This morning my Spa "buddy", Melinda, called bright and early and we headed down to breakfast with a window seat to gaze at the islands and snow-capped mountains as we drifted by. To help me digest the huge amounts of food I'd consumed, I took a 2-mile speedwalk around the deck until I got so dizzy that I had to stop. Next, off to the Spa for some sauna treatments and thermal soaks. Then, quick shower and lunch by a window again before layering up (it's a cooooool 12 degrees Celsius) and heading onshore to Juneau.
I have completely blown the budget (yet again) to do a $200 daytrip called "Alaska's Whales & Rainforest Trails". Our tourguide Gretchen and driver Richard picked us up from the maddeningly busy port. Luckily we were a very small group of 9 people (normally there's about 20) and we were able to get away quite quickly towards Mendenhall Glacier for the walking part of the excursion in the rainforest. En route, Gretchen asked us: "What are you expecting to see today!". I quickly shouted out, "Bears!".
We had enough time on the bus ride to our first stop for some quick historical/geological/biological facts on the area we were visiting. The No. 1 industry in Juneau is government, No. 2 is tourism and No 3 is fishing. I didn't know this before the trip, but Juneau is the State Capital and only accessible via boat or plane. In other words, you cannot drive there from any other part of Alaska as there are no roads linked to a network outside of the immediate area! The US bought Alaska from the Russians for $7,2million. A few years later, 2 famous prospectors Joe Juneau and Richard Harris found gold in Alaska - in Gold Creek near downtown Juneau. The natives lived further down in Auk Bay because the weather was better and there were more natural resources available.
20,000 years ago, the ice age carved out the South East Alaskan landscape. The Mendenhall is considered one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska. It moves 1-3feet/day - a frozen river of ice - 13miles long and 2miles wide. There are 38 glaciers in the Juneau ice field! Last year there was 180feet of snow because all of the precipitation in the mountains falls as snow, not as rain. In the past 250 years, the Mendenhall Glacier has receded by 2 miles because it loses more ice in the summer than it gains in the winter.
Gretchen took us on a walk through lush rainforest and joked that the Alaskan state bird is the mosquito! She said that the plants are a "MASH": Moss, Alder Trees, Sitka Spruce trees and Hemlock trees. It is a Secondary growth forest which has grown up since the ice retreated. First lichen and then mosses grow in the moist climate climate and help to break down the rocks into soil for trees to grow. The trees have very shallow root systems because the soil is poor - most roots spread out like spiderwebs and the trees aren't very stable and can, therefore, be knocked over by strong winds. Most of the trees are naturally lost from the effects of wind and snow (weight of snow makes them collapse). The moss makes up most of the soil coverage. Up to as much as 70% of the tree growth are hemlock and almost 30% are spruce trees, with the occasional fir tree.
We were led on a path which ended at a lake facing the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier towering up into the mountains in the distance. As we walked through a clearing in the trees and onto the beach sand, it was like walking into an invisible freezer! The temperature dropped dramatically as the chilly glacial breeze descended like an invisible waterfall. It was surreal to see icebergs floating in the water. In the distance, a real torrent of a waterfall thundered into the lake but, otherwise, it was very peaceful and calm.
As we walked back to the bus, alongside a stream, Gretchen explained that Chum, Sockeye, King, Silver and Pink salmon are the 5 different types of Salmon. Typically, most come back to the same stream but they do find other streams. When they spawn, they find freshwater but they slowly start decaying. The trees around Steep Creek are very tall because the Salmon act as a natural fertiliser once they've decayed and died! The salmon people like to eat fresh are primarily Sockeye and King and the Pink type is mainly smoked. Farming fish is illegal in Alaska because of environmental concerns and the potential threat that these farms could have on their wild salmon population so, instead, there are hatcheries to "balance out" the fishing industry and provide a steady supply into the wild.
At this point in our walk, the inevitable happened: a guy in our party spotted a black bear across the pond heading straight towards the trail ahead of us! Gretchen whipped out her pepper spray (an essential hiking accessory in these parts where bears outnumber humans), just in case we were heading on a collision course with the bear. Luckily, the animal decided to go for a swim instead so we didn't come face-to-face with our furry friend but were able to see him from a respectable and safe distance in the wild.
Next, we were driven to Auke Bay to board The Mariner with Captain Nat. Only 1minute into the ride and we spotted a harbour seal paddling in the opal water. We were, however, on the lookout for Humpback whales, which can be up 40-50feet long, and orcas. Most commonly, you will spot the whale spout as it can be projected up to 13feet high. Orcas are quicker sea mammals and their fin is the most noticeable feature (sometimes up to 6feet tall - especially the males). A Humpback whale's mouth expands like an accordion - their bay lees (kinda like teeth) and tongues scoops out the water and filters the fish. Orcas have teeth and track their prey using sonar. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family and there are 2 types: residents and transients ( kinda like people, I guess!). The residents feed on fish and stay in a specific area whereas the transients are bigger hunters and move from place to place feeding on seals, smaller whales and porpoises.
Whales come to Alaska from Hawaii in the summer to feed and then return to Hawaii in the winter to mate and give birth. As Gretchen put it humorously, "Alaska is the kitchen and Hawaii is the bedroom". They have a gestation period of 12 months and so, at this stage, the calves are learning how to feed and how to find their migratory paths. Baby whales gain an average of an inch a day in length and 100 pounds a day in weight because they feed from their nutrient-rich mother's milk (which, apparently, resembles cottage cheese!). They're mostly solitary animals, but they've been known to group together in pods to "bubble hunt" whereby they confuse and trap the fish in a "net" of bubbles. Humpback whale tails are unique - like their version of fingerprints - and they can, therefore, be identified by keen researchers and nature lovers. There is even a website where various whales tails have been identified and catalogued by enthusiasts: www.afsc.noaa.gov/ABL/Humpback/ .
We saw sea lions hanging out on a lighthouse buoy (probably for safety from the orcas) and eventually spotted a humpback whale close to shore. Not long after, 3 orcas passed by really close to the boat and I managed to get a wonderful photo of a male orca fin slicing above the mercury-coloured waters. Captain Nat was really good about not approaching too close to the animals and maintaining a fair distance but, still, I felt uneasy about chasing sea mammals around a bay. We were one of several tour boats in the vicinity and the captains would all maintain regular updates on the latest animal sightings so everyone would race to the next spot. I thought about the times I have been floating in the sea or a pool, only to have the peace shattered by loud group of people splashing or the thunderous chugging of small boats passing. Even more annoying for creatures that have no choice but to spend their lives in the Ocean - to be constantly harassed by boats motoring and hovering around whilst they're trying to feed, hunt, nurse their young and just go about their daily business. I've heard, although I'm not sure how true it is, that whales and dolphins become confused by marine sonar signals used by ships, boats and submarines and this could be one of the main reasons why they beach themselves in ever increasing numbers.
We passed an island simply called Shelter, which has a permanent population of about 14 people. You have to be pretty self-sufficient on this island as there are no shops or roads or services. Everyone living on it has a boat. It's like a microcosmic analogy of Alaska as a whole - a place which is remote and sparsely populated. I'm not so sure I could live in a place like that all year round. Many locals leave for the winter as it is too cold and remote in this part of the world. As the light started to fade into darker 50 shades of grey, Captain Nat sped us back to the Marina and we waved goodbye to Auke Bay and the cold Alaskan sunset.