Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Women’s Work?

Not too long ago, certainly well within my lifetime, there was a common sentiment that women were not capable of certain jobs – many jobs, actually. So even as a man, I always enjoy seeing women doing “men’s work” – and doing it well. I saw two such examples early in my Alaska trip.
The first was the Kenai Fjords National Park cruise. The captain of the ship that took us out was a young woman. She not only handled the boat all day at the helm during this eight hour day, but as captain, she had responsibility for the safety of the ship, the crew, and every one of the hundred or more passengers. She took the craft close into massive rocks to see wildlife, up to the edge of glaciers, and out into the powerful Gulf of Alaska. And she did a very competent and impressive job all day, including getting back on time despite chasing whales late in the day and docking the ship at the end of the day. If you have ever even tried docking a boat, much less a ship, in a tight place with currents and wind, you know that this is not for the faint of heart.

The second was during the float trip down the Kenai River. Our young guide, Beth, had to steer the raft down this swift and cold river with four passengers on it. If we had signed on for the all day trip, she also would have had to take the raft through rough whitewater in a canyon. Again, she was responsible for the safety of all of us, with no one to back her up.

I think that when people talk about the "good old days", they may forget that there were negative things about the old days as well. And certainly the concepts of “men’s work” and “women’s work” were among these. I would guess in many societies around the world, this concept is still alive and well, but it is fading here. I, for one, am glad about this.

Hike to Russian River Falls

August 31. In the afternoon, we did a 4.5 mile hike out and back to the Russian River Falls. 50% of us hoped to see a bear, and 50% didn't. At the start of the hike was a sign that said on August 23rd, a grizzly had been wounded in the area, and had been spotted a couple of days later. While I hoped not to run into that particular bear, I felt pity for the suffering beast. I don't hunt, and don't fully understand the desire to. But I do feel that hunters have a responsibility to make sure they are clear about their target and to only take a shot if they are certain they will kill the animal and not leave it wounded. But in any event, a wounded bear is a very dangerous animal and we were very alert on this hike. Everything we read about the hike to the falls, including guidebooks and the signs at the trailhead, made clear that grizzlies are very often seen on this trail.

The trail itself was usually wide, level, and straight.

While we often hiked through what looked like prime wildlife country, we saw nothing bigger than a red squirrel along the way.

Devil's club is a good plant to avoid. It is covered with sharp spines and is supposed to be amazingly painful.

Autumn is just beginning on the Kenai. A few days later, much further north, we would run into peak colors.

This mushroom was as large as a dinner plate. I don't know if it is an edible one or not, but if it is, it would be quite a feast! If not, it would be your last supper.

The guide from the float trip, Beth, had told us about a short and steep game trail that led to vistas of one of the Russian lakes, so we hoofed it up there for a partial view.

The Russian River dropped steeply through a series of cascades. How the salmon make it through here is incredible.

From a view point, we could look down about 60 feet to the start of the falls. Exhausted salmon must somehow climb that 60 feet in relatively short order, jumping fall after fall. They gather at the base of the falls to rest in the swift current. The red ones are coho salmon, and the greyish ones are silver salmon - at least that is what I think. The cohos will spawn in lakes, but I think that the silvers will spawn in streams.

This would be the best place to see bear, with the abundance of fish, but we didn't see any. We watched the fish attempt to jump the falls over and over. They would smash into rocks and fall back.

They are near the end of their amazing return to trip to the place of their birth. Somehow, against all odds, they have made it this far during their five or six year life. Whether they get to spawn or not, every one of these fish is now dead by the time I write this a month later. Their rotting carcasses will fertilize the water for their offspring to get a good start in life.

When you think of all the hazards these fish have survived in their short lives, it is mind-boggling. Just to grow to a size big enough to migrate to the ocean defies the odds. Then there is life in the ocean for several years, avoiding seals, killer whales, and commercial fisheries. Finally there is the long trip up river to their exact place of birth, again running a gauntlet of commercial and sport fisherman, subsistence fishers in their summer fishing camps, and grizzlies. The tiny percentage that make it back mate and then die. Their bodies are decaying and battered even before their final death.

As we turned to hike out, a steady rain that lasted all the rest of the day began, and the camera was put in a plastic bag. We didn't see bear, but seeing the salmon jump made the hike very worthwhile.

Floating the Kenai River

August 31. So in the morning, we took a fun and slightly chilly float trip down the Kenai River, covering about 15 miles of it in a raft. There were five of us: Beth (our guide and oarswoman), Mary and me, and a man with his 10 year old daughter. Every year for the girl's birthday, he or her mom will take her anywhere she wants to go in the USA, and this year she chose Alaska. Pretty cool memories, I would say.

Although it was cloudy and cool, the rain held off for the morning. We were not going to be as fortunate for the afternoon's hike into the Russian River Falls. We saw wonderful scenery while we floated down river. Beth told us a lot about the natural history and human history as she expertly guided the raft down the river. We saw some wildlife - three bald eagles, a group of mergansers, and many salmon swimming just under the surface as they swam upstream. Here are some pictures from the morning on the beautiful Kenai River.
Our guide, Beth, did a great job taking us down the Kenai:

The scenery along the river was wonderful:

We saw three bald eagles, including this immature one and this adult:

We also saw a group of mergansers fishing in this distance, and this red headed merganser on a rock.

The Kenai is glacier fed, and has a beautiful blue-green color:

This hand-operated ferry takes anglers across the Kenai to the Russian River for the salmon runs. In peak season, they take 1,000 anglers a day across for something like eight dollars a pop!
This rock had pretty patterns of lichens on it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Short Hike Along the Kenai

August 30. We left Seward and drove to Cooper's Landing, along the Kenai River. Our hotel was right along the river on a bluff, and we took a short hike, then snapped some photos from the hotel.

We saw some interesting mushrooms on the hike:

The Kenai River is a pretty greenish-blue. Here are some views from the hike...

And from the hotel:

Mountain across from the hotel - I forget the name of it.

Another view of the Kenai River with a rainbow for luck.

Alaska Sealife Center

August 30. Our second day in Seward consisted of a visit to the Alaska Sealife Center before we headed north up the Kenai. The construction of this center was funded largely by Exxon as part of the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement. It has some features of a zoo and museum, but mostly it is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured, abandoned, and ill marine mammals and other sea creatures. They also do a lot of research there. 4 R's - rescue, rehabilitate, release, and research.

We paid extra for a behind the scenes tour, and a nice young woman gave us a 1 hour tour going through many of the labs, rescue tanks, research areas, and engineering space of this impressive facility. I took a few photos of some of the animals in the exhibit space. My favorite exhibit was the seabirds, where you could even see some of them diving and "flying" underwater.

The puffins are really cute. We saw many of them yesterday on the Kenai Fjords cruise, but not this close.

Horned puffin Tufted puffin
Horned puffin spashing around in its pool Murres

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Few More Photos of the Kenai Fjords

I decided to throw a few more photos from our August 28 Kenai Fjords cruise out there. I will let them do the talking ....

Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise

August 29. This all day cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park was one of the most heavily anticipated things we had planned on our trip, and we couldn't wait. When the day dawned partly sunny after the previous day's soaking rain, we could not believe our good fortune. I am mostly going to let photos do the talking, but it was amazing. We saw bald eagles, sea otters, Steller sea lions, a fin whale, a humpbacked whale, Dall's porpoises, tufted puffins, and horned puffins, among other creatures. The scenery was beyond spectacular, and my photos don't do it justice. I easily could have put 50-60 photos out here, but don't worry - I didn't do that to you! But I was tempted!

The boat had barely left its slip when we saw this bald eagle with an unlucky gull in its talons. Right after this, we saw our first sea otter!
The scenery along the fjord was astounding, with huge mountains rising from the sea.
We had been out an hour or so, when we ran into a great area for wildlife. Within a few feet, we saw rare Steller sea lions hauled out on this rock...
And horned puffins.
Then the boat went out into the choppy Gulf of Alaska - several people got seasick. We saw these amazing black and white Dall's porpoises shooting in front of the boat like torpedoes.
We also saw a fin whale, the world's third largest animal, but I could not get a photo. After a while the boat entered more sheltered waters in another fjord, and the amazing scenery started to pop up again.
In the distance, we saw a huge glacier end its slow journey to the sea.
Then we approached Aialic Glacier, where we were going get as close as possible and watch for a half hour or so.
A curious sea otter obliged for a photo. At one point the millions of otters were reduced to a few thousand because of mankind's greed. The near extinction of sea otters was a major reason that Russia sold Alaska to the USA in 1867 for about two cents an acre. The otters dying out had been like a gold mine going dry.
The groans, snaps, and crashes from the glacier were amazing. When it calved, it sounded like cannon shots. This glacier is something like 600 feet thick where it contacts the sea. It made this good sized boat look like a toy.
I was able to capture two airplanes doing flight seeing in tandem along the glacier's edge. What skilled pilots!
All too soon, we headed back for Seward. I thought this spruce covered rocky island was pretty cool! One can imagine a thin soil slowly building up over thousands of years until trees could survive.
This is Bear Glacier, formed when two glaciers merged. You can see the moraine being squeezed between them to form a dark stripe.
More spectacular mountains and glaciers.
This mountain almost looks like a volcano with the clouds at its peak.
What a day this way! For much of the trip, when Mary asked me "what was your favorite thing so far?" my reply was "The Kenai Fjords cruise." Ultimately though, even this day was surpassed by another experience.