Camera: Widelux FVI; Film: Kodak 35mm, Tri-X400
November in Haines, Alaska normally means bald eagles. The largest concentration of bald eagles in the world happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where the Tsirku River, warmed by ground water, meets the Chilkat River. This span of open water, and a late run of chum salmon bring in eagles in large numbers. In normal years, one spot on the river can contain 500 eagles, with the total number of the raptors in the thousands.
Haines is the home of the festival, and it brings in visitors from around the globe. People come year after year to photograph and hang out with the bald eagles, mingling with fellow birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This year, the festival was canceled due to Covid-19. It’s just another blow to local businesses, in a year full of them.
Oddly enough, the eagles didn’t show up either. One count had 46 bald eagles on a spot along the river, when in normal years, there would be around 500. The eagles didn’t come to the Chilkat, because the chum salmon never showed up. The run was a record low, and that has hit eagles, bears and fishermen alike. The bears, who normally fatten up on the late season salmon bounty, have been breaking into local homes and cabins more than usual, seeking out food.
Like all of our salmon runs that have been in decline, no one can answer the “Why question”. Is it the warming ocean and rivers? Over fishing? Are the hatchery fish too much competition for the wild ones for food out in the ocean? Or, are all these theories tied in together?
One thing is for certain: The entire ecosystem up here runs off of a strong salmon run. And so does the economy.
Flashback Film Friday:
The sternwheeler White Horse was built in 1901, and ran the Yukon River for 54 years. She had a length of 167 feet, a beam of 34.5 feet, and a gross tonnage of 986.65 tons. She accommodated 64 people.
The White Horse had an interesting history. Declared a “plague ship” in 1902, due to a 2nd Class passenger being suspected of having small pox. The sternwheeler was quarantined for 16 days, and the disease did not appear, so she returned to service.
In 1935, the White Horse was sent to rescue the passengers of the STR Yukon, which had been severely damaged by ice on the infamous Lake Labarge. Aircraft from the British Yukon Navigation Company, guided the White Horse through the ice to the beached Yukon.
In 1916, the White Horse took her first venture into the pure tourist trade, by making one of many Midnight Sun runs to Fort Yukon. The trips were a huge hit at the time.
The once proud White Horse came to a fiery end. She was passed up for restoration in 1955 in favor of the STR Klondike, which can still be seen in Whitehorse, YT. She was sold in 1960 along with the STR Casca and two other ships to the Canadian Government, but no restoration was attempted, other than to put them behind a chain link fence.
On 20 June 1974, both the White Horse & Casca caught fire in dry dock, and burned down to the gravel bed. No cause of the fire has ever been officially stated.
Sources: Alaska State Library, University of Alaska, CBC.CA
“The Female Robinson Crusoe“
In 1921, Ada Blackjack had been abandoned by her husband outside of Nome, Alaska with a five year old son who suffered from tuberculosis. She needed money to care for her son, so she joined an Arctic Expedition to Wrangel Island, which was being put together by explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition sought an Alaska Native seamstress who spoke english. Ada was hired on, and left for Wrangel Island in September 1921.
The expedition itself, was on thin ice from the very beginning. The goal was for the team to travel to Wrangel Island to claim it for the British Empire, even though the British government had shown little interest in the island previously. Stefansson, who organized the entire expedition, had no intention of going himself. Instead, four men: Allan Crawford, 20, Lorne Knight, 28, Fred Maurer, 28, and Milton Galle, 19, went with Blackjack, 23, and Vic the cat, age unknown, to claim the island.
The team had enough supplies to last six months, although Stefansson assured the expedition members that wild game would be easy to find.
The first year went relatively well, but by the end of autumn 1922, game had suddenly diminished from the island. By January 1923, the expedition was in trouble. Crawford, Maurer, and Galle left on foot across the sea ice to Siberia for help. Knight, who was suffering from scurvy, was left behind with Blackjack and Vic. The three men who went out on foot were never seen or heard from again. Ada cared for the ailing Knight for six months, until his death in June.
For the next three months, Ada Blackjack was alone on the island. She trapped fox, shot birds, and patrolled for polar bear. She even used the expedition camera gear to take selfies outside of camp.
On August 20, 1923, almost two full years from first arriving on Wrangel Island, the schooner Donaldson arrived to rescue the last surviving member of the expedition. The crew found Blackjack doing quite well for herself, stating: she “mastered her environment so far that it seems likely she could have lived there another year, although the isolation would have been a dreadful experience.”
Blackjack took her money from the expedition, which was less than promised, retrieved her son, and avoided the spotlight. Stefansson profited greatly from the failed expedition, but none of that money went to Blackjack. She spent much of her adult life in poverty. She did remarry, and had a second son, Billy. Bennett died in 1972 at the age of 58 from a stroke. Ada Blackjack passed away on May, 29 1983 at the Pioneer Home in Palmer, Alaska. Blackjack is buried at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, next to her son Bennett.
A large glacial dam gave way in Southeast Alaska this summer. Known by its Icelandic term: jökulhlaup, the power of this sudden release of pent up water can be incredibly destructive.
Desolation Lake, which sits above the Lituya Glacier in Desolation Valley, collects meltwater from both the Desolation and Fairweather Glaciers. That meltwater is normally blocked by the Lituya Glacier, forming the roughly four square mile lake.
The water level suddenly dropped 200 feet.
A commercial fisherman, Jim Moore, along with his two grandsons, tried to enter Lituya Bay to fish for Chinooks in August. They should have been riding the tide into the bay, but the unusually muddy water was moving outward, and it was filled with trees and other debris. The bay was also filled with small icebergs. Moore managed to bring some of the ancient ice onboard for his coolers, then left the bay, instead of fighting the dangerous current.
It is one of the largest jökulhlaups known to have occurred in Alaska. The water found a path under the Lituya Glacier, causing a rush that would have rivaled the hourly discharge of the Amazon River. It would have lasted for several days.*
Lituya Bay has a history. In 1958, an earthquake triggered a landslide that started one of the largest known tsunamis at over 1700 feet.
*NPS Geologist, Michael Loso
Part III: “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of food.”
This is the third part of the After the Ice series. The video is less than 6 minutes long. Part III delves a bit into the Arctic Report Card, which is an annual assessment, and how our local Arctic population is finally getting a seat at the climate table.
The weather gurus have told us to expect temps to drop below 0F the past few nights, but the expected mercury drop has not occurred. One night, I stoked up a nice fire in the stove, and ended up opening windows.
Now the low temps being forecast are back up into the upper teens. The below zero weather will arrive, but we’ve received a bit of a reprieve.
Camera: Minolta SRT201; Film: Kodak T-Max400
Part II: “It’s heaven on earth.”
The second video from ARCUS on the loss of sea ice in the Arctic. It’s just under 7 minutes. This video highlights what the loss of sea ice is doing to the land where these villages are located.
The Eskimo Ninja, Nick Hanson, appears in Part II, and is quoted above.