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.