Saturday, August 6, 2011

Salmon and Humpbacks and Orcas - Oh, my!

I came to Alaska with a fascination for bears, and I left with a fascination for spawning salmon and breaching whales. Our time in Seward was spent looking for all of the above, and the salmon and the whales were found in abundance.

Clay had read that there was a good chance we might see some bears in the wild near a certain salmon spawning site so, ever aiming to please, he made sure we stopped there on the way to Portage Glacier.  We took a very short walk to the edge of a river and there they were -- not the hoped-for bears, but the brightest and liveliest salmon I could imagine.  It looked like they were having the time of their lives doing synchronized swimming but, in fact, they were coming to their end.  If salmon are not caught by man or beast, they experience a spell of fasting in preparation for laying their eggs, and then they die!  This being salmon spawning season,  maybe they looked so happy because they had escaped the fisherman's hook and the bear's jaws but instead were facing a more natural death.  No bears near these shores, but oodles of large, sparkling pink fish!

The following day we had the adventure of a lifetime, kayaking Aialik Bay heading toward the vast Aialik Glacier.  Yes, it was cold and, yes, it was wet, but the experience was incomparable.

Not only were the sights breathtaking, but the sound of the glacier repeatedly calving was akin to the scariest thunder clapping over and over again.  We watched the ice come crashing down, feeling the rumbling very close to the glacier when in reality we were probably a half-mile away.  This, of course, was impossible to photograph since the timing was completely unpredictable, but I will not need a photo to remember the sensation of being in a kayak, hearing a loud crack, Clay yelling "Look straight ahead!" and seeing a wall off ice come crashing down into the bay.

In order to get back and forth to our kayaking trip, we took a rather long water taxi to our launch site on Aialik Bay.  The bumpy ride was quite entertaining, though, as we saw Humpback whales on the way out and Orcas on the way back.  We actually were able to video one of the humpbacks breaching (watch the left hand side of your screen at the very start),


and our captain told us that this pod of Orcas was the most playful he could remember. There were six or eight of them swimming around our boat, prompting me to quote the infamous and lovable Sheriff Brady (aka Roy Scheider): "We are gonna need a bigger boat!" Again, the photos cannot do justice to the experience, but Clay captured a bit of footage that includes the utterances of the whales as caught by the captain's hydra phone.


We never could have done this without the leadership and guidance of the folks at Kayak Adventures Worldwide.  Under the leadership of Wendy and Dave Doughty, and the expertise of our guide, John, we were safely shepherded around an environment that we knew nothing about.  We could not have been in better hands and it was a trip we will never ever forget.  Wendy and Dave also run the lodge that we stayed at, Bear Paw Lodge, where we had all the comforts of home despite the rather unfamiliar setting.

Finally, I report that we saw those much desired bears in the wild on three occasions, and each one was a thrill.  The final one was near Bear Paw Lodge, just running along a stream, and I got a kick out of seeing this 400 pound creature run 5 times faster than I ever could.  Happy memories, all, and here is just one that I will never forget (and thank goodness for zoom lenses!).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Characters We Have Met Along the Way

In the early '90s, there was a television show about the lives of quirky Alaskans called "Northern Exposure." I thought the characters, odd and bizarre, were meant to be exaggerations as most television characters are, but I am here to tell you that we recognize the writers' inspiration.  Here are merely the impressions of the intrepid travelers, Marcy and Clay.

We thought Alaskans would be frontier people, testing limits, pushing boundaries.  The best indication that this is not so is their driving habits.  We wondered why everyone was driving so slowly, and the answer is that they were simply following absurdly low speed limits for wide and empty roadways. Yes, I may have a lead foot, but must we go 30 mph when there are two cars within sight and only mountains in our peripheral vision?  We learned the hard way when Clay noticed in his rearview mirror the colorful flashing lights of a police car.  Officer Brohm politely asked Clay if there was any particular reason for our rush as we had exceeded the speed limit, and told us that we were going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone -- hmmmm.  Proof positive that the Alaskan drivers follow their rules, but the real question is WHY a 35 mph speed limit?  One other example, among many, is when our hotel clerk was very clear about how to use a parking spot because "there is always the chance you may have to cross a double yellow line, and the police are watching for that."  Uh-oh -- I might hit the pedestrian who comes along once an hour.

When asked by any polite soul "How are you?", beware of responding "I'm fine, thank you, how are you?"  This will elicit their entire life story.  I now know more about the busy lives of several Alaskans ("3 jobs in a season"), one's tension headache at 7:30 a.m., another's busy work schedule that precludes her ability to check the weather report, and a great deal about the social lives of several young women, at least two of whom were mothers barely out of their teen years.  So the Alaskans seem to need to make all their conversation in the 3 months that comprise tourist season. They have nonetheless been very friendly, open, and generous to a person.  Just leave time to listen.

I have been impressed by the industriousness of women who are running businesses and, I imagine, juggling much more.  Most every business we have encountered (our kayak tour, several restaurants of all kinds, shopkeepers, a winery) has been managed, if not owned, by women. The guys are out fishing for a living. I get a sense of Grrrrrl Power, which puts Sarah Palin into context a bit.  Her style is not unique here -- the outgoing, "glad to meetcha" demeanor is quite common. She just inexplicably has too many people listening. We waited, however, for an Alaskan to bring her up before we ever did, just curious to see how long it would take.  Once someone did mention the ex-gov on Day 5, it was with derision and indignation, reminding us that Ms. Palin has an 80% disapproval rating in this state.  The same woman who told us that made the good point that 60% of the voting population in Alaska is male, much of it single fishermen young and old, most of it white.  Need we say more?

For all its land size, Alaska is a quiet, fairly parochial place.  The hard-working folks are as fascinated by our "exotic" NYC home as people are that we have met abroad.  I have yet to meet an unlikeable soul, and I've gotten to know much more than I expected about plenty of them.  And they are clearly dog-lovers, and you gotta love that!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Kayak Beach Overnight

When I dreamed of going to Alaska, my hope was to get as far from civilization as I could to appreciate and enjoy nature.  I wanted to be in the mountains, on the rivers and the sea, and under the stars without human or "civilized" distractions.   After spending a night at the Bear Creek Lodge in Homer, we took an early morning water taxi to Yukon Island in order to get in a double kayak to paddle around the Herring Islands of Kachemak Bay.  We each had a knapsack with enough layers for one overnight in any kind of weather.  As it turned out, we had exceptionally fine weather: bright and sunny and almost hot!  We were accompanied by Mia, our young guide, who made sure we found our way safely through mild currents, spotted the wildlife and gave us all sorts of information on the geology and zoology of the area and, most importantly, Mia carried food and water in her kayak so we would make it till tomorrow!

In our first few hours we spotted adorable river otters playing on the shore, majestic bald eagles that I had previously only seen on stamps and Republican campaign ads, and plenty of colorful birdies who guided our way.  More impressive to me, though, are the snow-capped mountains, striking glaciers, and green valleys that surrounded our expedition as the paddling made a quiet lapping sound in the tranquil water.  Words cannot describe, and photos do not do justice.  What I can say is that I felt at peace in that water like I have felt nowhere else.  I am a great beach fan and like to find solace in the peace and quiet of an ocean beach, but there are inevitably others around on whom I feel compelled to eavesdrop, stories to be created about the strangers around me, or food and drink to be planned and organized.  This trip on Kachemak Bay, though, was free of all of that.  We barely saw another soul for hours on end and the only thing on my mind, when I allowed, was some crazy plot I conjured up for a movie about bears!

Our home away from home that night was in a yurt on Kayak Beach.  We had sleeping bags on mattresses, romance promised by firelight, and the only thing we expected to see were the stars in the sky.  Now I will remind you that it gets dark here at 11 p.m. at this time of year (no exaggeration!) so I was fast asleep before any stars made their appearance, and our weather was so unusually warm for Alaska that a fire in our yurt would have smothered us.  After a fairly rigorous afternoon hike up Grace Ridge Trail which afforded us a panoramic view of the grand bay we had just been navigating, camp food cooked by Mia over an open fire, and a quiet evening spent on the beach reflecting on our amazing good fortune, Clay and I slept harder than the logs that surrounded us in all directions!

By waking on Kayak Beach and spending most of the day in our kayaks, we got to see the region in all kinds of light.  Morning light is, of course, different than afternoon light, and we were able to appreciate the majestic landscape as it showed different colors and shades at different times of day.  Our kayaking on day 2 was more thrilling than the day before.  For one thing, I felt more acclimated and comfortable in the water, and we came across a large sea otter quite close to our kayaks doing what they do which, while it appears to be a sun bath, is really a break from deep sea fishing.  She was wrapped in kelp which Mia told us was normal, and seemed to be flossing her teeth but was probably eating a fish.  We got to see this sea otter very closely and I thought it was adorable!  Then there were the 2 seals who popped their heads out of the water like ninjas, making a quick and stealthy appearance.  More eagles, including one who swooped down and carried off a rather large fish, and bigger swells made for an exciting day, which culminated in exhaustion from all the outdoor activity.  By 3 p.m., our water taxi picked us up and we happily headed back to the mainland.  You can rest assured that we got a bottle of wine ASAP once on shore to speed up our transition back to quiet and lovely Homer.
We are off to Seward now to explore a different side and terrain of the Kenai Peninsula. Glaciers and icefields await us as does, I suspect, a change in the weather. Some lingering scenes from our time on the Homer side of the Kenai, for the video lovers among us --