Trip to Alaska – July-Aug 2014: Juneau, Skagway and Haines

26 July 2014 — Tracy Arm and Juneau

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Tracy Arm

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Tracy Arm passage.

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Note the waerfalls.

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Note the low-hanging clouds.

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The deep blue color is characteristic of glacial ice.

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The color of the glacial ice contrasted with the water and land color.

Early this morning, our first adventure is on-board ship, as it goes up Tracy Arm, a fjord structure that provides some spectacular views. Like most of this coast of Alaska, Juneau resides on an island.  There are many islands, and many of the water ways that surround them are fjords where glacier water meets sea water.   Many of the water ways around the islands were carved out by glaciers, and they have high almost vertical sides that grow from the carved trench floor and soar well above the water line.  Tracy Arm is one of the ones near Juneau, and because of its depths and widths, it is easily navigable, even for large cruise ships.

Tracy Arm averages 1.5 miles across and 1000 feet deep. Characteristic of fjords (so they tell me), is the narrow, deep structure, where it appears the walls are mountains sinking into the water.  Every so often as we motor along, the ship pases large  ice lumps floating in the fjord, or parked on the sandy silt which in many places borders the water. These “calves” of glaciers have broken off, and floated to their current locations as the currents dictate. The striking thing is the deep blue color they evidence.

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In our travels the stratified low clouds create fascinating patterns.

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The green water color is caused by the reflection of the light off the trees, the depths of the water, and the silt that comes from the glacier melt as it frees up the matter it has ground down from the land it travels over.

Our resident expert tells us this is due to the unique crystalline structure of the glacier caused by the immense pressure under which the ice is formed (heavy weight of the ice and snow above pushing the air out of the ice as it is forms and reforms). Glacial ice formed in this way absorbs all the colors except blue, creating the deep blue result. The waters in the fjord are also a unique color, a turquoise blue-green which our expert tells us comes from the depth of the water, the reflections of the pine trees, and the trace minerals in the water from the run-off.

The walls of the canyon are in places sheer drops, but mostly tree covered slopes with the occasional stream popping out of the rock and running down to the fjord proper. Beautiful stuff, and a convincing excuse to get the photographer in us (many of us) out in full. As we ride back down Tracy Arm, one of the more striking features are the clouds that hug the shoreline. I’m looking now at a white fleecy line of cloud about 10 feet think, and 10 feet above the water. Hovering above it is another ribbon of white this time three feet deep and fuzzy at the top, with wisps of white between them. Below the original layer are occasional small clouds, enough to be very noticeable. This cloud structure appears to cover only the first 20 feet out from the coast. The ridges behind the clouds stand out starkly in green and gray.

Now its on to another lecture by the expert, Terry Breen, this time on the native peoples of Alaska. Not the most interesting lecture, but she does put in a lot of good information on the four native groups that share Alaska. The ones we saw yesterday and today are the Tlingit. Anyway, we then got lunch while the cruise ship was landing at Juneau and then it is off to the Whale watching excursion. The group running this event are called Allen Marine, and through luck, or skill, or some combination, today’s watch was unique.

We spent some time getting out to the boat, and then the boat got about half an hour out along the river (the area is basically water and islands, so it is impossible to tell if it is really a river or just part of the broader body of water that surrounds all the islands). Then to everyone’s amazement, including Jeff the resident biologist, we were able to see 11 hump-back whales come up at the same time, having executed their prime feat of teamwork, bubble-net feeding. In this maneuver, one of the whales spots a large school of small mackerel or krill, their primary food, and notifies nearby whales using their characteristic singing. A group of whales gathers (they are not necessarily a family unit, nor do they necessarily feed together in a pod normally, but having heard the song, they gather.

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The humpbacks can get quite far out of the water. How many noses can you see?

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This is the last time we caught this particular group.

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Killer whales; a dad and pup. They appear to be enjoying themselves.

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Killer whales. “Son, this is how you do it…”

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This is a lighthouse in the area we were passing as we sailed to and from the whale watch area. Not a place I would want to live!

One or two go down beneath the school and using a spiraling motion they rise up exhaling a net of bubbles as they go. The fish do not like the bubbles, and their natural reaction is to crowd together.  Anticipating this, the whales swim up from below the “netted” school and scoop a large mouthful as they rise through it. The scene we’re watching for on the surface are the noses of the whales all of a sudden breaking through almost simultaneously.  Many birds are flying over the area, trying to catch a fish jumping from one of the whale mouths.   The whales upon completion of their grab, strain the water-fish mixture through their baleen as they settle back into the water.  They blow air from their lungs, surface swim for a short while to get their breath back, and dive again, which can be seen as their tail fins come out of the water.  When all are ready, if they are still hungry (which they are), they go for another round of the same exercise. We stayed around the first group we spotted watching them do this four times. The Captain then decided enough was enough and took us in search of other attractions. Sure enough it wasn’t too much later that we spotted two Killer Whales traveling together around the same area. Killer Whales are a matriarchal society, usually, but the larger of the two we saw was a male who was well known to Jeff, who tells us he is at least 40 years old, and has usually been seen alone here. These whales summer in Alaska to fatten up on food, and then go south to Hawaii, or Mexico to mate and have their calves. So it was quite s surprise to find this male with a lone female up in the feeding area! Whatever the reason, we were happy to see them. We stayed with the two as they came up for air and showed their dorsal fins at least three times. Then, on our return trip to the dock, we happened on another (or it could have been the same) group of hump-back whales doing the bubble-net exercise again. We watched them through a full cycle of this, and then sadly had to get back to the dock. To get an idea of how unusual this was, they told us that they were lucky to see bubble-netting once or twice a season, and Killer Whales maybe once a month in summer.

Once back aboard the ship, we went to our favorite restaurant, the Compass Rose, and had a marvelous roast pork (for me), a steak au Pauvre (Gwen) and shared an exceptional Coq au Vin. It is one of the joys of cruising that you can order more than you can eat just so you can try things (well, within reason). All dishes were tender and tasty. I’m gaining weight by the day, I’m sure, but fortunately, there are no scales to tell me how much.

27 July 2014 — Skagway and Haines

Breakfast was early this morning, as we had to be out for our tour at 7:20 am. We breakfasted in La Veranda, as it is the earliest one open. The ship was just finishing its docking procedure in Skagway as we were eating. The special of the morning was eggs benedict, which tasted nicely of the hollandaise sauce they used.

Skagway harbor provides marvelous illustration of the low cloud formations we have been treated to all along the cruise. The clouds start almost on the surface with a layer only as thick as the height of the cloud above the water, then a thinning, and then back to thicker whiteness as it goes up. The view is of bands of white overlaying the mountains in the background.

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Skagway harbor

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The cloud formations are fun to watch.

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From the ferry, more clouds cover the mountains on the side. Note the falls behind the clouds.

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On the opposite shore, a sea lion tries to get some rays.

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A Bald Eagle soaring overhead as we floated upstream.

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The same bird from a different angle.

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The eye test. See the moose? Is it male or female?

The 600-lb eagle's nest

The eagle’s nest where we were hoping to see eaglets. We never did, but hopefully they were just napping.

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The mom or dad eagle was resting on a cottonwood tree nearby. Our guide was sure this was a parent, as they don’t allow other eagles within a mile of their nest.

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On the way back to the dock, we saw this pair of eagles.

The excursion today is a river boat trip to view eagles, bears and moose in a huge eagle preserve. Getting to the preserve is a long trip.  First we have to take a ferry to Haines, about 40 minutes from where we are, and then a bus ride another 30 minutes to get from the Haines harbor to the preserve.   The excursion itself was very well run — they provided jackets, ponchos and blankets, as well as gloves and earmuffs for us to wear to keep out the cold. It was a rainy morning, and all the extra gear did help. The river we traveled was wide, but not very deep, averaging only about three feet. Fortunately, about half way into the boat ride, the rain stopped and the clouds began to break up, so we were able to dry out a bit. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much wildlife, in total one moose and five eagles. The moose was spotted in the bush by a very observant fellow traveller, but once spotted, the driver/narrator kept us nearby until we all got to see it. It took both Gwen and I awhile to spot her, as she (we were assured that the males were not in the area at this time of year) was partially hidden in trees and was sunk in to her haunches in the grassy marshland. She was not anxious about us, at least not so we could see, as she was calmly pulling bark from the trees nearby and eating it, even as she looked in our direction. After about 10 minutes, she took one last bite of bark and slowly ambled off away from us. There were four eagles we saw by happenstance as we were motoring along, and one we went in search of. The latter was one of a pair who watched over a large nest that we were assured had chicks in it. When we got there, the nest was clearly visible, but no chicks poked a head above the edge, as we were led to expect. We pulled up the river another 100 feet, and sure enough in the top of a cottonwood tree was one of the nesting pair. Hopefully the chicks (two of them, we were told) were just taking a nap, and were not victims of one of the many predators that are part of reality in this wilderness. The narrator was surprised to note the lack of chicks, and will in due course determine if they are gone or just sleeping, but we are not to know. The nest was a huge affair, also in a cottonwood tree, that we were told has been the home of the pair for seven years. They continuously work on it, and he estimated the size of the nest at 600 pounds. Eagles mate for life, and will establish one or two nests which they maintain and return to year after year. The second nest is a backup in case the first fails. Cottonwood trees are not as solid as spruce or hemlock (also common in the area), but are favorites of the eagles as they grow near the water and favorite feeding sites. I got some pictures of the eagles we passed, so we’ll see which ones turn out. After the return to the dock, we were served a hot vegetarian chili and hot dog, along with a hot drink of choice. After saying our goodbyes to the tour guides, we reversed the trip to get us back to our cruise ship.

The overall experience was not to be compared with yesterday’s whale watching, as we were not so lucky as to see so much of what we were looking to see, but Gwen can now claim to have seen a moose in the wild!!

Tonight’s entertainment is “Le Cirque Navigator”. The production company has a man and woman who do acrobatics on hanging cloth, on rings, on each other, and bring it off with fantastic grace and style. In addition, there is a couple who do ballroom dancing in the style of the competitions. Both of these couples are incredibly limber. Especially the women. The young gymnast can stretch herself into pretzel shapes, twisting and turning in several directions at once. These two couples were the focus for the show. The others were there (two lead singers, male and female, and four more dancers, one male and three female). The male dancer does tap and Irish clog dancing with fantastic skill, and that was on show as well, The other women dancers handled the tap and clog dancing, but their talents supported the ‘stars’. It was a great show.

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