Visiting La Push, home to the Quileute Tribe, required another detour but was absolutely worth it to chat with tribal member Emily Foster, editor of the official newsletter of the Quilete Tribe The Talking Raven, over lunch. I’ve been reading Howard Hansen’s depictions of Quileute life in La Push in the book ‘Twilight on the Thunderbird’ but to hear about life in current times was just as interesting.
Turns out La Push was the setting for Twilight, which I’m led to believe is a tale of vampires, wolves and angst. Fans of the series have since boosted visitor numbers to Forks and La Push. Not really my thing but La Push is certainly a spectacular setting. If you can picture a dense, lichen-cloaked forest running down to a craggy coastline where pines perch atop rocky islands and surf crashes onto sandy beaches littered with bleached tree trunks, that’s La Push and it’s beautiful.
The gray whales are most apparent here in spring as they migrate north. Then, a Welcoming of the Whales ceremony is held, with prayers, singing and dancing on the beach. The ceremony, first held back when the Quileute would hunt the whales, continues although the whaling has long since stopped. An offering of salmon is paddled into the bay, representing the importance of the sea and its inhabitants to the Quiluete Tribe. If I can time my next visit to La Push to coincide with the ceremony, all the better.
Neah Bay, close to the most northwesterly point of the contiguous US, was a bit of a detour for me but – as the home of the Makah Tribe – an important stop. Unfortunately, my short visit didn’t allow for me to meet any of the Makah Tribe but I found the Makah Museum fascinating.
Much of the museum is dedicated to the story of Ozette, a Makah village that was buried by a mudslide approximately 500 years ago, then increasingly exposed by coastal erosion in 1969. A huge operation was launched to salvage not just artefacts from the village but also confirmation of the Makah’s way of life at that time.
As well as the Ozette operation, the museum outlined the seasonal patterns of subsistence of the tribe, including the springtime gray whale hunt. The hunt was halted in 1920 after commercial whaling had dramatically reduced the gray whale population. Since the eastern Pacific gray whale population was removed from the endangered list in 1994, the Makah have been keen to resume subsistence whaling. The discussions regarding this are still ongoing.
As well as the gray whales that pass close to shore during the northward migration in spring, some gray whales (the Pacific coast feeding group) remain in the Oregon-Washington-SE Alaska region until autumn and I was lucky enough to spot one from shore. I’d camped out at Hobuck Beach, four miles from Neah Bay, and had braved the mosquitoes to look for whales as I ate my supper on the beach. All was quiet. My luck changed in the morning though, when blows rose up from beyond the surf. A gray whale!
The whale-watching trip started slowly, searching the Salish Sea under sunny skies but a biting wind. Areas that had been brimming with humpback whales just a few days before now yielded nothing. Time slipped away, followed closely by the feeling in my fingers and toes. Then, a blow! Our first humpback whale, heading steadily east. Then two more blows, a pair of humpbacks diving together. Next, a small group of Dall’s porpoise whizzing along so quickly I didn’t even raise my camera. Instead I watched the little black and white torpedoes shooting through the swell in a flurry of splashes. Then, the highlight for me, southern resident killer whales!
The southern resident killer whale population numbers less than 80 individuals and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The scarcity of salmon (their favoured prey), persistent organic pollutants in the environment, vessel disturbance and underwater noise are all considered factors in the population’s decline so it was an honour to see them. Amongst the group was an adult male whose impressively tall dorsal fin just kept on rising out of the water, and a mother-calf pair, one of only a few calves born to the population in recent times. Massive thanks to Eagle Wing tours and Anna for such an incredible trip!
In other news, whilst camping in the ancient rainforest of the Goldstream Park, I coped bravely with my fellow forest inhabitants. Paw-steps around my tent prompted only occasional outbursts of abuse and I slept through an assault on my bear canister of food entirely. Having seen my first live raccoon of the trip the evening before, I put the attack down to the little masked bandits, probably nothing to do with bears at all.
Admittedly, sunshine can make all the difference and my stay on San Juan Island was gloriously sunny. However, even in the rain – which I experienced in impressive proportions as I left – it would be hard not to like a place where you navigate my old barns and fields of cows. For me, San Juan was an excellently calm stepping-stone from the bubble of the Alaskan ferry to the traffic and tribulations of my next destinations.
As luck would have it, my friend, marine mammal expert Dr Frankie Robertson, lives on the island and very kindly housed, fed and entertained me while I was there. As we drove around, Frankie brought me up to speed on the status of local marine mammal populations, ongoing studies and research questions still to be addressed. Our trip out to Lime Kiln State Park, where killer whales often cruise by close to shore, was cetacean-free but I was lucky enough to meet Jeanne Hyde, Lime Kiln’s resident killer whale expert, whose enthusiasm for all things marine was shared with energy and humour.
Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum contained an abundance of information about the Salish Sea, the local killer whales, gray whales and more. Jars of whale lice sat alongside baleen plates and patches of barnacles still attached to leathery strips of whale skin. A gray whale skeleton was suspended near that of a killer whale and, mindbogglingly, the skeleton of conjoined harbour seal twins found in 2013.
An evening walk on the island’s south coast gave us stunning views across a flat calm Strait of Juan de Fuca to the mountains of mainland Washington. Minke whales, the species we’d come looking for, eluded us. Instead, we watched synchronised teams of diving ducks, foxes in orange and black, a group of otters in the shallows, a bald eagle and grazing deer. Even better, Frankie assured me that – apart from a visitor earlier this year who’d promptly moved on – the island was bear-free. What a place!
Day five of life on the M/V Kennicott, sailing the Alaska Marine Highway System, has come around quickly. Day one was an overcast day of adjusting to life onboard, deciphering the café menu (biscuits and gravy anyone? how about some grits?) and watching a group of Dall’s porpoises splash past. The 16 passengers onboard quietly rattled around the 116 metre vessel, reading in the lounge and doing jigsaw puzzles. Our numbers grew that evening after we stopped in Whittier, a tiny outpost connected to Anchorage by a one-way tunnel shared by cars, lorries and trains.
Day two brought challenging sea conditions that kept many passengers in their bunks and had the rest of us staggering around like drunks. Our speed was reduced to 10 knots as we punched into a convincing swell and were engulfed by frequent squalls. It wasn’t until evening that we reached more sheltered waters close to our port call at Yakutat, arriving under the cover of darkness and in a heavy downpour.
The reprieve was short-lived as we headed back out to sea again, although it wasn’t as bad on our return and sleep was possible, albeit in short stretches. Since then we’ve cruised calmer waters through a labyrinth of pine-covered islands. Dark clouds have accompanied us with rain never far away and wisps of lighter mist clinging to the treetops. Smoke rises from the chimneys of the few waterside homes we pass and navigation lights blink from rocky promontories.
The marine mammal hiatus was broken by a group of snoozing sea lions on the imaginatively named Rocky Island, then came a few humpback whale sightings, their light blows standing out against the dark forest. This afternoon was the grand finale, with killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, humpback whales and sea lions in glassy seas.
As we approach Bellingham, having travelled 1,935 miles from Kodiak, it’s time to think of cycling again. Island hopping between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island, then back to the mainland at Port Angeles, will hopefully ease me back into my cycling routine. My schedule gets hectic after that, with ambitiously long days. Let’s see how that goes.
It was in May 2000 that Stacy Studebaker found a dead gray whale washed up on Pasagshak beach and saw an opportunity for the whale to become an educational project. Just four days later, she’d pulled together a team and the whale was buried beneath 10 ft of soil in a trench 45 ft long where it was left to decompose.
The real work began four years later. Piece by piece, the whale’s bones were excavated, cleaned, left outside to be bleached by the sun, then dried in a heated basement. Two years after that, the skeleton was ready to be reassembled, supported by a custom-made steel support system.
Next, the whale was carefully transported to the new Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Centre in five pieces and duly reassembled. In 2007, seven years after first being found, the whale’s skeleton was finally back in one piece.
Now, in 2019, the skeleton display is as impressive as ever, suspended in the visitor centre. I squelched around it in waterlogged shoes having just arrived from Pasagshak myself the day after kayaking with gray whales in the bay. Seen from a kayak or as a skeleton on display, these whales are huge. As big perhaps as the challenge of moving one, although that too was possible piece by piece.
A week on from my kayaking trip from Pasagshak Bay and the excitement hasn’t even started to fade. I don’t think it’s going to. Jen from Kayak Kodiak was kind enough to drive out to Pasagshak to run a one person whale-searching tour and we pushed off from the beach into a grey bay with strong winds and rain forecast.
It wasn’t long before we spotted distant blows out beyond the bay. We pushed on, chatting and searching the shoreline for any other wildlife. As promised, the wind arrived suddenly, a line of ruffled water advancing towards us, and I had to turn to shout to Jen behind me to be heard. Further out and more exposed now, the sea picked up too, the bow of the kayaking lifting and dipping with the waves.
We paddled on keeping our eyes on the blows when all of a sudden there was a blow much closer to us. We were almost there. Barely a few minutes later, the hollow whoosh of a whale’s breath was audible over the wind, then another! After half an hour of paddling we were with two gray whales inside Pasagshak Bay.
They were surfacing regularly, emerging in a flash of white water and sending a plume of spray and vapour into the air with an echoing blast as they rolled forward, already submerging their mottled grey heads again. Sometimes that was it, they just sank back beneath the waves. Other times they arched their scarred backs high out of the water, hinting at their huge size and revealing the knobbly ridge of their back, making us think they might lift their tail fluke clear of the water as they dived. They never did. By paddling from time to time against the wind and waves that pushed us back, we stayed with them, in awe of their size and marvelling at our good luck.
Gray whales aren’t known for the dramatic breaching or fin-slapping of humpback whales, the incredible size of blue whales nor the stealth and speed of the more streamlined rorqual whales. They’re awesome in their own way though, if you ask me. Their skin becomes more mottled as they age, lightened by barnacles past and present. Whale lice also hitch a lift, living amongst the barnacles. The only species of whale to feed on the seafloor, the side with fewer barnacles gives away if the whale’s left or right ‘handed’.
Just as my hands were beginning to complain about the cold,
Jen checked her watch and announced that, after almost an hour with the whales,
it was time to head back. Assisted by the wind this time, we paddled happily
back to shore after the best trip I could have hoped for.
Seven miles beyond Pasagshak, Fossil Beach really is the end of the road if not the end of the world. Beside the road, a massive rusting corrall on a massive scale, with tree-trunk fence posts, must have been for the infamous Pasagshak buffalo. Opposite, the swings of a deserted play area swung in the breeze beside a small cabin with smashed windows.
Next I passed an old rocket launch site with towering fences, signposts to ‘Area 4’ and an evacuation warning system. Eerie tall, windowless buildings stood incongruously against a background of pristine beaches, blue skies and brilliant sunshine. It all felt a bit Russian and I kept on pedalling.
Bald eagles patrolled the cloudless sky over Fossil Beach,
where my fossil hunting was cut short by regular showers of rocks from the
overhanging cliff above. Instead I walked the kelp-strewn tide line, balanced
on the sun bleached tree trunks piled up at the back of the beach and ate
M&Ms in the sunshine.
My goal was, of course, to find gray whales and I saw them almost immediately after crossing the headland from Pasagshak. Cresting the ridge after a brutally steep uphill struggle, I had excellent views across the bay. Within 10 seconds of stopping on the side of the road, the first blow – a bright white puff of spray – stood out against the sparkling blue sea. Within a couple of minutes I’d seen clusters of blows from two other locations and counted at least six whales.
The whales were closer to shore by the time I cycled back from Fossil Beach and I stopped again to watch. This time I could make out the backs of the closest whales as they surfaced, with their barely-there dorsal fins and knuckley peduncles. They were still here and I’d seen them.
After telling me how careful I needed to be camping at
Buskin River, the shop assistant in Big Ray’s mentioned that my next stop,
Pasagshak, was one of the least bear-y places on Kodiak Island. My spirits rose
“I’ve only seen one bear there in 30 years. There are wild horses and cows on the way, and the Highland cattle can be obnoxious”, he explained. “Oh, and you need to watch out for the buffalo”. Wait, what? “Sometimes I’d rather deal with a bear”, he added. Great.
The cycle out to Pasagshak was a slog. Exhausted after my night of bear terror, my bike was heavy with supplies and the hills felt endless. Strong gusts of wind seemed to hinder me no matter how much the road twisted and turned. Mike the friendly roadwork guy waved me over to talk bikes, offer me energy bars and share bear stories. Initially teasing me for having a bear bell jingling as I cycled, he grew serious when I said I’d just come from Buskin River. “That’s a bad, bad place for bears” he repeated a couple of times. “You get 1000 lb bears there every day.”
Many hours later, having taken nearly twice as long as Google had expected, I rolled into Pasagshak. A bay hemmed in by mountains, with a shingly beach and river mouth, Pasagshak is very nearly the end of the road. A small campsite, a few houses set back from the beach and a boat ramp, that’s about it.
The campsite – more of a gravelly car park – was empty so I claimed the least rocky pitch as my own and battled to set up my tent in the blustery wind. Between the gusts that tore at my tent and the surf that crashed onto the beach, a whole team of bears could have been tangoing around the campsite all night and I wouldn’t have known. Perfect. Now my main concern about getting up in the night was that my tent might blow away without my weight to anchor it.
I spent three happy days at Pasagshak exploring, testing Alaskan camping food, collecting water from a nearby stream and trying to befriend the ‘obnoxious cows’ that turned and fled each time I approached. Reggie, the campsite warden, told me of summer months when the whole bay fills with gray whales, and how they come to the shallows to rub on the rocks. Puzzled that I wasn’t fishing, he delivered some salmon he’d caught and smoked himself. It was delicious.
Had the weather not turned, it would have been difficult to leave this quiet bear-free haven. As it was, fierce winds brought relentless rain that made the return journey an uncomfortable one but the prospect of heated accommodation in Kodiak all the more tempting.
Just a mile from Kodiak airport and four miles from town, Buskin River Recreation Site was conveniently located for my first night of camping on Kodiak Island. Having reassembled my bike at the airport, I wheeled into the park.
I was hoping I could manage a night without bear spray, camping gas and matches, all things I couldn’t bring on the plane, and my plan was to see what other campers at Buskin River reckoned. Except there weren’t any other campers. The place was deserted and my spider senses were on high alert.
Plan B had me bursting in to Big Ray’s outdoor store three minutes before they closed having cycled into Kodiak at top speed. As the shop assistant directed me towards the bear spray, I asked if he thought I would survive a night in a tent at Buskin River. He didn’t laugh, or even smile. After a pause, a list of rules followed: always have bear spray in your hand, with the safety catch off, and test fire it to know its range. There was no debating whether there were bears there, there were. But with the abundance of salmon in the river at the moment the bears were well fed and quite mellow. Massive but mellow.
Back at Buskin River it was getting dark. I cycled a lap of the site, pinging my bell as I went. Some cars passed through but none stayed. Site selected, I quickly set up my tent. Bear canister (the bear-proof container my food lives in) and toiletries went into a bear locker about 70 metres from my camping spot. The bear spray stayed by my side. By the time the tent was set up it was pretty dark, just time for a sandwich then bed.
Not wanting to eat near my tent, I cycled towards an open area near the river. Cycling through a darker stand of trees the light of my head torch suddenly illuminated a huge pair of eyes directly ahead of me. They looked straight at me, bright and green, then moved smoothly sideways back into the trees. Screeching to a halt, I turned circle. The sandwich went back in the bear canister and I dived into my tent.
What followed was a night of terror. Noises in the darkness had me shouting at the trees, blasting my air horn and gripping the bear spray, putting way too much faith in a can of aerosol-propelled vegetable extract. Something – perhaps the wind, perhaps not – caused one of my tent’s porches to collapse against the tent where the fabric rustled in the wind. Those were slow, slow hours. My fear levels spiked during a pee expedition in the dark hours before dawn.
Daylight eventually crept through the trees. Jet engines roared from the airport and the national anthem played from somewhere. My bike was loaded in record time and it wasn’t until I reached the airport that I finally ate my sandwich.
Since then my friend, Lars, has asked how I can know how bear-y a place is. I’m sticking with local knowledge and my spider senses, but with more attention paid to my spider senses. I won’t be camping at Buskin River again.