Category Archives: Adventure

Raven and Eagle Totem Raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít

Last year when  Xunaa Shuká Hít was built in Glacier Bay National Park  it was a joyous day. This incredible structure reconnected the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland, but it was still missing a key part of a tribal house : it’s totems to tell the stories of those within. On May 20th, 2017, the citizens of Hoonah returned again to their homeland to celebrate raising two totems in front of their tribal house.

Arriving at The Tribal House

It was a moody day with gray clouds and no wind as our catamaran pulled from the dock, sped through Port Frederick, and crossed into the expanse of Icy Strait. Each of the 130 passengers on board were familiar with the trip, and we passed all of the familiar landmarks along the way to mark our progress over the 25 miles : Hoonah Island, Flynn Cove, Eagle Point, and then Point Adolphus. Off the right side of the boat, in the distance a Humpback Whale began to breach near Pleasant Island. It rose from the water eight times in short succession before it stopped its gigantic splashing. The spectacle had the kids and adults on the boat watching out the window with exclamations of delight. The excitement of the return to Glacier Bay was growing with each mile closer and each new wonder.

There were many drums on the boat, and they started to pound and the students and travelers singing started as we approached Glacier Bay. Each drum was hand-crafted and the baton resulted in an echoing boom that filled the ship. Even in the top deck you could hear the drumming below. We reached the border of Glacier Bay National Park along with a second catamaran from Juneau. Tobacco offerings  were made to the ocean to welcome the ancestors of the Huna Tlingit, and a song that was sung expressing the sorrow of leaving the park 250 years ago as the glacier advanced was. It isn’t as often that songs of mourning are performed, and the slower drum was syncopated with a melody that easily conveyed the sorrow of departing their homeland even if I did not understand the words.

Glacier Bay, Totem Raising
The tobacco ceremony welcomes the Tlingit Ancestors back to the park.

Our catamarans crossed the park boundary, and in front of us, two, 42-foot, red dugout canoes came into view. Colorful, hand-carved paddles splashed in the water to propel the boats, and soon the canoes were between our catamarans. Each canoe’s speaker welcomed us to the homeland of the Huna Tlingit and then we were led to shore.

The hand-carved dugout canoes greet the arriving passengers from Hoonah and Juneau.

Raising A Totem

This might be an obvious statement, but totem poles are not light. Each of  poles (one of Eagle Clan and one for Raven Clan) weighed about 2,000 pounds and was carved from the trunk of a red cedar. Although some of the pole had been hollowed out, 12 feet of the pole maintained a solid core. The weight presented a couple of unique challenges – you have to be able to move it, and you have to be able to control the weight when standing it up. In order to move it, we slid poles under and 18 people stood on each side. It was truly an honor to be one of the members lined up on along the totem pole to deliver it to Xunaa Shuká Hít. We were reminded as we entered, that each one of was participating in history. We could all look back on the pictures of the day and tell our grandchildren that we were there the day the poles were raised. Thinking that to myself made my aching arms seem like much less of a burden.

With my place at the side of the totem, I was honored to be one of the bearers to the Tribal House.

Each of the poles told the story of the two primary clans (Eagle and Raven) and each clan married into them.  Many of the stories are passed down through the clans and cannot be told to the public. However, representatives from each clan briefly explained the significance of the totem’s art.  Before each of the poles were raised into place, their names were repeated three times by the entire crowd to breath life into them.

The intricate carvings of the totem tell the story of the clans of the Tribal House.

Traditional pole totem pole raising may last up to a week with many feasts, speeches, and longs nights of singing and drumming.  Large poles raised in the traditional method require a huge amount of engineering to leverage the pole into place. As it was explained to me, there are many ways to put up a totem pole, and the method you choose is dictated by your resources and experiences.  The totem pole raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít also used the resources available. To ease our backs and ensure safety, a large crane positioned the pole onto its metal backing where it was mounted into place by master carver Gordon Greenwald. Each went up and smoothly. With the poles in place in front of the tribal house there was only really one thing left to do – go inside to eat together, to sing, and to dance.

The tribal house smelled strongly of pine. I think the smell was exacerbated by the heavy rain that fell outside and the humid conditions inside. I love the smell of the tribal house! Every corner was packed with people, and and the red, blue, and black regalia worn by many offset the yellow, wood walls. As lunch finished, a group of traditional Tlingit drummers, singers, and dancers from Sitka performed for the audience. Their drum echoed through the house, and the mostly male chorus was very powerful to listen to. The music and the atmosphere caused my skin prickle and my hair to raise on my arms. Each performer was equally impressive to watch. Their colorful, yellow, white, and blue Chilkat robes twirled  with each step and movement. We ended the day with an hour (or more? I lost track of time) of dancing from the community. The joyous songs brought all members of the house to their feet to join in the festivities.

The power of a day like this is hard to convey in writing and in pictures. If I were to think of an analogy that I hope makes you feel how I perceive the Huna Tlingit to feel, imagine going home for Christmas after being gone for 5 years in a foreign land. In your grandparents house, the Christmas tree reminds you of the last time you were there. Many of the sights an smells are familiar and memories of your childhood of opening presents and eating pie Christmas morning obligate you to tell stories to the young people around you of Christmases past. You realize, that although you are home for Christmas, the true joy is in knowing that you are passing on the tradition and stories to the next generation. Perhaps that’s true reason you are home for Christmas. Passing on stories and traditions were a big part of why the Huna Tlingit raised their poles. That ideal of creating a place for their children to return to in the future was the unifying theme of the day.  Although not all of our elders will be here in coming years, the totems at Tribal House will stand the test of time and tell the story of the Huna Tlingit for many generations to come.

The completed totems stand outside of Xunaa Shuká Hít

The Totems of Kasaan

“If there’s one thing that I want you to come away with from my presentation today, it’s that we do not worship totems”, stated Fred Olsen, Jr. , a native Haida of Kasaan. In front of us, the one of the totems from Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House stood proud among towering spruce trees. This house pole was among several totems at the Kasaan Totem Park to be rescued and preserved in this still grove of evergreens. Like the other Haida poles in the park, this one was moved from the village site of “old Kasaan” and moved into the totem park in 1938. The ornate carvings of these original totem poles, represented the status and rich history of each clan house or the story to honor a deceased elder.

A tall totem stands outside of the Kasaan Whalehouse.

The effort and time to carve a totem is not lightly undertaken and only occurred for special events. As we walked from Chief Son-I-Hat’s totem to the next shorter totem, Fred began to explain some of the reasons totems would differ in size or purpose. Totems could be carved in honor of a deceased elder, to demonstrate the rights that a person acquired over their lifetime, or to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch. As Fred explained, Haida culture was not concerned with the amount you owned, but rather in your generosity in giving back. Hosting a Potlatch required a tremendous amount of resources, planning,  and leadership. A successful potlatch could last for several days, earn you the respect of your community, and at its conclusion a ring could be added to the top of your house’s totem. An extraordinary demonstration of this generosity was visible in  eight rings at the top Chief Son-I-Hat’s pole.  The eight rings symbolized that his house had hosted eight potlatches.  Because the rings showed off the status and generosity of Chief Son-I-Hat,  they ensured that incoming travelers and traders would seek him out first among the community. The furs he gained through their business contributed his status as one of the wealthiest of the Haida chiefs.

The totem that stood in front of Chief Son-I-Hat’s house contains 8 rings symbolizing potlatches he hosted.

For the Kasaan Totem Park, which winds nearly a half-mile through an incredible and vibrant forest, the journey is also the destination. The totem trail concludes at a cobbly beach with distant views of the mountains. On its shores are the bleached remains of spruce trees and boulders.  Near the shore a seemingly impossibly-tall totem rises rises from the ground in front of the Kasaan Whale House.  What we now call the “Whale House” was built in 1880 and was named ” Náay I´waans” (meaning “Great House”). This was the first of two clan houses built by Chief Son-I-Hat. The Whale House underwent a full restoration starting in 2011, the results of which are truly remarkable.  Inside and insulated by its thick, wooden structure, is is much cooler than the warm day outside. It smells earthy and wonderful. Light streaming from an open roof vent streams onto the floor where it is easy to imagine hundreds of Haida gathering to listen to the stories of their elders and smoke rising from the fire in the central pit. Listening to Fred’s words fill the space provided a meaningful end to a day of serenity in this beautiful place.

Kasaan Totem Park, Whale House, Kasaan
Fred Olsen, Jr. Presents some of the stories of the Haida to us in the restored Whale House of Chief Son-I-Hat.

 

It should be noted that I’m not an expert or knowledge base on Haida Culture; all that I can pass on is what I’m told or what I read. It was actually Fred’s opening words in front of Son-I-Hat’s house totem that inspired me to write this blog because it was new knowledge to my limited understanding of Haida culture. I’ll paraphrase them as, “Our totems are not our religion, but our stories and our culture.  It’s that message that I wish everyone knew”. If there’s nothing else you know of totems, I hope that Fred’s words will stick in your mind, so that you will have learned that even without visiting this incredible monument of the Haida culture.

The Hooligans of Haines

The Great Hooligan Run

Alaska is known for its runs of salmon, but each year in the spring an equally impressive and ecologically important run of fish ascend the streams of Southeast Alaska and as far north as Norton Sound. The small, silvery fish, provide bountiful food for birds, bears, and people and signify that spring is here. I had the opportunity to observe the abundance of life that greet the Hooligan in the Chilkoot River, just north of Haines, Alaska.

Thousands of gulls, dozens of eagles, and tens of Stellars Sealions gather at the mouth of the Chilkoot River to feed on Hooligan.

The Chilkoot River system where I stood watching schools of Hooligan is surrounded in spectacular scenery. The 70 yard-wide river valley is dotted with large boulders which were deposited there by retreating glaciers.  High mountains that rise along each shore are covered with snow and feed the cold-water system for several months, until mid-summer.  During April and May, its shallow, clear waters, house thousands of shimmering gray shapes. Hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus, also known as “eulachon” or “candle fish”) return by the hundreds of thousands to deposit their eggs.

The Ecology of Hooligan

Hooligan are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their adult life in the ocean, but return to freshwater to breed. The most well-known example of anadromous fish are salmon species, however Hooligan do not necessarily return to the same river like salmon do.  The timing of their spawning run is determined by water temperature and hence shifts later into the year as you move from Southeast Alaska up to the western coast. After breeding, a majority of Hooligan die, but there are some fish that return to the river. Why only some die after spawning is just one of the many things that are not known about this fish. For instance biologists are also unsure what effects the size of the run which has varied highly in recent years. In the Chilkoot River, the run was estimated at 300,000 in 2015 but >1.8 million in 2016. That is quite a difference! After talking to the locals, it sounds like this year’s run in the Chilkoot was strong and echoed the strong run of 2016.

Hooligan Run, Alaska, Haines, Chilkoot
Thousands of Hooligan swim in the shallow waters of the Chilkoot River.

The Effect of Hooligan

You do not really have to see the effect of Hooligan to understand their importance to the ecosystem – closing your eyes and listening will probably tell you the story that needs to be told. Envision the sound of the lapping surf at your feet and the hum of the wind past your ears. Now layer in the raucous sound of thousands of gulls from multiple species raising from the beaches in an excited chorus. Add the grunting, bold, bellow of an adult, bull, sealion. The chir and ki-ki-ki of many bald eagles. The whistle of a goldeneye’s wingbeats. This is the audio picture of the Hooligan run and I was astounded by its magnitude.

Hooligan, Chilkoot, Haines, Alaska
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines. Gulls, Eagles and Stellars Sealions feed on Hooligan at the mouth of the Chilkoot River.

It was obvious from watching the behavior of various animals that they had mastered the art of catching an easy meal and nutritious meal. Hooligan are an important food source because of their high energy value. Dried Hooligan are so oily they were traditionally burned by Tlingits as candles. One of the most impressive behaviors was how Stellar’s Sealions herded the fish against the shore. Working together the sealions breached from the water in a wall to spook the fish upstream. The breaches ocurred in synchronized sequences, with the whole body of the sealion coming out of the waters, followed shortly by another individual. If the maneuver was successful a large school of finned-dinners would be pinned against the shore and a feeding frenzy ensued. Swirling waters and flippers were all that was visible of the fast-moving sealions as they snatched up fish below the water’s surface. The gulls were equally effective at catching Hooligan and dove repeatedly into the water, coming up with a fish frequently. After successful dives, the fish protruded from the gull’s mouth and were consumed on the wing . It’s amazing to think they could swallow them at all! The bodies of the fish were not the only thing being consumed. Countless eggs (they lay up to 30,000 per female!) were strewn across the beach, stranded as the tide went out. I watched a tiny, Least Sandpiper scoop up mouth-fulls of the eggs, providing a high-calorie caviar snack.

Hooligan, Chilkoot River, Haines, Alaska
A Bonaparte’s gull consume a Hooligan on the wing moments after snatching it from the river.

I wish that my time at the Chilkoot River could have been longer. Two evenings observing it just did not seem like enough! What any one-person takes away from an experience can vary vastly. My viewpoint is one a naturalist and scientist looking to sponge knowledge and learn from what I observe. I hope that you, the reader, can see it some day to see what you learn. Alaska is known for its larger-than-life wildlife spectacles, and in my opinion the Hooligan run and the abundance of life it creates is an experience that should be seen, felt, and heard by anyone that appreciates the wild places of earth.

Sources (also used in hyperlinks through the article):

  • http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=eulachon.main
  • http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/fish/searun-fish/page.aspx?id=6448
  • http://www.subsistence.adfg.state.ak.us/techpap/tp213.pdf
  • https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/ProcRpt/PR%202006-12.pdf
  • http://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/04/28/hooligan-make-strong-return-to-chilkoot-and-chilkat/

The Mendenhall Glacier Blues

The Blue Ice Caves

Every color has a pure form that boggles the mind and goes beyond the eyes ability to see and it and the brain’s ability to interpret it. I’m talking about hues of color that make your neurons tingle as they try to absorb its hues. You may think of the dark red of a fine ruby or the electric-green of a buggy-eyed tree frog in a rain forest. These pure colors attract us like flies to honey and are a primary reason that thousands of visitors take the risk of stepping into the Mendenhall Glacier to see its sculpted walls of cerulean blue ice. The ice of the cave walls and ceiling is shaped into waves by the wind and water. Immense pressure from hundreds of feet of ice above compress the ice into perfect clarity giving a view to the conditions within.Glaciers carry the earth in their walls and as they melt create new land. As I stepped into Mendenhall Glacier, the world trapped within was immediately evident. Far into the ice, large boulders and sheets of sediment could be seen within. The rocks were distorted by the curves of the ice face. At the base of the cave’s walls, ice flowed over rocks that were half in and half out of their century-old entrapment. The whole floor of the glacier was made from the boulders that melted from glacier. These boulders, it seems, are released at a rapid rate, as the glacier was much different than my last visit in 2015

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

Change at Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is receding up to 150 feet per year. The rapid rate of change was in full display.  I was astounded to see former site of the ice caves that I visited in 2015 was ice free. In its place, was a valley of rocks and a frozen river. Rock walls extended up to the ice face high above us. Although I cannot be sure how far the ice receded, it may have receded as much as 300 feet. This is not the first time I have seen such change in an Alaskan glacier – I was reminded of the demise of the ices caves of Castner Glacier over the course of a couple years.  Glacial change can happen at a rapid pace! The images below capture the glacier as it is now – I look forward to documenting its inevitable change in the future.

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

Subsisting in Southeast Alaska

The Numerous Benefits of Subsistence

When many people think of Alaska they imagine wild places and providing for themselves while taking on the harshness of the wilderness. This notion is true. In fact, up to 70% of Alaskans report harvesting wildlife and almost 100% of Alaskans report harvesting fish. However, in hundreds of small communities which are deemed as “rural” Alaska for regulatory purposes,  harvesting local food can offset the high cost of store-bought food.  It is simply impossible  for many to live on $15/lb beef, 6$ gallons of milk, and $5 loaves of bread. The Alaska Department of Game Division of Subsistence estimates that nearly 37 million pounds of wild, subsistence food are harvested in rural Alaska. In Hoonah, many of the harvested foods are just as important for cultural reasons as they are sustenance. The rich, Native Alaskan history of Hoonah ensures that regardless of whether you are pursuing shellfish, halibut, deer, crab, salmon, berries, or plants, that there is plenty of advice on how to prepare and store your catch.

Every day I appreciate the wealth of food in my freezer and in jars on my shelves. Five mornings a week I eat the same thing for breakfast – oatmeal with wild blueberries from the freezer. The other two mornings of the week pancakes are likely to be spread with thimbleberry jam or other preserves made from wild berries. For lunch? Well, there’s a good chance that it was a simple fair of halibut with a salad and at the end of a long day of work its venison, not beef, that finds its way onto my plate. These are just a few of the foods that I have grown to enjoy and expect in my first year of living in Hoonah, Alaska. Although I have always enjoyed harvesting wild foods, they have never been more abundant, accessible, or important than here in this small, rural community. I wanted to convey a fraction of what I’ve learned and of the general subistence culture in Hoonah.

Berry Quest

Once the summer warms up it doesn’t take long for the first berries of the year to come into season. Orange and red salmon berries are the first to ripen. These luscious berries are best enjoyed fresh and are found in the sun of the tidelands and open river corridors. They are a staple of the bears on the island which feast on them until the salmon runs begin. While on the subject of bears, it’s impossible not to have them on your mind when out picking. Chichagof Island has the highest density of brown bears in the world and contains no black bears. The best berry patches are those where you have good visibility to see the bears coming, but just in case always make lots of noise and carry protection.  Throughout the season there are upwards of 15 species of wild berries that can be harvested and used. To date I’ve harvested or tried blueberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, strawberries, lingonberries, cloud berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, crow berries, high bush cranberries, black currents, gray currants, nagoonberries, and red currants.

Brown Bear, Southeast, Alaska, Hoonah
Bears are common and need to be taken seriously. In my time in Hoonah I think I can say I’ve seen hundreds now!
Brown Bear, Southeast, Alaska, Hoonah
This large bear was seen during a morning of deer hunting. Bears love deer, so once you harvest one its important to stay alert as you smell pretty good to a bear!
Although not evident in this picture, we found this bear consuming a deer.

A caveat of wild berries is they are never sprayed with pesticides, and hence you have to clean them to separate them from the wriggling chunks of protein that like to live on them and in them. We experimented a lot this year on how to quickly sort and clean blueberries which we found had about a 25% chance of having a small to medium (0 – 4mm) worm inside of them. The best solution was to roll the berries down a towel to remove the leaves and then float them in water. I scooped off the floating berries with the assumption that trapped air inside meant a worm or some defect. The rest of the berries were quickly examined and then frozen. Although that all sounds simple, there was a steep learning curve and lots of trial and error – it’s a necessity to clean them quickly as two people can pick 5 gallons in about an hour in a good patch.

All wild berries can be made into a jam or jelly, but of all the berries picked last summer we found that high bush cranberries and thimbleberries made the best jam. Each are tart, sweet, and full of flavor. When making highbush cranberry jelly, be sure to save the pulp! We found this cranberry catsup recipe from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to be incredible! It is sweet and tangy and excellent of poultry.

Mollusks and Fish

Moving on from the produce aisle, the seafood aisle in Hoonah is an excellent next choice. Dungeness and Tanner crab are abundant all year around and subsistence/pots use is permitted rural Alaskans. If shellfish legs is not your thing, pick up a rake and scrape the beach for six different species of clams. Many people enjoy Butter Clams, and steamers (Pacific Little-Necks), but the real pride-and-joy of Hoonah is the cockle. This bi-valve is abundant and coveted.  Their ruffled shell makes them easy to identify, and once smoked-and-jarred they make incredible fare for the summer months. Unlike some clam species they are not very chewy, and they soak up the smoky flavor of smoldering alder readily.

Each of the 5 species of Alaskan salmon may be caught in Hoonah or its surrounding waters. King salmon are pursued by boat all year in Hoonah, with “winter kings” being one of the most sought after fish for their delicate meat and flavor. Huge runs of pink salmon, chum salmon, and cohos surge up the rivers around Hoonah each year and they can be caught with hook-and-line once in the rivers. In the salt water subsistence fishers often use nets to capture salmon. Sockeye salmon may be caught near Hoonah, although most sockeye fisherman cast their nets at Hoktaheen inlet.  When trolling for salmon you are very likely to catch a halibut. Although these flat fish are most associated with the bottom, schools of fish may feed in the middle of the water column as well. Because of the rural status of Hoonah, many halibut are caught on skates – subsistence longlines of up to 30 hooks allowing users to rapidly fill their freezers.

Deer Hunting

Sitka Blacktail are the only ungulate on Chichagof Island, and are extremely important as a red-meat source. Hunting here is far, far different than the White-tailed Deer hunting that I grew up with in Minnesota. First of all, trophy hunting is all but non-existent in Hoonah. Although many hunters target bucks so as not to be too detrimental to the deer population, the subsistence lifestyle here is all about filling the freezer and any-buck or nice deer will do. Hoonah enjoys some extra benefit as a rural community including up to six deer per person and a one-month extended season which ends in January. Many hunters proxy hunt for elders in the community and much of the venison that is shot is shared around quickly. I saw this first hand this year as although I shot 3 deer, I ended up giving away about half of what I shot, but received that same half back from others who were willing to share.

Deer Hunting, Alaska, Subsistence
A subsistence deer! This young blacktail is no trophy but was a great addition to the freezer during a late-season hunt.

The last aspect of the Hoonah subsistence lifestyle that I’d like to leave you with is the idea maximizing effort. For example, a day out in berry picking isn’t just a trip for berries. We often cut and gather firewood or fish for salmon at the same time. When taking a skiff out to go ‘beach combing’ for winter Sitka Blacktail, that same trip will involve checking a crab pot, trolling for salmon and perhaps jigging for a halibut. If you find a couple of deer on the beach and can harvest one all the better! Stretching a dollar by capitalizing on multiple opportunities at once, and then taking the time to properly prepare your harvest and store it for the winter is rewarding, healthy, and can save your some money to boot. Happy Harvesting!

Top Shots 2016

Another year come and gone! This year has been nothing short of life-changing. I graduated with my masters in Wildlife from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, moved from the Interior to the incredible Southeast Alaska, married the love of my life, and have a job I love! Life is great, and life has left me less time to blog recently (lack of time compounded by no internet at my house). However, that doesn’t mean that my camera has been sitting picking up dust in the corner. On the contrary I’ve been out photographing the wild beauty of Hoonah and Alaska all year. Some of these images from 2016 have made their way onto Facebook. You can “like ” my page for daily photo updates at www.facebook.com/ianlww. For other images this is the first time they’ve been shown off! Previous year-end recaps have been in different formats such as dividing by month in 2014 and dividing by topic in 2015. This year I’m just going to scrap the text and the give you the top shots 2016 from around Alaska. I hope you enjoy!

Halibut for the Funibut

In Hoonah, Alaska there is plentiful food, but in most cases you have to take the initiative and have the knowledge (or maybe the luck) to harvest it.  From the ocean dozens of species of fish, plants, mollusks and crustaceans can feed you cooked fresh on the grill in the summer or through the winter months. During my time here I’ve set on a quest to learn and experience as much as I can in harvesting resources from the land and sea. The following story is a fish story, but a true one, that is jubilant and has me yearning to go back halibut fishing soon.

The boat floated off the trailer and sat in stark contrast to the dreary conditions. The gray skies and misty rain were reflected in the ocean’s surface which flowed rapidly with the incoming tide. I pulled over the small 9.9 horse engine of our 14′ boat and with little pause we puttered from the harbor, through the no-wake zone, and accelerated into Port Frederick. We traveled east past the long line of docks, around cannery point, and knew immediately that we would go no further. A strong east wind and a large fetch were blowing up waves too risky in our small craft. Turning around meant abandoning our familiar fishing grounds on the west side, and we made the decision to try a new reef in the Eastport.

The wind blew parallel to a large, outcrop of boulders that was still 4 feet underwater. At low tide the rocks would jut out of the water, but until then they sat lurking below the water waiting for an errant propeller. My jig and weight dropped down 40 feet to the bottom and bobbed alongside Chris’ whose was already there. Ten minutes later my rod tip bent far into the water and I knew exactly what I had – bottom! However, simultaneously Chris said “I think I have a fish”, and as if on cue drag screamed from his spin cast reel under the boat. The fight was on…

Before continuing this story it’s important to closely inspect the situation. Here are a series of facts. Fact A) I am still stuck on the bottom. Fact B) the wind is pushing us rapidy. Fact C) It is evident Chris has a fish large enough that we should be thinking about weight distribution in our tiny boat, is using a stiff spinning rod and 30lb test and did not have his drag set properly. Fact D) We have no way to kill a large halibut (in other words, a gun).   It’s very hard to convey how all of those things made the situation very, very stressful!

Halibut Fishing
Chris holds on as a large halibut takes a run.

…the fight was on. After 10 minutes into the fight I was eyeing my rod nervously. The wind had blown us far enough away from where Chris started to fight the beast, that my still-snagged rod was nearly out of line. In an effort to ensure that Chris’s fish would not be lost, my panicked mind could think of only one thing : I was going to have to break the line. Fortunately, after a little consternation, I realized that could slowly back-up and let Chris continue to fight the fish. 15 minutes into the fight my line was free and we were on equal grounds with the yet unseen halibut.  On Chris’ light gear the fight lasted a long, long time. Coach Ian yelled out many (extremely useful) tips to battle the monster. As the fight continued, Chris settled into the habit of reeling down, pumping up, gaining some line, and then losing it all as the fish made another incessant run for the bottom of the ocean.

20 minutes into the fight we realized that we were going to be in bad shape when this fish came to the surface. Large halibut are known to injure people and severely damage boats and gear if brought over the gunnel alive. We had to have a plan to subdue it. I looped a rope and set a gameplan to get its around the fish’s tail like I was the cowboy at some water-rodeo. I also tied a stout knife to a rope and tied it to the boat. As the adage goes : I had brought a knife to a gunfight and planned to solve our dilemma of a large and angry halibut by delivering the killing blow like a matador in a bull ring. It was a terrible plan, but the only one we had.

30 minutes into the fight a shimmer of hope appeared as a red-flash of bounding metal on the water. A streaking, red, Lund boat captained by a friend of mine was heading to the sea to check shrimp pots. I waved them closer and was ecstatic to find they were carrying exactly what we needed – a gun.  33 minutes into the fight the halibut was brought to the surface and at 35 minutes it was dispatched with a resounding crack – I plugged my ears.  As it was drug on board I let out a resounding “OWOWOWOWOW!!”, did a little irish jig in the bottom of the boat, and slapped hands with Chris in excitement. I couldn’t believe our luck and the adrenaline that coursed through my veins made the situation all the more exhilarating!

It is amazing to consider that fish like this one are pretty common in Hoonah and Southeast Alaska. However, since it was my first time seeing and harvesting such a huge fish, I was shocked by how much meat came off a single animal. A rule of thumb is that halibut are 60% salvageable meaning that from this 100lb fish we took 60 pounds. Harvesting a fish like this is not done for sport, and in the way of the community of Hoonah  we gave away some of the slabs of halibut to friends. The 60 pounds of meat yielded from this fish will be used to feed me and many others in the coming weeks and months.

 

 

A Stroll Through the Kelp Forest

The fresh morning air and sea breeze were refreshing to my senses. As I walked along the beach of Hoonah, Alaska the smell of the spray made my taste-buds tingle and buzz;  the ocean air is tantalizingly tasty. The smell of the ocean was particularly strong on this morning because as the tide poured out of Port Frederick it was leaving shallow kelp forests high and dry on the rocky beach. Newly exposed vegetation was increasing the olfactory pleasure.  Stranded kelp on the beach is not a daily occurrence, but the large size of this tide exposed a world in the kelp forests that would normally only be accessible by diving into the frigid water.  From high tide to low this tide would raise and lower the waters in Port Frederick by over 22 feet!

Sunflower Seastars

I was amazed by the abundance and diversity of sea creatures that I had never seen up close before. The first was an enormous, fire-red and purple sunflower sea star. Stretching about 30 inches across, it is actually a top predator of the sea floor. It was evident to see how fast they are as it slid across the rocks by using its long and plentiful tentacles to propel itself. On the bottom they prey on nearly anything that they can get like abalone, starfish, cucumbers and others. The vibrancy of their colors was really amazing. Some were purple and red, some just purple, and some just red. I am not sure if these are different species or not. The video below shows off a bit of the sunflower seastar and the next creature to be found, the Sea Cucumber.

Sea Cucumbers

There are many examples of bizarre creatures in a kelp forest, but the sea cumber is certainly a good example! These creatures, although ugly and dangerous looking, are actually detritivores. They feed on the bottom sucking up soil and convert them into nutrients that are used further up the marine food web. They were too interesting looking to not at least poke one with a finger. When I did I was very surprised to find that they did not have a hard shell, but instead were gelatinous and rippled like a water-balloon dropped on the pavement. As I looked around I found many of the sea cucumbers had molded into the cracks of the rocks at the tideline – once they are out of the water there is not enough support in their body to maintain its shape. In Alaska, this species, the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), are commerically harvested. They are marketed locally and in Asia.

The Humpback Whale

As summer warms up the waters of Port Frederick, large blooms of phytoplankton feed the base of a food chain that ultimately brings many whales into the sound. As I stood on the edge of the kelp forest at low tide deep water stretched out in front of me. A humpback whale surfaced a mile out, and then a half mile out. It seemed to be headed my way. I grabbed my camera with my 200-500 telephoto lens waiting for it to get closer and surface again. I saw shocked to see the water boil in front of me much, much closer than I could have ever imagined. With a WOOSH! the spout of a fully grown humpback broke the surface in front of me just 20 yards away! With my adrenaline rushing through my veins I captured what I could of the huge animal. It is amazing to consider that even if the water was 50 feet in that location that he could have spanned it from the bottom to the surface!

This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!

My morning along the edge of Port Frederick was wonderful because it was everything I saw was new and foreign. It is truly magnificent to consider what is out there to just be experienced. The information I learned on my stroll through the kelp forest gave me an even further appreciation of this beautiful region of Southeast, Alaska.

First Impressions of Hoonah, Alaska

Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.

Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface.  Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter.  All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!

Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!

O’er Hill and Dale to Haines

Dearest Reader,

What I am about to recount is greater in grandeur than I ever suspected when I packed up everything I owned into one vehicle and left Fairbanks, Alaska to move to Hoonah. I found the road from Fairbanks to Haines was filled with wildlife, mountains, signs of spring, joy-inducing beauty, and adventure if I sought it. Herein lies the account of my travels.

Of the Aurora Borealis, I cannot speak more highly of its beauty and grace. From my perch above Castner Glacier, just south of Delta Junction, Alaska, I watched the blues and gold of the sunset fade away. Clear skies danced with twinkling stars, and a brilliant full moon hung in the sky; it was nearly to bright to look at. From my ridge post, I looked far up the valley to the illuminated peaks of the Alaska Range. Directly in front of me, the looming face of the glacier was hidden in the shadow of the valley. Its ice was banded with layers of sediment and polished clean by the winds which occasionally blow violently down the valley. Fortunately, on this night there was not even a breath of wind. Eventually the aurora built to such proportions that it arched over the full glacier. It danced in pinks in green that must have released many positive endorphins inside of me, for I felt very calm and at peace.

Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory is an enchanting valley of ice. The morning after I arrived, I stood on the ice in the pre-dawn to watch the sunrise. Surrounded by high mountains on each side, the sun takes a long time to break the plane of the mountains. Slowly the mountains to the west were lit in an ethereal orange light until the sun broke the ragged edges of the mountains to the east.  At that point the light turned white and the day had begun. At the southern extremes of Kluane Lake I found many big-horn sheep. Although none of them had the large, signature curls of a mature ram, it was fun to watch the kids and ewes feed along the mountainside. A wildlife bonus was watching the crossing of two coyotes across the center of the lake. They were dwarfed by the magnitude of the mountains.

Along Kluane National Park I surprised to see the first signs of spring in the Taiga. Willows were opening their fuzzy buds, and even small rivers were beginning to open and trickle through the snow.  I met the most enchanting little bird along the waters of a fast moving river. An American Dipper was feeding for fish from along a small ice flow. It dipped and bobbed its butt in the signature dance move of the small bird.

From the river bottoms of Kluane National Park I climbed into the enchanting winter-wonderland of Haines Pass, at about 3,500 feet. Up there, tyrannical winter was still in full control with only a few inklings that spring had a foothold. Much like the high arctic,most large trees were relegated to river bottoms out of the wind. Although prime habitat for the all-white Willow Ptarmigan, I saw only a few. Snow accumulation, to my best estimate, was around 6 or 7 feet in the pass. I was fortunate the road was cleared and the day so beautiful! The mountains landscape was truly more than I expected, and I say without pause that its beauty was intoxicating!

I descended to Haines, Alaska where it was evident that Spring was fortifying itself for a full on attack on Winter in the highlands. In Haines, the rivers flowed with vigor, and the mountains accented them by reflecting vigorously from the shimmering surface. I found that Haines in the night was  perhaps even more beautiful than in the daytime. Jutting mountains stuck up from behind the city and lit by a full moon it was truly a sight to behold. Seeing as this was the first time I have seen Haines, this will likely be how I always remember it!

Well, dearest Reader, I hope you have enjoyed the account of my trip from Fairbanks to Haines. I do hope you have the opportunity to partake in it someday and extend upon the numerous opportunities of which I have only scratched the surface. The images below may also help tell the story as they are set chronologically from my departure to my arrival.

Sincerely,

A New Southeasterner