Zion National Park is an oasis in the desert. It is a hot and green paradise carved and nourished by the Virgin River which has etched tirelessly through countless layers of rock and minerals to form its massive canyons. Whether you are enchanted by its beauty, blown over by its grandeur, enticed by its challenges, or drawn to its dark skies you will find its amazing landscape and history will quickly win you over.
The sandstone structures of Zion Canyon are always beautiful, but never more so than during sunrise and sunset. During the low-sun the burnt orange canyons light up like embers. One highlights of the trip was ascending Angle Rocks. We were fortunate to start at sunrise, and it was fascinating to watch the changing shadows and morphing colors created by the rising sun.
While in Zion we visited history and made some history too! The ghost town of Grafton was a stark reminder of how difficult life was for settlers traveling west. Disease, conflicts with Native Americans, and stochastic events like floods and storms killed many. The interpretive sign in Grafton highlighted that two young girls were killed by a falling swing. There were a lot of ways to die in the west!
The Johnson Family converged and left a bit of its soul in the history of Zion. Our three families converged from Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana.
Be wary when viewing wildflowers in Zion – most of them are armed! It was wonderful being in the Park at time when cacti were blooming. Each of the colors was the most vibrant forms of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples. They were spectacular to see! Early June was an excellent time to see a lot of species of wildflowers. Each of the photos below shows them off in their context.
The Stars in Zion National Park are : stunning, brilliant, dazzling. As an avid night photographer I was giddy to get out shooting! I was fortunate to have clear conditions and a new-moon to create inky darkness. An added benefit was the comfort of the night – far different than the 92 degree days! Night photography is a relaxing pass time. Long exposures of 20 seconds or more gave me ample time to appreciate the beauty of the star-lit landscape with my eyes and ears, not just through my viewfinder.
I do not think wildlife viewing and birding are primary reasons visitors go to Zion, however, there is ample opportunity for each. My wife and I are avid birders and we were thrilled to add well over a dozen species to our life list and observe dozens of more species. That was very exciting for us, but I won’t bore you non-birders with the details here :). However, one bird of note that you should care about is the California Condor. These magnificent and enormous raptors were once nearly extinct with a population of only 22 animals. Thanks to conservation efforts they have slowly made a comeback. A recent success story was the birth of a wild chick just this year! We were floored to see these raptors up close on two occasions!
As with so many of the places we visit a single week doesn’t seem like enough time! This trip to Zion was a gateway drug to future visits. I look forward to learning more about desert wildlife, the history and lessons of Native Americans in the land, and to experience its beauty. I hope you have a chance to do the same!
Some days are destined to be better than others and due to the probability of the seasons it has a 25% chance of being a day in autumn. There is something magical to the season wrapped into the death, color, and distinct smells it manifests each year. Fall mornings immerse all of your senses: the bite on your nose of frost in the morning, musk of decaying leaves, the sound or crunching leaves, and brilliant colors of foliage make the season like none other.
The magic and of the day started as soon as my eyes opened. I stepped from my bedroom to watch a subtle and beautiful sunrise over Neka Mountain and Port Frederick. As I sipped my coffee and watched from the window the warm colors of low sunlight started from the peak of Neka Mountain and progressed to its base. I smiled and thought through the possibilities of the day. The plan for the day was simple : go fishing and bring a camera.
Down in the River
Eight miles out of town Spasski River held the promise of fish and bears. I strolled through a muskeg full of color. 4-leaved, 4-inch tall, Bunchberry Dogwoods had transformed into red fireworks with colors nearing a poinsettia and lingering frost framed the sharp edges of sedges and grass. I crossed out of the muskeg and descended the banks of the river passing giant sentinels of Hemlocks and Spruces. Once in the river the circular ripples in the surface of the water over my fishing hole gave hint to the presence of Cohos below. Peering in I counted fourty 40 or more fish and noted some of them had turned the dark red of the season.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flinging my pink fly into the school of Cohos a pair of bears showed up on the river bank. I watched as the sow and cub came closer and stepped into the open so they could see me. The cub trailed closely behind the mother and after a couple of my woops acknowledging I was there they passed into the tall grass of the river bank.
When brown fur came into view again I had the privilege of gaining some insight into bear behavior. The cub emerged alone in the tall grass and it was evident it was very nervous. It stood on its rear feet to sniff the air and then sprinted forward in the long grass while looking back over its shoulder as though being chased by shadows. The young bear stood three more times to look and smell for its mother, but she was not to be found. Mother bears have a reputation of being helicopter parents to protect their cubs from aggressive males trying to kill them. It was evident the cub appreciated the protection of the mother and was nervous to be out of her shadow. When I left the cub and sow had not been reunited, but I was sure the sow had not left the cub as isolated as it thought.
With the bears on my brain I decided it was best to stop fishing. I needed to be alert and was not keen on carrying Cohos out knowing the bears may interested in them too. I turned my attention to the scene in front of me. Yellow Salmon Berries reflected off the surface of the river. My eye was led down the scene to the flat top of ear mountain presided over the river. It was a special place to be and I was there to enjoy it alone.
The American Marten
Leaving the bears I encountered the next fiercest mammal of the forests of Chichagof Island : the American Marten. I found it in the compromising position of scavenging trash, and snuck closer whenever it dropped into the green garbage can in front of me. I was about 30 feet away when it spotted me and the necessity for me to move closer was negated by the curious creature. Before long it approached me to within 10 feet and was perhaps trying to decide if I was edible. I stood stock still and it curiously twisted its head back and forth to size me up and stared my camera each time it clicked. The Marten, not totally trusting the large bi-pedal in front of it, dashed into the grass several times as though testing to see if I would pursue. Each time it poked its head up from the grass by standing on its rear feet. Finally bored or perhaps hungry it left the grinning human for good.
Muskegs on Fire
Throughout the day I had stopped several times to stare at and admire the incredible reds and oranges of the muskegs. Red leaves of Wild Blueberry plants transformed the floor the muskeg into fire. The read were accented by the evergreen trees sprouting from the muskeg and by the crystal clear blue skies. However, in one place the red colors were especially vibrant, rivalling the reds of the Maple trees that I grew up with in the Midwest. The beauty of that place held me there for a long time as I photographed it and felt privileged to be there.
Transition in Suntaheen
From the fiery muskeg I descended to the quenching silence of the Suntaheen River valley. Along the river I found autumn to be in full progress. Red Alders sheltered the slow flowing river with amber leaves. The fallen leaves of those trees covered the rocky river bank like the yellow brick road. Beams of sunlight backlit trickled through the canopy and individually lit some of the fallen leaves. Groves of Devils Club along the river’s bank were turning a vibrant yellow and sunlight poked through their decaying leaves.
In the river I was reminded by of the salmon that had choked its waters only a month before. Scattered ribs, spines, and salmon jaws lay where the carcass had been eaten by a bear or had simply died. The bones were devoid of flesh and provided evidence the fish’s energy had already been absorbed by its sourrounding environment. Its nitrogen and energy mingled with the decaying leaves of the trees above cycling to ultimately feed to tiny fish emerging from the eggs buried in the gravel. Some days are just better than others. On this beautiful day I felt blessed to watch nature, learn something new, enjoy the transition of seasons, and observe the cycle of seasons.
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.
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.
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?
Bobbin’ Around Under Water
Below the inter-tidal we found this bright orange sponge. This sponge was accessible because of the low tide.
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!
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.
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.
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!!!!
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!
It is always a big deal when family comes to visit. For me, being a “big deal” is a positive thing! My wife and I are fortunate to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty with something to see or do around every corner. I always strive to show off my little corner of the world in Hoonah, Alaska and decided that my parents, uncle, and two cousins needed to see Glacier Bay National Park and the local whales around Hoonah during their visit. It’s nice when all the right things come together to bring “the full package”! We enjoyed incredible weather and wildlife sightings over 2.5 days.
Glacier Bay Tribal House
Over the last 2 years I have had the incredible experience to be at the dedication of the tribal house and to take part in the raising of two totems at the tribal house. Those two events were so very important to the Huna Tlingit, but they also gave me a tremendous connection to Bartlett Cove and the land where the Huna Shuka Hit resides. When I visit the tribal house I remember the stories of the people, the emotions of the day, and the power of the place. Stepping into the tribal house to observe the house poles, place my hand on the intricate carving of the screens, and smell the sweet aroma of cedar give me a sense of peace. I enjoyed sharing my stories of the raising and dedication with family as we toured around that special place.
Into the Park
Glacier Bay National Park is almost completely inaccessible unless you have a boat. Its long fjords and glacially-carved mountains extend nearly 90 miles from the entrance of the park at Bartlett Cove. The “Day Boat” of Glacier Bay provides access to visitors all the way to the end of the bitter end of the west arm where Margerie Glacier butts against the ocean and the Grand Pacific Glacier (responsible for carving the fjord of the park) recedes into the distance further than the eye can see. 250 years ago the Grand Pacific Glacier was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit out of Glacier Bay National Park when it advanced over 75 miles in only only a few decades. Traditional stories say that at times the glacier moved as fast as a running dog! Science has backed those claims, and it is truly amazing to think what that wall of ice must have looked like!
Glacier Bay National Park protected area full of marine and terrestrial wildlife. During our tour we had incredible view of breaching Humpback Whales, families of grizzlies, harems of sealions, rafts of otters, flocks of puffins, and families of goats. Each of these sightings added to the richness of the day and the overpowering feeling that we were in a very special place!
The face of Margerie glacier stands over 200 feet high and is a mile wide. It “calves” ice into the water creating a maze of jumbled ice.
The Whale Tail to End the Tale
We got a pickup in Gustavus from our good friend Capt. Billy Mills of Wooshketaan Tours. He took us across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus which is renowned for its whale watching. The rich waters are fed by the currents coming in from the ocean and from Glacier Bay and create abundant fish populations that bring in apex predators such as whales and sea lions.
As we sped along the 20 miles from Point Adolphus to Hoonah I admired the mountains, the tall groves of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, and the abundant Sea Otters and Whales. The trip went quickly, and as we approached Flynn cove about 8 miles from Hoonah a gigantic splash ahead of us flung water high in the air. The Humpback Whale that caused it obliged us by breaching 5 times in total! It was the closest I had ever been to a breaching humpback and it was a thrill to share my giddiness with all on board!
With the memory of the breaching still fresh in our memory we turned into Port Frederick and after a brief stop ashore made our way up bay . The spouts of water ahead quickly gave the location of what we were looking for – a large pod of Humpback Whales were bubble net feeding in front of us! In the smooth waters we watched the circle of bubbles form on the surface from the whales below and the mouths of 40-foot humbpacks rise agape through the surface. We were the only boat on the water and got to enjoy the show in the lingering sunset and surrounded by family. I (we) were incredibly blessed to be in that incredible place together.
A few months back I was walking the shores of Hoonah, Alaska with my wife when we saw a furry brown streak shoot out of the rocks along the ocean. With smiles of pleasure we watched as the mink dove under a thick bed of green, leafy, rock weed that covered the rocks exposed by the low-tide and erupted from it a few feet from where its nose had entered. Like a swimmer diving through water it dove and emerged again and then it changed tactics. Like a cat playing with its paws inside of an empty brown bag it shuffled and flipped the weeds looking for any wriggling food underneath. I knew that the weeds hide small fish, crabs, and sea-cucumbers and any of those would have been a feast for this small mammal.
In its focused pursuit of food, the Mink payed me little regard as I moved closer. Soon I was within 10 feet of this active animal. I followed it along the shore for 50 yards enjoying and watching its behaviors. I had not considered how many holes were in the rocks until the Mink poked its head into nearly every one of them systematically! The Mink disappeared into a rock outcropping thick with rock weed and emerged with a sculpin as its prize. Although sculpin have heavy spines in their head, the mink crunched through the whole carcasses and even the bony head before heading to another rock outcropping to find some more.
The Mink disappeared under a large bolder laced in blue mussels. I made my move and walked across the beach and stepped on top of the bolder. When the Mink reemerged it looked up and me and ducked back into the rocks. Obviously unsure if it was safe to come out but too curious to care it soon reappeared, took a glance at me, and then started to forage in the rocks under my feet. I was only 7 feet away from the lithe body as it scurried and poked and made me smile.
I’ve thought quite a bit about that Mink in the mussels since then because the opportunity was, well, opportune and I took the chance to watch and learn. In a world where everything is the next biggest priority this Mink was a reminder to stop and smell the roses. My advice to you is when you have a chance to sit, watch, and learn, take it. Whatever comes next can wait a bit.
A mink comes out of the rocks after scouting around for food. I watched this cute little bugger dive around in the rocks for almost 40 minutes.
Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow? When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.
Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes. Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska). For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.
Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)
Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities, individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.
The Process of Dyeing With Fungi
Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber. Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!
When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors. If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.
In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens. You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!
Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!
We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors. We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.
All of these colors and more can be produced by mushrooms and lichens. Colors vary on species and treatment of the fungi while boiling.
Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!
Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun. We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.
I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”. It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.
The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.
“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl
Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.
Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.
There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet. They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.
North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.
Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth. In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.
The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.
Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region. Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.
In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.
Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:
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.
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.
Dead Hooligan lie on the beaches of the Chilkoot River.
The silvery bodies of Hooligan provide a contrast to the gravel of the Chilkoot River.
Most of the Hooligan that I saw in the Chilkoot river were between 8 – 10 inches long.
These dead Hooligan will break down an provide nutrients to the river and coastal region.
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.
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.
A Juvenille Bald eagle scouts for Hooligan below.
Thousands of gulls congregate at the Chilkoot River.
A massive lift-off of gulls from the beachs cloud out the mountain scenery near Haines.
A Bald Eagle scavenges in the tide line.
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines.
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines.
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines.
A breaching sealion works to herd Hooligan against the shoreline.
A Least Sandpiper feeds on Hooligan eggs in the tideline
A Least Sandpiper feeds on Hooligan eggs in the tideline
A pack of sealions roam the waters to herd Hooligan.
A bellowing sealion lets the world know he’s boss.
A Least Sandpiper amount the mountain scenery of the Chilkoot River.
A Least Sandpiper ruffles its feathers.
A sealion breaches to herd Hooligan against the shore.
A successful Mew Gull swallows its meal of Hooligan.
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):
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.
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.
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.
Rolling blueberries down a towel ramp to clean them.
Abudant blueberries for subsistence in Southeast Alaska!
Berry claw make the picking fast and easy!
A mix of blueberries and red huckleberries.
A mix of blueberries and red huckleberries.
Wild blueberries after a rain.
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.
Turning cranberries into Jelly.
Finalizing some thimbleberry jelly.
Black currants dangle from a heavily loaded bush.
Chicken of the woods provides a welcome change from berries!
In the thimbleberry patch and keeping an eye out for bears :).
Fried chicken of the wood.
Diced chicken of the wood.
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.
Smoked and jarred cockles.
Getting ready to smoke some cockles.
A smoker full of cockles – yum yum!
A successful night of digging cockles! We dug these 15 gallons in about 30 minutes with 2 people!
A bowl of fresh dungeness crab.
A successful day of crab pots!
Setting a dungeness crab pot.
Steaming some dungeness crab.
A pot full of dungeness crab.
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.
A large halibut jigged near Hoonah, Alaska.
Fresh coho salmon caught before it went up river.
These pink salmon were caught on the fly from the ocean as they staged to make a run up river.
Although not subsistence, this beautiful cuthroat trout is one of many that I’ve wrangled on the fly rod.
A beautiful dolly varden became a pan-fried dinner later that day :).
Cleaning a catch of Pink Salmon.
Pink salmon caught during the run in Hoonah.
A large halibut caught near Hoonah.
A rack of smoked salmon waiting to go into jars.
A smoker full of color, red salmon just before smoking.
A smoker full of color, red salmon just before smoking.
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.
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!