WHALE WATCHING IN A VERMONT FISHING DORY
Old Guy and the Sea
by Jake Lemon
This is Jake Lemon, a customer and a custom furniture maker from Idaho. Along with him is Bernice.
Jake sent us the following story:
Over the phone my friend Keith told me, “If you end up in the drink, you’ll be hypothermic in 15 minutes.” Hearing that, I made tracks over to Sierra Trading Post and fit myself with a 3/4 wetsuit. It would prove to be a good outfit for rowing in the cool, damp seas off of Sitka, Alaska.
I shoved off from a friend’s dock in Sitka on a nine day row amongst the famed archipelago to the south of Sitka. This would be my boat’s first salt water dunk. My boat is a Vermont Fishing Dory, a more stable version of an Adirondack Guide Boat…yes, a row boat, not a canoe. She’s made of Kevlar with cherry trim.
I considered the calm, cool Alaskan drizzle favorable weather; calm being the primary favorable factor. Not exactly sure where I was headed, whether it be socked in or not, it took me all day to row about five crow miles to my first camp.
In this weather, it pays to savvy the compass; I hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. My first campsite was on a bit of a gravel beach. Otherwise, the shores were cliff faces, the jaws of mean looking rocks or dense forest, right down to the high tide mark.
There was fresh Brown Bear scat two feet from where I set up the kitchen and all the tips of the grass had been grazed off by the same resident. It was prudent to perfect my food hanging technique. A seasoned kayak camper guy paid me a visit. I peppered him for an hour with questions ranging from good camp sites to bear management. His most memorable comments were how an Orca Whale decided not to eat him.
After a lay-over day at the first camp, it was time to make a wake. It was the predicted socked-in weather with head winds 5 to 10 knots. In the stretches between islands, open to the North Pacific, the swells were 3’-4’, which were no threat at all. A 10 knot breeze makes a bit of a chop (known as the condition of ‘the seas’); chop being significantly more of a threat to my little boat (with about 8 inches of freeboard) than the swells. This put me on edge.
Wanting to be efficient, I picked out a land mark in the distance that I thought was near the day’s destination. Following a straight line to that landmark, a white man concept as opposed to the natives, would sometimes take me out into “the middle.” More than once, I received some crooked raised eyebrows from power boaters witnessing me so far off shore. Taking calculated risks like this in an open 14’ boat proved not to be a common sight for these old salt Alaskans.
This day shaped up to be my toughest day of rowing, that 10 knot head wind being the cause. At one point, a Coast Guard helicopter (these babies are big, deep throated machines) advanced up behind me and hovered a good distance off my starboard beam. Obviously checking out my sanity, I momentarily took my hand off of the oar and gave them a quick wave. That satisfied them and they fell away to leave me to the circumstance I had created for myself.
I told friends in Sitka that I’d call, either by cell or satellite phone, each odd numbered day at noon. This day, I ducked in out of the wind and chop, behind a string of island rocks, not bothering to land my craft. Making the call on my Global Star satellite phone, my friend’s first words were, “Are you having fun?” My mind spun some answers related to the edginess of the day; I answered “Kinda.” In reality, it was what I signed up for.
Bobbing around behind the rocks, after lunch came a classic calculated risk. The combination of rocks, swells, chop, wind and kelp had me considering several options to attain the other side of the string of island rocks. I started to take option three, but chickened out. If I got tangled up in the kelp, the consequences would not have been pretty. Option four looked safer, but was clogged with more kelp. I shipped the oars and pulled out what is known in Guide Boat circles as a “sneak paddle”, aka a canoe paddle. With the paddle, I navigated the kelp beds with ease, finding narrow channels through it. This camp prospect looked good… mighty good. It was the spot, on Strawberry Island, recommended by a retired Coast Guard helicopter pilot, Rich, whom I met on the ferry; he gave me a handful of hot tips.
Alaska beauty takes more patience to experience than a lot of vacation destinations. By day four, I fully realized I had immersed myself in something that I had never truly encountered.
On day five I came upon this seal sunning himself at low tide (as if there was any sun!) I love his/her frosted eyebrows! As I glided by, to keep an eye on me, he turned himself 180° by rhythmically tightening his stomach muscles and bouncing around in about five bumps.
A voice out of nowhere spoke of an approaching bear. It took me a moment to realize, this voice might be talking to ME. Then I spotted the messenger across the water, on a close by island. At this point, it became obvious who he was warning, so I got up to investigate. As one might expect, Gottard has its own human-habituated Brown Bear, accustomed to invading the occasional stray cooler of goodies. The Griz was approaching my camp from the South. Armed with bear spray and camera, I asserted that he was not welcome in my camp. He responded by withdrawing into the woods. The sly bugger easily made his way around behind my camp and returned to the beach. I again asserted he was not welcome and pushed him northward along the shore. At about one hundred yards up from camp, he turned around and signed he was going no further. I countered that I was not giving up on my push by stepping forward up onto a rock about thirty feet from him. This, it turned out, was a moment to be remembered as the most fearful of the trip. He disregarded my impassioned gesture, took a step toward me, then reached down to pick up a Salmon off the sand, freshly caught but abandoned by a Bald Eagle. He then fell off into the woods to eat it in peace. I retreated back to camp, satisfied I’d done my job.
That night, in the abbreviated darkness of the season, I heard whales cavorting out front. By the relative whisper of their blow, one would never guess of their mass.
Wrong about Mr. Bear! 4:30 the next morning, a faint noise woke me. I was tempted to shrug it off, but sat up in my bag to focus out the open door of the tent; The Big Guy! Again, he was about thirty feet away. It was broad daylight… just a few days after the summer solstice at 57° N…in Alaska. The evening before, having laid out an arsenal next to my head (bear spray, flare gun, air horn), my weapon of choice was the flare gun. I worked the trigger so as to not make a click when I cocked the hammer, pulled down on his shoulder with both hands on the handle. I squeezed off the shot. BOOM! >>> Bulls Eye! The yellow/orange projectile found its mark, then bounced off into the sand. Later, there was some legitimate concern that I might have burned him, but my fully centered vision saw the thimble sized projectile hit him and immediately bounce off his shoulder to complete its seven seconds of dazzle in the sand.
jake05(Note: We assume this image is slightly out of focus for a damn good reason)
Mr. Bear took off, but not in a panicked scramble; he was fast but quiet…and not on fire. I camped there another night; never to lay eyes on him again.
As you can see, it was a picture post card day in the “South East” (Alaskan for SE Alaska, but North West for us lower 48ers). In a short story, that means nothing much salable happened, but please let me interject; these parts have a unique quality. The weather and topography limit human habitation. On the surface anyway, even the anthropocentric segment don’t put much of a visible dent in the thriving environs. I could see faded indications of clear cutting on slopes where logs could be slid into the ocean to be tied together and tug-boated to the nearest sawmill. And the waters; they look like a perfect utopia for aquatic life. This part of the Alaskan coast is a mountain range both on shore and under the sea. I’d come back as a sea-lion in this paradise any day.
Several people asked if I did any fishing in these flourishing waters. I’ve never been much of a fisherman, but an old girl-friend cured me good. As I headed out to do some Idaho trout stream fishing she managed to jab me in the back with, “Who can hear the fish scream? I am definitely more in my element spending that time hunting… for good pictures.
The next day, I set a course back toward my home port, Bart Island. I had been seeing Humpback Whales every day, but was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t had any close encounters. Yup, just before lunch, one blew about one hundred-fifty yards straight off my port beam! I had learned, it is their pattern to come up and do a series of four blows, then go back down. His second blow was at one hundred yards. He could not have been aimed more accurately for my mid-ship.
Oh Mama, where is my bear spray when I need it!?! His third blow at fifty yards confirmed he meant business. He was on track to come right up underneath me for blow number four! At this point, I took the above shot of his hump and momentarily considered an attempt to get a super close-up of his final blow… but my nerve frayed; I took a quick evasive stroke on the oars. He never did come up to blow his fourth. However, my prayers for an up close and personal whale encounter were answered, unmolested; YESSS!
jake07(Note: Again, we assume this image is slightly out of focus for a damn good reason)
This is a safer view of another Hump Back, shortly after the blow (see the mist). These babies are forty to fifty feet in length and weigh about thirty–five… tons! A bump on their head of my boat would be the equivalent to a Ping-Pong ball on ours.
Not only was it a pristine day, but I made another one of Rich’s camp recommendations in the ten mile day. Because ten miles was twice my norm, this day was assisted by some good drugs. Unlike Hemingway’s Old Man, the drugs were effective in keeping my back and arms from complaining much about the six hours of rowing. However, upon arrival, the beach site was occupied by a large bunch of large people, drinking cheap beer and smoking rank cigarettes. One of the women even gave me an inviting wave; I waved back and glided on.
By this point, I thought I was pretty savvy in choosing good landings, the trick being anticipating its desirability at all stages of tide. However, a criteria not yet learned was the likeliness of bugs. I selected an “Alaska sand” beach, deep into the inlet known as Three Entrance Bay, the name influenced by two islands at its mouth. Bugs were present, but not too bad.
The weatherman over the VHF radio predicted the previous 3 day streak of impeccable weather was about to end. This news influenced me to want to end my nine day outing a day early.
On the eighth day, I called in on my Cell (close enough to Sitka to have service) and asked, “Is it OK for me to come in a day earlier than planned; the weather report is getting threatening”. “Heck yes, I insist you do!”
And so ended one of the paramount excursions of my life; I am a fortunate guy.