FIRE AND ICE...and birds too
(Note: the following is simply a diary of the trip without much organization.)
Weíve just tied up to the wharf in Dutch Harbor. The sky is a bit overcast however there is no rain or fog, a change from our trip so far. The outside temperature is 54 degrees, another change.
Weíre on a trip our the Aleutian Island Chain to Kamchatka and the Kurile Islands on the World Discoverer. This is our second trip on the World Discoverer into this part of the World. The World Discoverer has been spruced up a bit since our last trip. The ship has been chartered for this trip and the next by Zegrahm Expeditions.
Our trip started last Saturday with a flight from LAX to Anchorage, via Seattle. After the usual interminable wait, our luggage arrived (all of our luggage) and we called the hotel, the West Coast International Inn. Their shuttle van was loading as we left the terminal however there were many more people than room so we had to wait for the next trip. Actually the van was not full of people, just luggage.
We checked in, had a welcome meeting with free beer & wine followed by a buffet dinner. Bedtime followed although it was still light outside (June 20th, you know.) The local news featured people going up flat top mountain to celebrate the event. Earlier in the day there had been a Midsummer Marathon. We were to see people hobbling around the hotel the next morning, participants I assume.
Another complementary breakfast the next morning, preceded by bags out at 6:30 then wait until the bus could get us out to the airport, two hours before our scheduled charter to Cold Bay. We had to go early since that was the time they could get the bus. Buses are quite busy in summer. Jodie killed part of the time checking out Lake Hood for ducks and sea planes. Part of our group will take the scheduled flight; the remainder will fly Ĺ hour later on a charter flight. We will fly Reeves Aleutian Airline Lockheed Electra 188, a dinosaur in this age of jets.
Cold Bay exists because the military built a large field there at the start of WWII and expanded it during the cold war. The town consists of about 60 hardy souls employed by Reeves, the FAA, the US Fish & Wildlife service, or the state of Alaska. There is no indigenous native population. There is a grocery store, a hotel, and a restaurant/bar. Since our tour was rigorously scheduled, we didnít get to visit any of these.
We first visited the City Hall where we were offered a few handicrafts. Then we toured an archeological dig being conducted by the University of Wisconsin. This is a regular course so students pay tuition and probably their own expenses to sit on the cold, wet ground and dig while it is raining or misting with the wind blowing. After spending a day at this, they get to sleep in tents nearby. They must go into town for showers.
Prospective sites can be located on Multi-spectral Scanner images since the debris left by humans (bones, garbage, etc) causes better, more lush vegetation that will show up. Since the dig was across a river, we left our school bus and crossed in a "Gama Goat," a military surplus six-wheeled thing articulated in the middle.
After the dig we drove out to the wildlife refuge whose main claim to fame is eel grass, something some sea birds use for nesting. The school buses used for our tour were barged in from another, larger town. Since Cold Bay is so small, there is no need for buses there.
Finally we boarded the ship around 5:30, unpacked, had a welcome meeting and drink, ate supper, and went to bed.
Those on the starboard side got up at 5 am for a 5:30 zodiac tour around High Island. We were due to go at 7. About 5:30 it was announced that the wind and seas were too high and the trip was canceled. We motored off to Dora Harbor on Unimak Island and the starboard group again got ready to go zodiacing. It was canceled since the high wind kept the anchor from holding the ship. We motored around the island, found a calm bay and landed for our first Tundra Walk. Walked along a bear trail and then a fox trail and saw lots of flowers. The manner that bears use to follow their trails is called "postholing." They always put their feet in the same places so that the trail consists of circles mashed in the tundra. I guess that makes it easier for the bears to walk but not very easy for humans, the spacing is all wrong. We were near an Aleut village that was vacated at the start of WWII
After we returned to the ship, it was time to get ready for the Captainís Welcome Dinner. It was the usual sort of affair, free champagne for an hour then an overly elaborate nine-course dinner which didnít finish until 9:30 PM. One nice thing about the meals, most of the portions are small.
Pulled into Dutch Harbor at 7 AM. Were offered the choice of the town tour, which we have already done, or a hike up Ballyhoo Mountain with Carmen Field and Peter Harrison. We opted for the latter and saw lots of wild flowers, Willow Ptarmigan, Buff-Bellied Pipits, Snow Buntings, & Eagles. The top was heavily fortified at the start of WWII. Ruins all over the place.
After lunch we stopped at the Baby Islands and zodiaced around looking at Puffins in profusion, Eagles, Common Eiders, Pigeon Guillemots, Black Cormorants, Whiskered Auklets, Harbor Seals, Sea Otters, Black American Oyster Catchers.
June 24, 1998
Up at 6 to see the clouds of sea birds around Kagamil Island. All we saw was dark, light rain, and fog. After a brief stint outside we retired to the Lido Lounge for breakfast. We motored off after an hour and headed toward Chagulak Island. Had the usual complement of lectures and then lunch at 11:30 so we could zodiac around Chagulak. As we approached the island, the mists magically parted and the rugged island was revealed in all its glory.
It looked a bit like an inverse ice cream sundae with the vanilla ice cream piled on top. Actually that isnít a very good simile since the mass of the island was quite green. Maybe pistachio ice cream with marshmallow sauce on top.
The sky around the island was filled with Northern Fulmars. There are an estimated 500,000 nesting pairs on this island, along with the random Glaucous Gulls, Horned and Tufted Puffins, and Whiskered Auklets. We spent 2 hours, mostly in bright sun motoring back and forth in the lee of the island. While we were out in the zodiacs, an immature Whiskered Auklet (Aukletlet) landed on deck. Someone captured it and put it in a box. After we reboarded all were able to photograph it while Peter Harrison held it before it was released. The fog reclaimed the island as we left.
(Later news indicated that the Whiskered Auklet had probably been on deck since last night. The person who found it was awarded six bottles of Champagne by Peter!)
Had a conversation with Mike Messick, the Expedition Leader and one of the founders of Zegrahm. The company name is an acronym formed from the first letter of the names of each of the seven founders, Werner and Susan Zehnder, Peter Harrison, Shirley Metz, Jack Grove, Anna Zuckerman, and Mike. Anna is no longer involved since she is married and having children. All were employed by Society Expeditions and decided to form their own tour group when they saw that Society was getting into financial trouble. Their hand was forced when Society took chapter 11. They made three vows: 1. Passenger funds would be placed into an escrow account until the trip actually started (Society used incoming funds to pay for already incurred expenses), 2. Never own a ship, 3. Never have more than 19 office employees. They have violated this third rule since they now have 20. Two owners, Werner and Sally Z run the office.
June 25, 1998
If I were still working, this would have been my 41st anniversary with good old (and now gone) Hughes Aircraft Company. We are celebrating my nonanniversary by visiting Adak, one of the bastions of WWII.
Adak has been a navy base since the start of WWII peaking at 60,000 people. In this era of disarmament the base was shut down two years ago. There are now seven navy personnel present, three officers, a chief, and three enlisted men, supervising the work of civilian contractors cleaning up polluted areas and looking for unexploded munitions. The facility is being turned over to the Aleut community to repopulate. The chairman of the St. Lawrence corporation is supervising. They hope to turn it into a destination for tourists and birders. There are quite a number of good houses so they also hope some Aleuts move in. Since it was a very active military (Navy) airfield, the runway is quite good. This field was built right after the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor. The SeaBees came, drained and filled a tidal marsh, and covered it with Marsden Mat, also known, descriptively, as pierced steel planking. The first planes landed ten days after they started. This has been replaced by a fine concrete runway.
We were offered the choice of a tundra/wildlife tour or an historic tour. Jodie opted for the former and I the latter. (There was little tundra so Jodie saw about the same wildlife as I did.) Since this was a very active base, there is little of historic value left. We drove to Finger Bay, a place that was used by subs in WWII. Then back to the main area where we visited the Fish and Wildlife Service Visitor Center, closed when the base closed but reopened just for us. Then we saw the abandoned storage facility for Trident missile war heads, then past the underwater listening post and the radio listening post to Clam Lagoon. We saw several Sea Otters. Then out to Mitchell Field, a WWII PBY base. Since this is and was a Navy facility, Mitchell Field was NOT named after Gen. Billy Mitchell but Albert Mitchell, whomever he was. The underwater listening post was used with fields of hydro phones that were laid across the Bering Sea to detect Soviet submarines trying to get out into the big ocean.
When we returned to our voyage we encountered some White Sided Dolphins, Doll Porpoises, Fin Whales, and Bottle Nosed Whales.
June 27, 1998
This automatic date function wonít be correct tomorrow, we cross the International Date Line and loose the 28th. Anyway, yesterday was Kiska Island. This was one of the two islands the Japanese seized at the start of WWII. Since there is no base there now, there is a lot of debris still around. I hiked to the AA gun emplacement on top of a ridge while Jodie nature hiked. It is such a verdant place that it is hard to avoid nature; many, many wild flowers.
On the way back to the ship we stopped at the ruins of a two-man sub base. The Japanese blew up the subs when they abandoned the island however you can still get a fair impression of what they looked like, even with 50 yearís rust and weather.
The afternoon was quite different than planned. The fog cleared and Kiska Volcano came out. There is a rather large vent near the peak sending forth a dense plume of smoke. The most remarkable thing, however, was the dense flocks of birds around Sirius Point, just below the volcano. There were millions of birds, almost all varieties of Auklets. The Least Auklet was the most predominant however there were also Crested and Parakeet. (Why, if they are the most numerous are they called "Least?" Shouldnít they be called the Most Auklet?)
The birds flock, or raft, as they return toward the island after a day of feeding at sea. By forming large, dense, flocks they have a better chance of escaping the predators when reaching the island. The dense flocks fly about. When they passed close to the zodiac the roar of their wings sounded a bit like a jet airplane passing overhead.
Since there was such a plentitude of prey, there were also predators. In addition to numerous Glaucous Winged Gulls there were at least 40 Bald Eagles and a pair of Peregrine Falcons. The male brought the female an Auklet and we watched her pluck the feathers from it on her plucking perch. She would pull out bunches of feathers and let them float away on the wind.
Today has not been such a fine day at Attu. I was to again go on the War tour while Jodie did nature again. We visited the Coast Guard Loran station and then waited and waited and waited to ride up to the memorial somewhere up the hill in the back of a pick-up truck. I tired of waiting in the rain and fog so came back to the ship and had a nice shower. The fog and mist continue.
Jodie walked for a couple of hours with David Laughton from York, England. They both grew impatient with the plodding pace of the nature hike, especially in the rain, so they set off on their own. Their most interesting avian was the Attu Horney Bird. The Coast Guard personnel serve there for one year and are allowed one three-week leave during that time. The Horney Bird is their mascot.
Birders have a single-minded pursuit of any bird. They spend hours on deck with the hope of spotting that special bird. Their only interest on shore hikes is the birds. I would suspect that they donít even notice the spectacular wild flowers.
Auks are so named because that is sort of the sound they make. The same is supposedly true for Murres. The name Penguin comes from the Celts who named the Great Auks "Penguins" for their white head. After exterminating them, they went to the southern hemisphere and found what we know as Penguins and called them the same thing.
Yesterday was a speed-dressing contest. We would dress in our cold/wet weather gear, go out and do something. Then back on board and take it all off again, then on again for another outing. It became rather tiresome.
Outside temperatures have been in the high 40s with fog and mist, sometimes. I have generally worn my wool pants, flannel shirt over an ordinary t-shirt, my green polar-guard, and waterproof stuff on top. Since yesterday turned out pretty nice, I took off the waterproof stuff on shore and was quite comfortable. Since we couldnít remember a lot about the ship - The passage way to the side gates goes on the port side 200 level or b-deck cabins. The cabins near the stern are to be avoided. The lecture hall is on the top deck and has too low a ceiling.
Jodie wore polypropylene tights with long underwear over. If zodiac riding she added a polypropylene long sleeved shirt or underwear and waterproof coat and pants, and, of course, rubber boots.
June 29, 1998 (June 30th)
That date isnít correct. We crossed the IDL the night before last so it is actually the 30th. Since I donít intend to change the computer date it will just have to do. Besides, it will be ok in a few days.
We have had a busy few days. We entered Russia when we crossed the IDL and as a result, waited hours for the glacial speed Customs clearance yesterday morning at Mednyy Island, one of the Commander Islands. We were awakened at 5:30 to view the rosy colored island as the Sun rose. Eventually after being cleared, each group of cleared people went off on a zodiac ride to view the seal rookery on the end of the island. We were surrounded by Northern Fur Seals and a few Stellerís Sea Lions. The beaches also held quite a few Northern Fur Seals. There were also the usual sprinkling of birds, such as the Red-Faced Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot, and Kittiwakes.
In addition to Vladimir Sevostianov, a naturalist on the staff, we have two or three Russians on board. One a Fish and Wildlife representative, one boarder guard, and the shipís agent.
Then we went to Gladkovskaya Bay where Vladimir had a research station for 10 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union ended his funding. He was doing research on Sea Otters. They raised mussels to feed the captive Sea Otters they were studying. The buildings he built are still there and in rather good condition. The tundra around the place is loaded with flowers. We took many photos and may be able to identify them when we get home.
While we were eating dinner the ship moved to Bering Island and at 9:30 PM went ashore to see where Bearing died and was buried, disinterred, and reburied. Jodie took her sunset photos at 10:30.
June 30, 1998 (July 1)
We awakened at 5 this morning so that we could visit a seal rookery at Mys Severo-Zapadny on Bering Island. We strolled 2 km each way in dense fog to peer down on the beach on the other side of the island. There werenít the masses one often sees however there were several beach masters with their harems. In another area there were quite a few pups, also some Red-Faced Cormorants.
Came back to the ship and had a delicious, large breakfast while the ship moved to Ariy Kamen to view the spectacular bird life and more Northern Fur Seals in the water and Sea Lions on the rocks. There were Black and Red-Footed Kittywakes, Horned and Crested Puffins, Red-Faced Cormorants, Parakeet Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, and Glaucous Winged Gulls. The gulls were stealing the other birdsí eggs.
The final activity of this busy day was a visit to the village of Nikolskoya. At one time it must have had a rather large population however now it is somewhere between 300 & 600. Many (most) of the buildings have been abandoned and have been stripped of windows, etc. There was no heat and frequently no electricity in the village last winter. Apparently the electric supply is more reliable now. Some of the abandoned buildings had been torn down and apart, perhaps for wood to burn for heat.
We walked along the waterfront to a memorial to Vitus Baring, a bust, then to a small museum. (There were no available portraits of Vitus. There were, however, portraits of his uncle. This bust was, therefore, actually his uncle.) The museum holds many artifacts from the archeological dig on Bering Island. There is a fairly good small diorama of the beach where we landed yesterday. It depicts the stranded ship and the men recovering supplies from it. There is also a bronze bust of Bering that was made by a forensic sculptor from a casting of his skull. In addition, there are a small number of native artifacts.
We strolled about what there was of a town until it was time for a native dance presentation at the local, unheated theater. It was supposed to be Aleut but I think that most of the entertainers were Russian. Three women sang, some 10 or 12 year old girls danced La Macarana, some younger girls in native costume danced, a group of older women in native costume sang, adults danced. All in all, it was quite enjoyable.
Ours was the first passenger ship ever to visit the village.
July 1, 1998 (July 2)
Yesterday was an at-sea day. We had four lectures plus an Arctic quiz. We tied for third with our team mate, David from York, England, and won a bottle of wine. There was also a free cocktail party put on by Zegrahm to give us a bit of a pitch on up-coming activities. The only other item of note is that I have caught the ship cold.
Today we arrived at Vestnik Bay on the Kamchatka Peninsula. We were offered several choices of walks. I took the botany walk with Conrad while Jodie took the vigorous hike with Pete Oxford and Vladimir. I saw many nice little flowers while Jodie didnít see the advertised Stellerís Sea Eagle and the Brown Bears. They did encounter the local fish & game rep who has lived on the island for 10 years in a house he built himself. Jodie reports that the interior was quite nice and neat as a pin. He usually has to shoot a couple of bears each year when they swim out to some small islands in the bay to eat Sea Otters. He hasnít had to shoot any so far this year. There is also a border guard post here. The personnel have had nothing but pork and potatoes to eat for six months, however the first thing they asked for was cigarettes. The ship sent a couple of boxes of food to them. Some people saw a Stellerís Sea Eagle but neither of us did.
This afternoonís zodiac tour of Utashud Island had nice views of the volcano whenever the fog lifted, lots of nesting Slaty Backed Gulls, a lot of Harbor Seals, a few nesting Puffins, but no Stellerís Sea Eagle, Sea Otters, or Stellerís Sea Cows.
July 2, 1998 (July 3)
Weíre now in the Kurils, taken from Japanese by Joe Stalin after his two days of fighting the Japanese after they were ready to end WWII by surrendering. We landed at Atlassova and Paramushir.
July 3, 1998 (July 4)
We had several things planned at Onekotan Island however the wind and rough seas dictated otherwise. So we completed the first circumnavigation of the island by a passenger ship!!! In the course of the trip around the island we encountered clouds of Short-Tailed Shearwaters. They had obviously found something on which to feed. They were joined by lots of Slaty-Backed Gulls and some whales. In the afternoon we found a calm bay and landed on Onekotan. Since this is July 4th in this part of the world, we celebrated with a BBQ. The kitchen staff set up a couple of charcoal grills on the pool deck and cooked in the mist and fog. I was hoping for a volcano eruption to celebrate the 4th.
We hiked with Carmen Field and then searched for Japanese glass fishing net floats. These are no longer made however the Japanese fishing boats used to put to sea with sand for ballast. As they caught fish, they would take out the sand and make floats to replace the ones they lost. Jodie found two. Carmen found her first one. Her husband, Conrad, has found several so she was pleased to find one. When she found her second, she gave it to me since I was the only member of the group to not find one, an incredibly nice thing to do.
July 4, 1998 (July 5)
Toured Pitchy Islands via zodiac and then landed on Shumshu. Much fog and heavy mist. There is a Border Guard Station here that we were warned to neither visit or take pictures of. However some of the personnel came down to the beach with their tale of no food. So the ship sent ashore a care package. After seeing the news of protests in Moscow I can believe that they havenít been fed. Russia seems on the verge of a collapse.
July 5, 1998 (July 6)
We were supposed to be alongside in Petropavolvsk at 8 am, see some dancing, shop a bit, and have a bus tour. These plans were trashed by the Russian Navy. They had two rusty missile subs limping back to port at 7 kn. We had to circle at the entrance to the channel for four hours until they got in and tied up. As a result we went directly from the ship to the airport with a very brief tour of the town on the way.
At the airport we claimed our luggage and passed through customs and the security inspection then immigration. Finally onto the Reeve Aleutian Airlines plane for the four hour charter flight to Anchorage, this time on a nice 727. Charter flights are nice. Among other things, the booze is free!
I need to discuss Peter Harrison and Shirley Metz. After graduating from college, he found a job with the British Government design embassies. After a year or so he chucked it all, sold his stuff and bought a land rover. He, and first wife, Carol, spent the next seven years roaming around the world gathering information on sea birds. They would have to settle down in various areas for him to earn more money upon which to continue. She eventually became pregnant and returned to England to have their first daughter. Eventually a second daughter was born.
At the end of the seven year data gathering period he returned and started on the book. It took another four years of
illustrating and writing before the book was published. He also had a day job. It seems to be the authoritative book on sea birds. Based on this, he got into the tour guiding business.
Shirley was on of the owners of Hobie Cat (boat or clothing, I donít know.) The company was sold when she was in her 30s and she was a millionaire with nothing to do. She decided to get involved in environmental activities and also took a trip to Antarctica and decided to make that her cause. She was invited to join an expedition to ski to the South Pole which she did, making her to first woman to do so.
She and Peter met on a trip they were guiding. He proposed to her the second day and she accepted. They are part of the founding group of Zegrahm and also own Ecotours.