I’m into my third week as a full time whale watch captain, after working the past 7 seasons as a one or two day a week captain. Unlike the part-time job, now it’s a real job. I’m at the wheel 7 to 9 hours a day traveling at near 30 knots most of the time, in addition to pre-trip preparations and post-trip cleaning and fueling. Never thought I’d be doing this but here I am. I offered to work full time for a captain that wanted to work half the season before attending grad school. I agreed, even though she was going to Ole Miss……
There’s a huge humpback whale female named Barnacles who has a calf called Acorn this year. The whales are identified by the unique underside of their tail, which serves as their finger print. During my first week of work, as we were watching the two of them from a comfortable (and legally required) distance, Acorn decides she needs to check out my boat after her mother dives to feed. When whales approach your boat, the guidelines say you should put the boat in neutral until the whale goes by and is again at a distance of at least 100 yards. Well, Acorn comes right up to the side of the boat, and is looking up at us. With the windows open, it’s literally blowing into the window. By now, I’ve not only got the engines in neutral, but turned off. Then Acorn swims under the boat and looks into the other side of the boat. Now, I’m really nervous, despite the fact the 70-something year olds on the boat are just looking out the window at this calf at almost arms length thinking this must be what whale watching is like. Sort of like someone taking a photo of a brown bear coming down the sidewalk to them. All I can think of is – I’m going to jail. Even though I followed the guidelines I’m mandated to and didn’t approach these whales – the calf came to us – I thought this is like a guy with one leg of pantyhose over his head suddenly dropping a bag of money in your lap. You have the money. You didn’t steal it. But it doesn’t look good. The guide on the boat was brand new. He and everyone except me was ecstatic. “This is the best trip ever”…
Then mom showed up.
Right next to her calf.
Her nose and her calf’s nose right next to the boat.
Barnacles is one of the biggest whales in our area. Some 50 feet long. Now jail time was a distant memory. With two whales literally blowing into the boat I’m thinking: we’re all gonna die. Mom is going to think the boat is a threat to her calf and ram the boat. I was really glad I’d shut off the engines earlier. Maybe she’ll just think we’re some flotsam.
Mom showed no signs of alarm. After both of them blew a few times, nose to the boat, and looking at us, they simply submerged and swam under the boat. They casually surfaced on the other side and mom seemed to escort her calf away from the weird surface beings.
Fast forward about 10 days and I’m on another trip. It’s late in the day – about 8 pm – and I’m at a spot where normally there may be many boats watching whales and fishing for salmon and halibut at the north end of a long narrow island about 10 miles long. At this hour on this day, though, there’s just my boat, another whale watching boat, and a local watcher in his aluminum boat. We were watching two whales.
These two whales turn out to be one Barnacles and Acorn. Then it starts. First Acorn, and then her mother. Breaching. Jumping clean out of the water. Then one would slap it’s tail on the water. And then the other would. I’d never seen this behavior from a cow and calf. Normally, we’d see a calf slapping its tail or its lonnnnnng pectoral fins on the water, and also maybe breaching. I always thought this was the calf signalling to its mother who had left it to feed to come back. But to see both the calf and its behemoth 50 foot mother doing this was new to me. And just the three of us boats watching it at sunset. Wow.
Yesterday, the same thing happened. Only at the south end of the same island. But the same two whales and the same behavior. It all happened by chance that I even saw it. Normally, I travel up the east side of the long island to the north-end location where I expect to see whales, but this time I went up the west side as I’d had a tip there might be whales bubble netting. As we traveled along the southern tip of the island, I see a huge splash a mile or two away. That usually can only mean one thing – a whale just breached. I changed course for the splash, and as we got closer, we could see a calf breaching. When we got about a quarter mile away, both a cow and a calf were regularly breaching. Sometimes in unison. Barnacles and Acorn again. Of course, the passengers and guide were totally captivated. I tried to keep the boat positioned so everyone could see well. More importantly, I was trying to keep my distance as the whales will dive before they breach, and you can’t exactly tell where they will come out of the water. This is one time you have to pay full attention so you keep a good distance so as not to endanger yourself. 50 feet of flying whale is nothing to mess with. After awhile, the boat is rocking pretty good. The splash from an 80,000 lb marine mammal makes a substantial wake. Long days of driving, but it could be worse.
The candle is officially lit at both ends. I’m back to working full time as a whale watch captain. I took over for a friend who is going to grad school. I wish her luck, despite her selection of Ole Piss. I mean Ole Miss.
My days off from boat driving are Wednesday and Thursday. With scouts on Wednesday evening, I won’t have any chance for overnight trips elsewhere till the end of the season in late September.
Roy emailed and said the cherry trees in Haines were overflowing like never before. They’d picked what they wanted, and I was welcome to the rest, and would be good if I came sooner than later so he didn’t have to keep telling others no. I got tickets for the small plane to Haines for Thursday.
Roy’s brother Ron was finishing his trip here and headed to see his granddaughters in Fairbanks Thursday morning. I drove him to the airport, parked the car, and went to my terminal. It’s a pure delight flying the small air carriers. No TSA. No luggage screening. No nothing. Just say hello, leave your luggage, and we’ll call you when we’re ready. On this trip, I even knew the pilot.
The flight from Juneau to Haines on a calm clear day is spectacular. Mountains come right down to the water on both sides of Lynn Canal, with many glaciers, small lakes at the end of the glaciers, and then waterfalls that tumble for hundreds of feet down to the ocean.
About a half hour later, I arrive in Haines, where Roy picks me up. We have coffee. Brenda leaves for work when I take Roy to the airport to start his week of forestry work down near Wrangell. Then it’s just me and the cherry trees.
I brought four 5-gallon buckets and a berry rake with me. The most cherries I’d ever picked was 10 gallons with Andrew, but I wanted to be ready just in case. When I had over 5 gallons by noon, I knew a record was in the making. Brenda came home at lunch time, and we went downtown to eat after she pitted a small pail of cherries and loaded her dehydrator.
We returned an hour later and I continued picking. By 4 pm I had picked another 5 gallons. By now, I had picked all the low hanging fruit I could reach from the ground, and was now using a step ladder to get the higher cherries. At 630, I had four more gallons, and it was getting difficult to reach some of the higher berries so I called it a day. At the airport, the cherries weighed out to 100 pounds. On the trip home, I sat in the same seat as I rode up on, so saw the other side of Lynn Canal, and it was just as spectacular.
Sara was glad to see all the cherries. Jeanne’s sister Deanna and her husband Albert were here with Ron fishing last week, and the two of them went to the cabin with me to pick berries. We picked blueberries and blue huckleberries and a few red huckleberries. We got about 7 gallons. I was surprised when they didn’t want any to take any berries with them, so we got them all. I’ll send them some jam from the recipe I used with Eaton. Sara spent the next day cleaning the berries, and we vac packed them in twenty seven four cup packages. We’ll pack the cherries whole in similar packaging and remove the pits when we use them.
The summer here has been hot and dry. It’s been in the 70’s and 80’s here. The interior of Alaska has seen lots of rain and flooding. Just the opposite of what the climate is supposed to be. The berries seem to like it. But the salmon won’t if there’s not enough water in their streams here to spawn.
This is my 8th season driving a whale watch boat. A couple of the humpback whales have been returning since I started, and one has a calf this year. Three other whales have calves as well. It’s the most any can remember. Whales can be identified by their unique tail shape and markings. Some tails are all black on the underside. Some virtually all white, and some have varying degrees of white and black. The first seven years I worked one, or at most, two days a week. Working full-time is a real job. Eight to 11+ hours a day, including prepping the boat before the first tour and fueling and washing the boat after the last tour. The days fly by. Most tours are different depending on whale location, water conditions, and the tide. At low tide we can see critters like harbor seals that haul out. Sometimes I switch routes if patches of the water have rough seas. If killer whales come through the area, we my be able to reach them in the two hour and fifteen minute tour once or twice but by the third trip they are too far away. Life and the seas are always changing out the boat cabin window.
I took my nephew to our cabin for the second time this week. Yes, he’s on his electronic game or whatever it is all the time he’s in the house. But when it’s time to go outside – to the cabin, fishing, etc – he leaves them at home and doesn’t go through withdrawals without them.
We pulled the king crab pot we’d set down Chatham but no luck. We caught a couple of undersized tanner crab and the door was partially open on the pot. We fished for a couple hours and no salmon. When we got to the cabin anchorage and checked our dungy pots, we had one. So at least the dinner menu for Eaton was decided.
We walked in and I put the crab on to steam. Eaton was immediately at home at the cabin now. The outhouse doesn’t phase him. Nor lack of electronics. He inhales half the crab, as he’s now much quicker at picking the meat out of the shell.
He asks me if I’ll give him the cabin when I die. Maybe, I say. It’s not just up to me. He understands about marriage and decisions and all. Then he starts counting out loud about how old I’ll probably be when I kick the bucket and how old he’ll be when he gets the cabin. It’s kinda creepy.
What do you want to do on your last day in town tomorrow, I ask him. All the fun stuff to do, he says. Like what, I ask. Swimming. Check the crab pots. Maybe fishing. An easy kid to have along. He tells you when he’s hungry. You ask what he wants to do and he actually thinks about it and gives an answer other than “I don’t care” or “I don’t know”. He wants to be here.
I get up early the next morning and start picking berries. When I return after a half hour of picking for some coffee, Eaton is up and making pancakes. This is his first time cooking them, and they are perfect. We put lots of Dul’s maple syrup from Bolivar, NY on them. Then Eaton says he wants to make blueberry jam for his dad, so we go back out and pick more berries.
We check the dungy pots on our way out and have one more keeper. Then we fish for an hour and a half and get one bright chum salmon. When we get home, I have a couple king salmon from Chris to butcher. One is for Ron and one to send home with Eaton.
That night, we made the jam. Blueberry jam is simple: crushed berries and sugar. Blueberries have enough pectin to jell the jam. We were out of sugar. I ask Eaton if he wanted to go and he said “nah”. Then I said there was ice cream involved, and he was soon ready. We got our sugar and ice cream at Costco. I put the food processor together and we fed the berries in to crush them. Eaton measured the mash. Then we did the math of how much sugar we needed based on the ratio in the recipe, and he measured the sugar and added it to the pot with the berries. I read him the part of the recipe about stirring constantly to keep the jam from scorching, and Eaton stirred the jam until his arm hurt.
He tasted the jam as it thickened, and each time got more excited because it tasted so good. He knew his dad would love it. When it was finally ready, we poured it into the half pint jars. He cleaned the jar mouth, and put on the lids and rims. While the boiling bath was heating, we made another smaller batch of jam with the red huckleberries, and by the time that was done, the boiling bath was about ready. We were able to can the 10 half pints in one batch, and Eaton was pleased with the result. He put each jar in a ziploc bag, then wrapped it in a piece of clothing in his suitcase for the trip home.
I picked my youngest nephew (10 years old) up from his first flight traveling solo at 8:30am. His mother – my youngest sister – traveled with him from Rochester, NY, and put him on the plane from Seattle, and she traveled to Portland for a meeting. By 11am we were on the water. We set dungy crab pots at our cabin anchorage, then ran down Chatham Strait and set a king crab pot I’d bought the night before from a friend of a friend. Then we went fishing. We had a few strikes and caught a pink salmon. Then we got a nice coho, and Eaton played it just right and landed it – his first salmon.
Just as I put the gear back in the water, I looked behind the boat to see a line of smokestacks. Nine adult humpback whales were headed our way side by side. We got out of their way, and watched them bubble net feed up the shore line for the next hour. We headed back to spend the night at the cabin, and as we got to our anchorage, I saw a bear feeding on grass on Admiralty Island. Eaton was fast asleep but I finally shook him awake, but he was not as impressed as I’d hoped.
We pulled one of the pots and got one keeper – enough for dinner. He thought he could eat a whole crab but he didn’t quite make it so I finished it off. We slept hard that night. Eaton was so quiet I couldn’t even tell which of the top bunks he was in. The next morning we picked blueberries, blue huckleberries and red huckleberries around the cabin for putting in our pancakes. After breakfast, we left for town, as I needed to get a part for my outboard because it wasn’t charging the battery. As we motored over to check the crab pots again, there were porpoises in the little bay. All around us. Right next to the boat. We pulled the pots and caught 3 keepers.
When we got home, Eaton was happy to have crab for lunch as I called around town for the part I needed, and then around the region, and finally found it at Rocky’s in Petersburg. He’s sending the part up on the morning jet. Eaton’s first 24 hours in town will be hard to beat.
Late June to mid-July 2019
I went on an extended trip back east to a high school reunion, family reunion, and extended family trip to the Georgian Bay in Ontario. I must admit it’s my least favorite time of the year to travel there, as the weather is too hot for me. But the family reunion was when it was, and I didn’t want to miss it, and I was able to do a trip to my hometown and a trip to Canada on either side of the family reunion so that was a bonus. The weather was hot as usual in July. 80’s and 90’s everyday. I wore shorts when I could but for extended outdoor stays I had on long pants and long sleeve shirt to avoid sunburn. But Alaska wouldn’t have been an escape this year. It was in the 80’s in Juneau, and 90’s in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The high school reunion in our town isn’t really graduating year specific. It’s called “alumni weekend” and occurs the weekend of the high school graduation, which is obsenely late in NY on the last weekend in June. Bolivar hasn’t changed much since I grew up there – except for the better in a few ways. There’s now a big convenience store, hardware store, and Dollar General store downtown, along with the grocery store, so you can get alot of what you need without traveling to Wellsville or Olean. My friends Kelly and Lois have spearheaded an oil field museum as well, as our town area was among the earliest oil production in the US. There’s only 2 bars left in town – within sight of each other (I guess about every business is in sight of each other, now that I think of it) – so you don’t have to go looking far to see who’s in town. What’s changed the most, of course, is that I used to know the occupants of most houses in my little town, and those have nearly all changed now as people move or pass on and a new generation takes over. The spirit of the town seems the same and that’s good. I saw one of my best friends growing up I’d not seen in some 30 years who lives on a hollow out of town in his grandparents house, along with several other school mates and their parents.
The family reunion had a pretty small turnout and sadly, many that lived in the area didn’t attend. When we had the first reunion about a decade ago, I remember thinking at that time that this was the reunion that would probably be the best attended in my lifetime, since many of the surviving siblings of my mother might not be around much longer, and I was right. My dad is the lone member of the siblings or their spouses now still living, and the cousins have less of a tie to each other than each of us did to our parents, aunts and uncles, I guess.
We went to Canada after the reunion. I went with a sister, niece, and nephew and a pile of first, second and third cousins. I brought along my little 5 hp outboard I leave with a sibling for just this trip, and took whoever wanted to go out fishing everyday in the leaky aluminum skiff that lives at the boat house near the cabin. My uncle and his brothers purchased the island and had a log cabin built on it about 70 years ago, and although it’s had repairs, the cabin is largely the original. There are propane lights, fridge, water heater, and cook stove, and we fill a water tank with bay water using a gasoline water pump to gravity feed a kitchen sink, bathroom sink, toilet and shower. Most everyone bathes in the bay. From the cabin, there’s not another cabin in sight. The islands are covered here and there with a thin soil and scraggly spruce and hemlock trees cling to an existence. The tallest ones may be centuries old but only 30 feet high and 16 inches in diameter. Literally hundreds of different extended family and their friends have been to this place over 7 decades.
Most don’t come to fish at all like I do, but to swim and ski and just enjoy the place. Sara loves going. She loves to swim and takes the kids swimming from island to island. She had to miss it this year as she’s now a state legislator and the legislature was still in session.
Fishing was good. We caught about 30 bass and a couple nice northern pike trolling with rapala-type floating lures. We kept a few for a fish fry my last evening and all 12 of us enjoyed the bounty from the bay.
The weather was sunny and hot most days, with a spectacular lightning show and shower my last evening. Mosquitoes come out at sunset, but few other biting flies like deer flies or horse flies were around this trip. The day before we left the island, I saw a mississagua rattlesnake on the trail with my cousin’s husband John the day before I left. May be the only rattler I’ve ever seen. It was about 3 feet long and as big around as my thumb. Not menacing at all. He gave us a few warning buzzes, never coiled, and we left him to go on his way. The last morning, after the storm, a black bear was rattling around the boat house where I was sleeping at sunrise, then looked over the sack of recycle trash and burn barrel up at the cabin. I was the only one to see him and only one other of the cabin dwellers heard him. People sleep pretty hard after a full day of fishing, water skiing, boat driving, cooking, and dish washing. We also saw a couple mink, a beaver, Canadian geese, ducks, and vultures. I also saw one sand hill crane, and heard others croaking their unique call in the distance everyday.
I met several new cousins this trip – offspring of my first cousins (and their offspring). One was even married to a chef who was the winner of some tv show called Hell’s Kitchen. Another was a learned-it-on-the-job cook who taught my nephew how to fry the fish we caught.
A big event in the area happened this past year, when about 90 huge windmills went up in the Henvey Inlet, and they now dominate the landscape when you look up the inlet. It’s right out of a science fiction movie. They seem to bother some people but they didn’t bother me much and we got used to them quickly. They are inert objects towing above the little patch of wilderness between the Key River and Byng Inlet areas. They helped me navigate on the water as I could use them as land marks. They weren’t turning when we were there but I suspect it will be quite a spectacle when all 90 of them are turning.
The water in the Georgian Bay was also very high over the previous few decades from what I was told. Something about how much water is allowed out the St Lawrence Seaway was dictating how much water was held in the Bay. The water seemed a bit tannic in color, but was not muddy. The high water seemed to concern some people – mostly cottage owners near the water I guess – but more water means more fish so that seemed good to me.
This remote spectacular property is now owned collectively by my uncle’s daughters (my cousins), all of who are regular people with regular jobs like teachers and nurses and hot dog cart owners and salespeople for the local Cutco knife company in Olean. Not the kind of property regular people own anymore. I always felt privileged and just damn lucky to be allowed to use it as extended family because people like us don’t own places like this. I hope the property never leaves the family. Then rich people will own ALL the cool stuff. It’s the only place outside of Alaska I’ll make a point of going to, and now that I’m mostly retired I hope to get back there for some extended stays. I’d love to go there in the winter – no family ever has to my knowledge – to do some skiing and cross country skiing and see if I can keep warm somehow in the cabin with some sort of wood stove I’d need to pack in where I could run stove pipe up the fireplace chimney. Our marine taxi service captain who also owned the little resort where we launch from and park has a cousin up our way in Carcross, over the Yukon Territory border from Skagway, and he visited him 30 years ago. I suspect now that I have his name, I’ll run into him sometime in my travels around Southeast Alaska. The captain shared a bit of his fish knowledge with me of the area on our way back to his resort, and I hope to go fishing with him next time I return and hope he gets to come visit us some day to fish near Juneau.