Dalls porpoises riding on the David B’s Bow
Something I look forward to every year when we are running trips on the David B are the occasional visits by Dalls porpoises. These mid-sized sea mammals that looks deceptively like baby killer whales love to surf bow wakes. We often see them in the Inside Passage and Alaska. Usually they are foraging for fish, but sometimes, they turn their attention to the David B. It begins with seeing their characteristic rooter-tail splashing a ways off, and with surprising speed, they soon rush up alongside of the boat, and then they begin jockeying for the prime spot just in front of the boat’s stem. It’s a thrill to watch their speed and their agility.
Here’s a little complication of a few of the amazing experiences we’ve had with surfing Dalls porpoises.
The ice mountain is well disposed toward you
There’s often a cold breeze blowing off the glacier when we arrive to admire it’s icy blue front. Wind that can make July feel like January. It plays games with my seasonal clock. I remember one time while watching Dawes glacier, a guest told me he was going to go river rafting in a week when he got home. I gave him a quizzical look. It took me a moment to remember that it was July, and the rest of the North America was enjoying water slides and shaved ice, not icebergs sliding into sea water.
Visiting a tidewater glacier in Alaska is pilgrimage. You go observe something bigger than yourself in nature. It’s something you need do. For us, getting to the glacier is part of the journey. It’s more than just checking it off as a bucket-list item. On the David B, we are tuned into the rhythm of the glacier and the ebb and flow of the tide as it carries discarded icebergs up and down the fjord. We watch the glacier’s ever-changing snout and it’s mood. We’re aware that the glacier sometimes makes us work hard for our visit by packing the fjord densely with ice shed from its towering face. Sometimes its bergs are enormous – big like a building. Sometimes they are small – like a basketball. Some are white, some are blue, some have dirt and rocks riding along. Some have seals nursing their young. Some are clear and difficult to see. (We call those sneakers.)
Iceberg sizes have official names too. Most of the ice we see in Endicott Arm or Tracy Arm are growlers, less than 1 meter above the water and and less than 5 meters long. We also see lots bergie bits that are up to 4 meters above the water and and 14 meters long. The small and medium
icebergs, which range in size from 15 meters high to 45 meters high are often floating at the entrance to the fjords. The large and very large icebergs, which top out at over 75 meters high are rare.
Picking our way though the ice is always a challenge, and depending on the mood of the glacier, it can make for a long day. When we travel to a tidewater glacier, we always have two hopes. The first one is that the ice in the fjord will be light and the work of getting there will be easy. The second hope is that when we arrive, the glacier will awaken, and as Captain Tyeen said to John Muir in 1880, when they first saw Dawes Glacier, “The ice mountain is well disposed toward you. He is firing his big guns to welcome you.”
This past year we had several good visits to Dawes glacier, the ice was light and the glacier did fire its “big guns,” but one day stood out. It was a cool day with a strong wind coming off the glacier. Travel was relatively easy. Jeffrey piloted the David B to about 400 meters from Dawes’s formidable blue-white front. The feeling is always the same for me. I feel really small when I’m face to face with Dawes, which towers like a wide-angle skyscraper. At 400 meters, the wind, as if laughing at our smallness, pushed us back away from icy Dawes. We were the only boat there. Jeffrey re-positioned the David B several times, and each time we faced the glacier again. Our reward came with patience, hot coffee, mittens, and hats. The glacier became well disposed toward us and began to “fire it’s big guns”.
It started with a cracking and a rushing sound. Ice sloughed off the center-right side dumping a cascade of bergie bits and growlers. It continued and dumped some more, then something big broke, and more bergie bits and maybe even a small or medium iceberg was cast away from Dawes. The sounds and the sight made my heart beat quickly with excitement. Soon the waves arrived with a long low gentle role. We moved in sync with the nearby growlers and bergie bits.
When the show began to slow up, Jeffrey moved us into the wind one more time. It was time to go. The ice mountain was good to us, other boats were approaching, and a hot bowl of chili and sweet cast-iron-baked cornbread with melting butter was waiting in the galley.
Some days are simply perfect. The weather’s warm. The skies are blue. The water flat calm, and the line between sea and sky is almost indistinguishable. We had a day like that in August. It was the kind of day that happens every-so-often in the temperate rain-forest climate of southeast Alaska. It was the kind of day where all the conditions were just right for watching humpback whales. Not only could we stop to watch, but we were able to turn off the engine and drift silently. Without background noise from the boat, we were able to experience something different. All around us, and spread out over several miles were humpback whales in groups of two or three, and alone. All foraging. When they would surface, their breath would make an explosive “swooshing” sound. Atomized water particles hung still in the air marking the spot where they had come up. It was hard to know where to look. The sounds of whales surrounded the boat. They would sometimes surface near to the David B. Other times they’d be distant. We just drifted upon the open water; watching, listening, observing.
Our only real plan for that day was to anchor in the evening somewhere at Admiralty Island or Baranof Island. We didn’t have any concrete plans for the day. Having an itinerary means you have to get somewhere, and when nature presents something beautiful and awe inspiring to enjoy, an itinerary means you just have to put on your blinders and keep going. So there we were, sitting around listening to whales. We’d also dropped a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) over the side. The small amplifier on deck that the hydrophone was plugged to revealed all kinds of whale sounds from funny-bawdy to ethereal. From my spot on deck, I could see couple of whales surfacing about a quarter mile away. It soon became evident that they were heading our direction. Everyone on deck turned their attention to these whales. They moved in a straight line. We watched. Each time they broke the surface, they were closer. Soon, one whales was close enough to see it under water –it’s long pectoral fins faintly glowing against the deep dark water. Over the amplifier, a couple barking sounds and some bubbles could be heard. Then a few seconds later, a whale surfaced just off our starboard side. It lifted it’s fluke high and dove under the boat. Farther aft, the second whale surfaced and dove as well. There was a moment of joy, then wonder. I wondered why they chose that path? Where were they going? What did the sounds mean? How long would they remain under water? Where would they surface next?
A few minutes later they surfaced again along the same line. I assumed they were traveling to a spot with more food, but I don’t really know what they were doing or planning. We hung around a little while longer. Jeffrey started the engine up, and we picked our way around other foraging whales. In the evening, we anchored in a little cove at Baranof Warm Springs Bay. As I made dinner, I reflected on the day, our luck, and I thought to myself, “it couldn’t possibly get any better than this.“
Please note – For full screen click on video, then click on” [ ]” in lower right corner.
Waiting for humpback whales
I always feel like there’s sort of a Jack-in-the-box element to watching humpback whales forage. When they are at the surface we can see them breathing, flapping their flippers, or slapping their flukes (tails), but when they dive, it’s anybody’s guess as to where they’ll surface next.
I like to think about the wait between surfacing as a time to refocus my attention on my surroundings. I know that they will be beneath the surface for 3-7 minutes. They’ll be rounding up forage fish and doing the things that whales do — the stuff we can’t see. In that time, I like to think about where they’ll come back up, or how funny it is that there are these enormous animals so close, (only a few hundred of feet away) and yet I can’t see them. I like to look into the water for passing jelly fish, or a tangle of kelp that slips along in the current. I watch the gulls for cues about where the whales are. On occasion when they swim right beneath us, the bubbles of their breath will bounce up along the David B’s planks –a reminder that somewhere, just a out-of-sight, but oh, so close, there are whales. I refocus my attention to the whales. I wonder how long ago they were under the boat. I wonder what direction they are going. I calculate the time. I lift my camera and wait. I wait for the thrill of hearing the explosive breath again and seeing these usually invisible giants. It’s like a Jack-in-the-box.
I heart the David B
Our guests love the David B! Since we only take six guests on the boat per cruise, we work hard to make sure your time onboard the David B is unique, authentic, and special. I think that’s what makes our cruises in Alaska, the Inside Passage, and the San Juan Islands, so different from small ships that carry 50 or 60 passengers is that we get the time to know you as a person. On the David B, you are not just another passenger on another trip. We really do care about you and we really do hope you’ll join us!
A hike at Fords Terror with My 78 year-old dad
My dad gets around pretty well, so long as the path is flat and he has his hiking poles, but he isn’t able to do much that’s really rocky or too steep. So this past summer when we were anchored at Fords Terror he politely declined to go with the rest of the family on the hike.
This was kind of a problem for me because I really wanted him to see it. I really think it is the most stunning place we go ashore in SE Alaska. First, the anchorage is surrounded by these amazing waterfalls, some coming down the sheer walls of the fjord for three to four thousand feet, and of course there’s the “Terror” itself, with the current rushing through the narrow spot, making standing waves four feet high. But when you go ashore it gets even more amazing.
What suffices for a trail goes up to a place where you can look down on the rapids and even start to get a peek up the fjord behind the rapids. Then you walk over a little moss-covered granite rise and you come to the most amazing thing — the kettle ponds. Carved out of solid granite by the action of the glacier passing over the top of the rock, these little ponds, ranging from three to twenty feet across, are just full of lilly pads. It’s an amazing sight. This summer, on an early trip to the spot, I stepped off the trail to let one of my guests pass so she could see and I actually heard her gasp when she saw them. It actually took her breath away.
“I know you told us about this beforehand, but I can’t believe how beautiful it is,” she told us later.
So when my dad was on the boat this past summer, I really wanted him to see it. But the first part of the hike is slippery and seaweed covered, then there’s the section that’s steep, muddy and in a sort of slot through the granite only to get up to the section where the narrow trail pushes through the underbrush and up a muddy ravine. It finally comes out on the slippery moss-covered granite, and that’s where you get this astonishing view.
And he had just declined to go. This is the man that has been hiking and backpacking since before he was in college.This is a guy that has hiked the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierras, the Brooks Range, summited Mount Rainier, Grand Teton and treked in Nepal around Everest. He is the father that took me and my sister backpacking so we could experience the beauty of nature. He started us when we were just four and six, and we went every year until we were “too old” (teanagers) to go on family vacations. Now here we were on a family vacation and he had said “no.”
So I convinced him. For once, I could show him an amazing wilderness spot. The rest of the group went ahead while we hiked and scrambled. At one point, I held him steady by his belt loops. Later he even had to crawl on his hands and knees. It was a lot of work for both of us, but we made it. And he got to see this place that his adult son now takes people to experience the amazing beauty of nature.
Just like he used to take me.
He thanked me for my persistence too, when we got back to the boat, and I really think he enjoyed the hike, even though it was tough for him.
We hike at Fords Terror on almost all of our trips in Alaska, unless there are unusual circumstances. It’s really majestic. I really want people to see it, but I won’t force you to go.
I’ll steady you by your belt loops if you need it though.
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.
The gift of experience
Everyday I think to myself how lucky Jeffrey and I have been able to run the David B as a tour boat for the last nine years, and that we’ve been able to share with our passengers the most spectacular places in Southeast Alaska. As we move deeper into the holiday season and I’m constantly bombarded by the advertisements to buy more and consume more, I think about how much I enjoy my experience-based business. On days where I have to reluctantly go to the part of town with the big mall and its traffic, or I listen to people talk about the drudgery of buying gifts, I always wonder why more people don’t give the gift of an experience? Maybe it’s a small thing like a day trip to a nearby nature preserve, hotel stay, dinner at a special restaurant, or something really big like a trip in Alaska on the David B. I know my favorite gifts have all been the ones where I’ve spent time with the people I love and the memories I have from those experiences.
Here’s one of my favorite memories from our 2014 season. We were cruising near Admiralty Island and we came across a couple dozen humpback whales feeding. They were spread out far from each other. The weather was calm, the skies were clear. We stopped. Jeffrey shut down the engine, dropped an underwater microphone (hydrophone) in the water and just listened and watched. Soon two humpbacks surfaced nearby the David B.
Untrammeled By Man
[pix_dropcap]O[/pix_dropcap]ne night in July as we pulled into a little cove on Admiralty Island we noticed a small camp on the shore of our intended anchorage. There was plenty of speculation on the bridge-deck as to who the group might have been. One thought was that they were kayakers hauled out for the night, another thought was that they were locals out camping. The speculation ended when we were hailed on the radio by a familiar voice. It was Kevin, a Forest Service employee who we’d met several years ago when he was a Wilderness Ranger who patrolled Tracy Arm/Fords Terror wilderness area by kayak. He’d seen the David B cruise past a peek-a-boo opening in the cove. As he talked with Jeffrey, we learned that the group on shore were all volunteers who had come to Admiralty Island as part of a program of invasive weed eradication. The weed was hemp nettle, a European plant most likely brought to Admiralty decades ago where a cannery was once in operation. We also learned that Harry, our US Forest Service permit administrator, was also on shore, which was exciting because in all the years of running the David B in Alaska, we’d never actually met face-to-face.
We anchored in the unnamed cove which separates Good Island from Admiralty Island. We decided that our evening activity was going to be kayaking and that I’d take our guests for paddle around the cove, while Jeffrey would skiff ashore, chat with the rangers and offer some cookies to the volunteer weed-pullers.
The paddle was pleasant. There were ravens somewhere out-of-sight, but their deep”kwark-kwark” calls were unmistakable. We looked for sea-stars in the shallows and watched salmon jump. A couple of seals followed us at a respectable distance. When we returned, Jeffrey was already back at the David B. He had arranged for Kevin and Harry to come to the boat the next morning to talk about their work, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Tongass National Forest, and Admiralty National Monument.
The morning broke unusually sunny for Southeast Alaska, and the rangers arrived shortly after breakfast. Kevin began the discussion by talking about the Wilderness Act, pointing out that we were celebrating its 50th year. He recited from it. It’s some of the most beautiful language in any piece of legislature anywhere:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
The words were penned by Howard Zahniser, an activist with the Wilderness Society, and after Kevin read those words we chatted about the beauty of the phrase “untrammeled by man,” Certainly the scene around us fit that description. The forest was thick with tall spruce and hemlock trees, and a deer cautiously walked on the shore of Good Island, while an eagle soared overhead and another perched high atop a spruce. We talked a long time that morning, maybe longer than we intended, but our guests were genuinely interested in the wilderness and had many questions.
Time past quickly as we continued our discussion about the nuts and bolts of the old act signed into law fifty years ago. Kevin was talking about how the Act affects us all, when suddenly my eye caught something shimmery — a huge school of salmon. I couldn’t help myself but shout out, “look, look!” Alaska never fails to outdo itself. We all stopped to watch school swim close by the David B. The salmon were on their way to spawn and continue the cycle of life. There was nothing more to be said. Mother Nature just had the last word.