Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Happens When It Doesn't Rain

            Well, I said I would update my blog the next time it rained.   Strangely, it still hasn’t rained – we are going on a week now with no substantial precipitation.   This is good, but it also feels weird to have no rain in the rain forest.   Also, the mosquitoes have arrived in force, and have laid siege to the camp.   Hanging around outside the Iceberg Lodge is turning into an exercise in stoicism.     I’ve been sporadically using bug dope; even though I usually don’t – Alaskan mosquitoes don’t generally carry diseases, and I don’t like applying chemicals to my body -  but I’ve been getting so many bites on my hands that they’re now slightly swollen.   The worst places are the loading dock and the back deck of the lodge, where we gear up clients before going out on trips.    
Yesterday, I lead a trip with just two clients, and I just grabbed enough gear for them off the deck and brought it into the lodge, so we could be inside and escape the predatory incursions of the mosquitoes for a few more minutes.   The bugs on the trip itself weren’t too bad, because there’s usually a little bit of wind near the glacier, especially when its sunny.   (This bit of glacial air conditioning is called katabatic wind.   Basically, the glacier, and the Icefield it drains from, are big enough to chill the air above them.   Since hot air rises and cold air falls, there is usually a cool breeze blowing down from the Icefield and away from the glacier.   The hotter the ambient air temperature away form the glacier is, the stronger the katabatic wind will be.)   

            The kettle ponds on the trail to the glacier are very low, and the muddy parts of the trail have turned into rock-hard expanses of dirt.   The plants aren’t taking it very well – the salmonberry bushes and red currants look wilted.   And the lupine near my room in camp is withering.   I am wondering if this is going to affect the berries this year.   I am beginning to understand why this area needs all of the rain – when the plants don’t get it, you can tell they aren’t doing well.   

            News flash: with all the sunny weather, the daytime air temperature is now actually warm!   Unfortunately, I can’t take off too many layers of clothing, since exposing more skin to the mosquitoes isn’t a good plan.   (They can bit through my base layer; fleece or rain gear is the only thing that seems to stop them.)   I was in camp building a bookshelf for my room out of leftover scrap lumber, and barely got through getting the thing together before I had to get inside for a little while.   I’d been bitten so much that it felt like half of my face was swollen.   I went out to the beach later with a book, and enjoyed the breeze.   The one great thing about mosquitoes here is that they aren’t around at the beach – there’s too much wind coming off the water.   

            I’m having trouble deciding whether I like the persistently sunny weather or not.   True, it isn’t raining, so I don’t have to deal with the cold and the wet on every tour – but dealing with the mosquitoes in camp is turning into just as much hassle.   Last summer, we had perhaps two days with really bad mosquitoes – mostly because it was so unrelentingly cold that all of the bugs died before Solstice.   The guests definitely seem happy with the sun, and a TV crew that was here filming last week was ecstatic at the weather, and I’m certainly a fan of anything that gives the Lodge good publicity.   (They were filming for a show called Motion; stay tuned for information on when the episode will be aired.)   

            However, this is supposed to be a rainforest, and after a week of no rain, it’s obvious that the plants aren’t doing well.   Also, the bears are on strike.   Bears do not like hot weather, and on very sunny days, they apparently retreat back into the forest and hang out in the shade.   They’re easier to spot as on cooler or wetter days, when the bears nonchalantly wander around the shores of the lagoon.   (This is great, because guests can see them from a building, or a canoe.   I’m a big fan of bear sightings from a canoe.   Since I’m steering the boat, I have a comforting amount of control over how close clients get to the bear.)   Several groups of clients have come and gone and not seen any bears at all, which is unusual.   Even more unusual, I haven’t been seeing any bears lately, either – and even when the guests aren’t seeing bears, the guide staff is often still running into them when we’re setting up boats, or just walking through the staff area.     

            So, I’m working somewhere warm and dry, that’s infested with mosquitoes, and has no bears.   This is not the Iceberg Lodge I remember from 2010…

Friday, June 17, 2011

Things Your Forget While You're Away

            I am back at the Iceberg Lodge after spending a whirlwind three days in the bustling metropolis that is Seward during the summer.   I went in for a friend’s wedding, and was planning to do some shopping in town; this plan was complicated by the fact that I forgot my wallet back at the Lodge.   My friend’s reception was at a local watering hole; fortunately I wasn’t carded.   I borrowed money from a friend to buy food and to pick up some things around town – essentials such as toothpaste, soap, hand cream, and used books.   I feel like forgetting my wallet is a sign of how easily one adapts to living off the grid - it never occurred to me that I would actually need cash, credit cards, and ID until I was back into the gift-shop laden heart of Seward’s downtown.
            I visited the aquarium, and happened to run into a co-worker who very kindly invited me upstairs to see the new seal pup.    Atuun, one of the aquarium’s resident seals gave birth last week – last I heard mom and pup are doing well, though they are still off-exhibit for the time being.   (The seal pup is tentatively thought to be female; her name hasn’t been formally announced.)   The pup looked frisky; she was lying on her back, waving her flippers in the air, and chewing on anything in reach – fence, foam mat, Mom, own flipper.   Atuun looked very tired; but she was definitely keeping an eye on her pup – and us. The pup is tiny; her flippers look disproportionately large to the rest of her.   She’s grey mostly; I can see a bit of her dad Snapper in her coloring.   Huge thanks to the Mammal staff for letting me take a look at her.   I think she’s going to be charming the pants off of aquarium visitors as soon as she goes out into the seal tank.    

            There is also new art in front of the aquarium, which was nice to finally see – though it was neither as pretty nor as exciting as seeing the baby seal.   I also saw Woody, the aquarium’s 2000 pound male Steller sea lion – who saw me approach his tank, and immediately jumped onto his rock and started looking around for his trainers.   I don’t know if it was coincidence, or if he actually recognized me as the person who interprets some of his feeding sessions.   It’s touching to think he might remember me – even if he only associates me as a person tangentially connected with his fish buckets.   

            Also in town, I tracked down two packages – one of which was a package of two pairs of new Helly Hansen rain pants, which turned out to be too large.   I would figure that if the medium size were small, the natural solution would be to order a large?   In fact, no – the large is enormous.   And because I purchased them through a pro purchase program, I can’t return or exchange them, which is a little disappointing.  I might end up giving them to my mom – which you also are not supposed to do with a pro purchase program.   Unfortunately, since I can’t return them, my options are to sell them, give them away, or let them mildew in my triplex room for the rest of the summer.   And, I’ll probably be placing another order with Helly Hansen to try and get rain pants that are the right size.  Yes, it’s worth the hassle.   Here in the Alaskan rain forest, you live and die by the quality of your waterproof gear.   At last count, I have five different pairs of rain pants (counting the two that don’t fit), and three different rain jackets.   I will probably be buying at least one more of each before the end of the summer.   And that’s not counting the various waterproof backpack covers, dry bags, pelican cases, XtraTuff boots, neoprene gloves, and rain hats.   

Other things in Seward don't change - there are still retired couples with giant RVs double parked in the Safeway parking lot, boat trailers on the highway swinging into the oncoming lane, and feral rabbits devouring my friend's garden.   (He's trying to eradicate/relocate them; they, in retaliation, have given birth under his porch.)   Woody the sea lion still bites his girlfriends; and emergency calls about stranded seal pups still interrupt plans to visit with friends.     Also, my cousins are still remodeling their kitchen - the only appreciable difference between the kitchen last month and the kitchen last week is that the water is back on in their house.  

Friday, June 3, 2011

Humpback Whales Joined Our Tour

            The Iceberg Lodge has been opened now for three days, and we’re seeing our first group of guests departing.   It is sad to see them go; they are all from a environmental organization, and have been some of the most easily-managed guests we will see all season.   They like each other, for one thing, and they show up for tours with their own rain gear.   This is always a good sign.  The group also had a knack for finding dead things on our property.   First, it was a Leather starfish on our beach, then a weird broken bird egg on the glacier moraine, and then bits of a dead bird on the beach.   Later, one of the guests spotted some sort of dead bug frozen inside a piece of glacial ice.   It looked weird enough that they tried to lasso the ice chunk to their kayak and tow it back to the Lodge.   They discovered really quickly that glacial ice is very, very dense – and this makes it very, very heavy. 

            The group also had good wildlife encounters.   The black bears are back around the lagoon in even greater numbers than last summer – about two hours after the first guests of the season arrived, we spotted a black bear twenty feet in front of the lodge, chewing on a downed tree.   And during the staff kayak training a few weeks ago, we had another bear swim out into the lagoon, right through our group of boats.   He didn’t seem upset in the slightest that there were boats heading towards him when he jumped in the water.   I suppose he figured that he had the right-of-way.   And there have been the usual number of bears wandering through the staff camp, checking on the progress of various construction projects, and looking for unattended piles of insulation to chew up.   Two days ago, I was on the return leg of a half-day hike with guests, and we were discussing  why we yell ‘Hey Bear’ as we’re hiking.   Basically, we make noise so that any bears in the area know that we’re coming, and aren’t suddenly surprised by our presence.    We aren’t actually yelling to scare them off – in fact, I don’t think yelling could scare these bears off.   Noise doesn’t seem to faze them.   For example, in camp, we have generators running, power tools yowling, six-wheeled ATVs running around, plus a lot of foot traffic and human chatter.  Despite all of the noise and bustle, bears regularly wander through camp.   

            I witnessed a great example of our bear’s tolerance of noise during a hike the other day.   I was walking back to the lodge with a group of eight, who were all being fairly noisy.   We come around a corner, and the guest directly behind me yells, Bear!   About fifteen feet off to the right, I see a furry rear end, placidly waddling off the trail and into the alder thicket.   He stops about thirty feet away and turns and watches us gawking at him, apparently waiting for us to keep going past him so that he can get back on the trail and continue his hike.    I think that the bear had been on our trail heading towards us, and had moved to a safer distance when he heard us coming.   Which is great – that is totally what we’d like the bears to do.   What is not so great is that the bear’s idea of what constitutes a safe distance from the people – is not what the people consider a safe distance from the bear.   This is the bad part of having really tolerant bears around – they just aren’t motivated to get out of your way.   

            This particular bear encounter was the closest I have ever (knowingly) been to a bear while guiding guests.   But in another few weeks, when the alders and willows leaf out, I will probably be passing more bears at even closer distances without even knowing they’re around. We yell ‘hey bear’, so that the bears know where we are.   Unfortunately, the bears don’t reciprocate this.  

       A humpback whale has moved into Aialik Bay, and apparently wants to join the Iceberg Lodge staff.   We’ve seem him frequently right off of our landing beach – and so close to shore that it seems impossible for there to be enough water for him to submerge.   He’s a very small whale; and has been in the bay constantly for over three weeks.   It’s unusual for us to see whales close to the head of the bay; usually they prefer more open water towards the Gulf of Alaska.   Last summer, we had a mother and calf who were in the Bay off and on; we’re speculating that our little whale might be that calf, who has grown up, returned from migration and is revisiting his boyhood haunts.   We’ve named him Humphrey.

            Humphrey made his first appearance when the guide staff were running our first training trip to Aialik Glacier.   We had launched our kayaks into the water, and had been paddling for maybe twenty minutes, when a whale surfaces about fifty feet away.   He surfaced three times in succession, and then swam off, but we kept seeing him spouting a half mile away.   He seemed to be matching our direction and speed.   We wondered if he wanted to join the trip.   Apparently, he did, because half an hour later, he showed up again, and swam right between our boats and the shore of Slate Island.   I estimate he was only two boat lengths from our group at his closest.

            Humphrey also met up with the guide staff on our other training trip in Abra Cove.   That time, he surfaced directly behind us, then dove and popped up again on the other side of our group – having probably swum underneath our kayaks to get there.   The Lodge water taxi saw him a few days later jumping out of the water, and a few staff who went out kayaking on their day off had him visit their boats, and then saw him head over to check out another group of kayakers at the other end of the Bay.

            So far Humphrey has not tried to join any of our guest trips; though as soon as he does, we’re going to need to figure out a way to get him included in the Iceberg Lodge tip-sharing pool.  It’s awesome that we have a whale who has apparently decided to move into the Bay for the summer – however, whales have been known to tip over kayaks, and Humphrey seems curious enough about our boats that he might actually try it one day.   I don’t really know of any good way to mitigate that.   Whale-watching handbooks recommend tapping on your hull to announce your presence to whales – the idea being that those whales who tip over boats did so accidentally, without knowing the boats were there.   In this instance, I think its obvious that Humphrey knows perfectly well where we are.   

            Do you know how scary it is to be in a room by yourself, and suddenly realize that something in the room is breathing?   That’s what it’s like to get surprised by whales.   You might think that a thirty ton animal would have a hard time being inconspicuous, but unless the whale surfaces directly in front of you, you won’t ever know it.   Instead, you’ll just hear the world’s loudest heavy breathing – one inhale, one exhale – and by the time you turn around, there’s only a ripple in the water, like a vanishing footprint.