Thursday, August 30, 2012

Haines - if you want to live in Alaska, look here!
Driving to Haines - better stop for coffee in order to take this in
It is the nature of Alaska that you constantly alternate between mountains and fiords, so next we find ourselves in Haines after driving what must be one of the most scenic roads in Alaska (and that’s saying something). Another fishing community trying to find a new balance between fishing and tourism. Currently, it is retaining all of the features that attract people from elsewhere. Unfortunately it is these very visitors who then expect more and, in so doing, destroy what it was they came for in the first place. 

Downtown Haines from across the fiord
It’s very apparent that we are now entering the northernmost realm of rain forests - luxuriant vegetation of spruce and other coniferous trees interspersed with patches of deciduous forest with a dense understory that provides the shelter and berries that black bears particularly seem to love. 

View across Chilkoot Lake from the campsite
The town itself very much retains the feel of a fishing town with its weatherboard houses overlooking the fiord (whilst being overlooked by the snowy mountains above) with the cruise ships in the port not quite managing to destroy the ambiance of the fishing fleet that put their nets out each day.

Chilkoot restaurant
Yet again we camped with stunning views, this time across Chilkoot Lake where we put the kayak in once again. Later, in our ongoing search for bears (we’re not bored with them yet) we found ourselves on a road bridge overlooking a river under which the spawning salmon were passing when a brown bear appeared at one end. As the fishermen retreated it inspected their gear and picked up and discarded one of their jackets (obviously the wrong size) and then, before anyone had a chance to react, it was on the bridge with us  onlookers. We retreated to one side as it made its way down the other and carried on its business on the other side of the river. 
Damn - who left the bones in this fillet?
The Inside Passage - the Alaska Marine Highway to Canada

From Haines we boarded the ferry to take the marine highway southwards. As we left port at dusk the cloud set in, obscuring the view, so we retreated to the bar for gin and tonics for the four hour trip to Juneau, the only US state capital (with the exception of Hawaii) not connected by a road system. Arriving well after dark (yes the days are now long enough to have real dark!) we found our campsite closed so we parked in an adjoining parking lot, awakening the next morning to find ourselves next to a beautiful lake with floating icebergs and a waterfall and glacier at the other end.  Consequently we had little choice but to put in the kayak and set off to explore the vista before us. 

Mendenhall Lake, glacier and falls
I'm well thanks, and you?
Sailing Tracy's Arm
The following day promised some sunshine so we jumped aboard a boat going to Tracy’s Arm, a side fiord off the main channel on which  Juneau was located. After an hour’s cruising we entered the gorge that was Tracy’s Arm and made our way up a narrow winding fiord beneath towering cliffs with cascading waterfalls and past flocks of thousands of black scoters and icebergs which became more abundant as we made our way up the narrow chasm. Finally, we came to a tortured and fractured glacier that was attempting to squeeze through a rocky cleft narrower then the valley above where the vast mass of ice resided. 

As we watched ice crashed and tumbled from the face of the glacier, creating swirling currents that stirred the mass of ice floes upon which dozens of harbor seals had taken up residence. 

A day at the beach - Alaska style

Ice jewels...

A slice through time - a glacial view of history
Our next hike took us towards Herbert Glacier, just north of Juneau, yet another mass of ice that moved simultaneously downwards from the top and upwards from the bottom, with the rate of the latter outstripping the former. The signs of this retreat became evident as we marched towards it, starting out in towering spruce trees of substantial girth. As we progressed however, it became apparent that the trees were getting shorter and thinner in a very regular sequence, with 500m distances revealing a noticeable change in the size, and hence age, of the trees - a clear measure of the time since the icy fingernails of the glacier were dragged backwards up the valley.

The base of the glacier was surrounded by recently exposed rock and a broad rocky stream that gushed with newly melted water. As I was about to head back down I noticed, on the other side of this river, a lone hiker who was clearly intent on making a crossing of the fast flowing waters, which were at their peak at the end of the day. Being the only other person around, I figured I’d better keep watch in the event that he got into trouble. After managing the first couple of channels he finally came towards the outermost part of the river where the flow was fastest and strongest. I positioned myself further downstream on the outer-side of the river in the spot I figured we would be washed past if he went in. And sure enough, in he went! The current took his feet from under him and, pack and all, he was suddenly in the icy water. Fortunately he was younger and fitter than he was smart and managed to stroke his way to the bank and struggle ashore. His hiking pole swept by me, inches out of reach, which may well have been his trajectory as well if he hadn’t made it ashore. Apart from being shaken and chilled, he said he was fine. Fortunately he had put most of his clothes in his pack and they had stayed dry so he had something warm to get into. So I left him to dry out and made my way back through time. 
Meanwhile, another tussle has commenced. This time, whoever is the commander-in-chief of leaves has noticed the shortening of the days and has instructed the chlorophyl troops to commence their retreat, leaving the orange and red carotenoides and anthocyanins to hold the fort, their fiery hues gradually beginning to signal their increasing dominance. As such, it is also time for us to retreat as we continue our way south, trying to catch up with the summer that we don’t seem to have encountered in these northern climes. 

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