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.