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Harriman Expedition Retraced



after the expedition
After the

journals 2001

mammal list - part I
July 21 -
August 5

bird list - part 1
Bird List:
July 21 -
August 5

mammal list - part2
August 5 - 20

bird list -part 2
Bird List:
August 5 - 20


Journal: Douglas Penn

Head Teacher, K-12, Whittier Community School, Whittier, Alaska

Sunday, July 22, 2001

Weather is overcast with a light rain at times.

Passengers, scholars, and crew boarded the Clipper Odyssey today at 4:30 P.M.  I have never been on a large cruise vessel before, and although this is a relatively small one by today's standards, I can't help but make comparisons to the George W. Elder of the 1899 expedition.  It seems to me that there are quite a few similarities.  Even though the technological advances over the past hundred years create differences such as increased speed and navigational abilities, the Odyssey and the Elder represent the finest of luxury passenger ships.  I settle into my room which looks out over the sea, and it reminds me of being in a very nice hotel.  There is a gymnasium, a pool, several dining rooms, and lots of deck space in which to enjoy the great outdoors.  (Hopefully the rains of Southeast Alaska will let up and allow us to use these great decks.)

The dinner call has been made and after looking at a menu consisting of steak, seafood, and vegetables, it appears we are in for the first of many outstanding meals.

Monday, July 23, 2001

Weather is overcast with light rain.

We awoke today in Cape Fox and were greeted by the sounds of ravens and eagles chattering in the trees of the not-too-distant shore.  We had come here to bring back the objects that were removed from this Tlingit village site 102 years ago.  We were greeted by three Tlingit women and participated in a small but very powerful ceremony in which the women welcomed back their elders who had been absent for so many years.  The smoke from the tiny fire drifted down the beach while the women sang songs. Their voices carried on the same breeze as the smoke into the forest and out to sea.  When they finished, the silence left in the wake of their song was broken by the sounds of the ravens calling in the trees above. 

Later, in a ceremony in Ketchikan, a Tlingit elder said, "Although this day will soon pass, you will continue to  remember it in your dreams."

Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Weather is overcast with sporadic rains.

We spotted our first humpback whale this afternoon while passing through Wrangell Narrows.  By the end of the day we had seen several whales, harbor seals, and many seabirds such and common murres, tufted puffins, and marbled murrelets. 

Winding our way through the narrow waterway, we were followed by the Alaska State Ferry. This ferry is the major source of transportation to the communities along the inside passage as only three Alaskan towns in Southeast are connected by road to the Alaska-Canada Highway.  The advent of the state ferry system is a major change since Harriman first came to this place, and has played a major role in the development of the communities along its route. 

As we are followed into Petersburg by what some folks refer to as the "blue canoes," because ferry boats have a blue hull, clear-cut areas of forest show the significant role that logging has played over the past century.

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Weather is overcast.

We awoke around 5:00A.M. to watch as the Odyssey navigated the glacial fiord of Tracy Arm.  We were seemingly alone as we passed through the early morning fog, surrounded by huge granite cliffs on both sides.  The beauty is stunning and I am reminded a bit of the waterways of Prince William Sound where I have lived for the past six years. Harbor seals bask on ice flows as we approach the Sawyer Glacier at the head of the arm and Bonaparte Gulls fly overhead.  The color of the ice is a deeper blue than in any glacier I have seen before.

This evening we had a reception at the Governor's Mansion in Juneau.  While there, the members of the expedition presented the governor and the people of Alaska with a silver bowl  commemorating this retracing of Harriman's expedition.  Designed by Paul Revere and made of silver, it was placed next to the bowl that was originally given to Harriman by his shipmates upon completion of the first expedition.  The differences between the two bowls (one smooth and elegant, the other carved and intricate) as they sat there upon the piano provided a perfect metaphor for the changes that had taken place in Alaska since the time of the first expedition.

Thursday, July 26, 2001

Weather is overcast with clouds finally lifting in the evening to provide beautiful views of the mountains towering over Lynn Canal as we depart Skagway.

Skagway, boomtown, gold rush fever.  John Muir described Skagway in 1899 by saying it looked like an anthill that someone had stirred with a stick.  Twenty thousand people inhabited this tiny geographic area 100 years ago.   The lure was gold, and whether they were there to mine the gold or "mine the miners" they came in throngs.  Today the days of the gold rush are long past but another boom has sprung up in its place.  As  we moored up at the Skagway docks we were surrounded by five cruise ships,  dwarfing what I had previously considered to be our relatively large ship.  Sitting next to these massive floating structures it appeared as if our boat, the Odyssey, would suffice as no more than a life raft for these cruise ships. 

It was obvious that Skagway's gold rush has been transformed into a tourist rush.  In fact on this particular day, these cruise ships had increased the population of Skagway from its approximately 800 year round residents to a town of ten thousand.  Peoples' reasons for coming to Skagway may have changed, but Muir's observations of a century ago still ring true. 

Friday, July 27, 2001

Weather is overcast with patches of blue sky occasionally opening over the water.

Our journey to Sitka today was framed by incredible wildlife encounters.  Early in the morning we stood on deck and watched a small Steller sea lion repeatedly toss a salmon into the air while swallowing small chunks of its flesh. Gulls hovered above catching smaller bits of salmon as the sea lion ate. 

A half-hour later we spotted our first brown bear of the trip, slowly making its way across the grasses on a nearby shore.  As the bear moved up the shoreline we noticed a second- year cub that had been obscured from view  was ambling along beside its mother.  Watching these two move up the beach was an incredible way to start the day.

In the evening, as we departed Sitka, we passed a nearby island with thousands of nesting seabirds.  Common murres, thick-billed murres, tufted puffins, pelagic cormorants, gulls, and rhinoceros auklets were spotted as the sun finally broke through the thick grey curtain of clouds that has accompanied us for most of the trip.

Saturday, July 28, 2001

Weather overcast at Point Adolphus, clearing above the Fairweather Range as we enter Glacier Bay's fiords.

We awoke at 5:20A.M. at Point Adolphus to the largest concentration of humpback whales I have ever seen.  Cruising along the point, the whales were feeding on a rich food source brought about by the mixing of several large bodies of water.   A group of around eight appeared to be bubble feeding, a technique by which the whales encircle small fish with a "net" of bubbles and then swim up through the column of water they have trapped the fish within.  Watching the water bubble and boil with whales was spectacular to witness.  Although our boat was stationary the feeding activity of  the whales brought these creatures close enough to smell the air being exhaled through their blowholes.  Let me tell you it is not a pleasant smell but rather something akin to morning breath mixed with rotting fish. 

Today we were also treated with a clearing in the weather just as we came within sight of the Fairweather Range.  Looking up at what was sometimes as much as 15,000 feet of elevation difference between our ship at sea level and the surrounding mountains kept almost every ship member on deck for the length of our stay.

A cry heard from one enthusiastic member of the expedition well before 6:00A.M. as we watched the full body breaching of an adult humpback encapsulated the feeling of the entire day.  "WAAAHOOOOO!!!!!!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, while dancing a little jig in front of the bridge.

Sunday, July 29, 2001

Weather is overcast.

We arrived in Yakutat this morning and were greeted by a group of students and community members.  This was the first time our Young Explorer Team had an opportunity to meet other young people on the expedition.  Their chemistry was great and shy introductions quickly led to energetic conversation.  The personal tour of the Odyssey was a big hit and all the Young Explorers quickly disappeared with their Yakutat counterparts in tow.  We had a scenic visit to Hubbard Glacier and an informative presentation by the young people of Yakutat.  This was all over shadowed by the enthusiasm shown by two of the Yakuta young folks whom I found out on the back deck with very large grins on their faces.  After asking what the smiles were about they replied, "Can you believe it, the pop is free, and you can have all you want!!!"  

We convened that evening in the Yakutat Community Hall to watch the Yakutat Tlingit Dancers and later set sail further into the Gulf of Alaska bound for Kayak Island where Bering first landed on Alaskan soil and Steller conducted his first naturalist survey. 

Monday, July 30, 2001

Weather is overcast with high clouds, clearing in the afternoon.

As we approach Kayak Island this morning, the bird life is abundant.  Crossing the Gulf of Alaska we have already seen quite a few black-footed albatross.  A low fog hangs over the cliffs of Cape St. Elias and the towering spike of Pinnacle Rock seems to float eerily just beyond the reaches of the point.  Thousands of seabirds are gathered to feast on the schools of fish that extend a mile out from the Cape. 

Of these birds the most striking is the parasitic yeager, which Fuentes illustrated so vividly on the original expedition.  This bird makes its living harassing other birds until they regurgitate their fish.  What impresses me most about this bird is that in order to get other birds to cough up their meals, the yeager must be an incredible flyer. Lightning fast dives and swift banking, the yeager makes these acrobatics seem effortless.

Later the throng of seabirds was joined by a group of humpbacks who entertained us by driving upwards through the schools of fish and bursting through the surface with their mouths agape, splashing into the water, and then diving back down to do it all over again..

We had landed on Kayak Island at the spot where Bering put Steller ashore.  The steep cliffs are heavily vegetated with many waterfalls butting right up against the beach.  In the low grasses we see tracks of a fox and river otter. The tracks are lines drawn in the sand by their tail terminating at the water line.  Just off-shore a swarm of gulls and kittiwakes congregate.  Harbor seals have hauled out on shallow rocks and seem to be hovering just above the water.  Sea lions frolic in groups as the dive for fish and playfully throw their small catches about.  This is a wild and peaceful place. I think Steller would have found it familiar.

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Weather is light rain in the morning clearing to overcast skies with high clouds in the afternoon.

We entered Prince William Sound this morning, docking in Cordova.  These waters have been home to me for several years now and waking up this morning in the sound felt a little like coming home.  The tranquil bays with spruce coming right down to the waters edge, overshadowed by the giant spine of the Chugach Range.

Just outside Cordova we spot moose grazing on willows, beaver swimming in small streams, and Marsh hawks scouring the wetlands for prey. 

There is a human presence here as well, which becomes evident as we enter the shipping lanes of Valdez.  Here five tankers are lined up waiting their turn to dock at the terminus of the Alyeska Pipeline and fill up with North Slope crude oil bound for the lower forty-eight.  The pipeline terminus is a huge facility nestled on a hill on the east side of the bay.  Even from a distance you can observe the continuous bustle of the oil plant.

Although this Sound had a much larger population at the time of the Harriman Expedition a century ago, much has changed in this area.  Salmon fisheries are still active, but no longer are there active copper mines or fox farms. Instead other resources, such as timber and oil, are the basis of industry of today.  In the last fifty years this area has faced both human and natural disasters of enormous magnitude.  As we sail along the sounds northern shores you begin to realize the resiliency of this place and its amazing capacity for recovery.  However, if you look deep enough  you can still recognize the wounds left behind by such events as the 1989 oil spill and gain an understanding that even places with strength such as this cannot withstand the effects of our carelessness.

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Weather is clear skies and sunny.

We arrived in College Fiord early this morning and boarded zodiacs for a closer look at Harvard Glacier.  As we approached the face of the glacier, the ice loomed 300 feet above us.  We pulled to within a mile of the glacial front, shut off the motor and waited to see if the glacier would calve.  While we sat in silence we could hear the ice in the water crackle and pop as air that had been trapped in the ice for thousands of years was released.  Just in front of us a huge chunk of ice broke off from the face.  The ice crashed in the water and was shortly followed by the slower moving but extremely powerful sound waves. The roar was deafening and the sight spectacular.

Later that day, we sailed up Barry Arm bound for Harriman Glacier.  Standing on the bridge as we crossed Point Doran, the charts showed depths as shallow as one fathom along the submarine terminal moraine left behind as Barry Glacier retreated.  This is the site of an historic moment for the original Harriman Expedition, as it marks the area where John Muir and Harriman made a crucial decision.  In 1899, as the Elder approached the end of Barry Arm it appeared that Barry Glacier would halt any further exploration.  Added to this, according to their U.S. Coast survey map, they were at the end of navigable waters.  Only a narrow passage-way existed between Point Doran and the face of Barry Glacier.  John Muir was convinced that if only the Elder were to pass through this gap the waters would open up giving way to new territory to explore.  The captain, knowing that the narrow gap must contain dangerously shallow waters, refused to take the Elder any further.  Harriman, siding with Muir, ordered the captain to continue. "Go ahead, captain," he ordered, "I will take the risk." 

As we know, the Elder was successful in navigating the gap and was able to explore the fiord beyond.  They gave the fiord its name, ÏHarriman. Looking at Point Doran a century later, from a bridge with current charts and instruments, it is clear that the captain of the Elder was right in his refusal to take his vessel forward.  With only one fathom showing on the charts it becomes readily apparent that the Elder was extremely lucky to have come away from the experience with only a damaged prop.  It is a fine line that separates discovery from disaster.

Thursday, August 2, 2001

Weather is clear skies and sunny.  Wind picking up to a light breeze in the evening.

This morning we arrived at the south end of Knight Island.  This is an amazing island with its towering spires and snow-capped peaks.  Our trip off the Odyssey this morning, however, wasn't focused on the larger grandeur surrounding us, but on the smaller areas that are often overlooked. 

We spent a fair amount of time poking the nose of our zodiac into the small crevasses and nooks of the intertidal zones.  A close look revealed the amazing diversity of life that exists in these areas.  We noted eight different types of sea stars, various jelly fish ( although that's not the correct scientific reference), and examined a number of plankton.  The complexity of these creatures is incredible and their adaptations seem beyond the imaginations of even the most imaginative science fiction author.  The thing that struck me as most significant about our excursion was simply the abundance of life in the intertidal area.  At any point we could dip a bottle over the side of the boat, fill it with sea water, and marvel at our catch.  What we found were several types of plankton,  the beginning stages of life for many of the creatures present in these areas, floating in our specimen bottle.

Before we knew it, the entire morning had passed and we hadn't traveled but a couple of miles.  Completely ignoring the larger terrain which had monopolized our attention for a majority of the past few days, we were quickly reminded that there is no environment too small for careful consideration. 

Friday, August 3, 2001

Weather is overcast with light rain.

Today is my last day aboard the Clipper Odyssey as tomorrow we dock in Homer and change out the male Young Explorers Team for our female counterparts.  We arrived in the Chiswell Islands this morning off the coast of Kenai Fiords National Park.  We traveled by zodiac along the granite cliffs amongst rookeries of kittiwakes, puffins, murres, and cormorants.  Later in the day we sailed up into Harris Bay to examine an old village site and beach comb.  

Although this was another day filled with scenery and wildlife what struck me as most significance was our lunch conversation.

For the past two weeks during lunch we have had lively discussions with many of the scholars on board.  Much like the original expedition, these informal conversations represent the best sharing of ideas.  Through our lunches we have heard stories of anthropologists hunting polar bear with Native Alaskans in the arctic, marine biologists tagging belugas in the Chukchi Sea, ornithologists camping on remote cliffs trying to mist net birds, and geologists flying over glaciers.

This afternoon, we had lunch with Robert Peck, a historian who works for the Academy of Natural Sciences.  His job is to chronicle scientific expeditions, and, as a result, he has been on many adventures throughout the world.  Over dessert, he launched into a story where he had been part of an expedition to study hummingbirds in the Amazon Basin along the border of Peru and Ecuador.  After they had started their studies, the local Natives, who are infamous for their techniques in head-shrinking, decided to revoke the expedition's permission to be in the area.  The Natives sent out a war party to execute the researchers, who, luckily caught wind of this and were able to escape before the war party arrived.  Unfortunately the only way out of the jungle was down the river through hostile territory, so they took a grueling journey over the mountains with food or proper clothing. 

Although this story doesn't pertain to Alaska or the Harriman Expedition, it illustrates the rich knowledge and experience that the scholars of this expedition bring onboard.  And it is through this informal sharing of past experiences that we are all better able to synthesize our daily experiences. 

Tonight we set sail for Homer and the end of my voyage.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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