The Inside Passage, a Ferry Tale
Finally, the land of dreams since reading Jack London, since hearing of polar bears and Eskimos, since thinking someday of climbing Mt. McKinley, learning there are longspurs, Arctic Warblers and Willow Ptarmigan, dreaming of all the above and fantasizing more, experiencing Alaska is to become a real possibility. Dare to believe. Yes, we will not see polar bears, climbing Mt. McKinley is not going to happen, but the beginning of a trip to Alaska is possible. Any trip to Alaska will require stamina, something that may wane with age. Having passed the wonder years of spring chickens, it is no longer possible to roller skate through a buffalo herd not to mention out run a cloud of mosquitos. Pacing oneself requires more time to get to the top of the hill, leap a stream, remaining upright on a snow bank or chase down a wary lifer hiding up the trail. The long days of yesteryear have to be shorter in order to recharge for the next day, the next life bird and still enjoy the scenery and most importantly, each other. Therefore, going to Alaska, seeing Alaska, birding Alaska, is a very big deal. We are ready for the dream.
The fruition of our plans has not been easy, with its false starts and bolstering our savings. The ferry from northern Washington to southeastern Alaska comes to $1896! That includes passage for two, our vehicle and a nice berth. Sure, many birders skip the ferry and get down to business by flying to Anchorage. Where is the romance in that? The cost of flying for two is about $700 less than the ferry, and from my home the plane likely would first travel to Los Angeles before turning north to Alaska. I am not making this up. At Anchorage, car rental for a couple of weeks will cost around $500. Doing so would mean forgoing Yukon and British Columba. Our cost, food and motels and car rental would be somewhere close to $2,000, what an average tourist spends while in Alaska, plus airfare. Linda and I will want and need to take a leisurely time while in Alaska and not make it a marathon getting home. Driving home will require at least 12 days, or 12 motel nights. All this adds up to a tidy sum, and, as narrated, is economically easy for some and impossible for others, even birders. We will be avoiding four and five starred accommodations while dipping into the peanut butter jar for memorable scenery and birds and marine mammals.
From a large map mounted for years on a wall in our not so boreal Oregon home, we had soaked in a little geography of the 49th state. The narrow southeastern panhandle of Alaska is the region traveled by our ferry through the Inside Passage. The panhandle town of Sitka, Russia’s capitol of Alaska, was the ceremonial location when one flag went down and another went up. Before and years later, the thickness of Alaska’s tail varied from narrow along the coast to thicker when the boundary was moved inland depending on boundaries set by various treaties, beginning in 1825 between Great Britain and Russia, later between Canada and the United States, and claims of territory by British Columbia and the U.S. that finally ended in 1903. The southeastern panhandle is now averaging 500 miles long and 120 miles wide, with mountains and deep water hosting glaciers, Bald Eagles, Arctic Terns, gulls and an array of marine mammals.
Before today’s boundary of the panhandle of Alaska was established and before the landscape began an ever-changing evolution of occupation by Russia and ultimately the U.S., the panhandle and coastal British Columbia was home to primarily three Indian Nations. Boundaries between the three Indian Nations changed in time, especially because of European and Asian exploration and commerce. The Tsimshian resided along the Canadian coast. Territory of the Tlingit is from southwestern Yukon, south to approximately the coastal border of British Columbia and the panhandle of Alaska. The Haida, credited as originating totem poles in the 1700’s, were a seafaring nation and resided south of the Tlingit.
Part of the homeland of the Haida is Haida Gwaii, the name of the formerly known Queen Charlotte Island archipelago and the name on many important specimens of birds while growing up at Smithsonian. A subspecies of Canada Goose is based on specimens from the island. Although our ferry passage is too distant to glimpse Haida Gwaii, the closeness of the islands lure memories of taxonomic endeavors back in my day. Several different taxons of birds have as their basis, type specimens from the Queen Charlotte Islands. For example, a dark subspecies of Great Blue Heron, fannini, has as its type locality Graham Island of Haida Gwaii islands. My study of Oregon Great Blue Herons concluded fannini has occurred in winter, but I need to revisit those specimens since a respected taxonomic friend indicates fannini does not occur so far south. There are others subspecies of birds that have type localities from this group of islands, including a subspecies of Hairy Woodpecker (picoedeus) and Steller’s Jay (carlottae). The late Allan Phillips named a subspecies of Brown Creeper (stewarti) from the islands. I cannot comment on the woodpecker, but the subspecies of Steller’s Jay is a good one, something confirmed in a preliminary study on the northern subspecies I published in Birds of Oregon a few years ago. I judged the subspecies of Brown Creeper as recognizable in a paper I wrote more than two decades ago.
Well before people began taxonomic studies there is a different history. The panhandle of Alaska and coastal British Columbia fur trade began to take hold in the late 1700’s when Russia moved slowly into the panhandle. The Spanish investigated the Russian activity and left their mark further north, leaving the infamous name Valdez. Britain’s Hudson Bay Company, pelting away in the economy of fur, had a post near Wrangell in 1839 and clashing with natives by attempting to take over Tlinglit trade routes to the interior. The U.S. built a military post at the site in 1867, which is now under water after dredging the shallow harbor at Wrangell in the late 1800’s. The discovery of gold changed the land of the region from a mostly remote outpost to a land throbbing with 10,000 people thinking first of warm soft mammal pelts and later, pondering nuggets from the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. Also called the Yukon or the Alaska Gold Rush, only about 4,000 people found gold, the rest that managed to stay alive most likely would have been happy with chicken nuggets.
Naturally, those seeking pelts and gold brought with them their missionaries, their diseases, the depletion of certain mammals, change of landscape and loss of natural habitat from settlements and bad mining practices, and their desire to exterminate native people once they passed their usefulness as guides. Despite efforts, the Tlingit were not conquered.
Travel in the essentially roadless panhandle involves negotiating the calm water of the Inside Passage. The route threads itself among thousands of islands from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to the Alexander Archipelago of Alaska and roughly terminates at Haines and Skagway, Alaska. Differences in tides in the Alexander Archipelago can be 30 feet in an otherwise calm sailing route. Today, all manners of watercraft from kayaks to multiple storied passenger cruise ships ply the Inside Passage, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Meanwhile, back in the late nineteenth century, a few tourist had visited Alaska, with a supposed count of 1,650 people (who was counting then?) using the Inside Passage in 1884. Six years later, the number of tourist topped 5,000. Tourism increased dramatically after WWII. It was about this time when a privately owned company developed a ferry system in the Inside Passage. The company’s budget sank, so to speak, and eventually the ferry became the property of the state of Alaska. The number using the ferry continues to rise, with around 100,000 passengers cruising the Inside Passage in the early 1990s. The ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway, operates year-round in the Inside Passage, and transported 253,554 people and 81,118 vehicles as of 2011. It is difficult to believe, but in a few days, Linda and I will also travel the Inside Passage and step into Alaska. Just how much of its history and what marine mammals and how many birds we will experience along the way await discovery.
14 May 2013
The day we began our journey could have been the day we left home in southern Oregon, but I prefer to begin the story today when we stop at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. This is my second time in the refuge. The first was in 2006, when on the way to the Rocky Mountains of Montana and southern Canada. It was July then, which may explain not finding Marsh Wrens singing in the refuge. Perhaps the birds were too busy feeding young and spending less time defending territory. Seven years later, I still want to see them so I could say I observed a bird named after me. Well, only partially. Only its third moniker, its subspecific name bears resemblance to my last name. The target de jour is Cistothorus palustris browningi. A refuge staff member, after I somewhat embarrassingly explain our reason for visiting the refuge, direct Linda and I to a closed region of the refuge. Three species of swallows ply the cool air and Common Yellowthroats scold and sing. Tall trees off the trail sport Yellow Warblers, also singing in the spring. Near the end of the trail, a gravel road, we hear a raspy voice that identifies a male Marsh Wren. Two browningi wrens pop into sight and slink back behind the foliage of the small bush at the edge of the marsh. The brief encounter certainly is not sufficient to discern that the two wrens are grayer than other coastal subspecies or that they are darker than the subspecies seen during birding the home turf. The difference between those populations strictly relates to the old adage, albeit paraphrased a bit: “a bird in the hand is equal to a subspecific identification and those left in the bush, well, they remain identifiable to species only.”
Notching my belt with a new subspecies is not something I plan to pursue, at least not the far-western Marsh Wrens. On the other hand, it is worth identifying western subspecies, as a group, from the group of eastern Marsh Wren subspecies. The two groups meet, somewhere in Alberta and perhaps elsewhere and the two groups do not sing the same tune. Identifying certain subspecies may later pay dividends. Certain groups of so-called subspecies may actually represent separate species and go on my escrow list. Eastern and western Marsh Wrens will likely sit next to one another on future checklists just as many other groups of species prove to deserve separate species status.
Not long after the wrens, we dine with friends in a restaurant standing on pilings in the edge of Commencement Bay. I can see the other side of the bay where two years earlier I saw my first Black-tailed Gull. In the foreground are Pigeon Guillemots and a Purple Martin. Later, before dark, we spot Mt. Rainier, the behemoth that feeds the Nisqually River and refuge protecting wildlife, including wrens.
15 May 2013
Leaving Tacoma’s Red Crossbills, Hermit Warblers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches, we thread our way north on a route demanding strict driving attention, especially in the frantic vicinity of Seattle. Only an Ivory-billed Woodpecker might unpeel my eyes from the task at hand, which is not becoming an interstate fatality. Nearing Bellingham, mounting excitement of the days to come gives rise to the reality of traveling the Inside Passage. Not wishing to jeopardize our chances of catching the ferry, we had reserved a motel a couple of nights before departure. We must be ready, cued to the location and close to the line of cars waiting to journey north. We verify that the bag containing what we will need for the next four days is packed. We dub the large carry-on as the ferry bag. The remaining bags, boxes and assorted container will remain in our car, nestled somewhere with other vehicles destined for northern ports.
We feel fortunate that we had reserved our spot on the ferry, a place for the birdmobile to travel and a berth for our bodies to sleep. The reservations were made months ago at the urging of the Alaska Marine Ferry system. Having space for the vehicle and the berth meant going to Alaska, therefore reserving our bodies for the trip. Driving the whole distance made no sense. We also reserved tickets for flying to Nome, the car rental and hotel there, and reserved a few other motels we thought, due to their remote locations, would be critical should there be no vacancy. A motel in a remote area late in the day, but full up would not make anyone a happy camper. Reserving so many places goes against the grain of a free road tripper, but taking chances in such an unknown territory causes us to be more cautious than usual.
16 May 2013
A short drive southwest put me at the terminal of the Alaska Marine Highway. The place seems deserted and no one but a clerk is at the ticket line. I provide my name and state my departure is tomorrow. The friendly agent hands over the tickets for tomorrow’s departure and advises to be at the vehicle line by 11:30. The tickets are stamped an hour off from Washington time since the terminal operates on Alaska Time.
A small park just down the street offers gulls and crows. The crows are mostly silent, look smallish, but I am not sure the nesting pair represents Northwestern or American Crow. A few harsh calls convince me I am observing Northwestern Crows, and certainly, their breeding in Bellingham agrees with the books. However, information on why these smallish and harsher sounding birds should be distinct species vs. subspecies of American Crows sometimes is controversial for different reasons for some. First, there is little hard evidence for recognizing Northwestern Crows as a subspecies of American Crow or a distinct species. Dave Johnston, a frequent visitor and friend at the museum, told me he was disappointed that the AOU did not follow his 1960’s study concluding that the size of birds representing Northwestern Crows and American Crows is clinal and that there is overlap in vocal characterizations. Size has little to no bearing on the relationship of the two taxa, and Dave did not analyze his findings on voice. Of course, his study was completed prior to present-day comparisons of DNA. Another reason that gives taxonomic fits to some birders is that American and Northwestern Crows are difficult to identify. No one likes to identify a bird by range alone, but that is often the criteria for these two crows. Today, I check the Bellingham pair as Northwestern Crows and wonder.
A trailhead off Chuckanut Drive a few miles south of town is quiet except for a noisy Cassin’s Vireo. Up the route, the Chuckanut Trail, I startle a Swainson’s Thrush of the russet-backed variety. It quickly disappears into the wet ferns bowing under tall old growth Douglas fir and cedars. Pink bleeding hearts and sun yellow buttercups and more than I can identify line the soggy, nearly pristine, trail. After the first switch back, I find singing Wilson’s Warblers and a couple of Pacific-slope Flycatchers. By afternoon, I encounter Pacific Wren and Willow Flycatcher in a city park, its busy trail edge featuring dandelions and other likely introduced plants.
17 May 2013
As the agent yesterday recommends, we arrive at the vehicle-loading gate that soon opens. Yards behind us is a small island of vegetation not unlike the upper Sonoran zone of my resident Rogue Valley in Oregon, with manzanita and what certainly looks to be ceanothus. This small park hosts a Rufous Hummingbird, a territorial Spotted Towhee, Brewer’s Blackbird and Bushtit. I fully expect a California Towhee to lunge from the bushes to remind me of leaving home for boreal species. Today, there is no time to recheck the little home-like habitat. A man directs us to line three, where we park, anxiously ready for being first on the ferry.
Bellingham dates back to mid-1800’s when it grew nearly overnight from throngs of gold seekers headed for Fraser Canyon. Years later, the town clear-cut its forests with the excuse that earthquake devastated San Francisco needed lumber. Bellingham is an important harbor, once part of a burgeoning fish canning trade and the southern starting point of the Inside Passage.
Today, at this starting point sits the ferry “Columbia,” tall, with a deep blue hull set off by a wide horizontal gold band marking the top of the hull from stem to stern, a kind of racing stripe. The upper decks are a clean white. An open rear door below the top of the rail of the ferry exposes a dark and gaping hole definitely large enough for an 18-wheeler to enter. In fact, as we wait, a truck drives in the open hull. It soon exits, minus the long closed trailer it pulled inside the ferry. The truck brought several more trailers to the ship. We wait and contemplate how many times the “Columbia” has plied to cool waters of the Inside Passage.
During our wait, another man approaches us, asks to see our tickets and in return, hands back a ticket stub taped to a card stock having “HNS” printed boldly on its white background. “Tape this to the left inside windshield.” It is definitely official. We are destined for Haines, Alaska. Minutes later, a Mew Gull banked low and to the left, coursing perhaps 10 to 15 feet over the birdmobile. As the gull banks, it let out its last meal or two, spattering most of the top and the left window. It was as a christening a ship, our ship that will sail within a larger ship. The white splatter clashes with the deep blue birdmobile, but champagne is champagne.
Our earlier research revealed some facts, interesting perhaps more to us than the usual ferry connisseur. For example, Columbia came to life 12 years after we graduated from high school, a few years after college and only four years after the birth of our daughters. No, they are not twins and that is definitely another story. Columbia is 418 feet long and 85 feet wide, has a crew of 66 and can carry up to 600 passengers and 134 vehicles of which most are cars, SUVs and pickups, with about 4% being those giant RVs. We will sleep in a two-berth room, one of 103 staterooms. As for the number of sailings of the Inside Passage by the Columba, our research indicates 22 cruises in summer months and 11 during the winter. We decide that the captain and crew will keep us safe.
Two pairs of Barrow’s Goldeneye are swimming immediately offshore. A Northwestern Crow looks on from a lamppost as more and more vehicles cue behind us. We see what looks to be hundreds of pedestrians carrying and dragging belongings along the side of the metal loading ramp. Finally, we are waved on to the below deck bowls of Columbia. A couple of men direct us to one side of the giant hole where we again are in line, this time for an elevator that will take the birdmobile and us to the main deck. With more directions, we back to about a foot in front of another vehicle. Being ready with our ferry bag, and noticing other, already parked passengers hurrying from their vehicles, we quickly exit the birdmobile. About the time I reach the rear of the birdmobile, another vehicle parks to my left so close it will be impossible to enter the driver side of ours. Luckily, there is room on the right to enter our home on wheels, and a relief to see since we might need access during one of the port stops, the main time provided to access one’s vehicle. Thankfully, we are self-contained and not encumbered by a confused dog left barking in the deck of cars.
Passing through two doors, we are down the hall, oops, passageway, to the desk of the informative purser, who hands us the key for our stateroom. We prefer to call it by its other less elitist sounding name, and use the term cabin. With minor confusion, we locate our cabin and enter through a narrow door. I estimate, since our home research did not reveal room dimensions that the area is 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, from the door to the rectangular window, which is about 18 to 24 inches. On one side, at the rear side relative to Columbia, the aft of the ferry, we discover a thermostat that allows us to control the heat of our tiny quarters. On that same wall, the bulkhead, are a couple of screws that stick out far enough to hang our list of target birds during the cruise and a rough map of the route from the Milepost. It is a two-berther, with one single bed above the other. The distance from the floor and the distance from the ceiling signal difficulty in getting in and out of the top bed. Besides, we are certain to enjoy the lower bed, together.
Loading is a long process, allowing exploration of Alaska’s largest ferry from stem to stern. There are stairs and hallways, open decks, observation areas, a cafeteria and a nice dining area. At the stern are two decks of people rushing to lay claim to a lounge chair under a heated veranda and, as advertised and at least three people are already plunking away on acoustic guitars. Other individuals are setting up tents. They use duct tape to fasten the tents to the metal decks. What hardy souls and it is a good way to avoid paying for a stateroom, I mean the cabin. Going to Alaska is now definitely believable.
Below deck. Camping on the upper deck
First, we sail southwest, and then turn northwest. The sun sets over the calm waters of the Strait of Georgia near the southern end of Vancouver Island. We settle in for a comfortable night on our single bed.
18 May 2013
During the night, we could feel and hear Columbia as it navigated the narrow channels between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. The course is generally north, but there is considerable zigging and zagging all over the compass rose. Morning comes with the rude awakening there is no coffee maker in the cabin. I relocate the cafeteria.
We also realize our morning position is considerably off course from my estimate marked on a map hanging on the bulkhead. Speaking nautical introduced some confusion and despite being raked over the coals by my commanding officer, I always thought a Pentagon separation between rooms were walls, not bulkheads. The dead reckoning learned years ago in the Navy is not helpful since I am off by hours. In those bygone and best-forgotten Navy days, I was too busy thinking about some of my off time volunteering at Smithsonian. Fortunately, GPS positions delivered to a screen near the pursers station reveal we are in more open water and not far from Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island. I estimate 4-foot white caps, partly based on what I heard from members of the pelagic last October, are part of the reason it is difficult to walk. Beyond Port Hardy, we see waves crashing on the shore to the east, our starboard side and the same side as our cabin. Linda and I wear seasick bracelets. They work.
Toward shore, we admire the conifer-draped mountains abruptly slopping into the dark water and marvel that we are sometimes so close to shore that it is too easy to see foraging Black Oystercatchers. Bald Eagles are becoming more abundant and out-number the few Osprey we spot.
Scenes along the journey
It is highly unlikely that the ferry cruise will expose me to any new ABA species, but Linda has an opportunity for a few. Rhinoceros Auklet, Tufted Puffin, and Marbled Murrelet represent Alcids fleeing from the ferry. The day produces a trifecta of loons, with Pacific and Red-throated leading the way, with a single Yellow-billed Loon probably wishing for a more northern location. Glaucous-winged Gulls and more interesting, gulls I cannot identify, come into view as do a few mostly subadult Black-legged Kittiwake. The kittiwakes are new for Linda. This is a good day.
19 May 2013
We wake at 5 o’clock or is it six or four? Our phones display Pacific Time, but the ferry is on Alaska Time, as it was even at Bellingham. Regardless, we are up and ready for our first foot on Alaskan soil, an early morning port of call at Ketchikan. We recall our high school class when Ketchikan was renowned for canning salmon. The town boasted it was the Salmon canning capital of the world, but over fishing dismissed that claim. Ketchikan is also known for proposing to build a very expensive bridge to their airport that some dubbed the bridge to nowhere. Ridicule and practical economics precipitated scrapping the plan in 2007.
To get to the ramp for our journey to the solid ground of Ketchikan, we accidentally entered the deck where the birdmobile patiently waits. The area is ripe with dog shit. Poop, used scraps, droppings, scat or by any other name has the same doggy smell. We quickly backtrack, find the stairs leading down to the ramp and are soon on Alaskan soil. A Bald Eagle sitting on a light pole watches as we hurry a couple of blocks to a super market. We first pass a post office, but it is too early to mail a couple of letters. At the grocery store, we grab an apple, a couple of oranges and prune juice, are dazed by the prices and walk back to the ferry. Besides the high cost of eating, we notice the wind had been from the south when we got off Columbia, but the direction, upon boarding, is from the north. It is cold and only bolsters the excitement of more boreal things to come.
As we board, we meet a couple of men carrying large packs on their way off the Columbia. They are obviously Indian and we wonder if they are members of the Metlakatla. Our homework taught us that the Metlakatla are located on Annette Island in the Alexander Archipelago, which is 15 miles south of Ketchikan. Perhaps the two men live on the only Indian reservation in Alaska, the Metlakatla Indian Community of the Annette Island Reserve. A road map tacked on the home bulletin board indicated several Indian Reservations, but we learned that our map is incorrect. The Tetlin Indian Reservation along the Alkan Highway that we should pass on our way to Tok and the Wales Indian Reservation we would later visit are no longer reservations. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in1971 revoked the idea of reservations, but did transfer title of much of the former reservations to Alaska Natives. ANCSA, favored by some and disliked by others, is a complicated policy and is another story if not a book.
Meanwhile, back on board the ferry, we are now 619 miles from Bellingham. Canada Goose and Red-breasted Merganser add to Pigeon Guillemot. We hear from the purser that the high for Juneau will be in the high 30’s. At noon, we decide to have lunch in the dining area. We pass the busy cafeteria and enter the quiet and thinly populated dining room. I had been unable to obtain any clue about food prices on the Columbia and the nearly empty dining area told us to expect to pay a price for the lunch. For some, the price of $12.95 per person may be business as usual, but the cost seems high for a mere sandwich, a bowel of clam chowder and a salad. It tasted good, but we later pick elsewhere to forage. In fact, we had almost all we require in our cabin.
From Ketchikan, I began a hopeful vigil. In 1996, Bob Dickerman and coauthor J. Gustafson, proposed a new subspecies of Spruce Grouse, and works that are more recent suggest that the subspecies might actually be a separate species, distinct from the Franklin’s type of Spruce Grouse and the interior Spruce Grouse. The present day Spruce Grouse might consist of three distinct species. My thinking is there are some very narrow channels along the cruise that pass by Larembo and Mitkof Islands and, just maybe, a Spruce Grouse, the one representing the newer subspecies, might be strutting onshore. If I see one, I can add Prince of Wales Islands Spruce Grouse to my escrow list. Consequently, I spend lots of time, mostly in the cold northern wind, which has a speed added with the usual 15-knot speed of Columbia.
Passing Zarembo Island yields nothing. Columbia docks at Wrangell in mid-afternoon. About 30 minutes later and a few miles from Wrangell, Linda and I happen to look out the window and see an eagle. We are now in relatively open water; seeing any eagle from shore is daunting. I am first surprised to see the large bird so far from shore. It appears to be in a subadult plumage. The patterning of white is not what we expect to see of a subadult Bald Eagle of which we have seen many examples of varying ages. Moreover, the bill is large, larger than any Bald Eagle I have ever witnessed, and the wings appear too broad for a Bald Eagle and the tail seems wedge-shaped. The bird catches a fish from the surface and appears to struggle for altitude. I struggle to get to an open deck and a photo, but the bird, whatever it was, is gone. Was it a Steller’s Sea Eagle? One had frequented the Juneau region a couple of years ago. Was it a hybrid between Steller’s Sea Eagle and Bald Eagle? This is yet another Gray-tailed Tattler situation, another tantalizing bird that got away, escaping its true identity. We hope that someone else saw our strange eagle. As far as I know, there are no other birders onboard. The notion we should have at least attempted a photograph through our not so clear window is nagging.
Perhaps the very narrow Wrangell Straits will produce an escrow Spruce Grouse. The strait is too narrow for two boats to meet. The captain stops the ferry until a small tugboat and barge in tow pass. It is partly cloudy with spits of light rain as a crew member stands watch at the bow. Channel markers are mere yards to either side of the ferry. Arctic Terns tip back and forth in the narrow passage, sometimes landing on what seem dangerously close buoys. Red-necked Phalarope scurry from the water as the Columbia slowly threads its way through the narrow channel. We spot White-winged Scoter and more guillemots, but no grouse of any kind.
The Columbia enters relatively more open water. A few marine mammals come into view, but like yesterday, are extremely distant. My necklace, my binoculars, helps distinguish harbor from Dall’s porpoises. Identity of the Hump-backed Whales is from hearsay. We have yet to see orca, but Pacific white-sided Dolphin and harbor seal add to our list.
More mountains decked with snow lines closer and closer to sea level stand tall to each side of the channel. The rough Coast Mountains is in the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest, which is known as the largest US. National forest and for receiving about 14 feet of precipitation per year. Up until the Federal government’s self-imposed economic sequestration, naturalist from Tongass were on board for interpreting parts of the cruise. We would have asked about birds and mammals we hope to find, and about the mountains with dense carpets of conifers we are seeing. Viewing some rocky and treeless bluffs that are forbiddingly steep and with occasional regions plowed bare from snow avalanches, I might ask if snow avalanches are less numerous due to climate change. Waterfalls plunge from high distant cliffs and some fall down rocky inclines to the ocean. Higher waterfalls appear stationary. They are of solid ice, waiting for a warmer day. The wind is biting and I wonder if I should unfurl my heavy winter coat.
20 May 2013
We wake around 5 a.m. while moored at Juneau. The city is actually about 3 ½ miles to the east. We peer from our window, now smudged by rain that has mixed with pollen and whatever else might be in the air from a surprising number of chimneys along the way. The huge door, I forget the nautical term, is open for vehicles to access Columbia and the capitol of Alaska. It would be nice to set foot in Juneau, check out the culture, and maybe find a Steller’s Jay, which, here would be larger and blacker than those seen at Bellingham and still larger and darker than those at my feeder in Oregon. While thinking of taxonomic studies unfinished before retirement, I wonder what will be the next Alaskan bird. We watch out the window, but any birds are elsewhere. Perhaps a cup of coffee could help as we begin realizing our story riding the ferry is almost over.
At 6:15, we are underway and see two other Alaska Marine Highway ferries. According to the purser, a north wind is blowing at 30 knots. From the screen showing our position, we see that the ferry is traveling north at 17 knots. I have never been good with story problems like the ones asking the hour a train from St. Louis, traveling at a certain speed, will arrive in Chicago. That is why we have the convenience of printed schedules. Nonetheless, it seems simple: a 30-knot wind plus 17-knot speed of the ship makes for a stiff breeze. Standing out on deck and facing forward, I have about 41 miles per hour air blowing in my face. Being generous concerning ambient temperature, I guess it is 40. That means my face is enduring a chill factor of 27 degrees. I recall once looking up chill factor. What might seem a simple issue is not straightforward or without controversy. First, there are arguments about what a person is wearing. Yep, style is involved. Is the person being exposed, therefore chilled, wearing appropriate clothes or naked? Personally, if it is hot, I prefer to test the chill factor appropriately undressed. Some chill factor methodologists also argue that the chill factor might depend on what part of the body is exposed. Is it upper or lower cheeks? In addition to what you are wearing, determining chill factor involves more math than I can stand, regardless of nakedness. Exposing the bottom line is too much like going to Chicago on a train, but the story has problems. It is difficult to know, mathematically, how cold it is. Johnny Carson often asked, “How cold is it?” The answer depends on the year. Before 2001, should I have been on the deck of the Columbia sailing under the same ambient temperature at the same speed and bucking the same wind speed as today, my chill factor would have been 11 degrees colder than it is today. I would be experiencing a chill factor of about 16 degrees, which sounds more adventurous than 27 degrees. Regardless, my upper cheeks, the ones helping me talk, are losing flexibility from numbing cold and they are not responding to me attempting normal enunciation. Although my museum experience allows me to spell easily the word erythrophthalmus, it is difficult to pronounce the species name of Eastern Towhee, let along vocalize the word Pipilo. It is cold, even by taking shelter behind some of the ferry that supports the upper deck and lifeboats. Most everyone in inside or are dressed more suitably than two Oregonians.
The water is rough, with white caps all around and birds and other wildlife are not in sight. The frigid wind howls its announcement that winter is not over. However, the value of scenery is conspicuously several notches above anything Linda and I have ever viewed. The off chance of finding a new bird and opportunity for photographs overrides the cold. On up Lynn Canal toward Haines, timberline is reaching close the sea, with the lowest slopes draped by conifers and heavy snow to the top of peaks. Our bincocs reveal blowing snow at the summits. Puffy clouds hang over the hard mountains under an otherwise cool blue.
The further north we go, the more glaciers we see.
We are certain we see more glaciers here than further south. We have seen a few glaciers before this trip, including small ones on Mt. Shasta in California and Mt. Rainer in Washington, but glaciers seen from sea level is new. Unfortunately, we do not know the names of most of the glaciers. Where is that sequestered naturalist when you need one? Most glaciers in Alaska of which only 664 have names, are below the Arctic Circle. Glaciers reaching the ocean are termed as Tidal Glaciers, the kind reaching waters of the Inside Passage. Piedmont Glaciers will be in our range when we drive from Tok to Anchorage and Alpine Glacier, said to be in the thousands in Alaska, scour mountainsides and canyons just like the ones within view of my first White-tailed Ptarmigan on southern slope of Mt. Rainier. We are reasonably sure of our identification of Mendenall Glacier near Juneau, Eagle Glacier, which poses for a photo, and Taku Glacier, I think. Much higher, 6500 feet higher, the glaciated coast range, specifically the Boundary Range, is crystal white, shinning below peaks up to over 8,000 feet that mark the border between British Columbia and the panhandle of Alaska only 15 to 20 miles to the east. By what ever type and what ever name, glaciers contain 75% of the planets fresh water.
Sailing north from Juneau, we pass the northern end of Admiralty Island, which reminds that in 1968 the U.S. Forest Service sold 8.7 billion board feet of timber to an American company. Concern that such denuding of Admiralty Island would negatively impact salmon and other wildlife gave birth to a suit halting the sale. One of the primary species to suffer were Bald Eagles, a species having a state bounty on its head resulting in 128,000 killed until the Federal government passed protection of the national bird in 1952. Recovery of eagles and momentary protection of Admiralty Island came with the withdrawal of the sale. Today, 97% of what could be not clear-cut is is under the 1980 stewardship of 955,000-acre Admiralty Island National Monument. My location also reminds me of that several newly described subspecies have as their foundation specimens from the island, including a subspecies of grizzly bear, a subspecies of the Red Crossbill complex that may or may not be recognizable and a commonly accepted subspecies of American Robin.
Admiralty Island is the last major island we pass before docking at Haines. In the calmer waters approaching the end of the Inside Passage and near the northern arm of Lynn Canal, I spot our fourth loon of the cruise, a not so common Common Loon. The loon is our 34th species for the Inside Passage. Arctic Tern and Black-legged Kittiwake are our best bird since they are lifers for Linda. Rhinoceros Auklet and four species of loons is part of the fun freezing in the wind and soaking in the formidable mountains. A few possible birds not traveling in our view include the three species of jaeger, small alcids, storm-petrels and any migrating passerine that might land onboard. Anticipated close view of marine mammals are disappointing, but everything is in the timing and the position of the ferry.
Although absorbing scenery and searching for birds had been our principal focus, we did meet and observe several people during the cruise. I recall the early thirty something man relating a story when he and his friends boated across the Bering Strait to Russia and were held in custody for several days before gladly returning to Alaska. There was the grandfather from Texas, people camping on deck, some for the first time, some who had taken the Inside Passage many times and are anxious to get home at Ketchikan or Juneau or who are catching a connecting ferry to a village off the beaten track. A few are Native American. Passengers included those rarely in high heels, sandals, shoes of all sorts and boots. Some have coats, while others are unprepared and rarely venture into the weather of the open decks. A few appear contemplative, eyeing the horizon toward infinity. Most others are taking pictures and smiling at the good fortune of being a part of the cruise. Only one person I met seems to know the terns are Arctic Terns and most of the gulls are Mew Gulls, but no one seems to rank as a birder.
The Columbia is soon at its mooring, docking a few miles northeast of Haines. Should a crow, regardless of species, fly in a perfectly straight line from Bellingham to Haines, that crow flew 935 miles. With all the twists and turns of the Columbia, we must have cruised over 1,300 miles. I am not certain since ferry headquarters told us in cruising time as if inquiring minds do not want to know miles. Our nauty question might have been within the purview of the purser, but there is little time as we are too near Haines for questions, it is time to get to land.
It is pleasantly balmy, the wind soft and feeling warm. We gather our ferry bag and other gear and wait for the purser to broadcast over the ship’s speaker to give the green light to enter the vehicle storage area. Anxious minutes tick before hearing the announcement and we then rush among other intent passengers to respective vehicles, toss our stuff into the cool interior of our steed and wait. Immediately in front of the birdmobile is a small SUV. A middle-aged woman was the driver of this vehicle when we boarded back in Bellingham. The car emits a sound from her pushing the remote locking system. There is a sound for opening, one for closing, another loud one for opening the door when the key is the ignition, another noise for turning on the lights, and more. Each operation had more variations than a symphony orchestra, ranging from bells, whistle, whoops and jangles surpassing any wind, brass and percussion section playing Prokofiev, Stravinsky or many other notable composers. To be safe, the woman frequently entertained by repeating certain strains of unlocking, locking, turning on and off. Today her anxiety seems to relate to the number of times she pushes her remote. Whoops, whistles and other sounds clatter against the hard metal hull and bulkheads. The echo attracts other passengers that are luckily not adjacent to the noise as we are. Another woman appears who takes the baton. She is apparently the mother of a small child barely taller than the little dog of the owner of the car, the grandmother. We privately dub her the grand-bother.
All those bells and whistles grow old as we wait almost two hours before it is finally time to drive on the elevator down to the lower deck for our turn to drive out the side of the Columbia’s big blue hull. The metal ramp clanks as the birdmobile comes more to life and we leave the waterway of the Inside Passage to drive onto the terra firma of Alaska.