Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ghosts of Boilers Past: A Walk to Libbyville

On the beach at Libbyville

I have been busy all of the last week helping out, as an instructor and bear guard, with the science camp for high school students that is hosted each year by the refuge.  Last Monday, the first class day for the camp, we walked to Libbyville from Pederson Point on Ralph's Road, north of Naknek.    Libbyville is a set-netting site, occupied during salmon season, that was formerly the location of a sizable cannery (as can be seen in archive photos here and here and here).  The cannery was started up in the late 19th century and was closed around the middle of the 20th.

Of the cannery almost nothing remains standing.  Elements of it have been incorporated into the cabins used by local set-netters, but most of it is buried, being buried, or has washed out to sea.  No one, as far as I know, lives there year-round.

Susan and I had to return to Pederson point yesterday morning to look for some keys lost during the walk on Monday.  While in the area we walked back up the beach to Libbyville (there are no roads that go there) and took a few photos, which are posted below.

In a few hours I'm catching a floatplane for my third and final trip to Brooks Camp this year, for a stay of about five days.  Once back, I hope to put together a post or two with some of the highlights of my time there this summer.  

A set-netter's day shelter from this summer's season.  In the four days since we had passed it by on Monday it had already been damaged by winds and partially covered by mud eroding from the bluff.  I can't imagine it will survive the winter, but I guess that was never the point.

A set-netter's cabin on the bluff above the beach at Libbyville.

The two photos immediately above show how the tundra has already covered much of the cannery.    Most of what we see here will in all likelihood either be taken by beachcombers or washed out to sea by storms over the next few years.

The beach and tundra just north of Libbyville.

A "bear board" at the entrance to one of the cabins.

Some of the set-netting cabins at the old cannery sight, many of them utilizing elements of the old cannery for boardwalks, etc..

A stool, made (I believe) from a piston and a tractor or dozer seat, beside the fish-cleaning table at one of the cabins.

On the way back to our car, the Pederson Point Cannery in the background.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Upper Ugashik Lake, Pt. II

Sunrise on our last morning, conditions not cooperating in making it easy to leave.  The cone of Chiginagak volcano is just visible on the horizon near center.

A few more photos and comments from our trip.  Part I is here.

The tracks of a momma brown bear and her first-summer cub near the mouth of Ugashik Creek, along with those of a sandhill crane.  We were able to follow the tracks for some distance, and it was fun to see how the cub would wander off in the direction of some awesome discovery, only to bolt back to mom as she pressed onward.

The remains of isopods found along the shore of the lake.  To our untrained eyes they look like Saduria enton.  They were something entirely new to us.  We think it is likely that the sandhill cranes feed on them when they have washed up on shore, in that we often saw the cranes foraging in the wrack line. We had almost never found anything organic in the line except driftwood, feathers, and these isopods.

The largest bear dig-site for ground squirrels that we found on this trip.  The tundra above the lake was full of ground squirrel burrows, and we heard the squirrels frequently, but for some strange reason (and in defiance of all our previous experience) we almost never saw them.  The bears seemed to take surprisingly little interest in the squirrels, since the number of digs we found was low in comparison to the number of burrows, at least in relation to our experience elsewhere.

A sure sign that you are beyond hope as a nature nerd.  Spending a sunny day sketching bugs and plants in the field notebook.  This dragonfly was a great find, still pliable, and it was astonishing just how intact it was given that it had been washed ashore in a serious storm.

A marsh at the edge of the lake.  These appeared to be formed by the prevailing winds and surf pushing the beach sands in such a ways as to block the path of small streams to the lake.  We enjoyed the fact that all of them had river otter tracks running back and forth across the beach from their waters to the lake.

Where the waters of Ugashik Creek meet Upper Ugashik Lake, with an unnamed (as far as we can tell) island and Blue Mountain in the distance beyond the sandbar.

Peulik volcano in the distance.  As mentioned in the previous post, Peulik only emerged (and then only sullenly) from the clouds on the next to last day.

The antlers of a caribou on the tundra, not far from camp.

Susan waiting for our flight out.

Debris avalanche deposits from a previous eruption of Peulik, to its northwest.

The Gas Rocks, dacite domes on the edge of Becharof Lake near the Peulik/Ugashik complex.
For more photos of this part of the peninsula, taken during the most dramatic episode of air sickness I've ever experienced, see the series of posts starting here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Upper Ugashik Lake, Pt. I

Our tent and bear fence on a patch of open ground above Upper Ugashik Lake, Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge.  The rocks helping hold the tent stakes are volcanic and mostly pumice, and thereby not as substantial as they might appear.

Susan and I returned yesterday from our too brief week on the refuge.  As always it was a matter of mixed emotions.  It's nice to be back in a comfortable bed, to take a shower, and to not be looking over my shoulders for bears while sitting in an awkward position on the lake shore filtering water into a Nalgene bottle that is determined to slip and spill.  On the other hand it's impossible not to miss watching northern harriers glide effortlessly above the tundra while we eat dinner, to watch the ever-curious bears amble along the shore of the lake as they look for the latest best thing, and above all just being in the immense silence of it all, punctuated by the occasional call of sandhill cranes in the distance.

As I mentioned in the previous post, our intent was to climb into the Ugashik Caldera, and perhaps summit the adjoining Peulik stratovolcano.  Ah, the innocence of youth.  We knew that this was something of a leap into the unknown, since there is virtually no public information about the climb as such, and the information that we had been able to glean about the two previous climbs we knew of was sketchy at best.  The big unknown was what the alder brush was going to be like during the ascent.  We could see that alders were present from previous fly-bys that we, and especially Susan, had done, and from looking at images from Google Earth.  Nonetheless it makes all the difference in the world whether the average height of the alders is three feet or six feet, or whether most of them are alive or dead.  This is especially so since we would be carrying 9 days of food (you always bring extra food here) and are both on the other side of 45.

To make a somewhat complicated story as short as possible, it turned out that the alders were about as bad as they could possibly be.  That is, at the part of the slope where they were at their thickest, most of them were dead, many were fallen, and the fallen ones were covered with grass that was three to four feet high.  So what looked like tolerable bushwhacking from a distance was actually bushwhacking hell, with a complex tangle of dead-but-not-rotten limbs buried beneath tall grass on hummocky slopes.  Eventually we turned back.  At least there was no ambiguity about whether or not it was right decision.  There was no way we could responsibly make it through with those loads.  Serious injury was a real possibility, and trying to make a rescue far inside a tangle like that on the side of a mountain would be a nightmare.  As it turned out, an injury to my left knee that I thought was healed reactivated on the way down.  I was still able to do the gentler walks near the lake during the rest of our stay, but there was no way we would make it to the upper slopes and back even as a day trip.

While it may sound like sour grapes, it was for the best anyway.  Peulik/Ugashik did not emerge from the clouds until our next to last day, and we had a marvelous time exploring the shores of the lake and just enjoying life in camp on the tundra.  We got to know something of the daily lives of the local wildlife in a way that's only possible if you just hang out in a single area for a while.  We saw bears but had no bear problems.

As usual, my little point-and-shoot was inadequate to do our wildlife sightings justice (unless you happen to have a rare taste for "sasquatch quality" images).  

Most of the bears were in the distance, and the one close encounter I had, while going down to the lake to filter water, happened too quickly to grab the camera.  We had to drop down from the bluff we were staying on to get to water.  We always made lots of noise before coming down the slope, since bears liked to rest in the brush along the shore and walk the beach, but it's not clear that they could hear us over the surf that was sometimes crashing onto the shore.  One afternoon as I emerged from the alders at the edge of shore,  I saw a bear about 30 yard to my right (I guess I should periodically mention on the blog that all the bears here are coastal brown bears.  We're too far south for polar bears and with few trees and lots of brown bears this place is a black bear's nightmare.).  The bear and I recognized each other at about the same instant, were about equally surprised, and the bear was gone in a flash.  I waited a couple of minutes and then went on to get our water.  What else are you going to do in these parts?  We didn't see that bear again.

Photos and commentary follow.

Waiting in line for takeoff on the Naknek River.  As with last year's August getaway, we flew out with Branch River Air.  This time Eli was our pilot.

Regular readers knew this was coming.  The beauty of the tundra, about half way between King Salmon and Becharof Lake.

This gives some sense of the immensity of Becharof Lake.

Taken from the NE shore of Upper Ugashik Lake as Eli lets the east wind push him back out into the lake, before he starts his engine and takes off.  The nearest inhabitance was a cabin at the Ugashik Narrows, occupied by a lone fishing guide, some 15 miles south.  Except for the occasional passing airplane, that was probably the location of the nearest human beings during our stay.

A couple of views, taken from slightly different angles, of the multiple pathways used by bears, wolves, foxes, and cranes along the shore of the lake.

River Beauty

Susan on the slopes of the bluff as we begin our ascent.

Further up, and about 15 minutes from when it ceased being sorta fun and 30 minutes from when it started to be awful.  Needless to say, there are no trails other than bear trails in this part of the state, and bears are much, much too sensible to be bothered with this kind of nonsense.

Now we've jumped ahead by about a day.  Looking down the bluff to the beach and lake below.  This was one of the routes we took once or twice a day to get water, there being none available on the tundra where we were camped.  If you look carefully at just about the center of this photo you'll see, just above the edge of some of the lower alders, what is sometimes called a "belly bowl."  A belly bowl is basically a hollow that bears (at least the local ones) will dig as a bed and resting spot.  This one looked quite cozy as such things go and had a nice view.  Variations of this are to be found up and down the lake, and we had to wonder how many bears just stayed in them and let us walk past, wondering why these silly humans felt like they had so sing such loud, stupid songs everywhere they went.

This was the first place we've ever been where bear trackways were so well worn that they actually formed something of a furrow.

One of the dozens if not hundred of salmon streams that flow into the lake.  The relatively large ones like this did not have any sockeyes lined up in the surf by the stream mouth, though all of the smaller ones did.  Presumably this is because the salmon found the going at these much easier and had already made it up.  Some of the streams we crossed on our walks were impossibly shallow and had long lines of salmon waiting patiently by them with no possible hope of making it up.

Lots of bear tracks near the above stream, which we take as further indication that the salmon had already run up it.

A salmon that had just missed a narrower creek, the edge of which is just visible in the upper right corner of the photo.  This creek was only about 6 inches deep near the lake and a foot or so wide, but fish were making it up.  There was a line of salmon in the surf about 50 yards long, four feet wide, and two feet deep stretched out along the surf to the north of this one.  The pounding of the surf probably made it harder to align with the tiny creek than it already was.  The salmon made it back into the lake fine.  Interestingly we saw no sign that bears were paying much attention to these smaller creeks, even though the salmon would have been relatively easy picking.  

Seabeach Senecio along the shore.

Sockeyes in the surf near the base of a stream of moderate size for the area, and some running up the stream itself.  If you click on the top photo of these four the salmon in the surf are much easier to see.

Part II is here.