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Monday, June 29, 2009

Baked in Alaska

Sometimes life events shatter your psyche, leaving you to pick up the pieces. Other times, they melt your brain, leaving you with a gooey mass and nothing to do but wait for it to recongeal. 11 days in Alaska have fully baked my brain (photos here).

Endless hours of sun, seawater, glaciers, mountains. Too much to absorb.

And hundreds of humpback whales! Sometimes breaching completely out of the water. Often so close you could hear them spout, and once so close you could smell their briny breath! I saw a dozen feeding together, and heard them bugle a trumpeting call that echoed across forests and snowfields.

I saw Orcas! Killer whales! A pod of these black and white beauties surfacing again and again alongside our ship, while a larger cruise liner sailed on by without taking notice. I now live in a world where these beasts aren't just Discovery channel features or performers at Sea World. They seem to have taken part of my heart with them as they slipped below the icy gray waters of Glacier Bay.

And then there were the birds. THOUSANDS of Marbled Murrelets. We called them Bloop Bloop Birds. While a birder is lucky to see more than one or two in a day in the Lower 48, we saw hundreds every day, reminding us constantly of how important it is to protect the Tongass National Forest for these tree-nesting seabirds.

On the upper reaches of Glacier Bay, where trees for nesting Bloop Bloop Birds are scarce, they are replaced by the even rarer Kittlitz's Murrelets--pale versions of their darker cousins that nest on the bare rocky ground around the glaciers. I watched dozens of these swim, dive, and careen across the blue waters of the icemelt. A week later their little feet are still pattering across the surface of my feelings.

Other birds came and went as we cruised over 1300 miles across Southeast Alaska with Cruise West and Audubon Odysseys on the Spirit of Discovery, a small expedition vessel that was our home for the week as we explored the native Tlingit village of Kake, sea kayaked and hiked in Sitka, and wound our way in and out of dozens of mountain-lined fjords carved out by the glaciers. We counted dozens of Arctic Terns, and were visited by an Aleutian Tern as we watched a glacier calving in Glacier Bay. I glanced out the window as we crossed Icy Strait and saw a Horned Puffin on the water. We later saw dozens of Tufted Puffins in Glacier Bay. And on our final night home, in a raging storm in the pale evening light, both Parasitic Jaeger and Pomarine Jaeger sliced through the wind in pursuit of dozens of wheeling Black-legged Kittiwakes.

How do you recover from a week of this? And the hours watching sea otters and brown bears? Take the Grand Tetons, stretch them out over thousands of miles, add the ocean and wildlife and take away any sign of human habitation for days on end, and try to absorb that a week later.

My mind is melted. Baked in Alaska. Not sure how my soul will recongeal, but know that part of it will forever be trying to get back to the whales and wilderness and Bloop Bloop Birds irrevocably forged into my being by a week and a half on the Spirit of Discovery.


Kelly Conrad Simon said...

Rob -- a month in Alaska when I was in college completely changed the direction and timbre of my life. It never drains out of you. I loved reading about your beautiful trip, although it made me long to get out there again. I hope it provides enlightenment for you.

Vickie said...

Beautiful description of what I am sure was an amazing experience. This is one of my dream destinations. It was special to get a glimpse of it through your words and feelings.

Dawn Fine said...

Beautifully written! Baked in it..
You have been thru allot lately. Sorry about Job..but guess that can be a good thing..
I have not been to Alaska yet..but we plan our driving our Homey there the summer of 2011

Bird Advocate said...

Most eloquently put and a lot more intense than my own one year stay at a remote radar site in Alaska during 1968-1969, but then that was duty, and when duty calls we must obey.
The scenery, wildlife, and fishing were excellent, though, despite the solitude of the long dark winter.

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