Our National Symbol - Proud and Free
-----Rain forest! The term conjures up steaming jungles with the calls of wild apes as background. Such is the rain forest of Hollywood - a tropical rain forest. Here, in Southeast Alaska, is an equally dramatic rain forest, also smothered by trees and trod by giant beasts - a temperate rain forest. This is the Tongass National Forest.
-----The Tongass National Forest was created in 1907 by Teddy Roosevelt. The forest is Southeast Alaska - covering virtually all the panhandle from The Dixon in the south to Yakutat in the north. It is over 500 miles long and 120 miles wide - and includes over 1200 islands and 11,000 miles of shoreline. Together with Glacier Bay National Park, the Tongass includes more than 95% of Southeast - the other 5% are native lands and communities, some as small as one person.
-----Spectacular wildlife lives within, and adjacent to, this rain forest. Since much of Southeast is coastal water, it is important not to forget that the most abundant (and tallest) plants are largely hidden from view in the sea. Tall kelp forests cover the near shore, seaweeds choke the shoreline, and phytoplankton colors the water.
A Forest of Seaweed
Marine Plants Yield to Terrestrial
-----The algal profusion of the sea merges upward into the botanic exuberance of the land.
-----Much of the forest is virtually impenetrable to humans, so crowded are the trees and undergrowth. The rainforest is lovely - dark and deep. Moss festoons the trees and rocks. This is truly the Plant Kingdom. An individual - plant, animal, or human - is overwhelmed by dark greenness.
Dark and Deep
-----Grass blankets the rocks where the forest is opened, such as near the shoreline, in avalanche scars, and where loggers make clearcuts. Now this isn't grass like in your front yard - this is GRASS. It grows tall enough to hide a bear, and only they mow this lawn - gulping vast mouthfuls of green sustenance.
Grass as High as a Bear's Eye
-----Where light can penetrate to the forest floor, flowers grow in abundance. You can almost watch them grow during the long days of summer light.
-----Everything here eventually turns green. It is a constant battle - man against plant - and the plants will, in the end, win. Even boats eventually yield.
-Outside this Power Boat ------Inside this Sailboat -- Yuk! ------Going...Going...Gone!
Once a Home - echoing to childrens laughter, adult sobs -- the focus of hope and locus of disappointment -
----- The forest is usually silent - every drop of water dripping from moss unto a limb or rock startles you. The crack of a twig strikes alarm - as much as a rifle shot. If there is a sound in the forest, it is usually a bird. And that is often the mournful long buzzing trill of a Varied Thrush. ----- zzzzzzzzzz- zeeeeeeeez ---- zuuuuuuuz--zaaaaaaaaz ----- Each note a slightly different pitch than the last. The bird itself is seldom seen, secretively nestled in the branches or against a trunk.
----- Jays (Canada and Steller's) are sometimes heard, with their sharp cackles and yacks. Steller was a naturalist who accompanied the forlorn and broken Vitus Bering on his search for Bolshaya Zemlya, The Great Land. In his few hours ashore on the mainland of the New World, Steller collected and named dozens of new species, including the noisy, metallic-blue Steller's Jay.
----- Fish crows patrol the shore but Ravens are the kings. Aggressive, playful, vicious, clever - the hero of many a Native myth. It is the Raven who brought light to the world, who guided The People to their land of abundance, who captured the radiance of the moon, who opened the paths of the river to the sea, … One of the most prestigious Tlingit clans is that of the Raven.
----- The fish-eaters also hustle the shores. Great Blue Herons patrol the shallows and the docks. There's fish aplenty. We are often strartled by their sudden squawks of alarm and protest when we walk the shorelines or docks.
----- Belted Kingfishers, our Halcyon namesake, sit on pilings and docks studying the water for movement. Their rattling calls punctuate the silence of our dockside evenings.
The Original Halcyon (Ceryle alcyon)
----- Surely, the most useful bird, for us, is the Gull. Here one sees various species, but they all share one habit. They sit on logs drifting at sea. We refer to them as our "flying buoys" marking navigational hazards.
Navigation Marks -----
----- There are many varieties of swimming birds - dabblers or divers - near shore or oceanic - salt water or fresh. They are interesting to watch and identify, although difficult to photograph. Murres, Murrelets, Guillemots, Auklets, Scaup, Scoters, Mergansers, Harlequin Ducks, Goldeneyes, Loons and Mallards add diversity and a splash to cruising life. Listening to the mournful calls of loons at twilight, following dumpy little flappers with our boat, approaching little fluffs on the water only to see them leap into a dive at the last minute under our bow, watching mergansers collectively thrash the water herding fish - water birds are the frosting on a beautiful cake.
----- I was new to Alaska, and it was my first day teaching school in Craig. My pupils were hard at work on their lessons, heads down and pencils scratching. My classroom had large windows, and suddenly my eye caught motion outside. A magnificent Bald Eagle flapped languidly toward school and landed in a tree directly outside our window. "Look," I yelled, excitedly. "It's an Eagle - right outside - see him?" Not a head moved or a pencil stopped. "Look! Look!" I shouted to get their attention. Finally, one head turned and looked out the window. The pupil grinned at me. "It's just an Eagle," he said and continued his writing. - a friend.
----- Yes, here in Southeast, eagles are "justas." As pigeons are to cities or robins to lawns in the Lower 48, Bald Eagles are to Southeast. Not a day has passed without seeing and hearing eagles. Perched, their white heads shine against the dark greenness of forest like gleaming marshmallows flowering on black limbs.
----- Perhaps the greatest surprise to newcomers is their call. Hollywood has imprinted us to the fierce, wailing scream of an eagle - only most of us don't know that Hollywood, when picturing a diving eagle, dubs in the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk. Bald Eagles have a prissy, warbling, complaining, and piercing variety of whistles, more suited to a Budgie than an eagle. But, even if their voice is dubbed and locals relegate them to "Justas," they are fascinating to watch. They are adept fishermen, marvelous thieves stealing offal from gulls or bears, and magnificent fliers. Their fierce yellow eyes and hooked beaks make up for their wimpy whistles.
----- Just as the sea teems with plants, so it does with animals - in fact, because the sea has abundant plants it has abundant animals. The base of the food chain lies in the ocean. Phytoplankton, drifting minute plants, use sunlight as a catalyst for photosynthesis, and fix minerals into organic molecules that become food to nurture all the life of the sea.
-----Anemones line the docks. Jellyfish, of great variety, are so abundant that it is difficult to avoid scooping one up in a bucket when washing off the anchor.
----- We walked the shorelines of streams and rivers in July during the spawning run of the salmon, returning from their years at sea. The surface of the water roils with the frenzied thrashing of huge fish. Millions of tons of fish flesh, nurtured on those organic molecules created from rock by the photosynthetic effort of those uncountable zillions of phytoplankton, move bodily from the sea to the land - to spawn and die. There are ecologists who believe that without the salmon there would be no rainforest in Southeast. Certainly the productivity of the forest, and all its complex of plants and animals, is nurtured by fish flesh - it is the salmon's "gift from the sea."
----- One of the pleasures of cruising in Alaska is the companionship of Harbor Seals in virtually every remote anchorage. Sitting in the cockpit reading or sipping a sundowner, we would often have that intuitive feeling of being watched - and we usually were. Somewhere nearby, from within a small circle of water, a shiny wet head with dark eyes would be studying us with great curiosity. At one anchorage, near a small rocky island, there were only a few furtive heads to be seen the first night. By the second evening, accustomed to our presence, the rocks were teeming with seals - flopping, arguing, sleeping - going about their daily business. When a cool evening wind sprang up, replete with cold misty rain, it was interesting to watch them all slowly migrate to the lower protected lee shore - sheltering behind the same rock we used for our shelter.
----- But for pure joyful companionship, there is nothing like a playful gang of Dall's Porpoises. We spotted a bunch hanging out in the West Behm terrorizing the odd salmon and enjoying a few for lunch. We chugged over to join the party - and my - did we all have fun. They went bow-ridiing. For variety, we tried different speeds through the water - and soon discovered that 20 porpoises are much faster than our 80 horses. They were most happy on our bow wave at about 6 knots, with our trim tabs fullly down to make the biggest wave mound. El sat in the bow watching the white-sided torpedoes flash across our bow. Finally, they tired of the game and the largest porpoise riding directly ahead of El, gave a mighty splash with his tail, soaking the windscreen and El. With that final hurrah, they went cruising back to their afternoon chore of fishing.
----- The Orcas, on the other hand, were all business. These guys are truly the wolves of the sea. They hunted in a pack, and their rushes after quarry were impressive in their ferocity. Perhaps they would also take out time to play, but we never observed this - just the concentration on the hunt.
----- Perhaps it is best to start with the little guys. Not very impressive, you say? Well, the no-see-ums live up to their name and defy photography, and we had no mosquito problems whatsoever, but here's an actor that can take a chunk out of your hide. Fortunately, these big "Greenies" (look at those eyes!) are slow - just don't give them a chance for a bite. A "flock" of these guys might grab you and haul you away to their cave for slow munching - now that's enough for a nightmare, right?
----- There are many Sitka Black-tailed deer. They hang out in the open ground where there are shrubs and grass for grazing. Most were not concerned about the presence of the boat. They seem to check us out with a bored glance, and then continue with lunch.
----- Moose are a prized game animal for hunters in Alaska. Consequently, they are generally wary. This one we caught swimming across a glacial stream and were able to get quite close.
... AND BEARS, OH MY!
----- ----- We had been watching the shores for bears since arriving in Southeast. This is the first one we saw, from the comfortable distance of our anchor in a bay.
----- Now it is quite one thing to have the relative security of a moat of salt water between you and a first order predator, but a totally different experience to be walking on the same turf with the "wild in fang and claw." We were on photo safari in Zimbabwe and Botswana just before starting our cruising on Halcyon, and our guide thought we would have the opportunity for more natural wildlife photos if we were on foot. He toted his rifle and we toted cameras, and we hoped that he would be calm under duress -- especially since he appeared to be much more fleet of foot than we are. We did take some marvelous close pictures of a pride of lions, and some of a solitary bull Cape Buffalo (our guide was far more wary of the buff than the lions). The photos, however, were somewhat blurry due to the shaky camera ... and we make no apology.
----- By July of our Alaska cruise, Salmon were running in Alaska streams. Bears were giving up on the vegetarian diet of grass and heading to the streams for some fish protein. Once again, we figured our photos might be more natural if we were afoot. So, with our trusty flare pistol in our dry bags and camera slung over shoulder, we set out to seek the mighty bear on his own turf ... and found them. The Forest Service blind at Anan gave us the best photographs -- at least the pictures are the least blurry.
----- -We rowed the dinghy to shore and saw bear tracks in the mud of the intertidal zone. Walking the trail, we found that bears had been there also, a short time before.
----- -We sang songs (Bill's singing is enough to drive away most anything) and jingled a bear bell. However, we also remembered a tale told to us by an old Alaskan:
----- Do you know how to tell the difference between the scat of a Grizzly and that of a Black Bear? Nope? Well, the one with the bear bell in it came from a Grizzly.
----- -At the falls, the fish were concentrated and so were the bears. We stayed for hours watching the drama. The Brown Bears (Griz) were certainly the top of the food chain, and the Black Bears were wary of them - we had heard from local folks that Brown Bears enjoyed Black Bears -- medium raw. The young Browns were, on the other hand, very cautious when an adult Black Bear arrived at the scene. There was a clear pecking order amongst all the animals of any one species -- with an alpha Brown in charge of his crew, and an alpha Black the boss of his mob. Even the Eagles and the Ravens had there own 'pecking order,' well understood and respected by all the underlings. It was a fascinating time at Anan Falls.
El in the Blind, and Close Enough
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