Alaska

Farewells

Due to a somewhat misleading set of schedules half a year ago, I booked a flight for tomorrow morning, even though classes and events were essentially over as of yesterday afternoon. So now I sit in the limbo space between the end of Bread Loaf and the beginning of the next thing. Cons: watching everybody trickle out, one by one, in a dejected array of goodbyes. Pros: a day partly to myself to reminisce and start collecting a few thoughts while my brain is still literally in Alaska, though I imagine it may figuratively travel there from time to time.

This is, perhaps, the moment to mention that I was in a production of Hamlet this summer. I've gone on and on about my Searching for Wildness class, but I haven't so much as mentioned that I did, in fact, take a second class: Shakespeare: Page to Stage, a class that focused on taking Hamlet from the text to an interesting, meaningful production.

It was a long haul, but we pulled it off. Marilee, who played Hamlet, gave me this spectacular action figure. As if he weren't cool enough, he has a Removable Quill Pen and Book. Removable. Quill. Pen. AND BOOK!

I guess his accessories do "bend with the remover to remove." Har.

If this isn't going to make Shakespeare cool for kids, I don't know what will.

My apologies. Part of this entry was written at 6AM while I'm waiting for my flight to Seattle and subsequent connecting flight to Newark. So I'm a little less than lucid.


On the way to the airport, in the early morning fog, I was struck by the modesty of the mountains here. They wrap themselves in cloaks of fog like the emperor in his new robes, as if they hadn't brazenly, shamelessly exposed themselves days before to the clear sun and every naked eye.

It poured as we loaded the van. On days I've left other places, I've thought to myself that the rain was the sadness of the place to see a friend depart. Here, it was more of a kiss, a nurturing touch that this place imparts to all the living things that grow here.

(This photo is from the ferry ride to Haines).
Time to fly away back home, to a different place, a different pace. Different weather, different birds, different clouds, different mountains. I've been touched by this place and the people that inhabited it with me for a while. So I'll leave this empty dock and hope it holds a place for me again sometime.

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The Boat Ride


The end of the Bread Loaf Juneau season includes a chartered boat ride out of Auke Bay and up the channel. The idea is to have dinner and drinks, celebrate whoever is graduating, and see some marine life.

But before we get started, I am compelled to point out one of the boats that was in the harbor with us as we were getting ready to leave.

Of course, concerns of food and revelry took a quick second seat when we found our first group of Humpback Whales. First, we found a group of three or so, who very nicely obliged us by surfacing and spouting on and off for quite a while.

Humpbacks have a double blowhole, like a pair of nostrils, so the spouts are actually two jets of spray. You usually can't see that very easily, but it's almost visible in this picture.


Then, of course, it was time to find some whales who wanted to show off their tails.

It's worth pointing out that we've had about nine or ten days of unremitting rain and overcast skies. Then, on the day of the big boat trip, the sun blazes, the temperature climbs to 72, and there isn't a cloud in the sky. Not so bad.

We found a couple of groups who were willing to show off.


While I'm wary of personifying whales, they seemed to have a knack for flipping their tails in front of nice scenery.

Every time a whale's body broke the water in the characteristic slide that preceded a tail flip, the whole boat full of people began to "oooo." When the tail flipped up and over, the whole boat cheered. It was an immense experience.


I swear: this is the last tail picture. This whale came at the boat and ended up quite close before this final dive.

It's also worth mentioning at this point that Humpies are baleen whales; they feed by sucking an immense amount of water into their mouths and then straining out fish or krill.

They typically come up under a school of fish or grouping of krill and fill their mouths as they come flying up through the water. This behavior is called "lunging."

John Muir, the turn-of-the-centry glaciologist and naturalist I quoted in my 7/2 entry, would have my head if I raved only about whales and didn't put any glaciers in my journal. Here's a particularly glorious glacier. Happy, John?


We were also privileged to see a fascinating feeding behavior called "bubble net fishing," in which a group of Humpies swim around in circles below a large school of fish. They exhale air from their blowholes and create a wall of aerated water the fish see as a barrier. Thus, they concentrate their prey into one column and all lunge up through the school at the same time.

As many as a dozen whales can team up in this fashion; here we had about five, I think. In this photo, they're just finishing the lunge.

I thought the cheering for the tail flips was boisterous, but the three rounds of bubble net fishing we saw brought such breathless anticipation as the gulls circled the area they knew was about to be boiling with terrified fish, and when five giant whales subsequently broke the water, they got a round of cheers.

Cody caught the same bubble net lunge at almost exactly the same moment. This is a different picture taken with a different camera; we just managed to click the shutter at almost the same instant.

Cody, you'll notice, has the superior lens. You'll also notice that he clicked a fraction of a second earlier than I did; the seagull that's almost directly over the highest whale's jaw here is just a hair further along in my picture.

There were people on the boat and great conversation; there was great food. But let's face it: the whales win.

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Trip to Haines, Entry #3


There are a few more pictures and ruminations to collect about our Haines trip, and since the last few photos seem finally to have trickled in, today seems the day for it.

I also have a large paper due Tuesday, so today is also an excellent day to procrastinate, though I think I can make an excellent argument that this is somehow foundational work for the paper.

Anyway, we were somewhat overloaded in our trip from the ferry to the Chilkoot camp, so I volunteered to ride in the Ford Excursions's cargo area. Under the cargo.

These were our guides to Tlingit life and culture, Nora and Richard Dauenhauer. Nora is a clan elder, author, and poet, and she and Richard work to preserve Tlingit language and stories.

They were kind enough to share their poetry and the region's stories.

We visited a Chilkat culture camp on the other side of the range in the town of Klukwan. The people there are trying to carve out a living and hold onto a unique and ancient culture, and this camp is a way to both preserve and share it. They're still getting things up and running, but they built this longhouse by hand, using traditional techniques.


These totem poles will be painted and fitted to the front corners of the longhouse once they're finished. Each pole carries representations of different clans; the one in the center here is killer whale. You can tell by the blowhole above his eyes. When he's finished, he'll also have prominent teeth, which is how you can tell him from a baleen whale.

On a side note, Raven and Eagle represent not clans, but moieties. You can be a member of any number of clans, but you're also either a Raven or an Eagle. Both clan and moiety are passed down matrilineally. You're supposed to marry the opposite moiety, so a Dad typically finds himself the sole Raven or Eagle in the house; this is a source of much hilarity.

This is Kimberly Strong, inside the longhouse, explaining its construction, traditional purpose, and contemporary purpose. She, too, is a tireless advocate for her region and her culture.

The wallscreen behind her carries a number of important icons of Tlingit art. Raven, on the lower left, is a mischievious creator figure. Eagle, on the lower right is his friend and equal. There's Halibut in the middle; it's an important fish for subsistence, but I haven't yet heard any stories in which it's a character.You also see the ubiquitous Chilkat face, representing humanity, repeated across the center. In between are pictures of the bentwood boxes that would be used for storage by families living in the longhouse. The copper tokens nailed to the screen are tows, used for a while as money.

The large face and widespread arms at the top represent the spirit of the longhouse, nurturing and welcoming all who enter, a promise fulfilled by each person of Tlingit descent we met on our trip.

Kimberly also taught us how to prepare a salmon for the smokehouse. She's Tribal Council President of Klukwan, but that doesn't mean she doesn't get her hands dirty. Apparently she's a particularly respectable fish dresser, though I'll admit to lacking the expertise necessary to judge her in that area.


This is Valentino, an Italian butcher who expatriated, married a Chilkat lady, was adopted as a Tlingit, and appears to be really enjoying life. He's a short man, but that's still an enormous King Salmon—around thirty-six inches long. Valentino's butchering skills get a good workout when the fish are running, and he handled them like a pro.

I've chosen not to include any of the somewhat extensive set of fish-butchering photos people took of Valentino's rather impressive skills. You're welcome.


On the right here is Lani Hotch, a weaver and contributor to the culture center, which does not yet have a weaving area. Lani was kind enough to have us in her home, at her private loom. She's weaves mainly in the Ravenstail style, represented in the geometrically-patterned blanket you see her modeling on the right.

Here you see her demonstrating some of the techniques of Chilkat style weaving, which she does less frequently than Ravenstail but to my eye, no less competently.


What would a journal entry on Haines be without a single reference to bears?

Mary, with a superior zoom and good timing, was able to take one of the better bear photos. You can even see the grass he was grazing on.



And there was, fortunately, enough time to write some things down, so I've got a couple kinds of memory to draw on to both create these entries and to do what I can to preserve and share what I was lucky enough to see and learn.

The Tlingit stories, artwork, and weaving I saw are part of a noble and beautiful culture, and it would be an ugly chapter in our story if we forgot them, particularly when they have such a long history of wisdom and coexistence with the wild world.

Thanks to Mary and Mark for the pictures in this entry.

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You Guessed It: Glacier


This is Cathy Connor, a professor of geology at University of Alaska Southeast, the campus which Bread Loaf Juneau calls home. She took us on a walk up to Mendenhall Glacier to talk about the local rocks and, specifically, the glacier's role in shaping the landscape.

We took the same trail I hiked on 6/24, except this time it was raining with a gentle intensity that defies clichéd descriptions of rain. It was neither driving nor pouring; nor was it lashing, tempestuous, or torrential. It did not come down in sheets nor did it let fall cats and dogs. The closest I can come to an accurate description is "a soaking rain." There was a lot of water falling from the sky, and though it was not joined by a great deal of wind, it saturated every fiber of both clothing and being after a little while.

It was temperate enough that I made the decision to forgo my raincoat. I didn't want to spend the walk fighting to stay dry with the hood up and the blinders on. I decided to be endued with water and to trust my high-tech clothing to block enough of the chill glacier winds.

It worked.

The rain swelled this waterfall outside its usual track with rain, but this Monkey Flower (from the much-debated Mimulus genus) was growing in the middle of the original waterfall's course.


The glacier has receded visibly since the last time I was here. Summer is a time of faster recession, for the obvious reasons, and a glacier melts and calves particularly fast when it meets water like this.

Still, to see the areas on bare rock retreat a good ten feet and the area on the water retreat even more than that in only three weeks made it easy to believe that global warming is melting the glacier faster than a normal post-ice-age retreat.


Charles has a gift for striking photogenic poses; here he is a few feet up the shore from the lake. The white ice is called firn, and the lower, blue ice is true glacier ice. It's blue because it has had most of the air compressed out of it. When it gets re-exposed to the atmosphere, it slowly expands, aerates, and turns white again.

A snowflake is a typical ice crystal; a freezer ice cube is a whole series of small crystals stuck together. In a glacier, the immense pressure, together with the melting and refreezing that typically take place, forces the smaller crystals into alignment, and they join up into larger crystals. Cathy commented that the blue, compressed ice has more of a mineral quality to it; the ice crystals are positively enormous, and you can see the water's true color.

Hiking with a geologist put me in geology mode, and I found this really neat rock. Cathy says the red bits are garnets and the black are probably tourmaline. The exposed rock and moraine right next to the glacier are a hodgepodge of rocks from a vast array of eras and areas, brought to the surface both by tectonic process (Alaska is getting higher) and by the immense power of the glacier.


I wasn't too much in geology mode. We got a good look at a Spotted Sandpiper, who flew back and forth, piping. He was probably trying to protect his unfledged hatchling, who made a break for it from one small stand of alder bushes to another.

We didn't stay so long at the glacier that the cold breeze coming off of it made me truly miserable in my wet high-tech gear. I was just comfortable enough to be truly content. Then a brisk walk back to the trailhead and off to a long, hot shower. I may have been philosophically inclined to get wet, but that didn't mean I had to stay that way.

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Glaciers and Kayaks (but not together)


This is Matt Brooks. He's a naturalist, glaciologist, and avid birder. I'm not sure if he has degrees in all three, but I wouldn't be surprised, since he certainly knows his stuff. He took our Wildness class on a walk below Mendenhall glacier in order to talk about the role of post-glacial succession in habitat formation.

As a glacier withdraws, it leaves behind it different kinds of ground: bare rock, moraine (gravel and sediment), etc. Different mosses and lichens make a home there, and then larger shrubs and trees. Mendenhall glacier has been withdrawing steadily for quite a while, so the area below it has a textbook array of different kinds of forest.

Matt's main interest and expertise was birds, but after the first week or so of July in southeast Alaska, the birds are finished marking out territories and finding mates, and they've gotten down to the business of raising babies, so there aren't so many kicking around, and practically nobody's calling.

We were, however, able to see a large number of Artic Terns, which spend their summers nesting at the base of the glacier. We even got to see a few of them mob a Bald Eagle. We also got to hear Hermit Thrushes, Chickadees, and caught a good look at a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

This is the same glacier I visited in my 6/24 entry, but this picture is taken from the other side of the lake.

According to Matt, we're probably already in an age of glacial recession, so it's almost certainly not due to global warming alone that this glacier is shrinking. However, the last twenty or so years have been, overall, much warmer, so the glacier's receding much faster than normal.

As Matt points out, he's a federal employee, so if he can state unequivocally that global warming is an issue, no matter what the political leanings of the federal administration, it seems obvious that it's happening. The question now is what the negative effects might be and how we should address them.

This morning I went kayaking with (from the left), Sam, Palmer, and Mark. We rented boats from the Rec center, and, with one person at the front of a pair of boats and one at the back, we went down to the water. We went a slightly shorter way than I did last time (since we didn't have to be wheel friendly), but it still wasn't the easiest of walks.

Once we were on the water though, we slipped easily through the calm harbor waters and south, away from Auke Bay.


We circumnavigated a small island, and since at least a couple of the five species of salmon are now running fiercely, the eagles are everywhere. This pair was sharing a fish and warding off the crows who were trying to steal it.

Salmon lept out of the water several times a minute, so far and so high that you could literally tell the species as they hung in the air. I spotted Silver and King Salmon.


After we rounded the island, we turned back towards town and home. That's Mt. McGuinness you see just to the right of Mark. I'm hoping to hike up it on the next clear day.

On the way back, I spooked a flock of Pigeon Guillemot, who took off with some noisy clapping against the water, and a cute little Marbled Murrelet popped up about two feet off the port bow, looked extremely surprised, and went straight back down.



On our way back, we noticed the backs of a pair of Harbor Porpoises breaking the water. We caught a quick glimpse and counted ourselves lucky, but they took an interest in us and spent almost 10 minutes circling the boats underwater, coming up to breathe once in a while. I got lucky and caught this one about twenty feet away.

Though the fin may remind you of a dolphin, these guys are from a different Family entirely. In fact, Killer Whales are more closely related to dolphins than porpoises are.

They lost interest about the same time we did, and they continued on their way right as we did. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that I have exactly the same attention span as a porpoise.


The last member of the wildlife crew who deigned to be so easily photographed was one of about eight Harbor Seals whom we displaced because they were relaxing in the shallows where we took out our kayaks.

They lazily drifted away, popping up like adorable periscopes from time to time to check us out.

Good day.

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