Whales, bears and parents on the Aalska Peninsular

Tue 24 Aug 2004 04:27
23rd August 2004. From Kodiak Island, with parents gone and Nipprog coming

Dear All,

We have covered some serious ground since our last dispatches, not least
with the announcement of the forthcoming baby. No doubt we should both be
feeling older and wiser, ready to become sensible and middle-aged parents
with one eye on the future and the other scanning for dangers that might
harm the young Nipper. But then again, Hell; we're in wilderness Alaska,
surrounded by lunatic fishermen, chasing whales, being chased by bears and
generally having the time of our lives, so these things can surely wait!

The past three weeks have been tremendous in the scenery and wildlife that
we have encountered and we have been lucky to be able to share it and some
glorious weather with my parents. We sailed (and often motored) direct from
Deep Bay on Atka Island to the port of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska in the Fox
Islands, passing spectacular snow-capped volcanoes and enjoying the first
starlit nights we'd seen for a month. Katharine has suffered terribly from
seasickness almost every time we have put to sea since leaving Japan, which
is an unfortunate manifestation of morning sickness considering where we
are. She has been quite immune from seasickness for the whole trip before
getting pregnant and in harbour doesn't suffer morning sickness at all, but
get into a small seaway and she'll be vomiting like nothing on earth until
we get to the next harbour. And the fact that none of the medications are
safe to take in early pregnancy hasn't helped either, though fortunately she
is getting less sensitive now we are past the first trimester.

Dutch Harbor has the feel of a town at the end of the world, even though it
is at the Alaskan end of the Aleutian Islands. The population numbers a
little over four thousand and is largely transient, yet the port handles
more fish than any other port in the USA. The pretty Russian Orthodox
church, built in 1825 when Alaska was still Russian, is an apt example of
the Aleutian's connection to the American mainland. The two museums add to
the impression, one showing beautifully the islands' wildlife and cultural
history and the other plainly describing the death and destruction of the
Second World War. We aroused some interest from the locals, who are
otherwise starved of entertainment, and gathered some useful information on
cruising up the Alaska Peninsular coast from a fisherman who has a yacht in
Northern Ireland and spends his spare time cruising Greenland and the far
north. We also attended a meeting in the 'city' hall which assessed the
reaction of the emergency services and the community to the grounding and
rescue of the cruise ship Clipper Odyssey on the Baby Islands in Akutan
Pass. The ship, which had given us fuel, water, immigration clearance and a
great story in Attu, had been cruising through the pass and nosed into this
small group of islands to look for Whiskered Auklets. Despite having two US
pilots on board she hit an uncharted rock at five knots and tore a gash
twenty-five feet long in her hull. All the passengers and none-essential
crew were taken off by nearby fishing boats and the ship floated off on the
high tide later that night and made her way to Dutch Harbor for temporary
repairs. One comment at the meeting came from the ship operator's agent who
said that the passengers had told him "that the community's reaction and
help was about the truest Alaskan experience they could have ever hoped to

We picked up my parents without a hitch and stocked up on fuels and stores
ready for the cruise north to Kodiak. We stopped at an abandoned whaling
station in Akutan Island for a night after a great sail past recent lava
flows, rock arches, fur seals, sea lions and a killer whale. A two day
passage took us out of the Aleutian Islands and into the realms of the North
American continent, passing the astoundingly tall and conical volcanoes on
Unimak Island in crystal clear weather. We stopped in the superbly sheltered
Mist Harbor in the Shumagin Islands for a wonderful day of sea otter
watching and then continued direct on to Halibut Bay on Kodiak Island.
Kodiak is famous for having the largest brown bears in the world and my
brief walk ashore in the morning showed enough tracks on the beach to make
us move on to Geographic Harbor, on the mainland side of the Shelikof
Strait, where the bears are more numerous but somewhat smaller. We had a
wonderful sail across the Strait, surrounded by dozens of Dall's Porpoises,
and made an awesome landfall on the peninsular coast below a clear blue sky
and the ice caps of Mt. Katmai, whose eruption in 1912 was the biggest since
Santorini in 1500BC.

The fishing seasons for the various species in the Alaska overlap, but this
time of year is definitely the salmon season. Hundreds of small
purse-seiners are out all along the coast, setting their nets between the
boat and a small dinghy and getting as close to the shore as they dare to
catch the schools of salmon as they round the headlands and islets. Hundreds
of thousand of fish are running at the moment, heading for the rivers to
spawn, and the pickings are easy both for the fishermen and the bears. When
we enquired in one fishing shop as to what we needed to catch the fish as
the run up river, we were not sold a delicately tied fly or spinner but a
'snagging hook', which is used rather like a grapnel and intended to
foul-hook the fish! Fortunately we have been given so many fish that this
has not been put to use yet. At the top of the splendidly sheltered
anchorage a small river runs into the bay and the bears were out in force. A
brief sortie in Twofella in the evening attracted the attention of a young
male and got some excellent video and Katharine in a flat panic. The
following morning the bear watching was heralded by the arrival of a sea
plane bring two sightseers and a guide from Kodiak. Katharine and I tagged
onto the group to gather information on how to avoid being eaten and got
astonishingly close to the bears fishing in the river just above the tide
line. This harbour is one of the few places where the bears are
comparatively safe to approach as a number of operators from Kodiak take
tourists over and the bears are somewhat accustomed to humans. However, it
does make them rather curious and we now have a great photo of a bear
climbing into Twofella, claw scratches on the outboard and teeth marks in
the mangled bailer! So armed with our newfound knowledge, a can of mace
spray, two hand-flares and absolutely no honey, we headed ashore with Mum
and Dad later on. As the dinghy can only manage three of us at a time, I
took my parents in the first run and then returned to the boat to fetch
Katharine. It was a strange experience to leave them marooned on a small
islet in the middle of the river and surrounded by bears; perhaps more
appealing at times in my youth but now definitely disconcerting! However,
they were both still in one piece when we returned and we enjoyed a
ring-side view of the bears catching and devouring the salmon. To return to
the boat Katharine took dad in the first run, leaving mum and myself on the
island. The bears had stuck firmly to the river and opposite bank prior to
this and it was a surprise when one of them decided to come onto the island
and stroll nonchalantly towards. It was an even greater surprise when it
didn't react immediately to my shouts of "Whoa Bear", which we had earlier
been assured by the guide was the best way of stopping a bear approaching.
We'd also been told that it is essential when faced by a bear not to run
away but to hold your ground, so as we gently moved onto the highest part of
the island and I surveyed the prospective battlefield, the conundrum of what
to therefore actually do came to mind. My shouts of "Whoa Bear, this is MY
island" grew rapidly more emphatic, but did not even make him flinch.
Holding up oilskins to make ourselves look as big and bold as possible had
equally little effect, and there was certainly no time to extract any of our
assembled weaponry from the zipped up bag. He seemed keen to scare us as
much as possible by stopping at the closest point to us in his stroll up the
bank, about five yards away, turning his head and snarling directly at us.
Fortunately however, that seemed to satisfy him and he relented to my
continued shouting by moving back into the river. The fact that neither of
us have a photo of the encounter despite both holding cameras in our hands
can surely only serve to prove how close it really was, and the shots on the
video camera that I took as he moved away can certainly prove that I was
trembling like a leaf! We were greatly relieved when Katharine got back to
the shore and we virtually sank Twofella in our eagerness to get onboard.

Another flat calm overnight passage brought us back across the Shelikof
Strait and through Kupreanof Strait to just west of Whale Island, where we
were surrounded by a dozen or more frolicking sea otters and spent some time
chasing a humpback whale. We pushed on with the tide and stopped in a
secluded anchorage for the night just short of Kodiak, where we arrived the
next morning in good time for lunch and mum and dad's flight to Anchorage,
Los Angeles and Auckland, where Troubadour was awaiting their return.

So, after a couple of days relaxing in the civilization and expense of the
USA and a couple of weeks before we're up against the next deadline, we're
back in control of our own destiny. We're presently anchored in a cove in
Izhut Bay on Afognak Island having sailed over here yesterday and spent the
afternoon in close encounters with a number of whales. A group of seven huge
fin whales and two humpbacks were fishing around the end of the bay and we
had some very exciting moments tacking, gybing and heaving to among them,
particularly when one of the largest fin whales turned for us a close range
and passed directly underneath. The anchorage here is lovely but it's
raining hard as a weather front passes and we'll wait until tomorrow to head
up for the Kenai Peninsular and the possibility of some glacier gazing!

We'll be in touch soon and promise some photos on the website as soon as
possible. I hope home is not too exciting, but keeping you sufficiently
entertained and earning enough to take a well-needed holiday when the
opportunity comes.

And our greatest congratulations to Yabu and Elli for getting married the
other week. We cannot recommend it enough!

Lots and Lots of Love to you all,

Pete and Katharine