Chapter 12. Southcoastal Alaska
(Bert) Clouded over and drizzling, we make few stops on our way south from Glennallen, heading toward Valdez. Now Shari has May programmed to talk to us when we are near a geocache, so we stop at the entrance to a state recreation site and she finds the cache near the gate and we stop a second time at Worthington Glacier where the geocache goal is to take a photograph from a particular GPS location. I’ve wanted to stop at Worthington Glacier every time we’ve driven this road, but the weather has always been lousy – as it is again today – so Shari persuaded me to drive past. This time, with a geocache, she doesn’t care about the rain, so I get to see the glacier up close.
We cross Thompson Pass in light rain. I checked my journal for 2006 and see that I wrote “fog and sleet”, so I guess the weather is better today. The rain has almost stopped when we reach Blueberry Lake where we will camp tonight. We meet the camp hosts and Shari invites them to our hotdog roast and the hostess accepts and even brings over a pile of firewood. The wood needs splitting, so I spend the next hour making kindling out of thick spruce chunks full of knots, a tough job. Before our meal Shari and I lead a discussion on berries and mushrooms, including hints on how to separate the delicious from the poisonous. Curiously, the namesake berries that grow profusely at Blueberry Lake have not a single berry this season. The weather has been too cold for the plants to bloom!
(Bert) At about 1 AM I look at the nighttime sky – we now have many hours of darkness – and see bright stars. At daylight the skies are still cloudless and a brilliant sun shines on the mountains. What a perfect day to investigate Thompson Pass. At 2678 ft., it may not seem all that high compared to mountain passes in the Lower 48, but here in Alaska it is enough to be shut down by snowstorms in winter. What attracts us today is it is well above tree line and the subalpine terrain produces a wide variety of wildflowers. This time of year, birds are sparse and we only see three species – Bald Eagle, Savannah Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow – plus hear Black-billed Magpie and John adds two more, Wilson’s Warbler and American Tree Sparrow. That’s undoubtedly the shortest bird list for any half-day trip we have done. However, more than making up for the short list is the many wildflowers we find. We start casually, identifying a few as we hike. With the paucity of birds, the whole group is soon looking down on the rocky ground in search of more flowers. Our list grows to 42 flower species identified and three more no one recognizes and we cannot find in a book. Surprisingly, we find many flowers in bloom that should long have expired. Alaska Violet, Alpine Forget-me-not, Arctic Lupine, Roseroot normally loose their blossoms in early to late July, and yet are still in bloom now August 11. We find a big patch of Common Fireweed, leafy green but without a single flower, a surprise since at lower elevations the fireweed is near the end of its blooming cycle and here hasn’t even started. The late bloomers and non-bloomers are further evidence to the cold months and absence of any real summer.
(Shari) I suppose you have been wondering “Where is Shari?” She has not written in quite awhile. Well, I just had nothing to write about and Bert told you all we did. Yesterday, while the group was out, I got to sleep in and then walked to a nearby cache. I was alone so I whistled and talked to myself hoping not to come across a bear. I found the cache but had to climb a rock to get at it. We had a slam dunk beautiful day and arrived in Valdez in full sun. Too bad it only lasted yesterday because this morning it is cloudy while we visit the Valdez Historical Museum. The most fascinating thing here is a movie about the earthquake and how it affected some individuals. A great animation shows how the recently docked ferry broke from the pier and then slammed back into it and back out again. The town was devastated with 22 people killed. Two years later, the town was relocated to its present site on more stable ground about 4 mi. away. It is a lovely city but too bad it rains so much.
This afternoon we take a boat trip out into the sound to see wildlife and the Columbia Glacier. I swear whales like sunshine and stay hidden and sleep during cloudy and rainy weather. We see only one whale during our 7 hr. trip. Owing to lack of wildlife, Captain Fred fills in the gaps with constant chatter that to some becomes tedious. Maybe I am tired of his spiel since it is the fourth time I have heard it. We arrive back to the harbor starved and twelve of us head out for a late dinner. Bert never likes Chinese, but he likes this restaurant.
(Bert) The Earthquake Museum shows a layout of Old Valdez before it was destroyed by the 1964 earthquake that centered close to town, as well as photos and artifacts of that time period. The movie we have seen other years has been completely redone, now a well constructed narration with personal interviews of the events as they unfolded, the type of film you would expect to see on the History Channel.
In the afternoon we board the Lu Lu Belle for an excursion of Prince William Sound. The standout experience is when Captain Fred edges his boat into a very narrow opening in the rock cliffs, the first opening demonstrating how perilously close he can wedge between the rocks with his precious teak laid vessel and its antique Oriental rugs, and the second opening giving us incredibly close up views of puffins perched on rock ledges. The Horned Puffins prefer the darker crevices and remain perched while everyone has cameras aimed at them. They certainly rank high among bird oddities with cartoon like heads sporting oversized ostentatious yellow bills trimmed in orange, white faces off centered by orange cat’s-eye-marble eyes, a mascara black trailing eye line and a curious twisted black feather gaudily pointing upward from the eye. Completing its adornment is a black and white tuxedo body and duck-like orange legs and feet. The Tufted Puffins prefer the exposed rock cliff perches. Contrastingly, they wear all black tuxedos – “tough guys wear black” – have mostly orange bills and a bad-hair-day tuft of yellowish white feathers ornamentally completing their headdress. Adjacent to the vertical cliffs, the basal rocks of a boulder beach support a colony of Steller’s Sea Lions that loudly lounge, bellowing, belching and barking as they negotiate purchase in the overcrowded shore.
We cruise on through Prince William Sound – named Sandwich first by Captain James Cook, after his benefactor Earl of Sandwich, but upon his return to England renamed in honor of the young prince who would be king – through intermittent rain and drier winds, causing many of us to shuttle between fore and aft, inside and outside, and up and down the three tiers of the Lu Lu Belle. Captain Fred seeks a whale, which are exceedingly and atypically scarce today. Eventually, he spots a spouting Humpback Whale and he edges ever closer to the rubbery-looking gray object lounging casually in the sea. We wait endlessly for the whale to dive and the captain keeps his boat positioned at the whale’s tail end to give us the best view whenever it decides to resume feeding. Now the whale just floats at the surface, apparently asleep, periodically exhausting its lungs through the blowhole and refilling, an act it can do without waking. We drift so close to the whale that I can see scratch marks on its slippery dark back and I can make out the contours of its blowhole, a raised dimple with a concave hole. We must have been in the whale’s presence for 45 min. before it awakes. All this time I’ve had my camera at the ready, shielding the long lens from the light drizzle with my handkerchief. Now the action starts and I rapidly snap a series of photos: the blowhole poking just above the water’s surface, then dipping as the body arches, the dorsal fin exposed, raising slowly to the top of the arch, then dropping forward in the continued arching of its back, the tail breaks the surface exposing its wide horizontal fins, the whole fluke above the sea and dripping a waterfall over its edges, now straight up as a triangular fluke supported by the last part of the exposed body, and finally it too dropping below the surface and leaving only an oily ripple. It’s the only whale we see today, but certainly ranks as my longest experience in the presence of a single whale and my closest observation of its nautical performance.
The Lu Lu Belle turns towards Columbia Glacier, one of the most famous of Alaska’s myriad glaciers. Some years ago now the calving glacier has dumped icebergs into the bay that have become hung up on an old, now submerged, terminal moraine that reaches to about 35 ft. from the surface, too shallow for the icebergs to float out to sea. With water temperatures at or below freezing near the glacier front, the icebergs don’t melt, but instead break up into smaller chunks that eventually escape. Pertinent to us is that we can’t get within 7 mi. of the glacier – where the water depth is over 1000 ft. - and instead are encumbered and surrounded by the marvelously blue ice, many of which extend high above the boat. A geologist on board as a passenger has a keen interest in the rocks transported by glaciers and one of the young ladies who serves as deckhand obliges by climbing off the boat’s bow and alighting on a floating iceberg, retrieves an armful of rocks for the geologist and accepts a helping hand to jump back into the boat. That iceberg would not have been a good place to be marooned!
(Bert) Rain continues this morning, but not willing to let that stop us, almost everyone seems to head out in a different direction on this free day. John joins Shari and me as we drive around the bay to the fish ladder near the pipeline oil storage tanks. Permeating the shoreline and creeks are thousands of dead and dying Pink Salmon. Thousands struggle against the strong current, shifting to the edges where the water force is weaker, lined up parallelly in densities thick enough that it makes you think you could walk across their exposed backs. Now at low tide, the water is not deep enough for them to make much forward progress. Thousands more litter the gravel with dead carcasses, grotesquely emaciated with hooked bills, arched backs and bodies nipped by a feeding frenzy of Glaucous-winged Gulls. Some died trapped in tangled discarded chain link fence, some suffocated on gravel exposed during low tide, some still breathe weakly but cannot see from eyes gorged out by gulls as their primary delicacy. The whole scene is rather depressing and fit for an apocalyptic movie on the end of the world. Looking for a bright side to the story, John and I find the fish ladder, a ever rising series of water filled concrete steps with open gaps through which the strongest of salmon climb from sea level to the hatchery 50 ft. higher. The hardy swimmers struggle for hours but eventually reach the serene pools above, where they will be milked of their eggs and sperm. Females carry 1500-2000 eggs, are placed in incubators and the subsequent fry are fed through the winter to be released the following spring. This hatchery releases 230 million pinks and 2 million silvers, as well as Chum and King salmon.
(Shari) A fish, a bear, a geocache and a berry - that about sums up the day! It does not get much better than that for me. I woke at 6 this morning to the tune of rain hitting our roof. Darn, I wish I had not half promised Bent and Marie that I would be going fishing. I stumble around R-Tent-III and am out by 7. John S is the only other person accompanying us on our outing. Bent and Marie do not even show up! I could have slept in. The rain gets harder and the fog starts to roll in. We stop at the fish hatching area, looking for the reported bears. The tide is out and millions and zillions of fish are thrashing in shallow water or dead on the exposed beach. We continue down to the oil pipeline barricade and park at the campground. I see some people fishing on the shore and decide to try my luck. You can see the fins of the fish for heaven’s sake. I surely should be able to catch one. A young couple climbs up the path with a bag full of 11 fish. Wow! I grab my tackle box, my rod and my net and head to the water. My line is twisted. John helps by cutting off the lure and rethreading the line. I cast out, noticing that John gives me a wide berth. I reel in. Nothing yet. I repeat the process. I move down the beach. I move back up the beach. All of a sudden I get a strike and I yell, “Get the net”. I beach a nice big Pink or Humpy, as they are called. I try a few more casts but the rain is coming down harder and I know Bert and John do not want to spend all morning watching me fish. So I pack up my stuff. I am happy with one. I don’t especially like to eat Pinks anyway. We start the drive back and see a Black Bear on the side of the road gorging himself with salmon. After getting our fill of him we head to camp. After lunch, Bert and I go to the Whitney Museum, a fascinating place of items from one woman’s collection. She spent much of her life gathering things unique to Alaska and then sold them in her shop in Fairbanks. We try to find a cache but May keeps shutting herself off. We go home and Bert takes out her battery and puts it back in and she works fine. Go figure! There is still enough time to walk to an overlook for a geocache. On our way we stop to visit with a falconer who is training a Goshawk in the nearby park. I find the cache, Bert picks a pint of salmonberries and we make it back just in time for our social and travel meeting. I loose control of the group when they decide they’d rather eat Marie’s and Betty’s yummy snacks than listen to a travel meeting. Later Marie and I notice the cruise ship has left and the town pier is available for fishing. Hearing that Silvers are being caught, we along with Bent gather our stuff to try our luck. During the next hour I only see one fish caught so I give up. I have so much to do and am tired. Leaving Bent and Marie with herring on their hook still attempting to catch fish, I drive home. A fish, a bear, a cache and a berry – what more could I want!
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