New Year's Letter 2005

Happy New Year everyone!  Below is my third annual Christmas letter--a brief synopsis of another year of exciting adventures, (which pale only next to the bliss of 2004).  Previous letters are up on my web site:  To start with work, I slid up another notch in the State system last April and now find myself a “Grants Administrator II” which is meaningful only to those of you who share my travails at the State.  As more of my grantees’ projects came to fruition (I work mostly with salmon fishermen and processors), I traveled a bit around the State, starting in March with Adak.  The southernmost community in Alaska, Adak is also WAY out in the Aleutian Islands, an isolated ex-Navy base built for 6,000 people during the cold war and now home to about 100.  More than anything, it is extremely windy, (and more than a little bizarre).  The volcanic hills, covered in grassy tundra, are laced with old military roads and bunkers, so my co-worker and I were able to drive around quite a bit.  Wildlife included tons of white rock ptarmigan, sea otters, lots of migrating ducks, and (the highlight) Emperor geese.  The landscape was dramatic, with a volcanic slope rising smoothly behind the town, black sand beaches and precipitous cliffs.  It was March, so the tundra was brown, but I could imagine a magnificent lush green (if windswept) summer landscape.  The weather literally changed every 15 minutes between sunshine, fog, snow and rain; the only constant was the wind.  We lived in an ex-military townhouse set among dozens of identical abandoned buildings—the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to an apocalyptic nightmare where you suddenly find that the rest of the world has disappeared.  Everyone drove the same ex-military white pick-ups which heightened the bizarreness of the place.  We borrowed the city fire pickup to drive around in (it had several spent fire extinguishers in the back) and wondered what would happen if a fire sprung up while we were in it.  We joined the locals for a “big party” at the VFW hall bar Saturday night where about six people showed up for shots and birthday cake.  Very strange. 

In June I drove through most of the towns on Prince of Wales Island and stopped in Ketchikan on the way back to visit grantees.  In July I spent several days in Kenai, Homer and Seward (on the Kenai Peninsula) and managed to slide in a quick horse back ride in the mountains.  Later in the season I made it to Sitka and Petersburg here in Southeast Alaska, and finally on to Fish Expo in Seattle this November.

The Snettisham tourism project made some progress.  During the spring push we hired a landing craft to deliver extra lumber, put up the fourth (and last) of the small guest cabins, and dug 16 foundations holes for the eating/dining lodge.  Having exhausted my construction skills digging holes, I hired a carpenter friend to frame the lodge itself (unlike the other cabins, it was not a kit).  He and I and two others put in the foundation, the floor, and four walls in a crushingly exhausting four-day work party (the late night beers probably didn’t help).  Two more weekends through the summer with various volunteers saw the roof come on, and in August my carpenter and I finished the porch in rough-cut cedar from Hoonah.  The view is stunning, and it’s a thrill to have a porch to sit on.  Unfortunately, it sits five feet off the ground, so stairs will be a priority next year.

We spotted whales all summer in the Snettisham inlet, but they didn’t approach the property as close as they did the year before.  Seals, too, were scarce, though the residents were up to their usual breaching/slapping antics.  The local sea lion haul-out was active until late into May when the inlet was thick with loons and murrelets.  Two beavers swam by the property, and mink were spotted as well as a black bear.  Not ten feet from the back of the lodge I came across a well used bear bed tucked between two large roots of a spruce tree.  It was perfectly smooth (and comfortable) and a few feet away were a dozen or more bear piles.  Leading away from it was an “ancient” bear trail where generations (we think) of bears have stepped in the same places and made clear footprint depressions in the moss.  The trail went down river a hundred yards before disappearing.

As most of you know, I made another pilgrimage to Sweetheart Creek to harvest sockeye salmon this August.  The creek was packed with pink salmon (less desirable), but we still came away with 70 sockeyes in our casting net.  Half the time we were there, a mother brown bear with two cubs was fishing a small waterfall about 30 feet upriver.  On the boat ride home we ran out of gas (not my fault) and had to have a friend fly jerry jugs of gas out to the boat in his floatplane so we could make it home.  It was a bit of an adventure.

Larry and I dove less this summer than usual and let the year go without doing a major dive vacation.  We had good intentions of saving our money and annual leave for a while, but broke down recently and booked a trip back to the Socorro Islands this March during humpback whale season.  More on that I hope next Christmas.  We did take a quick vacation to Seattle, however, timed to coincide with an Angels (at Mariners) baseball game.  Though I’ve been an Angels fan for several years, I’d never seen a game.  We bought 7th row tickets just behind first base and watched the Angels beat the Mariners 9 to 4.  Guerrero hit two home runs, B. Molina hit one and Figgins stole 2nd—quite the thrill to be there in person.  The highlight was watching Jarrod Washburn pitch, (my favorite pitcher), and see him warm up from about eight feet away in the bullpen.  He’d been on the disabled list, so having him pitch was an unexpected surprise.

While in Seattle I also spent a few hours shopping downtown and unloading an alarming sum of money on clothing (a first for me).  On Sunday we took a ferry to the San Juan Islands and onto a whale watching trip to visit the famous southern resident community of orcas (they’re the group so famously depleted in the Puget Sound area).  While the whale watching wasn’t spectacular, but we did encounter J, K, and L pods all together in a superpod (that’s the whole community), which was pretty cool.

This orca encounter strengthened my desire to come home and see my own SE Alaska orcas.  One of my summer goals is always to hang out with resident orcas in September when pods frequent the area in search of coho salmon.  On September 12, I received word that a cruise ship had spotted a resident pod heading toward our area.  A few hours later, I took off with a friend and her son in the skiff to seek them out.  I’ve been on more than one fruitless orca hunt, but this time we found them with little effort.  It turned out to be a superpod of locals—AG and AF pods together, the two resident pods that center their range around Northern Southeast Alaska.  AF is family to my old buddy AF29, who I mentioned in my last Christmas letter (I’ve seen him for the last eight years) and who is featured as the big male on the front of the Christmas card.  He was traveling with about six other mature males, an impressive site with their six foot tall dorsal fins.  The other 75-100 orcas were in groups of six to 20.  One group was particularly friendly.  They were mostly females and young orcas, carousing ceaselessly (spy hopping, tail slapping, breaching, rolling around, fin slapping, and rolling on their sides to look at us).  Superpods are social gatherings where mating takes place, and we also saw some of that (or at least some fooling around).

 The highlight was when the curious orcas would approach the boat when we were in neutral or shut down.  Each time they came up, some of them passed close by, so close that I came within 12 inches of touching them a number of times.  They swam by underwater on their sides, looking up at us through the water and we could see whole bodies, if a little blurred.  We were heavily misted by their blows once as they exhaled coming straight toward the stern of the skiff.  They dove just as they reached the end of the boat (we were in neutral) and then three of them stopped underwater and hovered about four feet down, right alongside the boat in a perfect row.  We weren't moving and they weren't moving.  We could see all their white patches as they hovered there, perfectly motionless.  Then one of them rose very very slowly  to the surface, lifted his pretty white chin above the water, and looked me right in the eye.  It was chilling.

 That evening I took a friend in the skiff for my first ever solo trip up the Taku River to my family’s cabin.  The trick is to weave your way through a shallow, sandbar-ridden river a half mile wide.  I did touch bottom on sandbars a few times, but made it within a mile of the cabin before grounding.  It was 8:00 and nearly dark by the time we pushed our way through the brush to the cabin—I was grateful that I remembered the way after two years off the river!  The next morning we picked enough fall blueberries for muffins and the last vestiges of nagoonberries and strawberries before heading back to town.  

This fall saw a bit more personal travel, some pleasant, other less so.  In mid-September I traveled to Michigan to visit an old friend from my Oberlin college days.  We spent several days on her family’s private island in Lake Huron, enjoying the log lodge, fireplace, fall scenery, and wildlife (frogs, beavers, birds and mink).  Unfortunately, Larry’s mother fell ill during the same time.  We traveled to California to see her and spend time with the family.  She passed away several weeks later.

At work we had the second annual Department of Commerce Haunted House.  Several co-workers and I put together a labor-intensive (and fairly sophisticated) “Forest of the Damned.”  We used filing cabinets of various heights to make a staircase over a cubicle wall, complete with a flowing “bloody river” on each side, a log (tunnel) at the top, and a slide at the end.  There was a possessed lumberjack, a werewolf, a creepy Blair Witch area, outhouse, scary tent scene, and forest cemetery.  I was an evil skeleton monk in the cemetery and pretended to be a stuffed dummy, lunging at people and scaring them as they passed by.  It was great.

That about sums it up.  Hope you’re all well and healthy!

Happy Holidays

Debbie's Biography