Chapter 2. The Alaska Ferry
(Shari) Luckily the rain stops during the night and things start to dry out. We continue with our plans to go birding. While the group birds, I discover that many geocaches are hidden in the park. I take 30 min. at the first one while the group ponders which bird is which. They are successful in identification, but I fail at finding the cache. On another cache I fail again. I am really losing my touch and need Carol or Steve and Nancy or Donna and Jim to help me. When we arrive back at camp, Doug and Kay are in their spot and the mechanic is busy working on their water leak. Both of them are a sight for sore eyes and we can’t talk fast enough to get all the words out we want to tell each other. As I write this, Doug and Kay had to go back to the mechanic’s shop and I sit here worrying what is wrong now. We only have 1 hr. before we head to the ferry terminal. At least the day is pretty, with warm sunshine and blue skies: perfect to take a ship out on the water.
(Bert) While we are out birding at Tennant Lake, a 9:30 AM phone call from Doug informs us they are almost in Bellingham now, so we should see them when we get back to the campground in a few hours. The skies are flushed of last night’s rainstorm, providing pleasant birding conditions. We enjoy a male Rufous Hummingbird brilliantly displaying its red gorget in morning sunlight. The hummingbird quarrels with a Bewick’s Wren. The wren clutches a twig of a high multi-flowed shrub and faces the hummingbird as it hovers in attack mode, vigorously defending its territory. Is it a nest in the construction stage or the nectar-filled flowers that agitates the war? My best bird, though, is identified by Dave. It is the first time I’ve seen Bushtit in Washington State.
Back at camp, I see Doug filling water into his Earthroamer while a mechanic is kneeling inside and working on the plumbing. The factory-shipped parts arrived and the local mechanic is now installing them. What a relief to see Doug and Kay! They have made it to Washington in time to join us on this afternoon’s ferry. Meanwhile, I need to make a repair of my own. Last night’s storm induced a water leak that wet the ceiling, extended into our clothes closet, soaking one jacket sleeve, reached the wooden drawers and trickled down to the carpet, all before we saw the persistent rivulets. Three times I donned my raincoat and climbed on the roof, but could not see where the rainwater was penetrating the solid surface. Finally, after removing the ceiling of the closet cabinet I found a stream of water descending an electrical wire from a hole drilled through the roof. Now I measure the distance of the leak hole relative to the side and slide, and after climbing on the roof, I see the tiny gap in the putty surrounding the hole drilled between the solar panels and the electrical box. With silicone offered by Bob, I soon have the leak fixed.
After a long wait in line, check-in procedure and boarding, we are onboard the M/V Columbia. At 5:25 PM local time, we leave the Bellingham dock and glide smoothly into the Strait of Georgia. With front row seats in the seventh floor gallery we have a good 120º view across the bow of the ship. Let the birding begin. Before dinner, we have identified about 20 species, highlighted by flocks of Brant, Surf Scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks, a dozen Common Loons, a waterdance of six Red-necked Grebes and a few Western Grebes, multiple pairs of Marbled Murrelets, and five Rhinoceros Auklets.
(Shari) We all make it to the ferry and I walk to retrieve our tickets. Apparently I was to have done that earlier and I get a small scolding for waiting until the last minute. We tried yesterday but the office was closed then. The clerk also wants to see everyone face-to-face with their picture ID but I explain I am the group leader and would like to get all the tickets at once. She talks to her supervisor who allows the exception and I depart with sets of tickets for every rig plus a baggage ID for each bag. The group gets vehicles in line to enter the loading area just as I walk up with the tickets. Then we wait until loading. We stand around talking to fellow passengers, security guards and each other for the next two hours. Finally we board, I run to the purser’s desk to retrieve our room assignments and hand out keys as each couple comes off the elevator. The rooms are spacious, each containing full bathroom, with shower, and a big window overlooking the walking deck. Very nice if I say so myself!
We meet in the lounge area and stake out the first row of chairs in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows stretching the whole breath of the ship. On other ships these windows are either foggy or dirty, but not on this one. It is such a good birding spot that even Bert birds from the comfort of the chair in heated luxury. Now that is my type of birding! I notice others sit behind us to take advantage of the group’s expertise. Many fellow passengers live in Alaska and are returning from a winter in the southern U.S. Bob and Pat want to finish a box of wine they have so as not to be overloaded with alcohol when we cross into Canada next week. We are only too willing to help them and we take big coffee mugs to their room for filling. No one knows we are drinking wine and we can smuggle them up to the lounge or to dinner. The ship is on Alaska Time, so we turn the dials on our watches back another hour. That means I am going to bed at 8 PM tonight.
(Bert) The dynamic computer screen showing our current location as Nichols Bay off the coast of Artillery Islands is too narrow a perspective, so I ask the purser where we are on a big map of the Inside Passage. She points to a spot in Johnstone Strait, about midway up the length of Vancouver Island. From the bow viewing deck I can easily see land on both sides of the ferry. It is 6:45 AM, British Columbia time, 5:45 AM Alaska time. Dazzling snow crowns the island mountain tops and tall dark conifers flank the steep sides, with occasional swatches of clear cutting revealing rocky soil. Dense forests extend down to the shoreline, a narrow band of weathered boulders strewn with riff raff logs escaped from tugs pulling rafts to lumber mills. Six Pelagic Cormorants form a tight squadron flying low over the calm water, but otherwise birdlife is minimal yet at this hour.
(Shari) I can see why people like to cruise the Inner Passage. Its waters are calm and the scenery is drop dead gorgeous. I have no trouble sleeping in my bed but do wake up at 5:30. Bert is already out of the room sitting in a chair in the top lounge. He has saved the whole front row for our group. I get some coffee in the cafeteria and join him. I could soak up this scenery forever. Again we have a sunny day and nothing beats glistening snowcapped peaks above a green forest of spruce reaching to water’s edge.
(Bert) By the time others join me on deck in mid-morning, we have a few good sightings of a Harlequin Duck, Marbled Murrelets, Common Murres, and, best of all, a single Parakeet Auklet sporting a bright orange bill. The ship captain announces we will be entering rougher waters, skirting the BC coastline, but unprotected on the port side. However, the seas are so calm we barely notice the swells of Queen Charlotte Strait. A flock of 30 Western Grebes is a good sighting. Surf Scoters are often seen and we watch our first pair of White-winged Scoters as well as a pair of Sea Otters floating serenely on their backs with no concern for the huge ship gliding close by.
We leave the open waters and are again in the Inside Passage, now at Fitz Hugh Sound. Eight Bald Eagles are fishing near shore with cormorants and nearby fly two more eagles. At 1 PM the rest of the group is at lunch or sitting elsewhere when I spot our first Humpback Whale very close to the ship and I take a series of photos of its back. The captain announces the sighting, but few reach the deck in time to see it. Except for mealtime, I stay on deck the whole day, finding eight Harbor Seals lounging on rocks, a Red-necked Grebe, and several pairs of Red-throated Loons, among other species. We pass the picturesque native village of Bella Bella and a flock of 40 Bonaparte’s Gulls. In a conversation with the lady sitting next to me I find out she taught school in Alaska with a grade school and high school classmate of mine, who we will see sometime this summer. In Milbanke Sound we get our first sighting of Dall’s Porpoises, pods of three to four each, putting on a playful show of splashing and jumping ahead of the ship and then in its wake. They clear the water enough so that I can see their white bellies. We gather as a group for evening dinner at a table overlooking the stern. The entire back wall of the restaurant is glass, so we enjoy a view of Princess Royal Channel as the scenery shrinks from dusk to darkness.
(Shari) The birders have quite a list going already and add to it all day long. We see porpoises cavorting near the ship on numerous occasions and whales slapping their tails and then fluking as they dive down for food. Bert and I enjoy a delicious and filling breakfast of huevos rancheros with David and Carrie just before they rush off to take care of their two dogs. Dogs are allowed to stay in the rig and their owners are given 15 min. to “potty” and walk them every four or so hours. David and Carrie’s dogs do not like to potty on the cement between all the cars and rigs on the deck and it is almost 24 hrs. until they finally cannot hold it any longer. Before dinner, I present a short talk on the Tlingits, the original people of the area and another on the history of Ketchikan. Then I conduct a short travel meeting. We then turn our coffee mugs into wine glasses and get our refills in front of room 129. I think tonight we finish Bob and Pat’s box of Franzia as we do stand in the hallway a long time sipping and having our little party. I bet other passengers that passed by are jealous of all our laughter, bantering and fun. I know I would have been. This is a good group. It is early to bed again tonight.
(Shari) Again, I sleep like a baby and awake at 5 AM. I am not the first one to reach the cafeteria in search of hot water for my coffee press cup. I find a seat in the front row of the lounge and enjoy more of this beautiful scenery. The sun is coming up over the mountain in the east and casts a pinkish glow on the snow. We must be close to Ketchikan as I see numerous houses on both sides of the ship. Fishermen are out already too. As soon as Pat sits down to join me, the captain announces that we will be docking in 30 min. and all should be ready to go to the car deck. We are early and are disembarking by 6:30.
(Bert) The ship cruises the Rivillagigedo Channel when I come on deck shortly after 5 AM. Almost no one else is in the viewing gallery except those few that slept in the chairs or across the carpeted floor between rows of seats. Sixty to a hundred Bonaparte’s Gulls and a scattering of other species are visible. A little over an hour later we disembark in Ketchikan, getting our RV’s off much faster than they came on. At our campsite we find another 150 Bonaparte’s Gulls just a stone-throw ahead of where our RV’s face the water, backed by several small islands. Herring have spawned and the gulls are feeding on eggs attached to partially submerged shoreline rocks covered with algae. We have an hour before we will leave for local birding and some of us finish our move-in tasks early and bird the campground. Our first birding on Alaska territory, we quickly add forest birds to the list: Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Steller’s Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Varied Thrushes, Townsend’s Warblers, Lincoln and Golden-crowned Sparrows. The real surprise, though, is a pair of vociferous Eurasian Collared-Doves. Is there no end to this species expansion?
(Shari) I am excited as I drive the 15 mi. to our campsite, a delightful place at the water’s edge. Two hours later we are in our cars ready to bird. Bert picks a lovely trail around a beautiful lake. It is the kind of trail I like, i.e., flat. We are having one of the two sunny days that Ketchikan has a year and many locals are on the trail too. Doug helps me find a geocache and others point out fiddlehead ferns. I fill my pocket with the tiny heads intending to sauté them for an appetizer tonight.
(Bert) We drive to Ward Lake and enjoy a leisurely hike around the rainforest-surrounded lake. The pleasure is greatly enhanced by the unbelievably good weather. For an island that is deluged with an average rainfall exceeding a half inch per DAY, these clear and sunny skies are incredible. The locals know it too and today, Sunday, they’ve exited the small town and are out and about on the lakes, forests, and snow-covered mountains. They walk dogs, shoot guns in target practice, run snowmobiles up logging roads, and even shoot across the pavement in a noisy electric-powered skateboard. Two brave–or foolish, depending on your prospective–teenage boys are in swim trunks, wet after having plunged into the lake only recently purged of its ice cover. I offer to photograph them if they do it again and crazy as they are, they repeat the performance, including diving underwater. They come out hooting and hollering.
Turning to milder pastimes, we return to birding. Our finds include Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common and Red-throated Loons, and a Great Blue Heron (a good bird for Alaska). We concentrate on the Fox Sparrows, seeing about a dozen before the hike is concluded. So much unlike the ones we see in Texas, these are exceedingly dark with reddish tails. Separating them from equally dark Song Sparrows and paler Hermit Thrushes–both of which we also see–is more difficult than you might imagine. Another bird I want to study more is Pacific Wren, having recently split with Winter Wren. [For the non-birders in our readership, last summer, ornithologists concluded that scientific studies establish one species is really two, hence the split]. We find many singing Pacific Wrens, though seeing and photographing these reclusive and spritely birds is another matter. We take note on how dark the Pacific Wren is compared to the Winter Wren we see in Texas. A good day in good weather, how much longer can this unseasonable condition be prolonged?
(Shari) After lunch we head to Totem Bight State Park, one of our nation’s National Historic Sites where 14 totem poles are arranged on a hillside overlooking the Tongass Narrows. I grab a trail map that explains each totem as we pass it. My talk yesterday of the Tlingets becomes more relevant as we see replicas of eagles and ravens carved into the poles. Interpretative signs throughout the park explain more of the symbolism and stories associated with those original peoples. Earlier this morning, I invited the other inhabitants of the campground to our wine and cheese party and they turn out to be a grand addition to our group. We especially enjoy talking to the young couple who have been in the area for three years, but are to depart on Monday for Corpus Christi. After too much wine and too much cheese, no one wants to go owling with Bert tonight. I served my homemade Australian Shiraz and everyone must have liked it as the container is empty.
(Bert) I cover my camera and long lens in a camera sleeve but as it turns out, the few raindrops soon become none and we enjoy another day of good weather. Settler’s Cove provides us a good list of species, though two stand out above the others. I have been studying gulls at the seashore, hoping to find a Thayer’s Gull, a rarity in most areas but easier to find at Ketchikan. Now I have one when I compare it to adjacent Bonaparte’s, Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls, making for an easy study in size. This Thayer’s is a first-cycle gull, mostly mottled gray with wingtips identical to other parts. We hike along the seafront in profusely adorned rainforest and reach a rushing mountain stream. Carrie is the first to spot an American Dipper bobbing atop a huge boulder in mid steam. Almost as quickly, Pat finds another a bit downstream from the other. We watch them fly up and down the gushing water, oblivious to an environment we would find chilling and dangerous. When they disappear downstream, I leave the lookout deck and move back to the wooden bridge we left earlier. I find the pair again and this time get much better photos.
Later we stop at pullout at Whipple Creek and the kindly owner of the restaurant points out a Bald Eagle sitting on a partial nest. He says the eagle has been uprooting tall grass and adding to the construction. We return to our campsite and during our 5 PM social I study gulls from the deck. Surprisingly, I find first-cycle gulls from five species, an excellent comparison of Bonaparte’s, Thayer’s, Mew, Herring, and Glaucous-winged.
(Shari) Well, at least it is not raining. But the sky is full of those darkish gray clouds with only one or two small patches of blue. The birders take off while Doug and I stay back to take care of business. At 11 we all ride to a birding site on the way to infamous Creek Street. Here we split up and do our own thing. We join Bob and Pat and walk the famous Red Light district of Ketchikan. Built on the sides of a cliff over a river, it is a marvel of wooden piers and boardwalks connecting the 30 or so historic buildings that housed the ladies of the evening. No more than two ladies per house was the law at the time. And believe this or not-the ladies were not legally shut down until 1953. We have a tasty lunch at a quaint little café. All but a few shops are closed as the cruise ships have not started to arrive yet this season, but we do find one to browse, though not buy. We take a funicular up the side of a mountain to a lodge and get a clear bird’s eye view of the city below. The weather is still fantastic and I cannot believe our phenomenal luck. David, Carrie and Bert are the only ones that want to bird more, so I take Doug and Kay with me back to camp. There I take a nice long nap, awakening just in time for social on the deck overlooking the channel. I grab my tea and meet others there. With the sunshine hitting our backs and the birds flying all around eating the eggs of the now spawning herring we discuss plans for tomorrow. It does not get better than this.
(Bert) Wondering whether there are enough roads on Gravina Island to warrant birding there this morning, David called the airport to find out details, as well as the ferry schedule. The reply is, “Everyone comes out here to run their dogs and shoot their guns.” Although my obsolete bird finding guide mentions only one mile of road, now there are 18 mi. of gravel roads. Later we find out why. Meanwhile we slowly drive the wide and smooth gravel, seeing no one else, no buildings, and few birds. The road is superbly built and stands some 20 ft. above the surrounding lands in many places. About a half hour later the road terminates abruptly and a yellow diamond-shaped sign announces “END”. Beyond lies a drop off to forest, then the sea, and then the island north of Ketchikan. We have reached the infamous “Bridge to No Where”, built with pork barrel spending achieved by Sen. Stevens and exploited during Sarah Palin’s campaign. Was she for it or against it? A Varied Thrush whistles funereally just beyond this monument to government spending gone awry.
(Shari) Another great day in Ketchikan. I have the luxury of staying in my
rig while Bert goes with others to bird. We do not need to be at the ferry until
2:30 and I enjoy my time alone. During our wait time at the ferry, Carrie and I
walk across the street and purchase cinnamon rolls. Huge buns, the first of our
journey intended to share for our breakfast tomorrow. Doug and Kay are giving
tours of their rig and I look in their refrigerator. The freezer does not have
much in it and what it does have is tofu and soy sausage. We tell Kay she should
open up a tofu taco stand and serve tacos from her foldout window. Our ferry
boarding is uneventful and we all know the drill: meet me at the purser’s desk
to get room keys, stop at Pat and Bob’s for wine poured into our coffee cups,
and settle in the front row seats of the ferry. Again our ferry has glass
windows on the upper deck stretching across 270º. What views! We see hordes of
porpoises and a whale or two. I wanted so much to see Wrangell and Petersburg
but the late nighttime docking discourages me and I miss going through the
lighted narrow passage way. Cruise ships are not allowed here and the biggest
ship to enter is the M/V Columbia, an Alaskan Marine Highway vessel. The
passageway is lit at night and boats must go through at high tide. Boy, I wish I
could have seen that. A good excuse to come back some year! After dinner, we
head for our rooms, again with an outside window.
(Bert) At 4:50 PM we are aboard the M/V Matanuska as she pulls out of the Ketchikan dock. The first voyage of this ship was the month and year Shari and I graduated from high school. It is smaller than the ferry we took a few days ago, making for easier passage through the narrows we will encounter over the next two days on our way to Juneau. At a speed of 17 knots, gliding over smooth water and quite close to shore on both sides, the experience is like sitting in an IMAX theater as the world passes by: cloudless skies, sugar-powdered mountain tops, dark green Sitka Spruce, ultramarine seas, and occasional episodes of wildlife. Surf Scoters are the most numerous and I estimate I’ve seen nearly 200 before dinner. At 9:15 PM I go back on the forward deck as we exit Clarence Strait and enter Stikine Strait. It so dark I can barely see the ship’s bow, much less anything beyond. I’d like to stay up until we stop at Wrangell, but that is another 75 min. and I’m too tired to wait that long.
(Bert) We are in Frederick Sound when I enter the observation lounge at 5:45 AM. Ahead of the ferry lies Baranof Island covered from mountain peak to seashore with brilliant white snow. We stop at a small village called Kake and I walk on shore to bird with Pat, with Shari trailing behind trying to use her iPhone to locate a geocache. How many people in the world can say they have visited Kake, Alaska, much less tell anyone where it is? There, I photograph the first Horned Grebe of the trip. Back on ship we see many more porpoises, instigating a discussion of whether they are Dall’s Porpoises or White-sided Dolphins. It seems everyone these days is carrying an iPhone or Android and so they quickly search the Internet for photos and descriptions of the similar-looking dolphins. After many comparisons between references and my distant photos, I come to the conclusion they are Dall’s Porpoises we are seeing. By noon, we are churning up Peril Strait, one of the narrow passageways and leading to Sitka via a route too small for the cruise ships. Today there are no commercial ships, no houses and only two native villages so far. The sea is exceedingly calm, the surface a kaleidoscope of a million silver and gray mirrors as if cracked safety glass. As we glide into even narrower Nova Strait, animal life is more abundant, especially Barrow’s Goldeneyes. A brilliant white cone 3201 ft. in height dazzles in bright sunlight. Mt. Edgecumbe Volcano rarely is thusly visible without cloud cover, as we learn when we arrive at Sitka minutes later. Taxis take us downtown, dropping us off at the famous St. Michael's Cathedral, a reminder of the Russian history of Alaska settlement and exploration. With Bob and Pat, I learn more about its history when visiting a local museum. We have enough time to walk to Swan Lake, which at this date is devoid of swans, but we see many ducks and add American Wigeon and Lesser Scaup to our trip list. The ferry departs at 6:30 PM and from the deck we are treated to views of a dozen Sitka Deer coming out of the dense forest to browse at narrow meadows along the shore. A Bald Eagle carries a large fish, crossing the water with a background of an orange sunset.
(Shari) I am wide awake at 5 AM and the sun is already up. Still no rain. Unbelievable! I fill my French press cup with water and let the coffee steep while I nuke a quarter of my cinnamon roll. I could eat the whole thing but I am trying to be “good”. I join Bert on top deck. At 8:00 we all go to the cafeteria for breakfast. Bert has a huge breakfast but my cinnamon roll still is keeping me satiated. The ferry stops at an village called Kake and we get off the ship to stretch our legs. At Sitka, we have two and one-half hours to look around. We arrange for taxis to take us to town, and then we split up. I head to a knitting store and buy some needles and yarn to make a cowl. On the handheld radio, Doug and Kay call me from one of the stores while I am on top of Castle Hill. They tell me they have found the gloves that work on touch screen cell phones. I hurry up to the store and buy an extra warm pair for myself. After we get in our return taxi, we play “Where is it now?” Apparently one of our group (name anonymous) has lost a camera. The taxi circles back to retrace our steps and the camera is found at one of the shops. We return to the ferry with 5 min. to spare. Our coffee mugs turn into wine goblets as we refill them in front of room 15C. Again we gather on top deck for a social. Before a late dinner, I play a game of bananagram with David and of course he wins. Tonight I only have salad and soup as my Rueben sandwich for lunch was very filling. Happily, the captain has changed our arrival into Juneau from 3:45 AM to 5:30 AM. I e-mail the campground the new time and head for bed. Five-thirty is still early to get up and I need my beauty sleep.
(Shari) Not sleeping well at all, I am awake way before our 5 AM wakeup call. We have no trouble backing up our rig and turning around inside the ferry. Taking advantage of the lack of rain in Juneau, we head to Mendenhall Glacier to get an early start on birding and sightseeing. As the group heads down the path, I decide to stay in the rig and get situated. I make a pot of coffee for whoever wants some, I unack my clothes, put them away, and I eat breakfast. Then I am ready to take to the path and am surprised at how long it takes before I catch up to the group. That means there must not have been many birds on the path. However, the scenery is spectacular and I snap and snap and snap pictures of the glacier, the waterfall, and the icebergs in the river. Returning to the campers, the group grabs breakfast before we head to the campground to find our spots for the next three nights. Then it is off to a birding site near the airport. While the group birds, I sit in heated comfort and write this journal.
(Bert) Our early arrival at Juneau gives us a timely start on sightseeing and birding. Mendenhall Glacier is in clear view. A light and chilly breeze flows off the ice-packed mountain to pools of ice water with a few floating icebergs and thence to the graveled meadow where we walk. To the left, a large dark hill of glacial till is circled by gulls and four Arctic Terns, and resting on its upper reaches are eight Mountain Goats, visible with the naked eye only as white dots. A better view is four shaggy goats just above the plunging waterfall we reach after a half-hour hike. Except for the light breeze, the morning is still and devoid of tourists, especially this early in the season. Musicians in an avian orchestra tune, with the Varied Thrushes playing the part of violins tuning at different pitches, a piccolo-playing Ruby-crowned Kinglet rehearses its quick solo, and a Pacific Wren is the virtuoso of its varied melody and rapid tempo. Walking back from the waterfall, we encounter a flock Oregon Juncos feeding amongst short bushes growing from the gravel beds. Mixed in with the juncos are silent sparrows some have identified as Chipping, but closer examination reveals they are American Tree Sparrows, our first of the trip.
Our next stop is the wetlands of the Mendenhall River delta. I consider wearing my high-topped rubber boots until a man in the parking lot says the path has been improved and regular hiking shoes are adequate. I should not have taken his advice as he must not be a birder and doesn’t know we intend to hike over a mile across the marsh to the mudflats at water’s edge. Walking over the wetlands is tedious, constant drizzle dampens my enthusiasm and the only highlight is watching a Merlin. After much effort we get as far as our hiking shoes will allow in the slippery mud and increasingly deep pools of water, so we turn back with the only additional rewards a first-cycle Glaucous Gull overhead and a Beaver swimming in the muddy river.
We do much better when we drive to Fish Creek Park on Douglas Island. Migrating ducks are in the hundreds, dominated by many dozens of Barrow’s Goldeneyes–with two Common Goldeneyes mixed in–and a few newcomers: 10 American Green-winged Teal, 26 Northern Pintail, and 12 Red-breasted Mergansers. In a copse of spruce and willow trees, Northwestern Crows are unusually noisy, clearly upset with either us or another intruder. Suddenly, the intruder springs into view, harassed by crows as if they were a swarm of Killer Bees. Excitedly, we note the very long tail and broad wings of an accipiter. When comparing its large size relative to the crows, we are delighted to know we have watched a Northern Goshawk in hurried flight.
(Shari) This is my type of birding. I arranged a trip to a salmon canning factory and thoroughly enjoy the owner telling us of his small operation. So much of the work is done by hand. Right now they are “canning” salmon caviar. One person puts the eggs in a little jar, another weighs the jar and spoons out/in eggs to adjust. Another twists the caps on the jars and puts them on a tray for labeling. Most of the canned salmon from this factory is special ordered or prepared for gift shops in upper Alaska. A tray of good looking red salmon is put on a table with some empty cans and we are told to write our names on the outside of the cans and stuff it with salmon. Our cans will be processed and delivered to the campground in the morning. Next, my iPhone finds a Mexican restaurant close to the brewery. We have some authentic Mexican food before we drive to the Alaska Brewery. Eric from Ketchikan told us about this brewery and how we should not miss it. We start the tour with a 6-oz. glass of beer that can be refilled many times. I try the smoked porter, the white, the ale, the apricot, the APA, the ….. Bert has half that amount and leaves, to take a quick nap while the rest of us view the collection of beer bottles from varying places all around the world, all the while sipping our beer.
Now we are ready to bird. Unfortunately it starts to drizzle. Locals tell us the weather is so nice for us but I find it a bit rainy today for my taste. Yes, yes—there is no such thing as bad weather, just poor equipment and a lousy attitude. Soon it is close to 5 and our scheduled time to eat at the famous Red Dog Saloon in downtown Juneau. I am disappointed that they no longer serve the huge hamburger that we had there in 1998. In fact, the whole experience was not as nice as in 1998 and I probably would not go back there again. If it was not for the people and the beer and the conversation and the atmosphere of an old time saloon, the visit might have been a bust.
Eric from Ketchikan told us not to miss the “dog balls.” We ask at the saloon and are directed to a small dive a few blocks up the street. The only things on the menu are two kinds of dumplings: potato and meat. We get one order to split among us as we certainly are not hungry but must not leave Juneau without tasting these things. The server/cook/cashier sprinkles curry on them, slathers them with melted butter, adds cilantro, salt, pepper, and hot sauce, gives us two containers of sour cream for dipping, a slice of bread for sopping, and enough spoons for each of us. Two of the dumplings are enough for me. Kay takes the meat out of hers and eats more, but then again she did not eat at the restaurant. I package the remainder up and hope they are better tomorrow. Eric is from the Coast Guard and when stationed in Fairbanks would first drink at the Red Dog Saloon and then go to the restaurant for the dog balls, as they called them.
(Bert) Today’s schedule is mostly controlled by Shari and it is her kind of birding: 2-hr. salmon cannery tour, 10 min. birding at the garbage dump, 1-hr. brewery tour including multiple glasses of beer, 15 min. birding at Twin Lakes, leisurely lunch at El Zarape, an hour hiking and birding through the woods at Treadwell Historic Trail on Douglas Island, culminated by an even more leisurely dinner with beer at Red Dog Saloon. No new birds to report, but I continue to be amazed by the number of Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Surf Scoters, including a flock of over 300 scoters forming a tight dark raft on the chilly Gastineau Channel.
(Shari) Doug graciously offers Bert a ride today which means I can sleep in while the birders are out exploring. I take care of paperwork, call to confirm future reservations, and then do something I have never done before. I take the RV out, all by myself. First I need to unhook the electrical cord and stuff the big fat dirty cord into its RV storage hole. Then I need to unhook the TV cable. That is so tight, that I need a pliers, which I have along and know where it is placed. I also cannot forget to take in the slide and make sure the steps are up. Okay, so far. I am on a mission to find a Laundromat. I look on my iPhone and it indicates there are five within five miles of the campground. Each one I go to is nonexistent and its address is in a residential area. I am on my own without a navigator. I accidently find one in a shopping center when looking for a grocery store. However, one small washing machine is $3.00 per load. The campground in Haines Junction told me it would be $1 per load. I think I can wait until then. I gather up groceries for our baked potato bar (sometime in the future if and when the weather is agreeable) and head home.
If anyone is watching me back into our RV space, they are in for a treat. I back 3 ft. and get out looking over the situation. Am I going to hit the tree? Will I fall off into the ditch? Am I straight? Back another 3 ft. and get out looking some more. It must take me seven or eight tries before I am in the spot. I hook up the electrical, screw on the cable, and put out the slide. The birders come back earlier than I anticipated and I have just finished taking a shower and washing my hair. Later we head out again to a house where a lady rehabilitates raptors. She has two eagles and two Red-tailed Hawks that too injured to ever get released. These four birds are for educational purposes and often school groups come over for a program. However, the Northern Goshawk is to be released in about a week, just when the fish and game people are done banding it. It is very nice of the woman to allow us to come out and visit her home. She obviously loves what she does and has been involved with the volunteer program for 15 yr. We then head home, stopping at Fred Meyers for fuel as we expect it to become more expensive as we go north. No social tonight and we settle in with a bowl of soup before going to bed at 9 PM.
(Bert) We are in the midst of migration for robins, juncos, and ducks, but ahead of the warblers and most shorebirds still farther south. This morning we visit the dredge ponds below Mendenhall Glacier. We probably see more dogs than birds, as it is Saturday and numerous locals are taking advantage of the incredibly beautiful day and walking their dogs along the many trails. We add Pine Siskins to the trip list and I have a brief view of what looks like an Aztec Thrush (a Mexican species), but is actually a leucistic American Robin: splotchy black and white, with a rufous belly. I’ve been taking note of the juncos, which here are about 60% Oregon subspecies and 40% Slate-colored. A local resident tells me that mixture holds throughout the breeding season, yet I see none that appear as crosses between the subspecies.
After a quick snack at our RV’s, we drive out to Eagle Beach and stop at several pullouts to view birds and mammals where the river delta spills into the bay. Again with sunny skies and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, the scenery is breathtaking. At the park, we hike the flat gravel delta a half-mile from the road to the water’s edge, watching the Green-winged Teal, Canada Geese, and Glaucous-winged Gulls feeding in the shallow pools left from the receding tide. Before we leave we stop at the river and watch a River Otter feeding at its bottom. First floating on the surface, it somersaults and exposes its sleek furry back and then its thick long tail before disappearing for 20 sec., reappearing and repeating the feeding process.
By 4 PM we are at the home of a raptor rehabilitator, part of a small group of local people committed to helping injured birds. Kathy cares for several birds so severely injured that they cannot be returned to the wild, but are instead used for educational purposes to show to others. We see a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk much like a Harlan’s Hawk, another Red-tailed with considerable rufous in its breast and belly–a feature Kathy says is typical of the local birds, although I have not seen this before–and male and female Bald Eagles. The best is a very wary Northern Goshawk that was injured last fall, rehabilitated through the winter and is about to be released into the wild. We feel special to have seen these birds so close up, almost within arm’s reach.
(Shari) I lumber out of bed and shut off my alarm. I start the tea brewing as Bert makes the bed. We are both dressed when he asks me, why are we getting up at 3 AM? I said I set the alarm for 4 AM, but apparently not. We are now awake and dressed so we just stay up. We are to catch the ferry at 7 and I was told to get to the dock for lane assignments two hours early. Hurry up and wait. We do not socialize while we wait in line as the weather is lousy: cold and rainy. This portion of the ferry trip is one of the prettiest, but we do not see it as the clouds are low, covering the mountains and almost touch the water. Bert does spot an Orca Whale which is always a treat. Many on board are coughing and some of our group head to the theater to watch the movie, just to escape the germs flying around the lounge. All of us eat a hearty breakfast on board except Bert, who stays up front to watch for wildlife.
(Bert) Our shortest ferry ride is shrouded in clouds and obscured by rain. The M/V Le Conte takes us from Juneau to Haines through the Lynn Canal. The feet of misty gray mountains descend from a silvered cloud ceiling to a glowing firmament above choppy white-capped seas. Raindrops diffuse the broad window panes, diffracting light and limiting visibility. Animal life is interesting, though separated by bouts of quarter hour inactivity. Mew Gulls now dominate and Bonaparte’s Gulls come in second. Better are the mammals: a pod of Dall’s Porpoises, a pair of Orca Whales–the unmistakable male surfacing in arcs with a tall dorsal fin poking above the water like the mast of a ship without sails–and a pair of Steller’s Sea Lions so close to leeward that the ship nearly bumps them. A Harbor Seal greets us at the Haines ferry dock and our vehicles are among the few that exit on the ramp to shore. We park our RV’s on a beachfront campground and many of us take an afternoon nap to make up for our predawn awakening. At our 5 PM social I lead in a bird count and happily see we have found almost all of the regular April species of Southeastern Alaska.
(Shari) It is still windy and rainy when we reach our campground around noon. The view of the Lynn Canal is nice and because the weather is so inclement, it is birding from our rig windows for this afternoon. Again our campsite is right on the water and we cannot complain about the scene from our windows. The sun peaks out about 4 and I walk alone up the town streets, snapping pictures as I go. A wide, but short, rainbow shows some color across the channel but too faint for a picture. We were last in Haines in 1996 and it has grown a bit. I find one store open and talk to the owner who says she stays open year round. Tourists come in winter to hunt, in fall for the eagles, and, of course, in summer cruise ships visit. Our group gets together to socialize in the laundry room/office/gift shop. Bert conducts a bird count and I run a travel meeting before we go out to eat with Carrie and David. We taste our first halibut of the season and I expect it will not be our last.
(Bert) After dinner and just as the skies start to darken, David, Carrie and I drive to Chilkoot Lake for owling. David waits in the car–his hiking shoes were drenched in Juneau when he was photographing a Trumpeter Swan and he is now wearing shoes inappropriate for walking in the rain–while Carrie and I slowly walk the road with the river on one side and the dense rainforest on the other. A surround-sound of solitary Varied Thrushes ring from hidden perches, although one is so close that it pops into view when Carrie pishes (non-birders: “pishing” is birder’s jargon for an airy noise we make to entice birds to come closer). Although owls are silent tonight, I am excited when we hear the dull six-count grunts of a Sooty Grouse. The oft-repeated call emanates from the Sitka Spruce on the opposite side of the river. I’d love to get a closer look at the grouse, but 2-ft snow drifts and the rushing river separate us. Another sound makes be turn around and look at the road we have already walked. Just in time, we see a Fisher slink along the pavement and disappear behind the snow drifts. We get enough of a view to note the Fisher’s husky size, chocolate brown color, and its weasel-like head, slinky body and long tail. Even though the evening is owl less, I count our experiences worth the effort.
(Bert) My somewhat dated guide book states that Sea Otters no longer inhabit the Lynn Canal area, so when I see an otter in the sea before our campsite I study it closely. From its slightly different throat coloration I identify it is a Northern River Otter at sea.
We bird the shoreline to Lutak Inlet, adding Redhead to our list and from a photograph Bob shows to me, Wilson’s Snipe. Playing near and resting on a tiny island rock are two Harbor Seals close enough for photographing and I can see one’s spots clearly, a feature we don’t see when it is in water. Carrie sees our first Snowshoe Hare of the trip. We trudge through wet snow at 2-ft. snow drifts at Chilkoot Lake and in the forest wet with melting snow we watch a Red-breasted Sapsucker excavate a nest hole. In the afternoon we again encounter accumulated snow at the state park, but this time it is piled 4-5 ft. high and is so soft we would need snowshoes to cross. No where do we see a path devoid of snow, so we explore the coastal shore instead. Here are flocks of hundreds of ducks and among them we see four Black-bellied Plovers in full breeding plumage. So far we have seen very few migrating shorebirds. I hope they will all be arriving at Homer Spit at the same time we arrive.
(Shari) While the birders go out this morning, I have a whole list of things to get done. I confirm more reservations, do a load of wash, and write journals. I get ready for our baked potato bar this evening, making two vegetarian toppings plus two toppings with meat.
In the afternoon I go out with the birders, riding with Kay and Doug. I enjoy all the little nooks and crannies we see from their big heavy truck, but I must say next time I go with them, I intend to take a step stool to use for entering and exiting. We return by 4 and I start making the potatoes, two at a time in my microwave. I only have one burner on my stove so I have to alternate pots. When one heats up, I move it to the side to heat another one. Luckily my slow cooker holds the potatoes and keeps them all warm. We meet in the laundry/gift/office room and take over the lone table in the center for our food. The room also has a microwave and hot plate for our use. We manage to have a good time topping our potatoes with broccoli cheese, mushroom sauce with or without meat and chili.
Meanwhile, David tells us of his experience at the border. This afternoon he drove the 40 mi. to Canada and asked the procedures to take a shotgun into the country. They did a background check and gave him some papers to complete. So he should be good to go in the morning. Now we just have to worry about one in the group carrying his “wine cellar” and another on the Canada’s black list for a previous misunderstanding. We may or may not all make it across. To get to Alaska by road, one must drive through Canada even if you take the ferry, as we did, to Haines, AK. Only in the summer starting in June, does the ferry go all the way to Whittier on a regular basis where you can get off and drive the rest of the state without ever touching Canada.
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