Lesson learned from Little Bear
More than anything else, I love to be in places where I can observe animals. For me, every encounter with wildlife is special. Most of the time these encounters are nothing more than a brief glimpse or a snapshot into a creature’s daily routine. But each time I observe I learn something new about animal behavior and also about myself.
I find bears especially captivating. I love watching how they move, how they make decisions, how they find food, and where they choose to be. I love watching old bears, and young bears, baby bears, and mama bears. I love watching brown (grizzly) bears and black bears equally.
Some encounters stand out. In July this past summer, it was a was a young brown bear. We’d been watching it through binoculars from the David B the night before. The bear had come down to the beach at low-tide to try its hand (or paw, I should say) at fishing. It was alone and seemed to be new at the solo-life of a bear. We speculated that it had recently been run off by its mother and was trying to remember the techniques it had been taught as a baby bear. The bear was trying to pounce on the fish by running and jumping into the creek with its big paws spread wide. Each time it came up empty pawed. We watched it for over an hour.
The next morning, the bear, which we affectionately started calling Little Bear, was back on the beach at low-tide. We found it at a different braid of the stream while we were exploring the bay in the skiff. Little Bear was again working on the nuances of fishing, and it appeared it was still coming up empty pawed. Jeffrey kept the skiff offshore in deep water, but close enough that we could watch. Little Bear, strutted around in the water looking for fish. When it found some, it would pounce, and splash, and pounce again.
When it noticed us watching, it ran a short distance along the shoreline with an attitude that suggested we were not welcome to share the fishing hole. Jeffrey backed the skiff. Little Bear was satisfied that we were not a threat, and went back to fishing.
As I’ve thought about Little Bear this fall, I’ve come recognized how hard it is for animals to make it. A young bear has a lot of obstacles to overcome. Young bears don’t often get the best places to forage for food, or the best territory. Young bears like Little Bear are a lesson in persistence. They have to keep trying to catch those fish, no matter how many times they come up empty pawed. That’s what I love about watching wildlife. Life lessons. Lessons that make me smarter, wiser, and more in tune with nature.
As winter sets in, I hope that Little Bear is fat and happy with a big belly full of salmon.
Skiffy-a-saurus Wins Again!
Skiffy-a-saurus Wins Again!
We built a new skiff for this season and we’ve been really loving how much it’s changed things.
It was kind of a last minute decision, and the builders really rushed to get it done for us. We only loaded it on board the day before our season started, It’s huge by comparison to our old skiff (which by an interesting requirement at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had been known as Skiffy.) The new one is so big (to us) that we named it Skiffy-a-saurus.
We use it for all the things we used to do. It’s really good and stable (people can stand up and move around while we’re moving) and it easy to climb in and out of at the beach. We’re using it for getting into kayaks too, but but now we’ve added a couple other activities to our skiff repertoire. The best one– skiff exploring.
We didn’t use Skiffy much for exploring, because it’s capacity was so limited, usually only half the group, but now, everyone can go at once. Now when we get to a new cove or harbor and drop the anchor, we all pile in Skiffy-a-saurus and head out to explore the shoreline. We putt along at 3 or 4 knots, sometimes shutting down the motor to drift and listen, and really get to see what’s there. On this last trip alone, we watched eagles and gulls, saw deer feeding at the water’s edge, spied on crab crawling across the bottom, even drifted while harbor porpoises and icebergs circled the boat. But the best one yet… We watched a brown bear right up close!
It was morning, just before breakfast. The sun was lighting up one side of the little fjord we were anchored in. The other side was still in the shade. A brown bear swam across from the sunny side into the shadows on the other side. It was probably a half a mile down the shore. We watched it for 15 or 20 minutes, then Christine suggested we go take a look with Skiffy-a-saurus. Everyone got their cameras, and we all quietly climbed in.
I headed us over to the shore, then hugged the shore as I idled us close to where he was. At about a hundred feet from the bear, I shut down and let the tide carry us along the shore. We were just feet from the rocky edge. Slowly we got closer and closer, The grizzly didn’t seem to notice (or care) that we were there. No one made a sound. When we were even with him on the beach we were probably only 30 feet away! About 15 of that was deep water, so we calmly took pictures and watched as he poked among the rocks, eating barnacles and mussels. Then we followed him back down the beach for almost another 10 minutes. It was fantastic. Chalk another one up for Skiffy-a-saurus because this moment was only possible because of it.
Skiffy-a-saurus wins again.
Verney Falls in August
When we enter Nettle Basin on our Southbound Inside Passage cruise between Ketchikan and Bellingham, we always hope we’ll find bears at Verney Falls. In mid-August the salmon come home to spawn here and the bears come for the feast.
Nettle Basin, at the base of the falls will be alive with hundreds of splashing salmon. Sometimes we’ll kayak right up to the waterfall to watch eagles, ravens, and bears feeding on the salmon. It’s exciting to watch bears fishing but I’ve often found myself more mesmerized by the great schools of salmon that gather in the pool at the base of the waterfall. When they jump, it sends a splash of water on to me and my kayak and as they swim their fins cut the surface like sharks.
There’s a lot of energy packed into in this small space. It’s nature’s raw energy of life and survival. I find myself rooting for both the fish and the bears, and I root for the eagles and the ravens too. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama at the waterfall, it’s why we like to come here.
Listening to Crows
When people ask what I do for a living, I respond that Jeffrey and I run a tour boat in Alaska, and if that leads to a longer conversation, I usually continue on about how we spend lots of time watching humpback and orca whales, and how we have a couple of spotting scopes on the boat so we can watch bears forage on the beach. Rarely do I run on about how much I love watching crows and other common animals. This is partly because, like weeds, the virtues of crows remain undiscovered for most people.
I find crows fascinating. They help me fulfill my need for nature during the off-season at my urban home where there are no deep-wilderness animals to geek-out on. Sometimes the crows tell me what’s going on in the neighborhood. Like the time when a raccoon was out wandering during the day. I heard what I like to call a “crowmotion” a few block to the east. The crows were noisily and excitedly moving through yards and alleys. I stepped out the backdoor to see what all the fuss was about. As soon as I opened the door a raccoon came into my yard seeking refuge in a tall cedar tree. Unfortunately for the raccoon, there were already two other raccoons sleeping there and the poor thing was forced to move along. I watched it leave the tree and cross the street. I lost track of the raccoon as it ambled into the neighbor’s yard, but the crows continued their parade “cawing” and flying from tree to tree for several blocks.
I’ve learned a lot from observing crows and that with their help, they often lead me to exciting discoveries. One time I was kayaking close to shore in a cove in Alaska. It was a calm overcast day. I was looking for sea stars, crabs, and small schools of fish. I kept my attention focused on the water below my boat. After a while my ears picked up the sound of several crows in the bushes to my left. The crows were going on and on about something. I half listened thinking there was probably an eagle in a tree. I decided to look up. No eagle. I went back to skimming along the surface and searching the shallow water. They crows kept talking. I looked up again and decided to see if I could find the focus of their attention. I held my boat still by gently padding the water with my paddle. I watched. The crows were clustered low on the branches of spruce, hemlock, and alders. I looked at where they were looking. A branch moved. The tide was high and I was maybe 30 feet from the edge of the forest. I held still and smiled to myself as my eyes made out a dark fuzzy round shape with two more fuzzy round shapes on top. The animal was partially blocked by shrubs and very difficult to see. The crows had discovered a brown bear and wanted everyone to know. I had listened.
There have been many other times that the cues of common animals have increased my awareness. I’ve watched gulls flying in a straight line, then suddenly circle. Most of the time it’s a fish coming to the surface, but sometimes it’s a whale. One day I realized that I often say things like, “Oh, that’s just a crow”, or, “It’s just a gull,” when really, they are so much more than “just a.” They are communicators and lively participants in the ecosystems and habitats of which we are part. If we pause to listen to them, we might discover they know things that will truly enrich our lives.
That time we anchored in Tracy Arm…
It was maybe the coolest thing we did all summer, and it wasn’t planned at all. I didn’t really mean to be there at that time of day anyway.
What started it all was a “boring” glacier in another fjord. We normally visit a glacier on our Juneau and Petersburg trips, and stay around for an hour or so to watch it calve, but this time — no luck. We drifted around, and drifted around and nothing. The glacier was just sitting there, doing absolutely nothing. Maybe a couple little snowballs, but not like our normal shows. And it was really windy, so we kept having to maneuver to get back into position. There were lots of big icebergs that we pushed up against, and lots of brash ice and the whole thing was really annoying since nothing was going on with the glacier.
So I made a pronouncement “this glacier is boring! I’ll take you to see better one tomorrow.” Seemed like a good idea at the time.
The next morning we got underway at a nice civilized hour. The logbook says: “0935 — Underway“ Then everything seemed to slow us down. The tide was against us, we stopped for whales, we didn’t even make it out of Endicott Arm until well after lunch.
And so, late in the afternoon we were headed up Tracy Arm and we weren’t going to make it. Turning around meant covering this same stretch of water two more times and if we kept on to the glacier, it was going to be dark on our way out. Not good when you’re trying to avoid icebergs.
So I did what anyone would do in that situation. I anchored right in the fjord. We’d been told about a spot where a river flows out into the fjord and pushes the icebergs away, but it didn’t seem that good, so we went back a few miles and dropped the hook on a shallow ledge where another stream flows out. We’d scooped out this spot a few weeks earlier, tested the depths and looked at how the stream flow pushed the ice away.
It was amazingly beautiful. Everyone got in kayaks and paddled around the little bergy bits that were nearby and watched a black bear at the water’s edge. Then we observed a seal eating salmon, and there was even a place to nose the kayaks into a little waterfall flowing into the fjord. Over dinner we spotted the bear again on the rocks high above us.
As darkness fell, Christine, Cass and I set an all night anchor watch, which was mostly an all night berg watch. We plotted the big ones with the radar, we scanned for small ones by searchlight. It was really eerie watching the huge bergs go by all night at a quarter knot or so, but it was too shallow for them to get close to us.
When you go through a night like this, it seems almost bittersweet when it starts to get light. It was so serene and peaceful as the bergs marched slowly past us in the dark, first one way, then the other as the tide turned. There was a kind of magic to it. We were the only ones there quietly watching what the natural world had been doing for thousands of years
The spell continued as it got light, and we got underway to be the first ones to the glacier. The sun shone brilliantly, and this time, the glacier performed.
Cycles of the seasons
Whenever I see salmon in our local streams or in far-away wild places, it reminds me of the endless cycles of the seasons that often seem to go unnoticed. It’s changing from fall to winter bringing big winds and rain. Leaves from the maple trees have all blown down, and the trails are muddy from the fallen leaves trampled into the soil. When the rain and the wind come to my home, I know that soon the chum salmon will too. And along with them, bald eagles and people will appear along the banks of our urban streams. All these things have come to symbolize to me that another cycle for the David B has ended.
Fall and winter are a busy time for us. Each year in October our trips are finished and it seems like spring is impossibly far away. I drive around town picking up parts for the boat, the mail at the post office, and doing other off-seasons tasks. I often go past Whatcom creek, a small salmon-bearing creek that empties into Bellingham Bay. The in-town anglers line up, elbow to elbow along a retaining wall for their chance to catch a fish.
The other day when I saw the crowd of fishermen it reminded me of a day few months earlier in mid-July when I was kayaking with some of our guests in Alaska — Cannery Cove at Admiralty Island to be specific. It’s one of the most scenic anchorages we visit — almost unbelievable in it’s beauty. From our anchorage, the 3800-foot high Bear Pass Mountain rises right from the edge of the cove. Between the water’s edge and the top of the peak an ancient forest covers the side of the mountain. The boughs of those old-old trees seem to cling to the slowly rising wisps of clouds. Ravens fill this basin-like cove with their throaty “kwork-kwork,” calls while eagles whistle from their high perches atop of impossibly tall trees. Multiple waterfalls are visible as they tumble down Bear Pass Mountain forming cold and snow-fed salmon streams. Here the chum salmon run earlier than those in Washington state.
On that day in July we kayaked to a spot where I’d seen a brown bear the week earlier. I figured I might as well check it out again, and sure enough, almost as if on cue, a bear ambled out onto the beach. It was, like the scenery in Cannery Cove, almost unbelievable. My guests followed and we watched the bear eat grass, dig a little around the beach and walk along the water’s edge. As I held my kayak in place, dipping my paddle into the water and pulling back slightly, I focused my eyes into the shallows below my boat. The water was clear and I could see a deeper dark-bluish-green channel that lead through the tidally-submerged mudflats at the head of the cove. Something caught my eye. It was a school of chum salmon swimming purposefully through the deep channel. These fish were nearing the end of their life-cycle. Their bodies already showed the changes that salmon go through on their way to spawn in freshwater. No longer were they the sleek and silver salmon of the Pacific ocean, they were now greenish with distinctive purple tiger-stripes. If I’d been able to scoop one of them out of the water, I’d have seen that their mouths were developing a hooked snout and canine-like teeth. These changes were in preparation for their final stage in life — migration up their natal stream for their chance to spawn and to end one cycle while beginning another.
Our cyclical lifestyle is defined by our sailing season and our off-season. We’ve finished with our wilderness adventures on the David B for the year, and we’ve prepared it for winter. We’ve finalized our project list, and put a winter cover over the boat. Is it the beginning of a new cycle? Or the end of the old? It’s hard to know and it doesn’t really matter where the line is. What does matter is that during this part of the cycle we get to reconnect with past passengers who are planning to return to the David B, and connect with new people who will travel with us for the first time. In a few months the David B will emerge with fresh paint, new varnish, and upgraded systems. Soon after, we will set off for new adventures. And a new cycle.