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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Expedition Log: July 30, 2001

Melanie Heacox

Kayak Island

The gentle rocking of the Clipper Odyssey was a reminder that we had left the protected waters of the Inside Passage. Now we found ourselves in the open. Luckily, there wasn't a whitecap in sight, just a light swell as we made our way towards Kayak Island.

The day began early with a 6:00 a.m. sighting of our first albatross (a black-footed.) Over the next hour and a half we spotted about 20 others along with several rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, northern fulmars, jaegers, and a single parakeet auklet. In the distance a few Dall's porpoises were seen.

At 9:00 a.m. Kesler Woodward offered his thoughts on the original Harriman artists, R. Swain Gifford and Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. His comprehensive knowledge of these two luminaries was as impressive as their artistic renderings. Kes gave us some insights into the various styles utilized and the difficulties encountered by those trying to capture Alaska's grandeur on canvas, film and paper.

At 10:20 a.m. we arrived at picturesque Cape St. Elias on Kayak Island where thousands of short-tailed shearwaters were feeding along with sooty shearwaters, fork-tailed storm petrels, northern fulmars, ancient and marbled murrelets, black-legged kittiwakes, and glaucous-winged gulls. Both pomarine and parasitic jaegers were trying for easy meals by rattling the other species until they dropped their catches and the jaegers swooped in before the bounty reached the sea. Their aerobatic skills were something to behold. It was hard to know which way to look -- the surface of the seas was alive with bird life, the jaegers were in pursuit in the skies, and from down below came the blows of four humpback whales lunging for the abundance of capelin that darkened the waters.


Kayak island

The mudflats of Kayak Island offer an exquisite, stark beauty. (Photo by Megan Litwin).
Click image for a larger view.

At 11:15 we joined Brenda Norcross for an interesting look at Prince William Sound's herring population. Brenda laid out the lifecycle of the herring and the various reasons for their abundance and paucity over the years. Her comprehensive program included a full range of information from how they are harvested, the commercial prices, locations of strongholds, and a glimpse of what can be done to increase their numbers.

At noon we anchored in Kayak Entrance below Pyramid Peak on the northwest side of the island. It was difficult to sit still during lunch knowing that so much life abounded out the window. In short order we were bouncing our way in Zodiacs towards our first full afternoon of expeditioning.

Kayak Island played an important part in the history of the new world. In 1741 the Danish captain Vitus Bering, looking for new lands to the east of Russia, anchored here and his physician/naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller spent 10 precious hours collecting specimens. It was here that Georg spotted a jay (now called the Seller's jay) that convinced him he was no longer in Asia. This unusual sighting was the confirmation that he had truly landed on foreign soils. As a footnote to history, the logs of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 noted that on approach to Kayak Island the skies were filled with short-tailed albatross, yet today we had only one sighting. Researchers tell us that the short-tailed albatross is in serious decline with only approximately 500 remaining.

The afternoon was just plain glorious (and fun)! We set sail in our Zodiacs, moving swiftly upon calm seas. Upon arrival at Kayak Island, we were delighted to find lots of wonderful flat beaches to explore. Four hikes of various lengths were offered along with a sketching workshop taught by artist Patricia Savage. For some, the experience included a trip through the thick, luxurious forest, for others there were colorful tidal flats to visit, andstill others enjoyed strolling leisurely along the forest fringe and the surf's edge. Some of the highlights included sightings of sea lions and seals, gulls and oystercatchers, falcons and cormorants and the images that unfolded under the careful tutelage of a patient teacher.

Kayak Island did not disappoint! At 6:00 p.m. we were back on board, but somehow things were different. We had an ease about us, the kind that comes from quality time in the open air. We will surely sleep well after such a full day of sharing of the glory and abundance that Mother Nature has to offer in this area -- a day that will not be forgotten!

(View the day's photos)


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

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