since our first visit. We hike through the woods and up the rock hewn trail to an excellent view of the glacier with its glowing blue crevasses. Below us the water flows in a web of meandering rivulets across the glacial till.
Back at camp, we pack up quickly and drive northwest and then south in a broad sweep through the Kenai Peninsula, stopping only at Tern Lake. Just as I approach the parking lot, a Moose and her calf amble across the highway. The cow jumps the steel side barrier and the calf follows in her path, but only gets its front feet across. While the calf hangs from the fence, kicking its legs, the cow turns back to investigate. In unheard moose language, she tells the calf to get off the fence and crawl underneath. The small calf easily clears the underside and both trot to the security of the woods.
(Shari) On this gorgeous June morning, 16 of us pile into four cars to drive 55 mi. to clam at Clam Gulch. We drive down the steep hill and switch into 4-wheel drive before negotiating the deep sand. We all are excited, anticipating we will be digging our limit of 60 clams in the next 3 hr. I tell everyone to follow Bert, as he will instruct them on what to look for and how to dig. When I finally catch up with him, he has only dug two clams and they are very small. I look around and do not find any telltale dimples in the sand, indicating a clam resides at that spot. I see one, but dig up nothing but sand and gravel. Another dimple yields a rock. Another nothing. Finally I get one, but it is only 2 in. long. That is a long shot from the 5-7 in. jumbos I am used to getting. I walk around and find no one is having much luck. But we carry on with a good attitude and as we walk back to our cars I hear “I got 28”. Another got 23 and then 19 and I hear a 12. Poor Pat only got one. We drudge up the hill a little heavy in the heart for our return trip. To make matters worse, our transmission disconnect keeps jumping out and Bert has to crawl underneath the car to reposition it.
To misappropriate scripture to clamming, God does not give us more than we can handle. The good news in all this is that we only have about 90 clams to clean. I set out the pot of water to boil and line people on either side of the picnic table. Each is told to bring a bowl of water and a scissors. Bert sets out water to make a first pass at cleaning the clams. Don takes a handful of those and puts them into the hot water. I peel off the shell and the rest cut out the yucky parts and save the tasty foot, neck and body. We repeat this process for about an hour - seems longer - until all the clams have been cleaned. I take them into R-Tent-III and join the cleaning brigade for an impromptu margarita party, complements of Ralph, Virginia and Nancy. Heh, we needed something to look forward to after our hard day of work! I retire early, as tomorrow is a big day of fishing. My reputation is a bit tarnished and I need to redeem myself. Hopefully we will catch fish.
(Bert) “I thought it was kinda fun that I outsmarted a clam seven times,” Larry proclaims. He stands among others around the picnic table where Shari is instructing them on razor clam cleaning. Each has their own story about clamming today at Clam Gulch. We had to inspect a lot of wet muddy gravel for dimples that were far and few between. The best formed dimples - dime-sized depressions unlike the blunter ones made by the receding tidal waters - usually yielded a clam beneath the surface if I could dig quickly enough and deep enough, competing with the escaping clam that dug deeper. This year’s crop is small and fewer than any others in our experience. So I had to work long and hard to get my 24 clams. Amateur Nancy D. finds 28, the best in the group. She tells me she got all of hers near the surface by digging with a shovel. I got most of mine by digging deeper with my hands. Everyone else found smaller numbers, yet all seemed to enjoy the unusual experience. We couldn’t ask for better weather. From the beach we can see across Cook Inlet to the snow-covered volcanoes standing tall at the opposite side. A few Bonaparte’s Gulls watch our work and a Swainson’s Thrush sings soulfully from the tree line, seeming to mourn the crash in the clam population. The one good thing about not reaching our clam limit of 60 per person is that we don’t have to clean so many, a chore that used to take longer than catching them. The work done by 6 PM, we clean up and enjoy margaritas made by Virginia as we line our lawn chairs along the edge of our campsite on a cliff overlooking Kachemak Bay. We can see distant Sea Otters floating on their backs and Harbor Seals diving and even a Hump-backed Whale being followed by a flock of kittiwakes.
(Bert) Muddy clouds cling to the darkness as we gather at 5:15 AM for the short drive to the Homer Spit marina. Looking across the moored boats and to the mountains in the east, the rising sun shows promise, but its red cast carries a sailor’s warning. Three crewmen, all young, help us aboard the 50-ft. Sizzler, hardly an apt name for this cold morning. One of them gives an introductory speech reassuring us of calm seas today and that every boat trip this season has brought back their limit of halibut. That puts us at ease for only a minute, since he quickly follows with the proper procedure for puking. As we exit the harbor, I tell those standing next to me the story of riding through this very same channel in 1998 when the roof of the fish cannery blew off and spued black clouds of ammonia gas, separating Shari on land from me at sea as fire fighters closed the harbor immediately after our boat rocketed out of danger.
The gray overcast skies persist as we speed from the spit into Kachemak Bay, passing flocks of kittiwakes, a pair of loons and strings of Common Murres with occasional Tufted Puffins. Still, the flaming sliver of diffuse sunlight in the east is the only brightness in the sky. Flying over the deeper waters, I start to see Sooty Shearwaters crisscross just above the waves, long silver-lined dark wings with dark bodies. Some are darker still and later I learn from Chris T. that these must be Short-tailed Shearwaters.
Smiles show in the faces of passengers when I take photos, dissolving when the seas get rougher, the swells higher and the salty spray washes over the sides of the boat, forcing most to seek shelter in the small cabin and the overhang at the stern. Standing room only, we fill all available refuge, leaving Chris and Bill sitting in the blasts of spray that bounces off their raingear. Spirits remain high, for the wave action makes the ride bumpy but not rolling. After an hour we reach the deep waters where the captain expects we will find our halibut. My expectation of relief from the rough ride is quickly diminished when the engines stop and we feel the full force of the tossing waves. The carnival rides that thrill teenagers are rarely appreciated by adults with weaker stomachs. The crew spokesman quickly gives fishing instructions - hang on to the 2 lb. lead weight so it does not swing into the head of a neighbor - telling us to take whatever we pull up and fish fast so we can all get out of here before we puke. The rough seas are only going to get worse, he warns. Not an auspicious start, I think, as I struggle to maintain my balance, carrying the rod and reel, a viscous hook baited with a chunk of raw fish, and heading along the narrow passage between the cabin and the railing. I toss my line overboard, near the bow, and brace myself with one foot against the railing, one foot supporting my weight and my back pressed hard against the cabin wall. I avoid watching my line and, instead, keep my eyes focused on the gloomy mountains at a distant shore, not wanting to increase the nauseousness I already feel in my stomach. Although I have others fishing to my left and right, I can’t see the broad stern where most of our group must be struggling as much as I am. After a minute the lead weight hits bottom and I bring in the line a few reel turns. I can feel the fish tugging on the bait, only to leave the hook unattended. After several minutes I suspect my bait is gone, so I reel in and get a crewman to replace it. Meanwhile the attractive Swede fishing on my right reels in her first halibut, a keeper in my opinion, but she throws it back hoping for a bigger catch. Now I have a bite too and this time I’m sure I have a fish. When it reaches the surface, it is too small and I opt for another try. Hovering near my line and floating briefly on the tossing waves, Northern Fulmars are in close view and I wish I could set down my rod and photograph the birds, but I’d need four arms and a few extra feet to accomplish that trick. My next fish is considerably more difficult to bring up and I barely have the strength to crank the reel. As I’ve said before, bringing in a flat halibut is like raising a barn door broadside from the depths. When the fish breaks the surface I can see it is large, perhaps 18 lbs. The crewman grabs the line to hoist the fish up the 10 ft. between sea and railing. He’s lost it. The fish unhooked. Disappointed, I throw in my line again, now quite anxious to get my first keeper. I take the next fish - a small one - and then move to the stern since most of the others have stopped fishing. Have they already caught their limit of two?
Most are sitting under the overhang, watching the rest of us fish. Nancy D. looks uncomfortable and I ask her if she caught fish. She says one, but is resting to control her queasy stomach. Shari has one fish and is struggling to get another. I catch my fourth fish and Shari instructs me to keep it. It is so small I ignore her advice and the crewman tosses it overboard. With most people finished with fishing, I keep my somewhat larger fifth fish. The Swede is the last to bring in a fish, probably her twentieth at the rate she was reeling them in.
Back underway for the return, I don’t look forward to the ride. To my surprise, the tossing subsides with the forward action of the boat and the direction of the waves prevents the bouncing we experienced earlier. I can go back to bird watching, although still too rough to raise my binoculars. In the stern the workers have spread our catch across the floor, all tagged with our assigned numbers. Few want to be photographed with their catch, afraid they will fall overboard with both hands struggling to hold the heavy fish. Georgia stands exuberantly with one arm outstretched under the weight of her fish and the other tossed high like a rodeo bronco rider. Her cheerfulness suggests she must be immune to rough seas. Nancy braces herself against the cutting table and with both arms raises her two fish. I wonder if her smile is for the camera, or she is really feeling better. Now, fish cleaning begins and we watch two crewmen skillfully clean the halibut, tossing the clean white fillets in buckets and then transferring to numbered plastic bags. They throw the remnants over the side of the boat and flocks of Glaucous-winged Gulls immediately scavenge the free food. An hour’s return, I’m glad to be back on land with wobbly legs and anxious for a hot shower.
(Shari) Reed tells us the sea is calm and that every charter so far this year has come back with its limit of two halibut per person. That sounds great and we all anticipate halibut for supper tonight. The Captain motors out of the no wake harbor and into Kachemak Bay on our way to the fishing grounds, about an hour distance. I notice the eastern sky as it looks pinkish and I remember the old adage, “Red sky in the morning, sailors warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.” I hope that is just an old wives tale and, anyway, the sky is pink not red. I take a Dramamine just in case. Most of us sit on the benches outside until the sea sprays those on the right side. They move. Soon those on the left get sprayed and they move too. Later the young people up at the bow come back saying that the water is going straight over the boat. The sea is rough and I think any moment the captain will turn around saying it is too choppy to fish. No, he keeps motoring - 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 25 minutes, 30 minutes - before he stops. He comes back to tell us to fish quickly, keep the fish we bring up because the wind is blowing at 15 knots and will pick up dramatically and he wants us to fish before we all get seasick. Reed shows us what to do. The boat rocks so much that I say I am not ready to fish yet. Chris T. does not fish at all and is really seasick, loosing his breakfast to the sea. Ginny catches her limit of two fish but then also succumbs to the rolling, loosing her breakfast too. Nancy catches one fish and has to quit since she is sick. Larry catches one fish and quits. Maureen does not even try and wants to remain inside just being still for fear of loosing her breakfast. Richard does not fish either due to seasickness. Ralph, Bert, and Terry fish, in spite of feeling queasy. Pat and Georgia do great and pull in their limit plus Richards as well. What do I do? Well I had better fish since I love it so much and paid the money. So I take the rod given to me and hold on to the railing as I let the bait hit bottom. Soon I have a fish on and I reel it up only to break the line as it goes under the boat. The wind actually is so strong that it whistles around my head and the boat lurches from side to side. The only time I have been in water with waves this high was on a salmon fishing charter with Bert and my daughter Missy off the coast of Vancouver. That time we could hear small craft warnings over the radio. I make the mistake of looking at the humongous waves. That makes me sick so I have to quit my angling. The waters seem to calm a bit so I put down a line. This time I land a pretty good size fish. I try again and when I reel back my bait is gone. I try again and am so tired that Reed has to help me finish bringing up a puny little fish. He asks if I want it. By this time I am so exhausted and queasy that I say take it. The crew laughs since it is really small. I just do not care and could not reel in another one if you paid me. I sit down with the others that are queasy but able to talk and we remark that we wish that those remaining with lines in the water would quit fishing so we could go home. Finally Bert takes in his last fish and only one girl is left with a line out. She has been fishing for other people and has pulled in fish after fish after fish. I tell the captain that we want to go home. He lets her fish one more time before he heads for land. The ride back is much better than the ride out and we watch Reed and Adam filet the fish caught and bag them up for us. They make short work of over 30 fish and are finished before we dock. I just wonder if Reed will tell the same opening statement on this afternoon’s trip, “The sea is calm out there and every boat this season has come back with its limit.”
(Bert) Marked N for “Not expected to find” is the label applied to Redhead for the area we bird today. In the Birder’s Guide to Alaska, under the section for Beluga Lake, George West writes, “If you are lucky, you will find Trumpeter Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Canvasback, Redhead, and Ring-necked Duck.” I guess this is our lucky day, because on the lake we find a pair of Trumpeter Swans and a Redhead, as well as Lesser Scaup, another “Not expected” species. We started birding in the light rain on the north side of the lake and saw the flock of ducks far on the other end. Terry, looking through his spotting scope, was the first to suggest Redhead. I wanted a closer look, so we drive to the other side of the lake. Now under heavier rain, we clearly can identify the rounded rufous head and bill shape of the Redhead in the scaup flock, and perhaps even more surprisingly, the 12-15 scaup show the “dirty” side barring and pointed heads of Lesser Scaup. More expected are the dozen or so Red-necked Grebes we see on the lake.
We drive uphill to Skyline Drive, offering a panoramic view of Homer Spit jutting out into Kachemak Bay in the direction of the snow capped coastal mountains on the opposite side. We stop at the Carl E. Wynn Nature Center, arriving in time for the 10 AM nature walk led by Beth and, fortunately, for the dissipation of rainfall. Although our interest is in finding a Spruce Grouse, Beth nicely fills in the gaps between bird sightings with detailed stories about the flowers, trees and plants we see along the narrow footpaths. She points out the differences in the cones of the Lutz Spruce compared to the common White Spruce farther north on the Kenai Peninsula and to the Sitka Spruce across Katchemak Bay and extending south through Juneau. The Lutz Spruce is a hybrid between these, found only in the narrow band that includes Homer. Beth identifies Club Moss and tells us the shaman used its pyrotechnic properties to perform magic and that later the plant was used as a light source for early flash photography. Barkley Willow and Watermelon Berry are favorite moose food, Marsh Violets are lighter colored than Alaska Violets, … the stories continue. In the bird category, we never find a Spruce Grouse - although Mike and Kay found a family of them here yesterday - but we do see Golden-crowned Kinglets, Gray and Stellar’s Jays and lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Townsend’s Warblers.
(Shari) After getting up early so many previous mornings, I feel good luxuriating between the sheets. I hear Bert leave to take a group birding and it is 8 AM before I open my eyes for the day. Today is our fish fry and it looks like rain. What next? As I leave to pick up some supplies for the party, I notice a Casita parked in the campground with its door open. A Casita is a 17-ft. trailer that looks sort of like an egg and I think it is just the ticket for us when we go to Costa Rica in 2007. But Bert has been resisting. I knock on the door and the couple inside is overly nice and extols the praises of their little home. They own a 38-ft. motor home and left it in Florida for this trip. After seeing the inside I am even more convinced that this is what I want. After grocery shopping, I take Bert over to look. He still is not convinced, but at least now he is thinking about it. He wants me to make a list of everything I want to take along. Ha, I have already done that! We don’t get a chance to discuss the issue further since it is time for our fish fry. Gathering all the supplies we need, we drive up to the outside deck and campfire area. I set up the fryer, Terry starts a fire and Pat puts tablecloths on the six picnic tables. Soon the group arrives with their side dishes. After a short travel meeting, I add beer to the batter and begin frying the fresh halibut. Terry grills fish for those that don’t want it fried. I fry for about an hour as people come back for seconds and even thirds. Eating in between batches, if I say so myself, it is delicious. The topic of conversation continues to be the turbulent fishing trip that can now go down as an adventure story to tell our friends back home. The good thing is that we at least got fish to eat.
(Bert) I can see Gull Island from the tip of Homer Spit, but not well enough to identify the thousands of birds clustered on the rock. It’s our first stop on the 89-passenger Discovery on this idyllic day when the skies are clear except for a few white puffs on the horizon, the seas are placid and the temperature is … well at least it’s warmer than the last few days. A few Tufted Puffins float near enough to the boat for photos and then we come to a raft of hundreds of Common Murres. Now at the rock face of the island we see thousands of murres on the ledges and standing side by side like black-and-white bowling pins across the top of the rock. Sharing the small island, thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes take flight on a whim, only to resettle quickly and repeat the process, a constant churning of wings accompanied by a chorus of raucous gull music. Among these, a pair of Red-faced Cormorants huddles close together in an enclave just below the roving remote-controlled camera connected a museum in Homer. The cormorants could go unnoticed as black bodies against a dark rock except for their white rump patches and their bright red-orange featherless faces. Around the back side of the island we see a few more, mixed with Pelagic Cormorants. A Bald Eagle, previously resting quietly atop the rock, suddenly takes flight, causing an immediate bird alarm that sends thousands of kittiwakes into flight. As we leave the Bird Island, I get one last photo of a Red-faced Cormorant in flight. We continue following the coast line, meandering between small islands and curious rock formations, including Elephant Rock that magically raises its trunk for us as we pass. Off in the distance, across Kachemak Bay, we can see the four active volcanic mountains clearly and Captain Tim names them for us: Spurr, Redoubt, Iliamna and ending with smoking Mt. Augustine. A surprise leaps in the distance and the captain diverts the Discovery toward two Hump-backed Whales putting on a show. Repeatedly the pair breaches the sea, their enormous rotund bodies rocketing skyward, escaping the blue water but for their tails. What would possess these leviathans to exert such enormous effort? The action goes on for many minutes until we only see an occasional puff of wet spray and we continue our journey.
We dock at Seldovia and climb the gangplank steepened by low tide. Most of the group seeks restaurants in the seaside village, but Chris B. and I begin walking through town, along the lagoon and beyond. Our first bird is a dark shadow that quickly hides in the dense spruce. It seems like a blackbird, but isn’t. When we finally get a good look, it’s a Song Sparrow - the sooty Kenai form - and for confirmation it sings a familiar song. We are sidetracked from birding by the intensely colored yard flowers that grow large in the long sunlight. One homeowner invites us into her backyard for close-up photos of her Blue Himalayan Poppies. She says another flowering bush attracts hummingbirds and we inspect dozens of feeders scattered throughout the village, but see no visitors. On the outskirts of town we are joined by Ray and Nancy and continue hiking to the gravel beach on the opposite side of the peninsula. From there we loop back along Otterbahn Trail, made by local school kids. A board walk through marshlands leads to the rain forest where Sitka Spruce grows tall and thick and Wood Ferns and Devil’s Club densely mat the under story. Townsend’s Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets call from the trees and Hermit Thrushes sing sweetly. When we return to the village I have enough time for an ice cream sundae before we board the boat. Drowsy from my 3-hr. hike, I nap during the return trip.
Back at camp, an impromptu party gathers in front of Don and Barbara’s rig. Richard and Georgia - the only ones not on the boat - tell us that they saw me and others at Bird Island. Puzzled for a few seconds, I resolve how that could be. They visited the Pratt Museum and watched us through the remote camera at the same time we were watching the Red-faced Cormorants.
(Shari) “Ooh! Ahh!” the whole boat voices at once as we see two Humpback Whales breach the water. Captain Tim motors a little closer and we get great views of the whales seemingly playing with each other. No wonder they are out to frolic since it is such a pretty day for our boat trip to Gull Island to see nesting birds and Seldovia to shop, eat, bike or hike and bird. Many of us choose to eat first and then shop. Others do not want to waste time eating and head for the birding trail immediately. You can guess which group I am joining. We only have three hours to enjoy this small town on a picturesque harbor before the boat leaves the dock for our return. Since Ralph and Virginia are driving us today, and they along with Bert want to check out a bird sighting near the Homer airport, I am outvoted and must tag along. No luck finding that particular bird, but they find others to train their binoculars on. On our way back, I request to visit the brewery so I can return my bottles and fill two of my own. Back at camp, we notice a group gathering in front of Don and Barbara’s rig for another impromptu social hour. We join them too and again relive our trip today and yesterday’s fishing experience. As Bert says, “We all have stories to tell.”
(Bert) Now into the month of July, we finally have weather warm enough to get by with just a T-shirt, although shorts have not yet replaced my long pants. At our 5 PM social, Terry again builds a fire, this time on a cliff overlooking Cook Inlet and the Kenai River at our new campsite. Gulls fly overhead and Barbara notices that their wingtips are too dark for Glaucous-winged and too light for Herring. She has, in fact, noticed flocks of hybrids that are known to occur in this area. I present a talk on Alaska wildflowers, as they are now out in full glory and are rivaling birds for attention. During our bird walks I had noticed Sally and Chris B. are good at identifying flowers and they help out in my talk. To my surprise Nancy S. fills in lots of details from her vast knowledge of plants and at the end of my talk we focus on some giant dandelions Chris and I saw in Seldovia yesterday. Even though I looked through my nine wildflower books covering Alaska flowers, Nancy produces yet another and shows me Horned Dandelion, matching the Seldovia flower.
(Shari) A much needed free day passes too quickly. I catch up on individual accounting sheets, but do no road log updates or receipt accounting. By the time I return from picking up supplies for our clam chowder dinner it is already almost 2 PM. Ginny comes over and invites me to lunch at Veronicas. I had forgotten that we had visited Veronicas 8 years ago with friends who had a son singing a Friday night gig there. I ask a waitress if she remembers but she was not here then. Time marches on. We have a lovely lunch with a tasty spicy quinoa soup with spinach and corn. After returning to the motor home, Bert and I take a shorte trip to The Landing. Described in the Milepost as a restored cannery now housing 32 shops and a restaurant, I have visions of shopping but am disappointed. Many of the spaces have “For Rent” signs and those with vendors have little merchandise that interests me. Anyway, nothing calls out my name and within 30 min. we are headed back home. We see a group gathering at the shelter and soon another impromptu social is in the works. Sally and Hoss join us and we all want to hug and say goodbye. They need to depart in the morning and we will surely miss them. They were our traveling companions most of the time since they liked to get up early for departure. When we would take breaks, Sally would go off with Bert, Hoss would sit in the truck or walk the parking lot and visit with me. I for one will really miss them. After mentioning that I needed to peel potatoes for tomorrow’s clam chowder dinner, we join at Georgia’s rig for a PPP, a Potato Pealing Party. With all the helpers, we make short work of the task.
(Bert) A free day without an agenda, I use it to sort through my thousands of photos, enter bird sightings and print a cumulative list for the Alaska portion of our trip: 207 species of birds. Chris T. hiked the Skyline Trail and finally found the Spruce Grouse he sought – and got excellent photos of the hen and chicks. Bill and Ginny found another at Captain Cook State Park. Sally reports seeing a Parasitic Jaeger along the coast of Cook Inlet. Ralph and Virginia saw Short-tailed Dowitchers in the marsh by the fish processing plant, a place I think we’ll visit tomorrow.
(Bert) We scan the broad grasslands of the Kenai River Special Management Area, seeing little, but off in the distance is a flock of 17 Whimbrels foraging. These take flight, only to be replaced with a larger flock of 40-50. Just a month ago we were still seeing spring migration in Nome. Now it’s fall migration already. At wetlands in the management area, we find Semipalmated and Western sandpipers – again birds that nest farther north and now are post-breeding migrants. The Northern Pintails are still tending their young; a cinnamon hen and downy chicks waddle into the marsh grass to escape our view. Locally breeding Sandhill Cranes fly overhead, heading to the grasslands where we saw dozens earlier. We drive out to the mouth of the Kasilof River, crowded with local residents using nets to catch salmon swimming upstream. Hundreds of people have gathered on this extended 4th of July weekend and are camped on the sandy beach in tents, trailers and old motor homes. They wade knee to chest deep on the edge of the river, holding their extended nets. I don’t think the salmon are running yet, because I see them catch only one fish. Gulls are more numerous, all mixed flocks of Herring and Glaucous-winged, including many hybrids. We walk back on the K Beach Road and watch a moose and calf walk across the short mowed lawn of a yard and then disappear in the surrounding spruce forest. A family of four Boreal Chickadees and a larger family of Black-billed Magpies are in the woods. The best bird is an often hidden Olive-sided Flycatcher repeatedly calling its three quick toots, but not the familiar “quick, three beers” song. We return to Kenai in time to watch the local parade, complete with costumed kids, antique cars, local politicians, fire trucks, a few horses and lots of American Flags. We have our own party starting at 4 PM, which I’m sure Shari will tell us about.
(Shari) Biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, sausages, pancakes, coffee and orange juice are served this morning by the Rotary Club of Kenai for their annual 4th of July breakfast. Don, Pat, Ginny, Richard, Maureen and Larry all walk to the Ball Park and we eat our fill. Later we gather on the street to watch a rather nice parade complete with classic cars, various clubs, bagpipes and horses but no marching bands unless you count the radio station staff pounding on homemade drums. The birders straggle back and join us at different times during the almost 2 hr. parade. Later, at our own holiday party, as I stand reading my poem of our travels I periodically watch the faces of those in the group. I am pleased when nods and laughter accompany the appropriate words. The group is humoring me today and plays along with the game that I have arranged. A take-off on Scattergories (thanks Pat Y.), we divide into teams of two and think of words that begin with a certain letter to describe 4th of July and our caravan and staff. Some interesting things turn up for Shari’s idea of fun: describe your tailgunners and favorite 4th of July activity. Extra points are awarded for originality and winners get prizes. I really have to laugh hard at the imagination of these teams. After using up all our calories in this strenuous mind exercise, we eat clam chowder (from our famous clam digging outing). Richard and Bill round out the evening’s entertainment with their ukuleles. We sing the theme song from the show “Songs of Denali” that begins with:
Track a little bear, Drink a little hooch, Tell a lot of bull, Eat a little moose. Build a little fire, Got to keep warm, Kill those mosquitoes, Before they swarm. Eat a little food, Have a lot of fun. We’re in the land, Of the midnight sun.
Georgia added a few lines of her own:
See some birds, Keep a list, Go to sea, Catch some fish. Dig in the sand, Grab those clams, Shari’s makin’ chowder, In the midnight sun.
Don, who has this terrific voice, leads the singing of the above and other printed patriotic songs. I have to leave the party early since I have two phone calls to make before the offices close but I can still hear the singing as I walk back to R-Tent-III. It has been a fun day.
(Shari) Leaving at 8 AM this morning, we drive to Palmer stopping at Tern Lake for birds, Turnagain Pass for birds and Bird Point for gas. We arrive at camp by 12:30 with Ray and Nancy not far behind. As we eat soup for lunch, others arrive and they dribble in for the rest of the afternoon, most stopping in Anchorage to stock up on supplies. We hear that Bill and Ginny have starter problems and are stranded at Turnagain Pass awaiting a tow truck. Terry and Pat are waiting with them for a while before coming to camp later. Our group seems small and our circle smaller as we gather for a social and travel meeting at the pavilion. When the phone rings, it is Bill telling us that a tow truck is scheduled to pick him up at midnight. My goodness he has been at the rest area for at least 10 hr. already. I wonder why it is taking so long. Their motor home will be towed to the Caterpillar dealer in Anchorage and hopefully will be on his way again in the morning.
(Bert) Time to move on to another part of Alaska, we will do it in three jumps. Today we travel as far as Palmer. Our route through the Kenai Peninsula, Turnagain Arm, and then Anchorage is perhaps the most traveled section for Alaska visitors. Most of the vehicles are RV’s, and it is on this road that the State has a law against blocking more than five vehicles. Not a problem today, the traffic moves quickly and we reach our campsite by late lunchtime. The rest dribble in slowly all afternoon until Paul arrives and tells me that Bill and Ginny are stalled at Turnagain Pass, unable to start their motor home. Our social hour and travel meeting proceed without them. Around 7:30 Bill calls on the cell phone to say they have called a tow truck that will arrive around midnight and take them to Anchorage to the same Caterpillar shop Shari and I visited weeks ago. Bill hands the phone to Tailgunner Terry and I suggest he and Pat continue on to our campsite, since he cannot help more tonight. By 10 PM Terry and Pat arrive. I expect Bill will get his RV problems resolved and can join us at the next stop.
(Bert) The drive up the Matanuska Valley is depressingly gray, the charm of Alaskan scenery painted over by dreary rain clouds. Besides, the uphill highway seems rougher than when we passed this way six weeks ago. What a surprise, though, when we reach Eureka Summit (3322 ft.) and the weather – and my attitude - completely transforms in a minute to lazuli skies and feathery white clouds. We stop for a lunch break at a wayside overlooking the broad valley to the Chugach Mountains. While Shari prepares sandwiches I walk outside, enjoying the scenery and studying the Dwarf Fireweed that brightens up the roadsides. Passing through the spruce is a Western Wood-Pewee, the first I’ve noticed in Alaska this year, although Chris T. has seen several. Back in the rig, the cell phone rings and Bill tells me the Anchorage Freightliner shop replaced the solenoid in his motor home and he will catch up with us in Glennallen in time for our pizza party. Later, over pizza, Barbara and Don describe a new bird for them that they saw at their campsite. Their description matches Pine Grosbeak, a nice find, and afterward I see the same birds there too. At 9 PM, nine of us head out for owling. Stopping at a small lake to watch Lesser Scaup, four Bohemian Waxwings fly over, calling in flight, and landing on a distant spruce. Off to the south a beautiful scene unfolds: a bright cameo in a dark blue sky. Spotlighted by the setting sun, the shadows of dark crevices in glaringly white snow covered mountains offset the rugged peaks that protrude above the glaciated ice field. The marine blue Tazlina Glacier flows into a white lake surrounded by black spruce forest. Too pretty for words, I take a photo of the gleaming jewel. We continue down the gravel road scanning for owls and then stop at another lake, this time to watch a high perched Lesser Yellowlegs. Terry notices an owl take flight across the right side of the lake and then I see it too, a Short-eared Owl, just as it dips into the tree cover. We wait. The owl rises again, circumscribing the back side of the lake, flying low and slowly with a light floppy flow. Its feathers are a light mottled color. Perhaps, out of interest in our presence, it flies to the top of a spruce and points its rounded face in our direction, studies us briefly and heads to the back side of the lake and over the rise. Now rain falls and puts a dampener on further sightings for the evening. We call it quits around 10:45 PM.
(Bert) You would think that I’d eventually become inured to the Alaskan scenery. But just about that time, the geography transforms to something we haven’t seen before this trip. Glennallen lies in a central plateau and from there to Valdez we cross through the coastal Chugach Mountains. In the distance, to the east are Mt. Drum and Mt. Sanford, part of the glacial peaks in the Wrangell Mountains. Closer up are lakes surrounded by spruce, but as we descend to the level of the braided glacial streams, laden with chalky gray blue silt, cottonwoods grows tall. Ahead of us lies Worthington Glacier, much receded since last visit, if my memory is accurate. The mountains loom enormous around us, creating a vertical scale that makes RV’s a few miles ahead of us remind me of Leaf-cutter Ants trailing around their huge mounds in Central America. Some of the highest peaks rise to over 6000 ft. here. At Thompson Pass we climb to 2678 ft., driving through fog and sleet and we wonder what the weather will be like at our lunch stop. Over the pass and descending a few hundred feet, the skies are clear again when we pull off at Blueberry Lakes. During our extended lunch break I check out the alpine flowers – False Asphodel, Alpine Azalea, Lapland Diapensia, to name a few. I find a new one that I don’t remember ever photographing before: Pixie Eye Primrose, a brilliant pink flower so small that I need to magnify it on my computer screen to appreciate its intricate beauty. I notice that the willows are singing with birds, so I make a pishing noise and they come closer to investigate. No timidity on their part, I capture close-up photos of Orange-crowned Warbler, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Hermit Thrush, species otherwise hard to get close to.
Leaving the high altitude, we descend with exhaust break engaged. As we go lower, the cliffs arise beside us until at Bridal Veil Falls, I can now look almost straight up to what must be at least 800 ft. where the water starts to plunge over the side. A few hundred feet farther, I stop again to look at Horsetail Falls, smaller and wider. I get two quick views of a rotund black bird flying across the falls at mid level. It must be the American Dipper that I’ve seen here before. Now on the coastal plain, we again pass through a cottonwood forest, permeated by glacial streams. Our campsite faces the Prince William Sound and we can watch the boats and birds pass by our front windows.
(Shari) R-Tent-III’s front window faces the small boat harbor in Valdez and I can sit in any chair watching the activity pass my window. The Peter Pan Cannery is across the water and I can see salmon sucked out of the large boat hulls into the confines of the factory. To my right across the bay, I see the terminal for the Alaska oil pipeline. This is a beautiful setting and a place I could spend hours just watching. Unfortunately our weather has not been cooperating. The morning is damp and foggy but expected to lift by noon. Our boat trip out to the Columbia Glacier starts at 2 PM and since no morning trip left the harbor, the boat is crowded. We have taken this trip many times previously and always enjoy Captain Fred’s stories about oil, fishing, politics, wildlife, and anything that strikes his fancy. The 5-hr. trip turns into 6-1/2 as he tries to find us a whale. Alas, no whale this time. Actually, this is the first Alaskan boat trip that I have taken that came back empty handed of whales. We do see puffins up close and personal as Captain Fred motors his private mahogany and teak “Yacht” into small rock crevices on Glacier Island. We see a colony of sea otters floating on their backs and are told that they have 250000 hairs per square inch. No wonder their fur was prized in the past. We sail within 7-1/2 miles of the Columbia Glacier but today Captain Fred can find no “lead” through the ice to get closer. Last season he did it only 28 times and this year so far only 6. Other years when Bert and I did this trip, we never made it to the face either but did get in and amongst the huge icebergs. This year the ice is well packed and close together on the terminal moraine, not leaving any room for our boat to maneuver through it. The Columbia Glacier is the fourth largest glacier in Alaska and when calving does so with house size pieces, hence all the icebergs floating around us. It is the closest I can come to feeling I am at the North Pole. The pieces are beautiful in their varying shapes and white-blue color and everybody has their cameras busy trying to capture the scene. After our trip, 16 of us walk to the Chinese restaurant in town and order great food. Even Bert who does not like Chinese loves this meal. I think it is the company myself. At the end we all take turns reading our fortune cookie out loud and adding the words “in bed” after it. I have never done this before and it is hilariously funny.
(Bert) No whale today is a real surprise, especially since Captain Fred searched long and hard for Humpbacks and Killers. We do make up for it in other wildlife sightings, however. First are the 100+ Sea Otters that gather in two large rafts not far from the Valdez harbor. Sleeping when we arrive, the otters come to life and frolic comically in the water. More hairs per square inch than a house cat has on its whole body, according to Richard. No wonder the otters seem to enjoy spending life in ice water. During the long ride out toward the glaciers, Captain Fred entertains us with countless Alaskan stories, especially those about gold miners entering the fields through Valdez, the great earthquake that obliterated the town, the workings of the salmon fishing industry and, of course, the construction of the pipe line and on going shipping of oil from this important port. Now he edges the Lu-lu Belle toward the rock cliffs and tells us to be on the lookout for puffins. For many minutes we see only a few Pigeon Guillemots, but then we find the Tufted and Horned puffins clinging to rock ledges, inside dark caves, flying heavily through air and swimming plumply in the sea. This is our best and most prolonged view of the puffins since we entered Alaska. Captain Fred pushes the Lu-lu Belle so close into the caves that we sometimes have to duck our heads to avoid a rock outcropping. A bit farther along the coast we see Pelagic Cormorants and two or three Red-faced Cormorants. A few are brownish and rather ragged looking, with pale bills – probably juveniles.
Just around a rocky point we find Stellar’s Sea Lions by the hundreds. In fact, the population seems to have grown since previous visits as we see the sea lions everywhere for the next few miles. The big bulls rest in the center of large harems of smaller females and frequently threaten other males that get too close to their territory. They squabble loudly and furiously, then plop down their heads and rest quietly on the rocks, only to be disturbed a minute later. While watching the puffins and sea lions, Terry looks higher and spots a Peregrine Falcon. I see it again soaring a thousand feet above us.
Moving again toward Columbia Glacier, we begin to notice the murrelets. First they are all Marbled, then I see a single Kittlitz’s and by the time the air chills and we see more floating icebergs, the majority seem to be Kittlitz’s. Compared to our pelagic trip from Seward almost two weeks ago, the murrelets are all brown and the Marbled are much darker than the Kittlitz’s. Flying near the ice, we see a large flock of Harlequin Ducks, probably fifty or more. A flock of Black-legged Kittiwakes are disturbed when a jaeger chases them. Flying parallel to the boat’s direction, we study the jaeger for minutes and finally recognize it as Parasitic.
We reach the Columbia Glacier, or at least get to the ice bergs that separate us from its face. Almost a solid mass, the captain cannot find a passage through the tight cluster. We stop for portrait photos with the blue icebergs as backdrop. Captain Fred and his team again search for whales on the return trip, but find none.
(Bert) Not having seen enough of the Chugach Mountains outside of Valdez, we head back in that direction, stopping again at Blueberry Lake. Fog has set in, but visibility is far enough to see the singing birds. It’s mostly the flowers that intrigue me though and while the others wander off in the direction of a Willow Ptarmigan family, I seek out those wildflowers I’ve not photographed before or want better shots. We drive a few miles farther uphill and park at Thompson Pass. Here the wildflowers are even more profuse, a veritable floral carpet spread between flowing streams, rock outcroppings and large patches of snow. Raindrops collect on the petals and leaves, adding silvery sparkles and a shiny finish to my photos of Nootka Lupine and Few-flowered Shooting Star, aptly named for the way the violet petals are pulled back and the stamens project like a rocket crashing to the ground. Many of the flowers are only subtly different, like the three species of yellow arnicas I find – Alpine, Frigid and Lessing’s – showing varying leaf shapes and the amount of droop in the flower head position. My best find is Glaucous Gentian with its oddly colored violet blue petals cupped in oblong green leaves speckled with gold dots. Eventually we climb down from this garden paradise. Before we leave, though, I want to find a Wandering Tattler. I walk along the roadside stream where Chris saw it a few days ago, only to be called back by Ralph when he sees one perched on a rock at the crest. The bird stays long enough for Ralph to retrieve his scope from the car and we all see it close up. Strange it seems to see this species both on the seashores of Hawaii and the mountain tops of Alaska.
After an educational visit to two Valdez museums, where we also have the opportunity to watch original film footage of the devastating 1964 earthquake which obliterated the city, we meet for a social and say goodbye to Ralph and Virginia who are staying in Alaska longer to meet their kids and grandkids. I bring a small bucket of glacier ice chipped from an iceberg floating at the Columbia Glacier. Nancy, Paul and I enjoy the most fabulous martinis with 10000-year-old ice. I talk so profusely about the great taste that soon Paul, Curt and Shari want some of their own.
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