Sunday, July 30, 2017

Killer Whales (or orcas if you prefer)

One thing about life in the last frontier and the hidden gem of it in particular, is that you really never know what memorable experience you may have from day to day.  I suppose and accept that this is a statement that is applicable to life anywhere, but I specifically mean that we have potential for memorable experiences that reconnect one to the natural world from which we increasingly attempt to disconnect ourselves.  Feeding pigeons in a city park may connect a person with the natural world to some beneficial degree, a deer in the backyard can be a profound and intimate encounter so it may be a personal failing of my own that I require more than that to feel that intimacy and connection.   This is not some romantic notion or attempt to portray myself as some rugged mountain man, if anything, I think this has caused me more difficulties throughout my life than any comfort and ease.  I imagine that there are many Alaskans out there who are Alaskans for similar reasons.

While the summer of 2017 will not go down in the memory banks as a particularly pleasant one weather wise, I have been graced with some very memorable experiences so far.  One of the most memorable happened just a few days ago.

While sitting at idle in the boat at the beginning of a trip up the Stikine River on the edge of the delta, I spotted a very faint, quickly dissipating cloud of mist very near to the shore of a nearby island.  Somehow, the mind can learn to discern one type of mist from another when you have lived long enough in a land of mists.  (The mind can also come to appreciate the many shades of grey as well!) 
That mist came from one of 5 or 6 killer whales patrolling near the island.

There were two adult males, two adult females, and two small young ones, one of which was a female, I'm not sure about the other.  This group was obviously circling and doing something with a purpose.

The orca on the right in the above photo has a very distinct white mark on the left side of the front of its dorsal fin.  The mark looks a lot like the state of West Virginia so will make future meetings with her easy.  While we were watching these "whales", killer whales are actually the largest of the dolphins and are not whales at all, a single seal popped up while the orcas were all under the water.  This seal's appearance began to give us some insight into the story that was playing itself out before us - these orcas were transients who were hunting and very likely teaching their young ones how to hunt seals!  Just seconds after the seal submerged, there was a very large swirling disturbance in the water.  There was no obvious sign of seal death but not long after this swirling disturbance, the behavior of the orcas became somewhat less coordinated and the young ones became playful and silly.  One of them breached and began slapping its tail and pectoral fins on the water in a display that I can only describe as happy.

Of course, I can't say for sure if they were responding to me or not, but I started to slap my hand on the water and make splashes of my own which might have encouraged the youngsters to put on a show for us as the tail and pectoral slapping and breaching increased and all of the orcas stayed fairly close to the boat.

This was the last breach as they all began to swim away from us which I was lucky enough to get on the camera.  This is the little female which I named Drea.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hot Bear Naked Action

I had the good fortune to spend nearly 6 hours at the Anan Wildlife Observatory with 4 awesome New Zealanders yesterday.  Bears and Kiwis are a good combination with high potential for a memorable time.  I quickly broke the ice and created a relaxed and familiar atmosphere by mistakenly calling my new Kiwi friends Aussies!  (My apologies to you guys once again!)  Calling a Kiwi an Aussie is similar to calling an Alaskan a Canadian, neither one is that bad but one is most definitely better than the other!  Good on ya New Zealand, we know what's what!  May your chilly bins never be empty of cold ones!

Moving on from good hearted regional rivalries to bears, we had the entire observatory nearly to ourselves with only one FS employee and one Russian photographer sharing the space with us all afternoon into the early evening.  In the morning, there were 62 people at the observatory, most of whom came from a cruise ship called The World that was moored in Wrangell for two days so, while the bear viewing was still good, it was a crowded and chaotic atmosphere as compared to the peaceful and idyllic afternoon.  The bears seemed to appreciate the tranquility in the afternoon as well as they really gave us an experience that only Anan can provide.

A gallery of dead Dungeness crabs greeting us at the trailhead shelter where the Forest Service ranger, Leah, gave us our required safety briefing.  There is obviously a fair amount of "down time" for the rangers while they staff the trailhead but you couldn't ask for a better office!

There have been 4 juvenile Ravens making the observatory their regular hang out over the last couple of weeks.  The only thing more inquisitive and slyly intelligent than a Raven is a juvenile Raven!  These guys have added a fun element to Anan this year and have been a pleasure to watch.  I am making progress in befriending one of them and had it come to me and peck my fingers several times yesterday as I pretended to have food to offer.  I guess I will have to sneak some food up there the next time or pick up some leftover fish parts so I can offer them some real food and further make their acquaintance!

This is a juvenile brown bear, probably 4 years old, demonstrating how dexterous they can be with those massive jaws and teeth by precisely biting through this pink salmon's head to eat its brain.  This is not a zombie brown bear with an unholy preference for brains to appease its undead appetite, it is merely selecting the parts of the fish with the most nutritional value.  In this case, that nutritional value is the high fat content found in the brain of we organisms possessing one.  It is not uncommon for bears to only eat the brains and eggs of these fish once they have begun putting on weight.  They will even toss aside a male fish uneaten and go back to their fishing spot to try again for a female containing those rich, nutritious eggs.  Bears will also use their paws to hold a female fish on a rock and then press the eggs out of it in order to lap up those little pearls of calories.

This mama bear and her cub fished on the opposite shore of the creek from the juvenile bear.  That is what this cub in particular was watching so intently.

I'm a bit disappointed in those two above photos as I thought that I got the little brown bear cub in frame as well.  At the top left of the photo is a fairly large black bear nervously observing the scenario playing out below it as the juvenile brown bear is now on the same side of the creek as mama and her cub.  As is the case so often with teenagers of any mammal species, this juvenile bear seemed overly sure of itself and didn't have quite the respect for the older bear and her cub that it should have had.

In this photo, you can see that the black bear has made itself scarce and retreated quite a bit further up the steep hill above the creek while the juvenile brown bear continues to push its luck and mama does what any wise and experienced adult does and ignores the teenager to the best of her ability.

Does this photo remind anyone else of John Belushi in the movie, Animal House?  This little bear is not doing an impression of a talented but long dead comedian nor is it doing some sort of little bear dance, it is trying to find mama who, a little too nonchalantly and inattentively, began to move off down the creek.  This little guy lost sight of her amidst the large boulders lining the creek and climbed up here for a better look around while bawling out its version of "MOM!!"
While this did get mama's attention, it also unfortunately got the attention of the cocky teenager who seemed too interested in the possibility of bullying, or killing, its potential future competitor.

The juvenile bear got the little cub cornered out on this log and, seeming to realize that mama was nowhere around, took on a more aggressive posture and attitude coming at this cub with what seemed like very ill intent.  At this point, neither mama nor the juvenile were aware of each other.

This photo was just a fraction of a second later than the previous one but shows a difference in mama's demeanor.  The juvenile still has not noticed mama but mama has noticed her.  A close look at mama's face and body in the first photo shows a slightly casual expression and energy about her with her left ear slightly turned toward the creek with the right facing forward.
The second shows a more tense and focused look and energy with both ears directed forward.  She has a look of purpose and intent about her.

Now cocky teen has seen protective mom and has quickly realized an important life lesson.

The cub has obviously gratefully reunited with mom.  Interestingly, mom was not demonstrating overly pissed off behavior at this point but she was making it extremely clear that she was not happy with what she was seeing.  The juvenile did its best to present a cool demeanor and tried to seem casual as it walked away, which must have pushed mama's buttons.  She charged the juvenile who, with no hesitation whatsoever, took off at a full sprint straight up the steep and rugged hill with mama close behind.  She chased that kid all the way to the top of the slope, over the top, and our of sight with baby doing its best to keep up!
Within what seemed like minutes, mama and baby were back down in the creek fishing like nothing had happened.

These 3 photos were not from yesterday although there were several black bear cubs in the area.  Black bear cubs are just so dang cute I wanted to share them with you.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


It takes a certain type of person to truly enjoy living in Southeast Alaska.  One should enjoy misery to a higher degree than most to relish life in SE AK, that has been my experience and is my opinion anyway.  It's good to keep the population low and the human developments minimal.  If you want to add a higher level of misery to your life in SE AK, a level approaching or attaining sadism, then one should also own at least one boat. More than one boat can get you closer to some sort of lunacy.
There are many sayings regarding boats and boat ownership that have a dark humor element to them to help all of us boat owners and boat dependent people commiserate and feel like we have some sort of support network.
B   break
O  out
A  another
T  thousand

The two best days of a boat owners life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells the boat.
A boat is just a hole in the water that you throw your money into.
A boat is just an aggregation of spare parts waiting to fail.

There are others but those are the only ones I can think of at this moment but they should get the point across!

I decided to do a post about boats after spending 8 hours travelling through Dry Strait on a broken down boat.  Fortunately, the small 9.9 horse power auxillary motor was working fine and I had my camera with me to help pass the time.

Seagulls on ice

Hours trapped on a crippled boat lead to trying to find interesting perspectives.  This is a marine VHF radio (very high frequency) on channel 16 which is the standard hailing frequency for mariners in the U.S.  Once contact is made, mariners then choose a different channel on which to chat and conduct their business.  There are certain channels designated for certain users and/or purposes so a person should know exactly which channels are for what purpose.

Just some things on the control panel.

Navigational electronics are very sophisticated and easy to use in today's world making navigating ocean waters almost too easy sometimes.  Radar, GPS, sonar all can paint you a pretty clear picture of the marine world around you.

A self inflating PFD, personal flotation device.  This particular type has a pressure sensitive release mechanism that punctures a small carbon dioxide canister like the kind in BB guns that rapidly inflates an airbag that then serves as a life jacket.  If you were to fall in the water, it would automatically inflate once you submerged a short distance under the water.  If it does not for some reason, there is a manual way to inflate them as well.  Last summer, I got to unexpectedly experience this while teaching a co-worker how to dock a boat.  When a new boater approaches a dock way too fast, a reflexive reaction seems to be to throw the boat in a full throttle panic reverse which then typically sends a person who may be standing on the bow of the boat at the time forward into the water.  I had just enough time to go completely under the water, come back to the surface, think "Well that didn't inflate" and then, POOF! inflation.

8 hours is a long time on a boat, even a perfectly functioning boat, so a few trips to the beach were made to stretch the legs and get some pictures.  This is a fresh wound on a western hemlock tree made by a hungry porcupine.  Those guys gnaw on the tree bark until they get down to the inner bark where the sugar rich sap is then they feast, many times effectively girdling a tree which will eventually and surely lead to the trees demise.

A mollusk called a limpet exposed at low tide.

The part of a tree you don't normally see.  There is very little soil here in the hidden gem so even the tallest and most massive of the Sitka spruces are very shallow rooted creating these interesting radiating root networks.

This is an ancient mummified tortoise I found on the beach.  Actually it is an interesting part of a tree root that looks either like a turtle or a sloth to my eye.  This interesting oddity brings to my mind several philosophical ideas regarding the mystery of life and existence.  I'll go into depth about that in a future post if anyone is interested in some armchair philosophy.

This is Peltigera, a foliose cyanolichen in its fruiting phase.  What is a foliose cyanolichen?  I've no idea but I showed this photo to a friend who is a literal lichen expert and that is what he told me.  The fruiting bodies are called apothecia. 

Some ferns growing on a spruce branch about 50 feet above the ground.

Some tidal currents that looked kind of cool.

Barefoot bear feet.