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Expedition Log: August 8, 2001

Robert Peck

Semidi Islands and Chignik Harbor

After several days of spectacular, sunny weather, we wake to cloudy conditions. On our starboard side the long rocky cliffs of Aghiyuk Island rise from the still-calm pewter sea. Here (and throughout the Semidi Island group) enormous colonies of seabirds are just completing their summer breeding cycle. 154,000 black-legged kittiwakes, 231,000 common murres, and 120,000 northern fulmars are reported to nest here, though counting such numbers with precision must be an impossible task.

murres on  cliff

Murres on cliff. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

From the deck of the Clipper Odyssey, the swirl of birds is a visual experience, but for those who take to the Zodiacs, our island stop becomes an audible and sensual one as well. The cries of the kittiwakes and waves of guano perfume (millions of bird droppings mixed with the aroma of regurgitated fish) are as memorable as the sights of air piracy by Parasitic Jaegers which force food from passing murres and Glaucous-winged Gulls. At least one group of expeditioners see a pair of Fin Whales breaking the water's surface. These enormous creatures, second in size only to the Blue Whale, can measure up to 70 feet in length and weigh in at 45 tons each. We see only the periodic clouds of breath and sea-water that mark their locations, then the seemingly endless roll of their backs. As we cruise to Kak Island, Vivian Mendenhall gives us an informative slide lecture on the seabirds of Alaska (click here to read more about Alaskan Seabirds and How to Identify Them).

Kak Island is a dramatic basalt outcrop whose column-like structure rises over 900 feet above the water. At its base are hundreds of Steller's Sea Lions which have hauled out to rest. They seem far more concerned by their own social interactions than by the hundred and twenty cameras and binoculars that are aimed at them from the deck of our ship.

Our afternoon stop is at the fishing village of Chignik at the head of Anchorage Bay. The sun breaks through the cloud cover as we arrive (1:30) and stays with us for the rest of the afternoon, bringing the temperature up to a comfortable 65 degrees.

Kes Woodward is on a special mission in Chignik. When writing Painting in the North for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in 1993, he encountered several paintings from Chignik by someone named E. Helgason. At the time he was unable to find out anything about the artist who appears not to have been part of the art establishment. In Chignik Kes made some general inquiries and was soon directed to an Arthur Skonberg who grew up here and who remembered Helgason as an affable pile-driver operator and inventor who lived in Chignik Lagoon in the 1930's and 40's. Mr. Helgason left Chignik for Australia and was never heard from again. Kes, who is always on the lookout for information on the history of painting in Alaska, is happy to add this information to his files.

The town has changed in appearance since Helgason's time, but not a great deal in size. There are two active fish canneries here now, two stores (one for food, the other for dry goods), and a bakery, famous for its doughnuts.

The landing parties are divided into three groups. One will visit the Norquest Salmon Cannery (a slight misnomer as now most of the salmon is frozen for export to Japan). The second group will take a nature walk near town, and the third group, of which I am a part will take a "long walk" up the headlands overlooking Chignik Harbor.

Chignik Harbor

View of Chignik Harbor from bluff above. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

The walk takes us up through town, then up a steep gravel road to a grass and alder-covered ridge. On the way we pass an enterprising family who are selling locally collected fossils and fireweed jelly. The twenty-five participants who dared to take the five-mile walk and overland bushwack are rewarded with a stunning overview of Chignik Harbor. We return to the ship to compare notes with our fellow passengers, write up our daily logs, and prepare for another day.

(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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