Monday, August 26, 2013

Rain Finally Brings Relief to Southeast Alaska's Humpback Salmon

If you’re ever in need for rain assistance during a drought, call on us.  Posting our last installment on humpback salmon and low water brought back Petersburg’s traditional rain-washed skies.  The rock outcrops that Karen’s “babies” couldn’t get over because the veil of water was too skinny, became raging torrents that her “babies” couldn’t get over because the terrain was more like a flattened fire hose.

The rain augmented by big tides also brought in even more salmon to the stream that already had more salmon than could spawn successfully.  That brought even more tears to Karen’s eyes as she contemplated all the challenges the salmon had surmounted to get to their spawning ground only to find “no room at the inn.”  OK, they still got to spawn, but not without wrecking the chances of those that came before.

Two years ago these humpback salmon started life as fertilized eggs.  Emerging from the gravel in the spring of 2012, they had bucked the odds just by surviving floods and ice during the winter of 2011/12.  Checking out their new neighborhood, they were quickly swept downstream to face a gauntlet that would cause the toughest Marine to turn ashen with fear.  As they migrated through Frederick Sound out into the Gulf of Alaska seemingly everybody wanted to eat them -- kingfishers, great blue herons, millions of sea birds, bald eagles, gulls, sharks, pollock, halibut, other salmon (especially coho salmon but even some pink salmon), sea lions, humpback whales -- the general rule that pink salmon must learn to survive -- if it’s bigger than you and has pointy teeth, don’t accept it’s invitation to join them for dinner. 

Then, as that genetically programed urge to procreate began to replace common sense, they headed back to where they were born, City Creek.  En route the nets of commercial fishermen (and women), the lures of sport and subsistence fishermen (and women) were added to their obstacle course.  Harbor seals welcomed them at the mouth of City Creek -- perhaps even a bear or two at night.  Whew -- still thousands made it “home” where Karen greeted them with open camera lens.  She even rescued those she discovered stranded in isolated pools when falling tides separated them from their companions but not hungry gulls and eagles.  To her frustration, all turned around and got stuck again.

Thus, during almost daily patrols this past week, Karen documented the arrival and health of her newly adopted “family”  -- surrogates for our recently departed Niko.

It seems like there's "no room at the inn" as humpies completely fill a pool immediately below the torrent leading upstream.

Still a male pink salmon (as distinguished by the hump on his back) struggles to get further upstream.

Rising water after the rain brought in another wave of pink salmon to battle the force of the water to get upstream.

And still more crowd into the stream in a seemingly endless "phalanx" of fish move into the creek.

Only in quieter backwaters does there seem to be any room for more salmon -- areas likely to freeze soid in winter where eggs are unlikely to survive.

Stranded by falling tides in the intertidal zone, Karen rescued this male only to see him swim back to his chosen territory.

When Karen can photograph a pink salmon from directly overhead you know a bear or bald eagle can easily get just as close.  The scratches on the top of its head show the beating these fish take in their struggle to reach their spawning grounds.

Two humpback salmon made obvious by the fungus growing on their backs swim under my boot.  As all species of Pacific salmon reach fresh water, their bodies undergo major physiological changes.  They cease to be able to digest food and lose the protective slime layer on their skin as their immune systems fail.  With no defenses, fungus attacks their bodies.   The mycelia begin consuming Karen's beloved humpies until, after spawning it eventually consumes all but their skeletons.  Thus ends the cycle for this generation of pink salmon.  Ah, but all is not lost.  While this generation has made the ultimate sacrifice, their bodies will provide the nutrients that nourish the next generation which will emerge from the gravel next spring.  Meanwhile carcasses dragged into the surrounding old-growth forest by bears, eagles, land otters and other predators will decay and fertilize the adjacent riparian area forest.  It's yet another of nature's ways to assure the spectacle we are witnessing this summer will continue for millennia to come -- as long as (like my friend John McCabe would say) mankind doesn't screw it up.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Humpback Salmon Put on a Show in City Creek

For many women the sight of a baby brings out nurturing instincts like the word doughnut brings out the secretions from my salivary glands.  Baby animals, except perhaps, venomous cobras, have a similar effect.  But I wonder how many women have similar reactions to migrating salmon -- that is besides Karen.

The situation in southeast Alaska this summer borders on drought -- if you can have a drought in a rainforest.  That equates to minimal quantities of water in streams whose channels are often swollen from bank to bank when salmon arrive.  And they have arrived en masse this summer -- perhaps in record numbers for pink, also known as humpback salmon. 

Streams which normally have small handfuls of pinks are crowded with migrants swimming “shoulder to shoulder” as they struggle to get upstream in waterways barely carrying enough water to float them -- sometimes less. 

One such stream is the romantically named watercourse in Petersburg’s back yard -- City Creek.  On a bicycle ride a week ago I spotted schools of pinks trying to get over rock outcrops which seemed more suited to rock climbing than salmon spawning.  I mentioned it to Karen and in less time than it takes for me to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she was off with her camera. 

Seeing such bright eyed fish valiantly fighting again and again to get over impassible barriers only to be swept back downstream again and again brought Karen’s nurturing instincts to the forefront.  Marveling at their tenacity yet mourning at the seeming futility of their quest has been hard on Karen -- so much so that she has both of us doing the unthinkable -- praying for rain.

City Creek adds a tiny offering of fresh water into Frederick Sound just a couple of miles from downtown Petersburg.

Like commuters in a New York subway station, Pink salmon vie for space in the intertidal pools.

And then like those commuters dashing to get through the subway doors, the salmon scramble to be the first one into the next pool upstream.

Further upstream conditions for migrating salmon deteriorate as only thin sheets of water slide over bed rock.

Still a female humpback salmon struggles to navigate through water so shallow she would need to grow legs to make it.

 Unable to make it to the next pool upstream. a male is swept back downstream.

Again and again.  Note the large hump on the back of this male, thus giving pink salmon their "alter ego," humpback salmon.

Hour after hour, the salmon keep trying to get over the rocks until Karen is exhausted.  Their courage captured her heart.

    Their courage and those eyes brought Karen's nurturing instincts to the forefront.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Humpback Whales Put on a Show in Frederick Sound

Karen and I hunkered down at the bow of Barry and Kathy Bracken’s boat, the Island Dream, focusing on a group of humpback whales perhaps a quarter mile ahead of us.  Drifting on the almost placid waters of southeast Alaska’s Frederick Sound, relishing the warmth of unexpected sun, we were poised to take the essence of a diving whale photograph. 

Suddenly, from seemingly nowhere, (OK -- from deep under the boat) an enormous cetacean body, far longer than the Island Dream rose from the depths with an an explosion of air from it’s blow hole -- close enough that I could have stepped onto it’s back.  After the proverbial “almost jumping out of my skin,” my hasty attempt to focus my camera on such a close object failed.  In retrospect I wish I hadn’t even had a camera at that moment -- that I had just indulged my senses on it’s enormous size, perhaps 45 to 50 feet in length and weighing up to 40 tons.  In seemingly slow motion the whale effortlessly rose, blew and sunk just below the surface as it gracefully moved ahead of the boat.

Barry and Kathy were out for a day of whale watching and had invited Karen and me plus a mutual friend, Bev Richardson, to join them for a leisurely day on the water.  The objective -- whales and indulging in the beauty of this “corner” of Alaska -- if an area in the middle of the ocean close to the “middle” of southeast Alaska can be termed a corner.

Whales seemed to be everywhere that day and Barry, experienced in whale photography, captured some impressive shots.  Karen and I, lacking Barry’s expertise, found ourselves getting a lot of shots of half a whale as the boat rolled and twisted in the ever restless sea.  Still, with over 400 photos between us, we did get some we’re happy with -- enough for Karen to say, “When can we go back?”

Thar she blows!  The sight that sent 19th century whalers hearts racing, the steam from exhaling whales can be seen from a considerable distance.  Similarly, when the boat's engine was turned off and we were looking in another direction, the resonant sound of exhaling whales could be heard far across the Sound.

When humback whales dive their tails often come out of the water as a finale to their show.  At that point you know you have 7, 10 or more minutes to wait for them to resurface after gorging on another gulp of krill -- time to head to the galley to share a snack with your cetacean "companions."

                           Just the scenery alone was worth the trip out into the Sound.

An "island" suddenly rises up from the depths of Frederick Sound.  Boats sometimes collide with humpback whales as their trajectories converge.  Back in 1968-69 I taught school in Juneau.  The next fall I ran into a former student who I knew had spent his summer commercial fishing for salmon.  "How'd the summer go," I queried.  It seems he was having a productive summer until a humpback whale rose under his boat and turned it over.  That ended his season.

Karen took this shot after the whale had passed us.  Notice the blow hole (the whales nostrils) towards the front of its back.

Two diving whales -- a cow and a calf.  You can tell the calf is starting its dive by the arched hump of its back.  The next thing you'll see is its tail and then you know you have time to grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat before you'll see the whale(s) again.

Several days later friends John and Marsha Voelker called.  "The whales are really putting on a show in front of our house."  Karen was free so dashed over to watch an hour of breaching, slapping their pectoral fins, tail throwing and however else they could "show off."  Here's a shot she took from the Voelker's deck right in front of Petersburg.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Bears of Anan Creek

You’ve been there.  The middle of the night at summer camp.  Darkness envelops the world in its nocturnal cocoon, yet you desperately need to get to the outhouse.  Alternatives have run their course and the moment of truth has arrived. Oh, why did they have to construct the privy “a mile away” from your tent?  You aim your flashlight into the trees. The beam almost makes it to the nearest overhanging branches.  Adrenalin courses through your veins as you make the dash knowing there must be a bear behind every tree.

But, mercifully your Guardian Angel came through and there wasn’t -- unless...  What if you had been camping at Anan Creek.  Anan Creek has a big run of pink salmon -- the Alaska Department of Fish and Game escapement goal is 248,680 pinks.  I’m sure glad I’m not the one who has to count them, though.  If it were me I'd probably lose track somewhere around 248,602 and have to start over.  These humpies (a nick name for pink salmon) must navigate through a rapids and falls within sight of the intertidal zone.  For more years than I’ll ever know, black and brown bears have zeroed in on that constriction.  Lots of them.  As a result people have zeroed in on the bears.  Lots of them -- so many that the US Forest Service constructed a viewing platform and started requiring permits for up to 60 people per day. Fortunately they don’t all show up at once or the crowds at the railing would resemble something like track side during the Kentucky Derby.  This year Karen and I added to the throng when we joined Karl and Mary Schneider in booking Summit Charters for the hour and a half run to the Creek. 

In a sense Anan is like a reverse zoo with people restricted to the platform while the bears get to see what we’re up to.  Finding us less interesting, they head for the creek and the thousands of salmon schooled up in and below the rapids.  Anan is plugged with salmon this year so fishing is easy for the bears -- meaning most don’t linger around for visitors to snap that "cover of National Geographic photo."  They just waddle to the creek, grab a fish and, for all but a few alpha bears who “own” the rapids, waddle back into the forest for breakfast, snack time, lunch, dinner -- or could it be to show off their trophies to all their admiring fans on the viewing platform? 

The lagoon at the mouth of Anan Creek, the last place where salmon are safe from bears -- but not harbor seals.

                      Safe from those seals at last, pink salmon swim up Anan Creek.

Actually, a salmon is never safe from the moment it pops out as an egg until it finishes spawning.  This female (that evaded a gauntlet of predators for two years while she traveled thousands of miles) almost completed her life cycle.  Pink salmon females carry between 1500 and 2000 eggs of which only two (one male and one female) need to make it back to the spawning grounds for the population to remain constant. 

A confrontation at the falls.  Who's going to be the alpha bear?  Notice the pile of fish scraps to the right of the photo -- snack time for bald eagles, ravens and crows.  Yum!

Despite the creek being filled with salmon, this brown (grizzly) bear still struggled to master its fishing technique.

                     A sow black bear with two cubs provided great entertainment.

                             Another brown bear poised to nab a passing salmon.

Visitors wait in line to use the outhouse, the only part of the viewing area outside the platform.  The reason for the wait -- notice the black "object" to the right of the privy.

                                    Yes, the line forms behind this Anan resident.