Life at -4.6 Feet

A couple of times every year the moon and sun align – literally – to bring about very large tides. In June this year, a full moon delivered a -4.6 tide to Hoonah, Alaska and provided a glimpse of life under the sea. Rocky shorelines were converted into tide pools full of life trapped there by the receding waters. The first time I experienced one of these monster tides was  in May 2016 right after moving to Hoonah. The joy I find in perusing the beaches and flipping rocks to see what is beneath has not diminished since that time. Thanks to Bob Armstrong’s guide, I am able to identify some of the creatures we found.

The Star Fish

Of all the animals in a tide pool, Sea Stars seem to provide the most variety to the color, textures, shapes, and sizes that have evolved in the ocean. In some places they cover every rock surface or bottoms of tide pools. They are the ever-present predator scouring for crustaceans, snails, and clams. We enjoyed looking at their colors and touching their rough (and sometimes slimy) skins.

Blood Star.
Mottled sea star
The close, rough texture of a Mottled sea star
Slime Star (species not known)
Mottle Sea Stars cover the bottom of a tide pool.

Tide Pools, Alaska, Wrinkled slime star
Wrinkled slime star

The Octopus

We found the crab shells before we found the octopus den. The tell-tale shells were only a foot or two away from a crevice containing 8 arms with quarter-sized suckers. Th octopus was so large that we could only see one arm, and wait as we might it never came out of the den. Fortunately a smaller octopus – about the size of a football- motored by us. They are intelligent and lithe creates known for their camouflage. It was amazing to watch the colors of the small octopus’s skin turn from a light pink to dark red as it moved from rock to rock and tried to blend in.  It was the first time I had watched a wild octopus! The 12″ deep water provided a window into its life below.

A crab shell let us know that an octopus den was near.

Tide Pools, Alaska,
An octopus swims by in the shallow waters of the low tide. It was a real treat to watch this animal hunt!

Crabs

Crabs are really remarkable creatures. They have adapted themselves to all areas (niches) of the inter-tidal zone in search of food. We must have found 8 or 10 different species, but some of them stood out for their uniqueness. Spines, claws, and camouflage make them fit for the niche they fill. The most bizarre was the Butterfly Crab – it is hard to imagine what its oblong shell would provide. Perhaps it camouflage?

A young king crab hangs out in the inter-tidal. Eventually this crab will descend to deeper water.
Tide Pools, Alaska, Butterfly crab
A butterfly crab was one of the most bizarre creatures I have every found! I cannot imagine why its shell needs to be shaped like that.
A Decorator Crab attaches pieces of seaweed to itself to provide almost perfect camouflage.

Bobbin’ Around Under Water

Below the inter-tidal we found this bright orange sponge. This sponge was accessible because of the low tide.

Broadbase tunicate 

A day spent looking into tide pools is time well spent! Exploration allows you to discover new things, observe new behaviors, and breath in the sea air. I look forward to the next big tide!

End Of the Rope : Disentangling a Humpback Whale

It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!

On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
We spotted a whale on the surface. At first we thought the whale was sleeping, but we soon discovered it was towing a rope and buoys.

Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
The entangled whale had the buoy line through its mouth with a hundred feet or so of line dragging on the left side and about 40 feet of line attached to the buoys. The buoys were keeping the whale from diving.

Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation.  We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.

We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.

The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.

After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!

After freeing the whale from most of the line and the buoy it gave a half breach and dove beneath the surface. We did not see it again! Image credit : Kurt Pesch

One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.

After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.

There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!

If you find a in injured, stranded, or entangled marine animal, please report it through NOAA. You can find their number for any region by visiting their website.

Healing and the Healing Pole at Glacier National Park

Exactly two years after the Tribal House dedication in Glacier Bay National Park, five boats full of tribal members from Hoonah floated  to the dock in Bartlett Cove at the entrance of the Park.  Inside of Bartlett Cove a light rain fell and fog rolled through the trees – normal conditions for the homeland of the Huna Tlingit. The approximately 30 students on the boat departed in full red, black, and blue regalia with drums pounding.  They  were there to participate in the raising of a new totem, the Healing Pole, to recognize the reconciliation between the Park and Tribe in the last decade-and-a-half.

Glacier Bay National Park, Tlingit, Hoonah, Totem Pole, Tribal House
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Glacier Bay National Park, Tlingit, Hoonah, Totem Pole, Tribal House
Students lead the walk into Bartlett Cove with song. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The students danced past the awaiting attendees at Bartlett Cove and to the beach. These songs were to welcome the people at the Park and those still arriving by water. They waited silently as the 42-foot dugout canoes were paddled in carrying elders, tribal members, and members of the National Park Service. Once the canoes disembarked all dignitaries werevon shore the rest of the ceremony commenced.

The canoes arrived on the shores of Bartlett Cove delivering elders, community members, and Park Service employees. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Randy Roberts, Hoonah Resident and National Park Service Employee, welcomes to the canoes. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Healing Pole

In 2017, traditional carvers Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, Owen James, and Randy Roberts began to carve a new totem. The pole’s goal  was to tell the story of the relationship between the National Park Service and Huna Tlingit. Much of that story is difficult to tell as the Park (and the preceding National Monument) was responsible for keeping the people of Huna from harvesting their traditional foods within the park boundary since the year 1925 and into the present.

Healing Pole, Glacier Bay National Park, Hoonah, Tlingit, National Park Service
The healing pole carvers were charged with a difficult task : tell the story of the Huna Tlingit and Park Service. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Pole Arrives

It takes a community to move a pole. On this day its weight was born by Tribal members and Park Service employees symbolizing the relationship between the two. Step by step it was moved to lay next to its final location at the entrance of Bartlett Cove.

Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Healing Pole, Glacier National Park, Alaska, Huna Tlingit, Hoonah Indian Association
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Friend Who Has No Eyes. No Spirit. Sheds No Tears. Has too Many Hands.

Gordon Greenwald, dressed in woven cedar hat and vivid regalia, stood in front of an expectant audience to talk about the story conveyed in the totem. The story was laid out from the bottom to the top. Fish, seagull eggs, devils club, and halibut demonstrated that Glacier Bay was the food basket of the Huna Tlingit. However, 250 years ago as the glacier surged forward and destroyed the villages in Glacier Bay  the pole showed how people got in their canoes and scattered to new settlements. A lock and chain nailed to the totem above canoes showed that by the time the glacier receded the U.S. Government had converted Glacier Bay into a National Monument and barred them from using their homelands in the traditional fashion. Even more ominous  was the blank, colorless, eyeless face above the lock and chain. Gordon explained, “Then came the friend you have that has no eyes. The friend you have that has no spirit. The friend you have that sheds no tears. The friend you have that has too many hands. The U.S. Government”.  Waves in the totem show that the metaphorical waters of Glacier Bay were turbulent for years, but footprints above the waves demonstrated that “we walk in the footprints of our grandparents and ancestors” and those footprints eventually led to the Tribal House that crowned the pole.

Gordon Greenwald explains the meaning of the carvings and story of the Healing Pole. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Healing Pole was much different than the clan poles erected in front of the Tribal House as it incorporated traditional formline and modern carvings. The addition of the chain and lock provided a powerful, although non-traditional twist to the message of the pole.

Up It Goes

In due time it was time for the totem to be raised. The students sang traditional songs and audience members raised their hands to dance. Within 20 minutes the enormous pole was proudly displayed for all to admire and know the story it held.

The Process of Healing

As part of the healing process Hoonah Indian Association and Tribal members created matching robes to be given to the the Superintendent of the park and President of the Tribe. Receiving the robe, Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge hugged Julie Jackson and Darlene See warmly with tears in his eyes. His open emotions brought a smile to my face because it demonstrated the barriers that were being broken down. This was not just a stiff, formal presentation, it was a truly significant and meaningful transaction.

Phillip Hooge, Glacier Bay, Robe, Hoonah Tlingit
Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge receives a traditional robe created by the Hoonah People. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Hoonah Indian Association President Frank Wright Jr. receives a matching robe. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

Dancing Together

With the formalities done outside it was time to go inside the Tribal house for stories and to dance and sing. Students let the procession and songs within the Tribal House. The emphasis on students during the event was heartwarming – it was done acknowledging the future leaders of the Huna Tlingit and their need to recognize, know, and participate in their culture.

Elders share the stories of their people in Glacier Bay with all present. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Students, Youth, Tlinigt, Hoonah
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
A student hangs onto their drum between songs in the Tribal House. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

For me, the most powerful moment came when Park Service employees were invited to the dance floor. The dance began with  institution leaders Phillip Hooge and Frank Wright Jr. As it progressed more and more people joined the throng. The moment was powerful – it was not that many years ago that such a blend of backgrounds, views, disciplines, and culture would have seemed impossible. As the dance tapered away it was obvious that spectators were as invigorated by it as the participants.

Dance, Park Service, Healing Pole, Hoonah Tlinight
Tribal members and Park Employees dance together in the Tribal house of the Huna Tlingit. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Dance, Park Service, Healing Pole, Hoonah Tlinight
Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson
Dance, Park Service, Healing Pole, Hoonah Tlinight
Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge and HIA President Frank Wright Jr. dance together in the Tribal house of the Huna Tlingit. Photo Credit : Hoonah Indian Association by Ian Johnson

The Healing Pole Ceremony is another chapter in the annals of history for the Huna Tlingit and the Park Service. The growth and relationships developed through the Tribal House, Clan Poles, and now the Healing Pole will need to be nourished to continue the healing and progress that is needed for the people of Hoonah.  The fact that all around people acknowledged the need for that nourishment makes me feel hopeful for the future.

As a non-native spectator it was a privilege to be at this event. It was especially nice to have the context of the previous two events and my  knowledge of working for the Tribe to help set the story. I am honestly pretty shocked by the openness of emotion showed from both sides – the plight and longing to actively use their homeland was evident through the stories of Elders and Tribal members. The acknowledgement of the damages done and the willingness to make good as the Government System allows could be seen in the Park Service employees. Because of the event’s blend of traditional and modern values, it continues to show the resilience of the Hoonah Tlingit – their ability to adapt will has and will ensure their culture is alive and well into the future.