Monthly Archives: March 2021

Bleak runs in 2020

Seward, Alaska Harbor

The numbers are in, although I think most of us in Alaska knew the gist of things: The salmon runs in 2020 fit the overall theme of the year. They were bleak.

King salmon returns were in the bottom five for harvests since the 1960’s. Sockeye returns were the second lowest since 1962. Coho and pinks were better than the other two species, but they were still down. The numbers coming back for the coho, or silver salmon, ranked 48th, pinks ranked 53rd since 1962.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is predicting a better return for pink salmon for 2021. Pinks are the only salmon species that Fish & Game forecasts the upcoming return. They are hopeful that Alaska will see an increase in all five species of salmon that return to our waters.

From a personal experience level: For several years now, I have seen a noticeable increase in our group’s salmon harvest in odd years, and a downturn in even years. 2020 fit in with that nonscientific trend, but it was certainly the hardest we worked to fill the freezer in 2020. Luckily, we made up for it with halibut and lingcod.

King salmon are now known to be returning to Alaska waters at a younger age. This means that they are coming back smaller. The factors causing this are still unknown, although increased predation and water temperature are high on the list of suspects. Salmon sharks and orcas certainly take a bite out of the salmon population, and it would be expected that they may gravitate towards the larger salmon, but these predators are hardly new to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond.

I admit that I am hoping for a rebound in the salmon return for 2021.

Fishing for silvers, but catching pinks in Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Both photos were taken in 2019


USCGC Healy to sail Northwest Passage

USCG Cutter Healy 700 miles north of Utqiaġvik, Alaska; Public domain photo: Credit USCG

The largest icebreaker of the three in the service of the United States Coast Guard, will sail through the Northwest Passage at the end of this summer. The sailing will be a joint venture with the Canadian Coast Guard.

The Cutter Healy is named after Captain “Hell-Roaring” Mike Healy, who was captain of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. The Bear sailed the Alaskan coast for decades. The icebreaker Healy has accommodations for the entire crew, as well as for up to 50 scientists. The Healy can continuously break through ice up to 4-1/2 feet thick at 3 knots, and up to 10 feet thick, when “backing & ramming”. The Healy is designed to operate at temperatures down to -50F, and was the first U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole unaccompanied.

The upcoming mission through the Northwest Passage is officially a joint research and educational collaboration. That may very well be true, but it’s hard to ignore the geopolitical message that will be sent along with the research.

As the sea ice in the Arctic diminishes, clearly transport through the Northwest Passage will increase.

Currently, plans have the Cutter Healy leaving Dutch Harbor in mid-August for the Northwest Passage. By mid-September the icebreaker expects to do exercises out of Nuuk, Greenland around Baffin Bay.


The Good Friday Earthquake

Aerial view of Anchorage’s Park Strip the day after the 9.2 quake; Photo from the University of Alaska Archives

Saturday, March 27 was the 57th Anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake that hit south-central Alaska. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck at 5:36 pm AST, and the earth shook for the next 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Witnesses say that the earth roared like a freight train for that entire time.

The epicenter was 78 miles from Anchorage in Prince William Sound. It was a relatively shallow quake, with a depth of roughly 15 miles. 131 people were killed due to the earthquake, with 122 of the deaths due to the resulting tsunamis.

Downtown Anchorage after the 1964 earthquake; Photo from the University of Alaska Archives

Seward, Kodiak, Valdez, Chenega, were all hit by tsunamis. Shoup Bay was hit by the largest tsunami with a wave height of 220 feet.

In the first 24 hours after the main shaker, there were 11 aftershocks over 6.0, with another nine over the following three weeks. Thousands of aftershocks hit the area over the next year.


Blue skies in the afternoon

Not everything that leaves tracks is on paws.


Running Below Freezing

It was a nice run Anchorage.

Graphic credit: NWS- Alaska

Anchorage made a go at it, I have to admit. They had been putting together an impressive run of days at, or below, freezing. Not Fairbanks, impressive, but impressive none the less. The record for Anchorage was, and still is, 59 days below 32F. The run ended at 58 days. Oh, so close!

The area north of the Brooks Range has the best grip on below freezing streaks, hitting 250 days of 32F or below.

By the graph: The Anchorage Run


Beaver trails in the snow

Beaver trail

This past weekend, a surprisingly large section of open water showed itself on The Pond. A steady stream of bubbles came up to the water’s surface. The bubbles were methane escaping the mud below.

The next morning, the temp at the cabin was -27F, so at ice level it was easily -30F. Much of the open area had frozen over, but a neat circular hole remained in the ice. From the hole, a trail led off across the pond’s snowy surface. One of the resident beavers had come out to explore the area. It followed all of the trails we made in the snow the previous day, and then it went off on its own, exploring at its leisure.

Beaver tunnel

There were several times, where the trail dipped below the snow, and the beaver tunneled for quite a distance, before popping up again to the surface. I had never seen where a beaver had gone swimming in the snow. Most of these tunnels were near the cat tail stands, but not all.

The day after I followed the beaver trail, the open water had completely closed over. The methane is the clear culprit in the open water, especially such a large opening. As the bubbles rise to the surface, the ice thins due to the movement of the water. Most of the methane pocket locations are known, and those areas are avoided when anyone traverses The Pond. We are guessing that this opening was caused by a large, unknown pocket, that gave way. The bubbles that we watched coming up were in three distinct trails, but we wondered if the beaver had helped things along. Surely, the beaver knew about the location of the thinning ice, and kept one section open longer than the rest. Did their movement below, open up the large section we found? The beaver is an intriguing species of rodent.


Potter Marsh

Potter Marsh and the Chugach Mountains

Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary is a 564 acre fresh water marsh, located at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

The marsh was created in 1917 when the embankment for the Alaska Railroad was built up, effectively separating the fresh water from the Chugach Mountains, and the salt water from Turnagain Arm.

Potter Marsh is often called the most accessible wildlife viewing location in Alaska. The marsh is easily reached by the Seward Highway, and it contains a 1550 foot long boardwalk to keep your feet dry.

This wetland maze sees roughly 130 species of migratory and nesting birds calling it home, for at least part of the year. Moose, beavers, muskrats, eagles and hawks all can be viewed at Potter Marsh. Spawning salmon are often seen swimming up Rabbit Creek from Turnagain Arm in season.

Both brown bear and black bear use the marsh, but they are very rarely seen here. Consider yourself very lucky if you spot a bruin moving through the wetland.


Fairbanks retakes the lead

Graphic credit: National Weather Service – Fairbanks

I do realize that some people find the long summer days of Interior Alaska difficult to deal with. I am not one of those people; I absolutely revel in them. Arguably, the land of the midnight sun has the best summers and we have no shortage of activities to fill the many sunlit hours.

Graphic credit: NOAA

Officially, spring has arrived, but winter is not giving up just yet. Atqasuk on Alaska’s North Slope saw -53F on Sunday morning. The Interior was considerably warmer with Denali Park at -27F, Fort Yukon -13F and Fairbanks a balmy -8F.

As the graphic above illustrates, Alaska and Canada have had a string of amazing northern lights viewing. Even with the waxing moon, the aurora has been dominating the northern skies of late, putting on some impressive shows.


Vernal Equinox

Happy Spring!

A March day spent snowshoeing


Moon over Turnagain

Turnagain Arm