Turnagain Arm, near Anchorage, has some of the largest tidal differentials in the world. The tidal bore can be quite the sight to see, especially if the belugas are surfing their way in with the tide.
The photo was taken on 2 May 1906, when the SS Toledo was left high and dry by a low tide in Turnagain Arm. The steamer was probably coming back from the gold camps at the southern end of the arm, when it was caught by the escaping tide.
Fascinating photograph, which comes from the Alaska State Library collection.
Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage, received its name from one William Bligh, who was serving under Captain James Cook, during his search for the Northwest Passage. Bligh was sent out with a party to explore the two arms of what is now Cook Inlet. Both arms of the inlet led to rivers, and not the famed Northwest Passage, and Bligh testily named the final arm Turn-Again, because they had to turn around for a second time. It’s no wonder his crew would eventually mutiny.
At low tide, Turnagain Arm becomes a large mud flat. The tides here are the largest in the United States, coming in at 40 feet. The arm is also known for its tidal bores, which can be as high as six feet, which is an impressive sight, as it rushes across the arm. Beluga whales often surf the bore as it comes in.
In 1948, what would become the Alaska Marine Highway System, started out as a ferry service between Haines and Juneau with a surplus WWII landing craft, which was dubbed The Chilkoot. Demand quickly outpaced what the 14 vehicle Chilkoot could provide, so the territorial government commissioned the building of a dedicated ferry at the cost of $300,000.
The MV Chilkat came on line in 1957, as the first ferry in the new Alaska Marine Highway System. Painted blue and gold, the ferries soon took on the nickname Alaska’s “blue canoes”.
The Chilkat was “the Queen of the Fleet”, and traveled the Lynn Canal daily, between Haines, Skagway and Juneau. Later, it would ply the waters between Ketchikan and Annette Island. The Chilkat carried 59 passengers and 15 vehicles, and was a workhorse in Southeast Alaska until 1988.
The Chilkat became a scallop tender in 1988, when the State sold her.
High winds hit Anacortes, Washington on January 13, where the Chilkat was docked. She broke loose from her moorings in gusts of 50 knots, shifted awkwardly, and sank within minutes. Three boats broke free during the storm, but only the 99 foot former ferry sank.
Since the Chilkat had been taken out of service, she had no fuel or oil in her system. The owner of the boatyard says the Chilkat will be eventually be raised from the sea bed.
The Aleutian Chain was rocked by an incredible storm over New Years. The wonderfully named Bomb Cyclone, set a record in Alaska for a low pressure system.
High and low-pressure systems form when air mass and temperature differences between the surface of the Earth, and the upper atmosphere, create vertical currents. In a low pressure system, the air currents flow upward, sucking air away from the earth’s surface like a giant Shop*Vac.
Eareckson Air Force Base on Shemya Island recorded the record low pressure at 924.8 millibars.
A sea buoy off of Amchitka Island, registered a wave at 58.1 feet. Winds at Shemya hit gusts of 83 mph. This was an impressive storm that pummeled the outer islands of the Aleutian Chain. From Atka to Adak, the islands were seeing 40-50 foot waves and hurricane force winds.
St Lawrence Island and the Yukon Delta saw high winds and blizzard conditions when the storm hit Alaska’s mainland.
Unlike a hurricane, which extract heat from the ocean, as they grow in power, a maritime cyclone creates energy by drawing together warm and cold air masses. It’s the energy created when the warm air rises and the cold air sinks, that gives rise to the cyclone.
In a normal year, Glacier Bay receives more than 150 cruise ship visits. In 2020, with the cruise industry in dry dock, Glacier Bay has seen a regular inhabitant take over. The humpback whale has been making the most of no cruise ships.
Humpbacks have been studied regularly for decades in Glacier Bay. Individual whales had been identified as far back as 1973. In 2020, the whales have been seen lounging in the middle of channels, feeding in large groups, and generally enjoying “room to roam”, as one researcher put it. Their underwater vocalizing was way up too, thrilling researchers.
The Park’s whale monitoring system has identified 740 individual whales between 1985 and 2017. The birth year of 311 Glacier Bay whales is known to researchers, because they were sighted as calves in The Bay. The oldest whale is a male, #516 or Garfunkle. Garfunkle was born in 1974. He was last seen in 2016.
The longest documented humpback was #441, who had been seen for 45 years. His carcass was found outside of Glacier Bay in 2016, his age was 66 years. The oldest documented humpback was 98 years old, when he was taken by a commercial whaler. The age of humpbacks can be determined by the layers on their ear plugs.
Most female humpback whales of Glacier Bay are able to have a calf every three years once they mature, which is at 12 years of age in Alaska waters, much later than northern Atlantic humpbacks.
Glacier Bay and Icy Strait is a regular home to 181 humpbacks, with Southeast Alaska being home to 1585 individuals. The most recent estimate has 21,063 humpback whales living in the entire North Pacific.
A link to the sounds of the Glacier Bay humpback can be found below:
On the Winter Solstice, we neither gain nor lose daylight here in Interior Alaska. The day today will be the same length as yesterday: 3 hours, 47 minutes long.
But tomorrow, tomorrow we will gain 20 seconds. Christmas Eve will see a gain of a minute, and by New Year’s, our daylight will last more than 4 hours.
It’s a big deal here in the north.
There will be a double treat in the skies this year, as we get to experience the rare “double conjunction”. Saturn and Jupiter will be so close together in the low southwestern sky, that they will appear as one bright point. The best time for viewing will be one hour after sunset.
The last time Jupiter and Saturn put on this “joint force” in the sky was in 1623.
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.