Attention: Wilderness

You can blame the brief pause in writing on my newfound passion for mushroom hunting. While on my curiosity radar for some time, the berry foraging in Alaska sparked memories of blueberrying on summer hikes in Massachusetts and coincided with a rainy late summer day in September. My better half periodically indulges my love of hiking, so the next dry Saturday we trekked to a nearby state park to take in a panoramic view. We accidentally took the wrong trail and began to notice a wildly diverse array of mushrooms cropping up from the recent rainfall. I was interested in developing a photo safari sample for my digital storytelling class and we began wandering off the trail to collect photos. As we researched the mycology to identify our specimens, we correctly ID’d some delicious chanterelles. This sparked more curiosity, and a new way of interacting with the woods.
I used to trail run and loved the meditative quality of the sport. Because trails are uneven and frequently have obstacles such as trunks or tree roots, trail runners have to hone their attention to the placement of the feet, and the practice is a moving meditation. My running days are over, but now scanning the leaf litter and fallen trees for shifts in the pattern of color and shapes created a new kind of gazing structure. My walks have become more meandering, the mushroom photography project is expanding, and I’ve gotten pretty apt at identifying lion’s mane, oysters, and several other mushrooms. Baltimore has the second largest urban forest cover in America, and a thriving community of foragers and urban farmers. An old friend organizes an eponymous Mushroom City art festival as part of citywide free fall events and this year it included a log inoculation center. We’ve now set up a few mushroom growing experiments in my yard and my walks in the woods have grown richer. I’m becoming more and more fascinated by the weird variety of fungal forms and features, and this interest is leading to tree identification as well.

How much time do we spend in the wild, and how can we engage our essential curiosity about the world? What draws your attention? Whether the beautiful variety of form, or the most rudimentary motivation of a gourmet dinner, what drives you to explore and experiment?  One of the gifts of time in nature is developing the ability to pay attention to the world around you . . . where is your attention directed?

Time Bandits and Birdwatching

Time is a bully, difficult to corral. In our daily lives, we block and chunk and manage it; meetings edge into each other and crowd space for reflection in nature. One of the miracles of expedition is its ability to sharpen and change our experience of time by resetting our routines. Jet lag can be helpful here. If I fell asleep on Alaska time, and wake up on Eastern standard, I’d have a few extra hours. Waking early one can seize the dawn, grasping a few precious unscheduled hours to gaze at the sea. Some of the children aboardship were expert naturalists and fellow early risers, and we were able to spot killer whales, humpbacks, porpoises, and more before breakfast

Our schedule was meticulously organized and rearranged for weather and wildlife conditions daily! The intentional breaks between activities were often filled physical maintenance: gearing up in layers, or shucking wet gear and arraying to dry, bringing the body back to its preferred state of dry and warm. In our daily lives, we can be caught up in the maintenance of shopping, cooking, cleaning, yardwork, and miss opportunities to gaze.

On our fourth day the Grosvenor fellows and naturalist staff went in advance of our group on a zodiac to unrack kayaks and scout a hike near a salmon stream. The trails turned out to be a little steeper, more loose and scrabbly than we intended for the group, but on the beach we spotted several brown bears as well as a sandbar full of harbor seals. The area was also lousy with bald eagles but they were eclipsed by other activities; we settled in and bear watched for a bit; then as the group arrived ashore went kayaking, re racked, returned to the boat and did a plankton drag, listened to a recap and then after salmon dinner listened to a talk about the Inian island institute. Inspiring, exciting, fantastic – but birding lends itself best to quiet solo sits for extended periods of time. Getting to nature requires the preparation, hustle and bustle; but once arrived careful attention lets us know when to stop.

Near the Sitka visitor center we had a 45 minute break and, hearing various eagle noises, I made a difficult choice for an art teacher: I opted to skip the museum in favor of pausing for 25 minutes by a stream where I was able to observe two juvenile bald eagles fighting and fishing for salmon. The sound variation keyed me in to pause. Scanning the treetops for golf-ball sized white heads helped me to zoom in on the eagle activity. I power walked through a gorgeous collection of hand carved totems on my way back to the bus but was grateful for my time with the raptors. Sometimes our fear of missed opportunities can be the biggest impediment to experience.
If you’d like to support eagle populations in Alaska, the raptor center is doing tremendous rescue and rehabilitation work.

A few of the totem poles in Glacier Bay Park
Spirit is being rehabilitated at the Alaska Raptor Center
Raven totem
Eagle canoe

Each type of bird has its own characteristic charm and behavior which emerges on observation.

Near Marble Island we observed nesting sites for cormorants, puffins and gulls stacked along the rock face like zoned apartments. Gulls enjoy gliding near food sources such as fish processing plants or schools of fish; they are often combing seaweed strands for mussels and crabs. The kittiwake’s eponymous cry can help to pinpoint their location. Small diving birds (auks) such as murres, and puffins are elegant under water but bumbling in flight, taking off like maladroit footballs struggling to lift their legs up out of the water. The cormorants’ snake like neck makes a striking impression against the rookery wall as they tend to nest in groups. Dark cormorant gullets stacked up like a row of Ss against the silvery rock wall. We were lucky to spy an arctic tern as well, a fascinating sea bird which migrates from northern to southern hemisphere. Its elongated tail helps it to glide very smoothly through air currents before darting down to fish; its migration pattern allows it to see more light than any other bird known to man.


South Marble Island
South Marble Island

Sibley’s Guide to Birds is the standard bird identification book I’d recommend if you’d like to learn more about birds in your area.

Last week on my way to a double birthday dinner in Washington DC I had an hour or so of wait time and went to visit some of my favorite gardens off the national mall. The Enid Haupt garden by Arts and Industries, right next to the castle, was showcasing a beautiful carnivorous vine; and the pollinator garden next to the Natural History Museum has grown up incredibly since it was put in. If you aren’t familiar with the area, the national mall is in downtown Washington DC, between the capitol building and the Washington monument, surrounded by a bustling city of over 700,000 residents. And amidst the bell shaped blossoms and black eyed susans, inhabited by hummingbirds. I watched him feed for a while, while wary of the thronging bees enjoying the same bounty. Who would have thought hummingbirds could thrive downtown? I was able to snap a few pictures but with the limited shutter speed variability the bird looks a bit like a blurry emerald garden fairy.

Monarch butterfly
Carnivorous orchids
ruby throated hummingbird

When we have a spare moment between events, do we fill it up with business, or stop to literally smell the flowers and remain open to such visitors? Within the constraints of our schedules, how can we create moments to simply observe and allow nature to visit with us? I am working on this within my own schedule, to push back a bit at time and make a little breathing room.

This is part one on a reflection on time: we’ll talk about glaciers, time travel, and geological time soon.

Local Flavor

Local characters –

Earl N. Ohmer Shrimp King Crab Petersburg, AK
Earl N. Ohmer Shrimp King Crab Petersburg, AK

Photograph courtesy of the Alaska Historical Society
Who lives in your area and defines your local culture? Sometimes locales create a group identity through social roles; but certain individuals often stand out due to showmanship, eccentricity, or myth and define local character. These individuals can influence others’ fashions, mannerisms, and more; and are often immortalized in local stories, pop culture images, and more.
Think Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, Annie Oakley in the wild west. . . well that was the Shrimp King in Petersburg, Earl Ohmer, founder of the Alaskan Glacier Seafood Company, would greet tourists at the docks, with a buckskin vest, two six shooters, which he frequently fired off for dramatic effect, and a cowboy hat. He founded the first shore-based shrimp processing plant in Alaska, supported his wife’s investment in the first general store in Petersburg, and later invested in fur farming, gold mining, fish processing plants and real estate before serving as the Fish and Game Commissioner for over 20 years.
Petersburg is “The Town that Fish Built,” and still operates as a lively fishing town today. Petersburg processes over 70 million pounds of seafood a year and exports a significant quantity. The Tonka cannery we visited is open year round, and catches, smokes, freezes, and ships five kinds of salmon as well as highly prized pink shrimp which are in great demand in the Asian market due to their delicate flavor. Almost all of the purse seiners and troll fishing boats that bring in the catch are family owned businesses. Unlike most commercially owned canneries, almost 100% of the means of production in Petersburg are owned by locals. Founded by hardworking Norwegians with an independent frontier mindset, Petersburg has great economic success with a focus on community based development. The community economic development council supports and nurtures locally owned businesses; the town advertises itself as a friendly place for newcomers to settle and open their own businesses. As the hardware store, grocery store and more are all owned by local families, money spent in the community stays in the community. Even the local Wells Fargo branch is the sort of small town fixture which is embellished with big game heads shot by the teller’s father.


Who better represents this independent, entrepreneurial, frontiersman spirit than the pistol-twirling, cowboy-hat sporting, laughing Shrimp King, staunch conservationist and promoter of tourism in the region? Ohmer cuts a distinct figure in a locally produced documentary which also details some of the distinct economic history of the region: Petersburg, the Town that Fish Built

In Baltimore some of the biggest local heroes are figures such as the Twelve O’clock boys – seemingly rebellious teenagers who are known for flaunting fancy tricks on dirt bikes on high speeds down city streets. These young men also perform in local parades and are roundly admired by other kids for the dedication, skills and athleticism required to perform the complex stunts they perfect in group formation. Local artist Lofty Nathan spent three years interviewing them and producing a documentary: Often hassled by the police for riding bikes (dirt bikes are illegal within the city) the group presents an iconic symbol of resilience for those coming of age in a city beset with challenges.

What local heroes, characters, or individuals define your neighborhood, community, or city? Do they represent a certain way of life or livelihood? What is it about their way of dressing, speaking, or behaving which makes them so representative or singularly fascinating?

Who is telling their story?

Can you interview them?

The Enchanted Forest

The forests of southeast Alaska are remarkable for their predominance of two main tree species: Sitka spruce and western hemlock. There are also some yellow cedar and red cedar in areas where the land is a little more water logged.
We spent the majority of the time hiking in areas of the Tongass National Forest, one of the largest existing areas of protected wilderness in the nation. This is our largest national forest, which notably means it is logged and managed by the forestry service. The natural resource of this 17 million acre forest is considered a strategic economic asset for development and one of the many resources repudiating Seward’s Folly.
Sitka spruce from mature old growth trees was famously utilized to build lightweight and strong structures for aircraft during World War I and WWII. Though the Spruce Goose itself was made mostly of birch, most of the spruce used in airplane production was harvested in the Tongass.
Unfortunately in the past, logging occurred to such an extent that half or more of the old-growth tree stands identified in the 50s are now missing. Only about a third of the Tongass area is prime timber land. The Forestry service has been subsidizing the timber industry and selling wood substantially below cost. In a 1989 article in the New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote, “Here in the emerald panhandle of southeastern Alaska, where rain is measured in feet and the legacy of Russian America can still be seen in onion-domed churches, the Forest Service sells 500-year-old trees for the price of a cheeseburger.”
The Forest Service was selling trees valued at least at $300 per trunk at rates as low as $2 to Japanese owned companies. industry has selected for old-growth trees, referred to as “pumpkins” for their sweet, straight wood. However, much of this wood has been pulped for paper or rayon production, and sold below cost. Unfortunately subsidizing timber industries is a common practice of the Forestry service, leading to environmental and financial losses.

Logging of old growth is now known to be more impactful than previously thought. It is now known that many older trees grow faster and produce more oxygen than young trees. Their canopy provides a habitat for lichen such as lungwort which significantly impact air quality. Further, nurse logs, or decaying lumber on the forest floor, are prime habitat for seedlings. If wood is removed from the forest and never allowed to die naturally and sink to the forest floor, seedlings will lack the necessary substrate to survive their infancy.
Seedlings are also dependent on the filtration of light provided by the forest canopy. The indirect light which passes through the crowns of older trees inhibits rapid growth and allows the trees to grow straight and strong, creating sturdy trunks which are capable of surviving winter storms. The salmon and the trees are intertwined. Salmon carcasses and waste bring nutrients from the ocean to enrich the somewhat poor soil, which is built on the remnants of relatively recent glacial deposits. Salmon provide a great amount of the nitrogen which fuels the growth of the enormous trees. On healthy forest floors, deep beds of moss keep the loose sediment in place.If too many large trees are felled or clear cut, environmental disturbance and root die off can cause sediment to cloud salmon streams and impede spawning. Eagles, bears, sea lions and of course people in the region are deeply reliant on the salmon runs as a major food source. Ecological imbalance in a forest with thousand year old trees takes a long time to restore.
Alaska’s political history and relative lack of roads, has lead to unique development patterns which allow us to observe land management practices at a slower pace. As the forestry service considers the best practices for managing land, it is important to consider the economic value of tourism and of related industries such as salmon fishing. Current practices include selective cutting and promotion of the diverse natural resources in the forest.


Finding Wonder

The week before we went to southeast Alaska, I received email news that the ship had witnessed spectacular Northern Lights.
Before this notification, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that we might be far enough north and in the right season to view this spectacular documentation of solar radiation hitting the outer edges of the atmosphere and burning up.
It has always been on my bucket list of experiences. I have had the privilege of being in remote locations a few times where the Milky Way itself was visible – mostly in Dogon country in Mali and in Samburu, Kenya. Before those experiences, I didn’t realize that it was possible to view the Milky Way from Earth. It astonished me. And the memory still does.
While the phenomenon was different, the only perceptual difference here was some lead up – convincing me that viewing the lights was possible – and many many clouds. Now, on the ship and in hindsight, understanding that a clear night in one of the world’s largest temperate rainforests is unlikely, I’m certainly not disappointed. So many other wonders were pleasant! But it’s worth reflecting on the setup. Suddenly, I was expecting wondrous stellar phenomenon.
We had clouds. There is always a nightwatch aboardship, so we would be woken from slumber if spectacular moments arose. That wasn’t the concern. But how do we find ways to create wonder in spite of wildly ambitious expectations?
This is particularly relevant in the internet age, when someone with a better camera and a widely followed instagram account has posted images beyond what we could experience. One only has to follow the National Geographic or Smithsonian websites to find astonishing photography. In fact, most of the adventurers aboard ship have been inspired in some part by these breathtaking photographs – in hopes that they could also have similar astonishing life experiences.
In reality, many experiences, such as a breaching whale, are almost impossible to capture on film, digital or otherwise. You may capture some sort of image but not quite the experience. The camera can flatten and impersonalize the moment; some photographers can feel as if it actually detracts. By day three, many adults shipboard were at least occasionally consciously abandoning the camera lens as a way of viewing the world. Binoculars are a little different- and perhaps video adds a lens as well. No matter how sharp your focus is, beyond the Alaskan sea rain, viewing a bear in close proximity through a lens is certainly not the same experience as watching and witnessing it. Things can seem more far away, more blurry, and less alive through a lens. Even with video: though we can try to capture sound, image, and space, nothing quite compares to being immersed in sea ice on ground level in a zodiac while it creaks, groans, screeches, scratches, bubbles, and floats. I dreamed of stars obscured by clouds of stellar dust but I also was woken up by some bigger waves and jet lag and went to the toilet.

This terribly mundane and mildly gauche sentence connects the reality of shipboard life in a way that is hard to relate. Some context: in a conservation-minded plan, toilets on the ship are fed mostly by seawater. Depending on the depth of water, location,and time of pumping, the plumbing can be full of phosphorescent plankton. In other words, if you wake in the middle of the night, in the right spot in the straight, and flush the toilet, it will look like “Star Wars” in the words of experienced crew. As pedestrian and crude as this seems to recount, it was absolutely spectacular. We weren’t able to witness glowing plankton in any other way – many respond to movement. I had trouble sleeping on a west coast schedule. I generally tended to stay up till west coast time, and wake up on east coast time – and the toilet was the only spot I encountered this particular wonder – hundreds of infinitesimal glowing aquamarine sparks spinning down the drain.

When we pulled into the town of Petersburg, I had to choose two photo walks. The marine specialist suggested I go into town (which I did) because the dock walk was “boring.” Halfway through the town walk I happened to look down.
Alaskan docks provide an ideal growth environment for giant anemones. This is one of the only places they are protected from tidal extremes and close enough to the surface to be seen without full scuba gear and a strong light rig. Photographing the anemones was very challenging without a waterproof camera, as they were repeatedly obscured by reflections from the water which shifted with the waves. In addition, those in view are growing almost perfectly perpendicular to the water surface. My DSLR had by this point succumbed to Alaskan sea rain (RIP) so I was shooting on an iphone! The challenge of capturing this otherwordly vista involved me in full rain gear, utilizing a sort of modified army crawl and turning my head at weird angle or extending my arm as far below the dock surface as I could. I richly enjoyed the technical difficulty and its ability to engross me in a good 45 minutes literally gazing at a wonderful submarine microlandscape. In addition to anemones in a wide range of species I spotted numerous starfish and spiny sea urchins. Carlos had suggested anemones were boring because “they don’t do much,” other than feed on drifting plankton, but the novelty had certainly not worn off for me and I could have happily spent a few more days looking. I did tear myself away and go into town as well (more on that later) but let’s chase wonder a little more through novelty to familiarity.

A very basic transpositional example is a moment when the ship cleared out to go see a blue heron fishing. I live in Baltimore and teach a unit on Chesapeake Bay ecology – I’ve had multiple conversations attempting to convince my urban students that Great Blue Herons aren’t “trash birds.” And I will continue. Folks were spellbound and I declined, “Please go ahead of me, I see these birds outside of my grocery store.” My students, who have mostly barely left the city lines at all, know this bird as well as they know pigeons, rats, mice, and gulls.
Part of the miracle is in the observer. As an art teacher, I work to help my students learn how to look closely and use a variety of tools and recording devices, from magnifying glasses to cameras to paintbrushes, to develop our skills of observation. Part is in the orientation to wonder; once you can see it differently, what can you discover that is amazing? I am working on determining how much of my experience I share vs. how much space I can leave for my students to find wonder here. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed certainly has opportunities for beauty and observation. I would love to see a group of students so excited to look closely they will also tackle a muddy belly crawl just to see better.
I was also moved on the plane back. Our flight coincided with the full solar eclipse,and our captain expressed disappointment- he had lobbied for an altered flight plan that would parallel totality, allowing us stellar scenery throughout. His considerate flight plan parallel was vetoed by air control, but we had a partial view. When the announcement was made, a kind passenger on the plane revealed he had purchased a big bag of eclipse viewing glasses to share with everyone. It was like nothing else I’ve ever seen on an airplane. For an hour or so, adults switched out seats to take turns peeking out the window, sharing glasses and wonder with strangers. The smiles were genuine and the camaraderie magnified the experience. Everyone got a turn.
Where in life do we make space for the miraculous within the mundane? Is it possible to detach from what we consider ordinary to find this moment of awe? How can we find the miraculous in our every day lives? I’m going to keep looking. IMG_1827.jpg

Ch Ch Ch Changes

Excerpts from a lecture by Dr. Zachary Brown,naturalist and founder of the Inian Island Institute.

There are three major considerations in southeast Alaska as we discuss climate shifts:
1. It is getting warmer and wetter
2. Sea ice is in decline
3. Insect populations, erosion, and the iditarod

Before we begin, please be sure you are discriminating between weather – the immediate and local manifestations of changes in the earth’s system – and climate. Weather determines whether you need a sweater, a raincoat, or a tank top today. Climate is a longer term pattern, which has lasting effects on which species can survive, where those species thrive, and the slow migration of animal, plant and other species. Weather is much easier to observe day to day! Also, as we talk about global concerns, the dicussion is often obscured by local effects.
Keep in mind, all shifts in climate are locally specific. The melting of ice caps in polar regions may actually manifest as warmer temperatures elsewhere.

The southeast area of Alaska, also referred to as the Inner Passage, is a temperate rainforest. Before written history, it has been appealing to human settlers for its minimal range in temperatures and abundant food sources. For more information on 14,000 documented years of human habitation, see here: .
To clarify: When we consider Alaska, a state 2.5 times the size of Texas, with a population of 741,894, we usually think of the interior or of far northern locations such as Nome. Examination of climate data reveals numerous zones within this tremendous state which should be considered in any analysis.
Southeast Alaska, has, for a few thousand years, been a temperate clime with consistent, and persistent, rain. It rains. Perpetually. A large quantity. This is part of one of the largest rainforests in the world.

Why is this important? It supports a unique and productive biome, related to forests which are supported by salmon runs, and rich seas.

What changes have been documented lately?
In the northern ends of Alaska (and on glacial fronts in SE Alaska as wel) sea ice is growing thinner.
Areas where the ice was previously 1000 miles offshore, near the pole, are documented to now have ice only 100 miles offshore. This creates habitat loss for species such as polar bears and harbor seals. These species, in the form of individuals, are literally starving to death between ice floes, or unable to reproduce due to the loss of breeding grounds. In addition, and perhaps to even greater concern, this change creates shifts in proximate biomes, a sort of ripple effect.
One example: recent polar studies have surprised scientists by exposing the fact that phytoplankton (unicellular plants, mostly) are incredibly prolific beneath the ice. In fact, the salt water below is almost opaque with plant matter in spite of its frigid temperatures. When the ice caps melt, these plants die off – and the water nearby is both less oxygenated and more acidic. This affects fish and mollusk populations that we use for food sources, as well as the charming photogenic megafauna such as polar bears.
Sea ice is composed of water. As it melts, water levels are rising. Especially near the ice caps. Consider a landscape recently carved by glaciers, with strong mountains and solid bedrock abutting the ocean. In southeast Alaska, the tides are already visible features in the landscape, and traditional names such as “Dry Straight” inform locals where their boats may be suddenly stranded when the tides pull out. I live in a tidal area and have never before seen an environment where the tide can literally be seen coming in. The change in water level is drastic. See linked video (in real time) to understand this feature.
Suddenly the tides can inundate established living areas. This is certainly uncomfortable if your family has been there for years. . . . 20 or 14,000.
In 2015 and 2016, the Iditarod, the iconic dream fodder dog race of Alaska, had to be moved north. Why? Because the snow pack in the traditional route was not sufficient to support the dogs and sleds. This year . .. we’ll see. It’s possible the latitude can no longer support this traditional race. But this example is simply a nice visual, mythical illustration.
Warmer temperatures are also leading to an increase in insect populations. In combination with the melting of permafrosts this is leading to the phenomenon of “drunken forests” – trees which lean, tilt, and die before their prime. This upsets the ecological balance and leads to malnourished soils.
Consider this. In the protected forests of the Tongas National Forest (one of the largest protected forests in the world, trees such as yellow cedars are dying out because they are dependent on a residual snowpack to support their roots. This seems isolated, but the same issue, of melting permafrost in some areas, is causing collapse of long standing human structures. Another consideration for humans is known as isostatic rebound. Snow pack and permafrost are weighty. Glaciers as well. When these retreat the land literally begins to rise around and underneath structures. This is currently happening to the tune of one inch per year, but accelerated in some areas. Within a decade, the ground could rise almost an inch above the laid foundations. Human structures and lifestyles are at risk.
We must both consider adaptive responses to these changes, and ways to ameliorate them if possible, for these areas to remain as rich biological resources for sustenance.

How are climate shifts affecting where you live?
How is your local government and other agencies helping to make it better?
Look beyond the weather alone. We need to find solutions together.


Be Prepared

On facing natural hazards in present and future.
“Common sense is the least common sense.” – Carlos Navarro Serment

Many thanks to Greg and Shannon McKinnon for the image share!

One of the most important things to consider about the wilderness is that the most dangerous condition you will encounter is your own ignorance. It’s important to be oriented to hazards and know what precautions you must take in advance of your first encounter! This prevents harm to both explorers and the wilderness itself.
While most of us are familiar with some hazards such as cold; and coddled by the crew’s handling of hazards of navigation, tides, and nutrition, hiking in Alaska means we must be aware that we are firmly in bear country.

The following is excerpted and slightly edited from one of our earliest shipboard talks – bear safety, by noted naturalist Carlos Navarro Serment, a talented naturalist and wildlife photographer who has published a book about bears (El Oso Negro) and is editing a second; and is actively engaged in rewilding of grizzlies in northern Mexico.

Bears are part of why you are here! They are the kind of animals that make the wilds wild. The myths about bears may stem from their creepy similarity to humans. A bear steps with its whole foot, like a human. If a bear’s skin is removed, the body except for the head looks strangely human. So people have always had stories about bears. By the way, the trails in southeast Alaska are like nowhere else, there are few maintained trails. Mostly we will follow the beach, perhaps see a board walk, or follow game trails from deer or bear.
It is possible to encounter bears anywhere we go on this trip, even in town, brown or black. I am not trying to scare you, but I am trying to scare you a little bit. A little bit of fear is healthy, it keeps you on your toes. You don’t want to surprise a bear. Let him know you are coming. Some people sing bear songs or call “hey bear” as they enter the woods. There is a misconception that bears don’t see very well. Bears are not really short sighted. They can see at least as well as we can. If you can see the bear, they can see you. Never run from a bear, or any other predator. Instead, group up, look larger, and engage in “hey bear” noisemaking. After this raucous greeting, the bear will often charge. Don’t worry, they often engage in false charges, charging at you aggressively multiple times before running away. When you group up, let your naturalist stay in the front of the group. Bear spray is only effective under 25 ft. And only if the wind is blowing away from you. Bear spray is concentrated capsacin designed to incapacitate a 500 pound animal which navigates the world mostly by smell, so bear spray in your face will at least make you cry and vomit and most likely result in hospitalization once we can taxi you to the next port.
How many of us are aware of the dangers we may encounter in our local wilderness and prepared for it? If we knew the dangers would we adventure more often? It is always wise to be prepared. As Carlos mentions, the thrill of the encounter is part of why we are driven to explore.
These sites offer a great start:
though I can’t believe none mentioned poison ivy! Which, by the way, is having a boom year here in Maryland – scientist are blaming it on warming temperatures and increased CO2.

Which brings us to the longer term preparations to consider in our region. Humans tend to ignore that isn’t immediate or is hard to imagine. As a tidal plain, my region should be looking here:
And developing a plan for resilience.


The Social Sea

On Humpback Whales and Other Astonishing Creatures
– Excerpts edited from a lecture delivered by Dr. Fred Sharp of the Alaska Whale Foundation

Whale watching itself is often non eventful, essentially scanning the horizon waiting to see the megafauna breathe. We were lucky enough to spot whales on several occasions, and on our penultimate day we saw some flipper smacking and two breaching whales. The sheer scale of the creatures intrigues us, drawing attention to the mysterious expanse of the world under the water. Like an iceberg, only 10% of their lives pierce our atmosphere. 90% of the time they are underwater, diving for up to 35 minutes before coming up to breathe.

While aboardship, keep your eyes on the water! During the voyage you may see whales at any time, though naturalists also radio ahead to other ships and friends on the ground to help to steer us towards sightings. Even when whales are spotted, most of the time the bulk of the whale is below the waterline, which adds to their lure and mythology. The Latin name for the Humpback Whale is Megaptera Novanglicae (sp), translating literally to “Big Wings.” Their huge flippers are used for hunting, defense, temperature regulation, and perhaps more. The flippers feature vestigial bones from the whales’ history of land life. According to Dr. Sharp, “Humpback whales have the largest middle finger in the known universe.”

Our expedition is miniscule in comparison to those of the whales. Humpbacks have an enormous migratory range, with several distinct populations. The whales in Southeast Alaska feed near the north pole and travels to Hawaii to birth calves, fasting for the 4 months during the journey in between! Humpbacks do not lack for company on this trip. They travel in social groups called pods, and for portions of this trip they are accompanied by other species such as dolphins, porpoises, and sea lions, who appear to engage in play behaviors with Humpbacks. Researchers are fascinated by the whales’ evolution of complex social hunting tactics.

Today it is widely known that Humpbacks sing. However, as little as 50 years ago, their voice boxes were unknown to scientists – in spite of the longer history of hunting and harvesting whale carcasses! Today, we know that theses filter feeders sing to hunt, using flippers, vocalizations and bubble nets to generate noise,. The whales’ preferred prey, the Pacific Herring, has very sensitive hearing, and the whales work in strategic teams to generate waves of sound. Each whale in the group will have a particular role, then the group uses sound waves to compress the prey into a concentrated area. This social fish herding behavior is essential to condense the small prey so that they can be efficiently gulped mouthfuls at a time. Once the fish are concentrated, the whales will all surface together with open mouths, then close their mouths to push the water out, retaining any remaining sea life behind their baleen and licking their “teeth” clean.

Because this feeding behavior is highly choreographed and social, when one pod of Humpbacks meets another and joins together, raucous and busy vocalization is heard. Essentially, before the whales hunt together or try a new approach, the coach needs to coordinate the play. As a result, it is theorized that the vocalizations may be a language. In addition, Pacific and Atlantic populations of Humpbacks have distinctly different vocabularies and cultural patterns of behavior.

Through scientific analysis of beached whale carcasses and remnants from permitted indigenous culls, cetacean biologists have determined that in comparison to humans, Humpbacks have a much higher density of spindle neurons in the brain. Spindle neurons are thick, dense neurons, responsible for tasks such as social empathy, facial recognition, language, and compassion. Not only do Humpbacks feature a wide range of vocalizations and strong mother-calf bonding, but they also demonstrate compassion for other species. They have been observed playing actively with dolphins and porpoises for a half hour or more, giving them rides on snouts or backs until the dolphin tires. When orcas hunt seals, Humpbacks on the scene have been observed swimming to the surface and remaining there to shelter distressed seals underneath their flippers. In addition, since the suspension of human hunting practices, with the resurgence of the Humpback population, on a few occasions Humpbacks have come to the assistance of human swimmers in distress, lifting them to the surface so that they can breathe. Humpback whales can live as long as 90 years.

A pod of orcas followed the ship for a bit; we also saw several harbor porpoises. Sea lions show a LOT of surface time compared to whales!

We have only just pierced the surface of the whale behaviors – and I personally am intensely curious as to whether any cetacean biologists will develop a dictionary similar to research by Joyce Poole into elephant communication ( It certainly raises questions about animal sentience and cognition, as well as an interesting study in potential social organizational forms. Now that the species is protected from hunting perhaps we will be able to learn more.

Much of this information is the result of sustained research efforts from the Alaska Whale Foundation. If you would like to support their efforts please find more information on their website:

Ice, the first encounter


When I first saw the sea ice I held my breath at the blue of it. Days later the beauty of it still made me teary eyed as I gazed at icebergs drifting by the boat. The bigger pieces of ice seem to glow entrancingly as if lit from within. Apparently, very pure water absorbs red wavelengths and so reflects a brilliant, brilliant blue. In southeast Alaska it doesn’t snow in the summer – temperatures are in the 50s and 60s most days. So all of the sea ice is from calving off of the glaciers. The larger pieces, considered proper icebergs, tend to be more blue – and have usually calved from underwater, as the larger pieces will be smashed to pieces on the water surface if they fall from great heights. We witnessed a huge piece the size of an apartment building calve off Marjerie glacier at sunrise.

There are standards of sea ice safety. Boats are advised to stay ½ mile from the glacier surface to help reduce danger from calving bits. With larger icebergs, the rule of thumb is to keep a distance of more than twice the height of the iceberg in case it starts to roll. The icebergs will periodically flip and can create a substantial drag, and are irregularly shaped. Small craft can be upturned by this movement; hulls can be scraped.

I knew the ice moves; I knew it was moving because of temperature shifts. But my preconception of glaciers and geology was torpid. The thing about the ice that is absolutely staggering is, the glacier is constantly singing. The space around the glacier, above water, is a gamelan orchestra of creaks, cracks, groans, splashes, and clinks, and the under water sounds include bubbles and more. The symphony of ice makes the shifting ice floe an appealing place for harbor seals to nurse their young. The surrounding turquoise meltwater is cold, turbulent, and reduced in salinity, making it relatively devoid of fish. However, the ice barrage protects the seals by disorienting predatory orcas, who navigate by sonar and communicate through sound.

While the glacier forms slowly as an accretion of snow, gravity, and time, glacial retreat can be much more rapid. These huge, dense objects which can wear down mountains and carve valleys are floating. Glaciers flow on a thin layer of meltwater which reduces the friction between them and the land. 250 years ago, Glacier Bay was not visible. There is a lot of technical information available here:
And some maps here:

It is impossible to visit one of many moving, singing, tumbling glaciers in a bay that was a sheet of ice 200 years ago and pretend that climate change is not happening. Whether you debate the cause is irrelevant; the change is real, ongoing, present, and past. The Tlingit have several names for this area, including
S’é Shuyee “T-seh-shoe-yee”
“Edge of the glacial silt” describes a time when the glaciers were far away.

Xáatl Tú “Halked-TOO”
“Among the ice” Refers to navigating among the icebergs during the time of glacial retreat.

Sít’ Eeti Gheiyí “Sit-ee-tea-gay-YEE”
“The bay in place of the glacier”
Describes the bay left behind by glacial retreat.

The ice is singing, creaking, breaking, crashing into water, grinding down stone. All areas are under geologic change, population pressure change, water table change. How is your landscape changing? Where can you observe it? Does the shift offer protection or pose a threat? Can you assign a past, present, and future name to the land where you live?




“It is impossible to starve to death in South East Alaska, at least in the summer.” – Naturalist
“How was the food on the ship?” – almost everyone I know.

Somehow the perpetual gray and misty sky makes the colors rich and savory. Or perhaps it is just the lush season in an area that is temperate and damp almost year round. The area is literally exploding with food. The beaches are strewn with rockweed, which ranges in hue from rust to sap green; but turns bright green when steamed or stewed into salads and stocks. There are visible butter clams, bearded mussels, urchins and snails on the beaches. There is the miracle of the salmon crowding the streams, swimming vigorously yet somehow so languidly against the current that a child could reach a hand into the stream and catch one. And all of the animals who are drawn to the salmon stream; bear, eagle, raven, sea lions, sea wolves, and more. Even moose and deer have been caught eating salmon opportunistically. The sea otter with his tremendous metabolism eats 30% of his weight a day – which could be up to 25 pounds of seafood.
We are in the peak season for food and wildlife. We are foraging for blueberries, salmon berries, watermelon berries, thimble berries, nagoon berries, bunchberries, elderberries . . .there are more that we don’t know. We sample a little beach spinach, some kelp pickles, salmon jerky, Alaskan cod, Dungeness crabs, halibut, pink salmon, king salmon. . . we are taught to recognize medicinal plants such as yarrow, devil’s club, and lungwort. We are regaled with the story of the intractable George Stellar and his treatment of Bering’s exploratory party with boiled scurvy grass tea. We hear how highly absorbent sphagnum moss was first used by Tlingit people for diaper infants and later harvested to pack soldier’s wounds during WWI.
The knowledge of our guides, especially Zach, an Alaskan native, is tremendous, and we absorb a fair amount. The banquet around us is staggering, but on reflection based on intimacy with the landscape as much as abundance. I wouldn’t be able to do this in my own backyard. Living near the Chesapeake Bay, I’m within a stone’s throw of another ostensible historical marine breadbasket. But I count myself amongst the bulk of my acquaintances who would be at a loss to forage enough edibles to survive comfortably for a month. At some point in history we failed to transmit the knowledge of native plants.
There is some interest in wildcraft in the Baltimore area, with occasional urban foraging classes or community apple or mulberry harvests – see this piece in the Baltimore Sun. or listen to this piece on WYPR: My urban students have expressed horror at my plucking a mulberry off a tree and eating it; while due to pollution some of the rivers and streams in the area provide only poisoned fish, a hazard to the consumer.
This estranged relationship to the land, common in urban and suburban settings, impedes the population’s understanding of our interdependence with nature. Even in limited forms such as pocket parks, green spaces for migratory birds, and non-toxic groundwater, functioning ecosystems provide long term political and economic security. They are absolutely essential. Who is teaching these understandings?
Consider what you know and want to know about wild edibles. How would you expand your knowledge? While some of us hunt and fish, others may simply want to plant some native berries and fruit trees or live dangerously and enroll in a mycology course. Native plantings not only require little care and watering but also provide some habitat restoration for birds, insects, and co-species. Foraging is a form of wildcraft that can lend structure to a pleasant walk in the woods; reduce the spread of invasives like wineberries; or add charm to an august hike in the blueberry strewn hills.