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Entries about wildlife

Fjords, Glaciers and Elfin Cove

Tracy Arm, South Sawyer Glacier, and Elfin Cove: Population 12

semi-overcast 46 °F

This time of year in southeast Alaska, it gets light out at about four o’clock in the morning. I like to take advantage of the early morning light because nobody on board is awake. As a deckhand who works the night shift, I have ample time to watch the alluring scenery pass by. I’ve been known to pull out my camera while on duty, but that is a fringe benefit of this job. I like to get my early morning chores done as quickly as possible to allow for more quality time enthralled with these marvelous Fjords. I like fjords. The word fjord is fun to say, and the geological feature is a great place to explore.
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I was sitting on a deck box of the aft deck of our upper deck, sharing a blueberry muffin from Heritage Coffee with one of my deck partners and sipping good mint tea. Bakery tastes better when it is shared, especially with good comrades.
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I decided to count all of the waterfalls I could see around me, and I finally gave up after I reached nineteen. It’s not that there weren’t more of them, it’s just that deckhands lose interest in numbers after awhile, and really I just enjoyed being surrounded by falling water.
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The waterfalls ramble down the rock face of the cliffs of the fjord in long narrow ribbons often falling hundreds of feet into the water. The surrounding mountains have a lot of melting snow at this time of year, and with the continual rainfall of southeast Alaska, their flow is constant and healthy.

Tracy Arm Wildlife:

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Mountain Goats
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Arctic Tern
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Long Tailed Duck
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Black Bears

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Looking at the rock walls of the fjord, I was intrigued by the striated rock. There is little vegetation that has taken root here. This is because this is the newest rock to escape the icy grinding of the glacier. It’s fresh rock, so to speak, and it was cool to see the effects of a glacier close up, and so soon after it had released its grip on the rock.
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Tracy Arm is an inspiring piece of landscape. There is a beautiful view in every direction to inspire those susceptible to its charm. At its head are two glaciers, the Sawyer and the South Sawyer. I was fortunate enough to spend a beautiful morning watching ice calving off of the face of the glacier and listening to the white thunder.
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As an early birthday present, I witnessed a gigantic house sized hunk of dense glacier blue ice roll off of the face of the glacier and bob into the water. It was incredible. I was lucky to have my binoculars handy, and I had a really good look at this amazing phenomena. A large wave swelled up from the displaced water, and started rolling outward. It made our zodiacs bob up and down while it passed crashing against the far side of the bay.
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“White Thunder” is what the natives would call the sound of ice cracking off of a glacier. It is an apt description. It sounds just like the sound of a thunder clap after a lightening strike, and it’s really cool to hear one echo around in the fjord.

Elfin Cove Population 12.
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Elfin cove is a nice little cove on the west side of Chichagoff Island in Alaska’s Southeast. It’s a very small village, with 12 full time resilient residents, and several dogs. When we walked up the slippery boardwalk that makes up the main street of the village, the welcoming committee came out to welcome us to town.
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My friends could not resist, and gave it all the attention it wanted. Who can resist petting a friendly dog? We explored along through the misting rain until we found a good bench swing facing the bay. We sat down, and cuddled up close to keep warm against the cold wind and increasing rainfall. It was a very pleasant way to spend our time, swinging, talking and slowly getting soaked. I enjoyed the good company, that my fellow deckhands bring, and we capped off our day with hot chocolate when we returned to the boat.
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Should you find yourself in Elfin Cove, take advantage of the hospitality and good seating available at this nice little village.

This ends my first stint in Alaska. After seven months aboard the Sea Bird, they’ve finally decided to give me a break, and I have a month to spend chasing my muse before returning to Alaska in June. Look for me in California Wine Country, on the coast of California, rock climbing at the New River Gorge in West Virginia, and revisiting my old stomping grounds on the shore of Lake Superior.

The wanderer is seldom bored.

Happy Travels!

Posted by Rhombus 17:13 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats wildlife towns fjords ice alaska clouds glaciers bears harbors Comments (0)

A Vagabond's New Year

Hiking Isla Catalina, New Year Celebrations, Favorite Pic's of the Week

sunny 76 °F

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The Isla Catalina is probably the greenest, most lush desert island I’ve ever had the pleasure of hiking. It’s home to two unique species, one being the rattle-less rattlesnake, and the other being the giant barrel cactus. While I haven’t seen the rattlesnake yet, I am intrigued by its genetic evolution. I can imagine its thought process, “Well hell, every time I move to nab that mouse my damn rattle gives me away. Who needs it?” and over time, stopped growing one. Isla Catalina is quite deserted, so another possibility could be that predators to the snake are also probably few, so with no need to warn enemies, it learned to do without.
Desert Scene

Desert Scene


The giant barrel cactus is something I have seen, and I am quite fond of it. It lives up to its billing. It’s quite large. It’s very stout, and has a bright green trunk, about the diameter of a telephone pole. It ranges in height from a foot high to well over my head (roughly 6 feet). They are dotted all around the island, sometimes growing right next to another in a small copse of funky cactus. The barrel cacti aren’t the only inhabitants of the island; there are massive clumps of cardon, interesting clumps of cholla, and other wildflowers, sharp desert shrubs and plants.
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In starting my hike, I chose the road less traveled. Not only was this a better way to travel, it allowed me to completely lose my sense of civilization’s grip on me. I saw nobody, I heard nothing manmade, and I was free.

The overcast skies were leaden gray, and it was surprisingly cool. I hadn’t been cold in many weeks, but I loved being in cooler temperatures again. It was probably only 70 degrees, but the wind was steady, and it felt good to my body.
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I really enjoyed hiking through this amazing desert. I swear Dr. Seuss designed the landscape: giant clumps of weird cactus, some looking like lumpy offset stumps, others like land borne octopus. I stopped often to marvel at these amazing plants. I found another of my sacred places. I have sacred places all around this planet of ours. Usually, they are small little areas of land that appeal to my sense of order in the universe. In this case, it was a small sandy area, maybe 20 feet in diameter, it was devoid of any visible presence of life, and on the fringes were clumps of desert fauna. In the distance, I could hear the rolling waves of the ocean crash on the beach. I could see the rocky crags and hollowed out holes of the nearby cliffs. It smell like a desert, and I was immediately smitten. It was like sitting in a desert shrine, dedicated to the simple beauty of earth, this time in a desert format. It was peaceful, energizing, and I could’ve stayed there for hours, and possibly days, drinking in, and enjoying its finer features.
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Eventually, I found a jungle of desert shrubs; bright green, thick desert growth that looked like it was going to be very painful to try to cross. Luckily, I had a dry wash to follow through the tall carpet of impassable spines. The wash led to a beautiful little cove tucked into a wall of steep rock cliffs. The sound of the rolling waves was very nice, as I walked around looking at amazing and interesting shells scattered all over the beach. I had fun crawling among the rocks, watching the quick and agile crabs clatter away from me. I crawled through the eroded rock tunnels and explored the beach before turning back again. I didn’t have a clock, and I really wasn’t sure what time it was. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to be the guy who missed the last ride back to the boat.
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New Years Eve, Vagabond Style.

We loaded into our inflatable zodiacs at about 8:30 pm, sure, it wasn’t close to midnight, but it was midnight somewhere, and we had work in the morning. Our team consisted of eight highly trained, crack-shot pyrotechnicians, recruited for our penchant for rocketry and night ops. We drove a quarter of mile through calm green waters, our wake glowing alien green from bioluminescence. Do I have to explain bioluminescence? More on that later. We landed, anchored the boat, and chose a firing location. A million stars were shining bright in the dark sky. We grabbed our parachute rocket flares, lined up, and waited for the countdown. None of us had ever shot off flares of this kind before, and we really didn’t know what to expect. They were rated for 1000 feet, and we figured it would be pretty cool. The countdown began, and we at …1 we fired them off in unison. Holy Crap! These things are serious! A powerful hiss, and the rocket shot off, a blinding orange light in the night sky. Then the chutes opened and they fell slowly down to the sea, extinguished in the cool waters off Ispirito Santo.
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After cleaning up our trash, reloading in the zodiac, and making our way back to the ship, we decided to top off our night by swimming in the bioluminescence. “Bio” are tiny microorganisms that glow in certain areas of the oceans when agitated. The wake of a boat will cause it to glow, a passing dolphin, or my favorite: Swimming. To swim in bio is to immerse yourself into cool liquid smoke, lit up by millions of fireflies and glowing an eerie green. It is beautiful. It is amazing, and it is probably one of the all time coolest things I’ve ever done. If you get an opportunity to swim in it, go for it, you won’t regret it.
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What an end of a tumultuous year, and a righteous beginning to the next. I’m quite optimistic about this years travels. I’m already situated in a beautiful desert locale, and I have some other plans to be fully developed by May. Any suggestions for a good month long trip? I’m all ears, and ready to go.

Favorite Pictures of the Week.
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For now, look for more desert stories, and descriptions. I love Baja. It is heaven on earth, and I’m enthralled that I’m here to explore it.
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Posted by Rhombus 19:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged me boats islands wildlife mexico deserts oceans baja cacti photograhpy Comments (2)

Positioning: Crusing From Portland to San Francisco

Crossing the Bar, Life at Sea, Entering San Francisco by Water, Troubled Waters

semi-overcast 59 °F

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We crossed over the Columbia River Bar at about 2 am Saturday morning. I got up for the crossing, as I was very interested in being a part of crossing one of the more dangerous stretches of water in the Pacific ocean. The Columbia River Bar is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” There have been over a hundred documented shipwrecks in the area, and countless undocumented losses. The reason why this place is so dangerous, is because the 1200 (give or take) mile long Columbia River empties into the roiling North Pacific Ocean. Added to this mix are the strong winter storms that surge across the pacific in a continual salvo of oceanic and meteorological energy. The combined wind and current often brew up the wind into a gale of over 60 knots, and build the seas to over 40 feet. This is no place for the timid.

Our passage was uneventful. We rocked and rolled in the 9 foot swell, but by all accounts, it was one of the smoothest crossings that our veteran crew members could remember. There really wasn’t much to see, but the boat was definitely pitching back and forth in the moderate seas. I stayed awake watching our crossing on our GPS, but soon grew tired and returned to my bunk. Thus began our three day voyage to San Francisco.

Day One:
I awoke to the heaving swells of the open ocean. It was cloudy out, gray and misting. We were traveling south about 14 miles off the coast of Oregon. While I have driven this section of coastline several times, this would mark my first time sailing of the coast. Not that there was much to see. The heavy mists and fog made for a gray world with limited visibility. Inside the crew lounge, it was eternally dusk. The day before we left, we spent a lot of time “battening down the hatches”- securing everything on the boat for potential rough conditions. This included putting aluminum window plates on all of our main deck windows. It took away all outside light, and left us in a state of semi-darkness while we hung out in the main dining room.

We didn’t have many chores to do. Most of my time on duty was spent reading, writing, socializing, eating, and making the rounds to see all was secure. When my shift was over, we played games, Boggle mostly, watched movies, socialized, and enjoyed our downtime.

Walking around on a tilting ship is not easy, and it seemed everyone had there own technique for crossing the open areas of the dining area. Some would take baby steps, making short choppy steps to keep balance. Others would walk normally, and then make quick steps to curb the momentum that was sending them away from their destination. I liked to make long slow arcs, walking with the tilt to starboard, then using the tipping point and momentum back to portside to get me where I wanted to be. All of us looked silly, but that’s part of the fun of being onboard. I vacuumed the rug, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had vacuuming. I tried to do straight lines, but it was impossible, and the rug looked like a drunkard had haphazardly cleaned the rug.

We were in a continual state of swaying. I thought that reggae music should have been played over our sound system, to make all our swaying make more sense. It was pointless to do my usual stretching routine that I like to do, as the tilting of the boats axis put way more strain on the muscles compared to normal.

As it is, I’m not really designed for engine rooms, or the lazzarete. I’m of average height, five foot eleven inches tall. So far, I’ve managed to crack my head on the metal of the boat every day that I’ve been aboard. My head is beginning to resemble a golf ball with all the new divots it has acquired. My shins have faired no better, as I’ve raked them over the metal doorways countless times. I’ve gotten better about it, but I can’t wait until I finally learn to protect my head.
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We began to see more wildlife. I saw albatross once again (a sign of good luck). I saw two different varieties and as many as five of them at once. They were sailing the winds, making long snake like arcs across the ocean, tacking their way southward. Their long wings were extended to full extent to catch as much wind as possible. I like the albatross, especially their size and for how close they fly to the water. Their wingtips seem to touch the swells as they bank and turn into the wind.
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Day Two:
The second day of sailing brought better seas, and blue skies. We could see the shoreline once again, and the temperature was warm. We were somewhere off of the coast of California, and I like to think it was somewhere off of the “lost coast.” The lost coast is a hard to reach area, which remains one of the prettiest in California. I’ve never seen it myself, but it’s on my list of places to explore in California, should I be so fortunate.

The bow of our ship was the place to be on this day. Inside the ship, it was hot and oppressive, but outside it was beautiful. The warm sun was shining, and the seas were pleasant. A long fog bank could be seen off to the west, but staying away from us. To the east, the California coast was rugged, the coast mountains were glowing a golden green. A lot of the staff came outside to enjoy the sun, and we were all really digging our lives at that particular moment. To think we were getting paid for this was a pleasant thought. They could have paid me in sand, and I still would have come to work. I had some good conversations with some of my new friends, and it was nice to spend time getting to know them.
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That evening, the dolphins came. Dolphins have been known to swim and play in the wake of ships for as long as men sailed the seas. I’d never seen dolphins before, and I was quite excited to see them. I’m guessing there was a group of eight or more that would skim just underneath the water, then course right into our wake wave, do a barrel roll, and then jump out of the water as the swell caught up with us. It was amazing! The light was fantastic from the warm luminescence of the setting sun. The dolphins were playing, very much in their element, and I was in mine. Many staff members came out, and we were all excited to take photos, videos, and just enjoy the amazing agility and playfulness of the dolphins. They were Pacific White Sided Dolphins, and we enjoyed them very much.
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Day Three:
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Our last day dawned warm and clear. We were steadily heading east, into the rising sun and directly towards the coppery orange span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the staff came out for the moment. It marked the end of our first positioning, and an entrance to the San Francisco area, our temporary home for two weeks. As the sun rose, the air warmed nicely, and we were bathed in sunlight. It was glorious. It was the best entrance I’ve ever made into San Francisco. In years past, I’ve driven south over the bridge, pissed off, and tense, hating the intense flow of city traffic and writing off the city as a hell hole. It wasn’t a fair evaluation, and I regret my impatience and stubborn behavior. In comparison, the fastest speed we travel on our ship is around 10 knots (just over 10 miles an hour). It’s very relaxed, and stress free. It gives you time to take it all in, and since I wasn’t driving, I could take my time in composing some photos, and really, really enjoy the morning. A friend gave me half of her grape fruit, and its fresh citrus was a perfect compliment to the morning.
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We passed under the impressive span, and I couldn’t help but remember the stories of the men who built this bridge. Specifically, the “Halfway to Hell” club, a group of guys who fell off of the span during construction- only to be saved by the safety nets that were installed underneath, designed for that purpose. The Golden Gate construction was the first that made mandatory use of hard hats and safety nets for bridge workers.
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We cheered and posed for a group picture, and soon everyone drifted off to the dining area for breakfast. I was more interested in seeing the city-scape, Alcatraz, the bay bridge, and the downtown area. There were great views in every direction, and I took pleasure in the beginning of my day.
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That was the last peaceful moment I’ve had. After we docked, we got busy getting the ship back in order. It was a long day of hard work in the hot sun. Later that evening, I finally checked my phone messages and learned of family emergency and terrible news from home. My mom had a major stroke, and it wasn’t looking good. It was if the floor fell right out from underneath me, and I had to get home. Everything else seemed completely pointless, and so I got the next flight I could to make it back home.

In this world, you can be flying high one minute, only to have your wings fall off the next and sent into a spiraling freefall. That’s life. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. It’s easy to enjoy life when times are good. In my experience, bad times are usually horrible to go through, but can give you valuable perspective into what’s truly important. I often learn more about myself, and others when times are bad, then when they are good. I wouldn‘t be who I am today, if I hadn‘t experienced the darker side of life. I’m hanging in there, often lost in my thoughts and contemplating how to face the unknown. It’s not pleasant, but I’m buoyed by my friends and family who have and will be by my side.

Posted by Rhombus 14:10 Archived in USA Tagged ocean wildlife ships photography pacific cruising coasts philosophy Comments (4)

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