Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Columbia Glacier

We took a day trip out of Valdez to the Columbia Glacier on another rainy day. It turned out to be anything but dreary -- we saw bald eagles, sea otters, sea lions, and seals, but most importantly -- the glacier, up close and personal.

On the way to the glacier, we had to pass to the outside of a restricted area (marked by buoys and their resident sea lions) for the terminus of the Alaskan Pipeline. The terminus is in the background of this photo. Boats are not allowed inside the buoys, and tours were discontinued after 9/11 so this is the closest tourists can get:

These Italian photographers (and a videographer) were filming a documentary on our trip. They were very rude, and thought nothing of pushing aside the other people on the boat to get a photo. I had no respect for them whatsoever:
Most trips to the glacier can only get as far as the terminal moraine, some 12 miles from the actual nose of the glacier. The terminal moraine is a pile of dirt and rocks that the glacier pushed in front of it, and it remains at the point that the glacier began its retreat. In the case of the Columbia Glacier, the terminal moraine is now underwater. But because it is a small underwater hill, only 30-40 feet under the surface, it tends to catch icebergs on its edges. These icebergs then form a barrier for boats traveling up the waterway.

On our trip we got lucky -- the normal iceberg barrier was gone, so we were able to get very close to the glacier, within .8 mile. Even the crew was excited -- they told us only about 100 people had ever gotten that close to it!

A bright blue iceberg out the front window of the boat:

Capturing an iceberg to bring on board:
As we got closer to glacier, the trip became more and more like traveling through a 7-11 Slushy. The temperature dropped to 45 degrees, but the wind chill made it seem more like 25. We saw seals and sea lions on bergs everywhere -- apparently the orcas don't like navigating the icebergs so sea life is safer here.
When we got close to the glacier, it was a wall of fractured ice 400 feet high. The glacier also extended about 400 feet below the surface of the water, where the most melting occurs. Once the ice is undercut, large chunks break off. This is called "calving," and we did see -- or mostly heard -- one huge chunk plunge into the water.
The dark lines in the glacier are dirt and rocks that it collects on both sides. When this dirt and rock is deposited as the glacier retreats, it is called a lateral moraine.

When two glaciers come together, as they do here, lateral moraines meet in the middle and this accumulation of dirt and rocks is called a medial moraine.

Sometimes a chunk of glacier with dirt stripes intact breaks off. In this photo, you can also see how the water has undercut the iceberg:
When we got to the point that the water was filled with this much ice and slush it was time to return:
It was a wonderful trip, and a one of the highlights of our trip to Alaska.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Valdez, In The Rain

We spent a few days in Valdez, mostly in the rain. The indoor museum was a slam dunk -- not only was it a dry place to be, but it turned out to be quite interesting.

Most people know Valdez because of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. But this was not Valdez's first brush with disaster -- the town was severely damaged in the 1964 earthquake that devastated Alaska, and was eventually moved 4 miles away (to its current location) because the ground here is more stable. The original town sat on what is gravelly glacial run off, and when the shaking started the loose soil made the damage much more severe.

Oddly, both disasters happened on Good Friday, exactly 25 years apart. I'm sure Friday, April 18, 2014 will be a "hold your breath day" in Valdez.

The museum has a model of the original town:

The detail is amazing -- down to people's private junk heaps and women hanging clothes on the line. Each business and each person's house has been recreated and named:
Valdez is almost totally surrounded by mountains and glaciers, and there are abundant waterfalls where the glacial melt finds its way down to the the sound:
We drove a few miles out of town to Worthington Glacier:
Do you notice anything odd about this photo (other than the total lack of any type of sunshine or warmth)? Here is a close-up of the area in the center of the photo:
One chunk of ice developed this very noticeable "face" -- and did it within the 4 days before our visit, according to a woman in the gift shop. This is a good example of pareidolia, a phenomenon that happens because our brains try very hard to make "something," especially faces, out of random patterns.

Next blog: The Columbia Glacier

Monday, August 22, 2011


We spent five days in Seward, Alaska -- most of them watching a relentless rain. It was sunny and nice when we got there, and we had a spectacular view of Resurrection Bay:
Once the rain started, we switched from scenery ogling to doing indoorsy things -- such as the Alaska Sealife Center, an aquarium and wildlife research center in downtown Seward. They had displays of fish and crabs,
Sea mammals (unphotogenically cavorting outside in the rain) and seabirds, including Horned Puffins,
And a "touchy-feely" tank, where John got to play "Sistine Chapel Ceiling" with a noodly-appendaged sea anemone:
We tried to do laundry, but there was only one laundromat in the entire town. This was a yuppified combination coffee shop/laundry, and they had a grand total of three washers and three dryers (but plenty of lattes, cappuccinos, and muffins). When we got there, two washers were taken, and we had around seven loads. Plus, it was $3.25 a load to wash. We left, vowing to "go commando" if need be instead of spending hours and a fortune to get clean undies.

On the day we left, the weather was clearing up nicely, and we could see a cruise ship in the Seward harbor. The large, blue crane-like apparatus next to the ship loads coal from train cars into cargo ships that then head out through the Bay of Alaska to the Pacific Ocean, eventually to deliver the coal to Japan or Korea.

When we drove to Seward, we remarked on the beauty of the fireweed along the road. The magenta flowers were bright and vivid, and often surrounded by huge heads of lacy, lime-green cow parsnip. Fireweed flowerettes begin opening from the bottom of the plant in spring, and move upwards during the summer. Some of the fireweed flowerettes had almost reached the top of the plant, an indication that fall is very near.
After the days and days of rain, the fireweed flowers are now all but gone. This is what the plants looked like as we left Seward:
It is not yet the end of August, but summer is almost over in Alaska. The fireweed, previously a magenta blanket on fields everywhere we looked, is gone. The lime green cow parsnips with their huge flowering heads are now brown and drooping. It all happened seemingly overnight. The tourists have also fled, taking their share of salmon and halibut, all shipped home or safely tucked away in freezers. We can tell it is almost time for us to also be heading south. We have one more stop to make in Valdez, and then we'll start the long journey back.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


John and I, and our friends Harlan and Sue, took a day cruise from Homer to Seldovia. Here is a map of our boat's path:
It was a three hour cruise, and the first crew member we met was named Ginger. Hmmm. That gave us pause, but two amazingly good Bloody Marys later, coupled with a complete lack of any crew members named Skipper or Gilligan made us forget all about the Minnow. We would have been bad castaways, anyway -- we had forgotten to pack our best sequined dresses, and Mrs. Howell would never have forgiven us.

On the way out, we passed Gull Island, which was in reality a few small islands all covered with birds: seagulls predominated, but also cormorants and puffins could be seen covering any flat, dry parcels of land.

We had three hours in Seldovia itself, a town that is only accessible by boat or by air. We initially thought we'd have to really rush around, but after we docked, had lunch, and saw pretty much the entire town we still were looking at an hour before the boat left for the return trip. Seldovia is that small.

Seldovia's population is somewhat around 300 full time residents, but they have one event each May that draws huge crowds: the Craft Invitational Chainsaw Carving Competition. While we were not here to see the festival, the wood carvings from prior years adorn many homes and businesses in town. Here were a few:
The people of Seldovia also decorated all the garbage cans and fire hydrants with unique paintings:
We spent the last bit of time going through the grocery store/art gallery, where a bag of Stacey's Pita Chips was $9.99 and the art gallery was a back room next to the abandoned meat counter, with amateur canvases covering all the available wall space.
On the way back, we saw a couple of sea otters having their lunch, floating in the bay and using their bellies as a very convenient table:
The scenery was lovely, the wildlife fun to see, but when we left we felt this carving said it all:
"I'm Otter Here!"

Monday, August 15, 2011

I Love Big 'Buts -- Halibuts, That Is

John and his buddy Harlan decided to go halibut fishing for a day. The bad news: the boat was to leave at 7 A.M. The good news: we are parked right next to the put-in area for these boats, so sleep time is maximized and travel time is reduced to a short walk lasting only minutes.

There is no dock here, or even a boat launch ramp. Instead, the vehicles towing boats drop their boat, still on the trailer, near the beach. Tractors hitch up to the trailers and tow the boats into the water. When the boat is ready to come in, they radio in their arrival time, the tractors re-hitch their trailer and tow it into the water so the boat can load. We heard that this all costs about $20.

The morning of the Big Fishing Day arrived along with a cold spell. The previous two days had seen no fishing -- the water was too rough. But today the boats were going out despite the 7 A.M. temperature of 38 degrees. Fahrenheit.

John and Harlan got to the launch area, where they stood around for about 15 minutes because their charter-boat-ride was late. It finally got there, they got on board, and the tractor towed them out to begin the adventure.

Here is their boat as it is being released. Two other tractors and several just-launched boats are also in the photo:
Fast forward to the afternoon. It was a lot warmer then, and boats have started to return. John called to tell me his boat will be in at 2:15, so I walked down to the launch area to film his boat coming in. It is a beehive of activity, with tractors zipping around as they pulled incoming boats onto their trailers or launched boats that were going out for afternoon fishing. They paid no attention to me, and let me wander anywhere I wanted. When I saw John's boat heading in, I started the video. But just as his boat started to make the powered run towards the tractor and trailer, an unexpected obstacle started to block the view: Whew! It got out of the way just in time. But just what was that guy doing with the tire wheel? I can't imagine a tractor like that would need any human help!

When John and Harlan got off the boat, I found out that John caught the biggest halibut of the day -- a 72 pounder! Here he is with his catch:

The younger guy in the photo is the boat's captain, and although he is only 20, he is an experienced boat hand (and obviously knew where the halibut hid), having been around his father's charter business all his life. He has been Captaining for the last 3 years.

They brought all the halibut caught that day back to the charter company's store. Here are all those fish, with John proudly showing off his:

And here are all the folks from that charter with their fish (no, Harlan is not there -- he was feeling a bit under the weather):
The charter company turned that halibut into 42 pounds of fillet for us, which we picked up the next day and somehow got it stuffed into our freezer. A package of ribs and some green beans wound up being sacrificed for the cause (actually, just moved to the fridge for more immediate consumption).

John and I, and Harlan and his wife Sue, did manage to get our photos with another big fish -- this one may look real, but it is decidedly touristy and fake.

This will probably be as close as either of us will ever get again to a big halibut -- I am very prone to sea-sickness so I avoid deep water fishing expeditions, and John said that hauling this halibut up through 220 feet of water was extremely tiring, and an experience he doesn't plan to repeat.

Maybe he'll change his mind when all that halibut is but a fond memory!