Sunday, June 26, 2011

Alaska June 26, 2011

We have been blessed with almost no rain, and highs in the mid-60s since Ben and Clint arrived. We finished outside projects like windows and porch roof early in their stay just in case rain arrived. We then switched to inside projects like plumbing, bathroom shower pans, stairs, insulation, drywall (until we ran out), and some door hanging. The progress has been great but also given the guys plenty of time to do many other things, like fish, hike, and kayak. Last night I think they stayed up trying to see the northern lights (midnight to two AM for darkest sky). My guess is clouds obscured the view. I won’t know until they get up.

Ben and Clint leave and the grandsons arrive in two days. With the buildup and excitement in the grandsons I am hoping we don’t show them a letdown. Moose and bear have been hard to come by this year, and even the fishing in the river has been poor. The guys only caught a few small trout. A few nights ago as we sat by the river I heard a splash and quieted everyone. The sound was a mama moose walking in the water just upriver. Clint got to see her and her twins, but Ben was in taking a shower. By the time Ben got outside he only saw one of the calves a few seconds before it disappeared into the willows. He hopes yet to see a moose over four feet tall (probably four to five weeks old). We did see one bear at a great distance while hiking to Bartlett River. It was a large black bear about a quarter mile away on the other side of the river.

The kayaks have been popular, so much that a neighbor asked his brother to bring one with him when the brother drove to Alaska from Massachusetts last week. We had been sharing ours so he offered us the use of his in return. That led to the possibility of a threesome on a kayak safari. The guys looked at a map and talked to our neighbor (the one in the kayak rental business) and they decided on a trip to the Beardslee Islands (I think you can Google Earth it. Find the archipelago in southern Glacier Bay north of Gustavus). The trick is one has to cross a shallow rocky narrows near Glacier Bay NP headquarters within thirty minutes of high tide. Once through that narrows the door of return is closed for twelve hours (until the next high tide) unless one kayaks completely around the outer edge open-channel side of the largest island. That circular route was the trip the guys chose. I was in the lousy beginning stages of a cold but decided I was not going to miss this chance. We put the kayaks in the water about 7 o’clock Thursday morning, and were waiting for high tide in the shallows a half hour later. Once on the other side the water was sheltered and smooth as a mirror as we paddled north.

The hours slipped by exploring and crossing miles of open water between islands. We observed a half dozen porpoise playing off to the side. Then landed on a gravel beach on a small dot of island we nicknamed Bird Island (A week later I learned from a neighbor this island is out-of-bounds. We try to observe the rules but the island had no indication of being off-limits). Apparently the birds find this dot of land a secluded place safe from predators, and many showed only slight fear of man.

A cruise liner passed a few miles west (photo below), oblivious of our presence, going up-bay in the main channel on the other side of Strawberry Island. The contrast between the wilderness and a modern white ship several blocks long is stark.

We lunched on the gravel without disturbing any occupants and I thought I heard the ark ark of seals in the distance. Sound travels far on the water so we had no idea how far away they were. We detoured from the planned route and proceeded toward that sound and found a rookery, perhaps eighty seals in number. We are not suppose to approach wildlife so kept our distance so as not to disturb them. Eventually all took to the water and approached us. Again we saw little fear of man. They explored us and were all around us, one coming up right between our kayaks and treading water there for a half minute while big moist eyes observed us.

I count twenty in this telephoto picture, and there were many more around us.

Note the seal head just to the right of Ben's kayak.

When we did the hypotenuse across open water to our original route whales were blowing to the north of us near Strawberry Island. By the time the sound of their blow reached us the whales were usually about out of sight, meaning the sound was traveling several miles. A few times we heard the boom of a gun-like bang as a whale beached. The concussion was the slap as 35 tons did a flop on the water. We pulled into another beach for a break. On the map we were a little over half way. I was glad I had come but feeling the distance and had a muscle cramp in my left forearm.

In the expanses of open water one sees little travel progress. There is simply the steady rhythm of paddling and occasional chatter with fellows. This allows the mind to wander away from the new sights and sounds. I mused about how to show these amazing areas to my grandsons, but realized they are too young to kayak this distance in unforgiving waters, and the area is closed to motorized travel. So I shifted to dreaming about getting three more kayaks and doing the route as a father-daughter trip :-). The tourists who think they see Glacier Bay from a cruise ship deck are ignorant of the true richness one can experience when paddling silently through the back country.

As we came around the open channel end of the last island to head south the tide was still going out. This produced turbulent water with whirlpools that swirled and wanted to take control of our kayak’s direction. With a little exertion we made it through those fifty yards. Next time (if there is a next time) I plan to try to skirt that area or catch it at slack tide. As we turned south the breeze came directly at us, which made for slower progress. I had developed a rhythm of about one paddle per second (I would mentally count one-thousand-one per stroke). The guys one third my age soon outdistanced me with their 1.5 paddles per second, so I hugged the coast in case I got in trouble while they did straight line distances across more open water. Mesmerized by the whales and wild before them they did not realize I was not with them for nearly an hour. At one point they went out into the channel to attempt whale viewing up close. But the whales were having none of it, and surfaced well behind their first position. That gave me opportunity to get abreast of their kayaks again. Kelp was thick along the edge of the island and we occasionally had to navigate through it, which wasn’t bad if one kept the paddle from getting caught in the tangle. This portion of the trip was more boring (except for the whales) with hours of steady paddling into breeze. Finally, the last point before the lodge came into welcome (for me) sight. I could hug the coast of the cove (about five miles travel) or go with Ben and Clint across open water (about three miles). I decided to try to keep up with them and did so until about the last mile. In this stretch of open water we were abreast to small wind waves; a new kayak experience. At the point where the guys were outdistancing me I chose to head for the closest point on the destination shore to get in the semi-leeward area with less wave. Their youth and invincibility went direct for the harbor. I was grateful for the sight of the truck, which Ben already was driving down to the ramp. That night we pulled out a map with a mileage legend and Clint and I did independent calculations of the distance covered. Our best estimate is 23 miles by kayak. Even if we were off a mile or two that is a considerable distance for old muscles. Would I do it again? Yes, but at a slower pace…. And not tomorrow. I went to bed at 8:30 that evening.

Monday, June 20, 2011

June 20, 2011
We are grateful to spend our second summer in Alaska. The building project seems very different this year. Last year there were times when I felt I bit off more than I could chew. The pressure abated greatly with having the cabin dry by September 2010. I have been busy, but not pressed to reach a difficult goal like last year. The vision of having a few rooms livable by our departure mid September (so we can live in the cabin summer of 2012) seems well within reach. Thus my days have been full but relaxed. I take breaks, but surprisingly seem to get more done than I planned. The work seemed ahead of schedule when Ben and Clint arrived June 12. They wanted to go right to work the next morning. We installed the last five front windows by noon that day. The transformation of the cabin is fantastic. Per our plan the outdoors literally seems to be part of the great room. As a footnote I think I drew six or eight elevations to try to find a window design we liked. This is the result. We hope you approve. Again, many thanks to Gene for his help obtaining windows!!!

Unlike past years mosquitoes have been slightly bothersome during our otherwise relaxing evenings. We have never seen many here until this summer. One evening we decided to move our chairs into the cabin and enjoy the view from behind the protection of the new windows. Long time residents say there are occasional bad years for mosquitoes. The problem approximates a Midwest. So far we have not had any in the trailer at night.

Ben worked long days with us during his visit last year. This year I determined to have him get more interaction with fishing, hiking, and tourist stuff. Tuesday evening we headed to the new dock to view eagles, and then to Glacier Bay National Park with the hope of seeing a moose or bear. We struck out on the bigger animals. In a humorous twist while we were away a mama moose and calf walked down our driveway to within thirty feet of the trailer. She left a different set of tracks the following evening too. We had to laugh at the irony of a moose paying us a visit while we were off trying to find one.

The kayaks have been the hit of the neighborhood, so much that a neighbor went out and got his own for the ocean. We keep ours two lots downstream (300 yards) where river access is easier. Many of the riverfront neighbors have been using them. A few days ago Ben and I kayaked to the boat harbor and back, a round trip I estimate at approximately four miles. The downriver leg was relaxing as we drifted with the current and took in the fantastic panorama. Going upstream on an ebb tide required effort.

After the picture windows were installed we built the skeleton of a porch. Clint became ill during that construction. A new neighbor who has 28 years experience as an RN paid him a visit and said he had the symptoms of appendicitis. That caused us great concern because of our remote location. Clint wanted to wait to go to ER and the next morning was improved a little. That led to a wait to see how he felt at the end of that day. He was a little more improved and we let him decide whether he wanted to go to Juneau. Again he wanted to wait and see. He was down for three days and though still has slight discomfort in his side seems to have mostly recovered from whatever ailed him. He joined Ben and me on the cabin project even though we preferred he limit activity.

As I write this we are within a day of having the plumbing finished and well wiring connected (if the weather is good we might shift to other projects before energizing the well pump) . 90% of the bedroom and lower bath drywall is hung. We have the loft stairs to complete, plus perhaps the roof over the porch if we can improvise some siding. At this rate we may run out of materials before they leave in seven days. The weather has cooperated with little rain, though this morning precipitation is falling. That means an inside work day instead of trying to complete the porch.
Tomorrow is summer solstice. Ben and Clint stayed up around the campfire with a neighbor until midnight to see if it really was light at 12 AM. Their verdict: Dusky but still enough light to see well. Sunday afternoon Ben, Clint, and myself did a walk of about four miles to the Bartlett River. Between enjoyable construction, casual hikes, and leisurely kayaking my body tends to remind me it is 63. So far my mind remains 35-ish.

Three days ago we received a call from the Visa Credit Card fraud division. Someone had gotten Paulette’s credit card number and bogus charges showed up in So. Dakota and New York. They wanted to reissue new cards. We agreed but explained that there are no banks in our remote location so most everyone does business by credit card. He understood our predicament and said they would UPS them overnight. I had to explain that UPS doesn’t service Gustavus. He proposed FedEx. Nope. Then a more obscure service. Not them either. Our one choice is USPS and overnight up here doesn’t mean overnight. We will probably have them in two more days. It’s part of the fun of living in remote Alaska. We have enough cash to get along for a few weeks.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4, Paulette's Birthday

First, Happy Birthday to my wife. She has become Alaskan at heart in my opinion.

On Memorial day we took a walk via an off-the-beaten-path path. The closer one gets to the beach the smaller the trees, and the larger the clearings. A few years ago someone unknowingly brought in a dandelion seed, probably stuck to their shoe. This non-native species has proliferated into millions. Consequently many open areas become a sea of yellow dandelion flowers at this time of year. Some native species are having a struggle competing. The morning star and lupin are starting to bloom too.

I took a picture of the cabin plumbing to show the progress. Yup, it’s boring stuff. That is insulation in the background. I’ve about reached a point where I can go no further without new supplies. We intend to take the ferry into Juneau on Monday to procure materials, and then return home Wednesday.

Friday evening the Glacier Bay NP lodge did a reach-out to the local community. Those who RSVP’d got to go on a 1.5 hour boat ride out into the bay. The only wildlife we saw were a few sea otters, but a very enjoyable ride anyway. The second half of the open-house was a reception at the lodge. The eats were chef prepared and delicious. This was a nice touch in that the National Park, though our neighbor, has at times been viewed as intentionally isolationist from our small community. Perhaps this is changing.

Finally, MOOSE! When we arrived home I told Paulette I was going to walk out to the river and look for moose. As the opposite bank came into view I spied the first moose of the year right where we have seen cows bed down with their calves last year. They put their backs to the river and watch the narrow part of the isthmus for wolves. I saw her through our trees at about 70 feet. I moved left for a better view and one more quick picture before retreating. The brown spot in the grass to her left is the calf, perhaps two weeks old. I didn’t want to spook her from her protected lair, and she was still there in the morning.

You might want to double click that pix for a better look. Paulette went out about 9 AM and from our side of the river, about 50 feet from mama moose, began talking to her in a soft voice. Apparently moose don't understand human-talk. Mama and calf left shortly thereafter.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Not Much New

Winter is finally losing its grip up here... around late May. We have had four fairly nice and somewhat warmer days. Plants are growing fast, and everything seems to be in bloom. Still no moose or bear sightings though. The place seems to be less wild without those critters showing up. Progress on the cabin continues, thought not much to show visibly. Any pictures would be of plumbing or wiring. you would be bored. But progress is taking place. The pace is much more relaxed than last year.

A neighbor, when he saw our two kayaks, insisted on getting them in the water and took off upstream in one. About a hundred yards later he pulled over and gave up. The current moves around 3-4 feet per second if the tide is out. At a high tide the current will be almost non-existent. That made me reconsider letting the grandsons use the kayaks on the river. The current is just too strong. Perhaps we can take them to a pond.

The lodge at Glacier Bay opened Monday. We went up for dinner. They restaurant didn't have their act together. It took 45 minutes to get seated even though we had reservations. Another 30 minutes to get waited on. And another hour (!) to get our food. We had great conversation with another couple during that time. The result was when the bill came they gave us the meals for the four of us free with their apology. We did have to pay for our beverages.

I hope to go to Juneau next week to pick up building supplies. I'm running out of things to do until I get the needed parts.