An Independence Day for Independent Spirits

by Mac Lacy 6. July 2009 05:41

Ford's Terror  in southeast Alaska doesn't terrify many people.  Maybe a few small boaters and kayakers.  But not many others--and certainly not many cruise passengers.  Dawes Glacier and the several miles of ice-strewn depths it leaves in its wake also doesn't scare many folks up here, either.  Maybe a few scientists or geologists.  Both give Jeff Behrens the chills.  That's because he knows where they are and he goes there.  And when Behrens goes, he takes a few friends with him.


Yesterday, July 3, was a day no guest on the Island Spirit will ever forget.  It began in a perfect sunlight in Sanford Cove.  Brisk is too nice a word.  It was cold, especially once we got going up Endicott Arm toward Dawes Glacier.  We hadn't been gone too long before the ice began showing up.  Not small ice.  Large ice.  Tons of it in the form of thousands of bright white or blue fragments.  Tons above surface and who knows how many tons below the surface.  Behrens had the Island Spirit's hull completely reworked last winter just for this.  But he's still not interested in meeting any of these boat-sized chunks of ice head-on.


We swerved, tacked, criss-crossed and slithered our way past miles of ice to put ourselves directly in front of Dawes Glacier, a tidewater glacier that comes down directly into the frigid waters of Endicott Arm.  Cliffs rose for thousands of feet on either side of us and we sat directly in the gorge this glacier created as it receded over thousands of years.  The only other boats in this water were research boats.  Behrens said they've been up here this summer studying the effect that vessels and kayaks might have on harbor seals and their pups.  


From there, we motored past the ice again and down to Ford's Terror.  Entering this inlet, you'd think you were in just any other bay.  But as you reach the back, your realize there is a tiny opening there that meanders  back into the rock walls.  Maybe a canoe or a small fishing boat would try this, you think, but not a 130 foot ship.  


With a long blast of the Island Spirit's horns, Behrens announces his intention to enter this narrow sliver of water and then he does so.  He told me afterwards that his margin of error is very slim.  Losing a prop or scraping the hull here is the consequence of one wrong move at the helm.


The reward is cruising into a remote inlet that is fed by waterfalls too numerous to count, a piece of water that is guarded on all sides by towering mountains and sheer rockfaces, thousands of feet above.  This is where we'll spend the fourth of July 2009.  And trust me, we're alone.  Ford's Terror belongs to us on this independence day.  Thanks to a guy who thinks big and operates small, we've traded fireworks for kayaks, bottle rockets for tranquility.






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Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Early Morning on the Island Spirit

by Mac Lacy 6. July 2009 05:36


It's morning --about 5:30-- and I'm one of a few passengers and crew who are up.  We're moored on Sanford Cove off Endicott Arm, several hours of cruise time outside Juneau, Alaska.  The sky is cloudless, the water is still.  We're surrounded by mountains.  Literally.  In every direction you look there are mountains, most of them either in snow or topped in snow.  At one far end of the lake, 7-8 miles I'd guess, you can see the entrance to this cove.

If you are a morning person you live for this.  There isn't much talking going on, what little there is is quiet.  Everyone here has there own agenda right now--to view the landscape, maybe to shoot some early morning photography, maybe to have a cup of coffee on some part of this vessel where nobody else is hanging out.  This is personal time and everyone respects that.

Yesterday, this trip took an invigorating turn when the sun forced its way onto the scene.  While you cannot come to southeast Alaska and reasonably bring expectations for bright, clear skies with you, you can always hope.  We've enjoyed an incredible trip thus far, sans sun, but the addition of sunlight on these mountains and waters draws the very best from them.  From windy gray, we've entered into dazzling blues and whites.  In that respect, we're lucky, that's all.  Alaska is bigger than anyone's best expectations.   You get what it gives you.

Late yesterday afternoon, after leaving the bustle of Juneau, we cruised into an evening beyond description.  Small chunks of blue ice began to appear, torn from some distant glacier.  An occasional seaplane broke the silence overhead.  As we came into this cove for the night, we stopped to watch a few humpbacks, but left them for a grizzly bear on the distant shore.  It was this group's first bear sighting and binoculars were passed from one to another to watch this huge animal forage in a glen just off the water.  Only later, thanks to one member's telephoto camera lens and several shots, did we realize this bear was a female with two cubs in tow.

The last thing I noticed as the sun set was a huge cruise ship motoring along several miles away, in the main channel.  This is why you take a small ship cruise like the one we're on.  The Island Spirit is putting this small group of travelers into some very exclusive space. 


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Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Tiny Tenakee is a Portrait of Remote Charm

by Mac Lacy 3. July 2009 05:34


Tenakee Springs is a remote village on the Tenakee Inlet off the Chatham Strait that dates to the late 1800s and is inaccessible except by boat or plane.  During the summer months, about 100 people reside there, many who live the rest of the year in Juneau.  There is a small marina where a few dozen fishing boats will tie up as needed while working in the area.  The entire village consists of one gravel road with homes and a few businesses on either side.  A mountain climbs up behind the village, leaving nowhere else for it to go or grow.  There is a mercantile store, a community bathhouse, a small gift shop and bakery, and a post office.  And a brown bear makes occasional appearances.  Most residents keep four-wheel vehicles or bicycles for getting around town.  

There is a public restroom--an outhouse that basically stands at the end of a pier and empties directly onto the rocky beach below.  The residents are a mixed bag of older couples, old hippies and families with small children.  Some are very friendly, others would just as soon nobody stopped in.  We arrived as a group of 15 or so, so we weren't much of an impact on the town.  But Jeff had e-mailed ahead to let the gift shop/bakery know we'd be stopping and they opened up for us.

A teenager sat in a phone booth beside the community bathhouse with a laptop in his lap, a wonderful bit of technological irony that was not wasted on us.

We knocked around for an hour or so and headed back towards the marina for our tender back to the Island Spirit.  A fisherman spoke to us as we walked beside him and asked if we had stopped in Rosie's for a beer.

"You mean there's a bar up there?" I asked.

"Yeah, right up there by the bathhouse."

"I can't believe we missed it," I said.  

"Well, it's easy to miss and it doesn't look like it's open, but it is.  You can have a beer and she also serves hamburgers, pork chops and steak, but that's it.  A beer will cost you around $3.75 and a hamburger is $7.75."

He then invited me to come see his boat, which I did.  It was about 60 years old and all wood.  He and his crew of four, including his son and grandson, were working Alaska for the summer.    He spends his winters in Arizona and plays golf.  Another bit of irony in Tenakee, I thought.


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Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Raptors Soar Again in Sitka

by Mac Lacy 3. July 2009 05:25


The Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka treats various types of raptors that exist--eagles, ospreys, hawks, owls, falcons, kites, etc.  But it seems it's the eagles that most people are drawn to.  Magnificent birds, their white heads, piercing eyes and  stern personna give them a star quality few other animals can match.  Of course, It doesn't hurt that they are symbols of freedom either.  I grew up in a time when bald eagles were endangered, victims of the excesses of the time.  DDT, a particularly toxic insecticide was one of the primary culprits.  The good news is that these magnificent birds of prey have been removed from the endangered species list and more than 100,000 exist today.  Half of those can be found in Alaska and half of those take flight in southeast Alaska where Sitka is.  

Before we boarded the Island Spirit for our Inside Passage cruise, we attended a morning orientation at this center where we viewed a dozen or so birds that have been injured in various ways and are unable to return to the wild.  The center's mission is to treat injured birds and return them to the wild and they are often successful. They treat between 100 and 200 birds each year.  This is serious science--they treat these raptors with antibiotics, surgery, bandages, etc.  Then they let those that can be released begin flying again in a controlled environment.  

The star of this show was Sitka, an adult female bald eagle. The speaker asked how much attendees thought Sitka weighed.  Estimates ranged from 25 - 35 pounds.  She weighs 12.5 pounds.  Females are the larger of the two, weighing up to 14 pounds.  Males are more likely to be 10 - 12 pounds.  And most of that weight is feathers.  The actual skeleton of an eagle is very light.  The bones are remarkably light compared to other animals' bones of similar size.  

Eagles do take mates "for life", but researchers think it has more to do with their return to a specific nesting site than an attraction to each other.  If an eagle cannot reproduce, its mate will find another eagle that can.  It is also true that the first-born chick will oftentimes push any others from the nest as they are hatched.  



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Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

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