Monday, December 10, 2012

Things They Don't Tell You About Winter in Alaska

You already knew about the months of limited daylight, the sub-zero windchill, and the 8-10 feet of snow.   Here's what they don't tell you about winter in the 49th state. 

Resurrection Bay, Seward

  • If a piece of metal gets cold enough, your hand will stick to it.   Kind of like the kid licking the flagpole, except you don't even need to use a particularly wet body part - your index finger and an iced-over gate latch will demonstrate this effect just fine.
  • In the winter, you will give electric shocks of static electricity to everything you touch.   Doorknobs, pets, children, iPods…   If it can carry a charge, you will give it one.   Constantly.
  • Most city streets get temporary winter-season dividers between the oncoming lanes, in the form of giant piles of snow that have been plowed into the middle of the road and left until spring.   Intersections between streets are usually left clear - but don't plan on being able to turn left into someone's driveway, because that side of the street is probably barricaded.  
  • Your car needs winter gear, too - except gear for the car is more expensive.   Getting a set of studded tires, an engine block heater, and an auto-start will set you back about $600 or so.   It makes that Patagonia 800-fill goose down parka with the detachable faux-fur hood look cheap in comparison
  • Christmas is sot of a big deal in Alaska, partially because in the middle of a cold, dark time of the year, it’s good to be able to look forward to a time where a family can gather together and enjoy a respite from the daily challenges of winter.   For most Alaskans, this means a vacation to Hawaii.   For the rest of us, Christmas dinner will do in a pinch.  
  • The dead animals get festive - because nothing says ‘Alaskan holidays’ quite like a string of Christmas lights decorating a caribou head.
  • The weather becomes even more a topic of conversation than it does in the summer, perhaps because there isn’t much else going on.   I’ve found that Alaskans are more creative in discussing the weather than people in the Lower 48.   For one, the weather here is a little more intense – we routinely measure snow in feet, not inches, and wind speed in Beaufort storm scales, not miles per hour.   Another popular climactic pastime is comparing the current weather to whatever the weather was doing at the same time last year, or the year before.   (If nothing else, you can always say that no matter how bad the weather is this week/month/season, it is better than the same week/month/season in 2008.)
  • A subset about talking about weather is talking about earthquakes – how long it lasted, what shook and for how long, under what sort of object you took shelter, and what you did immediately afterwards to make sure a tsunami wasn’t on its way to obliterate coastal towns in your area.
  • When traveling outside of the state, most non-Alaskans you meet will be fascinated by your local weather - even if it isn’t all that fascinating to you.   Prepare for these inevitable conversations by making sure that you know the current average temperature, hours of daylight, and inches/feet of snow on the ground for your area before leaving the state.   People you have never met before will, on learning you are from Alaska, want to know your local weather, and how many feet of snow is sitting in your yard.   They will want to know how you personally can stand living somewhere that dark and cold.    If you would rather not spend your entire vacation discussing seasonal affective disorder, consider just telling people you live ‘out west’.   This is a good strategy for dodging weather conversations entirely.   No one wants to hear about your weather if there is even a remote chance that you live in southern California.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fall Update

            Seward has gotten its first official snowfall of the winter, and in a bit of impeccable timing, I managed to be out of town when it happened.   I am currently in West Virginia, visiting family there for a few weeks, before returning to Alaska for six months of winter.   Perhaps this is only fair, since I missed out on winter entirely last year (I was in New Zealand, so I got three summers back-to-back).   

Iceberg Lodge girls

            The Iceberg Lodge is all closed up for the winter, and ready to slumber under the snow until next spring.   I spent the end of September helping a local dog kennel clean up after a flood.   With this particular flood, it wasn’t so much the water we were cleaning up as it was the gravel and rocks that the flood left behind.   The stream that flooded contained a lot of glacier debris – silt and rocks, mostly.   And a lot of those silt and rocks got washed into the buildings from the force of the water.   I spent a lot of time shoveling rocks out of the building, with the help of a few small bulldozers.   Some of the rocks were pretty large – I found it amazing that water could move something that I had trouble lifting with a shovel.   Sometimes, the work felt a little bit like excavating Pompeii.   Or what might happen if you pissed off someone who works at the Metco gravel lot. 

            Fortunately, my car survived the flood just fine – we were concerned about our cars when we saw on the internet flooded-out pictures of the building across the street from where we had parked them.   Fortunately, the water didn’t get high enough to damage anything.   

            Comparatively speaking, the Iceberg Lodge did very well during the flood because the water didn’t actually threaten any of our buildings.  (A few of them leak, but we've known that for a while.)   And the plant life around here can deal with the weather just fine.   Our forest’s moss carpet will take the worst rain and ask for more.  We have puddles and mud holes on our roads, (basically, wherever we have build and cleared things), but the forest itself never looks like it’s gone through any hard rain.   The moss just soaks it in like a green organic sponge.   The little pools in the forest get bigger, and creeks get wilder, but the plants still seem pretty happy.   But I think the rain must be rough on the bears.   I didn’t see any bears at all during the Iceberg Lodge's closedown period, which is unusual.  However, we did get a bear ceremonially seeing us off at the Point on the day we left, as well as the day-of-departure rainbow.   Both of these are becoming Iceberg Lodge traditions.

A rainbow over Pedersen Lagoon

            The other interesting thing about the shutdown week is that there has been a huge increase in the amount of trash that washed up on our beach.   I think the tsunami debris is beginning to arrive in a big way; if this continue over the winter, the beaches are going to be pretty coated by the time we get back in the spring.   Mostly, the trash on the beaches is a big pain to clean up, but there is also always the opportunity to find cool stuff mixed in with all the Styrofoam flecks and empty plastic bottles.   I found a few small fishing buoys this year, and every year I find at least two ball caps over the course of the summer.   The prize for the best sea debris this year definitely goes to our maintenance guy, who found a bag of Zodiac emergency gear carefully tied off to a tree, which had been uprooted and washed up on our beach.   There was a flashlight in there, with extra batteries, pumps, blige spones, and some things that looked like part of a boat repair kit.   We hope that whoever lost their gear, they didn’t actually need any of it. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Misapprehensions About Bears

            Last week I ended up going to Seward to get a tooth looked at, which fortunately turned out to be fine.   I was in town for just over 16 hours, and went back to the Iceberg Lodge a day early because of the atrocious marine forecast for the following day.   The night I got back, the wind started blowing hard enough that the lodge’s broken roof cap (damaged by the heavy snowfall earlier in the season)  was flapping in the wind like a thunder sheet, lending a dinner theatre ‘dark and stormy night’ sort of atmosphere to the evening.   (At times, it also sounded like someone racking up a dozen of the world’s largest pool balls.)   Apparently, one of the maintenance men climbed up on the roof sometime after midnight and screwed down the flapping roof bit to keep it from breaking itself or anything else it was banging against.   In other news, the tarp over our kayaks is apparently shredded beyond all hope of repair, (and this was the assessment of someone who makes a habit of keeping around a lot of ratty, useless tarps).   I haven’t looked at it myself, since the beach was something of a no-go zone for most of the morning, due to the high winds.   There were sustained winds in the 40 mph range, gusting up to 70mph, which made it difficult even to walk around.   Also, those winds speeds are enough to turn ordinary beach sand into weaponized projectiles; the guys who were out scouting the beach were wearing ski goggles.   Fortunately, the wind died down enough for the boat to make it out here the following day, although they had a very rough ride coming out.   Now we have only 19 guests in camp, down from 38 the previous day.   That day was the last full house of the season, and it would have been very Iceberg-Lodge-typical if the last full house stretched into another night because we couldn’t get the departing guests back to Seward.   Sometimes, it seems like this place enjoys finding ways to screw us over – massive snow, epic rain, week-long gales, marauding wildlife, exploding septic systems, etc…. 

            Now that we’re back to very small numbers of guests, my job has gotten a whole lot easier.    I’ve had two great days of guiding, despite the fact that it’s been raining constantly.   Such as, nature hikes with only two people, and kayak trips with only one guest.   One of the guests was from Kenya, and a birder, who was talking about lions walking through his property last month…    Later that afternoon, I went out with just one guest, M, who is also in the tourism business.   We took a double kayak to the upper lagoon, and paddled as much open water as we could find.   The icebergs are close to being as melted out as they are going to get this season, so we were able to explore in a lot of nooks and corners.   There were also 50-60 seals in the water, and it was a really fun trip.  

            Then today, M and I went to Aialik Glacier, again as a solo trip.   It was a great trip for several reasons – trips with only one guest in no way resemble actual work, because all of the crowd control and group management issues magically vanish.   You just get to go out and paddle, and talk about seals, which is sort of what I do on my days off, anyway.   We were also able to get to a part of the glacier’s moraine that I haven’t been able to get to for nearly a month, thanks to a change in the glacier’s melt-water route, which has cut a new river right down the middle of our old landing beach.   (How that happened is a story worthy of its own blog post.)  Today, M and I were able to paddle around the melt-water and land on a sketchy, boulder-heavy part of the beach, which was manageable only because I only had one boat to worry about.   I dragged the kayak across the boulders and tied it off to a rock above the storm shelf.   From there, we were able to walk out along the moraine to a bluff overlooking the glacier, and up to the side of the glacier itself.   The glacier has been advancing along that side all summer, and is pushing a pile of rocks ahead of it like a bulldozer.    In June, there was a big quartz rock about thirty feet from the ice that we used as a ‘do not pass’ barrier.   That rock is now totally covered by ice.   I estimate the glacier has come forward by about 60-80 feet in the past three months.   That’s around 8 inches a day or something in that range.    The rubble pile in front of the ice is close to seven feet tall now, and it’s starting to plow through a small stand of alders, which are being slowly uprooted and buried.   It’s like watching a slow-motion bulldozer. Not having seen that section of the glacier for nearly a month makes the speed of the ice’s advance even more apparent.   Also, walking around and exploring on the moraine was good because it gave us something to do on land, as opposed to spending the whole tour sitting in a kayak, in the pouring rain.   

            Also at the Aialik moraine, we saw a calving event large enough to produce a wave high enough to prove my point about the danger of glacier-caused tsunami waves - but not high enough to actually wipe us from the face of the earth, which is nice.   (About one tour in a hundred ends up running for their lives rapidly evacuating to higher ground somewhere on the Aialik moraine.)    

            Also a bonus, there was a bear in the meadow all day today.   We saw him when we went out to set up the boats, where he appeared to vaguely pay attention to our ATVs.   Walking out with M at the beginning of our tour, the bear sat up long enough to give us a blank stare, and then lay back down even before M could take a picture.   Walking back to the lodge five hours later, he was still in the same place, grazing on grass in the rain.   Usually, guests here are afraid of bears up until the moment they actually see one.   Our bears are freakishly tolerant of people, and they spend a lot of time eating grass.   They are sort like cows, except with way better PR.   It’s hard to be mortally terrified of an animal that won’t even bother to sit up when you walk by.   Not to say that the bears aren’t dangerous, because they can be.   If you surprise a bear, or get between a bear and food, or a bear and cubs, then all bets are off.   But mostly, the bears aren’t interested in being predatory.   They’re just here for the salmon.

            The closest I’ve gotten to a bear this year was hiking a section of trail near Pedersen Glacier that we don’t normally use.   The bear heard us coming, and decided to climb up a spruce tree and wait us out.   Which was very sensible of the bear.   Unfortunately, the tree the bear picked was (a) not very tall, and (b) right next to the trail we were hiking down.   I didn’t see the bear until we were under the tree.    The bear let out a howl, probably because he thought we were deliberately going after him, and scrambled a few feet further up the trunk.   Instant chaos for about thirty seconds, as me and the line of guests behind me abruptly reverse direction and beat a hasty retreat.   We watched the bear for about two minutes from further down the trail, which was long enough for the guests to all take pictures, and for the bear to start making noises complaining about when we were going to back off and let him get out of the damn tree.    We bushwhacked through the alders for about thirty yards to detour around the bear at a safe distance.   The two young boys on the trip thought the bear encounter was the coolest thing ever, and were pestering me for bear stories for the rest of the hike.    Then back at the lodge, they were telling their very own bear story to anyone who would listen.

            The bears are one thing that makes living out here very interesting.   The bears are our neighbors, and they wander through camp like they own the place sometimes.   Also, bears are one of the big things that people from Outside associate with Alaska.   It came up a lot in New Zealand when I told people where I was from.   “Hi, my name is Mareth; I’m from Alaska.   Allow me to correct your misapprehensions about bears.”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ermine Invasions

            My most recent tour to the Upper Lagoon was an exercise in snatching partial victory from the jaws of defeat.   On trips to the Upper Lagoon, we paddle through a tidally-influenced channel that only permits travel up to Pedersen Glacier around certain high tides.   (Usually, the channel carries the glacier’s meltwater downstream to the bay.   But on some high tides, the level of the sea rises enough that the stream actually reverses directions – instead of fresh water flowing downstream, it’s salt water flowing uphill.)   This particular tide height was only 7.6, (we like to run at 8 feet or higher), so it was sort of a marginal high tide to begin with.   Additionally, we only had two people sign up for the trip, which is a good thing in some respects (guiding trips become progressively easier the fewer clients there are), but it meant that we needed to paddle up in kayaks.   Three people (myself and the clients) are simply not enough people to effectively paddle an eight-person canoe.   Unfortunately, tours in kayaks require a lot more time at the beginning of the trip to get everyone dressed in their spray skirts and cover the safety points about the boats.   So, that was two strikes against the trip going as planned.   The third strike came in the form of one of the slowest client paddling speeds that I have yet seen this summer.    (Some beginning kayakers do not immediately make the connection that in order to propel a boat through the water, you need to actually encounter some resistance against your paddle.   Some clients get their paddle wet, and not much else.)   The combination of a marginal tide, a late start, and a slow paddling speed made an unfortunate trifecta; by the time we reached the tidal channel, it was already a half an hour past the posted high tide.   For reasons I don’t fully understand, the tides in the lagoon can be delayed up to two hours from the posted Seward tides - however, this wasn’t a high enough tide for the water to stack up like that.   By the tie we got to the channel, the current had already reversed, and was flowing downstream, opposite the way we wanted to go.   

            I pulled out my tow rope, clipped my clients’ boat onto a ten-foot tether and started paddling for all I was worth.   With the weight of the double kayak, plus the fact that the current was heading the other direction, it was definitely a workout.   We inched our way into the channel.   After a few minute, we pulled far enough ahead of a low take-out on the opposite bank where we could potentially land the kayaks on shore.   I hollered to my clients that we probably weren’t going to be able to make it much further in (mostly because I knew that I was going to run out of steam eventually, and also that I didn’t know how great a tour experience my clients would have if the whole tour was just inch-by-inch progress up the channel…)   They seemed good with the change in plan, so we turned and ferried across the channel to the opposite bank.   

            One confession: I didn’t quite know how landing two kayaks in current, and with a boat on a tow, would actually work.   I had visions of getting my kayak into shore, then having to stop paddling to get out of my boat, and subsequently being dragged back into the water by the weight of the boat I was towing.   So I asked my people to paddle hard into shore and try to beach their boats as much as they could; which they did pretty well.   There was slack on the rope as I was getting out; then I pulled their kayak further up the bank and helped them climb out.   Not nearly as dramatic as I had expected.   

            Once we were on shore, we walked about 70 yards up the bank to a  place where we could see the upper lagoon, and get views of all the grounded icebergs at the front of Pedersen Glacier.   I felt very sorry for one of the clients, who had problems with her feet, and was having trouble walking in the rubber boots.   On the plus side, since it was just the three of us, we were really able to tailor the trip around what they were interested in doing.   So we walked out to the shore, took some pictures, and walked back.   This is another reason why tours with just a few clients are wonderful; its much easier to manage unexpected situations when there are fewer people to keep track of.    

            The next day was good; it was a five-bear day.   The first bear was grazing in the meadow as we were setting up boats for our morning trips.   The second and third bears were seen distantly as we were paddling across the lagoon for the morning canoe and hiking tour.   The third and fourth bears were a double feature for the afternoon canoe trip.   

            There is one bear around the lodge that we can recognize by sight, thanks to a large brown saddle mark on his rear end.   This brown spot has earned the bear the name Cinnamon Bun.   Cinnamon Bun has occasionally been seen hanging out with another bear; we wonder if the bears are litter-mates, as they don’t seem to act much like a male/female pair.   

            Anyway, Cinnamon Bun and the other bear were both on the shore of the lagoon, vacuuming up the plantago that grows near the high-tide line.   It was very clear from watching them who was the dominant bear.   Cinnamon Bun was just mowing the grass; he didn’t seem to care what the other bear was doing.   The little bear, on the other hand, was paying very close attention to Cinnamon Bun.   Every time Cinnamon Bun moved closer, the little bear would stop eating and take a few steps further away, and stare at Cinnamon Bun for a few seconds before going back to eating.   Eventually, Cinnamon Bun started moving purposefully along the beach in the direction of the other bear; the little guy  got spooked.   He loped up the beach and disappeared into the greenery, while Cinnamon Bun continued walking along and cropping plants.

            The next day, strangely, none of our guests wanted to go on any trips in the afternoon.   This turned out to be a good thing, as the best wildlife sightings of the day all took place inside the guest cabins.   

            The guests in cabin eight had gone back to their room after lunch, and were taking a nap.    They woke up in a hurry when a squirrel jumped in bed with them.   Within the hour, ermine were reported breaking into two other cabins (apparently they’d been taking clues from the squirrels).   The ermine look like tiny brown ferrets; they might appear cute, but they are also carnivorous murderers.   One of the ermine had drug a dead vole into the cabin with it; it apparently wanted to stockpile some food in their bed.   From the refuge of some high furniture, the clients took photos with their iPad of the ermine ransacking their room.   At the bar that night, everyone was sharing pictures they’d taken of ermine and squirrels climbing bedframes, chewing gloves, and scurrying in and out of cracks in the walls.    Two of the lodge staff were kept busy for a couple of hours chasing the wildlife out of the cabins, and crawling under the buildings with cans of spray-foam insulation, trying to identify and plug up their access routes.   The lodge manager comp’ed a bottle of wine to everyone who had had their room infested, and everyone seemed pretty happy with their up-close-and-personal Alaska wildlife encounter.   

             In other animal news, the camp porcupine got into the maintenance shed last week and chewed up a tube of silicone gel.   The porcupine was seen waddling out of camp with orange goo smeared all over his face.  We suspect he was probably high as a kite on glue fumes.   The maintenance staff are now talking about trying to live-trap and relocate the porcupine to the other side of the lagoon, to save our silicone gels from further destruction, and possibly to save the porcupine from ingesting more chemicals than are good for him.   

            I saw the porcupine a few days later on the ridge; we walked behind him for about seventy-five yards taking pictures.  He knew we were behind him, but the brush was so thick that he couldn’t get off the trail, or didn’t want to bother.   Instead, he’d turn around, give us a dirty look, and waddle faster down the trail.   Eventually, he dove into the bushes, shaking his quills ominously as we passed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Floating Zombie River Otters

            The same day that the river otter researchers were due to come to the Iceberg lodge to give a presentation on their research, we found a dead river otter floating in the lagoon.   It was floating intestines up; we went over  to it because at first I thought we were looking at the back of a seal’s head.   Turns out, not so much.   River otters are a little like big, streamlined brown ferrets; they are so adorable that they even look moderately cute when floating head-down in salt water.   My clients in the canoe were clucking and making how sad noises.   So, we looked at the dead otter, and I made the mistake of telling my clients that this was the third dead otter we’d found in the lagoon in a month, and that, coincidentally, a team of river otter researchers from the University of Wisconsin would be coming over to give a presentation on their research in just a few hours.   Immediately, a few people in the boat asked if we ought to bring the dead otter back to the lodge, so that the researchers could do an otter autopsy and try to find out why the otter had died.   I wasn’t totally sure if the otter team’s research goals included playing CSI: Aialik Bay – as my clients very obviously wanted to do - but I figured they would probably be interested in the otter.   I asked if everyone was OK with having a dead otter sitting in the back of the canoe for the rest of the tour.   Surprisingly, everyone was.   

            So we turned the canoe around, and after a few minutes of searching, resighted the otter.   Now that I knew that I had to pick the thing out of the water, it suddenly looked a lot less cute and pathetic, and a lot more dead.   But the coat seemed to be in good shape, and it seemed to be pretty much intact and un-decayed.   At least, as undecayed as a zombie floating dead river otter can look.   I maneuvered us as close to the otter as I could, which was complicated by the fact that all of the clients on the boat were looking over their shoulders to try and watch their guide do something gross in the name of science.    I reached into the water, trying not to picture what would happen if the otter suddenly woke up and sank its zombie teeth into my hand.   

            I grabbed the zombie otter by the tail and pulled.   The first thing I noticed was that a waterlogged river otter is actually quite heavy.   The second thing I noticed was the vibration as the tail vertebrae dislocated from the spine.   The third thing I noticed was that this otter was definitely a male.   I pulled, and the otter slid up the side of the canoe, its big rat-like feet dangling over the gunnel.   The otter felt even heavier.   Then the otter’s pelt started to split open along the back like someone undoing a zipper.   The smell hit us like the world’s worst port-a-pottie, and I immediately dropped the otter back into the lagoon.   The smell, unfortunately, stayed around (albeit in a much diluted form) for the rest of the canoe tour, probably because I had managed to liberally spritz my clothing with otter juice in the process of hauling him into my canoe.   I used the boat pump (normally used to pump rain water out of the canoes) to pump a few quarts of lagoon water into the boat to try and dilute the smell, which sort of worked.   The clients coped admirably – fishing him out was their idea, after all – and we finished the rest of the tour without incident.   I left one of the other guides to put my boat away, and immediately went to shower and wash my clothes.   

            The researchers were, indeed, interested that we’d found so many dead otters in such a short span of time, although they said that from what they’d seen of the otters, they all seemed to be pretty healthy.   They did not, however, seem terribly interested in haring off into the lagoon to relocate the dead otter after hearing my clients’ description of its condition.   

            One of the maintenance men, however, did go haring off into the lagoon after the otter, and returned with it floating in a five-gallon bucket.   (The trick to keeping the smell at bay is to keep them submerged at all times.   Going forward, if any guests want to bring back dead animals they find in the lagoon, I will lasso them with the canoe’s bowline and drag them behind the boat like a sea anchor.)   He plans to drop the otter into a crab pot for a few weeks, to let the crabs (and any other sea creatures with indiscriminate gustatory habits) strip the meat away from the carcass.   We’d be left with a jumble of bones which he could theoretically glue and wire back into shape, sort of like a very complicated tinkertoy project.   I would like the skull for the interpretive corner at the guide desk, which is already liberally covered with various parts and pieces of dead animals (seal and otter pelts, snail shells, urchin tests, bird feathers, and a bear skull).   Ultimately, the zombie otter stayed in the bucket for over two weeks, and every day it looked a little more like a giant floating mass of hair that someone had pulled out of a shower drain.   It disappeared from the bucket shortly before the maintenance man left to visit his wife.   I am hoping that M did not show up at home after being gone for two weeks with a decayed otter in tow…

            A few days later, I got the fright of my life when the canoe’s drain plug got knocked loose during a tour, instantly unleashing a torrent of salt water flooding into our boat.   Fortunately, we were in the mouth of Addison creek, which is a great place to have a canoe emergency because the water is only four feet deep.   Even though hearing the water rushing into the canoe was quite alarming, I also realized right off the bat that this was a situation everyone would be walking away from – since if the canoe sank out from under us, this is pretty much what we would do.   I shouted at my clients to paddle, got the boat to shore, hopped out in knee deep water and spent a few minutes wresting the drain plug back into place.   (When used correctly, the drain plugs have a lever that allows them to expand once they’ve been inserted into the draining hole.  In this case, someone had expanded the drain plug before inserting it, so the plug didn’t fit securely in the drain, and got jostled out.)   Once the flooding stopped, I unloaded everyone on the creek bank, and pumped the water out of the canoe.    We paddled back to the lodge, while I tried to pretend that I hadn’t just had the fright of my life.    
            Two things I have learned about canoeing this summer already: (a) check the snugness of the drain plugs, and (b) do not haul a dead otter into a canoe by his tail.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pissed-Off Loons and Porcupine Renovations

            It’s the middle of June, only a week until the solstice, and we are still running our main glacier hiking trip as a snowshoeing outing.    After many hours of shoveling, we’ve gotten parts of our nature trail whipped into shape, but most of the mile-long trail out to Pedersen Glacier is still under two to four feet of snow.   We’re more or less creating an ad hoc snowshoe trail out of some snow-covered creek drainages.   I went out a few days ago with some loppers and a hand saw to take down some of the alders that have been springing up near the snowshoe route.   Not springing up as in growing really fast, but springing up as in, the snow-flattened branches are melting out of the snow and suddenly leaping up a couple of feet as the weight of the snow is melting off.   The snowshoeing has proven quite popular with the guests, I think because it’s such a novel thing to be doing in summer.   Plus, standing in front of a glacier wearing snowshoes makes for a neat family Christmas card photo.   

            Eventually, however, the snowshoe trail is going to melt out, which will be good news, and also bad news.   I am anticipating a bleak period where the snow is too slushy and half-melted to run snowshoeing trips, but our hiking trails still have enough snow on them to be impassable.   A few days ago, I went out to scout a new snow-free route to Pedersen Glacier, by walking along a tidally-influenced channel during a low tide.   (The route looks good, but at high tide we start to lose the beach we walk on.)   Paddling back in a kayak, I heard a rustle off in the bushes, and stopped paddling, trying to see if there was a bear hanging around in the alders.   Two seconds later, a river otter jumped into the water in front of the kayak, close enough that if I had still been moving forward, the otter would have face planted onto the bow of my boat.    He obviously hadn’t seen me before he jumped in – but the other half dozen river otters behind him did see me, and were scrambling back up the bank to get further away from my boat.    Even though the otters didn’t want to get in the water with my kayak so close, they weren’t acting particularly afraid of me, either.   Another lodge staff member was out paddling and had brought a camera; after I called him over, he got some great pictures of the otters peering down at us from the top of the embankment.    In fact, the otters seemed comfortable enough with our proximity that I radioed another guide who brought her canoe tour over to take a look at the otters.   Thankfully, the otters were still in sight after the canoe arrived, although they had moved further into the alders.   There were no great photographic opportunities, but all of the guests got to see them scrambling around in the bushes.   (The rest of the evening, the guests were all showing me their pictures of otter noses poking our from the greenery.)   This was a great sighting – not only were there a lot of otters all together, but it’s actually rare for us to see river otters on tours.   They’re around, but they tend to not be as visible as the seals, who frequently follow our boats around on tours.  So, the guests were totally right to be proud of their photos – very few guests actually see river otters here, and usually not so close.   
            The Red-Throated Loons are back on the Pedersen moraine, although the pond where they’ve bred for the last five years still hasn’t melted out.   Most days I can hear the loons flying over the pond, always making their ‘quack quack quack’ flight call.   They’ll loop over the frozen pond, ascertain that it is still frozen, then bank left and land in the open water in the upper lagoon.   Once they’re on the water, you can hear them calling back and forth and complaining to each other about their lack of a pond.   The loons must be even more fed up with the late spring than the lodge staff are.   For the loons, having that pond frozen is like them being locked out of their house.   It almost sounds like their ‘quack quack quack’ call is another word that contains the letters u, c, and k.   

            It’s been a rough winter for the birds; we keep finding dead ones melting out of the snow on the beaches and around camp.   There were a bunch of dead gulls on the beach, dead crows in the woods, and dead murres on the Aialik moraine.    And a few days ago, a bird melted out of the snow next to the generator shed, which is either another dead murre, or one of the juvenile red-throated loon chicks from last summer.   I’m sort of hoping it’s a murre (it’s manky enough that the subtle variations of plumage are lost, but it’s a large, heavy-boned bird, brown on top and white on the breast, with webbed feet set back pretty far on the body, and a dark, pointed bill).  

             Coming back to the lodge from a boat trip to the glacier, my guests and I had a North by Northwest sort of encounter with a red and white Supercub that was buzzing us on the beach.   I was driving our ATV-style golf cart back along the Lodge’s beach road with a guest, A, and three other staff.   Two minutes down the road, I screeched the ATV to a halt because it looked like the plane might actually be trying to touch down on the road in front of me.   A said that she thought the plane was trying to make an emergency landing on the beach.   I found out later that A is a pilot – this lends some credence to the notion that this plane was flying much closer to the ground than is normal.   Just after disappearing out of sight over the rim of the beach, the plane pulled up and went into a steep ascent, heading back to Seward over the Icefield.    So, no one had to run through any cornfields to escape the bad guys, but the whole event was a little alarming.   If I had been thinking, I would have tried to get the numbers off of the tail, and one of the managers could have looked him up and had a little chat about being respectful of other people’s immediate airspace.

            I am happy to report that several humpback whales have remained in the bay, and our kayak tours have been seeing them, from a distance where the guests are impressed and get good pictures, but far enough away that none of them are fearing for their lives.   In other wildlife news, the camp porcupine is searching for a new home, and has apparently singled out my triplex room as a potential den.   This is the guy who was living in the maintenance shed over the winter, and chewed up the seats on our ATVs.   With the maintenance shed now back to being a hive of activity, and with the porcupine’s old den (under the generator shed) being ground zero for a construction project to expand the lodge drying room, the porcupine has apparently decided it’s time to look elsewhere for a nice, quiet building to chew up.   I’ve woken up in the morning a few times to porcupine scat on my steps, and chew marks on the door frame.   (This is not the first time he has done this.   Two years ago, this same porcupine chewed on our door so loudly that my roommate and I were briefly convinced that a bear was trying to break in to our room.)   I don’t think he has much of a chance of breaking down the door, but I’ve been careful about making sure that the door latches at night.   Otherwise, I’m convinced that he would stroll right in and start nesting in my bookshelf.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Attacked by Whales

            First of all, it was probably not the whale’s fault.   I was taking a day off, and was going out paddling with Geoff, the lodge manager, and Mike and Lindsey, two new staff who were very keen to try some sea kayaking.   We packed our lunch, launched our kayaks, and began making our way up the bay towards Aialik Glacier, five miles away.   Shortly after leaving the lagoon, we saw the first whale, which spouted, unusually loudly, maybe a half mile away from us. She appeared at the surface a few times, and then dove.   We got a pretty good look at her.   Then, the second whale turned up – and this whale was both closer to us, and also in the general direction that we were heading.   Geoff took off in a beeline right towards the whale, which was still a few hundred yards away.   I followed, along with the two new staff.   I figured this was one of my only opportunities this summer to do somewhat irresponsible things on the water that I absolutely would not be able to do with guests – like chasing a whale.   Also, I didn’t think that we had any real chance of catching up with this whale.   But, I did hope that we might get close enough to get a better look at the guy, and maybe get some pictures.   

           Famous last words.   

            To my surprise, the whale was continuing to hang out in about the same place in the water, and we were able to get close enough that, when he next came to the surface, we got great views – you could hear his blow, and make out the little whiskery bumps on his chin.   He looked small, for a whale.   He surface again, slighty behind our boats, and I could see his back arch as he started on a deeper dive. 

            About thirty seconds later, a gigantic sea-monster of a whale surfaces right in front of my kayak, bellowing this loud, Tyrannosaurous-style roaring exhale.   It is the loudest sound I have ever heard a whale make, and the whale in question is only about forty feet in front of my boat, and heading straight towards me.   I start backing my boat away, then decide that maybe I shouldn’t get any closer to the whale behind me, and stop paddling.   I think I remember yelling ‘Hey whale’, as though it were a bear, and slapping the sides of my kayak.   The big whale dipped back underwater, but she was so close to the surface that I could see the water being displaced as she swam.   Junior Whale is still behind me, but at the moment, I am far more concerned with the bigger one heading towards my boat.   It felt like we were being herded, like the whales had maybe decided that their preferred hunting strategy - cooperatively driving small fish into a tight cluster that could be easily dispatched in a couple of mouthfuls - would work just as well on kayaks as on krill.   

            The whale came up again, between my boat and the tandem kayak with the new staff, still roaring through her blowhole like she was a charging rhino.   She was close enough that I could have touched her with my paddle.   She dove, deeper this time, and suddenly we were all scanning the water, trying to figure out where the whales were going to come up next – and all desperately hoping that the whale wouldn’t  decide to surface underneath any of our boats.   

            The big whale came up again, on the other side of my kayak, and rolled in the water, almost as though she were trying to get a good look at us.   At this point, I started paddling left, a direction I was pretty sure would take me further away from both of the whales.   Mike and Lindsey were right behind me.   Geoff stayed where he was - blithely reminding us that the whales were really only dangerous to people if they decided to breach on top of our boats – but I figured at this point the whales were making it very clear that they did not want us this close.   And the big whale was still making that shrieking exhale whenever she surfaced.   

            Moments after reminding us of the relative harmlessness of humpback whales, Geoff yells “Oh shit, she’s under my boat!:   He started paddling his kayak out of there faster that I have ever seen him paddle before.   Now that all three of the kayaks were in full retreat, the whales appeared to back off as well, nuzzling against each other’s flanks as they surfaced.   If I hadn’t figured it out before, this was the final clue – this pair was a mother and a calf, and Mom Whale had apparently not been happy with the interest we were taking in her youngster.   

            From the relative safety of 50 yards away, we regrouped, and took some pictures, all of us having been too busy fearing for our lives to do so earlier.   We watched the pair for the next twenty minutes as we continued paddling towards the glacier.   Strangely, Mom Whale almost invariably made the same loud, high-pitched exhalation when she came to the surface.   From a distance, the noise seemed less like an angry bellow, and more like some sort of weird breathing condition.   It almost sounded like something was constricting her airway.   We also noticed that she would occasionally remain motionless at the surface for upwards of a minute, which is unusual for whales.   Our boat crew had also reported seeing a whale elsewhere in the Bay that was spending an inordinate amount of time at the surface.   I think this must have been the same animal.   At any rate, it was a little reassuring to think  that the whale wasn’t intentionally roaring at us when she popped up so close to our boats.  On the other hand, I felt guilty that we’d caused a potentially ill whale to rush over to check on her calf just because we’d wanted a closer look at her baby.   

The humpback whale pair in Aialik Bay

            Was this an asthmatic whale?   Is this what happens when a whale gets a head cold?   We haven’t seen, or heard, from this whale since, so I am assuming she and her calf have moved off to other, fish-filled waters elsewhere in the Gulf of Alaska.   Another, more  kayak-tolerant whale is feeding in the Bay at the moment; we ended up following about fifty yards behind him for around a mile on one of our guide training trips.   (We weren’t chasing this one; we just both happened to be travelling along the same bit of shoreline).   From what I’ve seen in previous seasons, the humpback whales tend to leave the bay by late June – but kayaking with whales in the bay is always a fine line between magical and terrifying.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shoveling out the Snow

            It is a month since my last blog update, and I am now settled back into my summer home at the Iceberg Lodge.   Since leaving New Zealand, I spent five days in West Virginia visiting family, and a hectic week doing pre-season training all over the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su Valley, getting my sea kayak and wilderness first responder certifications renewed before my guiding job started.   My first week back in the US, I was in seven different airports and four different time zones; it was a little exhausting.   

            (The flight attendant on the flight up to Anchorage asked us to kindly turn off and stow our personable electronic devices in preparation for landing.   Does that mean that if my electronic device is introverted and unfriendly, I can keep it turned on for longer?)

            Once I got down to the Kenai Peninsula, I was  able to see for myself the epic, record-breaking amounts of snow that have been blanketing the state of Alaska over the winter.   On May 5, my Subaru was still buried in snow up to the level of the hood.   It took three hours, four people, and a plow truck to extricate my car, (including the time it took to dig out the plow truck when it got stuck trying to clear a path to my car).   There are a bunch of new scratches on the hood from the snow shovel, and the roof is now dented from the weight of the snow, but it’s running fine.   In other words, it’s all ready to sit in the Seward seafood truck lot for another four months until the end of my guiding contract.   

            The first part of my Alaska training week was three days of kayak training on Kenai Lake, getting dumped out of kayaks and practicing how to get back in them, and how to get other people back into them.   It went OK, but I am always a little worried that when we practice this stuff, we are practicing on other kayak guides, who are sort of ideal victims – reasonably athletic and coordinated, who know how to balance on the boats when we’re clambering around them trying to get people back in their seats.   Also, they do as they’re told – something that actual, panicked, cold guests may not do.   It was very cold, even though we were wearing drysuits, and it was sort of a constant battle to stay warm, and to stay focused on what we were doing, and try to ignore the fact that I couldn’t feel my toes.   At the end of the day, my hands looked like they had been beaten with meat tenderizers – all red and swollen.   The day after the boat training finished, I woke up at 4AM to drive up to Palmer for my medical recertification.   It was snowing on both of the high passes, and it was cold enough that the snow was sticking to the road – I was passing snowplows on Turnagin Pass, which was a little surreal for May.   

            Fortunately, there was no snow in Palmer itself, which was good since I was camping out.   Unfortunately, the campsite was very exposed to the wind, and I went to sleep every night to the sound of my rainfly flapping against the tent wall like some sort of deranged bird.   It felt like the tent was going to carry me to Oz.   

            After the kayak training, the medical recertification actually felt like a break, since although we were outside quite a bit, we were dry the whole time, so I was pretty happy.

            Two days later I left for the Iceberg Lodge.   Like the rest of Alaska, the Lodge got slammed with snow this winter.   I had always wanted to see the Lodge in winter, as I have never been out to Aialik Bay any later than September, or any earlier than April.   Now having seen the Lodge covered in eight feet of snow, I feel that my winter bay-visiting ambitions been satisfied.     A lot of the first week was spent digging out things – water tanks, cabins, boardwalks, and access to maintenance buildings.   It’s amazing how long it takes to set up our essential systems (power, water, septic, kitchens) when everything you want to work on has to first be dug out of eight feet of snow.   The weight of the snow actually crumpled a few of our boardwalks, and messed up the siding on a couple of window frames, but, fortunately, there was no structural damage to any of the buildings themselves.    Also, part of our septic system froze.   It was a challenge to figure ut where some of the stuff we needed to dig up eve was.   When we first arrived at the lodge site, we hadn’t finished plowing the road out to the beach, so we loaded up our gear and groceries into sleds and snowshoed in, dragging the sleds behind us, kind of like those pictures of ill-fated Antarctic expeditions back in the 1900s.   Our maintenance team was snowblowing the road with a Bobcat from about 4am until 2am, working in shifts.   Thank goodness for lots of Alaskan summer daylight…    

Snowblowing the boardwalks in front of the lodge

          Currently, we can drive vehicles out to the boat directly – no snowshoeing involved – although we are detouring onto the beach for the last half-mile, which we normally don’t do.   Depending on where the tide is, there isn’t always a lot of room to turn the ATVs around on the beach – and one of the ATVs doesn’t go in reverse anymore, so once you start turning, you are kind of committed.    Turning them always involves an unsettling moment where I am driving downhill directly towards the ocean, but so far, no one’s drowned any equipment.   We have been breaking equipment left and right (mostly snowblowers), but our maintenance guys have so far been able to resuscitate them in a day or two.    Also, the snowpack has been melting out – the little snag tree in front of the lodge is slowly being uncovered, and judging by how much is visible now compared to last week, I estimate we’ve lost about two feet of height since we got here.   When we were first plowing the road, the snow canyon was so high that you couldn’t see over it – there were concerns that an ATV could inadvertently run into a pedestrian – or worse, a bear – because you couldn’t see around any of the bends.   It’s also nice to be able to see out the windows, instead of facing an imposing wall of snow.   

            Now that we’ve cleared the road and the boardwalks, the bears, recognizing a good thing when they see it, are back to wandering through camp.   There’s not a lot of food out there for them right now.   We’ve had one bear on a nearby beach, who seems to be methodically shearing off every single sprouting plant on the entire shore, probably for lack of anything else he can get to.  Also, the half-tame porcupine who lives under our generator shed apparently moved into the vehicle garage over the winter, and chewed up the upholstery on our ATV seats.   D, one of the maintenance guys, has declared that the porcupine’s days are numbered; the rest of the staff have been trying to keep the porcupine away from D, as the critter is probably the closest thing we have to a pet out here.    One staff member successfully kept the porcupine hidden under a workbench for about half an hour before D left and the porcupine could be safely shooed off.   

            The company president was out here for over a week.   He flew by helicopter, and brought with him a replacement hose for a busted hydraulic on our ASV, which is possibly the fastest broken part turnaround in the history of the Iceberg Lodge.   He stayed out for a week, running the snow blower, and assessing the damage.   

            A few days later, a group of our company’s tour escorts arrived for their pre-season orientation trip.    We put them to work shoveling out some of the site – they had to shovel paths to the cabins they were staying in – and also did some training with them on how to steer our canoes.   We still have over a week before the first guests arrive, and I think we are actually on track to be ready for that deadline.   When we first got out here, it didn’t seem like we would be able to open on time.    It helps that for my particular department, all of the staff are returning, so we don’t have to spend time training anyone from scratch.   Now that the road to the beach is open, more or less, we’ve even been able to snowblow paths in the staff area, so that we can get around our half of camp without having to use snowshoes.   I even get a day off tomorrow; life is looking good.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Designed to Separate Tourists from their Money

            On my way over to Christchurch, I spent a few days in Queenstown, which is possibly the one town in the South Island that is guaranteed to inspire strong feelings in the people who visit it.   Not necessarily good feelings, but strong ones.   Before coming to New Zealand, I had heard about the town from two different people.   A friend of my father’s told me ‘It’s like a big resort – you should go there!’   An Iceberg Lodge coworker told me ‘It’s like a big resort – you should stay away!’   I certainly have to agree with the resort part.   Queenstown does seem like a big resort – sort of like a ski town without the skiing.   There’s even a chairlift/gondola going up the side of the mountain near town.   There are also ton of outdoor shops, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and booking offices for adventure activities. Queenstown also reminds me of Glasgow, in the fact that there is a lively commercial district, with lots of shops and pubs, and also the prominent lack of old buildings in the downtown.  With over a million visitors a year, Queenstown can afford to have a commercial district that feels like it belongs to a much larger city.   The town also feels strangely international, since there are a huge amount of tourists, so its possible to hear three or four different languages being spoken all within earshot of one street-side bench.   Unlike Glasgow, the town is incredibly expensive, and Queenstown doesn’t even have the excuse of a bad exchange rate.   And by expensive, I mean that I bought a brand-name merino wool baselayer at 60% off, and it still cost well over a hundred dollars.   Worth it, definitely, but still a little ridiculous.    All together, there are a ton of things to do in Queenstown – but none of them are very cheap.    Also, there are two casinos just in the downtown.   It’s like Queenstown was designed specifically to separate tourists from their money.

            One thing turned out to be cheap.   On the invitation of my hostel’s manager, I went down to the local Irish pub and jammed with a guitarist there for a few hours, for which the bar comp’ed my drinks.   That was pretty awesome, despite the fact that none of the bar partons appeared to be paying us any attention.   Some gigs just go that way, and it was the first opportunity I’d had to play with another musician since I went to Haast, and it was a lot of fun.   I am also happy that I’m visiting Queenstown in the comparative lull between the end of summer and the start of the ski season.   The hostel I stayed at – Alpine Lodge – was very nice, and came complete with its own resident cat, named Greg.   Greg had his own chair in the lounge; humans could use it, but if the cat wanted to lie down, the human had better be prepared to make his or her lap available.   Also at the hostel were half a dozen people on working holiday permits, staying at the hostel while they looked for work and/or accommodation elsewhere in town.   From what I understand, the job market going into the off-season wasn’t looking so good – this is partially based on the fact that most of the job-seekers had, in desperation, applied to work at a nearby call centre that sells funeral packages.   In that light, working as a housekeeper in Haast seems a positively scintillating life choice. 


            There seem to be more than the usual number of Asian tourists in Queenstown – I’m not quite sure why.   The retail shops here seems to be more motivated than most in their efforts to specifically cater to this market – especially in their selection of cosmetics and health supplements.   As in, most of the gift shops stock hand creams with prominently listed ingredients like placenta, and colostrum (both from sheep, according to the label).   As far as I am concerned, those are two words that shouldn’t be used outside of a hospital, or a birthing class.    I am also not clear on what the purported health benefits would be for smearing something like that onto your skin, and I’m a little afraid to ask.   

            Also in Queenstown, are a huge number of local booking offices for tourism companies.   In the age of internet bookings, the offices seem to be deserted an awful lot of the time – every time I passed one, it seemed like the customer service reps were disconsolately staring out of their door.   There are an unlikely large number of bungee jump and skydive operators in town; I am not sure whey anyone would want to pay money for this sort of thing, which probably means that I don’t quite understand the sport anyway.

            I did get to see someone else bungee jumping, which was interesting.   This was during a raft trip on the Kawarau River, and our route took us under the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungee Jump, which is supposedly the oldest commercial bungee-jumping operation anywhere in New Zealand.   The platform looks to be maybe 60 or 70 meters above the river.    Alerted by the bungee operators, our group of rafts pulled over into an eddy to watch the next jump.   The bungee-er did a very graceful swan dive off the platform, free-falling for maybe two seconds before the elastic of the bungee started to slow his fall.   He bounced up and down on the end of the tether a couple of times, and then was lowered headfirst into a yellow inflatable raft, where the bungee operaters began untying the bungee rope from his legs.   It actually looked more graceful, and potentially more fun, than I had expected.   However, at $180 per 3-second jump, bungee-jumping is undoubtedly one of the most efficient ways to spent money in Queenstown.

Kawarau Bungee, photo courtesy Wikipedia

            The most scenic part of the Kawarau river that we rafted was a canyon early on, which was filmed as the River Anduin in the Lord of the Rings movie.   For a film sequence that is not terribly lengthy, the film crew were apparently shooting  in a lot of locations – this is now the fourth river I have come across that is purported to be the River Anduin.   For my money, the Kawarau has a pretty good claim – the canyon is where the Argonath statues were digitally inserted; that’s pretty definitive.   The Argonath canyon is a lot smaller than as portrayed by Peter Jackson, and it’s a little less impressive to think of that film sequence now that I know that the AJ Hackett bungee jump platform is lurking just out of the frame.   

            The raft trip was about three hours, and very nice.   The canyons were pretty; we saw a lot of Paradise shelducks, and the rapids weren’t too bumpy.   We did end up with a backseat driver in my boat, who didn’t seem to have a very high level of confidence that our guide could actually steer the raft without help.    One of the nicest thigns about this rafting company was that they had a sauna waiting for us when we got back and changed out of our wetsuits.   It felt a lot like visiting the Iceberg lodge’s drying room, except without heaps and heaps of wet gear dangling all over the place.    

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

           Earlier today in Christchurch I went to the Botanic Gardens and rented a kayak to paddle up and down the Avon river.   Even for a public park, there were a surprisingly large number of Mallard ducks on the river, all of whom seemed abjectly terrified of my eight-foot plastic boat.   This seems strange, since the ducks have had all of the tourist season to get used to the boats paddling around.   The ducks were still suspicious; they would take off in noisy, panicked groups, fly twenty or thirty meters ahead, and drop back onto the river, only to take off again in a hurry as I paddled closer.   

Herding ducks on the Avon

            After returning the boat, I spent some time walking around Christchurch, or the parts of it that aren’t still cordoned off.    Being a pedestrian in the city can be difficult due to the number of construction and demolition sites, most of which have quite understandably sprawled across the sidewalks and parking lanes surrounding their building.   Walking west from my hostel, the sideways on both sides of the street are blocked off, necessitating a significant detour onto the side streets if you want to get anywhere.   The older, historic buildings have suffered particularly; most are in the process of being rebuilt or demolished, along with most of the downtown’s skyscrapers.   This includes not only Christchurch Cathedral, but many of the city’s old churches, as well as the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Performing Arts Center, and the Christchurch art gallery.   At one of the gates into the red zone, two men in construction hats were chatting with a man in a Gandalf-style robe and pointy hat.   I’m not quite sure what he was doing there - but considering what the city’s been through, I think a little wizardly aid would come in very handy.

            One thing that has sprung up in Christchurch in the wake of the earthquakes are all sorts of temporary structures, based out of garden sheds, shipping containers, converted camper-vans, large tents, and two large geodesic domes that look like Tievak versions of the Epcot golf ball (this is the current performing arts space.)   I got dinner tonight from a Thai restaurant run out of a shipping container that is parked on the concrete pad from what used to be their restaurant.    In fact, is has become so common for displaced restaurants to move into shipping containers that it seems to permeate the Christchurch vocabulary.   As in ‘Then you turn left at the second container on Beally Avenue’, or ‘It’s a big place; they have six or seven containers.’

Butterfly, Botanic Gardens

            So, a quick life update before I finish this post: I am flying out of New Zealand tomorrow, and will be spending a few days in West Virginia visiting family and friends before getting back to Alaska late next week.   I’ll be in the Seward/Moose Pass/Cooper Landing area visiting Alaska friends and family, before heading out to the Iceberg Lodge sometime in mid-May.   My car is still buried in snow, though my cousin reports that the car’s roof is now visible for the first time in several months, so I guess there’s progress.