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Highlights Of An Alaskan Summer

Wildflowers, Stellar Sea Lions, Zodiacs and Glacier Bay National Park

semi-overcast 63 °F

This past week I’ve spent some time exploring the greater Alaskan landscapes by zodiac and by foot. I enjoyed getting out, and the weather has been fantastic. There hasn’t been much rain, and there has been good lighting, and phenomenal sunsets. Summer is all about us, and the days are Loooonnnnggg. Sunrise around three and sets around ten or so at night. There is plenty of light to enjoy the sights.

On Alaskan Wildflowers
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The other day I went on a long hike with a small group of our guests and it was led by one of our interpretive biologists. Now, not all biologists are created equal. I’ve listen to some drone on about whatever they happen to be interested in dodecahedrons or some other jibber jabber. However, some of them can be quite entertaining, and such was the case with David. He not only explained some of the intricate features of the coastal rainforest, but also challenged us, quizzed us, teased us when we didn’t know Latin, mocked our ignorance, and made us laugh. Go for a walk in the woods with a good biologist. You can learn more in three hours than you could read twelve books.
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I was struck by the different types of wildflowers, and their unique designs. Some smelled of cinnamon and spices, others like urine soaked road kill. I enjoyed the different forms and colors they take on to make themselves propagate. In the flower business, it’s all about how to attract pollinators (bees, insects, and birds). They must be doing fairly well for themselves, as I was very much attracted to their color display and scent. Perhaps, I was an unwitting pollinator myself.
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Stellar Sea Lions
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We arrived at the Inian islands under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky. I had finished my night shift, and decided to have one of my deck partners save me breakfast while I went on the zodiac cruise. I love breakfast. This is one of my favorite ways of setting up my morning: I work all night, head out and explore for a couple of hours and come back to a giant heart attack breakfast before going to bed. I know it sounds weird and unhealthy, but the fact remains, I burn a lot of calories running around this ship, and I can pretty much eat what I want without gaining much weight. At least that’s what I tell myself… It’s amazing what we can justify to ourselves.
Anyway, the cruise was good. The naturalist, tittered around like a bird from subject to subject, and I soon lost interest in what she was droning on about. I know a lot about Alaskan wildlife myself, having lived and worked up here for three summers now, and I entertained myself with taking some photos of the pigeon guillemots, river otters (which do quite well in the sea), sea otters, bald eagles, sea gulls, pelagic cormorants, shearwaters, and kelp.

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I smelled the sea lions before I saw them. You can tell you are near sea lions, because of the strong odor of shit that exudes from any place they dwell, usually low lying rock “haul outs“. Along with their pleasant aroma, they also add a chorus of horrible barfing noises that they use for everyday communication. I’m serious. Stellar Sea Lions sound as though they are dry heaving putrid piles of sewer waste, which considering they eat a lot of raw fish (mostly salmon), I’m probably not that far off. Considering adult sea lions weigh well over 500 pounds, the din they make is tremendous.

The big bull males rule the roost and take the top of the rock. The females appreciate a man with a lot of property and lie about the alpha males as a harem. The males spend their days bellowing at one another, shitting, mating, and eating salmon. They are not unlike Alaskan human males actually…

On Positioning Zodiacs
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There are days on the boat where it makes sense to drive the zodiacs to the next island instead of raising them to the top of the ship before moving two miles only to have to drop them back down. On those days, our bosun usually asks me if I want to reposition the zodiac. She doesn’t even need to ask anymore. Hell Yes! I want to reposition a zodiac! So away we go, and I find myself grinning from ear to ear as I zip over the water in an inflatable boat through the amazing Alaskan waters. There are mountains, islands, seascapes, landscapes, clouds, and wildlife all around me. It these moments when I realize I’m being paid for this. I’m a happy man.
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There are usually three boats to position, so after awhile I’ll meet up with the others and shoot the breeze while we wait for the ship to arrive.

Glacier Bay National Park

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Glacier Bay has a lot going for it. I’m continually amazed by it’s wildlife, mountains, glaciers, seascapes, icebergs, and massive scale. It’s a good representative of wild Alaska if there ever was one. John Muir explored this amazing bay by canoe, way back when, and since then it has become a protected jewel in Alaska’s crown. These selected shots are from the marble islands, and are mostly of one of my favorite birds: Puffins! Enjoy!
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June has been good to me up here in Alaska. There are times when I just sit still and take it all in. Life is good. Go play outside!
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Posted by Rhombus 15:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats islands flowers wildlife alaska oceans wild photography sealions Comments (0)

Glacier Blue

The Most Amazing Piece of Ice I've Ever Seen

overcast 58 °F

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The berg emerged out of the thick fog glowing dull blue against the heavy, low cloud cover. At this distance, I could see that it was HUGE. As we drew closer, the vivid blue of deep glacier ice grew stronger. Blue glacier ice is more vivid with cloudy skies than with sunny ones. This is thought to be due to several factors, but there is no definitive answer as to why. All I know, is that this piece of ice was the most remarkable I have ever seen.
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Since it was still early morning (around 5 am) and we were ahead of schedule, the captain decided to make slow circles around the berg, allowing everyone to get a fantastic look at the floating glowing sapphire. I grabbed my camera, and spent a couple of hours taking photos, and finishing my early morning chores. Even as I worked, my eyes were drawn to the ice. I couldn’t get over how blue it was! It was amazing, mesmerizing, and just plain zing to the dreary morning.
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This berg was a “shooter.” A shooter is a piece of ice that comes from the bottom of the glacier underneath the water. As forces shape the ice, they occasionally crack off, and come shooting towards the surface in a massive upwelling of surging water and ice. Shooters can be massive, as this piece shows, and to witness this hunk rising to the surface must have been amazing. The water displaced by the ice surges outward in a large circular wave. The next time you are in the tub, stick your hand on the bottom and lift upward sharply, keeping your hand underneath the surface. The upwelling of water is on a micro scale compared to glacier size chunks of ice.

I could also tell this was a shooter just by the surface of the ice. It had bizarre waves and carvings all over the surface. Most of the berg had clear crisp ice. It hadn’t been exposed to weather for very long which breaks down the surface of the ice allowing air to permeate the inside causing it to turn white and cloudy.
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When the ice is held in place under the water by the glacier, the ice is carved by pressure and currents of the surrounding sea. When icebergs break free and float away, more forces continue to work on its surface. The weather erodes the exposed ice, and the water continues to carve the underwater surface. After awhile, the iceberg will roll exposing new areas to the air, continuing the cycle until it melts.

Enough science. Look at this ice as a beautiful work of art. How many eons have patiently carved the delicate ice forms? Look at the coloring, the myriad of subtle blues. This is a masterpiece of ice carving, and one I won’t soon forget. Words don’t really do this piece justice, but perhaps these pictures can.
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This iceberg started at the Sawyer Glacier, or the South Sawyer Glacier. This afternoon, we were able to position the ship within easy sight of the Sawyer glacier at the head of Tracy Arm. I write a lot about Tracy Arm, and I’ve been lucky to visit here once a week. This place just keeps getting better, and the views that strike me continue to change. It could be the countless waterfalls, the rock formations, the icebergs, the glaciers, wildlife or clouds. Tracy Arm has it all, and shows off more of its stunning beauty with each visit.
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Posted by Rhombus 17:49 Archived in USA Tagged birds boats ice alaska oceans glaciers photography icebergs Comments (0)

Southeast Alaska in June

Whales in the Night, Trees, The Devil's Thumb, and Returning to Tracy Arm.

overcast 60 °F

AN ALASKAN WELCOME
The Alaskan Inside Passage Welcoming Committee consisted of several pods of actively feeding humpback whales. In fact, we were surrounded by them. I counted ten, in three different pods. Humpbacks migrate to Alaska in the summer months to feed before returning to warmer southern waters to repopulate themselves. They don’t eat when down south (a fact I’m skeptical about) and to me it’s understandable that they might be a tad bit hungry by the time they get back to Alaska.

It was getting late, but in mid-June in Alaska, there is still enough light to see several hundred yards away. To the southwest the water was bright like polished silver. A smattering of stars were dully poking out through broken gray clouds, the islands were a black outline of fir trees and impassive mountains.

The whales were tail slapping the surface of the water in order to stun their food. They would then lunge through the collected ball of fish mash with their mouths agape breaking through the surface of the water to salute the stars before clamping their big mouths shut. Humpbacks are baleen whales which strain the fish from seawater using a baleen. A baleen runs lengthwise along the top of a humpbacks mouth in a long series of combs designed to catch the fish, but allow the seawater to pass through.

I watched this amazing behavior through the high powered bridge binoculars. As the whales broke through the surface with a giant mouth full of fish, I swore I saw them smile. Then they would quietly sink back into the water.

TREES
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We were sailing south through Glacier Bay National Park, and were exploring a small bay in hopes of seeing some wildlife. The sun was at a perfect height in the southwest to brilliantly highlight the foothill forest that surrounded the mountains. The deciduous trees have a healthy full coverage of leaves now, though their season is a lot shorter then other parts of the country. Summer has taken hold of Alaska. The forest was a good mix of brightly lit deciduous and very dark fir trees. The contrast between the light and the dark made both types of tree stand out.
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“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” ~Chinese Proverb

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“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” ~Willa Cather, 1913

THE DEVIL’S THUMB

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This monolith was first climbed by Krakauer. It sits high above the small island community of Petersburg, and is seen best on brilliant blue sky days that happen occasionally here in the inside passage.

TRACY ARM

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Tracy Arm never disappoints. Today I saw two harbor seals lounging peacefully on an ice flow. They watched the boat, but sensed no harm in the dozen of us that were taking photographs.
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Look at the amazing layering and color of this glacial iceberg. This is a color found only in glacial ice and I find myself watching it for long periods of time. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it, but it’s hypnotizing.
I wish my eyes were this color; I could get away with anything I wanted to.
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Posted by Rhombus 08:58 Archived in USA Tagged trees wildlife travel fjords whales ice alaska oceans glaciers photography foliage icebergs writing Comments (0)

From Alaska to West Virginia: 5100 miles in 8 days

Decompressing, Santa Cruz, Nightmare Flights, West Virginia Weekend, New River Gorge Rendevous

sunny 65 °F

How does a sailor decompress after seven months aboard a ship? It’s a fair question. After all, it’s what I’ve known for a long time. I’ve been tied to the clock, to duty and workmates. I believe I’ve found a good solution to this problem, and it involves the following: Plan and execute a righteous first week filled with a two day decompression in California, and a solid weekend of rock climbing in West Virginia. I traveled over five thousand miles in eight days. This is how I relaxed, and unwound after seven months at sea.

First, find a stalwart friend of the highest order. Visit them.
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Spend the first day in the kitchen of a cool and comfortable quiet house, making cinnamon rolls, “fauxcassia bread”, and an award winning chicken dinner. During the downtimes, exchange music, and stare out at the green hills reminiscent of Ireland.

Go to sleep. Sleep deeply and peacefully, making sure to set no alarm.
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The next day, start it out right with a great cup of coffee, and the last of the cinnamon rolls. Drive west out of the grape vine covered hills, to the coast. Find a good downtown area, in my case Santa Cruz. Eat some slices of pizza from your favorite pizza place (Pizza my Heart). Go buy some new shoes. The shoes make the man, after all. Stop by the hip ice cream shop and get some smooth chocolate and coffee ice cream cones.

Buy some bottles for later and go chill out at a comfortable house awaiting more friends to arrive.

After a quiet afternoon listening to the rain tap on the roof, walk to a recommended burger joint and bring home dinner. Hang out and talk long into the night, go to sleep.
This was my decompression stage, and it was so very good for my body, and spirit. After decompression, it’s time to pick up the pace a little bit, by a little frenzied air travel.

I sprinted across the country by plane, pain, and automobile to get to West Virginia for three days of rock climbing at the New River Gorge Rendezvous. The sprint was entertaining to say the least. I flew into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at 11 pm, my bags didn’t. The airlines lost them along the way, including the one which had all of my adventure clothing and toiletries. I drove to my storage shed and spent an hour hunting through my boxes of stuff looking for my camping gear by the light of a dying flashlight. I finally slept for three hours, before waking up at five to fly out at 6 am. I flew to Chicago, then to Milwaukee. In Milwaukee I found out I missed my plane due to poor planning (I didn’t leave enough time to go in and out of security) (don‘t ask me why I had to exit security). All told, I spent about an hour in Milwaukee, enough time to admire their “recombobulation area.” Then I flew back to Chicago, then on to Pittsburgh, where I learned they lost my other bag along the way. Ha! All of this on three hours of sleep mind you. I kept half expecting to see “Del Griffith” show up along side of me. So, I spend two hours trying to find the second bag that the airlines lost in 24 hours. This one had all of my adventure gear in it. I met up with Luke, my climbing buddy, and we drove back to his dad’s house in a small, sleepy town in eastern Ohio to wait for my bag to arrive. I finally could relax, and I enjoyed the company of new friends, and the beautiful early summer evening of middle America. It was tranquil sitting outside in the evening sun, throwing a tennis ball to Jake, the golden retriever.

In the night, my bag arrived. Ahead of us lay a four hour drive through the rain to southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge. We had planned this trip a couple of months ahead of time, and we were both very excited to be on our way. Luke and I had never been to the gorge before, or to a rock climbing camp, and we were curious to see what we would find.

New River Gorge Rendezvous 2011
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We found the campground right across the road from the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest arch bridge in the world. The bridge stands 876 feet above the water, and is 3030 feet long. That height could hold five Statue of Liberties standing on one another. Once a year, on bridge day (October 15, 2011) they close down the bridge, and allow base jumpers and bungee jumpers to test their nerve by hopping off the side of this impressive span.
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The campground was a large grassy opening, and a large tent city had already taken root in the middle of it. I was happy to join the city, and set up my one-man expedition tent in the shade of a large tree. We started by getting oriented, and went off in search of some rock to climb. I was antsy to get on the rock, to burn out some bottled up energy I had stored after my long trip.

After talking with some climbers who gave us vague directions, we went in search of the Hawk’s Nest Boulders located somewhere near a dam north of the campground. Driving through the steep mountain roads of the Appalachian mountains was beautiful. There were lush green forests, with impressive rivers coursing through them. There were ample waterfalls, along the way, the air was full of butterflies and birds, and it was an ideal place to explore. I didn’t know West Virginia was so gorgeous, and I was impressed by its natural beauty. For many years, its unofficial slogan was “Almost Heaven.” After this past weekend, I’m starting to believe it.
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In the small town of Alstead, we couldn’t find the park. We were driving around looking for non-existent signs. Luke is good about asking locals for directions and we pulled up to an older gentleman who was happily sitting in a rocker on his porch. Luke yelled out, “Excuse me sir, can you tell us how to get to Hawk’s Nest State Park?” The first thing the guy did was spit a massive amount of chewing tobacco spew onto the ground, and then drawled out, “Well Hellllll son! Y’all er goin’ the wrong way! There ain’t nothin' up there but a dayd end! Yew gotta turn round and head back to the highway and make a right!”
We thanked him, and laughed all the way back to the highway. The people of West Virginia are good folks, and everyone we asked for directions helped us along our way.
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We found some rock, but not the boulders we were looking for. We climbed to get the juice flowing, and then went in search of the boulders again. We could see them, but the dam, the lake, a railroad, and a small fenced off power plant separated us from our quarry. We gave up, and enjoyed the hike, finding a swan that was evidently looking for some action, puffing itself up in full display of horniness. We found yet more waterfalls, and decided to go for a chilling swim in a rain-swollen stream before returning to the campground for the evening.

While we were away, they had set up a slack line. I hadn’t slack lined since last October, so I was excited to get back into it. Some very talented slackers took to the line. It was fun to watch and even better to try my balance once again.

That night, we made some friends with our neighbors, and I found out a local brewery was serving free craft beer. I filled up my Nalgene bottle and went and told Luke about it, who looked at me in disbelief. There’s nowhere else in the country that will they offer this kind of hospitality, and the climbers of West Virginia take care of their own.

For thirty dollars per person, we were given: a place to camp, a free breakfast (oatmeal, muesli, eggs, crepes, muffins, bagels, pancakes, fresh fruit and coffee, a burrito dinner, free drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties, free gear demos from affiliated sponsors, free tee shirts, two concerts, gear, climbing competitions and clinics. I couldn’t believe it. What a great deal.
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The next two days we focused on climbing. Neither of us had much gear. I only had rock shoes, and Luke had a bit more with a harness and chalk bag. So we went bouldering. Bouldering is a style of climbing where you basically climb routes very low to the ground. This allows you to try harder moves without the fear of falling a long distance. It’s been one of my major pastimes for the last 8 years. By the end of the weekend, my muscles were strained and my fingers cut up and scraped.
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I found inspiration in the dyno comp (etition). To dyno is to find a hold and launch yourself off the rock and catch another hold higher up the rock. At the competition, there were guys who could fly. Points are awarded for the height of the grab. “Socks” Johnson was there, the national champion, and he won the competition by catching the highest grabs the most consistently.
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On Sunday, we stopped off for one last climbing session at the Hawks Nest Boulders. We finally were given good directions, and we wanted to find them after missing them on Friday. We burned out the last of our strength here, and doggedly made our way back to the car. My hands were so fatigued; I couldn’t even open a candy bar wrapper. I improvised and ripped it opened it with my teeth. You just can’t keep me away from my chocolate.
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It was a great weekend. We had spent three days hiking around the woods of West Virginia, taking in its entire scenic splendor, and there is plenty to see. It was like summer camp for us “fringe” folks who enjoy spending time outside. Everyone who was at the camp were of a good disposition. The camp was filled with climbers, and everyone was healthy, and strong. Everyone behaved, despite an unlimited amount of beer. We were here to climb, not to party, and everyone helped one another out. It was a great place to spend a weekend exploring, climbing, and chilling out with good people, my kind of people.
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On our way back north to Ohio, we stopped and asked for directions again, this time to a local swimming spot. We swam, and it felt good to immerse our tired bodies in cold water. I reflected on how nice the weekend was, and how good it is to be healthy, young and strong and in my element. I turned thirty a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, life is great! Long live summer and West Virginia!

We stopped for pizza and subs in Washington, Pennsylvania. Luke told me there are a lot of Polacks and Italians in the area, so I ordered a hot sausage sub, and damn if it wasn’t one of the best I’ve ever eaten. It was a great way to finish a fantastic weekend. If you ever find yourself in Washington, head on over to Osso’s for some great food.
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Posted by Rhombus 19:01 Archived in USA Tagged waterfalls hiking travel rocks friends oceans camping tents climbing forests bouldering westvirginia Comments (0)

A Sailor Hits Seattle

Sailing into Seattle, Spending Spree, Enjoying City Life after a 4 Month Abscense, Welcome to British Columbia

semi-overcast 45 °F

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We docked the boat at about seven in the evening on a huge pier just north of downtown Seattle. Our entrance to Seattle was a pleasant one. I was sipping tea, chatting with my friend Bill-who is from Seattle, and he was proudly telling me about his town. We leaned on the rail of the ship, sipping and watching the anchored cargo ships, and the downtown area come closer into view. I believe the rails of most ships are designed for deckhands to lean on. It’s a good, comfortable leaning spot, and no matter where you are in the world, you can see deckhands leaning on rails, watching the world go by.
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Almost the entire crew came out for the event, excited to be able to walk on solid ground again, after six days at sea. The captain did his thing, and we linesmen did ours. It was a smooth landing.

When the gangway was set in place, the crew eagerly bounded down it to walk on the cold concrete of the pier, some disappearing into the depths of the city some three miles distant. I was expecting to go to work, but the chief mate asked me if I had plans, and that I could begin my shift two hours later than I had figured.

With unexpected time on my hands, I found a couple of my friends who were going for a jog, and told them to wait for me. I threw on what I guessed were suitable jogging clothes, put on my dilapidated, unsupportive footwear I call sneakers and joined them. We happily and energetically ran around, hopping over concrete barriers and chatting amiably. It felt damn good to be free of the confines of our 152-foot world.

I watched this huge factory ship dock in the night. It's bow is taller than the top of our bridge deck.
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We ran downtown along a shoreline asphalt trail. The darkness of early night was closing in, but we didn’t care. When we reached the city, we walked up on of the seven hills on which Seattle was built. We continued downtown to Pikes Place Market for a cup of coffee before returning to the shift. It was a good run, and in good company. I’m not a runner, and I knew my feet were going to feel sore the next day after the pounding I gave them. I didn’t care. It was worth it.
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The next day, I awoke, threw on some clothes and walked back into downtown for a little adventure of my own. The day was full of signs of spring. There were large areas of fresh green grass with dandelions and daisies bobbing around in the breeze. The trees were budding, and little songbirds were perched high in them attempting to seduce one another with song. The skies were blue with occasional cloudy patches bringing in drizzle. It was warm enough for a tee shirt, then cold enough for a jacket, all in five minutes. I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it was to see a colorful landscape after five months in a desert.
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I love walking in cities, exploring through the hustle and bustle that residents take for granted.

I like looking at the little vignettes of city life: A woman cuddles into her man as he kisses her on the cheek. A pigeon lands briefly on a baby carriage (is this the right term anymore?) the bird and baby eye each other peacefully before the bird flew off. A man walks by me eating a cinnamon roll, and refusing to make eye contact with me. That’s the way of the city, nobody will look at you. I looked at everybody. I saw two elderly sisters standing the same way, walking the same, looking at their goal across the street; that being Macy’s. A young man looking street smart and hip waits for a bus while listening to his Ipod.

I was enthralled with the simple joys of a city after six months at sea.

I went on a sailor’s spree. I’ve a bit of money saved up for my toil and labor this winter. I didn’t spend much money down in Mexico. My nest egg is now full enough to spend at will (I realize that I probably gave the financially wise populace a heart attack). I’m boat rich; Easy come, easy go.

With nobody to keep me in check, I purchased a cinnamon roll, and a good cup of coffee ($3), some toiletries I needed ($30), an Ipod (my first, and I STILL can’t download itunes which makes it basically worthless)($160), I went into the map store on 1st Avenue and immediately bought two books I’ve been wanting to read. “The Natural Navigator” by Tristan Gooley and “As Told At The Explorers Club”($30). This particular store is very charming and very dangerous. I didn’t stay long, as I knew my weakness for maps. I finished off my day by going down to Pike Place Chowder for a bowl of chowder ($7) and getting one for the road ($7). Pikes Place Chowder is a very good bowl of chowder. In my opinion, there’s only one place on the west coast that makes a better bowl. I was satisfied with my efforts for the day, and walked back to the ship in good spirits.

The next day we sailed north into Canada and British Columbia. The first sunset of Canada was a memorable one. It was one that a picture can’t really do justice to, though I tried. To be in that moment, in that scene, was to be immersed in grandeur. I love being surrounded by glowing clouds and seascapes. There were only four of us who witnessed it, even after we told everyone to come and take it in. The fools, their noses were glued like mine is right now to their computers.
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For those of us who watched the evening unfold, it was a symphony in the sky, and a well composed one at that. The clouds were its greatest feature, lit up in colors I hadn’t known existed by the setting sun. It was one to remember, and I’ll do my best to do so.
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I’m now in Alaska…
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Posted by Rhombus 15:37 Archived in USA Tagged sky boats parks cities seascapes clouds sunsets oceans seattle Comments (3)

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