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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Expedition Log: August 5, 2001

Richard Nelson

Surprise Bay, Kenai Fjord National Park; Barren Islands

At 6 a.m., an intense metallic clatter resonates through the Clipper Odyssey's hull -- the sound of anchor chain running out through a steel portal. It feels like we've been clanged awake inside an enormous alarm clock. Pulling back the porthole curtains reveals a cloudless morning and slick calm waters in Surprise Bay, which is located at the western end of Kenai Fjords National Park. At first glance, it seems that we're anchored near the head of the bay, but a closer look reveals a tiny gap between descending mountain shoulders about a hundred yards from the ship. Whatever lies beyond that mysterious opening is hidden by a dense wall of fog.

After a quick breakfast, we board the first Zodiac and slip through the gap, entering a lovely cove called Palisade Lagoon. Surely this is the "surprise" that gave Surprise Bay its name. Mirrored on the water are high mountain walls, an emerald estuary meadow, and tendrils of the dissipating fog. As more Zodiacs arrive, lines of expeditioners trek up the shore and this remote hideaway is suddenly alive with people. A black bear's tracks on streamside gravel show that we're not alone here, and I imagine the animal watching from concealment somewhere nearby. How often would a hundred people suddenly show up in this bear's territory?

Surprise Bay

High mountain walls of Surprise Bay. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Of course, every place along this coast has an extended human history. Native people have inhabited the Kenai Peninsula for thousands of years, and their traditions surely include detailed knowledge of this bay. More recent activity soon becomes evident, as we hike up into the valley behind Palisade Lagoon. Along the cobbled bed of Babcock Creek, we find glass shards and rusty metal fragments, then a cluster of old buildings with assorted equipment and debris scattered about. These are remnants of the Sonny Fox Mine, a prospect that operated here from 1929 to 1940, pulling out $70,000 worth of gold. Eventually, most of our trekkers bushwack their way up an overgrown, zigzag trail to the old mine shaft. Peering inside reveals nothing but deep, dripping blackness; and none of us are tempted to disregard the signs warning against entry.

We are reminded that thousands of gold seekers streamed north a century ago, drawn not by dreams of an Alaskan experience, but of the wealth they might find and take back to their distant homes. Most went home with empty pokes and a heavy burden of failure. But for those of us who come today, this exquisite bay and its adjoining valley are treasures in their own right. We are rewarded not only by the peace and beauty that so abound here, but also by the opportunity to learn more about it from several of the Harriman scholars. Archaeologist Aron Crowell details the history of the Sonny Fox Mine and leads us to the edge of Babcock Creek, where he shows us how to pan for gold. Geologist Kris Crossen finds a story in every rock, explaining why precious minerals occur in this particular valley.

This is an especially good place to talk about vegetation communities. Plant ecologist Paul Alaback explains why rich forest dominated by huge Sitka spruce trees thrives on the alluvial deposits along Babcock Creek, but he points out that we are now approaching the northern limit of Alaska's coastal rainforest, as we can see by the extremely low tree line right here in Surprise Bay. Once we reach western Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Aleutian Islands, the landscape will be dominated by great sweeps of grassland and shrubby thickets. We are about to leave the great forests behind.

After the sheltered concealment of Surprise Bay, our ship courses out along the Kenai coast and then southwestward to the Barren Islands. On this summer day, the islands look anything but barren -- sheathed in lush emerald grass, a whirl with thousands of seabirds, and basking on a broad blue sea. However, this is where Shelikof Strait, Cook Inlet, and the open Pacific Ocean converge, making it a notorious area for powerful gales and wild seas. Even today the water is fretting with whitecaps and tidal rips, the latter attracting flocks of feeding birds. As the Clipper Odyssey approaches the Barren Islands, everyone crowds against the rails to watch a group of humpback whales blowing, lunge feeding, and showing their flukes.

Then, late in the afternoon, our ship eases close to the easternmost of the Barren Islands -- East Amatuli -- which is marked by high, rocky cliffs. Once again, all cabins and lounges are abandoned, as passengers gather on deck for a lavish display of natural abundance. All around the lee side of Amatuli Island is a cacophonous swarm of birds: black-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, glaucous-winged gulls, horned puffins, tufted puffins, pigeon guillemots, and parakeet auklets. Weaving and veering over the swells are short-tailed shearwaters and northern fulmars. If anyone had been uninterested in birds up to this point, there no longer seem to be any abstainers. And since we have a cadre of serious birdwatchers aboard, nobody needs to leaf through a bird guide -- just ask the nearest expert.

Birds at Barren Islandss

The rocky cliffs of the Barren Islands with various gulls in-flight. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

After much careful searching, someone finally spots a peregrine falcon perched atop the brow of the rookery cliff and dozens of binoculars immediately hone in on the bird. The peregrine is famed for its prodigious mastery of hunting, especially for its ability to dive at tremendous speed and pluck a hapless bird from midair. But today, despite all the accumulated desire and anticipation, the peregrine shows no inclination to hunt.

Captain Taylor positions the Clipper Odyssey on calm water beside the rookery and holds this position while we all head inside for our own easy feast. Throughout the duration of our meal, I can't stop looking through the nearby porthole at the wheeling throngs of birds, the sky simmering down toward evening, the Kenai Peninsula visible off toward the east and Kodiak Island hazy in the western distance. I have already forgotten what was on our menu, but I have a permanent memory of the lavish wild beauty that surrounded this dinner in paradise.

(View the day's photos)


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