Monday, September 2, 2013

Day 20 - Pavlof Harbor, Chichagof Island, and Peril Strait

Weather: 40-50 degrees or so and partly cloudy
Steps taken: Shaun - 4,412 steps, 14 floors climbed; Shannon - 2,050 steps, 8 floors climbed
Critter count: Humpbacks (too many to count), gulls of all kinds, group of harbor porpoises, one lone sea lion...oh...and a couple of brown bears too

Our last full day in Alaska started pretty much the same way every other day had started on the ship...and that is being awoken from a dead sleep by Cindy's voice coming through PA speaker over our heads at 6:15am. This time, though, she couldn't keep the excitement from her voice because the crew had seen something none of them had seen all summer: humpback whales bubble-net feeding. Seriously. Shannon and I looked like the Three Stooges running around like madwomen in our tiny little cabin trying to get presentable, but we really didn't care what we looked like because this was one of the BIG bucket list things we wanted to see but didn't think we would. After Andy the whale expert's talk a few days ago and Cindy's comments that they hadn't seen this behavior this year and that it was the Holy Grail of things to see in Alaska, Shannon and I had reconciled ourselves to only seeing it on YouTube. Well let me tell you, seeing it on YouTube doesn't do it justice!

We ran out on deck and jockeyed for position and got an update from the naturalists. So far, there had been only one net set, and there were about a dozen whales all surfacing together along with one baby who was staying outside of the group and observing. It took quite a while for anything to happen, but then we saw the gulls suddenly gather together in one spot and someone from the upper deck yelled, "There's a ring, a ring!" We all surged to that side of the ship, and sure enough, there was a ring of bubbles, a bunch of birds flying around, and then all of a sudden, 12 frickin' 40-foot animals came out of the dang water with their mouths open all at the same time. Holy crap, it was amazing!

After the initial surge, they all surfaced and cleaned up the ring area, and then the gulls and the baby whale moved in to feast on the scraps. As we continued to observe this group, we discovered that they were pretty inexperienced with bubble netting. There were a couple of occasions where a partial ring would be built but no surge happened, and we even watched a perfect ring form, but then something happened that stopped the surge, and then they all just surfaced normally. We were joking around at what the whales must be saying to each "Geez Joe, didn't you get the memo? The bubbles are supposed to go clockwise for crying out loud!" Remember that we were told that only 50-60 whales in the world bubble-net feed, and the group requires a bubble blower and a vocalizer to make it work, and there are only 7-10 of these pairs around, so maybe these specialists were just learning. We also found it strange that the baby stayed out of the group the whole time and just observed. Cindy later showed us critter-cam footage that was taken of a baby humpback who did the same thing, and it actually showed the view from below the water of this incredible phenomenon happening. Nature at its finest for sure.

Anyway, after a few aborted attempts, the group finally got good at the net and continued to do one every 5 minutes or so for the next couple of hours. There was even one set right next to the ship, so the people in the lounge got a great view at water level. One lady said she spilled her drink all over herself, which I can totally understand. We started rating the nets as they were set and the surge happened because some of them were bigger than others. Shannon and I got a few shots of this behavior, but we didn't have the wherewithal to get a video of it. The video chronicler did, though, so it's in the DVD that we got at the end of the trip. I'll make sure to carry that sucker with me wherever I go for the next few months so that I can show it to everyone I know!

In addition to the bubble netters, there were a couple of other stray whales vying for our attention. One of them even breached 5-6 times just to make our morning more interesting. One of these 2 animals was very interested in the ship, and he came right up alongside us and circled the ship for quite some time. At one point, he laid underneath the ship with just his head sticking out of the side looking up at us. You usually don't see a whole lot of personality in humpbacks (especially compared to the orcas...since they're dolphins and have very playful personalities), but this one genuinely seemed to be connecting with us for some reason in much the same way as the one in the Inian Islands did the other day. His behavior was definitely different than we'd ever seen, and, naturally, we loved it.

To round out the morning, we got our first prolonged look at harbor porpoises. These are REALLY fast fish that reminded me a little of mini orcas since their coloring and movement was similar...only it was like they were on crack. I couldn't get any more than their latent splash on film though, and this was before I tried my hand at videotaping, so you'll just have to take my word for it...they were cool! There was also a lone Stellar sea lion in the area too, just to add a little frosting on the cake of this incredible morning.

Unfortunately, we actually had to be heading towards our afternoon's assignation, so we left the whales to their feeding and motored on. We were headed to Pavlof Harbor, which sits near the entrance to Freshwater Bay, a much larger inlet that cuts deeply into Chichagof Island. Here, there was a low waterfall on the Pavlof River which has been modified to include a fish weir where salmon running upstream later in the season can be counted by biologists. It provides the perfect feeding ground for bears because there is a tier in the stream right below the waterfall that is only a couple of inches deep. This gives the bears a fighting chance against the much faster salmon.

Bear beds

Remains of the last person on the beach!

As we were pulling into the harbor, we spotted a bear on the adjoining beach, so we all had great hopes of seeing more at the waterfall. The group split up between hikers (my group), kayakers (Shannon's group), and zodiacers. The hikers walked a half mile or so up the beach to the waterfall while the kayakers and zodiacers followed us in the water. As usual, we took off our life jackets and piled them on the beach and headed off down the bear trail, spotting plenty of spots along the way where bears had laid down and eaten and all that. Unfortunately, there were no bears at the falls, despite the fact that we waited for almost an hour. By that time, Shannon had come and gone from the waterfall, contenting herself by paddling around the harbor.

We were all pretty disappointed in our final adventure of the trip, and started to get ready to leave the waterfall, when the naturalists got a call on their walkie talkie's from Cindy. She said that a bear was on the beach and coming our way. Can you say, "Oh shit!"? The problem was that we didn't know if we should stay on the beach or go into the woods and let the bear have the beach, so we had to sit and wait while the kayakers and zodiacers tracked the bear for us and called in reports on his progress. It was actually pretty funny because many of the 30 people there were clueless as to what was happening since they were so wrapped up in taking pictures of the salmon and all that, but I was standing right with Emily (my favorite naturalist), so I was right in the thick of it. At one point, Cindy called and said that she would stay right with the bear, and that when we saw her zodiac coming around the corner into the cove, we would know that the bear was there. The lead naturalist called back to her in a bit of a raised voice and asked her to give him a bit more time to move 30 people off the beach!

All of us in the woods...not really worrying about the bear on the beach

Bear scat a la salmon

So here we are....30 people on the beach between a grizzly bear and a salmon stream jumping with fish. The bear is walking down the beach, and about 15 kayaks and zodiacs are paddling along the water keeping pace with the bear. It's like a bad B movie, isn't it? The call came in to get us all off the beach, so up into the woods we went, but then most of us positioned ourselves so that we could see the beach through the trees, because heaven forbid we should miss a picture of a bear so close by! There was some pretty disgusting bear poop in there that was all white and runny. Apparently, when they're bulking up on salmon, their digestive system gets a little wonky (I know you really wanted that visual, but I was curious when I found this white pile of goo and had to know what it was).

Back out of the woods waiting for the bear to pass us by

Ok, so, now we're out of the bear's way. Everything's good. We're all trying to be quiet and let the bear get to his food. The lead naturalist was tracking his progress, and we were waiting for our photo op. There was a problem though. The bear had stopped on the beach for a good scratch, and one of the kayaks got too close to him, causing him to give the couple a dirty look and stand up and go into the woods. Yes, that would be the woods that the 30 people had just gone into, and he's really not that far away. We got the call to get the heck out of the woods, so we tried valiantly to get down the root-infested hill quickly and quietly, but it was tough because there were a couple of people who needed extra help that slowed the group down, which made the people in the back of the group quite nervous (can you guess where I was?). I had to laugh because when we finally all got back onto the beach, the cove that had previously been empty now had ALL the kayaks and ALL the zodiacs in it with everyone clicking away with their cameras and waiting for the bear.

The bear finally appeared at the top of the waterfall and provided us all with a wonderful show...catching salmon with his paw, squishing out the bright red roe and then proceeding to obliterate the rest of the fish.

I tried my hand at taking video of him, and it turned out really well until my hand fell asleep and I couldn't figure out how to turn the video off. Please forgive the last 15 seconds of the video because I was severely handicapped, but it sure is a cool video, isn't it? I took another video as he made his way to the other side of the stream, but when I panned out to show how close we were, the frame went out of focus and I couldn't figure out how to fix it. Eventually, I panned out and panned back in and the focus held, but it isn't until the final couple seconds of the video. Therefore, enjoy the first 30 seconds, ignore the next 30 seconds, and then the last 5 seconds is fine. The good thing about me doing the video is that my dang camera has such a good zoom (wait, did I thank Grandma Dar yet today?), it makes for a really good video. Too bad the operator is totally inept!

Cindy decided to go get the life jackets from the beach in the zodiacs and bring them to us rather than having us walk back to them since this little adventure had taken so long. By the time they got everyone loaded up, though, ANOTHER bear came out into the stream, so the last 2 boats got to snap some pics of 2 bears. We had the National Geographic photographer in our boat, and he got some pictures of the 2 bears in the stream with the other boat between us and the bears. He said he couldn't imagine a better publicity shot. I didn't really get any great shots of the 2 bears because my zodiac was bouncing around so much, but that's okay because I'd just had the experience of my life. I mean seriously....they couldn't just take us to a waterfall where bears were feeding, could they? They gave us the chance to take evasive maneuvers to keep from being lunch first! How cool is that?

We get back to the boat, very late for lunch, and I find Shannon in the lounge. She's got a grin a mile wide on her face, and she says, "So. You wanna see my video of the bear?"

That's Shannon in the kayak, and the bear is looking right at her!

It turns out that she had actually been right next to the dang thing in her kayak. She didn't see him at first because he was on the our life jackets...ripping one apart...and she got the whole thing on video. Try to imagine this. She's in a single kayak which means she's got the oar to contend with and, of course, the whole keeping herself afloat and away from shore thing going on. She whips out the waterproof video camera (thank you, Phil!), and takes a video while paddling! Now that's talent! Anyway, check out the video, and notice the bear peeing to mark his territory at the end of it. 

Fast forward now to when the bear was on the beach taking his scratching break. Shannon also got a video of that, and she panned down the beach and showed where the group of 30 people were and wonders whether her mom is going to get off the beach before the bear gets her. Nice huh?

In the last video she took, it shows how close some of the kayakers actually got. Like, really close. Too close. The bear sits up and takes notice, and the camera jostles a bit as Shannon tries to paddle backwards while still filming. At least there were other people between her and it, so she'd have a chance to get away before it went on a rampage.

The rest of the evening was spent viewing the first couple of minutes of the trip DVD made by the video chronicler as well as the slideshow made from the top 6 pictures from each traveler. We also had the captain's dinner and the goodbyes from the crew, which were very poignant. Emily said it best when she quoted John Muir (one of the famous explorers of the region who was often called The Father of the National Parks and co-founded the Sierra Club) who said, "In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks." Emily also played us a wonderful song on the violin, and there was nary a dry eye in the house.

The final presentation was about Northwestern native art by David the naturalist, and it was super interesting. He talked more about Tlingit art (which Faith had touched on during our Glacier Bay cruise), as well as other groups along the Northwest coast down to Washington and Oregon, and he looked at the historical and modern material culture, which has a lot of carry-over. He himself is an extremely talented artist in a variety of media, so he had examples of artwork that he had created based on native designs (some of which you can see below). We really enjoyed the presentation, and it made our experience the next day at the Sitka National Historic Park much more interesting because we could recognize things he had talked about.

This was woven by David in a style that has almost been lost. It is trimmed in fur and is part of a pair that are worn on the calf when wearing ceremonial garb

The body of this box is made from a single plank of wood into which joints have been cut and then steamed so that they can be bent at 90-degree angles

This bowl is made from the horn of a Dall's Sheep. Can you believe how big that horn was and how much work it required to hollow it all out?

This rattle is decorated with bits of abalone and copper, which is typical of Tlingit artwork

As you can imagine, though, we also spent time reliving the bubble netting and Great Bear Adventure from the different perspectives of the folks on land and on sea. It was, without a doubt, the most insane day of the trip, but it was insane in a good way. No one on board, whether they were crew or guest, would ever forget this day...or this whole trip. Cindy stated that she had never seen a trip where so many things happened that were so over the top fantastic. Alaska is a beautiful place, but the coming together of all the scenery, the weather, the nature, and the wonderful people was a phenomenal gift to us all.

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