Bears and Salmon: The Circle of Life Continues

Alaska brings to mind some very specific images of playful sea otters, graceful humpbacks, sleek orcas, and gangly moose.  For me the majestic grizzly was the one animal I hoped to see up close.  Bears are fascinating creatures, protective, playful, predatory, and pretty.  To be able to observe them in their own habitat without the confines of bars or fences was one of the top items on my Alaska checklist.

Since bear viewing was at the top of Geoff’s list too, I jumped into research mode finding Michelle with Island Wings Air Service.  There was not a negative review to be read about Michelle’s operation, so after having both our parents jump on board, we set aside a large chunk of our vacation money to book a float plane excursion to Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory.  This is not an excursion to book late.  With only 80 passes procured each year, Anan Creek bear watching is for the advance planner.

So nearly one year after booking, we were boarding a van to the Island Wing’s dock where we would meet Michelle before packing ourselves into her DeHavailland Beaver named Lady Esther II.  There is no hyperbole when I say we packed ourselves into the plane which seated our party of six, our bear guide, and Michelle.

IMG_4173

Meet the Lady Esther II

Michelle was a great guide, talking to us about everything from life in Alaska, to her plane, to the bears we were going to see.  She did her best to make us all feel at ease, especially my mother-in-law who is afraid of flying.  Michelle told her that she had the best seat since she had no window to see out of easily.

IMG_3582

Here we go; my first float plane ride.

IMG_4168

Views of Misty Fjords National Monument

20140717_124411

Shaky float plane selfie

IMG_3603

More Misty Fjords National Monument

The 45 minute flight lead us along the outer boundary of Misty Fjords National Monument before dropping us off in Wrangell where we would hike the half mile to the viewing platform.  While the flight was mostly smooth, the tiny confines and bumpy arrival did not help with my motion sickness.  Upon landing and disembarking the plane, my first stop was to the latrine to promptly throw up in the cleanest latrine I have ever seen.

20140717_160432

Not so nauseous anymore

Feeling immensely better, we began the hike to the viewing platform.  The forest rangers at the trailhead reminded us to leave any and all food with them before heading down the path.  We knew not to bring food, so we left nothing.  The hike to the platform was uneventful and our shotgun armed guide pointed out all the signs of bear activity along the route.

We paused to look at salmonberries which bears love to eat, and come to find out so do I.  Ferns and mushrooms covered the forest floor, but no bears were to be seen.  Our guide pointed out bear claw marks and scat, but still no bears.  Anticipation was running high, and I was so hopeful that we wouldn’t be disappointed.  After all we had forked out over two-thirds of our excursion money just on this one trip.

IMG_3630

Our first salmon viewing

IMG_4147

Our guide called this bear bread.

IMG_4151

A bear was here. I’d hate to have a closer encounter with those claws.

IMG_3878

Anan Creek

About a half an hour later we arrived at the viewing point perched on the side of Anan Creek. ¬†As soon as we climbed the stairs to the platform, we were greeted by another forest ranger who motioned us over to the railing to view our first bear–a grizzly.

20140717_134555_Richtone(HDR)

My first grizzly viewing

The bear was beautiful.  His slick fur glistened in the misty air like overgeled hair.  He entertained us like a playful puppy with his splashing and pouncing as he tried to fish for salmon for over a half an hour before catching one to eat.  When he tired of fishing, he wandered upstream running and splashing in the cool creek waters and providing us with the best show.

IMG_3646

Predator spotting his prey

IMG_3649

Going for the kill

IMG_3721

Success!

IMG_3769

Round two

Only after our grizzly wandered upcreek did the black bears feel safe to fish for themselves.  The forest ranger informed us that the black bears don’t like the grizzlies and will hide until they leave.

IMG_3831

Snacks

One by one they started to show themselves.  They climbed out of the trees, from under our viewing platform, and from across the creek bank all converging on the salmon-filled stream.  In those moments, my camera never stopped snapping.  In fact I was so absorbed with capturing their fishing skills on camera, I didn’t notice that a bear was literally inches from me.  The only thing separating me from her was a wooden railing that provided no protection at all.

My own mama bear was watching though and pulled me away from the railing to a safer distance.

IMG_3834

My stealthy companion

IMG_3898

My own mama bear

Our viewing continued for a few hours with Geoff and I taking turns capturing photos and making trips to the photo blind directly on the creek bed.  In the moments when the bears weren’t visible, we focused our attention on the eagles, like winged rats, scavenging the fish carcassas from the shoreline.  And when we grew board of the eagles, there were always the impressive salmon expending their energy to make it upstream where they would spawn then die.

IMG_3853

Perched for the leftovers

IMG_3675

Majestic and beautiful

IMG_3633

IMG_3808

Swim salmon swim

IMG_3931

You can do it!

The highlight of our trip came about forty minutes before leaving Anan Creek.  We were blessed with what the ranger called, a rare appearance.  A mama and her cub came out to eat.  That cub was the cutest thing I have ever seen.  He followed his mom everywhere.  He tried to imitate everything she did including fjording the rushing stream.  Smartly, the little cub realized the rushing waters were too much for him, and he ran around a rock outcropping to meet her on the other side.

IMG_4102

IMG_4100

IMG_4029

His best antic though was his tree climbing. ¬†This little cub could scale the tree quick as lightning, but he hadn‚Äôt quite mastered the descent part. ¬†Stuck, he began bawling for his mama which literally sounded like he was saying, ‚Äúmaaam,‚ÄĚ over and over again.

IMG_4059

Where’s my mom?

IMG_4073

Have you seen my mom?

IMG_4068

Mom?

Somehow mama talked him down and the began to retreat into the forest, but not before a bear fight erupted six inches to the left of the platform.  As mama and cub walked towards the forest, mama did not like something that the male bear did and she charged him.  As the mama bear charged, everyone on the platform retreated to the far side.  We watched in terror and awe as mama bear chased the male bear up the tree that was precariously hanging over the platform and our heads.  Being around wild animals never really frightens me, but my adrenaline was pumping as I was thinking how quickly someone on that platform could easily become bear lunch.

IMG_3944

Don’t mess with my baby!

20140717_150829

Scaredy bear

Once mama had eliminated the threat, she didn’t pay any attention to the petrified humans watching her retreat.

After such a climax, it was time to make our retreat to catch our flight back.  Our guide rounded us up and secured us a passage back to the trail.  We hiked bearless to a new pick-up point up and down the rocky shoreline.  As we heard our plane approach we were a little bit away from the pick-up location, so our 70-year-old guide kicked into high gear, leaving us all huffing and puffing to keep up with him.

IMG_4150

All members present and accounted for

IMG_4145

Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory

Carefully we reboarded the plane smiling as we remembered the seventeen bears we had encountered that afternoon.  Sadly, a short 40 minutes later we were returning to our cruise ship and bidding a fond farewell to Michelle.  Even though the highlight of our trip was over, I will never forget that first glimpse of the circle of life completed by a fishing grizzly on the banks of Anan Creek.   

IMG_3885

IMG_4156

IMG_4155

IMG_3616

Advertisements

An Icy Dream

Seeing a glacier up close had been something I was dreaming about for all of the months leading up to our trip. ¬†And when I saw the fog that morning, I was hoping that it wasn’t going stay a dream. ¬†The fog hovered above Auke Bay as we transferred from the Zuiderdam to our catamaran operated by Allen Marine Tours. ¬†Quickly the Zuiderdam was swallowed by the fog as she sailed on towards Juneau. ¬†We would be meeting up with her in about five and a half hours. ¬†In the meantime, we made ourselves comfortable on the second¬†heated level of the catamaran just in time to see the signature hump¬†of a humpback whale. ¬†Our captain stayed in the area for about 10 minutes allowing the port side to get a fantastic view of the whale before we moved on towards our goal–South Sawyer Glacier.

IMG_2389

Humpback whales are so graceful as they make their way out of the water.

20140714_102419

Good bye Zuiderdam, see you in a few hours.

The catamaran was equipped with padded seats and a pair of binoculars for each passenger.   We sat on the second level which provided quick access to the open air decks, but offered us a place to warm up from time to time.  On the first level there was a galley with complimentary hot chocolate, tea, and water.  Alcohol, soda, and food were for sale as well.

The aqua water was deceiving, reminding me more of warm Caribbean beaches instead of the frigid Alaskan icebergs that were periodically floating along.  One step out of the heated cabin onto the frigid deck ,and I was quickly reminded that I was in Alaska and not headed to some Caribbean island.

IMG_2444

Granite cliffs ending in aqua water that was carved by Sawyer Glacier.

Our entire trip up Tracy Arm Fjord was loaded with scenery.  From waterfalls to glacier-carved mountains, the view did not disappoint.  Our skilled captain maneuvered the boat close enough to the granite rock faces that we could feel the waterfall spray as the water plummeted to the bay below.

IMG_2494

Iceberg dead ahead!

IMG_2432

The sheer granite cliffs allow for hundreds of waterfalls.

20140714_112044

Family waterfall selfie

20140714_112118

Feel that frigid waterfall spray!

As we progressed further up the fjord, the icebergs became more frequent, dazzling us in both shape and color.  The phrase ice blue has new meaning after seeing South Sawyer Glacier and her icebergs that floated down the fjord.

IMG_2548

Harbor seal hanging out in the safety of an iceberg.

IMG_2509

The closer we get, the denser the ice field we have to sail through.

Before we knew it, we were rounding a striated rock face and before us was the glacier.  A tiny shelf in the distance.  Geoff and I decided to climb to the third deck at this time so that we could be on the railing when we arrived at South Sawyer Glacier.    It was in this next  hour that I was so happy for the layers of clothing I brought.  The wind cut through every scrap of clothing i had on.  I spent a lot of time hopping from foot to foot to keep my blood flowing, and even though I was becoming my own type of iceberg, I was not about to give up my prime real estate along the railing for people-free pictures.

IMG_2523

There she is, South Sawyer Glacier

The captain, who had my complete confidence, expertly negotiated the dense ice field bringing us within a quarter of a mile of the glacier face. ¬† While we weren’t rewarded with any calving ¬†here, we were able to see several harbor seals lounging on icebergs. ¬†The star of the show was glacier itself. ¬†Nearly a mile wide ¬†I felt dwarfed by it‚Äôs massive wall. ¬†¬†¬†¬†In the crevasses the blues ranged from lighter shades of baby to deep royal and indigo. ¬†¬†¬†With popsicle fingers and hundreds of pictures, we returned to the heated cabin to enjoy our sail back to Juneau.

IMG_2567

Half a mile away

IMG_2555

Look at those shades of blue

20140714_124729

Leaving South Sawyer Glacier

As we made our way towards Juneau, the ¬†weather, which ¬†was perfect on our trip up the fjord, quickly started to ¬†deteriorate . ¬†That wall of fog we had left behind with the Zuiderdam was waiting for us along with rain. ¬†To pass the time, Geoff and I ¬†shared ¬†a turkey wrap Coke, and caramel corn and watched tiny puffins float by the side of the boat. ¬†The warm cabin, my full belly, and the rocking of the waves put me to sleep on our way back to Juneau. ¬†It was a good thing that the weather was so dreary that even if there was wildlife to spot, I would never have been able to see it. ¬†And just like that, we arrived in Juneau. ¬†I woke up ¬†from my cat nap wondering if the beauty I had just witnessed was truly just a dream. ¬†Thank goodness I have the pictures to remind me it wasn’t .

IMG_2655

The Juneau fog was waiting for us.

IMG_2588

Chilly day, great memories