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Glaciers and Whales!

August 11, 2013

Alaska – Tuesday, July 30

I got up early and was out of the campground a little before 7. It was a very chilly morning, but that was good – Tula will be perfectly comfortable in the van for several hours while I’m out on the boat. I packed some snacks and water, and a hat and gloves – it was going to be even chillier on the water. This boat trip was headed for Holgate Glacier, and it was a small enough boat that it was going to be an up-close visit. And there is always the hope of seeing whales and dolphins and other marine life on the way!

We left the harbor in fog that was just beginning to rise. The first thing we saw were a couple sea otters, and then some harbor seals – the captain said there are a lot of them around. And then some Dall’s porpoises appeared – they’re very speedy swimmers, and look like miniature Orca whales with their black and white markings. They can swim at speeds up to 30 knots, and the boat was moving along pretty good at 22-24 knots, so those little porpoises can sure cover some ground! The captain said whole groups of these porpoises sometimes follow the boat for a ways, but these ones seemed to be on another mission, so they vanished pretty quickly. And then we came across something they don’t see very often – a huge, thick group of clear jellyfish – so many of them that the color of the water was noticeably lighter where they were all clustered together. That was kind of unusual. We made our way farther and farther out – and passed a bunch of rocks where sea lions were sunning themselves. And then we saw a couple humpback whales and they surfaced a couple times, blowing water out of their spouts, and then with a flip of their tails they dove deep and we moved on. We were passing snow covered mountains, and we could see glaciers up in the far reaches of them. We passed by several fjords where some of the glaciers were getting closer to the water, and then we turned into one of the fjords. We began to see ice chunks in the water, and the closer we got to the glacier, the more ice-choked the water got. And then we were there – right up close by a magnificent glacier. The morning sun was beginning to warm things up a bit, and there was a lot of cracking noise, and rumblings, and pieces falling off and splashing into the water, and everything was kind of echoing. The captain simply turned the engines off and we listened to the glacier “talk” and watched the shifting ice. It was almost magical. A couple really big sheets of ice cracked off with booming sounds, and they made big splashes and the resulting waves rocked the boat. It’s a very unstable world up on that glacier! The crew used a net to haul in a big piece of glacier ice, and passed that around for whoever wanted to see it – it’s very clear ice. Then we started to head back and began to see hundreds and hundreds of sea birds floating in groups on the water – gulls, tufted puffins, cormorants, and sheerwaters – they’re all called “whale birds” because they feed on the exact same food that the whales do, despite the enormous size differences. And if all these birds have found a good feeding place that’s a sign for the whales that there’s also good feeding for them. (And these flocks of sea birds were good indicators for the whale hunters of the past too – otherwise how do you find a whale in the big ocean?) So we slowed down, and sure enough, there were whales all over the place – some nearby, and some out in the distance. I began to lose count of how many we saw – there would be 6-8 spouts off in the distance, and then a couple would surface near the boat, and it was hard to know where to look! There was also a bit of a bad smell in the air, and it was from all the whales expelling their fishy breath – as the captain said, if we consumed tons of anchovies and stuff and never brushed our teeth, our breath would be pretty bad too! The whales were absolutely gorging themselves in the rich feeding grounds. So we saw lots of humpbacks, singly or in pairs, and their movement looked so fluid and effortless. They seem to surface 5-6 times, and then they do a deep dive with their tail in the air, and then they’re usually down for a good 10 minutes. A couple of them were rolling around and sticking their side fins in the air, almost like they were waving. It was an awesome tour, and they gave us a light lunch, and it was a wonderful way to wrap up my Alaska visit.

Tula was ready for a walk when we got back, so we enjoyed a mile or so on a boardwalk by a river just outside of Seward, and then went into the town itself, where I found the memorial marking the start of the original Iditarod sled dog run, which happened one winter in a desperate attempt to quickly get some medication all the way up to Nome. Seward is a fun little town with a lot of character and a lot to see. We walked for a while on the bike path along the sea, starting at the Mile 0 marker for the Iditarod race, and then continued all through town. By then we had a good 3 miles of walking done. I didn’t make a donation today, because all of the Alaska donations are done.

I was close to the Kenai Fjords National Park, so I drove up there toward Exit Glacier, and had some beautiful views of it on the way up. I stopped in the visitor center to ask about short hikes, and decided on the 2 1/2 mile hike that would bring me close to the foot of the glacier. The bugs were pretty bad until I got closer to the cool air coming off the glacier, and when I got up to the viewing point, there was a sign showing where the glacier had been just 15 years ago. It was astonishing how far it had retreated in such a short time. Up close, the glacier looks a bit dirty from all the sand, dirt, and stones it picks up, and there were little rivulets of water flowing off into a very cold, fast-moving stream. It was interesting to see the actual toe of the glacier.

Once I was back from that walk, I went back into Seward one last time to go into a couple of shops that looked kind of interesting, and I actually found some gifts for a couple special occasions coming up. Then, it was simply time to leave, and time to start the journey out of Alaska. There are only 2 roads out of Alaska, and they were both hundreds of miles away, and I knew I wasn’t going to get real far tonight. I drove about 80 miles and then saw a sign for a state park campground near one other town I wanted to drive through in the morning, so I called it a day, and set up camp in a beautiful little campground nestled in the pine trees under the majestic mountains. Tula and I took a bedtime walk on a long boardwalk and finished off our walking for the day.

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