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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Visiting Juneau and Skagway

Juneau has been the capital city of Alaska since 1900, when it was a US territory. Although at that time it was a thriving Gold Rush city, the population of the state now centers around Anchorage, 575 miles ( 925 kilometers) away. No roads lead to Juneau, as it is accessible only by boat or airplane and can boast of some of the rainiest weather in the US, raining 250 days and averaging over 62 inches annually. Actually it is tied for fourth place among the rainiest cities, behind Mobile, Pensacola, New Orleans, and West Palm Beach (in my own Broward County in Florida), but we have rain only 145 days a year. 

As our ship pulled into a dreary Juneau harbor on the fifth day of our cruise, the city was living up to its reputation as rainiest Capital in the US. 

SPOILER ALERT: Finny and furry creatures, but no bird sightings to report on this leg of our Alaskan cruise.

Juneau arrival 20140617

Juneau harbor 20140617

Rains had set in and did not let up, so it was a bad day for photography. We took a whale-watching cruise, then visited Mendenhall Glacier. I spent the morning protecting my camera from the rain and spray as we raced in a catamaran from one whale sighting to another. 

Humpback Whale 20140617

We were entertained by the frolics of a group of Steller's Sea Lions as they took turns climbing and diving on a bell buoy.

Steller's Sea Lions 2-20140617

Steller's Sea Lions 20140617

Despite the rain, our brief visit to Mendenhall Glacier was enjoyable. The glacier is only 12 miles from Juneau. Over thirteen miles (21.9 km) long, the ice is up to 1,968 feet (600 meters) thick and stands from 10 to 70 feet (3-20 meters) high at its face, moving into the sea at 223-305 feet (68-93 meters) per year.The glacier has receded almost 2 miles during the past 55 years, creating Mendenhall Lake in front of it. It replenishes itself as warm, moist air is drawn up to the glacier's point of origination, where it falls as snow to feed its ice field, but the glacier's progress does not overcome the melting effects of the warming climate.

Mendenhall Glacier 3-20140617

Our granddaughters enjoyed themselves despite the constant rain.

Graci Cari Mendenhall Glacier 20140617

The rain continued into day #6 of our Alaskan cruise, when we took the White Pass Scenic Railway out of Skagway. We boarded at our ship's dock at sea level and climbed over 2800 feet to the summit of White Pass and beyond, 64 miles one-way, then returned via the same one-track route. 

The ride was indeed scenic...

WhitePass Scenic Railway 07-20140618

...passing over trestles high above the mountain streams... 

WhitePass Scenic Railway 09-20140618

WhitePass Scenic Railway 15-20140618

WhitePass Scenic Railway 13-20140618

...and negotiating two tunnels.

WhitePass Scenic Railway 10-20140618

The views were breathtaking. Vegetation changed from coastal mixed woodlands to dense forests, and...

WhitePass Scenic Railway 05-20140618 we crossed above the timberline, to treeline taiga, meadows and sub-alpine tundra. 

WhitePass Scenic Railway 19-20140618

WhitePass Scenic Railway 18-20140618

WhitePass Scenic Railway 16-20140618

Mountain Goats browsed on distant rocky outcroppings, difficult to distinguish from the snow patches.

WhitePass Scenic Railway Mountain Goats 23-20140618

The skies cleared, and on our way down we could see our ship, looking like a white dot moored in the Skagway harbor.

WhitePass Scenic Railway 03-20140618

Next, on to see Hubbard Glacier and then to Seward, our port of debarkation.

Just as I was posting this, there was a news report that the train had derailed at the White Pass Summit on July 23. Two locomotives and four passenger cars left the tracks, and nine people were injured, none seriously.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cruising to Alaska's Icy Strait and Hoonah

After departing from Ketchikan we continued up the Inside Passage with the Coast Mountains on the right (north and east) of our ship. These mountains divide Alaska from British Columbia. Some of its peaks rise above 10,000 feet, and the mountain continues into the ocean to form the Alexander Archipelago, a 300 mile chain of islands that shelter the Alaska coastline. Chicagof Island is the fifth largest island in the United States, and lies entirely within the Tongass National Forest. 

Approaching Hoonah 3-20140616

We sailed through Icy Strait under clear skies to reach the City of Hoonah (population 860 in 2000) in the northern part of Chicagof Island. Hoonah is populated by the indigenous Tlingit people, and its economy depends upon tourism, fishing and logging. As we approached the port of Hoonah we could see the evidence of clear-cutting of the virgin forest.  Lowland areas selected for timber harvest include a disproportionate share of old growth, a density of about 12 times more per acre than normally found overall in Tongass National Forest. Logging roads fragment the wilderness and must later be maintained, at a cost to the US Forest Service of about $20,000 annually for each logging job that is created.

Hoonah clear-cutting 20140616

Our ship anchored offshore in deeper water as we rode in a tender to the dock.

Radiance of the Seas at anchor Hoonah 20140616

The Hoonah cannery stopped operating in the 1950s, and its buildings now serve as a spacious Visitor Center.

Port of Hoonah 20140616

I processed my photo of this old fishing vessel as an oil painting, juxtaposed to the cruise ship in the background.

Hoonah Alaska painting 20140616

Many Bald Eagles roosted and flew in the port area. 

Bald Eagle in flight 20140616

The majority of eagles were in their second and third years. Their heads and tails become fully white when they are 4-5 years old.

Bald Eagle immature 2-20140616

Bald Eagle immature 4-20140616

This bird is in adult plumage except for some dark tail feather tips.

Bald Eagle in flight 2-20140616

Although the salmon run had not yet begun, there was a bounty crop of herring, which the eagles devoured rapidly.

Bald Eagle eating herring 20140616

Our day started with a wildlife cruise, in search of whales, a very successful venture! Our granddaughters waved from the top deck of our catamaran as we pulled out to see wildlife.

Graci and Cari at Hoonah 20140616

Whale sightings were guaranteed-- money back if none are sighted (no refunds have ever been granted). This Humpback Whale is "sounding," waving its tail good-bye as it dives deeply.

Humpback Whale tail 2-20140616

Individual whales may be identified by the pattern of pigmentation, barnacles and scars on their tails, like fingerprints. See: Identifying Individual Humpback Whales

Humpback Whale tail 20140616

Humpback Whale spouting 20140616

Humpback Whale after spouting 20140616

Of course, I had my eye out for birds. This gull is probably a Western x Glacous-winged Gull hybrid.

Gull species 20140616

Common Murres were, well, common.

Common Murres 20140616

Following the cruise we took a bus into the forest in the northern reaches of Chicagof Island. As I related in an earlier postI saw my first Red-breasted Sapsucker, the third "lifer" of the trip (the earlier were the Rhinoceros Auklet and Red-legged Kittiwake). 

Soon after the sapsucker sighting, our daughter Jackie again proved her prowess as a wildlife spotter. As we walked across a wetland on the boardwalk she said she saw a very large yellowish tan bear very briefly up ahead of the group. No one else saw anything and I feared her credibility was at stake, so I kept a sharp eye out as we walked to a bluff that overlooked a wet grassy area. Sure enough, I spied movement about 1/4 mile away, and my telescopic lens view confirmed it was an adult Coastal Brown Bear, a "blond" sow known to our guide as also having a yearling cub.

Coastal Brown Bear 20140616

To our surprise, the cub, which weighs about half of its mother's 600 pounds, suddenly appeard out of the deep grass quite nearby, and waded across a small stream.

Coastal Brown Bear cub 3-20140616

Coastal Brown Bear cub 20140616

We had packed quite a bit into our short stay, and at 5:00 PM started steaming to our next port, Juneau.