Artists of the North Pacific Seas: The Watercolors of Dall’s Porpoises

Dall's Porpoise, full animal n

You might see a plume of ocean spray, a glimpse of black and white and if you’re close enough, you’ll hear a burst of expelled air as one of the speedsters of the sea comes up for a breath. Playing in the boat’s wake, Dall’s porpoises create ephemeral pieces of art out of seawater, light and air.

Dall's porpoise saltwater mohawk n

Water & Light Mohawk. Dall’s porpoises are capable of keeping pace with boats cruising at over 30 mph (55 kph), a speed that places them with or perhaps slightly ahead of Orcas and Pilot Whales as the sea’s fastest cetaceans. 

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Folded Glass. In Alaska’s seas, a steady diet of herring and other small fish help keep the population robust. Males, which attain larger sizes than females, can grow to a length of about eight feet and attain weights just under 500 pounds.

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Black and Silver. Typically traveling in pairs or in packs up to a dozen or so animals, tell-tale water spouts in the distance are a sign that the porpoises are in the area. If their stomachs are full and the speed of the boat is just right, they may come zipping across the water to play.

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Watercolor Brush. Dall’s porpoises can seem to appear out of nowhere, and before long they disappear again. 

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Farewell Waterburst. Currently, populations of Dall’s porpoises are doing well. They prefer to swim over deep (500 feet), cold water along the continental shelves ranging from southern Japan, as far north as the Bering Sea, and along the west coast of America as far south as Southern California. As a species, they would benefit from international cooperation to conserve the fish stocks they rely on for food and to ensure that they are not accidentally caught in fishing nets.  


Glaciers and Green: The Coastal Classic – A Five Star Train Ride from Seward to Anchorage

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The mid-summer sky is reflected on one of Alaska Railroad’s GoldStar coaches on the Coastal Classic train. Mountainsides of magenta fireweed and, mixed forests, moose, Dall sheep, eagles and glaciers (and sometimes bears and caribou) were part of the 114 mile train trip between Seward and Anchorage.

Trains are magical. Whether we’re talking about Northern California’s quaint Skunk Train or Japan’s lightening fast, silky smooth shinkansen (bullet trains), we love the rhythm and glide of moving through the countryside on steel rails. As we brought our summer to a close this year, we decided to take the train from Seward. We departed at 6:00 PM and four hours later arrived in Anchorage energized and relaxed.

Alaska Train Coastal Classic_n

Fireweed, startling in its vibrance, lines the tracks along the Coastal Classics route through Kenai Peninsula forests and mountains.

Large windows and the freedom to get up and walk around are part of what make train travel so pleasant. After a very good meal of almond-crusted Alaskan cod accompanied by a glass of wine, we made our way to the rear of our GoldStar car where an open deck allowed us to take in the sights, converse with fellow passengers, and enjoy the warm (for Alaska) summer air.

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The Coastal Classic passes by three large glaciers: Trail, Spencer and (above) Bartlett. 

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Scanning the terrain for animals from the observation deck of one of the double-deck GoldStar cars, we saw moose, eagles, beaver lodges and Dall sheep. Bears – both grizzly and black – and caribou are also frequently sighted. We’re already looking forward to taking the train from Anchorage to Seward when we return in May next year. 

Coastal Classic sunlight through car_n

The evening sun reflects off Cook Inlet though the car’s upper deck windows. After a wonderful four-hour trip, the train pulled into the station at Anchorage. Early the following morning, we boarded a plane for the Alaskan bush and our other home.

Another Great Year in Point Hope: On to Seward!

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An umiak with its recently sewn seal skin stretched tight sits on the Chukchi Sea ice, waiting for whaling season to begin in March. 

May 17, Point Hope, Alaska: Near-blizzard conditions forced a one-hour delay to the start of school yesterday, the day before the end of our school year. A little snow and high winds notwithstanding, all 30 of our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade  students eventually arrived. It’s much more calm today. Scattered snow flurries have been breaking up an otherwise sunny day, and at 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the McKay’s buntings and gulls that showed up a few weeks ago when the weather was warmer (in the low 30’s) are out again. Looks like clear weather for our flight out tomorrow.

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Near shore, the going is easy across the frozen sea. But the ice ridge on the horizon hints at the arduous work involved in breaking the trails that will allow whaling crews to get their boats and gear out to the lead (open water).

This marks our third year in Arctic Alaska. We’ll be back for a fourth in August. We’re up here in Point Hope at a time in our lives when Time to study, Time to write, and Time to hone our skills as photographers, writers and chefs is especially valuable. Yes, it’s cold – brutally so at times-, and there is the entire month in mid-winter when we do not see the sun. But that’s part of the narrative. So are the dazzling displays of northern lights, the sublimely sweet cloudberries that grow only in these extreme latitudes, and the Arctic foxes, snowy owls, polar bears and whales that are part of the fabric of life up here. Learning to stock a gourmet kitchen in the bush nearly 1,000 roadless miles from stores in Anchorage has prompted us to master “from scratch” cooking to a level of expertise I doubt we would achieved had we remained in our comfortable bungalow back in California.

ice sculpture chukchi sea_n

A fresh dusting of snow powders  ice sculptures that were pushed up when shifting winds caused  massive plates of ice to collide. Anytime you’re out on the ice, you’re mindful that another shift in the wind could push the ice apart again, leaving you stranded. You learn to keep an eye on the cracks.

By this time next week, we’ll be in Seward living aboard our summer home, the sailing vessel Bandon. Among other things we’re looking forward to is an intensive wine appreciation course we’ll be taking with another couple. We’re also eager to do some serious shooting with our new Nikkor 200-400 mm telephoto lens- a tool that should help us get intimate photographs of the amazing wildlife in and around Resurrection Bay. Daughter Maia will come up in July for our annual visit centered around fishing, hiking, great meals (and great conversation) and general catching up. The puzzles of turning out excellent meals from our small galley, figuring out where the salmon are in the nearby sea, experimenting with our new tenkara fly rods on smaller streams and maybe finally getting good photos of wary tundra swans are among other things that will keep us happily occupied in the coming months.

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A whaling hook marks the trail out to the camps. This was a good year in Point Hope – five bowhead whales, lots of beluga whales, and everyone came back safe. Each whale represents tens of thousands of dollars worth of groceries that didn’t necessitate a river being drained for irrigation, fertilizer being spread (that ends up over-nutrifying nearby water systems), or a single drop of pesticide being sprayed. Nor were barrels of fossil fuel burned getting this food up here. 

An important part of our summer in Seward involves seeing to our own provisions. When we return to Point Hope in August, we’ll bring with us 200 pounds of salmon, halibut, rockfish and lingcod fillets – enough for us and for gifts for our friends up here. We’ll also be making shopping runs to Costco and other stores and ship up the usual bags of flour, rice, beans and sugar as well as everything from jars of Kalamata olives to tins of anchovies.

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Wherever this summer finds you, we hope you’ll be following your dreams or taking steps to make those dreams come true. And we hope you’ll continue reading CutterLight.

Sincerely, Jack and Barbra

Alaska: Northern Lights in the Big Point Hope Sky

Named for the Roman Goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek word for north wind, Boreas, Aurora Borealis events originate with the sun and are carried to Earth on solar winds.

Notice the seal skin boats in front of the snow fence in this photo looking northwest along the lagoon at Point Hope. The most common color for  Northern Lights is green – whitish green on nights of weak activity. Yellows, pinks, reds and purples are less common. Any color in the night sky is a thrill.

We have a phone tree set up so we can let each other know when the lights are out in force. When our phone woke us just after five AM this morning, we didn’t even pick up. We threw on warm clothes and coats (the windchill was below zero degrees Fahrenheit) put together the camera and tripod, and headed out the door. 

We walked away from the town’s lights, to the darkness near the lagoon, and set up. We took these shots with a 15 second exposure. When the lights are active, they move, constantly changing shape and color. 


A Ghost Town, Grizzlies, and the Best Fish and Chips Anywhere

Patrolling Hyder, Alaska’s Fish Creek like she owns it, 600-pound Monica fattens up on a freshly subdued chum salmon.

With a population of fewer than 100 residents, Hyder, Alaska, bills itself as “The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska.” The town is one of those gems that is far enough off the beaten path to still be something of a secret, known mainly to the relatively few people who travel the Cassiar Highway in western British Columbia. Many of these travelers are on their way to or from Alaska, and not even all of these travelers are aware of what Hyder offers.

A prize for any grizzly, this beautifully marked chum salmon makes its way up the air-clear water of Fish Creek. 

In addition to rare opportunities to watch and photograph grizzlies up close from a safe vantage point (an elevated viewing deck runs along a short portion of Fish Creek), Hyder boasts what is surely one of the world’s most unusual destination restaurants. We’ve written about the Seafood Express in a previous post. Established in 1998, the school bus Jim and Diana Simpson converted into a restaurant continues to turn out the very best fish and chips we’ve ever had. Even when the salmon and bears aren’t in, the restaurant alone makes taking the turnoff to Hyder worthwhile. Jim, a fisherman by trade, supplies the fresh salmon, halibut, shrimp and prawns Diana magically transforms into perfectly crispy, golden-brown, airily light creations that seem to disappear in one’s mouth. Complimented by a bottle of Alaskan Amber Ale, lingering over a meal there is the perfect way to relax after a morning of nature watching while Rufous Hummingbirds trill musically from the nearby spruce and fir forest.

A female common merganser (Mergus merganser) leads her brood of chicks (next photo) down Fish Creek’s crystalline currents.

Merganser chicks scurry to keep up with their mother. This type of duck typically nests in tree cavities near water. They feed on small fish, insects and (I’m guessing) salmon eggs when they can find them.

Since 1998, the Seafood Express has been serving up gourmet-quality fish and chips

The viewing platform on Fish Creek provides one of the very few places in North America where people can routinely and safely view wild grizzlies from a fairly close distance. The platform is manned by knowledgable U. S. Forest Service Rangers. The best viewing is from late July through September.

A trip to Alaska through British Columbia by car, camper or motorhome is a trip of a lifetime. If your route takes you along the Cassiar Highway, Hyder should be a “must visit” destination!

For more, click here to see our iReport on CNN.

Leaving Seward, 2012

Rainbow over Cook Inlet – this photo was taken the second week of August, our last week in Seward.

For us, our summer in Seward came to an end in early August. Our sailboat, Bandon, is sitting on the hard with a fresh coat of bottom paint. We are already counting the days till next May when we’ll move back aboard.

Below: There are days on the Kenai Peninsula when it looks and even feels like we could be in Hawaii or some South Pacific paradise. As it is, we are in a paradise – Alaska. We can’t imagine a better place to cut our teeth as sailors than in Seward. 

Bacon-Wrapped Smelts (Hooligans, Eulachons or Candlefish)

Freshly caught smelt prepared two ways: In the foreground, the fish was rolled in polenta. The smelt in back was dusted in seasoned flour. The fish were pan fried, wrapped in bacon and placed on whole leaves of Romain lettuce to be eaten from head to tail, bones and all. A sprig of asparagus and a few dollops of bright orange flying fish roe (tobiko) finishes the lettuce taco.

As I write this, one of the small rivers flowing into Resurrection Bay is jammed full of smelt. Specifically Thaleichthys pacificus, commonly referred to as hooligans. The AFS (American Fisheries Society) has settled on the name eulachon (pronounced you-luh-chawn), from the Chinook Indian name for the fish. Early west coast explorers and settlers called them candlefish because the spawning fish are so full of fat (about 15% of body weight) that when dried, they can be lit and will burn like a candle.

In the foreground: Polenta is especially coarse cornmeal. Seasoned with salt and pepper, rolling smelt in polenta gives these soft-fleshed fish a nice crunch when pan friend. In the back: another way to prepare smelt for the frying pan is by dropping them into a Ziplock bag containing seasoned flour and giving them a few shakes. Tarragon, fennel, marjoram and salt and pepper are a good start when seasoning these fish. Tongs make this a neat job. Note the asparagus in the pan on the stove.

The meat and bones of eulachons are quite soft. So soft, in fact, that when pan fried, the bones are barely noticeable. Their flavor is wonderful, but they definitely benefit from the addition of some crunch.

When the smelt are running in a river with a healthy population, getting enough for a meal or two is easy. On large rivers, a long-handled net might be necessary. But on this river, the fish were thick and close to shore. Two scoops of the net, and we had all the fish we needed.

Like their relatives, the salmon, eulachon are anadromous. They spend most of their life in the ocean, feeding on plankton, and then return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn, after which they die. Males arrive first and comprise virtually all the fish in the early part of the run. Later the females show up. Ideally, it’s the females you want, as a fresh fish laden with ripe eggs is a delicacy.

The males are quite good, too. In either case, cleaning these small fish (they average about eight inches/20 centimeters) is a simple matter of rinsing them in clean, cold water. There is no need to gill, gut or scale them.

A seemingly endless school of eulachons makes its way up an Alaskan river.

A Study of Upper Summit Lake, Alaska

One of the most frequently photographed lakes in Alaska, Upper Summit Lake lies along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Seward.

We recently got a wide-angle landscape lens and were eager to try it out. A broken sky over breaking up ice on Upper Summit Lake created a visually arresting set of contrasts and similarities.

We’d never been on the Kenai Peninsula early enough to see this much ice and snow. Only a few days prior, the lake was completely covered in ice, although it was apparent it was beginning to thin.

Notice the dandelions blooming in the foreground. Tough little flowers, pushing up through asphalt in the city, almost pushing away the ice and snow up here.

The upper end of Upper Summit Lake is the kind of place where we slow down and scan for moose.

Stanley and the Lance

Our home on wheels the past three summers – a Lance camper perched on a 3/4 ton Chevy Silverado, here parked for lunch with a gorgeous view of Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska. Note the hitch for towing our C-Dory 22 Angler. This photo was taken on May 21, 2012.

Our first summer in Alaska, we lived aboard our C-Dory 22 Angler, GillieGillie’s pilot house and cuddy cabin made for a cozy nest, and the spirited little Toyota Tacoma that did the pulling over the 8,000 plus miles we drove that summer was, simply, the most enjoyable vehicle either one of us has ever driven. The 43 days we spent traveling in that rig made for a summer for the books. In fact, we talked for some time about traveling all across North America in this rig: exploring blue highways both on land and on water, envisioning jaunts down to the Florida Keys, out to Martha’s Vineyard, across the country to Catalina Island and everywhere in between. We even talked about launching the C-Dory at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and cruising all the way down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans.

But when we made the decision to move to Alaska, rent out our home in Sacramento, and spend our summers on the Kenai Peninsula…

A carved wooden hummingbird given to us by our daughter, Maia, on a trip that passed through a First Nations village in British Columbia greets us each time we open the door. Framed artwork and other personal touches make our camper a home.

After months of comparative shopping and researching campers and trucks, we still felt like we didn’t know as much as we would have liked. On the other hand, we knew enough to be comfortable making a decision. We’ve been very happy with both the Lance Camper and the Chevy Silverado 2500 it sits on.

The camper has a queen-size bed, lots of windows and skylights providing natural lighting, a three-burner propane stove with oven, an air conditioner and heater, a good shower and flush toilet, a TV and sound system, a great refrigerator/freezer, lots of storage space and enough room overhead to be comfortable for a person of my height (I’m 6′ 1″). We added a solar panel, which we highly recommend; even on cloudy days the battery charges. We also have a generator which, although rarely used, has been much appreciated the couple of times we’ve needed it.

A pair of Xtratuff boots – iconic of Alaska anglers and boaters – is ready at the entrance. 

Stanley is a name conferring strength and dependability – like Stanley tools. Fitted with airbags (extra shock absorbers), our three-quarter ton Silverado has performed superbly carrying the camper and towing our 4,500 pound boat. Given a steep mountain grade, Stanley shifts down as if to say, “All right.” Nothing more. No groaning and straining, no needless extra shifting, just a simple, straightforward, “All right” and up the mountain we go. And kicked into four-wheel drive, this truck has the grit to power through even loose beach sand with the camper – a test we didn’t intend to put the truck through and won’t be repeating.

We went back and forth regarding two options: gas or diesel, and dual rear wheels or single. We opted for a gas engine and single wheels, and after three summers of putting this rig to the test we can say without hesitation that with the right tires, single wheels are fine. And we’re happy we don’t have to deal with the noise of a diesel engine (or impose that noise on our neighbors). That being said, the fact is we don’t put a lot of miles on our rig. A diesel engine offers some real advantages to campers engaged in extensive traveling.

To anyone contemplating a rig like this, we have one firm recommendation: Start by choosing the camper you want, then match it to the right truck. 

This watercolor by Homer, Alaska artist Leslie Klaar depicts a boat much like our C-Dory heading off for a day of fishing in the great Northwest. It hangs near the door of of our camper.

Childs Glacier: When Ice Falls

The face of Childs Glacier forms a bank on the Copper River near Cordova, Alaska. This is the same Copper River famed for its runs of wild salmon.

Two days prior, we’d launched our C-Dory in Valdez and made the 90-mile run across a section of Prince William Sound to Cordova – a fishing village accessible only by air or water. The livelihood of many of Cordova’s 2,000 or so inhabitants is connected to the massive runs of salmon that ascend the nearby Copper River. A running event, the Alaska Salmon Runs Marathon and Half-Marathon road races, had lured us to this idyllic village. We hadn’t even known about Childs Glacier when we first put together our travel plans.

Just 400 yards across the river is a picnic area offering excellent views of the glacier.

As often happens at running events, it wasn’t long after we’d finished the half-marathon that we fell into conversation with another couple. They were planning on renting a car and driving out to see the glacier the following day. When they asked if we’d be interested in splitting the rental car and joining them, we didn’t hesitate. This would be our first opportunity to get close to a glacier.

We figured we’d drive out, snap a few photos, have lunch at the picnic area, and drive back. If we were lucky, we might see a moose or a bear along the way. This was before we understood the dynamic nature of sea-level glaciers. We were completely unprepared for what we would experience.

A shower of ice sloughs off the glacier’s face.

The width of the chalky-brown Copper River was all that separated the picnic area from this very active mass of slowly moving ice. Think of the cracking and popping sounds a couple of fresh ice cubes make in a glass of whisky. Now imagine those sounds magnified to amplitudes ranging from rifle fire to dynamite charges as ice almost continuously breaks away from the glacier’s face. We were mesmerized. The half-hour we’d planned on staying turned into an hour, then into two, and then into three.

We were witnessing yet another Alaskan phenomenon so large and full of energy that it is all but impossible to adequately capture on film or with words – an event you have to experience to comprehend, and we were here, experiencing it. Although neither Barbra nor I gave voice to the thought, it was probably on this day, watching and listening to this glacier, that the idea of moving up here began to root itself in us.

We sensed that something BIG was about to happen.

Suddenly, a massive section of ice below a seam we had been watching seemed to sag. A fraction of a second later a prolonged groaning, cracking explosion unlike any we’d heard before reached our ears as the face of the glacier fell away, collapsing into the water with a force that sent a small tidal wave curling toward us. The four of us looked at each other, eyes wide, jaws dropped, and quickly gathered our gear and scurried for higher ground. Seconds later, the wave hit the shore, inundating the area where we’d been standing only moments earlier. It was thrilling.

This large iceberg in Prince William Sound is the result of a glacier calving event in one of the sound’s fjords. Kittiwakes and gulls have claimed it as a roosting place.