Thursday, May 10, 2018

On top of Farm Island

Today, I accomplished a goal that I've had for several years now - to see what it looks like from the highest point on Farm Island.  I have to be truthful and state that the view from the top, although beautiful, was not spectacular enough for me to repeat this climb.  It was a tough one mainly because of the dense underbrush I had to fight through nearly all the way to the top.  The top is just under 2500' so it was a long struggle!

A view looking uphill during the first part of the climb at the mixture of elderberry, salmonberry, devil's club, currants, and occasional alder bushes.  If any of you remember the post about Devil's Club, there is one characteristic of this plant that I failed to mention then that I will mention now.  Devil's Club seems to be able to either change its appearance or quickly move to the place where once there was a less painful plant.  I grabbed Devil's Club at least twice today to use as a handhold when I was very certain that I was grabbing elderberry or alder.  I looked for a usable handhold, spotted an alder branch, reached for it, and somehow ended up with a painful handful of Devil's Club!  Sinister, sinister plant!  I have Devil's Club in the palm of my right hand, in my left cheek, and in my right buttock, and those are only the places where I know it is right now.  

This is the view looking downhill, the river is visible in the top right, from about 500' above.

The underbrush changed higher up but did not get any easier to walk through!  I named this part of the climb Purgatory Ridge as the suffering endured to pass through this ought to have a heavenly reward at the end.  I also thought these twisted willows looked like tortured souls reaching out for solace.  If any of you are wondering why in the world a person would spend one of their days off from work voluntarily inflicting this kind of torture on himself, I really don't have a good answer for you. 

 At least there was a game trail through this hell.  See that dark, muddy bit in the center of the willows?  That's the trail made by generations of moose, deer, and bears.

That is almost the summit there in the distance.  So close but so far!!

A look back down Purgatory Ridge as I neared the summit.  At least on this last stretch, the snow provided some brush free moments.

Finally, the summit!  Not totally what I had hoped for but still nice.  This is looking upriver at the first 20 miles or so of the Stikine.

Looking downriver out across the Stikine delta.  Wrangell is located on the other side of the low narrow point on the left side of this photo. 

A closer look at Wrangell.  Most of town is on the far side of this piece of land.  The structures visible in this photo are the buildings associated with the airport.

A couple more views looking upriver.

On the way back down, I was rewarded with this rainbow.  It was a nice gift after a difficult climb with a long descent just beginning. 

That's it that's all for this post, I'm beginning to fade and my body would really appreciate being in a prone position!  I've also got some Devil's Club spines to start removing!

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Shameless Request

I don't have anything particularly interesting coming up in this post but just wanted to take the opportunity to thank the newest follower of it, Chris, (Thanks Chris!  I hope you found it worth your time) and to thank all of you who read it and find some sort of interest or value from it.

I do enjoy the opportunity and excuse to learn more about photography, practice my writing skills, and learn or relearn things about the natural world so I also personally get some value from doing this.  But now for the shameless request:  If any of you like what I'm doing here, please pass it on to anyone who you think would enjoy it as well by any means you please whether through social media or otherwise.  I don't have the attention span to spend too much time at the computer and must be too misanthropic to participate in social media so have a pretty limited outreach.  Also, at your convenience, let me know what you liked, didn't like, what would be better, more interesting, or just requests for future posts.  You can do that either by commenting in the post or emailing me at 
And become a follower!  (I've always thought that "follower" is one of the worst words to use in this sort of context, sounds a bit too cultish to me!)

Thanks again to all of you for your interest and time!

And, just to add some visuals to this, here are a few bird nerd photos from the recently ended 2018 Wrangell Stikine River Birding Festival as well as a few random photos I don't think I've posted before.

I hope spring is springing wherever you are!

A Golden Crowned Sparrow from my bedroom window.  A flock of dozens of these guys decimated a suet cake over the course of a day and caused me to nearly be late for work as I was trying to get some decent shots of them in the morning and didn't keep a very close watch on the clock!  (On a completely unrelated subject, do you know where the word "decimate" originated?  It's a brutally fascinating history that I learned from a podcast called Dan Carlin's Hardcore History which I extremely highly recommend.  "Decimate" came from the Roman Legion days and was a form of punishment imposed on units that were mutinous, cowardly, or in some other ways, had grossly underperformed.  The unit was divided into groups of 10 and then one soldier out of each group of 10 was randomly selected to be beaten to death by the other 9 as punishment for the whole group.)   Luckily, I don't live far from work and can make it there in about 3 minutes if I really book it on my bike.

These are a type of sandpiper called Dunlins.  There have been huge flocks of them up on the delta the last week.  One of the interesting and helpful peculiarities of the migration of shorebirds on the Stikine delta is that many of them are already in their breeding plumage which greatly simplifies identification.  These Dunlins are easy to identify by the black breast and belly.

This is a Western Sandpiper which is one the smallest but most prolific of the migrating shorebirds here.  These guys are only 5 or 6 inches long but can be found in flocks numbering in the many thousands as they murmurate across the sky like a school of bait fish transposed into an inverse environment.

The following are just some random patterns on a sand bar from the Stikine River taken last summer and one decomposing salmon head freshly dug up out of the sand by a foraging Raven who left his tracks behind while practicing proper wilderness etiquette of "Take only pictures, leave only footprints".

Monday, April 23, 2018

Hooligan, ooligan, eulachon, Thaleichthys pacificus and the coming of spring

 Spring, the season when life and color return to the land after the stark, stalking beauty of the long winter.  The quiet, lurking fear of cold and starvation are driven back once again by a strengthening Sun and its promise of warmth and light.
Spring is the easy season to love:  flowers begin to bloom, butterflies begin to flutter by, birds rejoice at every dawn, and the fecundity of the natural world comes streaming back but, the mornings are still crisp and cool, the biting bugs are still absent, and a fire in the wood stove is still a pleasant comfort to come home to after a day outdoors.  The weather may be a bit on the unpredictable side during this season, but overall it is a time of hope, expectations, and renewal.
Spring is still struggling to spring here in SE Alaska this year, it is still on the cold side of the thermometer and the higher elevations still have a fresh coating of new snow in the mornings but the Robins and Varied Thrushes and Song Sparrows  are doing their best to sing spring into being.  So far this spring we have had the usual migrants passing through:  Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, some shorebirds like Western Sandpipers, the Rufous Hummingbirds are here, Snipe, Harriers, etc. representing the avian world and for the last few weeks, the annual temporary increase in the Bald Eagle and Steller Sea Lion populations as they come to feast on the subject of this post.
For those of us living here at the mouth of the last river of its kind in North America, the Stikine, spring also brings aquatic migrants in the form of a small but immensely important fish known by many names:  the eulachon or hooligan.  These fish, a type of smelt, are a bit of a mystery to science, much is known about them but there is nearly an equal amount that is not known about them.  Some of the knowns is the fact that they are such an important food source after the winter season that the Stikine River has the second largest congregation of Bald Eagles in North America during this time.  We know when there are hooligan running up the river because there is an obvious absence of Eagles in town.  Bald Eagles, being as common here as crows in other parts of the country, are a normal daily bird to see, not seeing them is what becomes an unusual event and at this time of year, not seeing them around their normal haunts in town means there are hooligan in the river.  When there are hooligan in the river, we Two Legs also begin to spend more time up the river in small skiffs with jetdrive outboards capable of navigating the shallow channels while the mighty Stikine is a little less mighty with most of its future waters still held fast in the mountains as snow and ice.

The history of humans, hooligan, the Stikine River, and the town of Wrangell is very intertwined.  These small fish are one of the many incredibly rich and important natural resources that the Stikine provides and supports which was, and still is, why humans hold this river so dear.  While there is currently no real commercial industry around hooligan, in the past they were a very valuable commodity of trade and commerce as dried food or rendered down into a very rich and nutritious oil or "grease" consumed by people all along the NW Pacific coast.  Hooligan are still a coveted seasonal food for many people although they seem to have a "love 'em or hate 'em" reputation among most people I know.  Being in the "love 'em" camp, I make an effort to catch as many as I can every spring as I enjoy eating them but enjoy giving them away to others in the "love 'em" camp even more.  It is very easy to give out hundreds of pounds of hooligan once word has spread in town that there are hooligan available!

This is my friend Martin successfully fishing for hooligan with a cast net.  Beach seines, dip nets, and cast nets are all effective means of harvesting these fish although cast netting is my preferred method - I like the exercise it provides, the needed skill for the actual throwing of the net, and how clean the fish are when put into the cooler.  The first photo in this post was of an unsuccessful drag along a stretch of beach with a beach seine, it is good to have several different hooligan catching tools at your disposal as sometimes one is more effective than another.  On this day, the cast nets were the most effective.

A pretty decent catch on that throw!  We were consistently getting a couple dozen fish per throw and in about one hour, we harvested at least 300 pounds of hooligan.

That is what all the fuss is about, those slender, delicate little fish.  Thousands of sea gulls and Bald Eagles and hundreds upon hundreds of seals and sea lions congregate in the Stikine just for the nutritious benefit of these creatures.  Hooligan are a type of smelt, they are in the smelt family, but are much different than the other smelts in some ways.  The predominant way is the amount of oil they contain within their bodies.  Samples of hooligan have been found to contain 18-20% oil.  Compared to the oil contents of other similar food fishes, this is double to triple the amount of oil found in fish like capelin, sand lance, and herring!  The oils in hooligan are mostly mono-unsaturated fats, particularly oleic acid.  Oleic acid is an extremely beneficial compound that has been proven to lower blood pressure, increase HDL, the "good" cholesterol, increase brain and nerve function, and a whole host of other good things.  There is also an interesting connection between oliec acid and fire ants which I will let you research on your own if you are interested.  Hooligan are also high in Vitamins A and E as well as calcium, iron, and zinc so it isn't hard to guess why so many creatures come from so far away to feast on these little packages of energy and nutrition.
Another interesting fact about hooligan is that the males and females seem to segregate themselves into separate waves of returning schools.  On my first hooligan fishing trip this year in early April, about 99% of the fish we caught were female.  On the next two trips later in the month, every single fish that I personally processed, which numbered over 1,000 fish, 100% of them were male.  There are distinct morphological differences between the males and females:  the males pectoral fins are noticeably larger for one and they have a pronounced ridge of muscle running the length of their bodies just above the lateral line.  There are some other less distinctive differences but the two I mentioned are the most obvious.

This is a small bowl of hooligan cleaned and gutted with the heads and tails removed waiting to be processed.  My preferred methods of processing and preserving them is by canning them in a way similar to sardines with either mustard or hot sauce, drying them in a food dehydrator, or pickling them.

This is a packed half pint jar of hooligan ready to be canned.  It takes about 5 fish to fill a half pint jar; about 9 fish for a pint jar.

One rack of cleaned hooligan ready to go into the dehydrator.

A batch of hooligan out of the dehydrator.  I then put them in Ziploc bags in the freezer and eat them as is as a snack or rehydrate them as a sort of fish stock for soups or other dishes.  In this form, they present a high energy, nutritious, tasty, and easy snack:  fish chips!

48 half pint jars fresh out of the canner ready for the pantry!  I did this batch half with brown mustard and half with hipster ketchup (sriracha sauce).  Canning is a lot of work and is a time consuming process so, for me, usually is spread out over the course of 2 or 3 days for the cleaning of fish, prepping fish and ingredients, packing jars, and then the actual canning.  As you can see in the left of this photo, there is a french press of coffee cocked and loaded waiting to be consumed because I unloaded the canners in the morning before work after spending several hours the previous evening doing the canning.

The finished product.  I don't know how to describe the amount of pleasure and fulfillment I get from opening my cabinets and seeing jar after jar after jar of food that I gathered, fished, or hunted.  These jars represent so much more than sustenance: there are memories, experiences, effort, knowledge, wisdom, and risk contained within these jars in addition to the food.  The matter in these jars not only sustain my physical self, they also provide some sort of spiritual nutrition as well.  Occasionally I will open my cupboard doors and spend several minutes just looking at the bounty on the shelves.  Some store bought box or bag of "food" with a long list of ingredients, half of which we don't know what they are, can't give this same feeling of contentment and security.

Jars of hooligan about to go in the refrigerator to become pickled hooligan.  This was my first time pickling them and after a week in the refrigerator, I now declare them a new favorite method of eating hooligan!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Nature stories

A characteristic of being human seems to be a predilection for stories;  listening to stories, telling stories, creating stories and passing those stories along through time to others.  Folklore, mythologies, literature, television, blogs are various ways we have told stories throughout time to each other and may be one of the best things we do as human beings.
Stories often seem to be an attempt for us to make sense of or explain phenomenon that surround us in the world, they teach us lessons, provide emotional comfort, and sometimes just let us escape from aspects of life which can be mundane or unpleasant.
The natural world has always presented me with stories which have then intrigued me to pursue and discover more of those stories.  Those stories are out there everyday in countless numbers just waiting to share themselves with whoever happens upon them.  They don't always have a happy ending and most of the time the ending is never revealed as we encounter them somewhere in the middle of the story and only get to learn a small part of it.   This is, for me, what makes these natural stories the most interesting and exciting of them all, they are the story of all Life - you don't get to flip to the last chapter and find out how it ends you have to either stick with it page by page or read what you can and let your mind marvel over the infinite possible outcomes.

This is a fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, which I have written about in a post called Random Nature back in January of this year.  This mushroom has psychoactive properties, which is a scientific way of saying it is a "trippy" mushroom.  Please go back and read that previous post if you would like to know more about this pretty fungus.  The reason why I put this photo in this blog is because #1 I like the photo and just got lucky to catch the light  from the setting sun on it before it went into total shade and #2 because the next morning when I walked by it it was broken and fallen over.  The story in this photo for me is the one that explains how this mushroom got broken.  Night had fallen not long after this shot was taken and I walked passed it again around 5 in the morning so only 7 hours had passed.  The story that my mind plays out is that a small struggling crab being carried into the forest to be eaten by a mink, knocked this mushroom over with a pincer as it tried to free itself from an undesirable fate.

The beach at a low tide has so many stories to tell!  Low tide reveals so many potentially fascinating mysteries left behind by the receding sea water (an incoming tide could also be called reSEAding).  How did this respectable Sitka blacktail buck deer end up with its skull on the beach?  How did he die?  Hunter's bullet?  Strategic wolves?  Age?  Bad teeth? I will most definitely never know the story of this deer and that is why I love nature's stories the best.

This is a story for which I was able to piece together a little information to come up with a fairly believable scenario although what truly happened will remain a mystery that only this bear knows.  We spotted this scene while boating to Anan at low tide a few weeks ago.  This smallish black bear and blacktail deer carcass were down in the tidal zone on the Wrangell Island shore.  It is easy to see where the bear has buried part of the deer with sand and where it has eaten at least some of it.  It is also easy to tell that the deer carcass has been underwater through at least one tide cycle as the exposed rib cage and meat attached to it have the look of having been wet.  What were the events leading up to this discovery?  Did the bear kill the deer?  Did the deer die some other way and wash up on the beach?  If it did die some other way, how did it die?  Why hasn't the bear dragged the deer up into a more protected and hidden spot in the forest?  This isn't a particularly large bear but it still could kill a mature buck although at some significant risk to its own well being so in my mind, I leaned toward the story in which the deer died of some other cause and was then found by the bear.  I thought this until I talked to another person who had seen this bear and deer the day before and noted that the bear seemed to have been limping rather noticeably.  Maybe this was evidence that the bear did attack, fight, and kill the deer getting wounded in the process.  Maybe this was also why the bear had not dragged the carcass up the beach into the forest.  Only the bear knows and I truly like it that way.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Rock and Ice

Our weather has not been very conducive to photography lately or even to spending much time outdoors, but there were a few good periods of rainless weather recently so I will share a few photos of a few things in the area.

These are two of the tallest peaks in our piece of southeast Alaska and are landmarks separating the U.S. from Canada.  The border between our two countries runs over the top of both of these peaks.  The rocky peak in the foreground that looks like a castle (or Batman's helmet) is Castle Mountain which I have mentioned in previous posts.  It reaches an elevation of 7333 feet and is as well defended by natural features as any castle built by humans.  The peak behind Castle looming higher and snowier, is Kate's Needle.  At 10,016 feet, it is one of the rare 10,000 footers along this stretch of the Coast Mountains.  This mountain is even more remote than Castle requiring a true expedition to reach its summit.

These were just a few photos from a recent trip to LeConte Glacier near Wrangell.  A pretty spectacular place!

A rare but lovely sunset from the summer of 2017.  The kayaker is in a fishing kayak which is propelled using foot pedals so your hands are free for dealing with fishing rods and tackle and for fighting fish.  The weather and water temperatures of SEAK are not often the best for kayak fishing unfortunately but when it is, it can be a blast.

A mountain high on my list to explore is this one, Mt. Calder on the NW end of Prince of Wales Island.  It isn't a particularly high one at 3370 feet but as you can see there is a lot of country above treeline and this mountain is very close to the open ocean so the view has to be pretty spectacular.  This area has a lot of limestone as well which is the primary rock making this mountain so there are probably some interesting caves and rock formations as well.  El Capitan cave is not too far away from Mt Calder.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Whale tails, again

Judging from the number of views the previous whale tail post received, I feel safe in making the assumption that those of you who read this blog have an affinity for whales far exceeding any other subject!  Well then, good on ya!  Here are some more whales for you!

I have a few new whales to add to the growing list of Wrangell area humpbacks that I have been able to photograph and identify so meet the new ones.

This is Razorback who was seen with a group of 8 that we followed as they bubble net fed along the shoreline of an island.  Several of the whales in this group were ones that I have been seeing all summer, many of whom are usually together.

Halo.  According to some whale information I have read, 70% of the humpbacks in SE AK have all black flukes.  This statistic hasn't proven itself out yet in my personal observations but Halo is one of the few I have seen with nearly completely black tails.

Mako.  I found a photo from 2013 of Mako in a file so was pretty interested to be able to start getting a little bit of a history of these whales.


Glacier.  All of these whales were in the same group of 8 and were doing quite a bit of this --

Bubble net feeding is typically preceded by a high pitched call that is sometimes audible through the hull of the boat and on a calm day like the one in the photos, you can see the bubble ring forming which gives you time to prepare for a sight that is always incredible.  There is obviously a good deal of coordination that must occur during these feedings as one whale has to do the bubbling and calling while the others get into specific positions as seen in the photos.  Depending on the size of the group, one or more whales typically come straight up high out of the water in the center while the others twist on their sides around the center whale.  This is a very coordinated behavior that has to be preplanned somehow to make it work.  Very often the feeding groups consist of the same individual whales regardless of where I have found them which may also mean they form a kind of "team" to include ones with the best fishing abilities.  

This breaching whale was a smaller whale than the ones in the group who we noticed breaching far out in the distance in the middle of the strait.  It fortunately breached several more times when we got closer and put on a nice display.  This whale was swimming very quickly on an intercepting course with the group of 8 but never became part of that group.  Once it reached the shoreline, it was always several hundred yards behind the group and could have easily caught up to them but didn't.  I'm not a whale, but I got the sense that it was not being permitted to become part of the group.  Maybe it was a less experienced bubble feeder that would disrupt the good thing the group had going.   We eventually came to a place where we saw other whales in the distance ahead of us, including a double simultaneous breach!, at which point this whale appeared in front of the original group of 8 hurrying toward these new whales.

This is Eclipse diving with some of the scenery of SE AK in the background.

A series of shots showing bubble feeding from the beginning to close to the end.