Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Misty Fjords

View within Rudyerd Bay in the heart of Misty Fjords National Monument.   Gray skies and
wispy clouds against the granite rock walls are typical.
Five days a week I serve as the naturalist aboard either the St. Nona or the St. John, on a four and a half hour tour to the Misty Fjords National Monument.   The voyage, to the heart of Rudyerd Bay, is 120 miles round trip using a catamaran with 4 jet engines.    With two decks with inside seating, these tours handle about 140 people, a far cry from my small, more intimate tours on the red and yellow historic buses of Yellowstone and Glacier, or even my 20 person walking tours at Bodie.
View of Rudyerd Bay on a sunny day.  These are far less common and this one was during training.  There is
still a lot of snow high up.  By mid July there are just patches

Small waterfalls and clouds, trees growing out of of the granite rock face
is a typical scene within the Monument.
    The boats were built specifically for this trip since speed, comfort and good visibility are all required.  Allen Marine started out as a boat building facility in Sitka.  They are still  in that business, but a number of years ago began giving tours in Sitka.    They designed and build the boats for their tours in Sitka, Ketchikan, and Juneau.
    The founders are Bob and Betty Allen.  She is Tlingit, Bob came to Alaska (after being born in my old stomping grounds of Humboldt County, CA) and most of their boats are named for saints  of the Russian Orthodox Church.   Russians were the first people of non-Native origin to settle in this territory, and Sitka still exhibits the ties to that past.   The third generation of the family now hold management roles in the firm.
     Our journey takes us through waterways carved by glaciers, between dozens of the 10,000 islands of coastal Alaska, past remnants of volcanoes, beneath monoliths of granite and peaks shoved up by tectonic activity.   Except for private lands in and around Ketchikan, Pennock Island, Gravina Island, and the only Native Reservation in Alaska on Annette Island, all of which are close to our starting and ending point, the day's tour is mostly in areas without human habitation.   Much of SE Alaska is in the  17,000 acre Tongass National Forest, the largest in the country, and one which is larger than 5 of the states in the lower 48.  Misty Fjords National Monument, established in 1979 is a 2.2 million acre area within the larger Tongass National Forest, and except for a small area with  molybdenum which may someday be utilized, it is a designated wilderness area.

Within a short geographical range, the environment goes from the depths of the ocean to alpine lakes and peaks.   It is a rich natural region.     Major currents meet here creating upwellings and rich marine life.   It keeps the weather wet and mild in temperature and maintains a highly productive mix of organisms that feed the larger fish and mammals.   A humpback whale eats very little during their migration or their time in Hawaii where they mate and calve. During those months they live off the blubber built up during their summers in rich SE Alaska where they eat up to a ton of food a day.

The temperate rain forest provides the perfect environment for salmon to spawn.   All the rain means plenty of clear creeks, the forest provides the shade\downed trees,and stream side vegetation and insects necessary to maintain creeks good for spawning and fry.  Five kinds of salmon; chum, sockeye, king, silver and pink begin and end their lives in those creeks with the interim spent in the salty waterways of southeast Alaska.  Between ocean and forest is a band of tidal zones, each with its own distinct crustaceans and flora.   The local saying is that when the tide is out, the table is set.   With 23 foot tides, there is a lot of intertidal life from giant sun stars and crabs, sea cucumbers, limpets, mussels and barnacles. 

The forests are home to bears, both black and brown (grizzlies), wolves, sitka black tail deer, mink, martens, weasels, beaver, eagles, and ravens,.  Waterbirds like pigeon guillemots, marbled murlets, sea gulls, and others finds nesting areas along the cliffs (or, in the case of the murlets, in old growth forests well inland).  Harbor seals pull out on rocky islands to give birth and to rest, dall's porpoises like to ride the bow waves of the boat, transient pods of orcas (killer whales) search for seals, fish and even whales to feed upon, while the resident orcas leave the bigger prey alone and feed largely on salmon.    Estuaries provide for places for river\land otters, herons, and songbirds to live.   Muskeg, with its acidic water is great for cranberries and blueberries and the sphagnum moss acts like giant sponges capturing and releasing the abundant rains and releasing water into streams and waterfalls.  High above it all, in the alpine regions, mountain goats and pikas live.

"Fjords" are salt water inlets and waterways created by the glaciers.   The large carved, U-shaped glacial valleys filled with salt water as glaciers melted creating the marvels of southeast Alaska's land of fjords, islands and waterway links throughout the region  

And in Misty Fjords National Monument are some of the most spectacular of these fjords.  In Rudgear Bay in the heart of the Monument, granite cliffs rise straight up 3,000 feet and waterfalls spill down the faces.  
New Edystone Rock, named by explorer George Vancouver after the New Edystone
Lighthouse in Plymouth England is a 237 foot,6 million year old spire, a volcanic plug of basalt.   Only this much remains
of a once much larger cone but has been eroded by later glacial action.  It sits in Behm Canal not far from where two "new" volcanoes were discovered by NOAA this spring.  These new volcanoes are old and extinct, "new" only in the sense that it was a new discovery for humans.
Rudyerd Bay is filled with waterfalls.  They do disappear, mostly, if there is a period of dry, warm weather.  But then
reappear after a rain.   They are fed by snow melt, overflow from alpine lakes and release of water by sphagnum moss in muskeg areas.    A good rainfall fills the lakes to overflow and re saturates the muskegs.

Here I am as a naturalist, interacting with guests.  Chris took this photo during his
vacation the week of the 4th of July.
One of many waterfalls in Rudgear  Bay, Misty
Fjords National Monument.

Harbor seals on rocks in Behm Canal in Misty Fjords

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