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Published: September 20th 2012
Following the leader
Seward Highway flooding just past mile 3
The SeaLife Center in Seward is extraordinary. Aside from rich informational displays about marine wildlife in Alaska and various educational movies, they have live rehabbed sea lions, birds, and right now had two rescued walrus youngsters. First some marine facts to enrich your day:
· Alaska’s coastline stretches nearly 45,000 miles. It is bordered by two oceans, three seas, and the Gulf of Alaska.
· Russia and Alaska are only 53 miles apart. The Bering Sea is bordered by Russia, Alaska’s mainland, the Aleutian Islands, and the Commander Islands. At the northernmost part lies the Bering Strait where Russia and Alaska almost touch.
· The Bering Sea covers over 885,000 square miles – almost twice the size of Alaska
· Over half the fish and shellfish caught in U.S. waters comes from the Bering Sea
· Alaska sustainably supplies over half of the wild-caught seafood in the U.S. including 95% of the country’s wild salmon (next time you shop for seafood, note whether you are buying seafood from farmeries or naturally wild seafood from Alaska! There is good reason to purchase Alaska wild vs. farm fish)
· Beluga whales live throughout the Arctic region. The
Cook Inlet Alaska beluga population is believed to have persisted in the Cook Inlet area for thousands of years without mingling with other beluga groups. Sadly their numbers are declining with no known reason though research is in progress. It is believed the population in late 70’s was 1300. By 1994, population was down to 650 and in 2008, less than 300 at which time this specific pure beluga population was listed as endangered adding protections hoping to halt the decline.
· Life span of the King Crab is 20 years (if not caught or eaten by anything else of course)
· Exxon Valdez oil spill – March 24, 1989
o 11 million gallons of oil were spilled and within two months, had affected 1300 miles of coast line
o Estimates of death due to the spill – 150,000 seabirds, 2,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, up to 22 Orca whales, billions of salmon and herring eggs and other intertidal plants and animals
o Winter storms can churn up oil that still remains in some beach sands and gravels causing once cleaned sites to become re-oiled. Bald eagles, common murres, harbor seals, pink and sockeye
salmon, river otters, common loons, cormorants, and Dolly Varden trout have recovered. Other species still recovering, not recovered or status unknown.
o As a result, double hulled tankers will be required in U.S. waters by 2015 and International maritime laws concerning oil tankers have followed U.S. initiative.
o Major spills have decreased throughout the world from more than 9 per year in the 80’s to fewer than 4 per year in this decade.
o While the Exxon Valdez oil spill is the largest in North America, it is not even in the top 50 spills worldwide yet is considered one of the worst in terms of environmental damage due to location and density of marine wildlife. Every nine months, more oil goes into U.S. marine waters via runoff from roads, parking lots and incidental land based spills than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. (I know I’m one of those that gets impassive at some of the environmental group cries but when reading facts like this, it’s hard to ignore)
o Male Stellar seals that breed off the coast of California in summer sometimes spend winter in the Bering Sea some 4,000 miles away!! Formidable swimmers?!
o Researchers are learning more about seals and sea lions from powerful cameras place in specific high population areas where they can observe their natural tendencies, uninhibited by human presence. Cameras are housed in watertight casements equipped with lens wipers. Transmitters, solar panels, and wind generators are securely fastened to the rocks with steel cables to keep them upright in high winds. (They had a live feed from one of the cameras – quite captivating)
o Since the 1970’s, more than 80% of the Steller sea lions and 60-90% of the harbor seals between the northern Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands have disappeared. Steller sea lions living west of the 144 degree longitude line have been declared endangered. Populations east of the line are considered threatened.
o Rats (specifically Norway rats aka brown rats) were introduced from Northern Asia (originally thought ships from England but later disproved) and are now upsetting ecosystems by preying upon native wildlife, competing with native populations for food, and altering existing habitats. Rats are adept climbers and diggers allowing them to steep cliff ledges or deep burrows eating helpless eggs, chicks, or even adult seabirds. They are known to claim
seabird burrows as new homes for themselves. Rats can swim ½ mile in open sea and tread water for 3 days! They can dive 100 feet underwater and hold their breath for as long as 15 minutes!! They can produce a new litter (4 to 10 young) every 4 weeks!!! (Such an impact now and future of this foreign pest being introduced here L)
I spent too much time watching the walrus youngsters but it was fascinating as the caretaker tried to introduce them to clam meat for the very first time. Pakak, the older one at 15 weeks and 355 pounds finally decided he liked it – a lot. Mitik, the younger one at 12 weeks and ‘only’ 220 pounds was not at all interested. He seemed to look at the caretaker like ‘that is not my bottle – just give me my bottle please.’ The caretaker would put some clam meat inside his lips but he had his mouth locked down and scrunched his face and wouldn’t let it pass into his mouth. He kept squiggling to get the caretaker away. Meanwhile, Pakak liked it enough to keep trying to steal it from the caretaker and/or the
meat hanging from Mitik’s mouth. Can you imagine how entertaining this was? There was a third one rescued that was with Mitik on the beach at the time but that one didn’t make it. Those two had been very, very sick having been stranded for weeks. We’ll never know the story of how these three were stranded. These two survivors have places to go when they are deemed healthy enough and old enough to tolerate the transfer. Sealife specialists try to return as many injured as possible to the wild but because of how young these were, they are totally humanized now and thus, not able to be considered for re-release.
I kept a watch on the weather while I was there and it just kept getting worse – lots of wind and drenching rain. I had been waiting, hoping it would improve. Then I overheard one of the workers saying she was going to get home. She lived near the point, down that little road along the mountain that had already been water logged. When she heard I was heading to Homer she said I best head out now or better still, get a room and stay because
reports were bad – strong winds and creeks/rivers reaching flood stages. She said Homer is higher but I have to get out of Seward and through Coopers Landing first to get to Homer. They had already closed the road to Exit Glacier that I had driven just yesterday. She suggested I have food and water in the car just in case. Since I’ve had that the whole trip, didn’t need any prep time for that. I thought about going back to the hotel and staying another night but really didn’t feel any strong vibes to stay – felt better about leaving in spite of the wind and rain as I walked to the car. Thank heaven I wore rain gear and boots at the start this morning or I would have been absolutely soaked just getting to the car. I have enough gas but fill up anyway just in case of any delays or whatever. More stories are conveyed at the gas station of people who had turned back or reported terrible wind gusts coming in from Anchorage. I still feel pretty good about going to Homer knowing worst was supposed to be Turnagain Arm into Anchorage. So I trust
Mitik not so much...
...and Pakak was there doing everything possible to get around or through caretaker to steal the clam meat from Mitik's mouth!! Hysterical!
that inner voice and head out. The main road is already flooded at one point as you can see from the picture. I figure I can always turn back so I keep going. There are plenty of swollen creeks, rivers, and new ponds that aren’t normally ponds but after ten miles outside of Seward, no other issues with the road besides really, really wet including water streaming down the road at times. It is rain at varying levels throughout the travel but nothing like the wind and rain in Seward. I am glad I trusted because the closer I get to Homer, the better it gets.
All the autumn colors that were virtually gone on the drive from Fairbanks a couple of days ago are in full bloom here. It is beautiful even in the rain. I attempt a few pictures to show how high the creeks and rivers are but ultimately decide the pictures won’t show well and it’s really not that safe to be picture taking given the conditions. So I focus totally on getting to my destination as quickly as possible.
Mountains and hillsides overlaid with trees of all shades eventually give way to smoother
more even scenery. It seems like perfect moose territory and I keep an eye out but see none. They could be right there but I’m just not seeing them, who knows. Soldotna turns out to be quite large complete with a McDonalds which was good since I needed a quick stop anyway. I forego a shake since the line is long and I am Homer focused. From Soldotna, there seems to be little towns every so often that break the tedious driving. For whatever reason I am getting tired already so the little towns keep it interesting. Then, I start noticing water as I look through trees on my right. Sure enough, it is the ocean. Pictures are hard to come by in between the trees so I just keep looking toward ocean glimpses for my own pleasure.
The road becomes hillier again and I gradually make my way into Homer. It is quite the view coming in over a high hillside and looking down on to the Oceanside city. I see the harbor point I have read about and wonder which day I will make my way out there. It is hardly raining at all here in Homer
Cameras at key locations...
...observing Sea Lions in natural habitat
and though a little windy, nothing like what I experienced on the other side. I make my first pass through town looking for Homer Spit Road and do not find it. None of the Homer maps I have show the little street names in between so I am perplexed. I am usually really good at stopping to ask direction but for some reason, was more curious to just find it on my own today. I turn around and come back into town and on the way see a mom moose with her youngster. Traffic does not allow me to stop to take a picture. I follow a couple other streets to a different part of town and trip on to Homer Spit Road. I follow the road and it starts taking me out toward the point that I had wondered about earlier. There is a boardwalk type of walkway all along that folks are walking but I still wonder if the place I’m staying is out this far. I keep going because it’s a pretty cool drive no matter what. I do see some shops further out and then fishing areas and construction or other trades and still wonder if
Live from Chiswell Island
Hard to get a good picture - it was quite appealing
I should turn around. I get to what appears to be the end of the road and sure enough, there it is, Land’s End. I guess the name of the place is literal in this case because there truly is no land beyond it. I check in and quite pleased with the ocean view room. If this were in Seward, the ocean water would be spewing against the window given conditions there but here, it is constant calm scenery. There is some clearing in the clouds but also followed quickly with new, darker clouds so doubtful it’s really going to clear. There are mountains just across the bay. It is wonderful.
I head to the restaurant having had enough snacks for the day – in need of something at least a little healthier. Halibut with Parmesan cheese crusted on top with little red skinned potatoes and then broccoli/cauliflower mix – how cool is that for the end of this day?! I spot a sea otter out in the ocean while dining and then the waiter says there is a seal popping its head up periodically further down. I see it a little while later - Amazing to be here!
I watch the night's weather to find Seward continued to get hammered with both wind and rain. Their high school was opened up to house folks from the Exit Glacier Road and others who were at risk of flooding. I am glad I did not stay there another night. Anchorage and Turnagain Arm have sustained some additional damage to the storm last week. It is crazy weather here as many of those who live in Alaska have been commenting. As part of weather report, they note that cresting of lakes and some rivers right in my path to go north is a huge risk through Saturday. I am scheduled for two nights here but will likely extend to a third night, leaving Saturday instead of Friday. No sense chancing going through flooded areas going back toward Anchorage. This is certainly not a bad place to be for an extra day and since there’s rain/storms virtually all over the state now, no real rush to move on. Actually Juneau and south from there has sunshine and nice weather but that would take a flight to get to which if for no other reason than expense, is quickly ruled out. The
weather is what it is and I knew that these last shoulder weeks to their high season would be uncertain. This is why most places close for the season 9/15. At least I’m not in snow though I’ll bet it is absolutely gorgeous up here blanketed in snow!! Actually wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Alaska in full snow colors 😉 If I get here again, perhaps I'll need to make it in winter time...lol.
I am done for the day – was actually ready to be done before dinner – now there’s no putting it off. Days are so much shorter now after these last weeks of losing 5-7 minutes of light each day. It’s pretty close to only 12 hours of daylight now. Maybe the rain, clouds, and decreased daylight is why I’m more tired now. Anyway, I’ll need to seriously consider number of daylight hours as I decide what driving north I will try to squeeze in this last week. Goodnight from Homer, Alaska. God bless!
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