A Travellerspoint blog

August 2011

An Evening at Niagara Falls

The Canadian Side, Tourist Traps, The Falls, and Burlington, Vermont

sunny 79 °F

Niagara Falls
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I could tell we were entering the land of tourists long before we ever crossed the border into Canada. Giant signs touting “FALLS INFORMATION” were festooned all over the American side, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. After all, a natural feature as fantastic as a giant waterfall must be exploited, and cash carrying tourists are the quarry.

I knew I was heading into Disneyland, but I still wanted to see the falls. I’ve always liked falling water, and the immensity of these falls attracted me.

We crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada with ease on a balmy summer evening in mid August. The fine mist from the spray of the falls was on my left, and the gorge was on my right. I had to concentrate on driving however, and didn’t get to gawk at the falls. My girlfriend has a small white subcompact, that I dubbed “Little Tooth” which is great on gas, but doesn’t offer much elevation to see much over the sides of bridges.

After passing customs, we followed the signs to the edge of the gorge and past the two sets of falls towards the parking lots, which are some distance away from the falls. The lots were charging twenty dollars a pop to park, but since my companion knew the area well, we continued past the lots and pulled into a small park with free parking. She’s got beauty and brains, hot damn, I’m lucky. We parked and walked back toward the main overlook of the falls past small streams, the old power station (which is an impressive architectural site as well). While walking along, I looked out over the rushing water, and wondered what it was like to see these falls for the first time if you didn’t know that they were there. Imagine taking a raft down the river, and suddenly you start to hear a dull roar that only kept getting louder as the water became much swifter.
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Then I started wondering what it was like to go over in a barrel. Daredevils have been trying this stunt for as long as there have been people coming to view the falls. These days, these kinds of stunts are highly illegal and frowned upon. The Niagara Falls operators have been trying to discourage this kind of stunts for decades. I suppose they feel it makes their falls kind of a sideshow act or something.
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Just recently, one of the “Flying Wallendas” (of tight rope walking fame) was trying to set up a high wire act to walk across the gorge in front of the falls. The City of Niagara Falls, New York sponsored the idea as a way to bring in more people to their struggling city. However, the casino/hotel rich Canadians of Niagara Falls, Ontario aren’t facing financial difficulties at the moment, and won’t consent to the attempt.
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Some Facts:
Niagara Falls consist of two sets of falls, Horseshoe Falls and American Falls. They are formed by the awesome power of water that drains from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. Horseshoe falls are around 2600 feet and drop around 170 feet into the gorge. The American falls are just over 1000 feet wide and fall somewhere between 70 and 100 feet. That’s a lot of water.

Both sides of the gorge offer views of the falls, but the Canadian side offers a head on look at them, compared to the side view the Americans see. The overlook sidewalk was full of tourists, all of them were milling about, taking pictures of their companions (big smiles), then handing off the camera to another so they can get in on the act (more big smiles). A woman saw my camera and asked me to take a picture of her and “Bob” with their camera. I was happy to do so, and I wished them a good evening.
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Finally, I neared the edge of Horseshoe falls. I had to wait until an opening appeared at the rail. The aforementioned cliques of tourists swarmed to the rail and away from it like flocks of migrating black birds, each taking turns with their backs to the falls, then moving on for another perspective.
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I was impressed. The falls are powerful, robust, and awe inspiring. They were cool to see, and I enjoyed my time at the rail. I had my camera out, and tried to focus more on the natural side of things (of course). It was hard, but not impossible to get good portraits of the falls without including smiling tourists.

I won’t lie (much). I took the obligatory couples shot of my lady and myself in front of the falls. I think it’s a requirement to seeing the falls. I happily paid my dues. What I don’t understand is the allure of getting married or engaged at the falls. What’s romantic about a tourist trap? I mean the falls are beautiful, and would make a nice backdrop for such things, but the fact is, you aren’t going to get the falls all to yourself, ever. But I guess I’m a loony and don’t know much about true love. Ah well, maybe in time I’ll understand.
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We ended our evening on a high note with a beautiful sunset. Unfortunately we were back in Little Tooth and couldn’t get out to take advantage of the scene (aka take a photo), so we just enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed my visit to Niagara Falls.

On Burlington.
If you were in the business of designing a city, you might want to consider Burlington, Vermont as your footprint. Burlington has many good things going for it, and people from around the country are starting to take notice.

Burlington is located up in the northwest part of the state, on the east side of Samuel De Champlain’s Lake. Champlain was credited with being the first hombre to come stomping by, probably in search of beaver pelts.

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Vermont takes great pride in promoting local food first, and Burlington leads the way. In every restaurant we visited the menu was full of ingredients from farms surrounding the Burlington area. It was also really cool to see were all the small farms that were in business on the way into town. We drove in on highway seven past the lush farms in the peak of their growing season. There were rich cornfields with corn straight and tall. Beans, berries apples and peaches, fresh eggs and grass fed beef among other farm fresh products were for sale, and it was hard not to get excited. This is how food ought to be. Buy it local, support your neighbors, and get it fresh.

Burlington is an old city (established in 1785). Burlington is mixing pot of college kids, working professionals, crunchy green culture, and progressive thinkers. It was a refreshing place to look around and say, “Uh Huhn. Looks like these folks are doing it right.”

The city has a reliable and very good public transit system. On busy weekend evenings, it’s better to leave your car at home if you are heading downtown. Take the bus, or expect to walk a ways, the city is trying to encourage public transit use and therefore doesn’t make downtown parking very accessible. The five o’clock rush hour is a good time to avoid the downtown area, and that’s probably the most negative thing I can say about the city.

It’s a bike friendly town. There are ample bike lanes and routes along the streets. There are many bikers. , and biking is a good option for anyone interested in seeing the city.

Beyond that, it’s an active town, there were many people out running, walking, biking, rollerblading, long board skateboarding, among others. During the weekend, Burlington was hosting the national championships of triathlon, and the town was full of fit athletes preparing for the race.

While I only had a brief visit in Burlington, I enjoyed it immensely. Here are my recommendations for places to eat, and places to see while in the city. For breakfast, try Sneakers, The Skinny Pancake (serving crepes) and their sister shop The Chubby Muffin.

My favorite restaurant was by far The Farm House. I spent all day hiking up to the top of Mount Mansfield and I had a monstrous appetite. The fresh food was served hot was delicious, and I ate my meal like a boa constrictor. I recommend the house macaroni and cheese, and a side of homemade summer sausage. Beyond that, their beer selection was amazing with a featured local brew, and dozens of choices of regional micro brews. I am a chocolate nut so I visited the Lake Champlain Chocolate company. Their chocolate is divine. Ben and Jerry’s are still serving ice cream from their first ice cream shop downtown. Finally, if you are into the outdoors, you’d do well to visit the Outdoor Gear Exchange. This is a dangerous shop, full of new and used outdoor gear of all varieties. You can buy and sell equipment there, so make sure to check out the consignment area to find good deals on good gear.

Most of these places are downtown along Church Street. Church street is closed to motorized traffic and allows foot traffic only. It’s a cool little street full of people milling about shopping, eating or simply people watching.
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My only regret was not bringing my camera out more. I’ve no pictures to back up my claims, but please take my word for it. Burlington is a class act.

Posted by Rhombus 09:45 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls_vermont_photography_ Comments (0)

The Assault of Mt. Mansfield

Hiking to the Highest Point in Vermont, The Trails, The Chin, The Enjoyment of Hiking

semi-overcast 75 °F

I began my assault of Mt. Mansfield on a Friday at 8:37 a.m. The apex of Mt. Mansfield coincidently is the highest elevation one can reach in the state of Vermont. It was a worthy venture and a worthy mountain to summit and conquer.
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You might be wondering why I’m in Vermont. I had boasted of grand adventures in Denali and Yosemite in past entries, but my path had a few unforeseen twists that changed my travels far to the east of where I had originally planned. Life is great that way; you never know what’s going to happen next.

I digress. I was in the Burlington area for five days, having convinced my injured travel friend that the green summer views of the north would do her some good, and speed up her convalescence. She agreed, and off we went east by north to Vermont. More on that later.

I parked my car in the parking lot of Underhill State Park, some thirty miles east or so of Burlington. I ran off to the loo, paid my daily fees ($3), and loaded up my trusty red backpack with the usual essentials: Clif bars, water, camera, binoculars, and peanuts. I briefly had a look at the map, decided route opting for what looked like the hardest path (the Sunset Trail up to the Chin) and started hiking.

Damn, it felt good to be hiking uphill again! I was designed to walk uphill, I don’t know what it is about it, but I thrive on pumping my leg muscles until I’m gasping for breath refusing to stop until I absolutely have to take a breather.

Since I was traveling light, I didn’t have my usual trusty Danner hiking boots, and had decided to make do with my hiking sandals. I didn’t know if they would hamper my hike, or if they could stand the rigors of the mountains, but they were the best footwear I had for the excursion. Besides, I figured they were probably better than the boots Mallory used to climb up Chomolungma or Humboldt’s footwear as he trekked around South America for five years. I also used a pair of these sandals all winter long hiking the rugged desert peaks of Baja California Sur. They are a good sandal, and I knew they could probably handle the terrain just fine.
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To avoid blisters, I put on a pair of socks. I also felt they gave me a good German look.

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My first distraction was a short spur trail to the “cantilevered rock” a thirty-foot phallus of rock that sticks out of the mountain like a monstrous triumphant wang in all its glory (I bet I could write harlequin romance novels). It was mildly interesting, but I didn’t stay long. I turned back to the Sunset Trail and continued my intensive uphill climb.
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As I hiked higher, I kept wondering if this trail was going to be challenging enough. I was making great time, and hadn’t taken any breaks yet. Having not hiked anywhere in Vermont, I didn’t know if I was getting close to the top yet or not. Then I topped out on the bottom of the long rock ledge that marked the change in elevation and vegetation. I left the hardwood forests of the lower and entered the scrubby pines of higher elevations. I saw before me a broad ridge of gray rock that reached far above me disappearing into the clouds. I had my answer. The mountains of Vermont are for real.
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I continued on scrambling up the endless rock covered in green lichens higher and higher passing the stacked stone cairns that marked the trail. The weather forecast for the day had called for scattered thunderstorms, and there were some dark heavy clouds rolling right over the tip of the chin. I wondered if I was going to get rain or worse, having to try to find protection from a thunderstorm on the exposed rock. I gave one heavy cloud some time to pass, and to see if it held any presents.
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I remained dry, and the unelectrified, so I continued my jaunt up into the clouds.

On top of the ridge, I found I still had a nice view of the surrounding valleys. They stretched out in long forests broken by farmer’s fields in all directions. The cloud remained around me, and it diffused the light nicely as I studied the arctic plants that make this high peak their home. I climbed up to the top of the chin, the second highest point on the mountain and sat down to catch up on my journal, eat some energy, and drink some cool water. It was a good place to rest, and I found a nice rock to rest my weary bones against.
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I decided to hike the ridge south to the halfway house trail, which would lead back down to the trailhead. It wasn’t a far walk, and the going was easy now that I was on top. There were no more steep uphill pitches to climb, but instead manageable rocks to scramble over.
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I passed many families along the way. It was good to see people out and about, but part of me still would have welcomed the peace of a single hiker far above the hubbub of the lower elevations. Mt. Mansfield isn’t a wild mountain. You can practically drive up most of it, or you can also take the Gondola from the base at the Stowe Ski Area. On top of the high point of the mountain, a small farm of cell towers were nesting and that kind of took away from the hike for me. In fact, I decided not to reach the very high point, because of the towers. They were too much human interference for my tastes.
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Climbing “the chin” was mountain enough for me, and I considered the mountain conquered. I started back down the halfway house trail, which I found to be quite peaceful. I was the only hiker to take that route and it wound down back into the valley through a lush forest of hardwood and pine. It was quiet and still. When I stopped for a break, I didn’t hear a sound.
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I had to pick my way carefully down the slippery rock. I knew my sandals would betray me if I gave them a chance, and I didn’t want to try some self-chiropractology on my back using rocks, roots and boulders. I took my time and made it down to the old trail in one piece, and in one peace. It was a good hike. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve retraced my route back down the long open ridge of the Sunset Trail.
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I sat at the trailhead and signed the visitor’s log. I had neglected to do so on my way up, and I figured I ought to at least give them an autograph. I really enjoy signing logs and summit notebooks. They always ask for the same things. Name, where are you from, and Time. I happily penned in my info: “Thom Miller, Homeless (with a smiley face), and No thanks. Time is not necessary for this hike.” I used to sign famous people’s names, or some of my made up aliases. “Peter Pimple” is one of my favorite. I might also quote a piece of poetry for my audience.

Some Thurbur perhaps: “Behold the happy moron, he doesn’t give a damn.
I wish I were a moron, By God! Perhaps I am!”

Smiling to myself, I wandered back down to the parking lot and back to the car. I had traveled seven miles, (give or take) and thoroughly enjoyed my hike up Mt. Mansfield. Sitting in the car, enjoying a cold beverage, and munching some chips and salsa, I called my travel buddy, and inspiration struck. I gave her a “believable” long message explaining to her of how I ended up in New York City instead of climbing Mansfield. My fiction included having the car break down, abandoning it, hitchhiking, a train ride, dumb luck and the statue of liberty. She freaked out a bit, and it had the desired effect.
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It was all in a day’s enjoyment for this vagabond.

What’s next? More on Burlington, the Adirondacks, and that fantastic tourist trap called Niagara Falls.

So Long!

Posted by Rhombus 18:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains hiking rocks plants vermont photography forests lichens Comments (4)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

On the Cuyahoga River, Ohio and Erie Canal, Great Blue Herons, Fischer's Cafe and Pub

sunny 85 °F

I was looking at a map of northeast Ohio, and saw to my surprise that there was a national park not too far away from where I am hanging out this week. Who knew Ohio had a national park? I didn’t, but when in roam, make like the roamers, and so we headed on down to check out Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga (pronounced Cay-uh-ho-guh) means “Crooked River” in Mohawk. It seems to me that every river I’ve ever encountered suffers from this same affliction. Are there straight rivers? Never make a deal with a river, it’ll probably gyp you out of something.

The Cuyahoga Valley has been the stomping grounds for man for eons,perhaps 12,000 years or so (but who’s counting?). In more recent history (the 1800‘s), the Ohio and Erie canal ran through here, partially watered by and parallel to the Cuyahoga. The canal also had an impressive system of locks, which allowed barges to make navigate the elevations between Akron and Cleveland. The canal was a huge success, and allowed settlers and trade goods to be passed along between Akron and Cleveland. In short, this canal helped open up Middle America for settlement.
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There isn’t much left of the canal today. It was abandoned in 1913, and nature has been slowly reclaiming its territory ever since. Today it’s a lush swampland full of plants wetland flowers and animals that love the water and thrive here.
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My adventure partner is a bit limited in her mobility just now, so we took it easy and went for a stroll on the Towpath trail, near Ira. We followed the white gravel trail until we crossed over a series of wooden walkways over a beaver pond marsh. Given our limited mobility, this seemed like a good place to see some wildlife, and I wasn’t disappointed.
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The beavers have done a terrific job of creating a beautiful wetland full of wildflowers, swamp grasses and reeds. This habitat provides a good home to a wide diversity of animals and insects including turtles, fish, frogs, herons, butterflies, bees and other birds.
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It took me 29 years to capture a good photograph of a great blue heron, and I had to go to Mexico to take it. I guess the first one is the hard one to get, because since that one, I’ve had no problems getting the herons to pose for me. Out on the boardwalk, one of these beautiful birds was sitting silently on a log not more than forty feet away from me. Knowing how long I had to wait for the first picture of one, I took the opportunity to take a few more.
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This particular heron sat motionless for some time, but then, slowly, moving its long sticklike legs very carefully and deliberately it began positioning its lanky body to snatch a fish out of the water. Herons like other water birds use slow movements and infinite patience to catch their prey off guard. The fish get used to seeing an unmoving heron standing in one place and grow complacent. Then when they aren’t suspecting, SNAP! They are in the long beak of the heron and down the gullet.
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I watched this heron do just that. It slowly uncoiled its body, and positioned its long neck closer and closer to the water. With surprising speed, it shot its beak into the water and snatched the fish. It happily ate it, and I watched the small lump travel all the way down the long heron neck.

Besides the heron, I was struck by the white water lilies that were in bloom on the surface of the water. They seemed to have a subtle grace and beauty to them that I found very alluring. I made several portraits of these flowers and couldn’t decide which I liked best, so I’ll let you decide.
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The trail was busy. It was full of families riding bikes, runners, joggers, lurchers (people who jog with weird strides), and walkers like us. It was a summer weekend, and it was good to see everyone out and about.

We finished off our visit with a stop in the small, picturesque little village of Peninsula. We ate lunch at Fischer’s Café and Pub, and it was very tasty. I’d eat there again, and recommend you stop in if you are in the area. I went for classic man food, a BBQ cheeseburger with fries, and it was delicious.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park isn’t a wild park. It’s pretty tame in comparison to some of the other national parks I’ve visited recently (Glacier Bay National Park, in Alaska), but it does have its charms. The history of the place, combined with the natural beauty found there make for a pleasant place to spend a day or two poking around. I would definitely go back, and would like to bike the length of the Towpath Trail.
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I didn’t see the entire park either, I’d like to check out Brandywine falls in autumn, and Tinkers Creek Gorge. I’d also like to see more of the canal, and see some of the rebuilt canal boats that used to navigate the canal. As I was just thinking about it, a possible interesting canoe trip would be to canoe the entire length of the Erie Canal, some 380 miles of it, but I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore.

I guess it’s safe to say, I’ll be back to the Cuyahoga Valley someday.

“The profit system follows the path of least resistance. Never follow the course of least resistance, because following the course of least resistance is what makes a river crooked. Hmph!” Utah Phillips

Posted by Rhombus 09:52 Archived in USA Tagged birds turtles food parks flowers insects photography ohio butterflies wetlands herons Comments (1)

Eating Habits of Whales and Bears

Bubble Net Feeding, Swimming in Alaska, Brown Bear Fishing, and Farewell to Alaska (for now)

semi-overcast 69 °F

I’m wrapping up my last week here in Alaska until September. Yep, it’s time for a month off, and let me tell you I’m quite excited about my vacation. Before I go, it seems like Alaska is giving me a farewell party with a fantastic show of wildlife, cloud, and activity.

Bubble Net Feeding of Humpbacks

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I’ve talked a lot about the behavior of humpback whales, and now I’m going to attempt to describe one of the more spectacular eating techniques they employ: Bubble Net Feeding. Bubble netting is aptly named-- a pod of whales blows a net of bubbles that captures their prey inside of it. Then as a group, they can swim through the net, gulping their way to the surface.

I’ve seen two sets of bubble netting feeding whales, a small two-whale group, and now a large group of over six whales. There are several steps that go into making a successful net, and the whales have gotten their system down pat.

The whales arrange themselves in a line, and breathe along the surface for several deep blows. Then, as in a game of follow the leader, the first in the group takes one final blow and dives down. Each whale in succession follows it. It was impressive to see fluke after fluke of these humongous creatures dive down.
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I haven’t witnessed what goes on beneath the surface except on video, but what can be seen from the air is a large ring of bubbles that percolates at the surface. These bubbles are the sides of net. This net is formed as the whales circle the bait ball and capture it by blowing a long steady stream of bubbles from beneath them. The bubbles panic and confuse the fish, drawing them closer in their fast moving defensive swirl.
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The whales, having trapped their prey, bellow out a long trumpet like call, akin to a charging army’s cry of “CHARRRRGGGGGEEEEE” and as a group launch themselves through the bait ball opening their humongous mouths-- devouring their prey in gigantic gulps of gluttony. The whales break the surface as one, their momentum carrying them high out of the water. Look at how full their mouths are! They filter out the food with the baleen at the top of their mouth. A baleen is a series of long comb like cartilage that allows water to pass through but not the fish. They hold on the surface for a second, and then slowly sink back down enjoying their bite. The surface of the water is turmoil of bubbles dead fish and froth from which the seagulls get their share of the bounty.

I saw them surface through the bubble at least 8 times and we watched them for over three hours. I wasn’t on deck the whole time either, so this goes to show you the massive amounts of baitfish that can support this kind of feeding. That biomass of fish is impressive. The whales eat their fill, and their summer eating supports their migration south for the mating season.

To hear their trumpeting call as their bubbles trap you must be terrifying. We heard it on our underwater hydrophone, and it is eerily awesome. That call signals the others it’s time to eat and they do so with vigorous relish.

If you don’t have an underwater microphone you can tell where they will surface by the activity of the seagulls. They will signal where the whales will surface, and you can see the gulls get more excited as their lunch approaches.

I with I could have so much fun when I eat a fish stick.

Swimming in Funter Bay

This summer our Bosun, Nikki has been really big on swimming everyday. I’ve joined her several times, as I love jumping in cold water. If you are having a bad day, jump in cold water. It will refresh you, wake you up, and somehow make you feel a whole lot better. We were anchored in Funter Bay, and she asked my deck partner and myself is we wanted to go for a swim. Hell yeah! Why not? So I grabbled my shorts, stripped down on the fantail and without much ado, jumped in. Hot damn, was that some nippy water! Woooeeeeeee. It woke me up, made me feel good and I tingled all over from the experience. It was what swimming in Alaska is all about.

I jumped in two more times to seal in my delight. Then, since I was technically still working, decided I should change and get back to work. Since dinner was being served, I didn’t want to walk through the crowded dining room. I decided to change on the back of the ship, the fantail.

I looked around as I always do when I’m about to get naked in a public place, that ol’ wary eye. The coast was clear, literally, and I dropped my unmentionables in a heap on the deck of the boat. Just then, the captain of the boat walked out to have a smoke. I noticed him, laughed out loud, and said, “Hi, Cap.” Damn my timing. Luckily, I had gone for the towel wrap before I dropped my drawers and so saved the captain from a year’s blindness.

A moment in the life of Thom.

The Brown Bears of August
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Brown bears love august. The reason being, the fishing is good. The salmon have begun running up the rivers and streams of coastal Alaska. They are looking to have one last romantic getaway before dying.

The brown bears know this, and after eating greens and carcasses all summer long are ready for a change of diet: Fresh salmon. They come to their favorite fishing streams in singles (males), or families (females with cubs), to eat their fill before passing out for a long winter’s nap.
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Today I watched three bears pounce on salmon in the shallows just beneath Pavlov Falls. I’m not sure who Pavlov was, but of Russian descent and probably the first person to hike up this little creek. The fish were plentiful, and the bears make fishing look easy. They simply wait until the salmon get shallow enough, and then pounce on them, hooking their enormous claws into them and mashing them with their bulk against the stream. If we humans tried such a technique, we’d fail miserably.

Then the bear would grab the fish with its mouth, haul it to a nearby rock and eat only the choicest parts, mostly the guts and brains.

Now for some science.

Soil scientists have been studying the soil around these streams and have been finding large amounts of salmon nitrates in the soil. How did it get there? How could so much fish bits be in the soil? So they took samples perpendicular to the stream to see how far back the salmon bits went. They went until they finally found salmon free soil. I don’t remember the distance from the stream but I think it was at least a half mile on either side of the stream.

What they found was that salmon have been fertilizing and enriching the soil around these streams, which in turn gives the forest it‘s impressive lush foliage. How do salmon get into the soil? Bears. The bears catch the salmon, and often will carry their salmon out into the woods to eat in peace. The fish decomposes and turns to soil, and the bear having eaten its fill will digest and pass on the rest of it, broken further down and ready to add nutrients to the soil, making for lush coastal forests.

Now that is a smart natural system. Nothing is wasted, and everything keeps the system working.

One Last Whale
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This was the last whale I'll see in Alaska for awhile. I'm pleased that my last memory is that of a humpback waving good by with its gigantic fluke.

Alaska has once again been very good to me, and I'll miss waking up to its tremendous landscapes. I think it's good to take a break from it for awhile, lest I get complacent with the scenes around me. I don't think I ever will get tired of Alaska, but I don't want to take that chance. I'll be back in September and look forward to my return. Until then, stay tuned. This traveller has some fun lined up for August.

Some Last Looks.
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Posted by Rhombus 14:03 Archived in USA Tagged islands fishing seascapes whales alaska clouds oceans swimming photography bears bubblenetting Comments (0)

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