Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Inadvertent Booze Cruise

A story from last summer - the very worst trip of the 2010 season at the Iceberg Lodge.

Halfway through last summer season, I was convinced that the Iceberg Lodge epitome of dangerously reckless guest behavior was going to be something involving a bear. In fact, no bears were involved in the incident in question; instead I had to contend with the alcohol-fueled judgments of one of the oddest clients I have ever had the misfortune to be in charge of. We’ll call him Bob.

Bob had already made something of an impression on lodge staff because of his habit of wearing bright orange earbud headphones all over camp. So when Bob showed up for my full-day kayaking tour, I debated whether I should ask him to leave his iPod behind. I eventually decided against saying anything, as I didn’t want to start the tour out on a bad note, and I figured that as long as Bob’s kayak buddy (Harry) could hear what I was saying, I could keep them reasonably in line.

I was the only guide for the tour that day, going out with six guests in three double kayaks - Bob, Harry and two older couples. The trip up to the glacier went fairly smoothly, the group stayed together, the visibility was good, and the forecasted 35-knot north wind was conspicuously absent. After two hours of paddling, we got to the Aialik moraine (the spit of land jutting out in front of the glacier), which was to be our lunch spot.

When assisting clients in landing their kayaks, I generally put my boat ashore first, and then help the guests land one boat at a time - which helps prevent clients from tipping their own boats over when they stand up. This has the unfortunate drawback of leaving me on shore while my guests are still in the water. Occasionally a client will get bored enough waiting for their turn to land that they will be tempted to do something ill-advised - so I usually land the most troublesome clients first. I had never (prior to this tour) had a client that had already landed do something that might get them into trouble; usually all it takes is one reminder about bears, and they don’t wander off. In fact, clients on the moraine are very predictable in their behavior once they are out of their boats. The women in the group begin unpacking their lunch bags and their cameras; the men walk off to a respectable distance and take a pee.

Bob and Harry’s boat was the first to land, and as usual, as soon as their boat was out of the water, they started wandering down the beach. I figured I knew what they were doing, so I wasn’t concerned until after unloading the third and final guest kayak, I looked over my shoulder and realized that although Harry had come back, Bob was still wandering away. He was by this point at least 75 yards down the beach from where we had landed the boats. I hollered at him, but he was either too far away to hear me, or he had turned his iPod back on.

I needed to go after the guy, but I was reluctant to leave the other five, obedient clients by themselves.  I decided to gather up the remaining guests as quickly as possible and go after the stray as a group, to keep the tour from becoming more fragmented than it already was. Unfortunately, getting five novice kayakers unpacked and ready to walk is not an instantaneous process; by the time we actually started after Bob, I estimate he had a ten-minute head start.

Soon he was completely out of sight; at no point had he turned around to even check on where the rest of the group was, or what we were doing. Fortunately, Bob was walking along a fairly open portion of the moraine - if he’d decided to take the direct route to the glacier by crashing through the alders, I would never have been able to figure out which direction he’d gone. I did not catch sight of my lost client for another ten minutes, when I left the five obedient guests on a small bluff to unpack their lunches, and descended to the lower part of the moraine to collar my wayward client.

One reason that tourists to Alaska are willing to subject themselves to six hours in a kayak to see a tidewater glacier, is that when glaciers calve, it is damned impressive. It is especially impressive when you can view such calving from a little spit of land that juts out in front of the glacier. And if the calving is especially impressive, after the ice hits the water, you can watch the giant tidal waves crashing into that little spit of land that juts out in front of the glacier. It's kind of like an ice tsunami. Needless to say, all of the lodge guides are very careful about where on the moraine we take guests.

By the time I finally caught up with Bob, he had gone all the way to the very tip of the moraine - drawn by some unfailing instinct to the dodgiest area he could possibly have wandered into. As I got closer, I could see that in addition to the orange ear buds, he was also holding a flask with a suspiciously amber-colored liquid. The flask was closed when I got out there, so I wasn’t able to get a whiff.   I figured that I shouldn’t  give him grief about drinking liquor in a completely inappropriate setting unless I had more definitive proof that that really was what was in the flask - but I did chew him out about completely ditching the tour.

I hauled an unrepentant Bob back to the rest of the group, explained to everyone why we do not go down to certain areas of the moraine, and then sat back to eat my sandwich. I figured that if I could manage to not talk to Bob for the rest of the tour, I could get through the day without murdering him.

Bob began passing the flask around to the other clients. At this point, I was terrified to say very much about it, as I had just had one acrimonious encounter with the guy, and I didn’t want to do anything that would provoke him into becoming hostile or belligerent. Fortunately, neither of the women took any of the whisky, nor did Bob’s friend, so I could count on having at least one sober client per boat.

It had not escaped the notice of the other five clients that I was quietly furious with Bob, and that I had been legitimately worried about him when he’d wandered out of sight. So when he returned to the lunch spot and pulled out the booze, the other guests on the tour very quietly... turned on him.

It takes a lot of unwarranted abuse before tourists will turn on one of their own, but I have had the privilege of witnessing such incidents a handful of times. Consider a customer-service counter at an airport; now imagine how irate a customer would have to get before the other passengers in line would rally themselves in support of the ticketing agent. You now have a general idea of what these scenes usually look like.

For the next hour, the five other clients gleefully pointed out to Bob the calving events that would have necessitated him running for his life, had he still been standing at the edge of the moraine. And in fact, there was a huge amount of calving that day - which I completely failed to appreciate myself because I was too busy coming up with contingency plans in case Bob became too intoxicated to safely paddle his own boat. Not an idle speculation - the forecasted 35-knot wind finally made its appearance while we were having lunch, and was whipping up a fairly boisterous following sea. During the walk back to the boats, neither Bob nor his drinking buddies seemed to be in any way impaired, although Bob’s paddling buddy, without any suggestion from me, insisted on taking over the rudder. Which was probably a good call - I wouldn't have wanted Bob steering my boat, either. And to make matters worse, one of the kayak’s neoprene hatch covers had blown off - in my hurry to rally the group together and charge after my wayward client, I had neglected to make sure that all of our gear was properly tied down.

With the swell at our backs, we made extremely good time getting back to the beach, where I roundly turned down Bob’s apologetic offer to help me stow the kayaks. By that point, I couldn’t wait to get him out of my sight so that I could vent about the tour to my boss.

I think Harry must have further chewed out his friend at some point that afternoon, as I was the recipient of a heartfelt, and very tipsy, apology later that evening. Both Bob and Harry went out with me the next day on a different tour (I was not pleased with my boss for assigning me to guide them two days in a row) and they surprised the socks off of me by being extremely well behaved the entire time. I came away with the general impression that the guy wasn’t deliberately troublesome; he was just really, really oblivious to things.

The pattern with most of my guiding jobs has been that the worst tour for any given season usually happens right at the end. In Ireland, this happened when the seabird colony I worked at suffered a breeding failure, so by the end of our season the only birds left to show tourists were dead kittiwake chicks. At the aquarium I work for, the last behind-the-scenes tour I gave as an intern nearly ended in disaster when two rambunctious twelve-year-olds tried to tip over a large tank of research fish. So I’m not surprised in the least that my last trip to Aialik Glacier turned into a inadvertent booze cruise. And just as a recommendation, if you too would like to experience both the thrills of seeing a tidewater glacier calve, and the effects of moderate alcohol consumption, I would recommend doing so on a boat that someone else is driving.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Aluminum Blankets and Tiny Tsunamis

           I now have a new category of winter visitors to Alaska – tourists who were supposed to be going to Japan.   On Monday, we had a coach of 40 high-school students from Toronto, Canada, who had gotten stranded in Anchorage on Friday while en route to Tokyo.   Instead of turning around and going home, they apparently just decided to make the best of a bad situation, and stay in Alaska for a week.   The kids appeared to have packed for a slightly warmer climate; everyone was huddled in gift-shop Alaska sweatshirts that all look like they were bought at the Anchorage airport.   (In fact, so many of them were wearing gift shop shirts that I wonder if perhaps their luggage was sent on without them.   I hope not, but I didn't ask.)   Premier Alaska Tours is shuttling the group around; one tiny bit of good news about their trip is that in March, there is plenty of space for last-minute bookings anywhere in the state. The kids certainly improved our headcount for a Monday; I'm just sorry that it took a horrific natural disaster to get a group to visit on a weekday in March.

            There is perhaps one encouraging thing to come out of the Japanese nuclear disaster: it is now very, very obvious that nuclear power is not just an issue for the individual nations that choose to employ it – everyone has a stake in nuclear power, because everyone is affected if something goes wrong.   We need to address this issue as a global community – and maybe, just maybe, if we act like a global community to deal with one global issue, perhaps we can act as a global community to deal with others.   You know – war, hunger, climate change, and all those other issues that are guaranteed to make me want to crawl under a blanket if I think about them for too long…
            Another thought: the fact that small amounts of radiation have been released into the environment over in Japan has triggered a certain amount of concern about health risks for humans living here in the USA.   The radiation arriving here is minuscule, poses absolutely no known health risks and coming from very, very, very far away.   People in California are still buying iodine.   So my question is this: have we gotten to the point where a government (our own, for example) would be politically unable to use an atomic weapon, because their citizens would be too concerned about their own welfare to tolerate such an act?   Somehow, I find that an optimistic notion, even though the scientific illiteracy inherent in the assumption is still depressing.   Now, where's that blanket?   Maybe I should line it with aluminium, just in case the wind starts blowing in from the west...

              If anyone is curious, we did get some small tidal disturbances here in Seward, which were part of the tsunami wave generated in Japan.   There was NO actual tsunami here in Seward, although the town's tsunami siren was set off by mistake shortly before midnight on Thursday.   (Because a tsunami was predicted for part of the Aleutians, every single tsunami alarm in Alaska was triggered automatically, even for areas with no predicted waves.   They tell us they're going to fix that now.)   At around noon on Friday, near low tide, we got a foot and a half of water rushing into the boat harbor, slacking for a few minutes, and then rushing back out.   There wasn't very much of a height different, but the current it generated was very impressive, strong enough to uproot kelp all over the bay, and nearly pull the aquarium's harbor-monitoring fish trap off of its anchor.   Small-scale tidal disturbances were happening intermittently for the rest of the weekend.   It's hard to imagine the power of an event that can send waves bouncing around the Pacific Ocean the way I can send waves bouncing around a bathtub.

And just in case you haven't heard it anywhere else, you can donate to help with relief efforts in Japan through the Red Cross, or through the iTunes store.    Be someone's hero - donate!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Field Guide to Dead Sea Jellies of the Gulf of Alaska

Photographing a Lion's Mane Jelly at Tonsina Beach, near Seward, Alaska

Observation of dead sea jellies can be an enjoyable summer pastime.   Hopefully, this guide will provide some insight into what these gobs of goo on the beach are, and provide the sea jelly observer with some hints on identifying the species of jelly found.   One note of caution: sea jellies contain nematocysts, or stinging cells; these cells are capable of stinging even after the animal has died.   Attempting to touch sea jellies, even dead ones, is not recommended.

Moon Jelly

Moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) are one of the most commonly seen species of dead sea jellies to be seen in Alaskan beaches, and become increasingly plentiful as the summer progresses.   These jellies are also referred to as saucer or common jellies.   They are easily identified by their translucent appearance, and the presence of four white, horseshoe-shaped gonads in the center of the body.   The largest Moon jellies can reach the size of a dinner plate.    After a few days of desiccation, the dead Moon jellies often take on the appearance of discarded plastic soda lids.   It is thought that Moon jellies have a lifespan in the wild of approximately six months, although in captive settings this species is capable of living for several years. Although Moon jellies lack the long, trailing tentacles seen in most sea jelly species, they are capable of stinging, however the sting is considered very mild.   On occasion, female Moon jellies can be identified by the masses of fertilized eggs hanging from the arms.

Sea Nettle, with kelp
  Pacific Sea Nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) are both large and colorful, with amber–tinted bells growing as large as three feet in diameter, and tentacles as long as 12-15 feet.   When observed in the water, sea nettles commonly pulse against the current, with their brown tentacles and lace-like oral arm widely flared.   Dead Sea Nettles can most easily be distinguished from dead Lion’s Mane jellies by the presence of amber lines radiating outwards from the center of the body.   These amber lines are more distinct in sea nettles that inhabit higher-salinity parts of the ocean.    Certain Pacific Sea Nettles also exhibit a star-like pattern across the top of their bell.   

Lion's Mane Jelly
  Lion’s Mane Jellies (Cyanae capillata) are the largest species of sea jelly in the world, and the only species of sea jelly to feature in a Sherlock Holmes mystery.    Their large size and brilliant coloration make them one of the most easily spotted species of dead sea jellies.   Their coloration tends towards pinks, purples, oranges and ambers, with younger individuals tending to be more orange.   Specimens seen on beaches can easily reach two to three feet in diameter.   (The largest Lion’s Mane ever recorded had a bell diameter of over seven feet.) The tentacles of the Lion’s Mane are much more numerous than in the Sea Nettle, with the oral arms being both wider and shorter.   Lion’s Mane jellies have an eight-lobed body; on some specimens, this can result in a spoke or sunburst pattern, as seen above.

Egg-Yolk Jelly, courtesy Steven G. Johnson, Wikipedia
The Egg-Yolk Jelly (Phacellophora camtschatica) is another large jelly occasionally seen in Alaskan waters.   The name derives from the yellow gonad mass surrounded by a cream or yellowish bell.   These bells are divided into sixteen segments, observation of these spokes is a good way to distinguish it from Lion’s Mane jellies, whose bells have only eight spokes.   If seen in the water, the Egg-Yolk jelly only rarely or weakly pulses, preferring to float in the water column like a gelatinous drift net.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On the Importance of Counting Wheel Ruts

            Last weekend was the start of the Iditarod; even as I write this, dozens of intrepid mushers and their dogs are racing their way across the Alaskan interior to Nome.   Also as I write this, dozens of intrepid tourists are trying to figure out what else to do during their Iditarod vacation before they fly back to Ohio or New Jersey, now that the dog teams and the fanfare have moved beyond Anchorage city limits.

            At least a few of the tourists have wandered down the Seward Highway to the aquarium.   It's a little amazing to me that we get out-of-state tourists visiting at this time of year – especially when they show up at the ticketing counter without an actual Alaskan accompanying them.   People visit relatives up here at all times of the year (or so I’ve been told – after four seasons of intermittently living here, my own family has yet to make the trip) – but to come to Alaska for no other reason than it’s the middle of winter seems like a strange idea.   

            Also, if anyone did come up from Florida or Arizona to experience winter, they might be in for some disappointment.   It is currently 41 degrees in Seward; the ice is melting and the entire town is covered alternately with dirty ice, road gravel, or dead grass.   There is hardly any snow in town anymore, and out of town it’s starting to look patchy as well.   It would be nicer if the warming temperatures were actually melting the ice, but as far as I can tell, that isn’t happening.   The ice is merely taking the opportunity to reposition itself, flowing downhill during the day and reverting to a sheet of glass at around 7pm.  

            I got chatting with one couple at the aquarium, had flown in from Las Vegas for the Iditarod, and had decided to drive down to Seward for the day.   Now, at around 4pm, they were facing the slightly more alarming (to them) prospect of driving back to Anchorage, a three-hour trip in good weather.   Back in Nevada, I don’t think they realized that renting a car in March would mean that winter driving would necessarily become part of their Alaskan vacation.   

            Mr. Vegas started off the conversation by nervously asking where in town he could fill up the car - he’d apparently been shocked that after leaving Girdwood, he hadn’t passed any gas stations for the next ninety miles.   He also asked if anyone was going to be grading the road – which seemed an odd question, considering that it hasn’t snowed here in over two weeks.   He didn’t like that Alaska doesn’t salt its roads; he really didn’t like that there is no cell phone coverage on the majority of the highway.   (It’s the same ninety miles that don’t have any gas stations.)   He seemed very concerned that the 127 miles of wet pavement he drove on to get down here was going to transform itself into 127 miles of luge chutes and skating rinks the moment the sun went down.   And I couldn’t honestly say that that wasn’t exactly what would happen.   

            The highway can be intimidating to drive even in good conditions.   In the summer, it is crowded with tour buses, rental cars, and RVs that have more square footage than my one-bedroom apartment.   The tour buses don’t dawdle – they are on a timetable – but many of the other cars seem content to go thirty-five miles an hour for the entire 127 miles of highway.   It is actually a law here that if more than five cars are lined up behind yours, you must pull off the road at the next safe opportunity and let them all past.   The problem is that out-of-state drivers (who make up the majority of the offenders) don’t usually know about this.   Perhaps they should start handing out copies of the Alaska Highway Code along with the rental car agreements.   In the winter, they can switch to handing out snow shovels, and printouts of the Alaska 511 report.

            In the winter, the highway is deserted, but you instead have to deal with the dark, and the snow.   It doesn’t help that the yellow lines were last repainted sometime in the Clinton years, although once the road is covered in snow, this becomes a moot point.   At that point, a driver determines her position in the lane by counting wheel ruts.   

            The Seward highway has two lanes for most of its length, but both the north and south-bound lanes will frequently begat various offshoots, in the form of turning lanes, passing lanes, slow-vehicle lanes, turnouts, parking areas, and mistakes by the snow plows.   When there are only four wheel ruts to choose from, knowing which ruts constitute your lane is fairly straightforward.   But when the wheel ruts jump to six or eight (or five, or seven), it gets tricky.   At that point, the best thing to do is to hug the right-hand snow berm - and earnestly hope the oncoming cars are doing the same thing.