Wild Alaska: A Festival of Spring & Renewal
Updated: May 1
Spring happens in SE Alaska according to the age old calendar whether one is ready or not and this year Spring tunneled in under a blanket of fierce cold winter weather. Freezing temperatures, snow in the lower elevations and gale force winds greeted the vast assembly of wildlife that gathered to await the herring spawning event in Sitka Sound. An impressive host of commercial and subsistence fishermen were also at the ready to harvest herring bearing its roe when the precise time came.
Our group of adventure seekers and photographers arrived in Sitka a few days ahead of our planned departure to explore the town with its rich traditions of indigenous peoples and seasonal celebrations along with an overlay of colonial Russian history which included the darkness of the Pacific Northwest fur trade dominant in the late 18th and 19th centuries. We found the town of 8500 souls charming, and in a general state of nervous readiness for the upcoming tourist season which kicks off in late April. Weekly giant cruise ships filled with tourists start to arrive, some with as many as 5000 visitors aboard.
There are several excellent museums, a raptor rehabilitation center, four significant boat harbors, a modern airport which welcomes jets from the lower 48 daily along with many galleries, gift shops and some public building showcases all designed to channel tourist $ into the local economy during the season.
The volcano Mt Edgecombe looms large over Sitka Sound and was especially impressive in its early spring coverlet of snow which is usually mostly gone in April. Surrounding the Sound are numerous rocky islands often with deep narrow channels between them. There are many hidden anchorages to escape gales from almost any wind direction and during our nine day trip we anchored in a different secluded place every night. We had a couple of days where we stayed in the shelter of an anchorage watching for gathering waterfowl while a 40 kt blow raised havoc on the outside. It was fun to imagine the first European explorers who navigated these same waters without any aids to navigation including charts!
Lovely print by artist historian Mark Myers of the Princess Real and the Prince of Wales making way in tight quarters in the late 1780's while seeking advantage in the trade for sea otter furs.
Tlingit men sporting ceremonial Chilkat blankets made primarily from woven mountain goat hair around 1900. These blankets are very rare and considered priceless treasures.
Old Sitka circa 1900
Sitka Sound area on Baranof Island.
Herring seiner in position to make a test set of their net to determine herring roe quality, a precursor to Alaska Fish & Game opening the commercial season.
Our first night's anchorage. The Northern Song , our home for the voyage, is anchored near the shore where herring have spawned eggs and "milt" which males produce to fertilize the eggs. This drone image by photographer James Begeman (www.saltyphotos.com) who was also our vessel's skipper.
Another beautiful image by James Begemon. Northern Song is in the center.
One more beautiful drone image by James Begemon. Northern Song is in the center.
Once eggs are fertilized they attach themselves to the undersea kelp in the shallows as seen here at low tide. After several months the eggs will hatch and the tiny herring begin the life cycle all over again.
Tlingit tribal elders are honored by tribal members known as "Herring Keepers" who harvest the eggs by placing evergreen boughs from hemlock trees in strategic areas. Once attached the boughs with eggs are gathered by the keepers and boxed ceremonially for presentation to the elders.
Herring Keepers at work here (above)
Mt Edgecombe looms large over the area especially using a telephoto lens!
Dozens of humpback whales gathered in the area to perform cooperative feeding, known locally as "bubble netting".
A tug is pulling a barge through "Peril Strait" against a strong current of 5 knots making for slow going.
Eagles gathered by the hundreds to partake of the feast.
Steller sea lion haulout. These pinnipeds were also very active feeding on the herring.
Herring seiner hauling back their net.
After a full day of witnessing the humpbacks bubble netting in various groups the whales mysteriously disappeared. We saw one or two humpbacks after that but for the most part they had moved on. Interestingly they were replaced by more and more gray whales which entered the area and began to feed on herring eggs by rooting around in the mud found in some of the shallower waters.
Image from drone footage taken by James Begeman of Gray whales feeding on herring eggs in the shallow water. Note mud trailing being filtered out by the baleen on the muddy bottom.
Near Kruzof Island.
There were so many eagles gathered on this shoreline that extended for about a mile we referred to is as "Eagle City". Shallow rocky waters off the beach prevented us from getting too close. Many herring spontaneously expire after the spawning process and are deposited on the beach at low tide allowing the eagles and various gulls to feast uncontrollably til exhaustion.
Bald eagle coming in for the kill.
Mix of Herring, Glaucous and Bonaparte gulls feasting on herring eggs and carcasses.
Bald eagle folds up a wing to lose some altitude quickly while racing for an advantage on a potential shot at prey on the surface below.
SItka deer were seen nibbling on the willows near the rocky beaches. It was too early for the bears (Black & Brown) who are still sleeping for a couple more weeks.
Sea lion Rocks
Surf birds were almost impossible to pick out while at rest from a distance
Sea Otter mom and young feeding in a kelp bed. Their pelts are incredibly dense and were prized by Chinese and luxury European markets in the 19th century. They were hunted to near extinction but have since recovered.
White winged Scoters gathered by the hundreds
Herring tender at rest in our evening anchorage.
Long tailed ducks in flight.
A couple of the amazing images we recorded of bald eagles displaying their magnificent prowess in flight. Truly cool to witness this incredible raptor.
One of SItka's 4 boat harbors. Note the low snow line in the hills. Temps were below freezing on many days during our trip.
Beautiful overview by drone of the center of Baranof Island by James Begeman. Many of the peaks exceed 3000 feet in elevation.