Saturday, August 28, 2010

Almost to Angoon: An Alaskan Adventure

No one wore fur parkas or big boots when we got on the plane in Seattle, like I half expected. We were headed for Juneau and, after all, it was August. Still, I had my rainproof coat and a few layers of fleece stashed in my bag. We were headed for a weeklong cruise in the Inside Passage, and the cruise company had urged us to consider rain gear and even long underwear. Good advice, I learned later on.

Glaciers were on our destination, and even Glacier Bay, which is a 45 mile long fjord that was filled with a huge glacier just two hundred years ago, and some glaciers there were even growing, despite global warming.

When we got to Juneau, it was raining. Typical for late August, we learned. The rainy season of nine months begins the day after the Fourth of July. Still, the downtown dock area was overrun with tourists from four giant cruise ships, and half of them seemed fixated on the dozen diamond stores on the main street. Never mind that Alaska doesn’t exactly have too many of the world’s diamond mines. But, it does attract tourists on big cruise ships, and I guess that diamond stores go hand in hand with tourists fresh off the big cruise ships, the casinos and the formal dress for dinner crowd.

We were headed for a different adventure, and the big attraction to our ship was the presence of two wildlife biologists on board, and a professional wildlife photographer. My camera was safely stashed in my daypack, along with a half dozen extra memory cards, and a telephoto lens. My favorite binoculars were also there, lenses cleaned and ready to spot the anticipated sightings of whales, sea otters, eagles, and whatever other sorts of wildlife we would spot during the next week.

We wandered around town a bit, taking in the superb Alaska state museum and the local museum. We had a close encounter with the memorabilia of the Klondike gold rush, the oil boom, and even saw the pen used by President Eisenhower that made Alaska a state. The whale ivory gavel that convened the territorial and the first state legislatures was also in reach of this eager history buff. No big cruise ship tourists here. They must still be at the diamond store.

An hour after we got underway and were safely out of sight of the cruise ships at the Juneau docks, we saw our first pod of humpback whales, cavorting in the drizzle. We got amazingly close to them and my camera was happy to get some good shots of these creatures, which seemed to take delight in blowing out gallons of sea water, which announced their arrival on the surface.

In the days ahead, we would see more of these creatures, gracefully arching over the surface of the water, and proudly displaying their tails. Each tail is apparently unique, and veteran whale watchers can quickly identify individual whales in the pod. One afternoon, several even breached for us, almost flying fully out of the water before crashing down with all their weight. My camera shutter nearly overheated when that occurred.

The next morning found us nearing a glacier in Tracy Arm, a 25 mile long fjord carved out of three thousand vertical feet of granite. A thousand feet of that rock was missing below us, as we headed to the end of the fjord, to take in yet another glacier. It was a drizzly morning, which seemed to accent the rich deep blue of the toe of the glacier, just before large chunks would calve off with a loud cannon blast crack and fall into the sea, creating a sizeable wave that would rock our boat in a few minutes. We were a quarter mile away from the glacier, yet the mile long face of the glacier seemed almost close enough to touch.

Getting a perspective on size in this place proved to be the most challenging task of the trip, I was to learn. I’d been on a similar voyage to Prince William Sound and also experienced Denali National Park, and had the same problems with perspective and distance there. Mt. McKinley was easily three times the size of any mountain I’d ever seen before. I think the real meaning of the word “Alaska” is “enormous”.

We stopped to admire several sizeable waterfalls gushing down from the granite cliffs, allowing all of the photographers on board, which was nearly all of us, to fill our photographic bellies with all the waterfall shots we could imagine. Some folks went out in dinghies and were able to literally take close up photos of the waterfalls.

The late afternoon was spent sailing out of Tracy Arm into Frederick Sound, and a sizeable glacier up on a ridge, its end a thousand feet of vertical ice, about two thousand feet above the water, didn’t even gain a comment from the crew. It was a “hanging glacier” and apparently they are quite common in these parts. We in the “Lower 48” would be making one of those into a destination resort and advertising the heck out of it in all the travel magazines. Here, not even worth more than a footnote in the travel guide. What people did comment about was that the drizzle and rain had ended and we saw the sun.

In Alaska, a spot of blue sky is called a “sucker hole”. It’s a promise of sunshine, but only a promise and the idea is that the true Alaskan doesn’t expect the sun to come out when a bit of blue sky appears. I suppose this is the “glass is half empty” view of life, but in this rain forest between the warm Japanese current and the mile high “coast range” mountains, it is probably the logical perspective on the weather.

The next morning brought us into Wrangell, a town of barely a thousand souls who were all devoted to fishing. The harbor had only a few boats in, as there was a short salmon season going on and nearly everyone was out to sea. A crew of women helped the ship dock. They all wore pink hardhats and commented that all the men in town were out fishing and they had work to do. No slackers in this town.

We got on a jet boat where Capt. “Little John”, who was a mere seven feet tall, whisked us at warp speed across the water and the mudflats of the Stikine River. He skillfully guided us through the meanders of the river delta, pointing out eagles, old trees, and old river channels. Soon, we were on our way up river, taking in waterfalls, cliffs, and stopped on a beach, where he nonchalantly pointed out moose and wolf tracks in the sand. I took pictures, secretly glad I wasn’t face to face with the makers of the prints on the tiny island.

He pointed out a sign nailed high up in a tree, warning people of traps. A trapper has a duty here to warn folk that he is trapping the area. He apparently didn’t use a ladder to climb the tree, either, as snow here gets thirty feet high, and the river freezes five feet thick in ice. I’m cold enough in the drizzle and flying along the river at twenty miles per hour. I can’t imagine what it’s like at 20 below.

We make a hard left and flew up a tributary, soon navigating through ice bergs clogging the river. Some of them had melted enough so that they “flipped”, showing the icy gravel and mud the glacier had carved out of the canyon upriver. I reached out to tough the icy smoothness, satiny in the midday sun. My camera went into overdrive again, taking in the light shining through the ice, and the reflections on the slow moving stream. The walls of this gorge were only a thousand feet high, hardly enough to comment on. And, of course, another waterfall, falling a good eight hundred feet over glacier polished granite. The waterfall didn’t even merit a name.

When we got back into town, we had enough time for a quick walking tour of downtown Wrangell, all four blocks of it. The hardware store was literally the general store and Home Depot of Wrangell, carrying every plumbing, electrical and fishing boat part you could ever need. No jewelry stores here, but then, the big cruise ships can’t find a spot in the fishing harbor, either. The espresso stand near the docks did a lively business, and we took advantage of a good latte to warm us up after the jet boat ride to the glacier.

We did make our requisite tourist purchase of T shirts, and the clothing store dedicates a portion of their space to tourism, amidst the aisles of serious fishing rain gear and boots. In Alaska, the boot de jour is an “Ever Tough”, a sturdy mid calf rubber boot. Even the June brides are known to wear them under their gowns, so that their feet stay dry during the outdoor ceremonies.

That afternoon, we wound our way northward through the Wrangell Narrows, a curvy narrow path between two islands, with about a hundred navigational markers. Fishing cabins dotted the shore, and everyone here has a boat to get around. On Mitkof Island, there is a road, which leads to Petersburg. It’s the only road out of town, and Petersburgians call it “the road”. When you travel the road, you “go out the road”. I’m not sure it even has a name. It is the only road, you know. So, why give it a name?

We anchor overnight at the northern end of the Narrows, watching the sunset and enjoying the peace and quiet of the water once the engines shut down. A few fishing boats motor past, headed for port and hopefully they have a lot of salmon to unload at the fish buying station in the harbor.

Petersburg was started by a Norwegian by the name of Peter, surprisingly. The area reminded him of Norway, and the glacier on the island was an easy supplier of ice for the fish processing plant he built. Soon, other Norwegians came, and their desire to remember their homeland culminated in the building of the Sons of Norway hall on pilings next to the harbor. The next morning, we went there, for coffee and Norwegian pastries, and a wonderful exhibition of Norwegian dancing by a number of kids in the town. The dancing has become quite the activity in town, and is now open to every kid. The dancing and the “Norwegian-ness” of the place goes into hyper drive in May, as everyone dresses up as a Norwegian, or maybe a Viking, and celebrates Norwegian Independence Day.

After my fill of pastries and watching the dancing, I head off with a fisherman’s wife and good Norwegian for a hike through the rain forest. Thirty of us plod down the trail, which, of course, starts at a wide spot on “the road” about fifteen miles out of town. We take in the huge Sitka spruce, Sitka alder, and the tall thorny Devil’s Walking Cane. I’d tangled with that when I was a kid and its name is well deserved. Well, it turns out, it is a valuable plant. It’s related to ginseng, and has medicinal qualities that help with arthritis and the healing of wounds.

On our way back, we stop to wander through muskeg, which is a peat bog. The soil is poor here, sphagnum moss and a few other small plants. When you walk on the muskeg, you create a wave in the “soil”, which is really more water than soil. Small trees struggle to survive and I am amazed when our guide says the shrub like trees are three hundred years old.

Our hiking group is the last to straggle onto the ship and we sail north again, then west, headed for Sitka. We take the back route to Sitka, finding a narrow passage at the north end of Baranof Island, the home island of Sitka, named after the Russian who founded the town and moved the capital of Russian American from Kodiak to Sitka. He had to fight the local Tlingits, who kicked out the Russians for three years, until the Russians finally prevailed at the Battle of Sitka.

Alaska proved too much for Russia, drained by losing the Crimean War and the exhaustion of the sea otter fur trade with the Chinese Emperor. Russians also didn’t adapt to the local diet, and their hunger for potatoes and wheat was left unsatisfied in the Alaskan agribusiness economy of the 1800s. The Czar sold Alaska to the Americans in 1867, as a way to get some cash, get out of Alaska, and to strengthen the Americans against the interests of the British, the Russians’ long term enemy.

That afternoon, we see humpback whales again, “tailing” as they dive deep, looking for krill and other food. Several of the whales breach, flying out of the water and creating a tremendous splash. There are several theories for why they do this, but the one I like is that they simply do it for fun.

During dinner, we quietly motor into a cove, and come to a peaceful stop. In the fading light of the day, we look at seven black bears, snacking on salmon struggling upstream to spawn. The sunset is stunning, after yet another drizzly day, and we again marvel at the simple delights this area offers us. No Princess or Holland America ships here, as the quiet evening air carries the grunts and snorts of the bears, and the splashes of the salmon in the shallow stream.

The next morning, we slowly enter the harbor at Sitka. There are at least five fishing boat harbors and I later learn that Sitka has more miles of boat docks than roads. It makes sense, as, once again, this is another town where there is simply “the road” out of town. To really go anywhere, there is the Alaska State Ferry System, called the Marine Highway, or the airport. There is a daily flight to Seattle, and another one to Anchorage. There’s simply the “morning flight” and the “afternoon flight”. Everyone in town knows the destination, but it’s really only either “morning” or “afternoon”.

Our first stop is a visit to the local Tlingit cultural center. This is a huge cedar lodge in the middle of town, built inside the boundaries of the Russian fort. Tlingit folks couldn’t live in the town, or in the fort, and had to live “outside”. Now, they are making a comeback with their culture, and proudly teach their children their language, their dances, and their cultural values. We watch in delight at a young boy dancing and crying out as “Raven”. We are invited to join him and the other dancers, and soon, I am dancing to the Tlingit drum and listening to the boy speak in Raven.

We take a brief tour in the Sitka National Park, which commemorates the Battle of Sitka, and see more salmon spawning, and some amazing totem poles. Then, we saunter back to town and take a walking tour of the area, learning about real life during the times of Russian America, and Mr. Baronof’s Tlingit wife and his Russian wife back home in St. Petersburg.

Feelings run long and deep here. When the centennial of the Alaskan Purchase was held in 1967, the town council wanted to erect a bronze statue of Mr. Baronof. The topic was hotly debated, and the night before the statue was dedicated, someone sawed off Mr. Baranof’s nose, necessitating a quick repair.

We end the tour at the Russian Orthodox church, with its “onion dome” and the cross with the extra, tilted, bar. Unlike other Christian missionaries, the Russian Orthodox priests learned the local languages, and began to teach local natives how to read and write in their native languages. Their languages were used in the Church liturgies and hymns. Their respect and interest in local cultures endeared them to the Tlingits, who were receptive to joining the church. Later, when I got back to Juneau, I found a CD of Russian Orthodox liturgies and hymns, sung in Tlingit. I wonder if I could find that online at iTunes?

The biggest industry in Sitka is health care. There is a big Native American health clinic and hospital here, as well as the Pioneer Home, which is a retirement home for Alaskans who can’t afford their own care in their old age. The Pioneer Home is the nicest building in town and has the most beautiful landscaping, as well.

This was a huge mobilization center for the Army during World War II, and the airplane hangars built then are now the home for a boarding high school, as well as the local campus of the University of Alaska.

We ran into a tour group of the boarding high school students, who come from all over rural Alaska, and learned they can’t go to the hilltop site where the Russian flag was lowered when Alaska was transferred to the United States. It’s now the place where folks go to get drunk, and is not a proper “hang out” for the youth of the town.

We leave Sitka and retrace our steps through narrow passages around Baronof Island, on our way to Glacier Bay. The rain sets in again, and even the Captain admits we are having a “squall”. The next day, we anchor in an inlet and go exploring in rubber dinghies. We get soaked to the skin, of course, but it is nice to get off of the ship and get a feel of the area. The shorelines are interesting, with lots of kelp and starfish. I am numb now, and it takes a change of clothes, two new layers of fleece, and three hot cups of hot chocolate and coffee to bring me back to “lukewarm”.

That night, I wake up to see the lights of what looks like a thriving community on the shore of a nearby island. Angoon is its name, at least from what I can tell on the map. Mostly Tlingit folk there, and I use my proximity to civilization to send a few of my cell phone photos to family and friends, via the cell tower of Angoon. I may want to come back here, and be able to tell folks I went to Angoon. The next town up the strait, is Hoonah, and I may want to visit here, as well. Guaranteed there’s no McDonald’s or WalMart.

The next morning brings us to Glacier Bay. When Capt. Vancouver was here in the 1770s, the glaciers had filled up the bay, and he sailed right past the place, noting that there was just a huge glacier on the side of Icy Strait. Now, the glacier has retreated 45 miles, and the area is a national park. The Tlingits around here used to live in the valley in Glacier Bay, before the last advance of the glaciers took out the soil and the forest, and deepened the area into a bay.

When John Muir was here in the 1890s, the glaciers had retreated about 20 miles, and his description of the place got Teddy Roosevelt interested enough to declare the area a national monument. The Tlingits still claim an interest here, and how this place is managed and how that debate will end up will be an interesting question.

As we enter the park, a park ranger and a Tlingit guide both board the ship. The Tlingit lady brings her elk hide drum and the ranger brings her violin. We are treated to their music and their collective passion for the beauty and spirituality of this place.

As we move into the bay, we spy a large pod of sea otters. They were exterminated by the Russians, but have made a comeback here, with transplants from survivors in the Aleutians in the 1970s. There are 5000 sea otters here now, and their presence has rebalanced the ecology of the bay, bringing kelp and star fish and, now, otters, into their natural balance.

Later on, we see more humpback whales, and glaciers. Yes, more glaciers than our biologist guides care to name. We wake the next morning in front of two of them, at the head of the 45 mile long bay. One glacier, its toe black with gravel and dirt, is, at first glance, not worthy of bearing the title of glacier. But, it leads back at least fifteen miles. Two miles “up river” on the glacier is the international boundary with Canada, and somewhere around here, within two miles of the Gulf of Alaska, there is Mt. St. Elias, a 15,000 foot peak, noteworthy even by Alaska standards.

Another glacier is huge, and its size is incomprehensible from our vantage point, five miles away. It comes into view as we take a jag around “Jaw Point”, which is named for the jaw dropping that occurs when one first sees this astonishing wonder.

Later on, we approach a beach, where two grizzlies, called “browns” around here, lunch upon a whale, beached here four months ago. They seem oblivious to our approaching ship and the increasing roar of camera shutters, as they snack, and then wander back into the brush. Several sailboats approach, drawn to our presence and the crowd of passengers on the bow. They, too, bring out their cameras and their binoculars, in awe of what wonders lie ahead of us on the rocky shores of Glacier Bay.

We head back down the bay, pausing to circle what our guides call “Bird Island”. On the map, it is called “South Marble Island”, a rather bland description for a place jam packed with Stellar sea lions, pigeon guillemots, puffins, and kittiwakes, all crying and, in the case of the sea lions, bellowing. It is quite a sight, and the camera shutter roar is equally intense.

The weather is lifting and even the occasional “sucker hole” appears. I pause to take off a layer or two of fleece, though my hands are still numb from the morning at the glacier, where the cold rain turned to sleet for about a half hour. I keep reminding myself this is August, but then, this is also Glacier Bay. There was fresh snow on the mountain near one of the glaciers we saw this morning, the first snow of the season.

At the mouth of the bay, we stop again at the dock by the visitor’s center, to let off our ranger and our Tlingit guide. The Captain gives us an hour and a half ashore, and we tumble off the boat, eager to stretch our legs in the welcome warmth of the sunny afternoon. We head off down a nature trail, and my camera is attracted to the quiet reflections of the ponds in the forest, and the spruce trees with Tlingit art carved into the bark.

We buy a few T shirts at the visitors’ center, and see the waitresses on our ship enjoying cheeseburgers in the cafeteria. They, too, seem to welcome a few hours away from the ship and the chance to be ashore in what the sign says is “Gustavus, Alaska”. That’s a long A on “Gustavus”, thank you very much.

That night, our guides give us a slide show of the photos they’ve taken of us as we have taken in the beauty on this trip. Our faces reveal our emotions of awe and amazement, and our joy at the beauty and wonder of nature in this amazing area. Sadly, we head to Juneau and the five “big cruise ships” now tied up to the pier there, and the dozen jewelry stores, pandering the “wonders” of Alaska.

Juneau and Southeast Alaska are different than the rest of Alaska. Still independent, and still adventurous. But, they are more isolated here than folks in Anchorage and Fairbanks. There are no roads to anywhere, except after a ferry boat ride of at least several hours. “Out the road” says a lot about this place.

Even Sarah Palin didn’t want to be around here very much. When she was Governor, she didn’t live in Juneau, and left vacant the Governor’s mansion on the hill, with its four large white columns, the Governor’s totem pole overlooking the Inside Passage, and the remains of Joe Juneau’s gold mine on the side of the hill at the other end of town. There are two great coffee shops and delis within a few blocks of the State Capitol, with great coffee, and great pastries. Both are good places to sit and sip a freshly made latte on a drizzly day, and meet some great people. If Sarah and her clan had taken the time to really live here, and be part of the people of this wondrous area, perhaps she’d still want to be Governor. After all, how cool would it be to have a house with a totem pole in the front yard?

We walk around town again, saying goodbye to Juneau and goodbye to Alaska. The Tlingits don’t have a word for goodbye, but use a phrase meaning “until we see each other again”.



Wanda said...

How exciting! I hope we get to see some of your pics.

Janis said...

Sensitive and aweinspiring narriative. LOVE IT!!