A Window into Southeastern Alaska

Look out your window and what do you see? For another view of the world, consider looking through a window into Alaska, and seeing...

the bears of Admiralty Island,
the glaciers calving in Tracy Arm Fjord,
the Alaskan Marine Highway,
the rainforest path to Herbert Glacier,
white water rafting by the Mendenhall Glacier
or sea kayaking off the coast of Juneau!

On June 30, 2000, I arrived in Juneau, Alaska to begin a 12-month Master's program at the University of Alaska Southeast. The following journal, written for an audience of my family and friends, chronicles a few of my many impressions and experiences during that first summer.

July 30, 2000

Since arriving in Alaska, I have been so bombarded with multi-sensory stimulation (sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and touches), that I am at a loss as to how to put into words the magic of it all. Perhaps I will try to walk backward.

Yesterday, five friends and I flew on a sea-plane, or “float plane” as it is called here, to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island. This island has the greatest concentration of brown bears (the grizzly bears) in the world. (I’ve heard that there is one bear per square acre, and that there are 170,000 acres. I’ve also heard that there’s one bear per square mile, and that there’s 1700 square miles. Either way, there are a lot of bears on this island!) Our original plan had been to fly to a small island that neighbors Admiralty, set up tents there for camping overnight, and kayak over to Admiralty. A company in town keeps kayaks at different locations on these islands for use by students. The plan changed when we found that the kayaks would not be where we hoped they would be, and so we decided just to fly in and out on the same day. The pilot took us in two shifts. I had never been in a float plane before, and was very excited. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about the bears. I was just there for the experience of landing on and taking off from the water! (In fact, when we landed on the water, I asked the pilot if I could be his co-pilot for the day just so I could keep landing on and taking off from the water!)

When we arrived at Pack Creek, a Forest Ranger met us on the beach to collect our permits and go over the rules with us. The ranger explained that there are two types of brown bears in this world. There are the bears who have received food from humans, and the bears who have not. The former, having learned from their experience, are more dangerous as they will approach humans for food. The latter will not. In fact, if a bear has never received food from humans, then the bear considers humans in neither a positive nor a negative way. They don’t look at us and think of food. None of the bears on Admiralty Island have ever received food from humans, and the rangers want to keep it that way. They have us remove all food and scented items from our backpacks, and place it in the underground bear-proof lock boxes. When we want to eat, we have to return to these boxes and eat there. The ranger also explained that if we find ourselves face to face with a bear, we are simply to stand absolutely still. “The bear will figure it out,” said the ranger, “and move on.” It is important to give the bear time to figure it out, react, and move on. We don’t want to be the first to react or move. To avoid surprising a bear while we’re on the beach, the ranger recommends walking as a huddled group and making some noise. She didn’t want us to walk in a line because that is more threatening to bears. With those instructions, we set out.

The Forestry Service has set up two main areas for viewing bears. One is near a marsh and is better at low tide, and the other is in the woods and is better at high tide. The first one has a telescope that has a great view of a marsh. We saw some momma bears with their baby bear cubs following along. We saw a bear catch a fish. We saw another bear swimming. It was amazing to see the action through the telescope. Within the circular field of view, I’d see the bear catch a fish and eat it while beautiful birds fluttered overhead.

We left the marsh in late morning to head back to the beach for lunch. Then we set out on the hike into the woods where we would find a viewing tower over a riverbed packed with salmon spawning. As we entered the woods, I felt like we had just stepped out of time and entered a fairyland, or an enchanted woods – like from a fairy tale. I half expected to see little fairies or leprechauns or wood nymphs poke their heads out from behind trees, as in the folklore of Ireland. There was such a magical sense to the air. I felt like we had stepped back in time – maybe a million years! I also felt like we were trespassing. “We are,” Laura said. “This land belongs to the bears.” There seemed to be hundreds of kinds of ferns, mosses, and plants. There were several very large and tall trees that had fallen. When the roots pulled up from the ground, the tree became a “nurse log” from which new life, new trees, could grow and be nourished. The roots of the large tree were often more than 10 feet in diameter. Huge. Whenever we stopped and stood silent, the woods became so loud. The sounds of many different types of birds in concert, or perhaps in conversation with each other. I was pleased to recognize some of the wildflowers whose names I had learned from Laura on a previous hike. I was following Laura for much of the hike, and smiled at how easily she picked blueberries and salmon-berries from the bushes along the way. I tasted my first salmon-berry, and it was great!

When we arrived at the viewing tower, we had to climb up a tall ladder. The tower, made out of wood, was just a platform high above the ground with handrails around it, and a roof. We overlooked a riverbed, or creek, that was literally packed wall-to-wall with salmon. It was exciting to watch the bears tromp down the creek and go fishing. Some bears were better at fishing than others! Of course, when a bear stepped into the water, the salmon went zooming away from it. The salmon have the strongest tails, and they would splash them back and forth with such strength. Laura told me they use their tails to dig holes for laying their eggs. I also learned that salmon only live for one year. After a year out in the salt water sea, they return to their fresh water streams where they spawn and then die…if all goes well! The bears and the bald eagles gobble up as much of the salmon as they can, and the salmon eggs are sought after for a type of caviar. I remember this one bald eagle that swooped down and picked up a salmon, but kept releasing it and picking it up again all the way across the stream. I erroneously thought the salmon was to heavy for the eagle, but Laura explained to me that it has to do with the mechanics of how the eagle’s talons work. It was too complicated for me to understand, let alone pass on to you! So this poor salmon continued to be grabbed and dropped by the eagle from one side of the creek to the other. Meanwhile, there’s one young bear content to just meander down the stream eating berries from the riverbank. When he did decide to try his luck at fishing, it seemed he wasn’t very good at it! It didn’t look like it would be that hard with the amount of fish packed into this shallow stream. It looked to be no more than a foot deep, as the water was so clear we could see the bottom. There were areas of the creek where the bottom dropped into a deeper pool. I saw one bear that seemed to be taken surprise by this as he took a step and fell into a deeper pool. Good thing that these bears like to swim! As we surveyed all this activity below us, there sat a raven on a tree not too far from us. This raven sat there as though he was king of the forest, presiding over all he surveyed. I’m sure he knew we were there, but it almost seemed a matter of pride to him to not even flutter a feather at our existence.

After about an hour, we climbed down the tower to head back through the forest. Once upon a time, some people had found themselves stuck in the tower for a long time because a bear had come and fallen asleep at the base of the ladder! But these bears were much to interested in playing with the salmon than sleeping, and so we made an easy exit. Walking back through the woods was just as magical. Crossing bubbling brooks, listening to gurgling waterfalls, breathing in the woodsy scents, absorbing the pure air that seemed to pulse with life. The weakness in my knees seemed to fall away, and there began to feel a spring in my step. As I found at the ocean of Maine, nature is powerful. It can be healing for the soul. Immersed in life that real and pure, perspective shifts from man-made things to the simplicity of joy and fascination for life. As my body absorbed the pulse of life that beat in the air deep in the woods, I felt healthier, freer, stronger, and more energized. I felt like I was walking in a fairy tale. It was so much fun.

Back on the beach, I decided to rest while the rest of the group headed back to the marsh. The plane was due within the hour, and I was content. As I sat among the crushed shells and stones of the beach, I decided to leave a mystery behind. I took one flat rock, and wrote on it using another rock. I wrote, “We come in peace.” Then I put it back. I smiled at the possibility of someone one day, perhaps far in the future, finding this rock and wondering what it meant. On some other rocks I made some line patterns. I imagined a future archaeologist wondering if it was some ancient language and what it meant, or trying to figure out if it was made by natural means or by human means. :-)

When the pilot returned, I waded out into the water and climbed onto the float. I got to sit right next to the pilot. Taking off was so exciting. (So had been landing!) It is so beautiful to watch the land from the sky above. Float planes fly pretty low to the ground, and so we had wonderful views. I learned that a float plane can land in 300 feet of water, or 800 feet on land. A jumbo jet would need about 5,000 feet of a runway. The pilot explained that the distance required for landing would depend on things like how much headwind there was, and how much weight was in the plane. We all had to give our weights, and have our backpacks weighed before we got on the plane. Laura said to Natalie, “Don’t lie about your weight or the plane will go down!” Then she laughed. They are a fun group.

Standard gear in this part of Alaska are waterproof jackets and pants, and what they call “Juneau tennies.” Those are Neoprene boots called Xtratufs. Every person in Juneau wears these boots. Without exception. It fascinates me. So the day before our trip, myself and the three others who aren’t from Juneau went to get ourselves a pair of these boots. And glad I was for it! With these boots on, I found myself eager to tromp through squishy, gooshy mud and splash along the creeks.

Once back in Juneau, I found that the entire roll of film I had taken never advanced! That was a devastating realization, as there were images on that roll which I never want to forget, and that I want to share. However, there wasn’t anything I could do about it, and my mood was too light to have it be ruined! We reconvened at Laura and Chris’s house which is on the ocean. (The ocean around Juneau isn’t open sea, but rather lots of coves, inlets, channels, bays, and passages. Elise’s boyfriend Greg had flown down from Yakutak on Wednesday evening just for a twelve-hour visit to celebrate her birthday. He brought with him some Sockeye Salmon caught just that afternoon. These salmon are preferred even more than King Salmon! I had come out of my room Thursday morning to find him in the kitchen filleting these salmon! I almost ran to get my camera, but I thought they’d laugh at me! It was something to see. The fish here in Alaska are just so big, and I learned that the Sockeye Salmon are actually one of the smaller types of salmon.) Anyway, Elise brought these salmon to Laura’s house where Chris barbecued them, and Laura made this absolutely incredible brown sugar sauce for the fish. It’s made with brown sugar, butter, and lemon juice. It caramelizes on the fish, and it became one of the best eating experiences of my life! These people know how to eat well here. About half of my class was there, and they got singing around the bonfire while roasting marshmallows for s’mores! With a keg of beer, and fireworks, and six dogs, a passing whale, and the sun beginning to set over the water, it was an evening that celebrated the joy of life and friendship. Between the float plane, the magical woods, the bears, the brown sugar sauce and the salmon, and the bonfire, my senses felt overloaded by the time I crawled into bed.

It would seem impossible to top yesterday, but two weekends ago was equally as phenomenal. It began on Friday evening, July 14th, with a barbecue at Laura and Chris’s house. Many of my classmates were there, as well as two of our instructors. Before people arrived, Laura took me out kayaking. Kayaking has been a dream of mine for several years. It is a boat in which your legs are straight out in front of you. It sounded perfect for me! It was! As we paddled across an inlet toward an island, we were surrounded with salmon (chums) jumping everywhere. I even saw one salmon jump right up onto Laura’s kayak! We also saw a whale spouting in the distance. We paddled through a narrow passage that gave us a great view of “intertidal” life. Being with Laura is like having my own personal forestry service guide to explain everything to me. As we glided on the current, I wondered how it is that anyone in this world has ever been stressed about anything at any time. It was such an incredible perspective shift out there on the water. Looking behind us at the sun dancing on the water, and the silver of the sky, to in front of us at the deep blue of the water and a sky of darker shades. The patterns of the sky reflecting on the water are mesmerizing, and the soft rocking of the boat is so comforting. As my soul settles into contentment, I become attuned to all the life around us. The bald eagles fighting. The salmon jumping. The ever-changing sky. The purity in the air. I didn’t want to go back! I fell in love with the world that evening.

But once we got back, our sense of taste got overwhelmed! We enjoyed barbecued salmon, as well as smoked salmon and salmon dips. We made homemade ice cream! We sang and played charades around the campfire.

The next morning, on July 15th, seven of us, and four dogs, set out on the Herbert Glacier Trail. To the end and back was 8 - 9 miles. I haven’t attempted anything like that since Dr. Kerr reconstructed both of my knees a year and a half ago. I was nervous about whether or not I would make it that far. I made it! This trail was my first entrance into the land of fairy tales. It transported me to another time and place of wood nymphs and tree fairies peaking from behind gigantic ferns and trees. I learned from Laura that the entire trail had once been covered by the Herbert Glacier, but as it receded, the rain forest began to grow. So the first part of the trail has had the longest time for growth, because it was the first to be uncovered by the glacier. It was a very mature forest with tall fir trees and very dark. As we walked along the trail, the forest began to become newer and newer, as the glacier had receded more and more recently. The fir trees began to be less and less tall; more and more sunlight was able to get in; and more and more Alder (deciduous) trees were around. The color of the forest changed from dark green to lighter greens. Every half hour the forest seemed like an entirely new place. It was impossible to get bored. Not to mention the effect of keeping one’s eyes on their feet! To navigate the roots criss-crossing the path without tripping, I had to keep my eyes on my feet. So every time I looked up after staring at the path for so long, it all looked new again. I was continually amazed by the beauty and serenity of the forest. I learned to identify Devil’s Club, and Shooting Stars, and Fireweed. (Fireweed got its name from being the first plant that tends to grow after a fire.) As we walked, I felt like we were living out a real-life, multi-chapter fairy tale. I thought of the fantasy/fairy tale authors such as Lloyd Alexander or J.R.R. Tolkien, and how they come up with names like The Cliffs of Despair, The Forest of Shadows, The Marshes of Confusion, the River of Fears, the Lake of Double Meanings, the Mist of …, the Bog of…, etc. Every time we rounded a corner and seemed to enter a new stage of the trail, it felt like we were beginning a new chapter in the story. “We are leaving the Creek of Slippery Rocks and entering the Woods of …” It felt very adventuresome, like being characters in a fantasy adventure on a magical trail. I was captured by the atmosphere within the deep woods. My steps began to spring, like a sure-footed deer. (perhaps not quite that sure-footed!)

The people I was with were very attentive to my needs. Whenever we came to a part of the trail that went downhill, one person would wait at the top for me to put a hand on their shoulder to support me as I went down the hill. When we came to a creek, two of the guys scouted out the best place for me to cross, and then even told me exactly where to place each foot. I didn’t even have to think. I just had to trust them. It reminded me of child with disabilities in the classroom, and how we can modify the curriculum to their ability level. My fellow hikers modified the trail to meet my ability level! It meant a lot to me.

The weather this day was heavy with moisture, shades of gray, and misty. I think it is what made the trail take on such a fairy-tale like quality. It softened the scenery, made it almost seem surreal. I am sure that if I ever did that trail in sunshine, it would seem like a completely different trail! It was fun to come out at the glacier, and see big chunks of clear ice floating in the water. One person picked up a big chunk of this crystal clear ice in his hands, and passed it around. Five of us, not counting me, took 3 of the dogs and tried a bit of rock climbing and bush-wacking to get a closer view, but ended up sliding down some muddy terrain on their butts! It was rather comical to see them afterward!

The entire hike took us about 7 hours. We returned to Laura and Chris’s house where we all got in the outdoor hot tub on the edge of the ocean, and then went out for Thai food. It was a fitting ending to day filled with such sensory overload!

The following day, on July 16th, several of us from class went river rafting by the Mendenhall Glacier. The temperature of the water was 38° F! We went through some Class 3 rapids. Most of the ride was pretty calm. One of our classmates, Mike, used to be a guide on the river, and so he was able to take us out for no charge. It was a pretty spectacular experience.

It was very hard to switch gears the next day and stick my nose into a book! I had just fallen in love with the world and wanted to spend it outdoors! I didn’t want to be reading and studying and thinking deep thoughts. I wanted to be laughing and kayaking and exploring trails and enjoying the beauty of the world.

Looking back even farther, I remember July 4th. Mom was here with me in Juneau. We had just arrived on the 3rd. For the Fourth of July, we drove about twenty miles to the Shrine of St. Therese. It is an island onto which one can walk. It is owned by the Catholic Church. On this island there is a very old chapel, and some incredible views of the ocean. The atmosphere feels very hushed, reverent, and holy. We stood there and watched a fishing boat nearby, when all of a sudden a huge Humpback Whale came right up out of the ocean! Mom thinks he was at least 30 feet long. I stood stunned for a moment before I realized I was standing there with my camera, and then I quickly took a picture as he was going back down. It was one of those moments, as I would have again with the bears, when it would have been wonderful to have a telephoto or zoom lens on my camera! It all seemed to happen in slow-motion. It was fun. We also saw baby sea-lions playing, and a heron.

Regarding the trip from Colorado on, the memories aren’t nearly as vivid as the actual experience. I’m afraid that I simply haven’t done very much writing! I have been experiencing instead! I can say that driving route 80 across the southern length of Wyoming was incredibly boring, other than the amazing storm clouds that provided endless entertainment. The landscape, though, was brown, barren wasteland, with nothing but tumbleweed that seemed to go on for six or seven hours! We took this route for the sake of time, but I’d recommend taking the slower route across Colorado so as to enjoy the beauty of the Rockies. Arriving in Ogden, Utah north of Salt Lake was pretty spectacular. Of course, any change from the terrain we had seen all day was welcome and spectacular! I enjoyed the drive through Idaho, and especially eastern Oregon. We drove up some incredibly steep mountains in Oregon and then the switchback curves to get back down. Very tricky driving. No chance of falling asleep at the wheel there! We entered southeastern Washington in the evening, and saw a lot of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t until we drove through the wine country of Washington and stopped at our hotel that we found out the smoke was from a fire that had been raging for two days. In fact, the highway we had been on was closed shortly after we passed through. The fire was threatening a nuclear facility and on the news in New York! Dad called to ask us about it! It seems we entered the state just in time!

The next day, June 29th, mom and I spent playing tourist in Seattle. It was a lot of fun. We went to the top of the Space Needle. We watched the International Fountain being choreographed to the Overture of 1812. That was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in my life. We strolled through Pike Place Market. We took a ride on the monorail. We drank some fancy Seattle coffee drinks. It felt like a very care-free day. I wanted to share it with the others in my family as well. Douglas would be fascinated by the architectural accomplishments in the Seattle Center.

On June 30th, we boarded the ferry in Bellingham, WA. Though we waited in line for six hours, I made more friends in the first two hours than I did in two years in New York! It was so much fun. My little white car, that was only a few inches off the ground, became quickly famous among all the big sport utility vehicles and campers. I waited in line with the drivers, and mom waited in line with the walkers. Her mission was to stake out some seats for us to sleep on! A lot of people set up tents on deck. They used duck tape to secure them so they wouldn’t blow away. I met two young couples who are in the Coast Guard and on their way to Kodiak Island. One of them is from Virginia Tech, and he, his wife, and their baby were all decked out from top to bottom in Virginia Tech clothing! They are always happy to meet another Hokie fan! I also met this wonderful retired couple. Eunice was a retired school teacher who had spent part of her life teaching in refugee camps around the world. That led to her focus on ESL (English as a Second Language) students here in the United States. It was fun to meet such interesting and friendly people. I wrote a post card that night that said, “Being on this ferry is one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life! Everyone is so friendly. And it is so beautiful to be on the ocean. I love this! I could stay on this ship forever and be happy!” Famous last words. Only six hours later, at 3 a.m., I woke up to find myself not feeling very well. It turns out that there was an extra cabin that we could use, which was wonderful for the privacy. But the motion of the ship wasn’t feeling too great! The next day was very difficult for me, and I spent most of it lying down. Mom explored the ship, entertained herself, met lots of interesting people – one of which was a member of the crew who gave her this amazing ginger candy for me. Wow! I want to know where I can get more of that! It made me feel way better than Dramamine! Sunday was a better day, though I continued to struggle with nausea even for several days after we walked onto the dry ground of Juneau! With the nausea continuing so long, it may be that it wasn’t from sea sickness after all, but rather just some bug.

One of my favorite parts of being on the ferry was listening to the talks given by the Forestry Service interpreter. From “the truth about bears,” to the identification of different types of whales,” this woman had us all laughing while we learned. I learned that there is a golf course in Wrangel, one of the ports where we docked, that has “Raven’s Rule” as #8 in the rulebook. The rule states that if a raven picks up your ball, and you have one witness, you can replace the ball on that spot. I also learned that Juneau has a golf course, but you can only play it at low tide! I also learned that automatic doors not only work for people, but also for bears! That’s how a bear entered the Juneau airport and got on the revolving luggage handler, and how another bear entered the local grocery store. We also learned that one of the narrow passages we went through, called the Wrangel Narrows, is called Christmas Tree Lane because of all the red and green blinking on and off. As the passage is only 100 yards wide, and our ship is 75 feet wide, there isn’t a whole lot of room on either side of the ship! The ship has to make 46 course directions in 45 minutes, and uses 76 navigational aides to do it. Those are the red and green lights. Red Right Returning and Green Going Gone are nautical terms that refer to which direction the ship is heading. On the Pacific Coast, heading north means returning to port, and heading south means heading away from port. So since we were heading north, we were “returning” to port, and thus kept the red buoys to our right, and the green buoys to our left. Because there are 76 of these buoys, the passage is also called Pinball Alley. Generally, only one ship can pass through at a time. It is important to follow the direction of the red and green buoys so as not to bump into an oncoming ship. This ferry, the Matenuska, is the 2nd largest ship that pass through the Narrows. The largest is the ferry, the Columbia, that we were supposed to take until it got disabled by a fire on board. The cruise ships are too big and not allowed through this part of the Inside Passage. The ferries are only able to pass at high tide, because the ferry draws 19 feet of water (misplaces that much water at its speed), and the shallowest part of the Narrows is 19 feet deep. So it has to be high tide or we’d run aground. We passed through at 9:45 p.m., and the sun was just starting to set. It was beautiful.

Those are the highlights. I recommend visiting this part of the world to anyone. The gamble is, of course, that it rains in Juneau more often than it does not! Up until yesterday, we had constant rain for two or three weeks. Some days were more drizzly or misty than a continual rain, but foggy and overcast enough to not see the surrounding snow-capped mountains clearly. I have found that it is equally fun to go hiking on the drizzly days as in the sunshine, as the mist softens the world into a surreal type of feeling. But having proper rain gear is an absolute MUST here in Juneau! We had two casualties in my big move from New York to Alaska. One was the loss of mom’s camera somewhere in Denver. The other was the loss of my Gortex rain paints!!! The mysteries remain… But those man-made stresses don’t survive the onslaught of nature’s perspective here in this part of the world. While I wish it was easier to visit with Eileen and the twins and little Katherine in Massachusetts, and to see how much my new nephew is growing in Connecticut, and to take in a movie with my 10-year old buddies in Vestal, New York, and to chat with mom and dad over dinner, or over a football game by the woodstove, I am not homesick. I am happy to be here and to be experiencing these images of nature, and the power of God to heal one’s soul through the nature of his creation. The sea and sky, the woods and plants of the rainforest, the vivid greens, the whales and salmon and bears and sea lions, the waterfalls and glaciers… it is just stunning to the senses. I feel very fortunate.

August 4, 2000

Today is Day 3 of the four-day Tour de Juneau – a bike race in which Laura’s husband, Chris, is competing. We have gone each night to cheer him on. After the race on Wednesday evening, Jen and I helped Laura and her mom peel 20 lbs of kelp – which many of us cheechakos (those of us who have yet to experience a winter in Alaska) think of as seaweed – but it’s a sea plant, not a weed! We are making sweet pickles and relish out of it. The stalks may be 20 + feet long. When Laura’s mom and sister’s family were out fishing, they couldn’t resist harvesting some (a lot!) for pickles. They chopped the stalks into 12” sections that look just like metal pipes except they’re a purplish black color and slimy! We sat on the deck by the ocean, as the sun was beginning to set, and peeled them all! Today, after being chopped, brined, boiled, and soaked in sugar, vinegar, cloves, and cinnamon, the kelp is half-way through the pickling process! I tasted one today, even though it is not supposed to be ready until tomorrow, and it was sweet and yummy! (Look for the recipe at the end of this journal!)

Tomorrow I am going on a Catamaran to the Tracy Arm Fjord.

Saturday evening, August 5, 2000

Every time I think I’ve had an experience here in Alaska that just can’t be beat, I have another! I might not be being swept off my feet by some dashing young prince, or however that fairy tale goes, but I sure am by the beauty of nature here, and by the antics of the bears and harbor seals and salmon, and by all of the marine biology and history that I am learning! I took so many notes today while listening to the naturalist on board the catamaran, and will attempt to make sense of my scribbles so that I can share them with you. Listening to the naturalist was worth the price alone! I later asked her what sort of education she had gotten for being able to do this job. She told me that she hadn’t had any formal education for this. It was just a summer job for her while she was home from college, and whatever she knew came from her lifetime of experiences and reading here. Her name is Lissa. (It turns out that her godmother is my mentor teacher, and her mom works at my school, and her mom is good friends with one of my instructors who happened to be on this trip! And, like me, Lissa went to Georgetown University for just a year or two before she decided to transfer to a school where the students had a better appreciation for and connection with the beauty of this world.)

I boarded the 78’ catamaran (Auk Nu Tours) at 8:30 a.m. It is named the Kéet, which means killer whale in Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit). The Captain of the Kéet is Michael Doctor, or “Doc.” And the Ship Engineer and Mate is John Martin. The Cat traveled about 25-27 knots on our way to and from the Tracy Arm Fjord. It took about 2 hours to reach the Tracy Arm Fjord. The first 30 minutes were in the Gastineau Channel which runs between Juneau and Douglas Island. We entered Stephens Passage at the southeastern tip of Douglas Island. Throughout the trip, I learned a lot of interesting history from Lissa:

After 1 ½ hours in Stephens Passage, we came to Holkham Bay where we turned left into the Tracy Arm Fjord.

  • Holkham Bay actually splits into two fjords: Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. Endicott is narrower, and perhaps a better example of a fjord, but too dangerous. It’s most narrow point is called Ford’s Terror. When the tides change, 15 –20 feet of water have to rush through this narrow passage, and it creates whirlpools. Once upon a time a man named Ford got caught in those whirlpools for 6 ½ terrifying hours! Endicott Arm can be navigated, but it has to be timed right with the tides.

  • The Forest Service patrols these fjords using kayaks!

  • From Holkham Bay, we could see the Sumdum Glacier. The Sumdum Glacier is called a “Hanging Glacier,” as it has its own source of ice. It is not connected to an Ice Field. In naming the Sumdum Glacier, the white settlers were trying to name it after the Tlingit word that refers to how the silt in the water sparkles and dances in the sunshine. They didn’t get the word right! What is silt? Glaciers crush rock into a powder so fine and light that it hangs suspended in water. That powder is called silt. It is the silt that makes the water looks such a beautiful green.

The Tracy Arm Fjord:

  • Because the catamaran only draws 2 ½ feet of water, we can get right up next to the shore (and because the shore is vertical rock that drops straight down.)

  • The Tracy Arm Fjord averages about 1200-1800 feet deep, and 2000 feet in some parts.

  • When we are up close to the side of the fjord, we can see all the little critters of the Intertidal Zone – barnacles, mussels… The white barnacles are a favorite food of the black bear. The black bears have curved claws that are good for scraping the Intertidal Zone. We saw one black bear just hanging head first down the sheer vertical drop of the Intertidal Zone. He was very contentedly eating those little critters. It was amazing how he held on without falling into the water!

  • How is a glacier made? An ice field is like a huge sheet (or lake) of ice contained in a mountain range. It snows 100-200 feet per year up in the mountain tops. This snow accumulates year after year. Snow has 1/20th the density of ice. But the weight of all that snow is enough pressure to compress the snow into ice. When that gets compressed further, over years of more and more weight upon it, it becomes glacial ice. Glacial ice is the most dense form of ice. As more and more snow falls, and the pressure continues to build, and room for all this ice runs out, the ice has to spill out somewhere. If it were water, the water would flow out from the lake in rivers. As ice, it flows out from the ice field in glaciers. A glacier is like a river of ice. The back of the glacier is attached to the ice field. The front of the glacier is from where icebergs break off. When the ice reaches 500 years old, it is at the end of its life cycle, so to speak, and it breaks off into an iceberg. So icebergs represent ice that is 500 years old. Only 10% of the iceberg is above water. It melts faster below water than it does above water. Blue icebergs are a result of the density of the ice. When ice is at its greatest density, it absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue. The blue bounces back to your eye. The older the ice, the more pressure it has been exposed to, and thus the more dense it is. So the more blue the ice, the older it is. If the iceberg is opaque, there are a lot of air bubbles in it. The small bits of ice in the water are called “bergy-bits.” I don’t know how to spell it, but it is an actual scientific term!

  • The Tracy Arm Fjord ends at the North and South Sawyer Glaciers. The water is pretty slushy with bergy-bits and icebergs. We move very slowly through the water. Doc steers around the bigger bergy-bits, but there are too many to steer around them all, and the smaller ones don’t harm the catamaran. So every once in a while we’d hear the booming sound of a little iceberg hitting the bottom of the boat. The water is 35° F. We saw a smaller tour boat lower a kayak into the water, and then a crazy woman into the kayak! She was beaming! She was crazy because she had bare hands, and it was pretty darn cold out there!

  • The North and South Sawyer Glaciers split about 80 years ago. I think that Lissa said they are each about 100 square miles. They both are attached to the Stikine Ice Field which is 2900 square miles. The Stikine Ice Field is separate from the Ice Field behind Juneau. There are 38 named glaciers that come off of the Stikine Ice Field.

  • The North and South Sawyer Glaciers are Tidewater Glaciers, as opposed to Land Glaciers. Tidewater glaciers hit the sea water. (Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is a land glacier. It does not touch the sea water.) Tidewater glaciers are more active because of the salt water lapping at the glacier. Lots of icebergs break off.

  • We went to the South Sawyer Glacier first. Touching the sea water, the glacier measured about ¾ of a mile from one side to the other, and rose about 160 feet from the water, and descended about 300 feet into the water. When part of the glacier breaks off under water, it is called a “shooter” because it shoots up out of the water. A good analogy is holding a filled water balloon under water. When you let go, it will shoot up out of the water. The reason has to do with the density of the iceberg. The density of the iceberg is less than the density of water. That is why the ice floats. So when a piece of ice breaks off beneath the water surface, it is going to shoot up to the water’s surface.

  • The glacier looks more blue when the sky is cloudy than when the sky is blue. The sky looks blue for the same reason that a glacier looks blue: It absorbs every color of the spectrum except for blue, and the blue is reflected back to our eyes. When the sky is blue, it takes away from the blue of the glacier. When the sky is cloudy, the blue of the glacier stands out more.

Doc turns off the motor and we drift silently in front of this mammoth glacier. The world is pure and silent, but for the thunderous crackings of the South Sawyer Glacier. It reminds me of the sound of frozen tree limbs cracking and falling, or whole trees falling, within a silent forest – but on a much larger scale. We listen to these explosions of ice, and watch parts of the glacier break off and fall like an avalanche, or a waterfall of ice, into the sea. As the force of this ice hits the sea, another explosion seems to come back up from the water. I am mesmerized. Looking through binoculars, I see architecture in blue ice that seems like it is out of an imaginary world, a timeless world. The world as I know it fades away. The ice is so blue, a brilliant turquoise/royal blue. There are caverns, arches, tunnels, crevices, designs, all sculpted out of ice. I don’t think it would be possible for a human to design something so artistically and architecturally creative, so other-worldly. I love it.

As I pan around with the binoculars, I see the hundreds of harbor seals lounging on all the icebergs at the base of the glacier. They are so much fun to watch. I find myself laughing at their playfulness. I see a row of five or six harbor seals all on one glassy clear iceberg. They look like they are sun-bathing on a cruise ship. I spot another one swimming around – seemingly aimlessly, without a care in the world. I am caught up in watching this one to see where he goes.

  • The harbor seals are about 6 feet long, and about 200-300 lbs. About 1000 years ago, a harbor seal discovered that the base of these glaciers are a safe place for them to hang out during pupping season. It is nearing the time that the harbor seals will leave, and head back to Stephens Passage, as they have been here for about four to six weeks since giving birth. That is about how long they stay. Their number one predator is the killer whale – the Orca. Why don’t the Orca come this far into the Tracy Arm Fjord? Well, one of the ways they navigate is by echolocation. They make a clicking noise that reverberates through the water, bounces off something, and comes back to the Orca. The Orca can see through hearing – it interprets clicks in 3-D images. I can’t remember if Lissa said that the silt in the water slows down the traveling of sound or not. But she did say that all the icebergs confuse the whales as the clicks bounce off the icebergs. (Reminds me of a pinball machine!) So the Orcas don’t normally come this far into the Tracy Arm Fjord even though the Harbor Seal is their favorite food. They’d rather wait closer to Stephens Passage for all the Harbor Seals and their new pups to return from the glacier! The Orca does have excellent eyesight, and does something called “spy-hopping.” That is when it gets vertical in the water and pops its head out to take a look. Though called a killer whale, that is a misnomer. The Orca is actually the largest species of dolphin.

  • We left the South Sawyer Glacier and headed over to the North Sawyer Glacier. The North Sawyer Glacier is in something called catastrophic retreat. That means it is receding at an alarming rate. While the South Sawyer Glacier is only receding at the rate of a couple hundred feet per year, the North Sawyer Glacier is receding at the rate of a couple hundred yards per year. That’s over a mile in just 10 years. Lissa pointed out to us where the edge of the glacier had been back in 1988, just 12 years ago, and it was a long way from where it is now! When part of the front of the glacier falls off into the water, it is called “calving off.” Even though both the North and South Sawyer Glaciers are melting, or calving off, at the same rate, the South Sawyer Glacier is being fed more ice from behind than the North one is. The temperature at the South Sawyer is colder, and it gets more snow. The earth cycles of global warming and global cooling have naturally taken place every 10,000 years or so (if I understand that right), and so it is not alarming that glaciers are receding. But it is known that humans are making global warming worse than is natural, and it is not known if that is irreversible. It is predicted that the average global temperature will increase by 4° F in the next 20-40 years. For every ? °, glaciers retreat several hundred feet. So 4° equates to miles of glacier retreating.

As we drifted in front of the North Sawyer Glacier, there began the most thunderous calving that the crew would later say they have ever seen. As we watched, whole sections of the front face of the glacier began exploding and tumbling into the sea. Again and again, huge pieces of glacial ice broke off and dropped into the sea with a force that sent backlash explosions upward. We were watching the glacier reshape itself. When the thunderous booms and cracks and tumbling ice finally stilled, there was a single moment of silence before we realized that a tsunami, or a tidal wave, had been created by the force, and was about to come toward us. I heard the engine start and the catamaran quickly turn its bow into the direction of the glacier and the mammoth waves coming from it. The sea seemed so alive. It was stunning. We watched the life of the sea move toward us, until it hit and we went up. Because the waves on which we rocked were so big and fluid, it felt as though we moved in slow motion. We had to go so far up in one direction before we could rock back to the other direction, that it seemed slower and smoother than being hit with smaller, choppier waves. It was so exciting, and so much fun. I never once felt in any danger. It was absolutely thrilling. I want to be out there every day! It is so hard to be here at this computer indoors, when the world is so alive out there on the sea, and in the woods!

We left the North Sawyer Glacier looking different than it had when we’d arrived. We were all excited about what we had just seen. We continued to be awed by the beauty all around us. In some areas the cliffs stretch 1800 feet above us, and we would see the most amazing waterfalls cascading down. We saw another bear, and a mountain goat that was prancing around on the sheer vertical rock face of the mountain. I couldn’t believe it! I longed for a camera with a zoom lens, so that I could be preserving these pictures of the mountain goat, the black bears, the harbor seals, the stunning architecture of the South Sawyer Glacier, and the thunderous calving of the North Sawyer Glacier. It seems that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, as I am trying so hard to use words to paint and preserve these pictures! There is some beauty for which there are no words!

As we head back along the Tracy Arm Fjord, there begins to be these long horizontal wisps of smoke twining through the air. The world looks so peaceful and still, even surreal. The whispery clouds soften our view and add that fairy tale dimension I am finding so often here in nature.

When we left this morning, Juneau was completely enshrouded in fog. We were boating through a total whiteness – both sea and sky the same. The fact that we came out of the fog, had a beautiful view along the Tracy Arm Fjord, and then look to be re-entering the fog as we head back north toward Juneau – that all makes the wonders we saw today so much more magical and mysterious – again that surreal, fairy tale-like quality.

  • Before reaching Holkham Bay, we visited Williams Cove. Because many of the private boats take a day to get here from Juneau, and the bottom of Williams Cove is shallow and muddy enough for anchoring, they will anchor overnight here before going on to see the glaciers on the next day.

  • Lissa told us that John Muir, a famous explorer and dedicated journalist, described in his journals both the scientific facts and his emotions that went with each of his experiences. When he died, those journals were able to be published. She quoted for us of one of her favorites of his writing. Paraphrased, he recommended that people who want to travel should save Alaska for later in life, because if they arrive here early in life, they will never leave, and so they will miss all the other places they wanted to see. Of course, he said it much more eloquently than that!

  • In addition to being the engineer and mate, John Martin is a Tlingit Elder, Storyteller, and House Leader (which is like a tribal chief). It was an honor to listen to him share some of his culture and stories with us. He even taught us some words in Tlingit! There are 12 to 13,000 Tlingit people in Southeast Alaska today. Only about 500 of them speak the Tlingit language. For John, the Tlingit language is his first language. He told us the Tlingit words for dolphin or porpoise, squirrel, black-tail deer, whale, and whale song. I couldn’t even say them, let alone write them! Whale is yi (pronounced yee), and whale song is yi shay. Squirrel is something like gunnusock, and I think dolphin is chich (pronounced cheech). But I’m not sure about any of those! He told us a funny story about the origin for the Tlingit word for British. The word, Kingiwon, was their attempt to say King George Won. He also told us that their symbol for peace is, I think, the black-tailed deer. (I am an example of why the Tlingit people don’t want just anyone writing down their stories! I am mangling all the details! From what I’ve learned from other people, the Tlingits did not have a written language until recently, and all their stories are passed down orally. Only a few are allowed to be Storytellers for the stories they own. This preserves the accuracy and history of the stories, and their culture. Again, too, if I understand that correctly.) Lastly, John told us that the Totem Pole is a historical document that tells a story, tells the history of the people.

As we headed back toward Juneau, we saw the wreckage of a ship that went aground in 1901! We also saw that the skies above Juneau had let through the sun! It seems that Juneau has one thing in common with New England: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute!”

It amazed me how Lissa gave us so much information without using any notes or cue cards. She just talked. When I had the chance to talk with her later, she told me that she just says whatever comes to mind, and so it’s often different things on each trip! Without the lifetime of gathering knowledge and experiences here as she’s had, I cannot hope to share so much information just from the top of my head! But I still think it would be really cool to spend my summers doing something like that – if I went on a few more trips with her, absorbed more of her knowledge, and used lots of notes and cue cards!

I highly recommend this trip to all of you. Auk Nu Tours: 1-800-820-2628, www.auknutours.com The trip included lunch, and free coffee/tea/hot chocolate all day. They also offered free crackers and salmon dip from Sockeye salmon, as well as the recipe, in the afternoon. The provided a nice map and binoculars for during the trip. Having binoculars is a must! They can take as many as 130 people, but we only had 70 people and it was a wonderful number. I wouldn’t want many more than that. I didn’t buy my ticket until this morning, and the woman who sold it to me recommended that I sit up front. So I sat in the first row on the upper level, right behind the wheel room. I think Lissa told me it’s called the wheel room. I was calling it the cockpit! :-)

Well, that’s all the news from Caryn’s Corner of Alaska! You should all move here and keep me company! Below are pictures of my classmates at the university, and of our view from the classrooms on campus!




Alaska Sweet Sea Pickles

  • 4 lbs bulb kelp (for 20 lbs kelp, multiply by 5)
  • 1 cup salt

  • ½ tsp. alum
  • 2 qts. water

  • 3 ½ c. sugar
  • 1 pint white vinegar
  • ½ tsp. oil of cloves
  • ½ tsp. oil of cinnamon

    Gather kelp in June, July, or August.

    Cut kelp in 12” lengths.
    Peel off dark surface layer (can use a regular apple/vegetable peeler)
    Soak kelp 2 hours in a brine of 1 c. salt to 2 gallons water. Cover thoroughly.
    Rinse thoroughly.
    Cut kelp into 1” cubes or slice in rings about ¼ inch.
    Soak in alum solution (1/2 tsp. alum to 2 qts. cold water) 15 minutes.
    Drain & wash & rinse thoroughly.
    Place in enamel kettle and cover with boiling water.
    Cook only until kelp can be pierced with a fork. Drain.
    Combine sugar, vinegar, and oils. Boil 2 minutes; pour over cooked kelp.
    Let stand overnight in kettle or crock.
    In the morning, drain syrup & reheat to boiling. Pour over kelp and stand 24 hours.
    On 3rd morning, heat both kelp and syrup to boiling.
    Pack in jars and seal. Makes 3 pints.

    If whole spices are used, tie them in small cheesecloth bags.
    Green food coloring may be added to brighten kelp. (I don’t think we added any.)

    Funny stories…

    Laura’s young nephew, about age 5, comes up to Laura in tears. He tells her that his brother called him a bad thing. Laura asked what it was, and he says, “Well, I think it was just a talking accident.”

    A friend of mine in Maine has a son who, when he was in third grade, was riding his bike with no hands, and with his eyes closed. He was also making some strange noises. His mom, panicked at the thought of him crashing with his eyes closed, asked him what he was doing. “It’s okay, mom. I’m traveling by echolocation!”

  • This window into Alaska was experienced, written, and photographed by Caryn Camp during the summer of 2000.