Sunday, February 7, 2010

Photos of Kuiu Island

Here are some photos from the Tebenkof Wilderness. Do not use them without my permission!

An Orca swimming in Elena Bay not far from the 18 foot skiff we were sitting in. I'm certainly not an Orca expert and we had a debate about whether it was a male or a female. The males have longer dorsal fins than females but juveniles obviously have smaller fins than adults and there was a much smaller animal swimming nearby. It was interesting to note it's fin was bent at the top. I'm not sure why.
A great blue heron lifts off in front of us in the Theitis Bay Area. It's a little blurry since the light was starting to fade.

Sea otters riding the waves.

I only had a 200mm lens which makes it tough to photograph these guys since they're quite wary of humans. They seem to ignore the boat until you speed up or slow down. I had to wait for them to pop up and hope for the best. This was one of my better shots.

Small but dangerous. This critter is a rough skinned newt. They look harmless but when alarmed they're skin secretes a deadly toxin. I read somewhere online that the toxin is strong enough to kill 30 humans when ingested. Their underside is bright orange which is supposed to be a warning for predators.

September 2009- Tebenkof Wilderness.

The above photo is the USFWS vessel Curlew on a rare sunny moring in September.
While it's always important for me to keep my friends and family upated about my adventures I am appreciative of all the people who visit this site. This is not an official posting for any agency. These are merely my own thoughts and experiences while working and living in AK.
We went back to Kuiu Island again this year for about six weeks to continue our study of the marten population. This time was a bit different though. We did the first two weeks in the Tebenkof Wilderness working aboard the vessel Curlew. Using skiffs to get to shore was the only way to work efficiently in this roadless wilderness. To the best of my knowledge only a small portion of it was logged back in the 1940s and most of the places we worked were old growth forest. This was a strong contrast to the northern portion of the island which has been heavily logged.

We took the Curlew from Petersburg, AK around the north end of Kuiu Island taking a full day to make it to Tebenkof Bay. It was a bit of a rough day but not too rough for the 65 foot vessel and we saw numerous marine mammals including breaching humpback whales followed twenty minutes later by Orcas breaching. It was a good distraction from the knowledge that we had many rainy days of work ahead. Tebenkof is an incredibly beautiful place that's know in part for it's high sea otter population. I've always seen lots of them around Kuiu Island but there seemed to be more in Tebenkof where there were "rafts" of 40-50 at a time floating in the kelp. They are very charismatic creatures that are fun to watch as they float by in the Kelp grooming themselves. Unlike other marine mammals that depend on blubber to maintain body heat sea otters only have ~2% body fat. How do they keep warm when the water temperature is in the 40s? They have very dense fur which traps air to keep them warm. If their fur becomes matted with dirt or oil and can't trap air the they'll die of hypothermia. That's why they seemed to be constantly grooming themselves when they're not eating or playing. They're beautiful animals and entertaining to watch but they can be the bane of a commercial fishermans existence. Here in southeast AK there's lots of grumbling about all the shell fish they eat and there's currently at least one study to estimate the current population.

I grew up a mile from the Atlantic Ocean with white sandy beaches but Alaska is different. The tides can change by as much as 25 feet in a single day. Instead of sandy beaches most of the shoreline is very rocky in the area we were working. Every day the tide was different so we had to be extremely careful not to hit the hull (or worse the prop) on the rocks as we came in to shore. On many days water was too rough to keep the boat on shore so I'd have to jump off the bow of the boat and push it immediately back off shore while the operator backed away as quickly as possible. The fear was that the wind would blow the boat onto a rock with an out going tide and then the boat would get stuck and we'd spend the next six hours waiting for the tide to come back in hoping the waves wouldn't beat up the boat too much. Anyone who boats in southeast AK has to worry about this when the weather isn't cooperating. There's a lot to keep track of while boating in southeast Alaska. I've seen more than one boat (an even one float plane) go dry when someone didn't pay attention to the outgoing tide.

Sea otters weren't the only marine mammals in Tebenkof. There were also lots of harbor seals and we even had a couple of Orcas swimming around our skiffs on one of the rare sunny mornings. We had a truly surreal moment one day when I walked back to the boat which was near the mouth of a salmon stream. A bunch of harbor seals had gathered there to forage on the salmon and became curious about us. My boss was telling me he counted 34 seals swimming toward the boat which was beached and I was taking photos of them when suddenly we heard wolves howling less than 1000m away. It sounded like a pack of several wolves with pups yelping in the mix. We never saw them that day but I'll never get tired of that sound. It's quite an eerie feeling that I can't really describe well in words.

A few days later we saw a black bear sow with three spring cubs walking the coast in a nearby bay. It wasn't all fun. There were a lot of cold, windy, rainy days which meant putting some damp clothes back on day after day(typical when you work in the worlds largest temperate rainforest).

After about two weeks of work on the Curlew we dropped a few people off at Rowan Bay to begin the next month of work. Two of us took the boat ride back to Juneau so that we could help the captain tie off at the dock, etc. It turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day with a beautiful sunset and a full moon over the mountains. An amazing end to a great couple of weeks.
More photos in the next post!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer of 2009 in Southeast Alaska

The spring and summer have been the busiest I can ever remember. This year seems to have been almost the exact opposite of last summer. Instead of thirty plus straight days of rain we've had long periods of sunshine with record high temperatures. I think there were about 14 consecutive sunny days in both May and July with lots of partly sunny days mixed in. June was a bit wet but still no one can complain after the summer of 2008 or as we all said what summer?

What's been happining since I last wrote? I spent most of May and the beginning of June coordinating deer pellet surveys throughout the region. I was a manager for many years in the hectic EMS industry but I don't think I was ever quite so busy as this spring. Thankfully I had lots of coworkers and volunteers that helped conduct deer pellet surveys in over 50 different locations many of which could only be reached by boat or floatplane which meant they were dependent on the weather. It was a lot of work but it felt good to have the experience and to realize that even though I'm not a seasoned veteran I'm no longer the brand new guy.

I went straight from the deer pellet trips back to one of my favorite places of all, Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area. It hasn't been the busiest year with bear numbers or people numbers but the dull moments don't last long when you work around unpredictable wild animals in close proximity to people.

We've had several subadult bears attempt to push us around which is always interesting. Imagine you're a brown bear cub that spent the last 3 years with 500 lbs of protection in the form of a huge fur covered sow with 3 inch long claws and sharp teeth that's always close by. Then suddenly in the spring of your 3rd year of life she turns on you and sends you off on your own so she can breed. Now your essentially a teenager without any back up and trying to make sense of the world. Everywhere you go there's other bears that might be dangerous so you spend your days looking over your shoulder and running away a lot. Except there are these two legged critters(humans) that have never behaved threateningly because you live in a bear sanctuary. So why not see if you can push them around a bit? That's essentially what happens to us every year. What makes things interesting is that a 3 year old sub adult brown bear can be bigger than some adult black bears and are equipped with bigger teeth and claws. We've had a few of these young bears approach within 20-40 feet of us on several occasions. It's very interesting to watch despite the fact that it can occasionally make the visitors nervous. Since we carry bear spray and a rifle we're never really in too much danger as long as we don't get careless. However, nobody has had to spray a bear at Pack Creek in over a decade and no bears have ever been shot there so none of us wants to be the first.

Lots of drama this year at the viewing area. We had one of my favorite sows come out with two beautiful new spring cubs and spend almost 3 hours trying to convince them to cross the creek and come closer to us on the viewing spit. The cubs would have no part of it until she finally picked them up in her mouth and dropped them in the water. I'll never forget they're wild animals but watching a sow with cubs in an area where she feels safe enough to behave naturally is surreal. 5 days later we got a harsh reminder of how tough life is for a bear cub when the sow came back with only one cub. Large males will occasionally kill cubs and we found positive evidence to confirm that was this little one's unfortunate fate. Happily the single remaining cub has put on lots of weight since it's gets all the milk to itself and doesn't have to share any fish or other food with any other cubs. He's been quite the crowd pleaser running after mom trying to learn how to catch fish and occasionally chasing ravens for fun or nursing in full view of 8-12 people.

Thanks to my girlfriend Allie and some incredibly generous friends I've got more fish in my freezer and some friends freezers than I know what to do with. I've caught all five species of salmon this year most notably my first King Salmon and my first Sockeye on a fly rod. I guess $300.00+ in fly fishing gear I had to get at least one keeper on a fly rod:) Allie and I even caught a 62 inch halibut July 4th! Quite the mind blowing experience to watch my friend Chris harpoon it(it took three tries but who's counting?) and then tied it off to the boat. Always adding to the fun in Coastal Alaska are the marine mammals. We came across a baby humpback whale tale slapping and breaching like crazy on the way back that day and we've seen bubble feeding humpbacks, orca feeding on salmon and many other critters. One crazy day my friend Randy caught a 40 inch long King Salmon and had to fend off a harbor seal that took the fish for about 5 minutes during the fight! Definitely a new experience for me to have to worry about the potential for marine mammals trying to steal a fish off the stringer or the fishing pole.

Well that's about all the time I have for an update at this point. I sure miss my friends and family down south. In case you guys aren't sure how this works. Planes can come to AK just as easily as they can leave from Alaska.:) I hope everyone is having an amazing summer! I'll try to put up some photos when I get a chance.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Heat Wave in Juneau?

Well spring has definitely sprung here in Juneau. It's been in the 60s and lower 70s most of the week with barely a cloud in the sky. Spring can be very wet with all the fast melting snow causing lots of flooding with large holes over the creeks, rivers and lakes. It's kind of weird to ski on a frozen lake near a glacier one day and then see the float pond near the airport loaded with planes taking people to and from the bush again.

Wildlife are out and about everywhere. In the beginning it was deer and goats that were dying of starvation but as the snow melts the more the hope for survival increases as new vegetation is exposed almost daily giving a chance for sustenance and regeneration after the third tough winter in a row. Looking out the window from the office we can see the occasional mountain goat or black bear feeding on young plants in the avalanche shoots.

This week seems to have helped melt snow fast with temperatures in the 60s and 70s and bright sunshine most of the week. It's a pretty cool transition from a fun winter wonderland to a few weeks of nasty rain and unfomfortable temperatures which lead to spring fever the minute the weather improves. I've seen lots of people in shorts and even one person in a bikini down town today. That's a rare sight in Juneau on any day of the year much less the first of May!

As I drove out the road I saw miles of snow covered mountains with dozens of boats with fisherman all in search of the same thing-King Salmon! The diehard fisherman are out there despite the fact that it takes over 120 rod ours(in some cases) for each fish caught this time of year. Even though there aren't as many fish this time of year the salmon are in the best condition before they enter the rivers and "turn". Once the hormones kick in the fish will darken and the meat while start to decay even as they continue their last journey in life to spawn and die.

Now everyone becomes more alert while walking the dogs or else they risk running into a bear or a porcupine which are both common in southeast Alaska. Up near Anchorage they even had a wolf come after a dog just a week ago while it's owner was running with it. It's interesting to watch the news and hear the stories of people expecting the government to take care of the "nuisance" animals. In some ways I can't blame them except that they choose to live in a wild place like Alaska. What would you expect when you move the state with the highest brown and black bear populations in the U.S.?

Field season is about to begin and I'm looking forward to it even though there's an overwhelming amount of preparation with maps to make, float planes and boats to schedule, and all the other logisitics to consider. Soon there will be deer pellets to count, whales to navigate around, sea lions attempting to steal fish from lines and of course bears to watch and visitors to manage. That's all for now I'll try to update again when I can but as things get busier it's tough to update nearly as often as I'd like. I still appreciate all the comments I've gotten from people across the globe! Happy May everyone!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

July 2008 On Admiralty Island

During July, which was mostly wet and miserable here in the Juneau area, I met some very nice folks that boated all the way from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska! It's always nice to see people who live life and don't sweat the small stuff like pouring rain day after day after day:) Anyway their efforts paid off and they arrived on one of the best bear viewing days of the summer. The bears were so active that day that I decided to walk to the tower trail to check on the visitors since there are occasions when people go to the viewing tower and can't get down for a couple of hours until the bears leave. This turned out to be one of those days. After I climbed into the tower a sow had arrived and decided to lay down in the salmon berry bushes below the tower and take a nap. Since startling bears is always a bad idea we were "stuck" in the tower and forced to enjoy the moment out of the rain while watching for other bears.

Here are a few photos from July 23rd, 2008:

This bear was feeding right below the 15 foot viewing tower. One of the best places for capturing close up photos when the fish are in the creek.

The bear below is an adult sow that had a nose injury from a brawl with another bear but that didn't stop her from finding food. After she was done fishing she climbed the bank and layed down invisible in the salmon berry bushes. We had to keep watching to make sure she was gone before climbing down to leave. The bears put on a great show that day!

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Nice doggy? The local wolf approaches a friends dog. That's right thats a black wolf. That's taken to approaching people and dogs and even playing with the dogs. Unfortunately, he can catch canine diseases and he's picked up more than one small dog with a few dogs gone "missing". It's an amazing sight but also at times pretty disturbing.

His behavior can look almost pet like but when you look at his tell tale yellow eyes and his gait you can be sure he's not your neighborhood dog.
I had to zoom with my 200mm because he was so close! It's a bit tough to get a really good shot of a black wolf on white snow and have both come out but this one was my favorite.

Eventually he trotted off with a toothy yawn. A yawn can be a sign of stress in carnivores such as bears and wolves.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Moose, Marten, Wolves & Bears

I hope I don't repeat myself too much but I've had numerous requests even from other countries to udate this blog which kind of blows my mind. So here's some things I've been up to in the past year:

Since I've last written I was crew leader on a marten collaring and small mammal trapping project on Kuiu Island again this year. It's was very wet most of the time continuing the insane amount of rainfall we had over the summer. Imagine donning fleece underneath thick PVC raingear with the preferred southeast alaskan footwear(Xtra Tuff rubber boots), bushwhacking in temperatures in the 30-40s with nearly continuous rainfall and then trying to process animals without allowing them to become hypothermic you'll get the idea. If you can also imagine you're working in a rainforest with one of the highest densities of black bears in Alaska and you're using jam, sardines, peanut butter and game meat as bait only to find many of the traps crushed flat by bears you'll get a feel for what it was like. Everyone has different comfort levels around bears and I've been getting very comfortable having worked two seasons at a brown bear viewing area with bears coming within 10 feet. However, seeing steel cage traps crushed flat as a pancake definitely makes ones heart race for a moment and reminds me to look over my shoulder more often.

Having said that it's an incredible place to work with very high densities of sea otters, wolf packs, moose and sitka black tailed deer with several class one salmon streams that still had a few Coho salmon in them. There's something surreal about seeing a wolf pack hunting or hearing them howl.

Then there's the local wolf in town that has been fed by humans and is so habituated that he came within 25 feet of me and the dogs whining like a puppy trying to get them to play and then watching them running around smelling each other. It's exciting to have a wolf that close and to be able to view him very often but it's sad to know he's being fed by people and that he can catch a disease from local dogs (some of which were on his menu). It's hard to believe I saw my first wolf in Denali NP in 2003 and now I can drive 20 minutes to go skiing and have to be careful to avoid the local wolf and frequently see him sneaking up behind me to try and "play" with the dogs. On one hand exciting on the other a dangerous situation that might end badly some day.

I did some moose work in November and again in February for 10 days at a time collecting foraging data. Basically I track in to the moose and then attempt to stay close enough to watch and record what they eat all day long. November makes things interesting because even though I'm only interested in what the cow moose are eating it's rutting season and the bulls are there pushing each other around which is an incredible sight(and sound). Watching 1,000 lb animals with antlers 50-60 inches across push each other around is quite a sight. Then add to that howling wolf packs and hiking in to recover radio collars from moose that were killed by wolves and seeing the sight of the kill with bones scattered and shattered by incredibly strong jaws and I have to remind myself that wolf attacks on humans are almost nonexistent. We ended the November trip with helicopter darting which is always exciting. The pilots here in AK have the be some of the best around. It's quite an amazing thing to watch the pilot open the door so he can lean out and check to make sure we're not going to get the skids caught on the brush we were landing next to and seeing the rotors mere feet fom trees as we lifted off. There's no landing zone set up in advance for safetly like the medical calls I've been on. These guys doing everything possible to get you as close to the moose as they can even if that means a river bank in six feet of snow with spruce trees 20 feet away!

In many places the brown bears had a tough year with heavy rainfall causing the streams they fish to be deeper and full of mud and silt. It was fun to see them court each other and a bit nerve wracking the hear them huffing in the woods and listen to branches breaking with the occasional sight of a juvenile rushing past us followed by a larger male or female that wanted to rid the area of any competitors or distractions. One female who wasn't "in the mood" walked within 6-8 feet of us to avoid one of the biggest males I've seen yet. So he stood huffing and puffing about 100 feet away very unhappy that she was using us for "protection". I was glad to carry the .338 rifle and large can of pepper spray but some times it's just a bit close for comfort. Then there was a big sow with a yearling cub that was just like my nephews when they were younger. He kept testing us to see how much he could get away with. Unfortunately, he seemed to know that he had about 500lbs of back up if anything went wrong as his mother was never far away. So I'm standing there with visitors that I'm supposed to protect and he walks up within 20 feet with me telling him to go away and the large sow(his mother) about 35 feet away huffing and puffing trying to get him to come back to her but not having much luck. I love the job and moments like that are unforgettable but I'm constantly aware of the fact that nobody has ever had to shoot a bear there in over 40 years but there's a first time for everything and I don't want to be that guy does it because there would be a ton of media attention and possibly a career ending decision. However, I'm not planning on ever being killed or disfigured either. The good news is I've gotten very good at judging bear behavior and 20 years in EMS has taught me that constantly running crisis rehearsal situations in my head allow me to remain calm when bears are close and agitated. I invested in a new camera this year and I was able to get some amazing shots which I hope to add soon.