Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Call of the Kiwi

            Last week, I drove up to Okorito, which is a West Coast town mostly known for being an even smaller town than Haast.   Okorito, though, has the advantage of being less remote, as it is only 25 kilometers away from the bustling tourist metropolis of Franz Josef.   (Cell phones still don’t work there.   It seems to be my destiny to spend large amounts of time in places where modern methods of communication don’t exist.)   I checked into my hostel, the Okorito Beach House, and as soon as I mentioned that I was living in Haast for the summer, the owner immediately offered to comp my bed for the night.   I suppose there’s a lot of love to be shared between tiny West Coast towns.   (The Beach House is a great place, by the way, and even comes complete with kitchen, beach views, and a very friendly dog.)   Okorito itself is lovely and tiny, sitting on the water between the Tasman Sea and the foothills of the Southern Alps.   I think it was love at first sight; I am already hoping for a return visit, (assuming that the aged Nissan passes its warrant of fitness inspection next month).   After I got settled in at the Beach House, I took off up the Okorito Trig trail, a 4-kilometer walk up one of the foothills to the site of an old survey mark, which also gives a great view over the Okarito area.   I didn’t actually mean to do the whole walk, as it was pretty late in the evening, and I needed to meet up with my kiwi tour.   However, after about twenty minutes of walking, I reached a sign that indicated I was already over halfway to the top, so I decided to go for it.   The weather was hazy, but the view from the top was still great.   It was even better considering that I didn’t even have to hike very far uphill to see the view - it helps when the whole landscape you’re looking at is at sea level.   

Looking north from the Okatiro Trig viewpoint

            I got back to the hostel around 7:30, and had just enough time to eat dinner and cover myself in bug repellent before meeting up with the kiwi tour at 8:15pm.   Okorito is one of two places in New Zealand, that I know of, that offers tours which attempt to see kiwi birds in the wild.   One might think that because kiwi are so well-known and adorable, that kiwi-spotting tours might be more common.   Not so.   It is really, really hard to see kiwi in the wild; kiwi tours are not typical wildlife-watching sorts of experiences.   Or perhaps it might be better to say, kiwi tours are penultimate wildlife-watching experiences.   Everything that you have to do on a normal wildlife-watching tour – being quiet and patient, listening to the guide, not approaching an animal too closely, and understanding that the wildlife are doing things on their own schedule, which is not necessarily compatible with yours – you have to do all of these things an even greater extent with kiwi.

            To start with, kiwi are nocturnal; to see one in the wild, you have to be up and about when they are – hence a tour that starts at 8pm, and can continue until well after midnight.   Also, kiwi are pretty cryptic, which is a fancy birder term for being very good at blending in with the scenery.   Kiwi are also territorial - you won't find a flock of kiwi all together in one place - and sadly, most species of kiwi are endangered, mostly due to the kiwi’s complete inability to compete with all of the mammals (cats, stoats, possums, dogs) that humans have introduced to their part of the world.    All of these facts, taken together, means that finding a kiwi in the wild is not a straightforward exercise.   

            The tour got together at 8:15, and right from the start, Ian attempted to explain the near impossibility of what we were going to try to do.   The plan was, we would drive out to a walking trail outside of town, where a network of footpaths crisscrossed the territories of three pairs of kiwi.  Five of those kiwi, helpfully, are tagged with radio transmitters, meaning that it is actually possible to locate them with an aerial.   Unfortunately, even knowing if you know exactly where the bird is, you won't see the kiwi if he's hanging out in the middle of the woods, away from the footpaths.   So, the idea is to use the aerial to figure out where the kiwi are, and what direction they’re moving.   Based on this information, Ian then tries to work out when and where a kiwi might cross one of the footpaths.   We, of course, would try to meet up with the kiwi at that point, remaining motionless and silent as the kiwi scuttles across the path and back into the forest on the other side.   Kiwi sightings (when they happen) aren’t measured in minutes; they’re measured in seconds.   At some points, the whole affair seemed like a very complicated setup to a ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ joke.   

            For me, one of the most educational parts of the tour was in seeing how Ian managed his clients, setting the expectations that we were potentially in for a long night, in a bug-filled forest, and that the entire group being patient, silent, and cooperative was absolutely essential to us clients being able to see a kiwi.   Group management and setting appropriate client expectations are both pretty indispensible skills for a guide – but in the case of a kiwi tour, they’re not necessary to run a tour well – they’re necessary to run a tour at all.    In a perfect world, I would love to bring Ian out to the Iceberg Lodge  and let our guide staff pick his brain about  how he manages tour groups, because he's very, very good at it.

            We all loaded into a van at around eight forty-five, and drove to our chosen stalking ground.   Ian used the time before it got dark to get the group into position, and to run through what we  were going to do in order to (a) locate a kiwi, and (b) make sure that everyone in the group got to see the bird if/when the kiwi crossed the path.   Basically, once Ian located approximately where the kiwi was, we were going to be strung out along the path in a long line of human listening stations, fifty or sixty feet apart.   Our job was to stand there and listen for the kiwi walking around.   If one of us got a hit, we were to alert Ian and the rest of the clients  via handheld radios, and we would converge on the part of the trail where the kiwi was making noise.   Ian even ran through how he wanted us to stand on the path if/when the kiwi emerged.   Thus prepared, we took our assigned stations along the path as night began to fall.   

            I was monitoring the right-hand side of a small clearing to one side of the trail.   I didn’t have a watch with me, so I have no idea how long I sat there listening – but it seemed like quite a while.   The woods were almost totally dark – we had starlight, but the moon hadn’t risen yet - so mostly it was just me and the forest, and the mosquitoes buzzing around my head.   It was about five minutes into my listening stint that I realized that I no idea what a kiwi walking around in the forest actually sounded like.   This hadn’t been explicitly brought up, so I figured it must be one of those you-know-it-when-you-hear-it things.  All I know is, the forest seemed very quiet, up until the moment I was sitting alone in the dark listening for a bird to walk by.  Then, it seemed like there were noises all over the place – bugs, owls, rustling footsteps of other clients, and maybe, maybe, the footsteps of a foraging kiwi.   Twice in the course of perhaps half an hour, I heard a leaf crunch from somewhere off to the right, and making me clutch my radio a little tighter, but I never heard a repeat to the sound.   In retrospect, I think it’s possible that perhaps there was a kiwi walking around in the woods, but we wouldn't hear more of her until later.

            After maybe half an hour, Ian gave up on that section of trail and moved the whole group to another area.   Shortly after we were deployed in our new locations -we heard the kiwi.   Not footsteps, unfortunately, and not very close.   Instead, the kiwi were calling.   The male started out – a high yodel, and after a moment, the female answered him with a lower-pitched, growly noise.   Hearing them was awesome, but as Ian explained in a huddled conference, it did not particularly bode well for us seeing the birds.   The male kiwi, having gotten a response to his call, was probably going to try and meet up with the female – taking him further away from the footpath we were hoping he’d cross.   After more fiddling with the aerial, we set out for a new location, and ended up back at the wide clearing where I had heard the puzzling leaf crunch noises.   We waited in silence.   After several minutes, it became clear that something was moving around in the bushes just off the trail.   There would be a slight rustle of movement, a footstep or two, and then nothing for several minutes.   There was a kiwi, and she was close, but apparently not very happy about our proximity.   She’d take a few steps, and then freeze in place for a few minutes, apparently hoping we’d leave, and she could continue hunting for her dinner without an audience of foreign tourists hanging on her every footstep.   This was Husky, the one kiwi in Ian’s kiwi-spotting area without a radio transmitter.   According to Ian, this bird is so shy and retiring that not only have the DOC never managed to get a radio transmitter on her, but Ian himself, who spends most of his nights out here tracking the birds, only sees this particular kiwi a handful of times a year.   

            Husky was not interested in being visible in this instance, either.   After several minutes of listening to the bird capering through the woods just off the trail, Ian decided we ought to cut our losses, and try to locate another kiwi that might be more amenable to coming out of the woods.   Unfortunately, the other kiwi seemed even less inclined to hang out by the trail than Husky; we only heard the faintest of blips from the aerial.   In the end, we got back to Okorito around 12:30AM, tired, bug-bitten, and kiwi-less.   

            Despite the fact that we never actually saw a kiwi, the kiwi tour made for a pretty interesting night.   I think it helped that I am possibly less vested in seeing a wild kiwi than the other clients, as I’ve already gotten up close and personal with kiwi at the DC zoo where I used to volunteer.   But it was interesting just to be out in the forest at night.   It was also neat to hear the kiwi calling –which happened two or three times.   And possibly, being stood up by Husky the kiwi makes up for all of the times I had to wake up the zoo’s kiwi in their burrows to do our daily checks.   (I was supposed to make sure all of the birds were alive, still in their enclosures, and looked reasonably happy and healthy.   For the kiwi, since we were waking them up in the middle of the day to check on them, ‘happy and healthy’ nearly always meant ‘sleepy and pissed off’.)

Kayaking down a tidal stream near the Okorito Lagoon

            After snatching about five hours of sleep, I got up the next morning, and rented a kayak from Okarito Nature Tours to go out and explore the Okorito Lagoon.   The lagoon, according to my guidebook, is one of the largest unmodified wetlands in New Zealand, and is a local hot spot for shorebirds and waterfowl.   I had hoped to see white herons, which have a breeding colony on the far side of the lagoon.   In order to visit the heron colony itself, you have to go out with a jet boat tour from Whataroa .   It’s probably a great tour – but I decided I would rather pay half as much, skip seeing the nests, and be able to paddle my own boat.   The lagoon is also a great place for shorebirds because so much of it is shallow – I could be paddling fifty yards from shore, and see an oystercatcher standing in three inches of water forty feet away.   In addition to the oystercatchers and herons, I also saw stilts – which are just as tall and gangly as their name implies, black swans, and bar-tailed godwits – a totally amazing bird that I did not think  I would be able to see on this trip.  Godwits spend May through September in my part of the world.   They breed in western Alaska, and migrate across the Pacific to take advantage of a second summer in the southern hemisphere.   Migrating across the entire Pacific Ocean sounds intense, but a surprising number of shorebird species do this (or make even longer migrations from Alaska or Canada down to Brazil, Patagonia, or the Antarctic).  The amazing thing about the godwits isn’t that they cross the Pacific, it’s how they cross the Pacific.   During the trip from New Zealand to Alaska, the birds take a westerly route, stopping to rest at wetlands in Australia, the Korean peninsula, and Kamchatka.   After this leisurely circumnavigation, the birds are in good enough shape after their migration to start breeding immediately.  (Summer is short in the Arctic, so the birds don’t have much time to waste.)   For a long time, it was thought that the godwits flew back to New Zealand using the same route.   In fact, they don’t – in the autumn, the godwits leave Alaska and head southwest, embarking on a nine-day, nonstop flight direct to New Zealand, flying over most of the Pacific Ocean in the process.    At 11,000 kilometers, the godwit’s epic journey home is the longest known nonstop migratory flight of any animal.

            In addition to the birds, I also got to explore some tidal streams flowing into the lagoon, where I saw a group of native scaup (a small duck with a blueish bill).   Paddling in the lagoon has gotten me excited about doing some more river kayaking in New Zealand while I’m here.   Kayaking in Alaska is mostly about big, huge, far-off vistas – mountains, glaciers, and sea cliffs.   (Disclaimer: sometimes kayaking in Alaska is also about sideways rain, sea fog, and mild hypothermia.)   There’s a lot of great scenery, but you usually don’t get close-up looks at the areas you’re passing unless you actually get out of your boat.   It’s almost like the Alaskan sea coast is too big to be able to see it in small sections.   It was nice to be able to paddle down a river where I could get right up to the bank, and see moss-covered tree branches dropping down right into the water from above my head.   

Up a creek in Okorito...

            After returning my kayak, I loaded up the Nissan and headed back to Haast.   Before I got going, a very nice guy from Okorito Nature Tours helped me disengage the choke on the Nissan using a pair of pliers.   (Yes, my car has a choke knob.   Or rather, had a choke knob.    Previously ’ve only seen these things on snowblowers, and other machines with very tiny engines.)   I loaded up on groceries in Franz Josef, (their grocery store has items that are difficult to find in Haast, things like bread, fresh fruit, and yoghurt) and drove back down the highway in intermittent rain.   Okorito is beautiful, and I am already looking forward to a return trip – to paddle more tidal waterways, and perhaps actually see a kiwi on a kiwi tour.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tramping on the Moeraki River Track

            On my most recent days off, I went on a  two-day hike up the Moeraki River track, one of a number of hut-to-hut trails on this part of the West Coast.   I picked this trail over the Haast-Paringa Cattle Track (which shares the first two kilometers of trail) because it looked agreeably flat on the topo map, and also because I could leave my car at one place and not have to worry about getting shuttled back and forth between two different trailheads.   In retrospect, I think the Cattle Track might actually have been the easier tramp, even though it goes up to about 600 meters above sea level.   The track from the car park to the Moeraki River turnoff was fine, but as soon as I actually got onto the Moeraki track, the trail got bad in a hurry.   As in, I have hiked on animal trails that were easier to follow than this track.  My theory is that the DOC cut out a six-foot-wide swath for the trail about five or six years ago, and have basically left it alone since.    It was pretty well-blazed in most places – which was good, because other than the blazes, there is very little indication of which way the trail actually goes.   Plus, there are a lot of un-bridged creeks to cross, and numerous tree falls and flood damage to skirt round.    And because this is the West Coast, the trail was extremely muddy.   So muddy that in some places, you aren’t just getting mud on your boot and trousers.   It’s so muddy that when you take a step, you sink up to your knee, and then have an argument with the mud over who gets to keep your boot.   Overall, the hiking was much more technical than I had expected from an established (if little-used) tramping track.   It was the sort of hiking where you are continually looking for trail blazes, and constantly watching where you put your feet.

The Moeraki River track

            So, the trail itself sort of sucked – but the area it went through was fantastic.   There were lots of birds, some of whom were openly curious about me – I don’t think they see people back in there very often.   A pair of fantails were checking me out, and later a whole brood of tom tits got very close and gave me a once-over.   I also saw the Blue Ducks on the river.   The name for Blue Ducks in Maori is whio, and now I know why – it is exactly the noise they make.   Their call is like what you would get by crossbreeding a mallard with a car alarm.   The first whio I spotted was alarm calling, but not leaving – I suspect the bird may have had a nest or chicks in the area, so I didn’t stay very long to look at him.   The whio have enough trouble raising their chicks as it is, as their eggs are often eaten by stoat, one of New Zealand’s many bird-eating invasive species.

            Along the first part of the track, the Moeraki River runs along a boulder-filled channel, and the trail follows the river along the top of the gorge.   Shortly before the gorge leveled out, I found a great lunch spot, where a dried-out tributary stream enters into the Moeraki.   I was able to walk along the old creek, and get on top of some of the big boulders on the edge of the river.   Just past the dried creek, the river mellowed out, becoming slower and flatter, and the trail started following the river more closely.   Occasionally, the trail was so close that it had actually eroded away, and I had to divert into the forest for a few yards.   There were good views of Mount Collins on the other side of the river, and the Moeraki River itself was beautiful.   Only in Alaska have I seen water that clear.   Amazing how awesome a river can look when its entire watershed is contained within a wilderness area.   One side effect of the water clarity s that it’s hard to be sure how deep a stream is by looking at it – a few of the streams I had to ford were approaching thigh-deep, and I never quite knew in advance how deep I would go with each step.   

            Further along, the Moeraki River trail entered the Horseshoe Flats.   These are a series of boggy meadow areas strung along a wide spot in the Moeraki valley.  There was less mud here, but the grass growing in the meadows was so tall that it completely obscured where the trail was – it was hard enough just figuring out where to put my foot without landing in a bog, or tripping over a tussock.    Some of the meadows had trail blazes –little orange triangles attached to metal poles, but in some of the meadows, I think the metal poles have fallen over or been washed out by floods.    So, occasionally, figuring out where the trail continues on the other side of the meadow was a combination of logical , and scanning the meadow verges with binoculars.   There were maybe half-a-dozen of these clearings strung out over three or four kilometers.   From the clearings, I could see back towards the Moeraki valley headwall, with Mount Eureka to the southern side.   Eureka still had snow on it – we had a cold snap over the weekend, and most of the taller summits are still sprinkled with termination dust.   (Yes, January is in the middle of summer in this hemisphere, and yes, the weather here is weird.)

The trail through Horseshoe Flats

            I got to Horseshoe Flats Hut at about 4:15pm, and although I had originally wanted to go further into the valley to a second hut near the Moeraki headwall, I had had enough trouble getting this far along the trail, that I decided to stay at the Horseshoe Flats hut, instead.   I had noticed earlier that whatever was growing in the Horseshoe Flats meadows included a plant I’ll call Allergy Grass.   Unfortunately, the Horseshoe Flats hut was built in a clearing of the stuff.    So I spent most of the evening on the riverbank near the hut (which was beautiful) to get away from the stuff.   My allergies weren’t bad in the hut itself (I had decided that in a worst-case scenario I would drag out of the hut mattresses down to the river and sleep there), but I still had a pretty bad sinus headache for most of my stay.   Otherwise, the hut was lovely –six bunks, a skylight, a wood fireplace, a few tables, and a stack of 1990s hunting magazines.
            According to the hut register, the most recent group to come out to the hut was on January 2 – I had been the only tramper on the route in over two weeks.   If you average out the entries in the hut log, the Moeraki River track has a visitation rate of less than five people a month.   It certainly added to the feeling of isolation – not only was the area remote, but this was a remote-ness that had successfully kept human presence in the valley to a bare minimum.   Plenty of places are remote; the tourists find them anyway, the locals set up coffee stands, and the eco-tourism industry continues apace.   Westland, for the moment, is big enough to have whole watersheds that have yet to be ‘discovered’ by mainstream tourism.   

            The next morning I left the hut in a hurry and went back to the riverbank to eat my breakfast.   I started walking back around 7am, at which point the dew was still liberally covering all of the grass in the meadows.   This was a good thing insofar as it seemed keep the pollen from the Allergy Grass in check, but I also ended up drenched with dew inside of ten minutes.   That was basically the theme for the next three hours of hiking.   I got back to the awesome rocks by the river, ate a long lunch, and stripped down to my base layer so I could attempt to dry out my trousers and socks.   It kind of worked.   Then five minutes after I started walking again, I had to cross another thigh-deep stream, which quickly undid most of the previous hour’s sunbathing, at least as far as my socks were concerned.   

            I got back to Haast around 3:30pm or so, very thankful that I had such a great hike, and that I had non-raining weather for the entire time.  I estimate it took about five and a half hours of walking (i.e. not counting breaks) to get from the trailhead to the hut, which vaguely correlated with the DOC’s six-hour estimate.   Vaguely being the operative word.   Is it some sort of international hiking convention that land management agencies are incapable of accurately gauging the mileage of trails on their land?   I ran across estimated travel time signs in three places, and their time lengths between various segments of the trail never seemed to be in agreement with each other.    

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kiwi Holidays Part 2

            On Boxing Day, after spending most of Christmas Day hiking around Fox Glacier, I actually went onto Fox Glacier, though a half-day hike with Fox Glacier Guides.   I had already been hiking on Franz Josef Glacier, but I was interested in getting on the ice at Fox as well – and I was also interested in how the tours actually ran from a client’s perspective.   Going up on a glacier as part of a job interview was definitely unique, if ultimately unsuccessful – but I was interested to see how the tours actually work.   The guide I went with was Richard – who incidentally also works, in the Northern summers, for Mica Guides on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.   

            Two things impressed me right away about the tours – first, that our group actually stopped at a few places before we even got to the glacier, to talk about what we were going to look at, and how the glacier had carved out the valley we were walking through.   I actually learned a few things about valley glaciers that I didn’t know (and considering that I’ve worked as a glacier guide myself for two years now, I think that’s a great sign that the Fox guides definitely know their stuff).    

           The other thing that struck me was how crowded the glacier was once we got onto the ice.   There were probably around seventy-five to a hundred people on the ice, in groups of a dozen or so, all walking around stiffly with our rental crampons and alpenstocks.   Possibly, the fact that it was crowded explained why we stopped as often as we did on the hike – knowing how to stagger group arrival times being a crucial skill in tour guiding in any continent.    I don’t recall Franz Josef Glacier being quite so crowded, but I think this is more a fact of the time of year, and differences in the geography of the glaciers themselves.   Franz Josef is supposedly one of the steepest commercially guided glaciers anywhere in the world, and it felt like there were a lot more crevasses and steeper terrain.   Fox Glacier, by comparison, was mostly flatter and more open.   In some ways, the ice landscape was less dramatic that the constant cliffs and crevasses on Franz - but I can appreciate that the group management aspects must be a lot easier.   The open terrain also made it easier to see the other groups on the ice, which contributed to the feeling of the glacier being slightly more crowded than I had expected a glacier (even a commercially guided one) to be.   There was an initial climb up ice steps to get onto the glacier, but after that it was pretty open, sort of like a high, ice-covered meadow.   From where we were, I could see the a further line of crevasses and ice cliffs farther up the glacier – apparently the full-day glacier tours have the time to hike all the way up to the base of the cliffs – but where we were, we mostly walked around and explored some features lower on the glacier.   

Hiking up the side of Fox Glacier.   You can see the guides further up, cutting out steps with their ice axes.

            We checked out a few of the smaller crevasses, including one that the Fox guides had helpfully roped off, so that we could look down into it without actually falling in.   Most of the crevasses we were looking at were exit channels for the surface water that was melting off of the glacier.   Our tour got very lucky with the weather – it was sunny and warm (though that’s relative on the glacier; we were all wearing fuzzy layers and windbreakers), and the ice was nicely pliable under our crampons.   The crampons, I noticed, weren’t quite as easy to put on and off as the crampons I had at Franz, but other than that, I have to say that my impression is that Fox Glacier Guides is the better company.   On the other hand, Fox Glacier appears to be an easier environment to guide in – and, as I’ve noted here before, in guiding adventure activities with safety concerns, the higher the safety concern, the more resources, training time, and focus of the guide goes into dealing with that safety concern, often to the detriment of other aspects of the tour.   This is by no means a criticism – if a company can’t address the safety issues relevant to the tours they run, they have no business running tours in the first place – but it is a basic fact of life in adventure tourism.

            We got back to Fox township in the early afternoon, where it was back to t-shirt weather, and the aged Nissan and I took off down Highway 6 back to Haast.   The highway has a great view of the Southern Alps for most of the drive, partially due to the fact that much of the road is built right overtop the Alpine Fault – the divide between the Indo-Australian and Pacific continental plates.   It’s that fault that has built (and is building) the mountain ranges on the island’s west coast.   The mountains are still growing, about as fast as your fingernails, is the oft-quoted figure.   I stopped for coffee again at the salmon farm, and again at a place called Bruce’s Bay, where I attempted to figure out how to use the self-timer feature on my camera.   I did figure it out, but I also dropped my camera into the sand while the lens was open, completely jamming the motor that lets the lens extend and retract.   (Later, I successfully resuscitated the camera using a penknife and the motel vacuum cleaner, but the motor still makes noises, possibly indicating that the camera’s day of reckoning has merely been postponed…)

            Incidentally, I’ve learned that the chain of mountains running the length of the west coast are not, technically, all considered the Southern Alps, which is how they’re listed in most general travel books.   If you begin looking at topographical maps, or tramping guides, these authors subdivide the mountains into an inordinate number of miniature ranges – Fox, Balfour, Mataketake, Leibig – leaving the official ‘Southern Alps’ designation to the line of highest summits right in the middle.   Most of these so-called ranges are small enough that in Alaska at least a few of these so-called ranges would more likely be classified as a single mountain with a couple of false summits added on.   I don’t know if this specificity in nomenclature has any geological basis to it or not – possibly there were just a lot of people in the late 1800s that had an interest in naming mountain ranges.   Coming from a country where the average mountain ranges are sometimes hundreds of miles long, it’s a little baffling that I can pass four different so-called mountain ranges, all in a forty-five minute drive to Jackson’s Bay.   With all of these mountain ranges around, it’s still a little disappointing that there aren’t actually any mountains near Haast.   The best we can do is a large-ish outcrop of basalt on the north bank of the Haast River, which goes by the charming (and, unfortunately, accurate) name of Mosquito Hill.

            One final thing I learned from my road trip is that Britz campervans are by far the scariest motor vehicles on the road.  I think it’s the industrial-strength side-view mirrors.   The vans are made by VW, but the body plan has more in common with a Mack truck than with any other model of motorhome.   Also, the  the fact that they weigh about six times as much as my Nissan.    I feel like diving into the verge every time I see one in the oncoming lane.   They’re like tanks, four tons of German engineering barreling along the lefthand lane, and possibly being driven by a retiree from Ohio who still hasn’t gotten used to the turn signal being on the wrong side of the steering wheel.   (In New Zealand, you can tell when a rental car is about to make a turn – the car slows down and the windshield wipers turn on.   I did this a lot when I first started driving here.)   

            Thankfully, not all of the campervans here are the size of the Britz models.   Mostly, New Zealand has wholeheartedly embraced the idea of campervans that are actually van-sized.   Here, you can rent a motor home that’s the size of a Honda Odyssey.   They look a little claustrophobic.   There’s room for a dining room, which converts to a bed, which converts into a sofa, and it all fits in very handily, and makes great use of the tiny available space.   The problem is that most people who rent campervans actually want to put stuff inside them, like clothes, or fishing gear, or spouses.    The vans I see driving around always look like some sort of combination suitcase/grocery bag explosion – there just isn’t room for the people, plus the people’s stuff, plus the campervans.  You’d be better off to rent a station wagon, and keep a foam mattress and sleeping bags in the back – you’d actually have a lot more space.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Kiwi Holidays Part 1

            I drove the venerable Nissan up to Fox Glacier on Christmas Eve, after checking the last guest out of Lost Lodge.   I stopped to hike one of the short trails at Ship Creek, an area named for yet another historical disaster in the Haast area.   The ship Schoenberg ran aground north of the creek in the 1860s.   A few months later, part of the ship washed up at the mouth of this cove, got stuck on the sand, and became a fixture of the beach for the next half century as it slowly decayed.   Today there’s a picnic area, a lookout tower, and a couple of short nature trails.   I also stopped at the Lake Paringa salmon farm café.   I was impressed – some of their salmon compare favorably with the size of the ducks they’re sharing the ponds with.   I could almost hear the Jaws theme song playing as the fish were cruising on behind the mallards.   There were little jars with fish food available for purchase; I declined, as the fish look pretty overfed as it is.   All in all, the trip took about three hours, not counting the time I spent waiting for the Nissan’s engine to warm up.

            Once I got to Fox township, I drove out to Lake Matheson in the evening, and walked around the lake.   Lake Matheson is a tourist attraction not so much because of the lake itself, but because if you stand at a certain point on the north shore,  you can (atmospheric conditions depending) get a picture of Aoraki (the tallest mountain in New Zealand) reflected in Lake Matheson.   On Christmas Eve, the weather was fantastic, but the Southern Alps were only showing themselves in bits and pieces, and the wind on the lake was too strong to get a reflection.   The lake was gorgeous anyway.   There were also some nice birds around, including a very obliging kereru (native wood pigeon) who let me take photos of him with Aoraki in the background.   The scenic atmosphere of the lake was somewhat compromised towards the end of the walk, when the car alarm from a campervan in the parking lot was blaring for about twenty minutes.   
A kereru (native wood pigeon) with the Southern Alps in the background.

            Christmas Day, I spent with Fox Glacier.   Although I couldn’t get up on the ice without going on a guided tour (for very good reasons), I took the public trail which ended about 100 yards from the ice.  At least, I thought I was about 100 yards from the ice.   Later, I learned that a substantial portion of both the footpath, and the car park, have been built on top of dead ice – parts of the glacier that became separated from the main mass of ice, and have been subsequently buried in rubble.   Because the rubble insulates the ice, the dead ice can take decades to melt – but it does melt, so every so often, giant sinkholes open up in the car park.   The DOC (Department of Conservation; New Zealand’s version of the NPS)  brings in truckloads of gravel every year to counterbalance the melting and keep the roadbed level.   In fact, between the sinkholes, the floods, the avalanches, and the rockfalls, keeping the road and the footpath open is a continual construction job.  Originally, the glacier access road was built along the east side of the valley.   After a few decades of regularly clearing out rockfall and avalanches off of the road, the DOC rebuilt the road further away from the side of the hill.   As the new road was now closer to the glacier’s outflow stream, it promptly started getting washed out by floods.   At this point, the DOC has basically resigned themselves to the fact that any access road to such a geologically active area is going to be a perpetual construction job.   In two places, the DOC have even built boulder-like dams to try and divert the glacier outflow stream to the opposite side of the valley from the road.   We’ll see how long that lasts…   

            Appropriately, the glacier access area is peppered with warning signs describing the various ways that Fox Glacier could kill you if you venture of off the public path.   Boulders or ice chunks could fall on your head.   Sinkholes could open up under your feet.   Floods could sweep you off your feet, or rise suddenly and cut you off on the wrong side of the river.   Most dramatic of all, you could get caught in a surge wave, which is a glacier’s version of a tsunami wave.   Actually, glaciers have two kinds of tsunami waves.   

This glacier can kill you in the following ways...

            Tidewater glaciers, like the glaciers I visit in Alaska, create waves (usually) by calving ice.   These glaciers terminate in salt water (that’s why they’re called tidewater glaciers), and the salt water works to melt the glacier.   In fact, the part of the glacier that’s below the water melts a lot faster that the part of the glacier that’s above the water.   So, if you look at the face of a tidewater glacier, it looks pretty even – like a big cliff that just happens to be made out of ice instead of rock.   But if you could look at the entire face of the glacier, including the part that’s underwater, you’d see that that nice, stable ice face is actually being undercut.   The ice that’s supporting that big impressive white cliff is melting away.   And when enough ice melts away, part of the glacier shears off, and plummets into the water in front of it.   That’s calving; this is how icebergs are formed.   

            If you’re going to be exploring tidewater glaciers in kayaks, you don’t want to be anywhere near where those chunks of ice are going to fall.   That part’s pretty obvious.   Actually, you want to be even further away from the ice than you think you want to be.   This is where the tsunami waves come in.   

            Tsunami waves are not necessarily caused by earthquakes.  (In fact, the largest wave ever recorded anywhere on Earth was a tsunami wave caused by an enormous landslide, in a place called Lituya Bay, in the Inside Passage.)   Tidewater glaciers are particularly good at creating lots of miniature tsunami waves.   When a big piece of ice is calved off (and by big, I mean something the size of an office building), the water in front of the ice rises so high, and so quickly, that calling it a wave does not do the phenomenon justice.   It is more like the water in front of the glacier suddenly decides that it wants to be thirty or forty feet higher than the water everywhere else.  Which is another great reason why kayaks should never go closer than a mile from the face of a tidewater glacier.   Even if you are too far away for calving ice to hit you directly, the giant tidal waves can make life very interesting for someone in a 14-foot plastic boat.

            One of my colleagues at the Iceberg Lodge’s parent company used to work as a sea kayak guide in Prince William Sound.   There was a particular bluff overlooking the Columbia Glacier that her company used as a lunch spot.   It was about thirty feet above the water, and far enough from the face of the glacier that no one worried about the bluff being swamped by calving.   Until one day a tour arrived at the lunch spot, and sitting on the bluff next to them was an iceberg the size of a compact car.   One can only speculate on what sort of cataclysmic calving event created a wave powerful enough to throw an iceberg that far up a hill.  But it’s a good example of how powerful, and unpredictable, glaciers can be.   

            So that’s one kind of glacier tsunami.   Valley glaciers like Fox Glacier (which are most glaciers that terminate on land) can create another kind of quasi-tsunami, which is known as a surge wave.   First of all, valley glaciers don’t calve.  This is not to say that ice chunks don’t fall off of valley glaciers, because they do (so walking directly up to one still isn’t a great idea), but it happens much less frequently, since there isn’t anything undercutting the ice.   But what valley glaciers have are outflow streams.   (Technically, tidewater glaciers have outflow streams as well, but they’re usually underwater, so they're much less visible.)   The outflow stream is the glacier’s own melt water.   As the glacier’s ice melts, the water forms channels and streams within the glacier itself, all flowing downhill.   You can almost think of the melt water as comprising a miniature watershed inside the ice, with smaller streams joining with others, slowly becoming bigger, and always flowing downhill.    Eventually this water flows out of the glacier, usually through a tunnel at the glacier’s terminus.   

            Glaciers, as I hope I’ve made clear by this point, are not terribly stable things.   Occasionally, a glacier can actually damn up its own outflow stream.   A part of the ice shifts, and blocks that network of channels, and suddenly, the outflow stream begins to slow to a trickle, just like someone turning off a tap.   he only thing in front of the glacier is a big, uneven, gravely streambed.    Meanwhile, the trapped water inside the glacier building up, and exerting more and more pressure on the ice around it.   Eventually, the water's going to find another channel, either following it’s original course, or by breaking through a weak spot in the ice somewhere else in the glacier.   

            What does this mean for someone watching the glacier?   That if you suddenly see an outflow stream dry up, get to higher ground, and turn on your camera.   (In that order, please.)   Because sooner or later, a giant wave is going to come rushing out of the glacier, and the water might not even have the courtesy to follow its original watercourse.  That’s a surge wave.

Surge wave warning sign at Fox Glacier

            The other weird thing about glacier outflow streams is that they actually get higher and higher over time.   If you think of water working on a landscape, most people think of erosion as the main way that water works on a landscape.   If a river runs in the same place for long enough, it wears down the rock around it, and thousands of years later, you get the Grand Canyon.   Glacier streams are a little different.   The outflow streams are constantly bringing down rocks and debris from higher on the glacier, and all of this rock settles out of the water and ends up all over the outwash plain.   Then a flood comes along, fills the outwash plain, and levels off the debris.   Once the flood subsides, the outwash plain looks a lot flatter – but it’s actually an inch or two higher, thanks to all the rocks that the glacier brought down.   According to the guides at Fox Glacier, you can chart the progress of this sediment buildup by watching boulders in the outflow stream slowly get buried as the level of the riverbed creeps up every year.

            Later in the day I got another look at how Fox Glacier has been changing.   After I got back from the public footpath to the glacier’s face, I took another hike up to the chalet viewpoint.   The chalet currently exists as little more that a chimney and a few piles of rocks, but in the 1940s it was the hub of tourism on Fox Glacier.   Back then, getting to the glacier meant walking in from Fox township.   Of course, the glacier was several kilometers closer than it is currently, but the toe of the glacier was squeezed between two steep cliffs, which meant that there was no good way to get onto the ice from there.   The guides’ solution was to hike up an adjacent valley, climb over a low saddle, and drop down onto the glacier from above.   The chalet served as their lunch spot and warming hut.   Today the glacier is nowhere near the old chalet, but the trail still provides a great view of the glacier itself, which is now several kilometers further up the valley.   

Fox Glacier from the chalet viewpoint

            Later on Christmas Day, I went back to the hostel, as the staff were putting on a huge Christmas barbeque for everyone who was staying there.   Out of the twenty or so people at the hostel, three of us were from Alaska.   For us people from the northern hemisphere, I think there’s something about Christmas that calls out for cold weather.   In New Zealand in December, if you want to be cold, your options are either visiting a glacier, or a glowworm cave…