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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ferries, Rain, and Early Mornings

Location: Ketchikan, Alaska
Population: 14,070

The last two dream-like days of getting up before 4 AM to catch and disembark from the ferry have strangely blended together. Sleep has come in fits and starts and the days seem really, really long, even though it is starting to get darker as we head further south again. In the process, though, we have moved from Sitka to Ketchikan, our last Alaskan stop before heading home.

We didn't see quite as much wildlife as on the previous ferry ride from Juneau, but still spotted several humpback whales and both Dall's and harbor porpoise. As we pulled into Petersburg we also saw this pile of sea lions on a buoy - with one more looking to join in. Interestingly enough there was another buoy not much further away with no sea lions on it at all. This one finally found a place to squeeze in:

After our stop at Petersburg we headed south through the Wrangell Narrows, a 20+ mile narrow passage that requires more than 40 course changes by the alert captain as he slaloms through the markers. It was a scenic route and impressive to watch. In addition to following the red and green markers they place a bow man up front to look for small vessels and other unexpected obstacles:

The weather switched back and forth between brief periods of sunshine and brief rain showers all day, but the sun came out one last time just before setting while we were in port at Wrangell. With the sun barely dipping below the horizon at night further north and the rain that has dominated the second half of our trip we haven't seen many sunsets, but the one last night was a doozy:

This morning we found ourselves off the boat and in Ketchikan at 4:15. It was raining, which shouldn't be surprising for a place that receives upwards of 13 feet of rain a year, compared to a place with a wet reputation like Seattle that only gets about 3 feet. At least it was light out, so we drove around for a while on some of the roads outside of town. We went out for an early breakfast and one it was late enough to conduct business we parked near the harbor so my dad could get something done by phone since we've been without internet on the ferries. While sitting there I was extremely surprised to spot a humpback whale just offshore in the middle of downtown Ketchikan! The whale surfaced just a few hundred yards off the nearby docked cruise ships. I took this photo from shore and as you can see the coast of Pennock Island was not far across the way. Very cool!

Next we did a series of short hikes just outside of town, including the loop at Totem Bight State Historical Park. Ketchikan is known for being home to the most totem poles in the world, and here were representatives of those of both the Haida and Tlingit traditions. This is a model of a clan house, a large single-room building that would house anywhere from 20-50 people of a related lineage. The painting on the front is of a stylized raven, a very important figure in local native mythology playing the role of both the trickster and the creator. It was appropriate to have ravens calling above while I took this picture.

We also hiked the loop at Lunch Creek Falls at the "end of the road", so known because like Sitka and Juneau, the roads in town lead no where else as the city is only accessible by boat or plane. The whole area here is part of Tongass National Forest, which at over 17 million acres is the largest such forest in the country. It is a lush temperate rain forest very similar to those I'm more familiar with in Oregon and Washington. Conifers, ferns, and mosses dominate, but if you look closer there are subtle differences: western hemlock instead of Douglas fir, wood ferns instead of sword ferns, bunchberry instead of trilliums. But still, countless shades of green.

Tomorrow we will spend most of the day in Ketchikan before getting on a late afternoon ferry that will take us south to Bellingham. I am looking forward to this section of the trip as it should be both beautiful and good for spotting wildlife. Can you believe I have yet to see any orcas in Alaska? It wasn't the primary goal of this trip but with all the time spent out on the water I'm a little surprised, since this is the place I originally fell in love with them. Perhaps along the inside passage near northern Vancouver Island. In any case, by the end of next weekend I will be back on the water in the San Juan Islands where all of the Southern Resident orcas have returned for the summer and have been spending a lot of time in my absence. It will be good to see them, and all my friends there. The sights have been amazing but after more than a month on the road the concept of "home" is starting to sound pretty good. My next post about the end of the trip may very well come from Friday Harbor!


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

17 million acres! That's over half the size of England...that's some forest park!
Very jealous of your humpies...

Monika said...

Dave - That's pretty amazing! It's always hard to comprehend how big something is when it gets into the millions. To be fair though, it isn't all park like a national park, but rather a managed area that allows for all activities such as logging, recreation, mining, harvesting, etc. Still, great to have it as a national forest, as it's the vast majority of SE Alaska!