Sunday, November 16, 2008

Winter Wildlife Viewing

Homer has a very large moose population which can become more apparent in the winter after the leaves have fallen. The colder weather causes the moose and other local wildlife to change their behavior somewhat. Many of the birds migrate to warmer climes but others stay through the winter and even become more visible. Probably the most often viewed winter wildlife around Homer are the bald eagles which hangout on the end of the Spit where they are fed daily by "the Eagle Lady", 85 year old Jean Keene. Jean lives on the Spit and has been feeding eagles since the early 1970's. Naturally, this practice became controversial as other people began feeding eagles, too. So the city of Homer ruled that feeding the birds is a "no-no"- except for Jean who is "grandmothered" into the practice until 2010. The daily feedings between Dec. 20 and April 1, are a real opportunity for photographers who come from all over the world to hang out of their car windows to capture these scavengers on digicards.

Jean feeds fish scraps from the processing plant to the eagles which seem to calmly wait for their turn at the trough. Normally these birds would be searching out other prey such as these mallard ducks which remain in the Bay area all winter. When strong northeast winds blow down the bay these ducks gather in Mud Bay to shelter from the storm. They sit so still on the ice that they appear to be frozen in place.

Mud Bay is also a favorite wintering area for many of the 1,800 sea otters that inhabit the Bay. They float on their backs with their heads and back feet poking out of the water and often use their furry bellies as a table while they eat clams from the muddy bottom. Sometimes sea gulls bob around the otters hoping to steal a morsel of clam right off their tummies!

Other marine mammals are also visiting the Bay right now that we don't see so much in the summer. Humpback whales pass by from northern waters on their way to Hawaii and Baja. These 40 foot leviathans spend some time feeding nearby and occassionally we see their spouting exhalations from our living room windows. Persons in small motorized craft really have to watch for the whales.

The newest creature that has caught our attention are Stellar sea lions. This Fall two of them have been feeding and lounging off the end of the Spit while we were paddling out toward the "green can" navagational buoy. These 1,000 pound seal-like creatures don't look like much until they raise their heads high out of the water to inspect us. The other day two of then were floating just 200 feet off the spit in front of the Glacier Boardwalk. At first they looked like a new boulder projecting above the water line. But then they lifted their noses for a breath and let out a loud spraying exhalation. Their heads are very similar to the largest grizzly bears we've ever seen and it is reported that they can be aggressive if you invade their territory too closely. They are also quite curious and several times have suddenly appeared very close- 30 feet- to our boats. They raised their heads well out of the water to get a good look at us and then followed at a distance as we paddled. One was apparently surprised to find us nearby and let out a loud hissing growl. When they are inspecting us we try to hold still and hope they don't decide to try and climb up on the back of our kayak like some smaller seals are known to do.

See his little head just to the left of Linda's boat. They look a lot bigger when they haul themselves out of the water to rest on the beach....

Friday, November 14, 2008


It is starting to get a little colder out on the Bay as winter approaches. The air temps are right around freezing so we only paddle on the bay now when it is sunny and the winds are light. And with the water temperature getting down close to 35 degrees we avoid going into the water.

We are still able to practice our bracing and rolling techniques in the high school pool thanks to Tom Pogson and his Alaska Kayak School. Tom offers a series of pool classes from beginner level to advanced rolling and bracing during the winter months and then leads classes and trips out on the Bay during the warmer times of year.

In the pool sessions we use shorter river boats so there is plenty of room to manuever. Tom brings out the much longer sea kayaks for rescue practice but they are difficult to paddle and turn in the limited space of the pool.

I took our Olympus waterproof camera (click for review) to the pool the other night and filmed some of the crew practicing different techniques. This session was for paddlers who have trained with Tom before and want to practice what they have learned. It is a good chance to learn from other paddlers and observe each others methods. As you can see everyone puts their own slant on rolling...

Tom supplies all the boats and other equipment for these practice sessions plus he circulates around the group and gives everyone advice and makes sure we're being safe. It's a fun activity...

BTW- the above was taken with the same Olympus 1030SW camera. It's a pretty good little camera- about the size of a deck of cards- uses xD card memory and seems to really be waterproof. See it here. The video seems grainy here on the blog but is much better when viewed in full digipot at home.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bear Hunt...

My last post contained a "cute" bear scratching his back on a park sign. Most of our bear sightings have been less enjoyable. And sometimes a little scary. When we floated down the Kobuk River a few years ago we saw a bear intently trotting up the river bed in hot pursuit of a cow moose and her calf....

The bear disappeared into the brush about two minutes after the moose so he certainly could have caught up with them. Later we did hear the sound of running moose hooves on the rocks of a dry channel but we'll never know if the calf escaped.

You can see photos from our Alatna River float trip here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bear looks out of the Mountain....

Right out our front windows and across the Bay there is a dramatic mountain called China Poot Peak. When the first snows fall the slopes of the Peak get dusted in just the right way to produce a dramatic bear face looking out of the the mountain. Here he is....

In a past life we lived furthur north where brown bear sightings are quite common. We once had a big grizzly sniff noses with one of our sled dog pups while we were out on the trail. We also had one walk up to our water barrel right outside the back door and take a big drink before Linda's scream scared him away. Normaly brown bears are shy and avoid people but in Denali National Park the big bruins become accustomed to people and their vehicles and just ignore them. In the mid 90's I took a job as a tour bus driver and saw many of these bears along the Park road. This one was busy scratching his back on a campground sign and really could not have cared less about all us humans in a big bus watching him. One of the passengers on my bus shot this video and sent me a copy...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Otters Surfing...

While most of the nation has just begun the Fall season today somehow felt like the first day of winter here in Homer. The clear, warm days of last week gave way to a large storm that blew in from the north Pacific and brought us a bit of snow and some breaking surf.

We were reading the paper in the living room when Linda noticed some smoke out on the Bay. Along with the whitecaps there was a Coast Guard boat and two helicopters hovering near what looked to be a small boat in trouble. Smoke flares bracketed the scene as a chopper came in low with a cable and lifted someone out of the water. Then the Guard moved in and towed the very small open boat back toward the harbor. Haven't heard what actually happened but it was good to see that the Guard is on the job when needed.

Later, we drove out the spit with our old flat bed dog truck. Just opposite the entrance to the fishing hole we spotted a group of 20 or so sea otters diving and swimming within 100 feet of shore. There was a pretty good surf breaking onto the spit close to the road and the otters seemed to playing in the waves. Eventually we figured out that the choppy waves were stirring up the bottom and exposing some clams for the otters to feed on. But it sure looked like they were enjoying the "body surfing".

Monday, September 29, 2008

Porpoise Paddling

Kachemak Kayaking

The southern shore of Kachemak Bay is lined with numerous fiords and lagoons which are subject to huge changes in water level as the tide ebbs and flows. This surge of moving water can create tidal rips and eddies around points and in narrows which can threaten small boats but also can create some very exciting conditions for kayakers.

One of the largest tidal variations in the Bay is dramatically apparent at Halibut Cove Lagoon. The narrow channel shown here during a negative low tide will flood over the entire gravel bar on the left to a depth of as much as 30 feet in just 6 hours. The sea water moves slowly at first but gradually builds to an 8 knot current as water barges its way into the lagoon. The fast moving water interacts with the steep cliff on the right creating several large eddies behind the jutting points. As the channel widens boats can avoid the hazards by staying away from the edge but for kayakers those same hazardous eddies can provide some excitement.

During a trip into the lagoon to "ride the tide" last year we also found that bay porpoises seem to use the tidal surge by swimming into the current and feeding on the various fish which are washed into the lagoon. Our group leader, Tom Pogson, owner of Alaska Kayak School, was filming us having some fun in an eddy when two of those porpoises swam by....

Charlie Franz, the former director of the hospital in Homer does the first "peel out" from the eddy into the main current, then myself and finally Ryan, a kayak guide from Seward, actually rolls with the porpoise. If you didn't know where this video was taken you might think that it is shot on a fast flowing river, not an ocean lagoon. In many ways the Lagoon Narrows acts just like a river- except it reverses direction every six hours and changes its depth as much as 30 feet.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Past life revisited...

We've just returned from a 6 week visit to Healy- our former home of 33 years. It has been two years now since we moved to Homer and this was the first time that we had both gone back up to our homestead. Healy is a coal mining town on the northern boundary of Denali National Park. We have a log home there and eight rental cabins which we need to occassionally visit for routine maintenance. Our Kantishna River Homestead Cabin

The highlight of our trip was a two week stay at our remote cabin on the Kantishna River. We used to "freeze up" on the Kantishna with our 24 sleddogs. It is 100 mile river boat trip on the Tanana and Kantishna Rivers and we've had some very interesting trips into the cabin. We've made the trip more than a hundred times and only sank the boat twice so I guess we're doing okay.

On this trip we took our last sleddog, Nike, and got to the cabin with only a few minor groundings on sandbars. It had been more than two years so we were surprised to find the cabin and sheds all in good shape. We had left 500 pounds of smelly dog food in a shed so we feard that we might find a mess left by bears.

When we had more sleddogs this remote camp was our early training grounds. We could fish for salmon with a fishwheel and nets and would usually dry or freeze over a thousand fish for dog food. The 10 mile long slough that we lived on would freeze up solid in October so we could start training the dogs earlier than at our other house in Healy. By mid-November we would have several hundred miles of training runs on all the dogs so we could mush in to Nenana- a four hour trip of about 35 miles.

Our goal for this latest trip was to check on the cabin, do any necessary maintenance and spend time traveling the river looking for a moose. Most every day we motored slowly up or down the river keeping our eyes peeled for a bull. And for two weeks all we saw was a dead moose that some other hunters had gotten and lots of other boats. Guess the high price of gas hasn't discouraged moose hunters. We had some wonderful cookouts along the river and one camping trip but didn't spot a moose until we had really given up on hunting.

On the way back in to Nenana and the hiway Linda spotted a young bull standing quietly near the river bank up a side channel. She took over the boat controls and steered toward the bank while I climbed up on the cabin roof and sited in on the unsuspecting moose. Three hours later we had the bull butchered and loaded in the boat and were again headed home. Our dog Nike barked with excitement the whole time that we butchered and loaded the moose- he must have thought that he had somehow contributed to the successful hunt.

On several days we had a beautiful view of Mt. Mckinley which is about 60 miles south of our cabin.

In what now seems like a past life we would take our sled dogs out to the base of Mt. Mckinley and transport supplies for mountain climbers up to the lower slopes. Our last sleddogs are now with a young couple in Healy who love to take spring trips like we used to do. So perhaps our dogs will visit Mt. Mckinley again...but we are now devoted to more oceanic adventures on Kachemak Bay.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Our first trip across the Bay...

It is only 3 and a half miles across Kachemak Bay from Coal Point at the end of the Homer Spit.

But we have found that a lot of "conditions" can develop during the one hour paddle across to Mckeon Spit and Haystack Rock.

The first challenge is just getting away from the Homer Spit and all the boats that are streaming out of the small boat harbor on a nice day. Boats of all sizes heading in all directions seem to wait until we are about 100 feet out from shore before they fire up and blast by us creating waves and lots of aprehension for paddlers.

On the day that we finally got our nerve up to paddle across for an overnight at the Haystack
yurt even the Alaska ferry put in an appearance on its way back from Seldovia.

The Beach at Haystack Rock....

A local outfitter in Homer maintains a number of yurts in Kachemak State Park and rents them out for overnight trips. We rented the closest one at Haystack Rock and loaded up our kayaks with supplies for two nights. Once we were a half mile out from the spit all the boats and noise from the spit road were behind us. Then all we had to do was paddle steadily and hope the eastern breeze didn't increase. This was the third time we have paddled across together and we've always tried to go early enough to beat the "day breeze" back to Homer. The day breeze often comes up on clear, warm days sometime around noon and can create some sizable wind chop and make it very hard to paddle. But on this cool, clear morning we had calm seas and easy going. Within an hour we pulled up on the lovely gravel beach near Neptune Bay.

We found the yurt to be spacious, clean and comfortable. At $65 a night we thought it more than a fair deal for such a beautiful, remote location. The 16 foot diameter tent is equipped with a wood stove for heat and a propane two burner stove for cooking. The double bunks even had mattresses and blankets.

After unloading the kayaks we paddled across the mouth of Neptune Bay and were greeted by several curious seals. The tide was dropping so we couldn't paddle up the Wos River but we'll do that sometime on a rising tide.

We spent the afternoon walking on Mckeon Spit and up the Wos River trail. We found the trail quite good for about two miles but it nearly disappears in the thick brush after it leaves the powerline crossing. There was enough bear scat in the last half mile to give us pause but we continued until we got a view of the upper Wos River gravel bars.

We enjoyed a nice evening in the yurt with the sounds of small waves breaking interupted only by the sweet call of eagles as they settled into their nests.

Saturday morning we were up early and paddled slowly back toward Homer. Somehow it always seems like a longer paddle on the way back...perhaps its the magnetic attraction of that beautiful southern shoreline of Kachemak Bay.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Kayaking is our new adventure sport...

One of our main interests in the Homer area is getting out on the ocean in our sea kayaks. We have had a lot experience in the past on Alaska's rivers- our favorite being the Noatak which flows along the southern edge of the Brooks Range for nearly 500 miles before entering the sea near Kotzebue.

In 2003 we took an eight week float trip on the Noatak. It is very isolated with only one village along its whole length. We saw alot of wild animals but no other people for the first 26 days. So we have our wilderness camping technique down pat and are pretty good at dealing with wildlife. But this ocean business is a whole different deal.

For one thing the rivers we've floated don't change their depth every six hours. We had a 3 foot rise in the Noatak water level one night after a rain storm but that is nothing compared to the 20 to 30 foot tidal variation here on Kachemak Bay. You gotta be pretty darn careful where you park your boat around here!

Another difference is the fishing. On Interior rivers I could pretty easily catch our dinner every night- be it arctic char, grayling or that old standby northern pike. But out on the Bay you drop a line deep in the water and you never know what might grab it.

On our first overnight trip at Halibut Cove we went out in the double Klepper kayak to fish and soon caught two small halibut which my wife could pull right up into her lap. But the next bite I got felt a lot bigger. Naturally, I thought it was just a larger halibut but after five minutes of carefully reeling it in we were startled to see a creature right out of "Jaws" circling under our rubber boat! Okay, it was really only a four foot salmon shark but fish can look really big in the water. We coaxed the beautiful fish in to shore and Linda pulled it carefully onto the beach by its tail. She removed the hook with my needlenose pliers and within a minute the blue green fish was back in the lagoon.

We spent four days on Halibut Cove Lagoon that trip and each day crossed from our rented cabin to the wide beach on the other side to look for clams. We could get very close to comical otters and also saw several bay porpoise feeding in the lagoon. One day after clamming we headed back across what had been a calm and seemingly well protected one mile stretch of water. Halfway across what locals call the "day breeze" suddenly piped up from the west and we found ourselves paddling hard against a 20 knot wind with no spray skirt on our open boat to shed the spray from increasingly large whitecaps. We made it safely back to the cabin but still learned a very good lesson. We resolved to get closed cockpit sea kayaks and drysuits to protect ourselves before again venturing onto Kachemak Bay.

It has taken a few years but now we each have 17 foot long sea kayaks that are stable and safe in open ocean conditions. With the excellent training provided by Tom Pogson and his Alaska Kayak School we feel like we are ready to venture across the bay for extended trips....

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Iris blooming...

Homer is about as far south as you can get on the Alaska road system. At least without going through Yukon and down into Southeast Alaska. The proximity to the ocean and the southern exposure make Homer much warmer than interior Alaska where we used to live. At our new home on the "garden bench" the snow is mostly gone by April and the iris blooms in the yard sometime in mid-June... Flowers are my favorite photographic subject.

The most prominent and popular feature of the Spit is the small boat harbor. Hundreds of boats- everything from commercial crab boats to recreational sailing sloops call the harbor home. The Coast Guard buoy tender Hickory also ties up in Homer and the Alaska State ferry system brings in the Kennicott and the Tustumena. Occasionally a large cruise ship disgorges hundreds of tourists but none of them maintain a regular schedule here.
The water is often quite calm off the end of the Spit...but the daybreeze and tidal currents can suddenly make the three mile crossing to the east side of Kachemak Bay quite dangerous.

The Lands' End hotel and several townhouse dwellings curl around the end of the Spit. At low tide, as shown here, a nice gravel beach provides a nice surface for beachcombers. But when the highest spring tides come in the waves can sometimes push driftwood right up against the lower decks of these buildings.

Sandy beaches line the southern edge of the spit during low tides. But six hours later the water fills in the beach right up to the rock lined road edge.

Just a few miles to the southwest the Mount Augustine volcanoe fumes and vents on a regular basis. This most active of many local volcanoes could erupt violently and cause a tsunami which could quickly cover the Spit and lower Homer with a wall of seawater.

In the winter most of the Spit businesses close down and snow blankets the beaches. These townhouses cast a lonely image across the Bay.

Occassionally winter gets cold enough to freeze up the harbor and lock most of the smaller boats in place until Spring brings warmer temps. This 2007 ice-up occurred in March and caused the Homer Chamber to delay the annual King Salmon Derby by one week. Usually, though, temperatures are mild in Homer, rarely getting down to the teens.

Winter Storms....

Being composed of sand and gravel, the Spit is subject to constant erosion from the ocean tides and winter storms. Maintenance crews monitor the Spit road and harbor jetties to assure their integrity. Frequently repairs are needed to replace eroded gravel and to reduce the risk from wave action.

Homer Spit

The Homer Spit is a terminal moraine from a long melted glacier. The Spit projects about 4 miles out into Kachemak Bay and is host to numerous businesses, a small boat harbor, State ferry dock and a hotel.

Monday, June 23, 2008

As the Tide Turns...

Homer, Alaska experiences one of the largest tidal variations of anywhere in the world. Second only to the Bay of Fundy. From my living room window I can watch the tide rise and fall. Sometimes as much as 30 feet in only six hours. The tide brings fresh water and flushes out the stale...