12 July, 1998
TEA/Alaska - 98
Journal Entry 3 - July 12, 1998
Travel to Seward, Ak
I'm awakened about 5.am to the sound of chirping birds and the sunshine streaming through my window. My window overlooked the Valdez marina, the backdrop of which were snow-capped mountains. I was captivated by this scene and sounds. I slowly got ready for the day's activities. We were leaving for Seward, via Whittier and Portage - an 8 hour trip, lots of time to enjoy the panoramic view of the Valdez Arm, Prince William Sound, the famous glaciers of that region, and all the wildlife we can possibly see. It was a pleasant morning, a cool 47 degrees with a projected high of 67 degrees. As we walked along the docks waiting to board the State Ferry - the E.L. Bartlett, we saw sea otters feasting on their catch, and a variety of birds. Passengers were confined to the two upper decks , both partially enclosed, with a solarium on the uppermost deck. All vehicles and heavy luggage were stored on the lower deck (1st level). The view from the ferry was great from all angles. One of the features of the daily ferry service is having a naturalist on board who is an informant on all of the features of the ferry route - history, geology, forestry, and pointing out specific locations for the perfect photo opportunities. Of course, we heard all about the Exxon Valdez oil spill as we passed by the Alyeska Pipeline terminal. Again, details were given about the many precautionary measures that have been installed to prevent any such disaster from reoccurring.
As we traveled thorough the Valdez Narrows, the Shoup and
Anderson glaciers and Mount Shasta were identified. The receeding features of these glaciers were also explained. As we left the Valdez Arm and entered the widening Prince William Sound, Bligh Reef was pointed out to us - the ill fated location of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. We then traveled westward to glacier island through Columbia Bay (commercial route), about six miles from the calving area of the glacier. Mysterious blue, blue and white, and blue white and black icebergs of all shapes and sizes, drifted away from the glacier into the sound. Each iceberg had a unique shape, and drifted at phenomenal velocities hitting the sides of the ferry. This was awesome. I was spellbound and in total in amazement to witness such an act of nature. It was also very windy at that time and some icebergs came crashing into the sides of the ferry. Certainly, the thoughts of Titanic entered many people's minds ... including mine. Even though many of the closer icebergs appeared small, we had to remember that we were only seeing one-tenth of their size. The calving area of the Columbia glacier was massive. The wide vertical drop stood majestically like a retaining wall in the distance, beautifully reflecting the blue light.
Being very excited about seeing real icebergs, I was trying to capture as much as I could on film. And then the most spectacular event of nature occurred. You would not believe what I witnessed. I saw a huge iceberg take a nose dive, and reemerge as a totally different shape and form. How amazing.!!! I kept saying to the people around me - "did you see that ?" over and over again, not realizing until afterwards that they too were asking the same question. It is one thing to read about natural events occurring in extreme environments, but it is another thing to experience it. The ferry continued its route around glacier island and on to Whittier. Along the way we saw large cruise ships, fishing boats, more wildlife - sea gulls, acrobatic sea otters and purposes. I was hoping to see whales, but was not that lucky.
For the benefit of everyone on board, the naturalist gave an excellent demonstration of how glaciers are formed, and explained the calving mechanism. She also explained why the icebergs appeared blue, why there were the blackened areas of some of the icebergs, and why the surrounding water appeared turquoise,
Blue - reflection of light through the compact ice crystals.
Black - sections of rock that break off with the glacier during the advancement and calving of the glacier.
Turquoise water - the mixing of the glacial silt in the surrounding water.
Just before the ferry docked in Whittier, it passed a nearby cliff on which were a flock of kittiwakes. It was one of the many rookeries of the sound. The unique behaviors of the birds were also explained. We also saw several waterfalls, all very beautiful in their own way.
What a trip!! ..... long, but never a dull moment.
Whittier is an interesting place. A town that exist in one highrise building sitting at the foot of the mountains, with several abandoned buildings around it that once housed army personnel. The marina was very small but very picturesque. Across from the marina was the mighty Alaska Railroad cars. We boarded the rail car and sat on the upper deck from where we could have a good view of our scenic route- vast, pristine, arctic wilderness and a tunnel. Shortly after emerging from the tunnel, we were in Portage. There we were met by Dr. Merav Ben-David (My Principal Investigator for the River Otter Project) who was driving us to Seward. It was a very pleasant meeting and warm reception.
On our way to Seward, Dr. Ben-David gave us a crash course on
the Kenai Peninsula - its geologic history and the formation of the fjords, its geography, and its unique arctic ecology. This was very informative and interesting. This was a drive-by field trip. The Alaskan highway is an endless stretch of two-lane roads - one lane in each direction, except at a major intersection. It is not uncommon to see people pull off on the shoulders of the road just to enjoy the scenery, or to look more closely at the wildlife. We were no different. Having sighted a large moose in one of the bog areas along the forest edge, we pulled off the road, parked on the shoulder, took out our binoculars and spent a few minutes observing the moose. Dr. Ben-David also pointed out to us places of interest - for example the salmon hatchery and the nearby lake where there is an extensive salmon aquaculture program in operation. She also shared with us the fact that based on artificial spawning, there is some degree of genetic drift, and the selection of the good genes in salmon population is affected . However the fish biologists are doing their very best to maintain genetic equilibrium of salmon species. We stopped at the grocery store to stock up on supplies for a few days, and headed to the university apartments where we will be staying for the duration of our assignment in Seward.
After unloading our stuff - lots of it, we rested for a while, then joined Dr. Ben-David and Susanne Trillhose for dinner . Susanne is one of her students who is working on the River Otter Project. We returned to the apartments after dinner, and went for a walk along the road behind the Sea Life Center which leads to a park, private property, and camping ground. A very forceful waterfall came tumbling down the rocks near to the road, emptying into a stream that connected with the bay - Resurrection Bay. Both people and a flock of gulls were competing for fish in this stream, with both sides experiencing success. On our way back to the apartments, Elisa and I collected some wild flowers which we pressed later. While we were picking the flowers, we saw a porcupine trying to make its way under a fence. After a few unsuccessful attempts, it moved towards the open area. By that time we were flashing cameras at it and I think that disoriented it a little. Well, Well, Well, wasn't that a full day? and guess what? I am
not tired. It is about 11.30 pm, and it still light out. Anyway, I have to rest in order to be fresh and ready for the first day of our project. Tomorrow we get to meet the river otters, all fifteen of them. Yeah!!
Before I sign off, here is Noa, who wants to express some of her inner feelings of Alaska with you -
Today epitomized the scenic spirit of Alaska. The ferry floated on the unique steel-blue waters filled with the regional glacial silt. Mountains rose up on either side of the waterway, flaunting a diverse collection of flora and fauna. They start at the bottom with a lush boreal forest with stately evergreens covering every visible spot. It slowly fades into an alpine tundra that covers the middle third of the mountain with a green blanket of short shrubbery. It provides a beautiful contrast to the dark gray of the snow-covered peaks. The bright blue sky is yet another shade in the panorama of blues, grays, and greens. Everything is massive and still and breathtakingly beautiful; the power and majesty of Nature are apparent and you feel happy just to be alive.
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