We finished 3 days in Sitka on Friday. Sitka is definitely our favorite town so far in Alaska. It is the most picturesque of all the towns we’ve stayed at with multiple mist shrouded islands off the mainland and beautiful vistas, a number of excellent museums and wildlife facilities and terrific hiking trails to explore.

A scene on the walk next to the harbor downtown.

The Sitka National Historical Park has a lovely trail with 18 totems collected over the years from around Alaska. The main focus is the history of the area, first with the Tlingit settlements and then the Russians. The pole below is about the battle in the early 1800s between the Tlingit and the Russians, which the Tlingit lost.

At the presumed site of the Tlingit fort.

The Raptor Center for rehabilitation of eagles and other raptors was fascinating. They have a flight training center for the birds large enough for them to live in full time with realistic landscape, openings to the weather and a running stream to mask human sounds so they have as little exposure to humans as possible. They put out lots of dead fish for food so the birds don’t fight with each other. Birds were there recuperating from multiple types of injuries, including one hurt in a bear attack! They also house raptors that are permanently unable to fend for themselves in the wild. I loved the owls.

There is a fish hatchery at the science museum in the downtown area. We got a tour and then saw all the pink salmon leaping in the harbor – apparently the heavy rains has them thinking it’s time to spawn so they are coming in. The hatchery had to close the waterway so the fish don’t come in early.

We also toured the Sheldon Jackson museum with innumerable artifacts and exhibits collected and preserved from all the native groups in Alaska in the late 1800s by this Presbyterian minister. I was impressed with level of detail and artistry in the implements used in daily life for sewing, cooking etc. I was somewhat horrified by the idea of wearing clothes made from fish skin, even if they were waterproof. The most surprising item for me was this complete suit made from oogruk (bearded seal) that was waterproof and somewhat bouyant. It was worn for whale butchering since the whale was left in the water while being harvested. A precursor to our modern dive wear.

Tenakee Springs

We left Hoonah a few days ago and headed down the east coast of Chichagof Island toward Tenakee Inlet. The weather was rainy and the trees were dense on the sloping walls of the island. Often we didn’t see any boats for long stretches of times, and there were no homes at all. It was beautiful. At one point we did see a number of purse seiners all working close together off a point.

The weather picked up and things were getting choppy when we saw at least 10 whale blows near the shore, so despite the choppy waves we stopped and watched for a while. Then we turned into Tenakee Inlet to head to the village of Tenakee Springs.

Tenakee Inlet

I was beginning to think there was no village after all when suddenly the community appeared behind a rock outcropping. The town has about 120 year round residents, and is a vacation spot for folks from Juneau.

The village of Tenakee Springs

We pulled into the harbor and tied up at what we were fairly sure was the transient dock since no one mans the harbor office, and paid at the honor system box. We walked into town to explore. There is a single dirt road leading through the village, lined with some pretty nice homes and in the center of town the key post office, shop and hot springs building. One side of the road is the shore side and the other goes steeply uphill into dense woods, so homes on that side are built into the hills with steep stairs and sometimes tram systems to get supplies up.

The general store – and the stoplight! We didn’t see it turn green.

We walked a long way so did need to use the public toilet.

People were quite friendly and told us about the hot springs – its community run and has been there for many decades, one man said he didn’t think the community would be there if it weren’t for the hot springs.

We all took advantage of a soak the next morning before departing during our respective gender hours. It was great – very hot and relaxing. The water flows at a good pace out of cracks in the rocks around which a cement soaking tub was build, and around that is the building with nice cedar changing room.

Glacier Bay – Sandy Cove

After Blue Mouse Cove we headed further south in the Bay to Sandy Cove.  This area has several islands and coves to anchor in, and shallow shore ledges where whales like to feed.  We anchored in North Sandy Cove and spent the next two days watching incredible amounts of wildlife from our deck and by kayak and dingy. 

During the first evening we were visited by a sea lion who spent a half hour next two our boat surfacing and diving repeatedly and breathing hard, working on something down below. We speculated either there was an epic battle going on underneath us or he was just feeding really hard.   

The birdsongs from land were also the richest I have heard on this trip.  I could pick out at least 10 different songs – although I have no idea what birds they are from.  This was a wonderful difference from some other areas where the crows seem to dominate.  In a previous anchorage they were quite irritating – I want to tell them to let the other birds get a chance!

Larry tried putting down a crab pot in an area two coves over, but we should have known that the presence of curious otters meant there wouldn’t be any crab left.  When we went into the area, one very curious otter watched us and would dive down then surface a little closer to the dingy each time, standing way up in the water – they use their flipper feet to propel their upper bodies up to get a good look at things.  Wished I had my camera.  He finally spent a few seconds just a few feet in front of us looking at us, then dove and swam away. 

Otter buddies

When Larry went to get the empty crab pot the next morning by himself, he had a close encounter with whales.  He was surrounded by two humpbacks surfacing and one breeching very close to him, one on each side.  Nowhere to go but sit and bang on the dingy to make sure they knew he was there.  Humpbacks don’t have echolocation so if you are silent they don’t know you’re there, so advice is to make noise.   

We kayaked around the area watching eagles and other sea birds.  Before dinner we spent an hour out in the Bay in the dingy just watching the whales – they were all around near the shores.     Still quite smoky so I didn’t take much in way of photos – just absorbed it all instead.   

On our last full day we headed back to Bartlett Cove.  On the way we stopped alongside Marble Island  – a sea lion and sea bird refuge.  Boats are allowed within 50 yards so it was easier to get some good photos.  The one thing the photos can’t capture is the noise of the lions barking and grunting and groaning and the birds all calling – it was intense! 

Glacier Bay – Glaciers and Blue Mouse Cove

Back to the Glacier Bay week….

Last Monday dawned even more opaque with smoke.  We could barely see Reid Glacier a mile away.  The weather prediction was for smoke and low winds the next several days. We determined we would press ahead on our plan and see what happens. 

Puffins!  I got my wish – orange beaks appeared in the haze, the two birds floating on the water.  These would be the only puffins we saw during the week. 

We negotiated through many icebergs in Tarr Inlet on the way in to Margerie Glacier, particularly to avoid the smaller chewed up bits from the cruise ship in front of us.  They reflected the sunlight in otherwise murky haze and appear like white beacons in the grey.   

For scale with the cruise ship in front of it

Cracking sounds were fairly frequent but no calving happened while we gazed at the glacier for an hour or so, although some ice did fall. 

On our way out of Tarr Inlet we picked out seals lounging on icebergs, but sometimes what we thought were seals turned out to be very dirty ice.  We really didn’t see any good examples of bergie ice to harvest for drinks this time. 

We then headed into Johns Hopkins Inlet to see Lamplugh and Johns Hopkins Glacier.  Lamplugh was easy to see with very few icebergs around it.   It had a distinct blue tinge and an amphitheater of ice carved out of its’ face. As we approached Johns Hopkins though, the ice in the water became pretty dense and we decided the better call was to turn around rather than risk our propeller. 

By the evening we made our way into Blue Mouse Cove, one of the recommended anchorages encompassed within a grassy and wooded cove made up of two islands and a peninsula.  We anchored alone and woke up alone.  Two cruise ships a day are allowed in Glacier Bay, and a total of 25 private vessels are allowed to be present on any given day, so we have not seen a lot of boat traffic.

Larry spotted a black bear disappearing into the woods in the evening, and I stayed up late listening to whales outside the cove and seeing their spouts.  The greenery around us gave some contrast to the smoky hazy air around us and made us feel like it was not such an apocalyptic landscape.

Glacier Bay: Bartlett Cove and Reid Glacier

After anchoring overnight on the 5th in Swanson Cove, we made our way to the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park and into Bartlett Cove for our required orientation and overnight stay in the Cove, the prelude to nearly a week’s stay in the Bay. 

Since we left Juneau, the smoke in the air has continued to increase.  We are not sure when it will abate – there is no prediction of rain for some time.  But it’s not changing our plans.

The waters in and around Glacier Bay are full of nutrients for whales and other animals and we saw many humpbacks feeding near shore both days.  We could sometimes see half a dozen blows at once.  It was awe inspiring to think of so many large creatures near us in the water. 

Skeleton of Snow, a humpback well known in the area who was killed by a cruise ship in about 2007. Recovered and reconstructed for display.

Glacier Bay really didn’t exist 250 years ago.  The story of how it came to be what it is today is an amazing one of natural disaster and cultural resilience.  In the mid-1700s, the glacier that was way at the top of the area we now call the bay, which was land at the time, suddenly experienced a glacier surge. This means it pushed forward many miles in a matter of days.  The Tlingits described it as “moving as fast as a dog could run”, and scientific evidence has born this out.  They had to pack up their village and escape quickly by canoe.  They re-established in the area 25 miles away across Icy Strait that is now called Hoonah.  There were natural disasters around the world at the same time, including two massive volcano eruptions, that led to the “mini Ice-age” and a couple of years of no summers and no growing seasons.  There are descriptions of how this affected many cultures around the world.  I had heard about the mini Ice-Age but had no idea that volcano eruptions were part of the explanation for it.

Over the subsequent century, the ice in Glacier Bay retreated quite quickly and left the very large bay which exists today.  In the 1920s the Natural Park Service (NPS) created the park after writings from John Muir and others increased awareness of it, but did this without consulting the Tlingits who had resettled summer fish camps in the area. 

Tlingit halibut fishing hook – every part of it carefully designed for weight and balance and to hook the mouth of just the right size halibut.

The Park Service eventually kicked the Tlingits out completely, which led to many hard feelings for decades. However,in the current century there has been a great deal of work between the NPS and the Tlingit to create reconciliation, and we saw several new installations at Bartlett Cove that are part of that. 

Just two years ago the Tribal House opened at the cove.  It is a beautiful example of native carving and artisanship. 

The healing totem pole went up last year to depict that history of the area over the last 300 years and the recent reconciliation between the Tlingits and NPS.  We heard the stories of the pole and the Tribal House at an evening presentation by an NPS ranger and a Tlingit cultural interpreter. 

We left Bartlett Cove the next morning and battled a fierce current over 5 knots in Sitakaday Narrows to make our way north 60 miles up the bay towards the glaciers.  Unfortunately, the smoke was even thicker than the day before.  We could tell there were stupendous mountain ranges around us but could barely see them.  In the afternoon we anchored in Reid Harbor, a mile in front of Reid Glacier.  This glacier has receded far enough that it does not enter the water or calve anymore.   We dingy explored up close to get a good view – the stark gravel and silt landscape around the edges of the glacier was broken up by rushing streams of melt water pouring into the bay.   The walls of the bay were a thousand feet high or more, with a lunar landscape of bare rock alternating with what we could tell was low greenery, but it was so smoky we didn’t get much feel of greenery or blue sky.

Reid Glacier bordered by rocky land
How the distant mountains appeared through to smoke above the glacier.

The highlight of this stay was watching the family of orca with at least two juveniles that entered and spent some time feeding on the opposite side of the cove.  Mom eventually led the group out the mouth of the cove again, leaving us feeling privileged for having seen such a healthy orca group – a real contrast to what we see in Puget Sound.

Final Day in Juneau

Thursday the 4th was a record breaking heat-wave day in Juneau and we spent it outside. After doing a final grocery shopping stop for perishables, we decided to take in some sights.

First we took the Tram above the town to explore Mount Roberts and see the city and scenery from on high. The Tram and the Nature and Visitors Centers are owned and operated by the Tlingits, and we got a slightly different perspective on history and learned more about their culture and how they are reviving it. We did a short hike to a high vista and Father Roberts cross, getting eaten alive by bugs as we did so! The views were worth it.

Looking down on all of Juneau.
Miss Miranda is right in the center of the picture – between the cruise ships and the legs of the Tram.

We took a lunch break and I tried to cool off in the shade- obviously I have some heat acclimatization to do before we get to Mexico! While I was sitting in the shade an eagle swooped onto the dock to grab some scraps.

Just before take off.

Then we set off for Mendenhall glacier late in the day, which was a great choice because the majority of the cruise ship folks had departed the site so it wasn’t awfully crowded. The smoke had started to filter into the air but the view of the glacier and the waterfall next to it were still stunning. We walked the Trail of Time path which had marked where the ice was through the last century – it was quite sobering to stand there in over 80 degree heat realizing that the spot we were standing on, quite far away from the glacier, had been part of the glacier less than 100 years ago.

Mendenhall Glacier

The next morning we headed to the fuel dock to top off before heading north. We were treated to both a cool whale fountain on the shore and actual whales not long after leaving the dock!

Fountain across from the fuel dock on Gastineau Channel
Just outside Juneau!

Tracey Arm and the Sawyer Glaciers

We left “No Name” cove in the morning to travel up Tracey Arm to see the Sawyer Glacier, a tidewater glacier with two arms that can be reached by boat.    The challenge in visiting these glaciers are the icebergs and “bergy bits” that come from calving of the glaciers.  Of these, the bergy bits are actually the bigger challenge, as some of them are clear and very difficult to spot in the water. 

The glaciers are about 25 miles up the Fjord, and to the left is the North Sawyer Glacier, which is often easier to reach.  Sometimes it is possible to also continue on to the South Sawyer Glacier, but on this trip we had heard others say there was too much ice, and friends in past years have not been able to make it in either, so we didn’t have high expectations.

We made it to the North arm easily, only having to slow down once to pick our way through.  Ted and Sarah observed that the route was much clearer than their previous visit in 2014, good for us, but a bad sign of climate change.  We got up to the head of the inlet and there was the North Sawyer glacier rising from the water up the valley. 

It was a magnificent sight…couldn’t find the words to do it justice.  We went in fairly close to get a picture of the boat in front of the glacier, and from our electronic charts, we could clearly see how much the glacier had receded since the chart was made.  You can see the symbol from our boats over the hatched area that represents the glacier.  The green is the radar overlay showing the actual position of the glacier.

After viewing the North Glacier, we decided to proceed down the South arm to see if we could at least get close to South Sawyer. 

A couple of high speed tour boats went by, so it was clear that we could make it, but this time we had to slowly pick our way through in many spots.

  On the way in we saw mountain goats up on a rock outcropping.  

Turning the corner from there, we saw another magnificent vista – the South glacier is much larger than the north and obviously goes through much more calving, reflected by the number of icebergs at the head of the inlet. 

We stopped for pictures again, admired the scene, and then turned around to work our way out. 

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South Sawyer Glacier

All in all a fantastic day… our first opportunity to see tidewater glaciers up close.  Our friend Ted says it was one of their best days on the boat… high praise indeed from these long time Northwest boaters.

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Miss Miranda in front of South Sawyer Glacier

The weather has continued to be spectacular.  No rain, sunny and warm.  The only downside has been the beginning of smoke in the sky, we assume from the forest fires up in the Seward/Anchorage area.  It is nowhere near as bad as what we experienced in the Gulf Islands of BC last summer.

Happy to have made it to see both glaciers!