Sunday, September 24, 2017

Salmon Run

Seward (and Alaska) is shutting down. I know things would be slowing down, but I didn't expect things to be literally shutting down.

I had rushed from Fairbanks to Anchorage so that I could catch the last Alaskan Railroad train of the season from Anchorage to Seward on 17 Sep. It is reputed to be one of the most scenic train rides, and I am very glad I managed to catch it. I was impressed.

But on reaching Seward, I found that the train was not the only thing that is "last". The free city shuttle was also running its last day, and of course, more than half of the train passengers on the train were catching the last cruise ship sailing out of Seward. A lot of the tourist facilities were also not operating, like the shuttle to the Exit Glacier, one of the main attractions of Seward!

In any case, Seward is a great place to chill in. I enjoy the walks along the waterfront, with the mountains right in front, and the otters cruising lazily in the waters. And I saw a number of the locals whisking their fishing rods on an inlet from the sea into the streams. What a strange way of fishing! I ventured closer.

Local "fishermen"

After looking at the scene for a while, I finally realized that there were salmon wriggling upstream from the sea into the inlet. The fishing rods had a 3-pronged hook with  no bait, and the "fishermen" were literally whisking the rods and lines to hook up the salmon! September is the last of the Silver Salmon (one of the species of salmon here in Alaska) run where they are returning back to Seward to spawn.

Next day, I again took my walk along the waterfront. I went near the harbour where hundreds of empty boats lay anchored. On the dock, rows of water hoses hung loosely from a rack like some forsaken manufacturing plant. I would imagine just a few months ago, this would be filled with people washing and filleting the salmon brought in by the boats. And breaking the silence and monotony of the harbour, a man was systematically washing and filleting a salmon.

Water hoses on the dock for washing/filleting fish

Local resident Dwayne, like most Alaskans, was really friendly and I quickly got into a conversation with him even as he continued his washing and filleting. He has a boat which he brings out to do his fishing, and the morning catch saw him net just four salmon. It was really the tail end of the salmon run, and he actually had to throw away one of his salmon because the fish meat was "white and not good" already. The salmon was actually already dying even before being caught. Every resident is entitled to catch only 6 fish a day, and for foreigners, a permit/license is needed for fishing. It costs us$25 for the permit which would be valid for 24 hours and entitled the same quota of 6 fish.
It was quite an interesting and educational talk. I do not know if these numbers are for Seward only or Alaska-wide, but it is a form of sustainable fishing and food policy. And as many may already know, the salmon spawns in inland rivers, and they would swim out to the open seas to spend their adulthood. Then, when reaching maturity, they would uncannily swim back to the exact river(bed) where they were born, and lay their eggs, and thus the cycle continues. This order of Mother Nature have been cleverly used by humans, as they would harvest salmon eggs and milt, and "plant" them in rivers of Alaskan communities. The resulting spawn would get their "imprint" of their birthing riverbed and thus began their biological cycle. And when they return, the communities would be ready to harvest them, and with proper policies to ensure enough salmon get back in to spawn, it is a wonderfully sustainable practise.

Dwayne with his filleted salmon

And then Dwayne asked,

"How long are you staying in Seward? Do you have access to a kitchen?"

My eyes lit up.

"Oh yes, I am staying in a hostel for a few days and they have a kitchen!" I said somewhat pensively, not daring to get my hopes too high.

"I could give you a fillet if you want." The magical words came out.

"That would be awesome! Thanks!" I exclaimed!

The delight didn't stop. Imagining what a fillet of salmon would be in Singapore, I was hoping for a generous cut. Instead, he just handed me one-half side of the entire salmon!!

"I don't have an extra bag though" He said.

I didn't mind one bit. And it was not long after when one can see a figure in bright red jacket scurrying along the road with a bright pink piece of meat on his hand...

My gift of wild-caught salmon that will last me 3-4 meals :)

Travel in Alaska is expensive - transport, accommodation and food are expensive. But these little experiences not just add colour to my travels, but saved me quite a bit of money too! Wild caught salmon is not cheap, even in Alaska!!
And with my 25c instant noodle (cooked dry) with soy sauce, super-sweet cherry tomatoes, and my wild-caught, homecooked, pan-seared salmon, it was one of my tastiest meals in Alaska!! :) :)

I am happy! :)

Pan-seared salmon with "instant noodle"

More glorious salmon - pan-fried with crispy skin..

Salmon easily caught

Many of the locals throw away the roe!!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Quest of the Ice Cave II

The day was beautiful as forecasted. I started on the West Glacier Trail. The trail would bring you to a mountain ridge on the west side of the Mendenhall glacier, which would provide a wonderful top-down view of the glacier. Somewhere one-third on the trail, there is a split, which heads down towards the Mendenhall lake. This is the "unofficial" trail that would bring you right to the glacier itself, and is the trail to the icecave.

When I reached the split in the trail, there was a group of tourists led by a guide who was briefing them. She was apparently leading them to a glacier hike, which means they would be heading down the trail. I asked the guide if it's safe or difficult on the trail, and she replied convincing

"You'll be fine".

Boosted by that, I plunged headlong onto the trail. The icecave may have collapsed, but at least I can stand right beside a glacier. And I guess I wanted to just "complete" my planned trek to the "icecave" since I had researched on it for a while. Armed with the GPS tracks on my mobile, and reaffirmed by the trail markers, the trek was easier then I had expected even though there were quite a few climbs over rocky terrain. But one thing was certain - if it had been rainy, the trail would have been a different beast, and possibly too dangerous to attempt.

Up-close - Glacial Hiking

Instead, the trail had surprising amount of traffic, no doubt due to the excellent weather. Online information put the trek as a 7-8 hour round-trip trek, so I upped my pace to make sure I had enough time as I knew I'm a slow hiker. But I reached the base of the glacier in 2 hours.

Entrance of cave

And I found a group of people in front of a cave entrance. I hastened forward, heart beating fast (hey, I was hiking fast). And round the corner, there was this surreal weird-greenish "wall" that greeted me.

I was ecstatically mind-blown.

I suspected I had a maniacal look on my face when I entered the cave. My camera and my iPhone went into overdrive, and I wished I had more hands. It was difficult though. The whole "cave' was dripping. Icy glacier water was dripping all over. And I realized, it was not exactly a "cave" (anymore). Further in, there was another opening, but littered with huge chunks of ice. It dawned on me that, that must had been the "back" of the cave when it "collapse", essentially opening up the cave. So now the cave had 2 openings! (so is this still considered a cave?)

Cave wiith two openings

This changed the entire look of the icecave. With 2 light sources, the photographic compositions, mood etc also changed. But I cannot complain. Ice caves come and go, and after all that had happened, I am SO glad that I still had the chance to see it in person.

It was cold beneath the glacier. It was completely wet with water dripping overhead, and flowing on the ground.

But now, I am very happy. :)

Surreal blue and colours

Surreal blue and colours

Even with the "excessive" light, the colour vaariation is surreal

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Quest of the Ice Cave

I don't remember exactly when it was when I first came across the surreal image on the internet, but it was around 2012 after I came back from my big trip. A man inside a bizarre-shaped-icy-walled blue cavern of some sort. Naturally, I didn't think it was real. But I dug abit, and was intrigued that this was possibly a real thing. The image(s) of the ice cave were taken in Kamchatka Russia. These caves are essentially found beneath glaciers, and so it was really a cave within solid blocks of ice!

I told myself that I needed to see this in person. And then, out of the blue (pun unintended), a friend seemed to be arranging a trip to Kamchatka! What a coincidence I thought! But the trip was arranged through a Russian agent on a pre-arranged itinerary. It was difficult to liaise in Russian on a customised itinerary. So I gave up the thought of seeing the icecave in Kamchatka.

And then I discovered that icecaves are one of the attractions in Iceland! And Iceland had always been in my radar for travel. So in Sep 2015, I finally went on a drive trip with friends to Iceland. I had not researched it detailed enough though. As it turned out, the agencies and guides only start bringing clients to icecaves only in late Oct, where it's safer to visit. I was deeply disappointed that yet another chance to visit an icecave had gone up in smoke.

So 2017 is the year. The year that I visit Alaska, where yes, there is also a well-known icecave in Juneau in Southeast Alaska. It was confusing though. I contacted some agencies, and generally, most tours seemed to operate only in summer. I thought about going in winter but logistics and travel in winter in Alaska is frustrating. So again, I decided to go in Sep where the tours to the icecave are still running, and more importantly, I found that one can visit the icecave on our own! I found GPS tracks that people had shared online, and in the worst case scenario, I would trek to the icecave on my own.

I arrived in Juneau on a wet dismal evening on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. It had not been the best start of a trip. In the short 5 days prior to Juneau, I discovered that Southeast Alaska had one of the wettest seasons in recent years. I caught a flu and cough during my 25-hour ferry ride. I spent half of my 3 days in Haines recovering in my cabin. And I also realized that travel has a new dynamic for me nowadays. I lost my progressive lens, and I felt so handicapped!! :{. Reading maps, brochures and supermarket labels posed new challenges....

Cloudy days on the ferry, but you get glimpses of the scenery

The weekend signaled a turning point. My couchsurfing host advised that according to forecast, Saturday would be mostly sunny, and Sunday a full sunny day! This was after weeks of rain! I was buoyant. I arrived in the excellent Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre early in the morning. This is where most tourists come to to see the famous glacier. The trail to the icecave beneath the Mendenhall Glacier is in another location, which I planned to go next day.

The Mendenhall Visitor Center with direct views to the glacier

The Mendenhall Glacier
The tourists (and locals) and out in full force. I've certainly seen glaciers before, but I never get tired of seeing them. It's a great feeling seeing the ever-changing blue of the glaciers... together with the tons of tourists. The park ranger was having small-talk with a tour-leader, and I couldn't help hearing part of their conversation......

"..yeah, yesterday, the icecave collapsed, and there were a couple of people inside. Yeah, they came out ok, but shaken. I would be too you know...." the park ranger went on...

I froze, and something in my chest collapsed too. I was not being unsympathetic, but the only thing that resounded in my head was "...the icecave collapsed..."

I stood stunned for a while, still grasping with what I heard.

"...the icecave collapsed.." continued to reveberate around my mind.

I went back to the visitor center and casually asked about the icecave from another park official.

"Oh yes, yesterday, part of the icecave collapsed. You know, the icecaves are unpredictable, and sometimes new caves formed. The guys are badly shaken up, that's why we always warn people who wants to go there...."

The voice slowly faded away, like a closing music piece on the radio....

The weather that day was great, as forecasted. I hiked a couple of beautiful trails. The glacier glowed blue.

But I was depressed. Am I destined not to be in an icecave under a glacier?

Beautiful hiking trail within the Mendenhall visitor center area.
Old forest and streams in the East Glacier Trail