Category Archives: Humpback Whales

Clever Crows and Dancing Eagles

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Is there any color more calming than green? If Aki has an opinion on this, she is keeping it to herself. We just left an intensely green old growth forest and stand at its edge, watching the local crows hunting through rock weed for food. They might be crushing the shells of hermit crabs or figuring out ways of opening tightly closed shells. I’ve seen then rip mussels from pilings, drop them when twenty or thirty feet above a concrete sidewalk, and pick meat from the broken shells.

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Beyond the crows, a small raft of harlequin ducks splash and squeal like toddlers on the playground. Aki, who has little interest in ducks or crows, stands with the posture of someone about to run out patience. She wants to return to the forest. If she expects a dog contact, she will be disappointed. It’s early on a rainy morning after a long stretch of sunny weather. Most of the Juneau trail users are home, happy to have an excuse to stay in their dry homes nursing a second cup of tea or coffee. We won’t see anyone on the way back to the car.

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Calmed by my time in all that rain-washed green, I barely notice a cloud of eagles that hovers over Fritz Cove while we drive down the North Douglas Highway. Twenty or thirty of the big birds jockey for position over a dark spot on the water like gulls over a ball of panicked herring.

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Thinking that they might be drawn to a feeding whale, I pull over to watch. Whales, like Stellar seal lions, are sloppy eaters. Gulls often hover over them, hoping to clean up the scraps. Some the eagles drop toward the water then pull skyward with empty talons. But no bubble-feeding humpback crashes out of the water, maw opened wide.

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The party apparently over, the eagle cloud lifts into the air and moves toward our car. Soon they are circling over my head, performing a dance with moves too complicated for me to understand. Fifty feet away, one mature eagle squats in the road verge looking wet, and to me, a little disgusted with the flying eagles. Is it too old to play or too wise to chase shadows in the water?

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Things Returning

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Let’s get this out of the way. It’s raining. It’s raining for the first time in a week Drops cling to emerging leaves and blueberry blossoms. They soak into Aki’s grey fur. The rain doesn’t slow down the little rain forest dog. She muscles ahead over a low ridge and then leads me down to the beach.

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I was hoping we would see whales or at least Steller sea lions after we leave the woods. But no cetaceans break the surface of Favorite Channel. We normally walk down the beach before returning to the trail. But someone is camping out in a tent. While taking a lesser-used trail to return to the forest, we are surprised by a pair of bickering, red-breasted sapsuckers. So intent on their territorial battle, they don’t notice us until we are only ten feet away.

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When we return to the place the sapsuckers battled, we will have seen iridescent sea anemones jammed together in a tiny tide pool, several sea lions, and our first humpback whale of the year.

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Putting Up Fish

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It wasn’t supposed to be sunny today, but it is. I’m on my friend’s boat heading toward the Auk Bay fuel dock. Aki is home, hopefully stretched out on a sun-warmed section of the floor. Painfully bright light bounces off Favorite Passage and a bank of quick-moving fog. It’s a beautiful monster that could cause the boat to crash onto the rocks if it doesn’t lift. It does. We gas up and head out to the place that has always provided us with salmon for the winter.2

The pass is almost empty of other boats and, as we will soon find out, empty of silver salmon. There are whales—three humpbacks that cruise along the surface feeding on the small fry that usually attract salmon.4

Taking advantage of calm seas, we pull up our gear and motor over to the eastern shore of Admiralty Island where we fall into a line of charter boats trolling for salmon. They are catching lots of pink salmon for their clients. We want to put up the more desirable silvers and drop our trolling lines deep in hopes of getting below the pinks. This works. When we run out of bait we have in the boat four silver-bright silvers that together weigh more than thirty pounds—a good start.3

Silvers, Humpbacks, and Orcas

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The silver salmon are returning to their home rivers around Juneau. Time to put up some silvers for winter even though it is raining. This is bad news for Aki. But she doesn’t sulk when I leave the house burdened down with lunch, a thermos of tea, and heavyweight Scandinavian rain gear.

3We leave Tee Harbor under heavy rain. The captain bounces the C Dory through the south Shelter Island tiderips toward the Point Retreat lighthouse. From there we cruise along the shore of Admiralty Island to grounds that usually offer good fishing. A humpback whale surfaces while we gear up our trolling leaders with herring. The whale, like the salmon, targets herring. Diving on them, the whale tosses its flukes skyward and disappears.2

We boat a pink salmon, a rockfish, and a potbellied silver salmon. Because they don’t freeze well, we release the other pink salmon we hook. Between strikes a trio of orcas appears, seeking the same thing we do—salmon.

Drawn to the blue and caramel

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Posters inviting people to an American Fourth of July celebration usually feature sunlight, fireworks, and attractive legs descending from bathing suits. One inviting Juneauites to our Fourth festivities this year should portray rain falling on soaked streets from clouds that seem to tear themselves apart on the mountainside spruce. If the clouds don’t clear or at least lift, they will swallow tonight’s fireworks. We will peer up into the rain as each explosion paints the gray sky with orange, red, or yellow light.1

Aki doesn’t mind the rain and appreciates that it cuts down on the amateur firework explosions that usually rattle her during the Fourth of July weekend. She would have enjoyed yesterday’s whale watching trip where she would have attracted almost as much attention on the boat as the humpback whales that we watched. Once we saw a stellar sea lion dogging a feeding whale. But my favorite view was of the clouds breaking open above the Chilkat Mountains. They parted, not to dump more rain, but to expose sun and patches of blue. The eyes of every Juneauite on the boat turned from a surfacing whale to the lightening sky.5

This morning it is raining hard as Aki as I start walking up the Brotherhood Bridge Trail. In the first meadow we spot two patches of crushed grass where a bear slept last night. Later I photograph a caramel-color slug feasting on a devil’s club stalk. On a normal day I’d turn away from the slug and search for the bear. But today, under low. gray skies, there is little competition for the lovely slug.1

Bronze Breacher

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Snowflakes, fine as ash from an extinguished house fire, fall on the whale. They settle and then melt on nearby truck tractors, a screaming-red crane, and the concrete slab to which the whale is bolted. The city fathers promise that one day, the bronze humpback whale will breach over a summer garden. It will entice cruise ship tourists to walk a mile down the multi-million dollar sea walk, away from the Franklin Street jewelry stores and Tee shirt shops. But now, the whale breaches in a construction yard, as startling as a sunflower in Antarctica.

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Almost Fogged Out

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The phone rings. It’s the captain. “I’ll pick you up in a half hour.” That gives me plenty of time to ready for what might the last salmon hunt of the year. As I pack, I think of the guy at Tee Harbor who said, “Tomorrow should be sunny and flat calm, lots of fish.” Today’s marine forecast gives further cause for optimism. It calls for calm winds and sun after the fog burns off at 10 a.m. I buy three trays of herring, instead of the usual two at Foodland when the captain stops there for supplies.

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Fog obscures most of Tee Harbor as the captain and I load the boat. We mount the downriggers, ready the fishing poles, and set the herring to soaking, sure that the fog is about to lift. As I bend down to unclip the bow line a couple walks by. One of them says that they are heading home with plans to fish on a day without fog. An hour later, a red Lund skiff emerges from the fog driven by a standing man with the look of an escapee from tragedy. The captain still reverses his old Sea Dory from the mooring and motors us slowing into the thin white wall.

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We find clear skies and sunshine at the mouth of Tee Harbor but fog still obscures most of Favorite Passage. It even covers half of the nearby Aaron Island, where we once caught a brace of silvers just after Dall Porpoise swan under and around the Sea Dory. We find neither fish nor porpoise during the hours we troll around Aaron. But the fog’s slow reveal of sun on nearby islands, mountains and glaciers entertains us during the wait. So did a large raft of scoters and a pair of oystercatchers that flew laps around our boat.

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Finally, the fog lifts enough for us to cross the channel without getting crushed by a whale watching boat. But it still clogs the upper opening of the North Pass, where there should be salmon. We wait for more clearing. When it comes, and we can finally fish the pass, we have little luck. One whale breaks water near our boat, then makes its tail a black silhouette on the painfully-bright sea. A sea lion follows us, snatching each herring that we removed from our hooks when we change bait. Eventually, as a wall of storm clouds builds over the Chilkat Range, the captain catches a male silver salmon. But the wind, that had helped to blow away the fog, is already raising waves in the pass. Its time to start the bumpy ride back to the harbor.