Thursday, May 25, 2017

Oplopanax horridus

One of my favorite plants commonly found here in the temperate jungle is Oplopanax horridus, or Devil's Club.  Devil's Club is a very appropriate name for this beautiful horrible plant as one can easily imagine some damned soul being eternally scourged with it by some sadistic and cruel demon.  Think I am exaggerating?  Take a look at this.

These are just the biggest and most obvious of the spines that cover this plant.  These are woody spines found on the stem of the plant which rarely break off into your skin, just puncture it like needles.  There are also smaller, more delicate spines that do penetrate the skin where they then break off and lie in wait to cause you pain and discomfort many hours and days later.  Every part of this plant, the woody stem, the leaf stalks, and the leaves themselves have spines that hurt, except the roots, they are the only spineless part of the plant.  This is the cactus of the rainforest. 

I have honestly become very fond of this plant, to me it represents just how rugged, wild, and difficult this part of the world is.  Devil's Club grows in more open areas where the sunlight can actually penetrate the forest canopy and can grow to over 10' tall while never getting any bigger in diameter than a half dollar.  This results in a plant with a long stem with a lot of spring and given the fact that Devil's Club tends to grow in fairly dense thickets, it has a sinister tendency to smack you on some part of your body when you least expect it, step on one stem and another one that you didn't notice will whack you across your T-shirt clad back!  Devil's Club is also very good at being the only available usable handhold when you are climbing a steep forested slope and only the thickest of leather gloves can armor your hands against its woody spines.  The softer, more delicate spines can actually be much worse than the big, obvious ones.  You usually don't feel them enter you and only realize they are there hours later when you feel a sharp, piercing pain.  These things get in deep somehow and are nearly impossible to extract unless you know the proper technique which I will share with you so that you know what to do should you ever encounter this plant.  The proper technique for removing these insidious little things is to suck it up and deal with their discomfort for 2-3 days until they begin to fester slightly then you can easily squeeze them out.  For real.  This is what I have found to be the best anyway and it gives me great and sadistic pleasure when those little hairlike spines pop up out of my skin.
I started that paragraph by stating that I was fond of Devil's Club didn't I?  I truly am which may give some disturbing insight into my personality.  I have hiked so many miles in this jungle now that only the densest of Devil's Club thickets makes me alter my course and I carry my Devil's Club spines and scars as a badge of timber beast pride!  And, picking out those little spines over the next several days gives a person something to do if you get bored!

I may have given a bad first impression of Devil's Club but it is also a beautiful plant as you can see from the above photo of a fully grown leaf.  The leaves can get quite large and have a very attractive symmetry somewhat like a maple leaf.  I have always thought that some sort of Devil's Club leaf design would make a cool tattoo.  Devil's Club may be so well armored and protected due to its wealth and value as a medicine and food source.  Devil's Club is related to ginseng and has been used for centuries to treat a wide variety of medical issues like arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, dandruff, digestive issues, menstruation issues, colds, tuberculosis, and many other things.  It is used as a tea, poultice, and salve.  Putting a Devil's Club stem above your doorway is also supposed to keep evil spirits from entering your house and seems to work as I have not had a single evil spirit in my house since putting it above my door.  The plant also has pretty red berries later in the year which are also edible and are an important food source for some animals especially bears.  Devil's Club also has a very distinctive and pleasant smell.  This plant is truly, truly a natural wonder.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

King fishing

Just a few photos from an evening King Salmon fishing trip last night.  A fishing trip but unfortunately not a catching trip.  The return of King Salmon is predicted to be pretty bad this year and the state fish and game managers have put a very restrictive limit on them.  This means potentially lots of hours trolling waiting for that burst of adrenaline when you see the rod jerk and hear the line getting ripped off the reel.  That time does present one with an opportunity to commune with friends, enjoy the scenery, take some photos, and drink some beer.  (I'm not sure it is possible to fish without drinking beer, I hear that it is but I'm skeptical)

It has been a rather cold and rainy spring here in the hidden gem and has felt more like autumn than spring.  Yesterday evening was particularly autumn-like with a thick band of fog down on the water, thick enough that I had to use radar for a bit to get over to the fishing spot safely.

Fog is interesting in the way that it can cancel out a person's sense of direction and speed so completely.  It can also create some interesting perspectives of the world.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Bob's Blurry Bear Blog (and wolf)

To be honest, this won't be too much of a bear blog, more of a random series of photos from the last week or so.  There are a couple blurry bear photos though and one of a wolf from a bear hunting trip that I did with a couple friends two Saturdays ago.  An unsuccessful bear hunting trip I'll add so anyone who thinks hunting bears is bad can be at ease!  I'm not much of a bear hunter but would like to get one nice spring black bear to have as a blanket in my attempt to keep things as natural as possible.  I did make 3 more attempts to get the bear I mentioned in the earlier post about whales but only saw him once and wasn't able to get close enough for a shot.  I think a future blog post will be about hunting and my thoughts regarding it as I know there are some people who disagree with it or feel that it is unnecessary or cruel.  There truly is a spiritual and deep connection to nature and the animals being hunted that comes with hunting them.

This was one of 4 brown bears we saw on that Saturday bear hunting trip.  It was a small bear that was only about 20-25 yards away from us when we first saw it.  It didn't see us for a minute or two so I was able to get out my camera and get this not so good picture of it before it saw us and ran away.

This bear was small enough that I was initially concerned that there might be a mother bear nearby but fortunately there was not!  There were 3 of us humans there and we were all armed with big caliber rifles but I still prefer to not encounter a mad mama bear, mostly for my own safety but also to avoid any need to hurt or kill a bear just doing what she should be doing - protecting her young.  It still amazes me how quickly bears will avoid conflict and confrontation with humans given that they could so easily rip us apart.  The strength and speed of a bear is just incredible!  I love the constant state of heightened vigilance a savvy person should have when in bear country.  Everyone should feel like potential prey occasionally to keep the world in proper perspective! 

This is one of two wolves that we saw several hundred yards away.  I will never get bored with seeing wolves, every tine I have seen one is a special experience.  I am an unashamed wolf proponent although many of my fellow Wrangellites and hunters still have a personal policy of shooting them on sight using the reasoning that the wolves kill too many deer and moose.  My thought is that they kill just the right amount of these animals and until my fellow humans live in the wild 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and have to kill their food with their mouths, we should give them a break.  I have had 3 wolf encounters that stand out in my mind, all in the Wrangell area. 

The first of these memorable encounters was on a large grassy salt marsh in a tidal estuary where I saw 17 wolves at one time!  They were stretched out over several hundred yards crossing the grassy area into the timber and was obviously a pack with individuals of varying ages.  I was in the area moose hunting at the time so quickly knew that my moose hunting plan had been dashed by their presence but I was still happy to have had this encounter.  Later on that same day, I discovered sign of wolves chasing a cow moose with a calf in the sand of a dry channel of the river.  There was one area with moose hair scattered all over the ground which was churned up and disturbed where the cow moose obviously was fighting off the wolves.  I saw no traces of blood and was able to follow the moose and calf tracks to the river where they entered the water and must have swum to the far shore and escaped.

My second memorable wolf encounter was on a trip up the Iskut River which is the largest tributary of the Stikine River and is just a few miles across the border in British Columbia.  Two of us were in my 16' jet skiff on our first excursion up the Iskut which is a very fast flowing large river in the middle of the wilderness.  As I was navigating the channel, I noticed some splashing in the water right on the shoreline of the river ahead of us on the right side of the river (or river left for you paddlers).  I saw that it was an agitated cow moose frantically running back and forth along a short stretch of the river bank.  I then noticed two smaller animals swimming across the river toward her in front of us and thought that they were two moose calves.  One was a moose calf but the other was a wolf in close pursuit of it!  The moose calf was calling out and swimming hard but so was the wolf.  The river current was very swift so the smaller animals were swept downriver from the cow moose causing her to go up into the forest where I lost sight of her for a few minutes.  The bank of the river was fairly steep and very rocky which presented a significant obstacle to the moose calf, the current and the rocky, steep bank made it impossible for the calf to clamber out onto the shore.  The wolf had no such problem and quickly got out of the river a short way downstream of the calf and then began trying to find a way to get to the calf.  While the calf couldn't get out of the river, neither could the wolf get down to the calf so for several minutes there was a dramatic standoff with the calf bawling and struggling against the current and the wolf searching for a way to get the calf.  While this was happening, the cow moose reappeared on the river bank upriver from its calf and the wolf and then re-entered the river  and was quickly swept passed her calf and the wolf.  When she realized this, she quickly and powerfully swam to the shore and got out once again but was now a hundred yards downriver from her calf and in a spot where she couldn't see it.  She was not happy with the situation at all and then went back into the forest.  Meanwhile, the calf and wolf standoff continued until the calf swam back across the river to the far side, the opposite side from its mother, and got out and ran into the forest.  The wolf watched the calf swim away and then it too disappeared into the forest on the same side of the river as the cow moose.  Then this incredible story we were fortunate to witness was over.  We didn't see any of them again and have no idea what the outcome was.

The third encounter happened in 2015 on August 1st which is the first day of our deer hunting season and is the only reason why I remember the date!  My friend Beth and I were hiking and deer hunting on one of my favorite islands in the Wrangell area, Sergief Island up on the Stikine River delta.  It was a beautiful sunny and warm day on the delta so we were just leisurely walking through the thigh deep grass of the salt marsh along a slough leading back out to one of the main channels of the Stikine River when I saw 3 small wolves run across the sandy bank of the river channel out of sight behind the river bank.  They were wolf puppies in that gangly, leggy, goofy stage of puppyhood and didn't seem to have noticed us at all as they romped by with each other.  Just moments later, I saw a full grown wolf running by us in the grass about 50 feet away.  This adult wolf's course put Beth and I between it and the puppies who were still somewhere in front of us on the riverbank.  The adult went about 50 yards and then stopped and turned toward us and began barking just like a dog!  It didn't bark kind of like a dog, it sounded just like a big dog and if I hadn't been watching it do this, I might have mistaken it for a domestic dog.  While we were being barked at by the adult, I turned back toward the river where I had last seen the puppies to try to get another sighting of them.  I couldn't see them but could hear some faint whining coming from some willow bushes and moving further downriver from us.  When I turned back to the adult barking wolf, I saw something truly cool and unexpected, the wolf was standing on its hind legs!  The height of the grass was such that we could only see the wolf's head and face and the very top of its back when it was on all fours but now I could see its chest!  It must have been trying to get a better view of the area to determine where the puppies were and what our intentions were.  We didn't want to disrupt this wolf family too much but neither did we want to end this amazing encounter so we started walking in the direction of the puppies and put some willows between us and the adult wolf which kept barking and began to keep pace with us on a parallel course just on the other side of the willows.  We never saw the puppies again but periodically could hear whines from various parts of the willow thickets which seemed to be angling toward the adult wolf.  Eventually the adult stopped barking, we heard no more puppy whines, and never saw any of them again! 

This is an example of an estuary of a small river at low tide.  This is a river valley about an hour and a half from Wrangell where we saw the small brown bear and the wolf in the photos above.  At high tide, the majority of the land seen here would be covered by water and you could bring a shallow draft boat into the estuary.

Alaska's state flower, the forget-me-not, is in bloom.

Just a few okay sunset photos to fill out this post.

Willows against a beautiful blue Stikine River sky about 1 mile from the Canadian border.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Whales, bears, and porpi oh my!

Andrea and I did an overnight trip to a Forest Service cabin about an hour boat ride from Wrangell over the weekend out in the "real" ocean.  I call it the "real" ocean only because this area is far enough away from the Stikine River that there is no freshwater influence or silty, murky water like there is around the Wrangell vicinity.  The Stikine River is a high volume river with several glaciers along its 350 mile length so there is quite a bit of sediment carried along in its waters.  There is a gauge on the Stikine maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey which gives real time readings that can be found on the internet, at the time I am writing this, the river level is 8.36 feet and is discharging 219,927 gallons of water a second.  An 8 foot river is still more of a winter river level than a late spring one and during an average summer, the river level is usually around 19 or 20 feet and discharges 500,000 gallons a second or more!  So, as you can see, there is a lot of silt laden freshwater dumping out into the ocean!
The "real" ocean area we were in is called Clarence Strait which connects into the open ocean, has a very long fetch, and is over 1,000 feet deep so can be a rather dangerous and intimidating place to be at times while at other times can be a flat, sunny beautiful pond.  Marine life is abundant out there with lots of whales, fish, jellyfish, birds, and in the summer, migrating cruise ships and their odd cargo of hairless apes.  Our weather was sunny and warmish and while we didn't have dangerous and intimidating water conditions, neither did we have flat calm pondwater, but my boat, the trusty workhorse, LynnD, can handle some pretty tough conditions.

Here is a view of Clarence Strait with a couple of Dall's Porpoise in the bottom of the photo.  Do you see them?  Neither do I, this seems to be a typical photo of these guys as they are some of the fastest swimmers in the sea.  We were surrounded by a group of about 15 of them speeding all around us and under the boat as we bobbed in the swells trying to catch one on camera.

This is the best shot I got of them!  Beautiful creatures aren't they?  I guess you'll have to trust me, they are really fun to watch and have a pretty black and white color pattern.  They always look to me like they are having an incredible amount of fun.

Some of the most beautiful sunsets you could ever see can be seen from the cabin we were staying in.  While this one Friday night wasn't one of the best I've seen here, it was still pretty.

On Saturday morning, we got in the boat to go do some beachcombing on a nearby island and saw this little guy frolicking with its mother.  This is a humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae.  The scientific name means "great-winged New Englander" which refers to these very long pectoral flippers, the New Englander part comes from their abundance in New England during the whaling days.  This calf seemed to be having a very good time slapping the water with its tail and flippers and rolling over on its back in the sunshine.

Flowers may be somewhat less exciting than young whales frolicking in the ocean but to a nature nerd like me, they present a different kind of fulfillment and awe.  These are some of the first wildflowers of the year and look like they are about to burst with dozens of flowers in a few more days.  This yellow flower is a villous cinquefoil growing right out of the rocks above the ocean.  The blue in the background in the bottom photo is the ocean.

The first lupines of the year.  These flowers were also on the beach but a little further away from the water in a more protected spot.

A dead crab of some kind washed up on the rocks.

Our trip back to Wrangell Saturday evening was not a pleasant one, we had consistent 3-4' seas with some swells approaching 6 ' and strong wind that seemed to come from every direction.  At least it wasn't raining!  Every time we would round a point of land that I thought would give us a respite from the wind and water, the wind would be blowing in a different direction and we would continue to get pummeled.  It was a long boat ride home but a good one to appreciate the power, beauty, and ever changing nature of the sea. 
I spotted a very glossy black and large black bear lying on a beach eating grass on the way home and decided to stop and put a stalk on it with the thought of shooting it with either the rifle or the camera, or both.  Andrea did manage to get a couple decent shots (with a camera) of the bear which is pretty impressive considering how rough the water was and how much the boat was rocking.

Beaching the boat in the rough seas was a challenge involving topping my boots but we made it downwind of the bear which gave us hopes of being able to stalk near enough for a shot of one kind or another.  Alas, as we were walking up the beach toward the bear, I noticed that the strap of my camera was blowing in the direction of the bear, the wind was swirling and probably carrying our scent right to it.  To add to our misfortune, I spotted two Canada geese on the beach near where the bear was, that bear had its own security guards!  I told Andrea that the odds of the bear being there were very low since there is no humanly possible way to sneak up on or passed a goose which would noisily spook and alert the bear.  Sure enough, once we got within the geese comfort, or discomfort range, they noisily flew away so when I got to a spot where I should have been able to see the bear, the only sign of it was a bear-sized depression in the grass and some chewed off grass blades.  Oh well, good on ya bear may you keep doing bear things for many years to come!  That encounter makes me wonder if the bear intentionally picked that grassy beach over the others nearby just because those geese were there.  Wild geese are impossible to sneak up on as I stated before so would make an impregnable security system for a hungry bear.  Trying to stalk the bear from the forest was an option for us but there is no easy way to be quiet when you are travelling through the temperate jungle of Southeast Alaska.

I thought our home stretch to Wrangell would give us a break from the rough seas but it actually was the worst water of the whole trip!  Jeez!  With town and the harbor in sight, I was ready to be out of the boat and done with the concentration and discomfort of driving the boat in rough water but then I saw something a few miles ahead of us that I could not not go investigate.

The small island on the left of this photo is 5 Mile island named such because it is about 5 miles from Wrangell.  What is that thing on the right?  Some sort of buoy?  A navigational marker?  Nope, it is actually what caught my eye a few miles back.

There was a large humpback whale breaching only a couple miles from town and only about a mile from the edge of the Stikine delta!  I have never seen a whale breaching this close to town before especially that close to the delta!  It breached more than a dozen times and did the spyhopping behavior in the first photo.  We were fairly close to it but the wind was really howling and the seas were a good 5-6' so photography was challenging especially for me as I was trying to keep the boat pointed into the waves while keeping up with the whale and trying to get some photos!  I'm lucky to get these!  You can tell how just how hard the wind was blowing by the spray blowing off of the whale.  It was an incredible show!

Andrea got some good shots as well (she usually gets better ones than I do).  Here are her best ones.

I love this place!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Enough Nature, get to work!

I just spent the last two days in Petersburg which is the closest town to Wrangell north of us on the other side of the Stikine delta.  My friend and tree business partner, Glen, and I took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry over there with a truck load of arborist gear and chainsaws to do a rather large job.  We had to completely remove a large Cottonwood tree with three separate stems, limbed up 4 hemlocks to improve the home owner's view, and installed a non-invasive cabling system in a different Cottonwood to prevent one of the tree's forks from breaking off in the future.

I just thought I'd post a few pictures of one of the things that I do for a living here.  Glen is the climber in the pictures of the big Cottonwood.  I have worked with him for about 7 years now and apprenticed under him, he is a badass in a tree!  He owned an arborist company in Seattle for many years before moving back up here to Wrangell and between the two of us, there isn't much we can't do involving trees.

Not a lot of room to work!  We had to lower every branch and all 3 tops which was a bit hazardous for Glen in the tree and me on the ground.  Cottonwoods are very brittle trees and are very susceptible to rot so they require extra care and attention.  They are not good trees to have next to your house as they present safety hazards from breaking and falling branches and they make a big mess in the spring when the cotton flies and in the fall when the leaves fall off.

One top to go.  The weather was constantly changing on this day with rain showers and squalls intermixed with sunshine.

From this point, Glen was able to cut chunks from the stems and then just drop them to the ground which freed me up from my lowering duties to go climb the other trees that we had to work on.

This is the cable that we installed in the other Cottonwood.  This is a very strong and slightly stretchy cable made of a type of rope.  This gives the tree support and the home owner peace of mind and does not hurt the tree in any way.

This is the view of the Petersburg waterfront looking at the mountains on the mainland.  The impressive spire in the distance is Devil's Thumb, it is a world famous mountain and quite a challenging mountaineering objective.  It is one of the boundary peaks between British Columbia and Alaska and is one the highest mountains in our area at 9,077'.  This mountain in combination with the remoteness and weather of Southeast Alaska make it a very serious undertaking to climb and has claimed many lives over the years.

Petersburg has a very large fishing fleet, the second largest in Alaska actually with Kodiak being the only bigger fishing port.  This is just a small portion of one of the harbors in Petersburg and the ordered chaos of fishing boats.

Getting to Petersburg from Wrangell is not a simple process especially in a vessel 300' long like the ferry that we were on.  Large, deep draft boats have to go through the Wrangell Narrows which as the name states, is very narrow in places and contains dozens of navigational markers to keep vessels in the deep channel.  Add in very strong tidal currents, wind, and darkness to the mix and you can understand why the captains of these ships get paid well!