Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Wednesday, August 17

I wake to a pattering on my tent and I emerge to a windy, rainy, charcoal grey morning. Everything that isn't wet is damp, and I surprise myself that, instead of feeling sad to be leaving, I'm worried that we will not be able to make it back to Girdwood today and I will have to spend another day in dirty, damp clothes. It's the first time since coming out here that I've missed the comforts of modern life, though a turn at a washing machine and a shower would set me up nicely for another week in the fiords.

But despite the blustery weather the water is calm, so we pack up and trek our soggy gear down to the low-tide shore, a slippery muddy walk. Then it's a kayak back through icebergs, seals and diving ducks to Serpentine Cove and the Dora Keen. Loading the gear aboard and hoisting the kayaks up to the rack on the roof of the cabin we feel the lack of Barbara's muscle, but I try my best not to let the kayaks slip back into the fiord like the sleek dolpins they resemble.

By the time everything is battened down the rain has increased to a downpour.  Tim starts up the DK but again has trouble with the sonar. This could be a real problem as there is an underwater morraine that protects this cove, with only a narrow channel deep enough to accommodate the propellers. Tim pulls up one of the two motors so that if we do hit the morraine, we may only damage one.

Tim navigates carefully and we make it through the channel without incident, drop the second motor and head back up Harriman Fiord.  Coxe, Barry and Cascade Glaciers are hidden in the fog, and as we round Point Doran and start down Barry Arm the DK rises and slaps the surface as the water get choppier. With visibility limited we have to be aware of the increasing number of  small boats. Sitting in the "co-pilot" seat, I call out their locations. "One at 11 o'clock" "There's a boat at 3 o'clock", though Tim has usually spotted them before me. 

I'm entranced by the color of the water as we pass through Port Wells, an opaque turquoise reflecting a graphite sky.

Entering the harbor at Whittier we are far from done, there is refueling, unloading, navigating through the hundreds of boats into our narrow berth, just making the northbound time slot through the tunnel, then back to the storage building to drop off and clean the kayaks, before we finally arrive back in Girdwood where I can shower off a week of wilderness living and change into clean, dry clothes.   I am soon damp again though, standing in the pouring rain to photograph the first moose I have seen, first the homely little babe, and then the mom, making sure her little one stays out of trouble.

Tomorrow Barbara and Tim return to the field, and I return to Anchorage to play the tourist, visit the zoo where I safely encounter bears and wolves, the Anchorage Museum once again to see the art of the region, and also again, to The White Spot for the culinary art of their famous halibut sandwich.

I was warned that once visited Alaska I would be compelled to return. As it turns out, I will.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Tuesday, August 16
I unzip my tent and step out into a sunny morning. The first thing I notice is that the Zodiak is resting just at the waterline on the beach, instead of in the high grass where we had tied it to a stout sapling.

Had it broken free at high tide? If so, we were very lucky it didn't float away and strand us on the point with no way to get back to the Dora Keen. The mystery was solved when Barbara came out of her tent and told me that they couldn't sleep for being nervous about the anchor so went out to the boat in the middle of the night and slept there. Barbara had returned with the Zodiac early to make coffee and breakfast. After we eat, I wash the dishes in the gentle waves at the shore, among the rocks and sea urchins, then we break down camp and say goodbye to Pakenham Point.

After a quick stop to pick up the shrimp pot Tim points the DK back to our spot in Serpentine Cove.  We retrieve our kayaks from the little island where they are hidden in the grass and bring them back to the boat to load. This time only two are packed, mine and Tim's, with just enough for our last overnight camp. Barbara can travel light, she will be boarding the small cruise ship we will meet under Surprise Glacier so her camping is done and she will be back in Whittier before us. 

Then it's off towards Surprise Glacier to wait for the ship. This is the choppiest the water has been so far and we paddle into a stiff wind. As we get closer the water is full of ice, the glacier grumling and adding to the slushy mix. Tim and Barbara turn every so often to ask me if I'm doing ok, and I always answer yes, but in my mind I think "just as long as it doesn't get any worse".

We cross the ice field and the wind dies down.  Right on schedule the Klondike Express approaches. It's not a huge ship, but I am very leery of its wake, so hang back a bit as Barbara and Tim paddle to it.

My fears are exaggerated, for with its slow speed and the depth of the channel there are only gentle swells. I come nearer and see the passengers at the rail, taking photographs. I have to laugh to myself as they photograph me in my kayak as if I'm a ranger, or at least, a "real Alaskan kayaker", not the New England urbanite I am in real life.

Barbara boards and we wave goodby to her and all the happy cruisers at the rail. Tim pulls the cover over the cockpit on her kayak which he attaches with a towline to his. All our scheduled events over for the day we paddle towards the glacier to see how close we can get without risking falling cliffs of ice and the resulting surges of icy water.

It is pretty impressive, there is not much more you can say!

Surprise beach, which we had visited earlier in the trip, is where we will make our last campsite. The big icebergs are gone from the beach, taken by the tide. There is plenty of room to pitch our tents well back from the shore, amongst the brush and flowers — hare's bells and fireweed. Once that is done, we relax. Tim spots an eagle's nest with a fledgling high in a nearby tree and settles in with a view of it, waiting for the mother to return.  I explore a bit of the woods and a roaring stream, the terminus of a waterfall that from across the fiord had seemed to disappear into the talus slope. I can see now that it re-emeges at its base in the form of mutiple streams racing through the gravel, taking on iceburg blue where the water runs deep. If I were in the city I would think its roaring sound were a nearby freeway. Here it is soothing and clean sounding.

Exploring done, I find a nice flat rock and begin painting of one of the shrimp heads I had saved. While I cannot stand to see an animal suffering, I have long been fascinated with their bodies once they have passed on. Taking it out of the plastic bag, I find it has lost some of its glow, its eyes have gone black, and the colors, while still beautiful, fade as I work. The legs are still attached, but it is hard to figure out how many, mixed are they are with the long antennae, flagella, and maxillipeds. 

My painting does not go well but it is very peaceful sitting on the shore. I make a point to let it all soak in on my last evening in the Chugach. The sound of gulls in their last frenzy before sleep, seals gliding underneath, or poking up head and shoulders up to get a good look at me, a strange visitor to their spaces. Along the shore oyster catchers spot me with their crazy red and yellow rimmed eyes and run away with nervous trilling calls along the tide line populated with snails, mussels and barnacles. Through the breaks in the clouds are patterns of snow and glacier, so many shade of white.  The mysterious woods provide beds for river otters and hide walls of mountains, trees standing guard with mossy sleeved limbs. And now a tiny rustle in the brush, out pops an ermine, so impossibly cute that he looks like a stuffed animal, but his strong armed stance tells me he is ready to defend his nest. And with that I retreat into mine, and snuggle into my sleeping bag for the last time.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Monday, August 15

After dreaming of waves all night, I wake early at Pakenham Point to a beautiful day of thin clouds above and ribbons of fog over the water. I go to retrieve the food bag I had stashed in the grass away from the tent but it 's gone. Was I right in being so cautious? Did a bear travel down the narrow point and take it in the night? Or perhaps one of the eagles we had seen? But I then spy a bit of red in exposed roots of the hurricane trees that ring the gravel, which explained two mysteries. There were in fact waves lapping near my head, the high tide had found its way into the depression behind my tent and filled it with water, rising only feet from my tent and, of course, carrying off my bag, before retreating as I slept. I was glad for the few feet which lifted me above a nighttime soaking.

After breakfast we row out to the Dora Keen to make our way into College Fiord where a cruise ship is scheduled to travel. Barbara is going to measure the emissions which are sure to hang in a light blue ribbon after the ship passes and because the fiord is surrounded by mountains, they linger, then move into the forest covered slopes where they cause acid rain and fog.  Barbara is hoping to evaluate the emissions visually, but her and Tim also have another way to measure the impact, and that's in testing the lichen.
"Over 500 species grow here, hanging like long beards from branches, clinging to trees in leafy clusters, or sprawling along the forest floor....Because lichens absorb airborne moisture and elements, they are also air quality indicators.
The United States Forest Service uses lichens as a cost-effective way to bio-monitor air quality on the Tongass and Chugach National Forests...Samples are analyzed for sulfur, nitrogen and 26 other contaminants, including mercury, and the lichen community surveys can detect changes occurring in species composition...

Alaska’s air is perceived as clean, but research indicates change may be underway. Lichen biomonitoring informs Prince William Sound communities about air quality and climatic changes that may affect recreation, fishing, tourism, and forest health. The work stems from the US Forest Service stewardship plan for the Wilderness Study Area, which aims to protect its wild character."

—from Using lichen to monitor air quality
by Tim Lydon, US Forest Service
published in Delta Sound Connections, 2013,
a publication of the Prince William Sound Science Center
As soon as we round Pakenham Point we are met with a thick bank of fog. Tim turns to the radar to try and place the ship, but it keeps cutting out. Hailing the ship isn't any more successful. Because it is impossible to see or be seen in the fog we cannot proceed further into College Fiord, and as we debate what to do next Tim picks up the faint sound of the ships horn. "It's here". Two more blasts and the fog lifts slightly, enough to see the ship growing smaller as it leaves College Fiord.
As we move back toward Pakenham and out of the fog we can see a thin wave of blue smoke snaking through the fiord. Cruise ships have developed a practice of switching to cleaner burning fuel while in the Sound especially when they know they are being monitored, but the trails can still be visible an hour after the ship passes. As Barbara photographs the emissions trail I get a glimpse up College Fiord and feel regret that we are not able to explore it.

But for now we are heading to where Barbara and Tim have set their shrimp pot, looking for the buoy that marks the spot where the rope plunges over 500 feet to the bottom. Once found, Tim works the pulley to reel in the rope while Barbara watches for knots so they don't catch.  As it emerges the wire and netting basket shimmers like a treasure chest. In it are dozens of glowing orange shrimp with bursts of wriggling long legs and beadlike eyes on stems, at first bright orange then dimming to black . Fish heads and other chum glisten. My treasure is in the color of the orange shrimp against the bluegreen rope.

Tim and Barbara pick out the shrimp, and Tim reveals a spiritual side that does not surprise me at all. He chooses the first shrimp, the symbol of our catch, and thanks it for feeding us. He then tosses it overboard, to sink into the icy blue waters to the bottom where he, or she, depending on what stage of its life cycle, will resume feeding on diatoms and mollusks, which it will not thank. Or it may be eaten by a halibut, which may thank it, for all we know.

And then things take a turn. Barbara explains how a shrimp is deheaded, by putting thumb under the translucent shell in back of head and in a single motion, flipping off the head. I can't bring myself to watch and hide in the cabin until the deed is done and the lovely shrimp bodies are chilling in a bucket on the chuck of iceberg retrieved earlier for this purpose. The heads, legs still attached, are tossed back and the pot lowered again.

Once again we anchor in the cove at Pakenham Point.  Barbara and Tim are going to investigate a trash strewn bear baiting site further down the cove. I walk down to the tents to get some work gloves for them but it takes longer than expected, as the tide is rising quickly and has reached the level of a jungle-gym tangle of tree roots which I need to climb over and around. When I finally reach the tents I see my sleeping bag, which I had spread on these same roots to air out, is now suspended over the encroaching waves and about to be soaked through. I don't want to even think about how I would fare the next few nights in a wet, cold sleeping bag. I stash it back in my tent, which I now know is safe, but just barely, from the tide. By the time I return Zodiac has already been launched, so I decide to try some watercolors of the downed trees wildly flailing their roots against the sky. Perhaps I am working too small, I fail be be able to catch their energy. And apparently I am on the wrong side of the point, as the radio suddenly crackles with a message from Barbara and Tim that they have seen a whale breach in the cove. I hurry to the cove side and scan the quiet surface in vain, he is gone, I will see no whales this trip. 

The water sparkles with white light and a feeding frenzy is taking place across the fiord as I settle back in under the yellow tarp, my back against a smooth log. I take off my Xtratuffs and let my feet dry out for the first time in days as I catch up on my writing. Except for the gulls I have had Pakenham point to myself for hours. The tide continues to rise, the gravel bar narrows till I am sitting on its high spine.

Through my binoculars I see Barbara and Tim are loading trash from the Zodiac into the Dora Keen, so I radio to bring my other pair of pants I left on the deck to dry. They reply that they are going first across the fiord to meet with some people they've heard are camping there. It's a strange feeling to see the Dora Keen leave the cove and realize I am really alone, on this tiny spit of land in the fiords of Alaska. Which is not to say it isn't very thrilling. 

I try another watercolor, this time a downed tree with branches like a whale's ribcage. I'm starting to get a bit cold when I look up to see the Dora Keen returning from an unexpected direction. Barbara and Tim have detoured to harvest the shrimp pots again and are now anchoring, a little boat circling in a smooth cerulean sea. The sun is warm on its bow and silhouettes Barbara, balanced on the stern, assisting at anchor. The sound of the ropes straining against the anchor travels over the water as Tim tests it. When he is convinced it is secure they row to shore and we are ready for dinner, mac and cheese with fresh shrimp. I still can't dehead them, but have no problem shelling and deveining their pearly pink torsos.

After dinner Barbara is going to take a "bath" with fresh water they collected from a waterfall on the opposite shore. Tomorrow she is scheduled to don her Forest Service uniform and meet and board a cruise ship. I go for a walk to give her privacy. The tide had receeded just enough that the narrow tip of the point is once again curling into the fiord and is quickly populated with screeching and chattering gulls. One in particular has taken a violent dislike to me, dive bombing my head with fierce screeching. I wave my hat above my head in a vain attempt to fend it off and hurry down the sand bar. She eventually leaves off, but I will surely meet her again on the way back. Curious seals poke their black heads out of the water and swim alongside me as I walk.

At the end of the point I turn to see the light warming the snowfields on the mountains. I head back to camp, an oyster catcher runs ahead of me, silly and nervous, then I take on his nervousness a I move quickly through the gull's self proclaimed territory. Barbara walks up to meet me and heads me off. Tim is taking advantage of the bath water, so she and I walk over to the tents and talk as the sun sets. When Tim finishes his shore-bath he joins us, telling us to turn around.
A moon like a searchlight is rising behind the trees. We watch till it springs clear of the mountain, then keep watching and talking till it is time to turn in.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Sunday, August 14
It's a grey Sunday morning as we break our camp on Toboggan Beach. Barbara organizes our gear while Tim and I bring the kayaks down to the shore. At low tide and in a light rain it is a long slippery trip. Tim grabs the bow handles on two of the kayaks I take the sterns, walking between the boats, my eyes scanning the ground for large boulders and slippery rockweed.

Several more trips back and forth are necessary to bring down all the gear which we stow in the bulkheads and then we slip our kayaks under the clouds which hover in serpentine shapes over the fiord.

Somewhere on the opposite shore is an old gold mine and a small A-frame shelter constructed by miners or hunters. Barbara and Tim scan the shore for the landmarks they have been given and make their best guess as to where to pull ashore. We secure the kayaks and walk down the beach. Tim dips into the woods a few times, stopping to point out a slightly matted section of grass where he says the river otters sleep.

We haven’t gone far before we spot rusted machinery embedded in the hillside and Barbara and Tim enter the woods and begin climbing past huge spruce trees draped with lichen. The slope is steep but soft, thick moss underfoot cushions our climb. I follow as closely as I can, the fact that Barbara is calling for bear makes me want stay a part of our noisy group. 

We find the mine, a slit between rock walls in the greenery. The entrance is covered in a huge wire net and a sign warns of Danger! Unsafe Mine Shaft! Deadly Gas! Unsafe Ladders! Unstable Explosives! We peer in but can see only mossy timbers and darkness. We scout around looking for the A frame and after a bit I hear Barbara call out that she has found it, a pile of rubble no longer A shaped. At some point the Forest Service will burn it to naturalize the area so we look to collect anything non-burnable. Only a bit of metal is left but I find a piece from a fishing lure that I will later make into a pendant.

We head back, paddling close to the shore and passing noisy groups of oyster catchers. Tethering our kayaks to the back of the Dora Keen we unload and stow our gear. The next leg of the trip will be by boat so we paddle the empty kayaks to a little island in the cove were we hide them in the tall grass and shrubbery, making sure they are well above tide line. As we secure them I look down to see a pair of birds wings in the grass. Tim shuttles us back to the boat in the inflatable Zodiac and we head to our next camp.

As the Dora Keen roars down the fiord I step out of the cabin into the wind and see we are approaching a thin sliver of land, a black line in the grey distance. From the sliver a row of dead trees stab low clouds.  I start taking photos, hoping we get closer so I can take more photos before I realize that this spit of land is actually our next camp.

As we approach we scare off a couple of Great Blue Herons which are perched on the pinnacles of the spruce trees which died as a result of the 1964 earthquake when the land sunk more than 6 feet and exposed the roots to the saltwater.

Barbara rows me to shore in the Zodiak as Tim stays behind to secure the anchor. After setting up the stove Barbara goes back to bring Tim over, leaving me to tend dinner. After we eat, we sit under a tarp Tim has strung from the fallen trees as he explains to me the difference between the National Parks, National Forests and Wilderness Areas. It's so interesting that I'm wishing I could record the conversation, but my audio recorder never recovered from the dunking in the Sound, which in this spot is lively with tadpole like creatures and sea urchins which adorned themselves with small rocks in an attempt at camouflage.

We choose a spot further down the point where the land is a little higher to set up camp, but Tim will sleep on the boat tonight to ensure it doesn't slip anchor and leave us stranded.  My tent is on a patch of gravel barely large enough to pound the stakes.  I settle into my sleeping bag but just before drifting off remember I have some trail mix in my tent. Although I doubt bears would come down this narrow bit of gravel I don't want to take chances, nor do I want to walk 200 feet in the dark to where the other food is stored in our bear proof cans, so I put the bag of trail mix into my small red dry bag and stash it about 20 feet from my tent, then pull the sleeping bag over my head and fall asleep. Rain wakes me and I close the window flap and fall asleep again to the sound of waves, sounding so close, I could almost think they were lapping at my tent.