We have a ceramic Guadalupe figure in our garden here in Haines, Alaska. Last summer, a bedstraw hawkmoth landed on her. Like me, it is a nice combination of Alaskan and Latin American flavors.
I photographed this magnificent brown bear in April along the Taiya River in Skagway. He strolled along the river, picking up spawned-out eulachon, a type of smelt. If you look closely at the nose of this bear, you will see that there are porcupine quills embedded in its nose
It’s a worn-out myth that porcupine throw their quills, but I never really gave it much thought. Once I saw these quills in this bear’s snout, I decided to do some research. How do porcupine protect themselves; how do quills get embedded in a dog’s snout, or, in this case, a brown bear?
I figured it was a fairly passive defense mechanism and assumed that an animal tries to seize a porcupine, the quills fall off and stick into the attacker. So I did some scholarly research- went to the new “go to” source of info….Google….and found a series on Youtube…..porcupine vs. snake, porcupine vs. lion, porcupine vs. leopard and watched the porcupine vs. grizzly bear.
The bear seems curious, and does not attack the porcupine; he just approaches and sniffs around. The porcupine turns around so that its rear-end faces the bear. The bear sniffs again. Quick as a bucking bronco the porcupine kicks up its rear leg and tail, driving the quills into the bear’s nose. The bear scurries off and the porcupine ambles on its way.
I’ve watched porcupines in the wild and have never seen one move quickly.
One of my best porcupinal memories is the time I was sleeping outside in the beachgrass in front of my Mud Bay cabin. I was sound asleep in the early June morning, and something woke me up. I looked up and right in front on me, nose to nose, was a porcupine. I’m not sure who was more startled, me or her, but she ran off and I soon fell back asleep. I woke up a few hours later and wondered if I’d dreamed it. (did I dream I saw a porcupine, or am I porcupine who dreamed I was me?)
The sounds that porcupine make reminds me of the translation of their Spanish name, “Puerco espino” or spiny pig. I used to hear them in the fall during mating season. They sound like little pigs grunting and squealing at night.
One time, a porcupine came to my cabin at Mud Bay dragging its hind legs behind it. Something had attacked it, and I’m sure it wouldn’t survive the summer. Perhaps it was a fisher, a member of the weasel family. The fisher is adept at flipping the porcupine over and attacking the unprotected belly. (I looked, but there was no “porcupine vs. fisher” in the You Tube series. Maybe it would be too gruesome? Or maybe the whole series involves a captive porcupine and a series of zoo animals, and the guy who put together the series didn’t want to lose their star attraction!)
When I first moved to Haines in the late 1980’s, I saw porcupines regularly on my drive home. Many considered them a bit of a road hazard. Porcupine numbers have declined around Haines and they are now a rare sight. Its been years since I’ve seen one. Maybe its because more people have moved in with their dogs. Its also possible that I moved to Haines in a high point in some type of local porcupinal population cycle and that I have a skewed view of what the “normal” population level is. I should ask one of the old timers what they have noticed.
I did ask my friend, local naturalist Mario Benassi why he thinks the population of porcupine has declined. He said that porcupine have complex digestive systems that are susceptible to gut parasites. An increase in parasites might have affected their population.
I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer. Like so much else in nature; I chalk it up as another “natural history mystery.” There are no big bucks out there to study porcupine since they do not qualify as “charismatic megafauna”- like whales or bears. Nor are they a major food source- like moose or salmon. But I do remember seeing an old photograph of Tlingit Indians roasting porcupine around a fire. I heard that once you sear off the quills, porcupine are filled with fat so they sizzle up like little suckling pigs. And, of course, the quills can be used as toothpicks.
A lone fox wanders along the Chilkat Summit.
This post has three sections, first I talk about our recent trip to Sitka at the start of my book tour. Second, I share a link to an article in Canada’s National Observer about the Constantine mine. I was recently interviewed and they published several of my photographs. Finally, I continue with my story of my first trip to Alaska in 1983.
Our family book signing tour has begun and we started by boarding the ferry in Haines. Travel by ferry in Southeast Alaska can be quite pleasant. My life has changed since I first boarded that ferry to Alaska in 1983. Now, we are a family of 4; Edie, my wife and our two daughters, Stella, age 12, and Sapphire, age 4. Rather than sleep on the deck in the tent, we got a stateroom and headed off into the night towards Juneau. The ferry docked in Juneau at midnight, and we were in that state where we were half-asleep, half-awake. We could hear the announcements for the departing and boarding passengers, but it all seemed a bit like a dream. We woke up to a rainy morning and docked in Sitka.
Sitka, while only a one-night ferry journey from Haines, feels like a different world. Haines has the wide Chilkat river cutting through its heart, Sitka points out towards the ocean. Waves break on rocky islands offshore, and the harbor is packed full of ocean-going fishing boats. Another big difference between the two towns is that Sitka relishes in its Russian heritage. Sitka was formerly the capital of Russian America. It’s hard to find any trace of Russian history in Haines, as the Russians were after sea otters, and Haines is too far from the deep ocean water and doesn’t support the kelp beds where sea otters live and frolic.
To us, Sitka felt like a big city, even though there are only about 8,000 inhabitants. But that’s more than three times the size of Haines. We were struck by the surprising combination of friendliness and sophistication. I started the day with an interview with Raven radio, Sitka’s public radio station. Here is the link:
The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored my presentation about the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. An enthusiastic group showed up at the brand-new Sitka Public Library for my show. Even though there are some major differences between the two towns, we share the salmon that know no borders. Salmon are the great connectors. They connect salt water to fresh water. They connect people and places vast distances apart. They connect the ocean, the forest and the rivers. They connect the humans, Native and non-native alike, and the animals that depend on them for sustenance. Some of the salmon that spawn in Haines travel right in front of Sitka. So a threat to the salmon in Haines is a threat to Sitka.
It is rewarding to give the same presentation over and over, as I hone my message about why the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is unique and the waters upstream must be protected. I never use notes and that gives my presentations a fresh, spontaneous feel. I respond to the group and the group responds to me.
I look for analogies and contrasts that the audience can relate to. For contrast with the Sitkans, I talked about our winter in Haines, how cold it gets and the ice that forms in the river. Because it’s so close to the open ocean, Sitka rarely gets snow. While our Mosquito Lake property in Haines was still covered in snow when we left just a few short days ago, daffodils were blooming all over Sitka.
For similarities I talked about the salmon and the eagles, and how both know no boundaries and join us together.
This time, I finished with a call for action. This included a chance to sign a letter to the Alaska Legislature. The letter asks the legislature to make it easy, rather than hard, for Alaskan rivers to attain Outstanding National Resource Waters Designation, also known as Tier 3 Designation. If the Chilkat River achieves Tier 3 status, it will be very unlikely that a mine will be able to pollute the waters that the Chilkat salmon and eagles depend on. Over 20 people signed the letter and we sent them on to Juneau. Here is the link for more information.
The National Observer:
One of my goals in writing Where Eagles Gather is to raise the issue of protection of the waters of the Chilkat River watershed beyon a local, “Haines jobs vs. Haines environment” issue to a national and international level. I want citizens all over the world to see how special the Eagle Preserve is and join together to protect one of the greatest natural wildlife gathering locations on the planet.
So I was very happy when I got a phone call from Charles Mandell of Canada’s National Observer for an interview about the threat of the Constantine mine. The title says it all “Canadian mine threatens heart and soul of Alaskan Community.” Here is the link:
My first trip to Alaska, 1983… Continued:
I got off the plane in Anchorage and picked up my huge, green Kelty backpack. Right away, a guy in his early thirties with a red nose picked me up. “ My name is Carl and I’m the manager with ATA here in Anchorage. Boy am I glad you’re here. I feel terrible and I’m supposed to row the raft trip this afternoon. I’d like you to do it for me.”
He took me straight to the Eagle River and we stood in front of the rapids. They were class III rapids, nothing life-threatening; except that the water was ice-cold, I’d never run the river before, and I was unfamiliar with their equipment.
“Can you do it?” he asked.
I looked at the broiling rapids. I looked at him. If I said yes, and really messed up, I could hurt someone badly. If I said no, he may wonder why they sent me here and I could lose my job. I hesitated, and then I said, “Sure I can do it. But don’t you think it would be prudent for me to do a practice run before the guests show up?”
“That makes sense, except for the fact that I feel like crap”, he said. But let’s jump in the raft and take a run. We’ve got time before the guests show up.”
I jumped in the raft and grabbed the oars and Carl pushed the boat off into the river. Even though I had quite a bit of rafting experience in college, it was all with paddleboats. With a paddle raft, the guide yells out the commands and the passengers power the boat through the water. Pulling on oars was a completely different animal. I hadn’t rowed an oar boat in a river before in my life!
The current grabbed the boat and we started down the river. Right away, I had problems with the oars; they stuck out so much farther than the paddles I was used to. They kept hitting the rocks and getting pulled out of my hands. But I was determined to show Carl what I could do, and every time I dropped an oar I picked it up and pulled for my life.
I hit practically every rock in the river, careened through the rapids, filled the boat with water, and then hit some slack water. Carl was soaked. He bailed out the boat, and I pulled the boat to shore.
We had to hurry back upstream to pick up the clients. Carl sneezed, looked up and said, “I’ll row them down this time, and you can ride in the raft.”
The trip went without a hitch and Carl guided the boat through the rapids with ease. We got in the car to go back to the guide house and Carl was quiet. I didn’t know what to say, so we rode back with a bit of unease in the air. We pulled up to the house and there was a white van parked in the driveway.
A man with dark eyes and a dark beard got out of the van. Carl said, “Joe, this is the owner of Alaska Travel Adventures, Bob Dindinger.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here it was my first day on the job and I was face-to-face with the owner of the company. With my performance on the river, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Carl and Bob went into a back room and began talking quietly. I wasn’t sure what the plan was for the next day and waited for someone to tell me what was going on. I couldn’t make out what they were saying and they talked for hours. It got later and later and still nothing happened so I looked for a place to fall asleep.
Around 8pm Bob and Carl came out of their meeting. “We have a problem with our operation in Denali. We have a “semi-permanent camp” set up with wall tents, and the Park Service just told us that this type of camp is not allowed and we must dismantle everything and switch to backpacking tents and stoves. We have to do this before our next trip and we have clients coming in the day after tomorrow.”
“So all the backpacking style tents and cook gear have to be delivered to Denali ASAP. All the gear is in the white van parked out front. We need someone to drive it to Denali and we think you are the man for the job. We’re on a tight budget. We are going to give you a daily wage of $50. We want you to leave at midnight so tomorrow will be your first day on the job. You will deliver the gear and then you will work in Denali as a backpacking guide. Do you want the job?”
I gave it some thought. After my performance on the river today, I realize that I need some more practice before I can guide clients down the river. I’m not sure if Carl is in the mood to train a new guide. He needs someone who can row right away. Besides, I’m in Alaska for the adventure. Backpacking guide in Denali?
“I’ll take the job.”
(To Be Continued)
On the Chilkat Pass a deep and beautiful carpet of snow covers the landscape. This photo is taken just past the Canadian border as I climbed out of the forested valley where the trees begin to thin out.
The seasons are changing. We spent spring break at our house at Mud Bay, seven miles south of Haines, where the crocuses are blooming. At Mosquito Lake, thirty miles north of Haines, the prelude to the spring symphony has begun. The lake is still frozen but the edges of the lake are thawing and the trumpeter swans have arrived. I can hear them honking, and some mornings the coyotes are howling while the grouse are thumping and the woodpeckers are drumming on the trees.
We’ve been here the entire winter, from the fall eagle gathering through the shortest day of the year with six hours maximum daylight. Tomorrow, we head off to Sitka and Washington State for a little break before the tour season kicks off. I’ll give a slide show in Sitka on March 30th, then will give two slide shows in Washington State. The first one will be April 6th (Anacortes Library) and the second is on April 11th (Village Books in Bellingham).
Then we will travel up the Alcan Highway to return to Haines. The epic two-thousand-mile drive will be my seventeenth time driving between Bellingham, WA and Haines, Alaska. I first drove the road in 1988 (more about that later!) In the early days, I would drive the entire distance in three days. Now, with our family of four, we plan to take a full week.
This blog post has three sections. First, I pay tribute to local pioneer John Schnabel and share a few personal reflections. Next, I share a story about a scam that almost took me in last week. Then I continue with my story of how I first came to Alaska in 1983.
John Schnabel recently passed away at 96 years old. After John retired from logging, he had a heart attack and the doctor told him to keep busy or he would die. He decided to get involved in mining and got a hold of a claim in the Porcupine area north of Haines. John not only hoped to strike it big with gold, he was a big promoter of tourism in the Porcupine area. The route to the claims was long and circuitous, a real axle breaker, and that was a big challenge for tourism. John used his own money to push a road along the Klehini River to reduce travel time. John gained fame as the “grandpa” in the Discovery TV Show Gold Rush.
John and I worked together with his grandson Parker giving tours to the Big Nugget mine. Eventually Parker left for the Yukon and we left Big Nugget mine and started bringing visitors to Dakota Fred’s claim. Then Dakota Fred started mining in a location only accessibly by helicopters so we canceled the tours.
But even after the tours ended, some die-hard Gold Rush fans wanted to come to Haines to see whatever they could of the Porcupine area. We would drive up there to see what was going on and then head back to town. With no promises, we would often stop by the Haines Assisted Living Facility to see if John was up for a visit. John was always gracious and took time to sit down with our guests. He never accepted payment for these visits.
A few years back, I wrote a letter to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) about a proposed road expansion up to the Constantine Mine. John was sitting with some of his associates and they started complaining about my letter.
Instead of listening to them, John drove to my office. “Joe, how are you? I heard about a letter you wrote to BLM about the road expansion,” he said.
I looked up and said, “John, great to see you. Yes I wrote a letter with my concerns. “
“Can I read it?” he asked. I printed it, handed him a copy and he looked it over. He said, “There is nothing wrong with this letter,” shook my hand and left.
More recently, my book Where Eagles Gather was published and there was a review in our local newspaper, the Chilkat Valley News. The newspaper article stressed that I was taking a stand against the Constantine mine. I got a call from John, and he said he had been trying to buy a copy of my book and that he wanted to talk about it.
I said, “John, let me give you a book. You have been so generous all these years I feel it is the least I could do.”
John read the book cover to cover. When he was done, we sat down and talked. “Joe, this is a wonderful book, very sincere and well- written with beautiful photographs. I don’t agree with you on all your points, but I do like it.”
He continued. “I am concerned that when you take a stand in this town, things can get difficult. I’ve seen many friendships break up over political fights in Haines. I’m 96 years old and I’m not fighting this battle.”
That’s the last conversation we had. Not long after, John left Haines to go to a care facility in California. We certainly didn’t agree on all issues, but we were able to work with each other and respected each other.
I recently received an inquiry from a couple in Poland through VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) for our Swan View Cabin. I had an uncomfortable feeling about the booking. Right off the bat, instead of talking about why they were coming to Haines all the way from Poland and what they wanted to do, they talked about their concerns about credit card security. They wanted to pay me by check.
I told them that it would be no problem. As soon as I received the check, I would notify them and the reservation would be secure.
Then I received this email.
I am sorry for all the delay in payment.
There was a mix up in the payment sent to you ,I was supposed to receive two separate payment one for you and the other for our traveling expenses but the whole payment was issued on a single one check in your name and sent .
I tried to correct this but it was in vain as i was ask to resolve the problem myself. It would have to go through a very long process to change this error. Please I don’t know what to do. I have been advised to contact you since this check was issued in your name , so you should be able to deposit the check into your account.
As soon as you have the check deposited into your account you are to deduct your rent and transfer the balance to my agent or to us .
Please do let me know how you can help on this issue.
This felt a little strange but I figured if I received the check and cashed it then there would be nothing they could do. I could send them the money back and they would stay at the cabin for a week. It seemed like a “win/win” but it did feel a bit unusual.
Then the check came via US Express Mail. Once again something was odd- the envelope was ripped and the rip went right through the signature on the cashier’s check. It did not go completely through the check.
Then I got this email:
Thanks for the updated information .
Here are the detailed instructions on how to remit the balance .
You are to remit $1100 via money gram transfer with the information below
Name – Ben Immerman
STATE – Kiev
COUNTRY – Ukraine
Send Amount: $1100
Transfer Fees : $85
TOTAL : $1185
This didn’t quite fit because at first he had said he was from Poland. Now he wanted me to send the money to Ukraine. I called the local banker, Kyle, and told him the story. “Should I cash this check? Do you want to look at it?”
“I could look at it but I don’t have to, Joe. This is a classic scam. Don’t cash it and don’t send them any money.”
I wrote them back and said that I was concerned about fraud. I told them if they wanted to book the cabin, they must send me a check for the exact amount or pay with their credit card.
I never heard back from them.
My first trip to Alaska, 1983… Continued!:
I was on my way to Alaska! I caught a ride down to the pier in Seattle and boarded the ferry. Someone told me to get there early and set up my tent on the upper deck, so that I would have my own space for the two-day ride to Alaska. I watched as the different people began to board. Most of the travelers were men and they were older than I was, late twenties, thirties and even some in their forties. They looked fit, confident and they had lots of facial hair. I could barely grow a beard at the time so I hadn’t even thought about trying.
The boat pulled away from Seattle and I looked back on the big city. It was a sunny day and I got my bearings and walked around the ship. There was a deck below for vehicles, staterooms for those who could afford it, a restaurant, and a few lounge areas. I spent most of my time in the “solarium.” It was a semi-covered area where they had heat lamps on the ceiling to keep travelers from freezing. This was the area where I set up my tent, and others had set their tents up around me. Those without tents slept on the scattered lounge chairs or inflated their Thermarest pads and slept in their sleeping bags on the floor. Nighttime hit and I dozed off, happy to have my own space.
In the morning, I had some granola and milk that I had brought. There was a strict rule; no stoves allowed on the deck, and I couldn’t afford to eat in the restaurant. The sun came up and it got warmer as the day went on, and pretty soon I was in my shorts and sandals. Someone had brought a climbing rope and the group informally formed two teams and competed in tug-of-war event and Limbo on the deck. This was fun!
I felt a bit intimidated by all the hairy, bearded guys, and so stood off by myself looking over the rail at the water, the trees, and the sky. I noticed that someone was standing next to me, and looked over to see a tall, thin and clean-shaven guy looking right at me.
“I like your feet,” he said.
I didn’t quite know what to say. I hadn’t had any experience with that sort of encounter before. What did he mean? What was the appropriate response?
I hesitated and he said, “Oh sorry, My name is Dave. Is this your first trip to Alaska?”
I looked down at my feet. They are well-formed and the skin is smooth, I thought. No too hairy, and my toes aren’t all bent and weird like some people’s. And through my karate training I know how to use my feet to protect myself. I could use them on this guy, if I needed to.
But Dave really didn’t seem like a threat. He seemed generally interested in me. So I told him a bit about myself.
“My name is Joe Ordonez and I just graduated from college. I ran the Outdoor Program at Western Washington University. I love anything outdoors- rafting, kayaking, skiing, and hiking. And I love learning about nature.”
Dave smiled and still seemed interested so I continued.
“I thought I had a job driving a tour bus in Alaska, but that didn’t work out. So I’m heading north with no exact plan. I just want to work and have an adventure. I’m going to get off the ferry in Ketchikan and look for work. If I can’t find a job, I’ll keep going north. That’s as far as my plan goes. What’s your story?”
Dave smiled. “I’ve been coming north for years. Summers I live in Juneau, the state Capitol. I own my own business….its an outdoor hot dog stand right downtown. If you don’t find a job in Ketchikan and end up in Juneau, give me a ring. I have a place where you can stay. “
How nice, I thought. Are all Alaskans this friendly? Dave and I continued to talk on and off through the boat journey, and he waved goodbye to me as I stepped off the boat in Ketchikan.
I walked off in Ketchikan and was met by my friend from college, Terilyn Ellis. She had invited me to her wedding in Ketchikan but I didn’t think I would be able to make it. Now, here I was walking off the ferry the day before the wedding. The next morning, I was there for the ceremony. I remember the official (in Alaska its easy for just about anyone to perform a marriage ceremony) declaring “This marriage is more than two people joining together, this marriage is about the joining of two families.”
I thought, they are starting an adventure together. And I am starting this adventure alone.
But I wasn’t scared or lonely; I was mildly excited. I walked along the waterfront and went to the fish processing plants. They all had the same type of hand-written sign on the door…..”No Help Needed.” I was too early, the fish weren’t running and there was no work. Since Ketchikan was the first stop in Alaska, part of me was glad that things didn’t work out for work. The State is huge, and there were lots of places that I wanted to see. I bought a book entitled Adventuring in Alaska, and read it cover to cover.
All kinds of questions rose in my head. What is Denali like? What does the Pipeline look like? Where the heck is the Brooks Range? How big is a Kodiak grizzly?
I went back to the ferry terminal and caught the next ferry to Juneau. At night we passed through the Wrangell Narrows, where the navigation lights blink red and green through a section called “Christmas Tree Lane.” Late the next morning, we arrived in Juneau and I donned my giant, green Kelty backpack and headed downtown.
As I was walking down the street, I heard someone call my name. “Joe! Joe!”
It was Dave. There he was with his apron on in front of his hot dog stand. “Joe, great to see you. How was Ketchikan? Do you want a hot dog?”
“No, thanks, Dave. It’s a little early for a hot dog. Ketchikan was nice but there was no work. How are you?”
“Well business is slow but the summer season is barely started. Hey, I was thinking of you yesterday. Right down the street I saw an ad for a river guide. I remember you said that you loved rafting and that you had run some rivers with the Outdoor Program in college. I’ll show you where the building is. Maybe they still need some help.”
Dave walked me down the street and the sign was still there. I walked into the building and found the office with the name Alaska Travel Adventures on it. I opened the door and went in. There was an older looking guy sitting there (he must have been in his mid-thirties). His face was tired and he was going bald. He looked me up and down as I stood there with my huge Kelty backpack still on my back. I took off my pack, introduced myself and asked him if they still had the job available.
“Yes we do. By the way, my name is Norm. The tour is in Eagle River, outside of Anchorage. It’s a class 3 run but the water is cold.”
“I’ve done plenty of rafting in college”, I said. “I ran the Outdoor Program my senior year. What is your safety record?” I asked.
“We haven’t had any major problems. The tour is fairly new so we are just building up the market.” He asked me a few more questions that I had no problem answering.
“I think you’ll work out fine. Be at the airport at 8am tomorrow and we’ll fly you to Anchorage. We’ll subtract the cost of the flight from your first couple of paychecks.”
I walked out his office and couldn’t stop smiling. My second town in Alaska and I already have a job as a rafting guide! And they’re flying me to Anchorage!
I took the bus out to the Mendenhall Glacier Campground and set up my tent. I met a guy who looked really old to me, with glasses, a graying beard and gray hair. He was camped nearby and we sat on a log and talked. “I’m on a journey to Alaska to figure things out. I’m married and have a decent job teaching at a Community College. I’m fifty years old but I’m just not happy. I thought that maybe some time alone in the wilderness would help me pull my life together.”
I went back to my tent thinking….boy this guy is fifty years old and he still hasn’t figured life out. I wonder what that must feel like. Do you really ever figure life out? I sure hope I have things figured out when I’m his age. But that’s a long, long time from now.”
I fell asleep and in the morning caught a ride to the airport. There was a guy from Alaska Travel Adventures waiting for me. “How did you know it was me?” I asked.
“They told me to look for the guy with the huge green Kelty backpack on his back.” He handed me my ticket and told me that someone would pick me up once I got to Anchorage. I had a window seat.
The plane climbed up and over the clouds and after an hour in the air the clouds opened up and I could see all the way to the ground. But everything looked strange to me. I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. I asked the guy next to me what it was. “Oh, those are glaciers and those are icebergs floating in the ocean. We’re flying over Prince William Sound right now.” I looked down on the huge glaciers and mountains below and tried to gain some perspective. But it was too big.
I dozed off and woke up when we touched down in Anchorage.
(To be continued)
Response has been very positive for my photograph, Moon Over Klehini. I had this image blown up to 20 inches by 30 inches and printed on canvas and it looks fantastic! Canvas prints are great in that they require no additional framing and are ready to hang on your wall. For a limited time, I can offer Free Shipping in the United States for these 20″x30″ canvas prints. Price is $300 including shipping.
Ptarmigan have some amazing winter adaptations. The most obvious one is that they change color in the winter so that they can blend in with the snow and ice. Lesser known is the fact that their feet change. In fall the scales on their feet give way to bristly projections that host foot feathers. These feathers serve as snowshoes and insulating boots at the same time!
This blog posting has two sections.
- I report on the recent meeting concerning the Chilkat River’s nomination for Outstanding National Resource Water status and my “letter to the editor”.
- I continue my story of my first visit to Alaska. In the last post, I had just crashed the bus and was kicked out of the training program. /2016/02/down-the-stream-of-life/
Outstanding Resource Water Nomination for the Chilkat River
The potential impact of the Constantine Mine is now in the local Haines news. While researching for my book, Where Eagles Gather, I learned about some of the meetings in Haines back in the 70’s and 80’s when the Eagle Preserve was being proposed. Those were acrimonious times and I read the story of a fistfight that broke out in front of the Harbor Bar because someone didn’t like the “greenies.” Then there was the meeting where State officials were threatened and had to leave town before they could discuss the issue at hand.
So when it was announced that there would be a meeting with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Water Commissioner Michelle Hale to discuss the recent nomination of the Chilkat River for Tier 3, or Outstanding National Resource Water status, I had to be there. Had things changed in the last thirty years?
The meeting room was packed. At the start of the meeting, Michelle acknowledged that this is an emotion-charged issue, and requested this be an informational meeting rather than an opportunity to get on one’s soapbox to argue for or against Tier 3 status.
She showed the first slide; hit the clicker and a guy in the third row belted out angrily.
“Hey, slow down. I didn’t have a chance to read that. Come on!….”
She apologized, went back one slide, made sure everyone had a chance to read it, and moved on.
Following her Power Point presentation, Michelle hosted a question-and-answer session that went on for well over an hour. There was hostile questioning, interruptions and loud complaints but she did her best to keep control. More than once, she answered a question and the same question was asked again a few minutes later by someone else. But she kept her cool and kept the crowd under control.
She noted that there was obviously some misinformation being passed around that had led to confusion. One of the main fears expressed by members of the audience was their worry that they would not be allowed to use their 2-stroke engines in the Chilkat River. Michelle patiently explained that even though 2-stroke engines do pollute the river, their use would not be banned. Tier 3-designation primarily had to do with “point source” discharges that degrade the water quality, like discharge pipes from a large mine.
Part of the problem was that many in the group wanted to argue the merits of Tier 3 Designation for the Chilkat. Michelle had to repeat that the meeting was not about the merits of the Chilkat River, but about the process by which a river gets Tier 3 designation.
Towards the end of the meeting, Chilkat leader Jones Hotch Jr. stood up to speak. He was quiet and eloquent. “The Chilkat River has fed us for generations… This is a vehicle that will help us help the salmon.”
By the waning minutes of the meeting, Michelle was clearly exhausted. She said that she really needed to sit down.
I was glad that I had come. Michelle had made some important points:
- A river would be more likely considered for Tier 3 Status if it was “exceptional, important, unique, or sensitive ecologically…” This was good news to me, the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve clearly meets those criteria and my book provides some good arguments for Tier 3 Status.
- A mine like the Constantine would be required to post a bond to cover potential mitigation for damage caused even after they ceased operation. However, the bond amount would not cover catastrophic damage from a tailings dam failure. Recently, the tailings dam of the Mt. Polly mine in British Columbia failed, resulting in toxins flowing downstream. The images of salmon with their skin peeling off their bodies turned my stomach when I first saw them and I still wince when I look at them.
Following the meeting, letters to the editor for and against Tier 3 designation appeared in the local newspaper, the Chilkat Valley News. My view is that I do not want Haines to return to the volatile meetings of the seventies and eighties. It is imperative that the residents of the valley treat each other with respect. My letter below is in response to another letter published in last week’s newspaper where the writer repeatedly calls out the “greenies.”
I appreciate the community discussion that has started regarding the Constantine Mine. However, I do not approve of the name-calling that is being tossed around the valley. Name-calling and labeling put walls around people and makes it difficult to have constructive engagement. This creates an “us” and “them” atmosphere that is stifling and sometimes even frightening. The truth is that we all share this valley and we are here together. In addition to keeping the natural environment healthy we have to keep our social and community environment healthy. Last week’s letter to the editor blaming the “greenies” is a case in point. Let us all remember that green is the color of healthy trees and plants and a sign of spring. One should not be denigrated because they want to hold the Constantine mine to the highest possible standards and keep this area free from damaging acid-mine drainage. Another question brought up last week asked why should the Chilkat Valley be offered the highest protection? One of the qualifying criteria for Outstanding National Resource Water Designation is that the water must be “exceptional, important, unique, or sensitive ecologically…” It can be easy for some of us who live here to forget that visitors come from all over the world to experience the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and witness the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. This phenomenon is without a doubt exceptional, important, unique and sensitive ecologically. The eagles are here because of the salmon and the salmon thrive because of clean water. This is not something we should take for granted. Joe Ordonez
Here’s a link to KHNS, our local radio station’s coverage of the Haines meeting:
Here’s a link to Mt. Polly Disaster and Salmon with Peeling skin photos:
Back to 1983: My Story Continues
Spring comes in spurts here in the Chilkat Valley. The lake in front of our house has been frozen for months and covered with snow. But with a recent warming trend and some rain, a beautiful blue pool formed on part of the lake. Then it got cold again and the blue pool transformed into perfectly smooth ice- a natural ice skating rink. After a few cold days, I figured it was safe to go out on the lake and try to ice skate.
But it’s not a simple matter of driving up to the ice skating rink and going skating. First I had to put my ice skates in my backpack and navigate down the hill in front of our house to the lake. It’s steep and icy with patches of snow and lots of brush. There are some stairs but last time I used them I slipped on an icy step, scraped my arm and tweaked my back. Once I reached the lake, my skis were waiting for me in the snow and I had to ski across the lake to the icy patch. Along the way, there were some sections of thin ice and even some spots where there is open water. I had to tap the ice with my ski poles and listen for the sound. A hollow sound means thin ice. Once I got to the blue “skating rink” I had to take off my skis and put on my skates.
I was a bit distracted by the cracking sounds the ice was making as I skated along, but the ice seemed solid enough. I figured this was likely my last time ice skating this season, so I better enjoy it. I smiled and an old Paul Simon song popped up in my mind; ”Slip, sliding away. The nearer your destination the more you’re slip, sliding away.” Whatever I do, there is always a song in my head.
I’ve always loved music. At 9 years old, with my brothers and sisters, I danced the Mashed Potato Popcorn and the Camel Walk as we listened to James Brown. On my first visit to Guatemala I fell in love with the marimba music while visiting my “tias” and feasting on black beans and fresh, hand-made tortillas. I loved music so much that I learned to play trombone and in high school I’d eagerly leave the house each morning at 6:30am for jazz band practice.
In college, I started out as a music and art major. One of the reasons I chose Western Washington University was because it had a degree program in jazz music. I spent endless hours every day in a small and stuffy practice room playing scales and arpeggios on my trombone.
At first I loved it but after the first year I began to feel unhappy. I knew something needed to change. Music studies seemed too distant from the real world. I wanted to be outside, and I wanted to be with people.
So I changed my major to Environmental Education, and found a path that suited me. I took a marine biology class where we went out with flashlights and rubber boots in the middle of the night at low tide digging in the mud for marine worms. For my botany class final exam we had to identify on sight every plant on the Sehome Hill Arboretum above campus. I studied geomorphology, ornithology and human ecology. I was in love with learning and didn’t want college to end. But I was scheduled to graduate in June and had to transition to the “real world” and find a job.
My final semester in college, I signed up for a seminar class called “Alaska Environmental Issues.” I didn’t know much about Alaska, but the class sounded interesting. Most of the other students in the class had already been to Alaska. They shared their slides and stories from the Far North and I was intrigued.
Each of us was required to prepare a project concerning an environmental topic relating to Alaska. The professor gave us a list of suggestions. One topic caught my attention right away….Logging in the Tongass. I had no idea where or what the Tongass was, but I liked the sound of the word: Tongass. The word rolled off my tongue. It felt like a gateway to an exotic adventure.
I started to research and was surprised to learn that the Tongass is the largest National Forest in the United States, about the size of Connecticut. It is located in Southeast Alaska and stretches from Ketchikan to north of Glacier Bay. The Tongass Forest is part of the Pacific Northwest Rainforest Ecosystem. The combination of plentiful rainfall and a mild climate helps trees like western red cedar, Sitka spruce and western hemlock grow into giants. Glaciers, lakes, and saltwater inlets bisect these forests. The area is a haven for threatened and endangered species like humpback whales, grizzly bears and bald eagles.
It seemed like a paradise. But the more I studied the more I learned that there was trouble in paradise. Giant stands of old-growth trees were being clear-cut at an unsustainable rate. Most of the trees being cut were shipped off to the Japan or turned into pulp. To make it worse, US taxpayers were losing money on the deal. And yet the US Government continued to mandate that a huge quota of trees be cut each year.
My college major, environmental education involved teaching others about how the world fits together and how delicately the balance maintained. I didn’t have to go very far to see what happens when the threads are broken and the balance is lost. All I had to do was put my head out the window and smell the air. Phew! The downtown area of Bellingham Washington was permeated with noxious fumes from the local pulp mill.
In addition to ecology, I was learning about history and how history repeats itself. Not too long ago, huge cedar trees covered the Bellingham hillsides and the streams and rivers were choked with salmon. But the giant trees had all been cut, the salmon had largely disappeared, and now the simple act of breathing could make you sick.
Bellingham and the Pacific Northwest were once thought of as an endless frontier. That frontier had been tamed and the line had moved north. Alaska was the now considered the “last frontier” and the Tongass was now at the front line.
My assignment was to come up with a project to teach the others about what was going on in the Tongass. Since I loved music, and I knew that music could be a powerful means of communication, I decided to write and perform a song. So I got out my guitar, my flute and a piece of paper and let the creative juices flow.
On the last day of class, each student had to present their project. I sat through a few hours of talks, paper presentations, and slide shows. One of the students in the class was named Mark. He had a friendly face, a Fu-Man-Chu style mustache and an easy-going demeanor. His project was about sustainable fisheries management. He paid for his college by working in a frozen fish plant on the Kenai Peninsula and had worked his way up to management. He finished his presentation and I was scheduled to go next.
I invited my friend and fellow musician Clive Pohl, into the class. Clive had curly red hair and a red goatee, and looked older than his years. His forehead was a highway of deeply etched lines, maybe from all the expressions he made when he played guitar solos. Clive, sporting a faded, tie-died T-shirt and blue jeans, strode in with his beat-up guitar case and sat next to me. When it was our turn, Clive opened up his beat-up case and brought out an equally beat-up guitar, and we started to play.
It was a rather simple song, filled with emotional appeal. The entire issue was laid out in black and white, similar to many of the political speeches you hear today. My fellow students broke out in applause and Clive and I gave a low bow. The professor announced then and there that I got an “A!”
I was excited to be heading to Alaska and proud that I was in the bus driver training program. Then my life changed. I crashed the bus and it was too late to line up another job. I began to think about Mark and his work up at that frozen fish plant up in Alaska. But how could I find him?
About a week later, I had two college graduation ceremonies in one day. The first one was from Western Washington University. The second one was from the Huxley College of Environmental Studies. It was a low-key outdoor affair. As I got in line to pick up my diploma, I realized that luck was on my side. Mark was right in front of me in line and smiled as I walked up!
“Mark, I liked your slide show about the fisheries. It just seems incredible up there in Alaska, so wild and pristine. I was hoping to get up there this summer. Remember I told you that I was going to drive a tour bus this summer?”
“Oh yeah, you told me you were the first guy in the training program, right? Where will you be driving?“ he asked.
I looked down for a second and tried to hide my embarrassment. “It didn’t work out. Do you know that sign that says “Fielding Street” as you leave the Bellingham Mall? Well, the sign is no longer there.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“But I still really want to go North. Do you think you could help me out?”
“Joe, the peak salmon run starts in mid-July. We’ll be going twenty-four hours a day 7 days a week with two twelve-hour shifts. The work is hard and the pay is not great; but the amount of overtime makes up for the low pay. If you make your way to the town of Kenai and can find Royal Pacific Fisheries, I’ll do my best to get you a job.”
We picked up our diplomas and shook the hand of the president of the College and got in line for the potluck. Mark and I were talking when my three Guatemalan aunts, Dora, Livia and Elsa, walked up. These three aunts had been there for my great life events- First Communion, my high school graduation, and now they had traveled all the way from Guatemala for my college graduation. They each gave me a warm abrazo (hug) and a kiss. I hardly noticed that Tia Dora slipped an envelope in my pocket.
I waved goodbye and after they left, I reached in my pocket and opened the envelope. There was $700 cash in it!
Mark’s eyes opened wide and he asked….”What are you going to do with the money?”
I didn’t have to think before I answered.
“I’m buying a one-way ferry ticket to Alaska!”
(To be continued)
I gave a slide show and book signing at Klukwan Village a few nights ago. It was great to give my talk right in the heart of the Bald Eagle Preserve to folks who had grown up along the Chilkat River. More important than that is the fact that their ancestors had grown up along the Chilkat River. What could I tell these people that they didn’t already know? Ed Warren, 85 years old, was in attendance. Ed’s a bit hard of hearing, has a great sense of humor and loves to tell stories. In Tlingit culture, it’s important to respect and listen to the elders. So when I started talking about salmon and eagles and Ed decided to interject one of his personal stories, I switched roles and went from lecturer to listener. Ed told the story about the time an eagle watched him catch a king salmon in his fishing net. “The eagle saw the fish in the net and figured it would be easy to steal the fish. So he flew down, grabbed the fish but then the eagle got stuck in my net. I told him in Tlingit, “Now you’ve done it.” The eagle struggled for a bit, then escaped from the net and flew up in a tree. I took the salmon home and cooked it up.”
It was a great way to start my spring slide show series. In the next month, I’ll be speaking in Whitehorse, Yukon (March 6th), Sitka, Alaska (March 30th), and then fly to Washington State. I’ll give a show in Anacortes, Washington (April 6th) and Bellingham, Washington (April 11th) before we drive up the Alcan Highway back to Haines. The 2,000 mile drive is always a great adventure- lots of wildlife, miles and miles of open country, some great hot springs, giant mountains……I’ve driven the road 16 times through the years and I never tire of it. We’ll be driving our family’s 23-foot RV. Driving big rigs did not come naturally to me. As a matter of fact, my first experience driving a big vehicle was a complete disaster.
I was nearing college graduation spring quarter, 1983, at Western Washington University when a recruiter for jobs in Alaska showed up on campus. The job was for a bus driver tour guide in Alaska.
I made an appointment through the Career Planning and Placement Center, put on my best pants, a clean shirt and vest and walked into the little room with a big desk. A slick, corporate-looking guy with a suit and tie was sitting behind the desk.
He got right to business.
“Why should I hire you?” he asked.
“I’m a success story,” I declared. “I got my black belt in karate at age 14. I was high school valedictorian. I played first trombone in the college jazz band. I currently run the Outdoor Program here on campus. “
“Do you know what the job is?”
“Yes, sir.” (I grew up six years in Virginia so I knew how to be polite to superiors). “You drive around Alaska and explain to the guests what they are seeing. I love people; I’m one of seven kids from a Guatemalan-Italian family. And I love nature. I’m studying Environmental Education and I have a good foundation in geology, plants, birds, and ecology. And since I’m a musician I love to entertain. I won’t disappoint you.”
“You’ll be a perfect fit. Let’s call this interview finished. You’re hired. As a matter of fact, you’re the first one into our training program. Congratulations! Show up on Saturday at 8am at the parking lot of the Bellingham Mall. Look for a big bus with ‘Westours’ painted on the side. There you’ll meet Cliff, your bus driver trainer. ”
I couldn’t believe it! I told anyone and everyone I saw the next week on Campus.
“I’m going to Alaska…I’m the first guy in the training program!”
I went to the parking lot at the appointed time and met Cliff. He had darker skin, a well-groomed mustache and a pleasant, non-threatening manner. He made me feel at home.
“Have you ever driven a bus before?” he asked.
“Never,” I said honestly.
“Well there’s a lot to learn. The first thing is the pre-trip inspection. You don’t just jump in the bus and drive away. You have to make sure that the bus is safe. Safety is number one. Let’s look under the hood.”
This was a completely new world to me. I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up spending weekends with their dad under the hood of a car. My dad was from upper class Guatemalan society. My grandfather had been Supreme Court Justice of Guatemala during the Ubico regime. My grandparents wanted the best education possible for their children and sent my father to the University of Michigan to study engineering. My father had planned to return to Guatemala after graduation but got stopped in his tracks when he met a full- blooded Italian beauty from Deaborn, Michigan named Rosa Romanelli. They fell in love and she told him she would never live in Guatemala. She insisted that they stay in the States. So my Dad found a job as an engineer and ended up working at the Hanford Nuclear Plant in Richland, Washington.
Our family cars were maintained at the Ford dealership. My father golfed on weekends.
I scratched my head and tried to make sense of the various pipes and tubes and connections under the hood of this gigantic bus. I had no idea what I was looking at.
Cliff went through the whole inspection. He said I had to look for oil leaks, loose belts, uneven tire wear, broken turn signals, corroded exhaust pipes; the list seemed endless. I was a bit confused but I was able to force a smile on my face.
I was looking forward to driving tourists around Alaska; I hadn’t realized that I had to become a bit of a mechanic to do it.
Cliff looked at me. “Here’s the study book and checklist. Next week, we’ll start with the checklist and then you’ll get a chance to drive the bus. See you at 8am next Saturday!”
I shook his hand, said goodbye and thought to myself….Now that’s more like it…. next week I get to drive the bus! So I took the study book back to the house where I was living, went back to my university classes the next week and pretty much forgot about the whole thing until Friday.
Friday evening came and I realized that I hadn’t studied at all. I stayed up late and went though the book and the inspection list and tried to remember all the details Cliff had showed me. I woke up Saturday morning, looked at my watch and realized that I had to be at the parking lot in 25 minutes! And it was a 10 minute drive!
I threw on some clothes, splashed ice-cold water on my face, skipped the shave and jumped in my beat-up, orange, 1973 Toyota Corolla with 160,000 miles on it. I raced to the parking lot and jumped out at 8am exactly.
Cliff looked up with a frown and said….”you’re late!”
I said….“no it’s 8am. I’m on time.”
“Listen, Joe, and listen good. If you’re not early, you’re late. Remember that. You need time to get ready for your shift. Never show up at the last minute. Now let’s do the inspection.”
I could feel some beads of sweat forming on my forehead. Cliff had been so friendly at our first meeting. And I was the first guy into the training program-didn’t he know that?! I faked my way through the inspection, but I really didn’t have command of the task before me. I tasted a bead of sweat that had dripped from my forehead down my cheek.
“OK time to get in the bus. I want you to start it up, pull out onto the street and turn left. As you pull out of the parking lot and make the turn, be sure to look out for that big sign that says “Fielding Street.” One of the trainees yesterday nearly hit that sign,” Cliff said matter-of-factly.
I was so glad to be done with the inspection and drive the bus that my old confidence returned. I turned the key, popped the emergency brake and pulled out. I took a sharp left-hand turn into the street and asked Cliff, “Now where is that sign where you were talking about?”
Just then I heard a loud “BANG!” at the rear of the bus, and I felt the bus shake a little bit. “What was that?” I called out.
Cliff was calm and said in a slow and steady tone, “Continue driving forward and pull into the first parking lot on the left and turn around slowly”. I did as I was told. “Now, return to the parking lot where we started and park the bus.”
I drove slowly and carefully and we were both silent. I parked the bus and he said, “Let’s get out.”
We walked around to the back of the bus I noticed a slight dent up high on the rear driver’s side. We then turned and looked at the Fielding Street sign. The top left corner of the sign was bent backwards.
The sign now read, “ding Street.”
“What do we do now, Cliff?” I managed to squeak out.
“Well, the company policy states that if a trainee has any accidents during the training program they are terminated immediately. There’s nothing I can do. Sorry.”
He shook my hand and I turned around, got back in my orange Toyota Corolla with 160,000 miles on it and drove back home. I was devastated. I kept repeating in my head- First guy in the training program. First guy out.
What was I going to do now?
To be continued…….
This shot of the moon is a tribute to Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the 6th man to walk on the moon. Mitchell died Feb 4th. I had the honor to spend the day with him when he came to Haines as the keynote speaker at the 2012 Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. My friend, Steve Kroschel, sometimes called the Dr. Doolittle of Alaska, asked me to drive Dr. Mitchell from town to Steve’s Wildlife Center for filming for a documentary film Steve was working on entitled “The Grounded.”
After the shoot was done, Dr. Mitchell and I drove back to town alone together in my vehicle. We went right through the heart of the Eagle Preserve and I thought he might want to get out and stretch his legs and enjoy the expanse of eagles lining the river. But he declined and seemed a bit tired. So we kept driving quietly into town. After a few minutes of silence, I asked him if he minded telling me what it was like to be in outer space.
My question woke him up and he turned to me, his eyes sparkling, “I don’t mind at all,” he said, “That Apollo 14 mission changed my life forever. I had been completely focused with all the details of the moonwalk, and of course all the stress and challenges that goes along with something of that nature. I returned to the spaceship and prepared to take off, everything was set, and for a brief moment I was temporarily finished with my duties. I took a deep breath, relaxed, and looked up into space. “
“I could not believe how bright the stars were. You see, there is no atmosphere on the moon and so the stars were incredibly bright and there were so many of them. At that moment, I felt a deep sense of connection and realized we are all united; we are all made of the same thing-stardust. “
He went on to explain that after the mission, he dedicated the rest of his life to the continued exploration of another type of space, the space inside each of us and our connection to the greater consciousness.
I accompanied him to the dinner at the Bald Eagle Festival where he was the featured speaker, and sat next to him at the table. It was interesting for me to sit next to a celebrity. Some folks were very respectful. Others walked right up to him and took his photo with no introductions. Many came up with something for him to sign- an old tablecloth commemorating a space mission, a copy of his book, a piece of paper napkin. He was very gracious and did not turn down anyone.
I took him back to his hotel and drove him to the airport the next day. I could have asked for a photograph with him or an autograph, and I thought about it, but I never did. I felt fortunate to have spent some time alone with him, and to get the reminder that life is precious and mysterious, and that we all have a lot to be thankful for. And that is more valuable than any souvenir he could have given me.
Hearing that Edgar Mitchell passed away February 4th made me pause and think a bit about my life and what I will leave behind. At the same time, I was preparing a talk for the Haines Photography group entitled “From Conception to Marketing, How I produced my book Where Eagles Gather.” I looked back and tried to figure out how I got to this point in life where I am today. What lessons have I learned? What lessons can I pass on? Who were the people who helped me along and what did they teach me?
In my next several installments I am going to go back and explore my life in Haines and share with you how I got to the point where I was able to produce Where Eagles Gather.
I first arrived in Haines in 1986 as a naturalist guide on a small cruise ship, the Great Rivers Explorer. We cruised Southeast Alaska and docked in Haines once a week. We would always go to Haines’ Sheldon Museum and watch Joel Bennet’s classic 1981 film, Last Stronghold of the Eagles. This was a movie about the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve with spectacular cinematography and a conservation message. It was produced when the area surrounding the Eagle Council Grounds was in jeopardy from large-scale logging. The movie excited me about the winter congregation, and also taught me about the controversy that led to the creation of the Preserve in 1982.
I went on a rafting trip in the Eagle Preserve and loved it. If the weather was good, I told the guests on the ship that there was nothing better they could do in Haines than go rafting. Not long after, I met Bart Henderson, owner of the rafting company Chilkat Guides and I told him that I wanted to move to Haines. Bart had taken a liking to me partly because I was able to fill his rafting tours to capacity. I took a liking to Bart because I saw in him something that I wanted to become; he was a wilderness guide.
I moved to Haines in 1987, began guiding and training guides and began to learn more about the Preserve and tell the story to the guides as I trained them. I gave many of those early talks on the bus as we headed to the river to go rafting. These “schpiels”, as they became known, became an important part of Chilkat Guides’ strong reputation. I made sure the guests heard the story of the Preserve and the story of controversy and compromise. And I made sure they learned about the unique ecology of the area and all about bald eagles.
The company grew, and I taught the new generation of “schpielers” the story and encouraged them to pass it on. Some guides did better than others. It became clear after a time that most of the guides were not passing on the complex story of the creation of the preserve and the conservation message entailed in the story. It was too complicated of a story to give to tourists on vacation. The schpiel became more about fun…..we called it “info-tainment.” Give some good information, keep it fun, have a good time. But in the back of my mind, I wondered….how could I get the story out to the public?
I began to organize my 35mm slides (remember them?) and realized I had some amazing images from all over the world and particularly from the Chilkat Valley. The idea sprouted in my mind to write a book about Haines and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in order to preserve the story of the Preserve.
One of the great things about working seasonally is that I could travel the world in the off-season. On a trip to Nepal, I had a Chilkat Guides business card with me with the company logo on it- a profile of a bald eagle’s head. In Kathmandu, there are dozens of little shops with one or two men hunched over their Singer sewing machines. These craftsmen can embroider T-shirts with any design one can think of. So I had them make me a shirt with the logo on it just for fun.
I came back from Nepal and was guiding a trip down the Chilkat River wearing my new T-shirt. On the bus ride back, someone said they wanted to buy a shirt like mine and asked where they could get one.
“They are not for sale,” I said.
“Can I buy the shirt off your back?”
“ No, I’m sorry the shirt is not for sale.”
“Well, you should sell shirts on the bus. I bet you could make lots of money!”
I thought about it and went to Bart and told him I was interested in selling shirts on the bus.
Bart said, “Go for it, Joe. But I don’t want to take any risk. You buy the shirts, you keep track of the inventory and money, and you take the risk. You’ll learn about business, and you’ll make some extra cash. And the folks will have nice souvenir from their visit to Haines. Just give me a fair cut for each shirt.”
It seemed like a win/win for both of us, and it was. Shirts started selling and the company kept growing. I set up a system where each “schpieler” could sell shirts on the bus and make a commission. I didn’t know what to do with the cash….should I spend it, deposit it, how do I pay taxes for something like this? I didn’t have a clue.
Someone told me to go see Barbara Campbell, a local bookkeeper who had helped many a local entrepreneur get registered as a business. I went into her office and sat down. She had long grey hair, she chain-smoked and there were cats everywhere, even on her desk. But she knew her stuff and was easy to talk with. I looked at her through the cloud of smoke and told her why I was there.
She looked at me and said, “So, you’re making money at T-shirts. Well, with business, there’s income and expenses. If you make money, that’s called income. The more income, the more tax you have to pay. Now we need some expenses to offset the income. What do you like to do that doesn’t make you any money?”
“Well I’m a photographer and I love to take pictures,” I said a bit sheepishly. She hit me with questions in rapid-fire succession.
“Do you own a camera? How much is it worth? We’ll write it off! Any lenses? How many? What are they worth? We’ll write them off! Do you travel and take pictures?”
“Yes, I do, I just got back from Nepal!”, I told her.
“OK, we’ll write it off!”
So even though my business income was coming in from T-shirt sales, we decided to form Rainbow Glacier Adventures as a photography business. In a roundabout way, I was on my way to becoming a professional photographer. That was 1992. (To be continued)
Sometimes you get lucky! But part of being lucky is going out and keeping your eyes open. The last few weeks, I’ve been heading up to the Chilkat Pass looking for whatever might happen to show up. I’ve had great experiences on the pass over the years, and have seen moose, bear, wolverine, lynx and many other creatures along the road.
I went out with Ron Horn last week. Ron is primarily a wildlife photographer, so he loves to head up on the Chilkat Pass to see what there is to see. We were hoping to photograph ptarmigan, the chicken-like bird that loves the high alpine environment. They are not easy to find, since they are white birds who live in a snowy environment. To make it more difficult, we ran into some fog. We saw a few ptarmigan, but they flew off into the fog. But the fog was lifting, and as it lifted the angle of the sun, combined with ice crystals in the air formed an amazing optical phenomenon, a perihelion. Some people refer to these as “sun dogs.” I took dozens of images, and decided to share this one with you.
Optical phenomena are not common, but do occur, especially in cold environments. Guiding for years on the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, I saw some weird things. One time, when pulling the rafts into camp along the shores of an iceberg-filled lake, I saw giant men with orange and green jackets towering over our camp. As we got closer, the “men” shrunk down and I realized that “they” were our tents. The ice crystals in the air and the angle of light had made them appear huge.
I guided the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers from 1988-1999, and spent most of my summer out on river trips. It was a great period of life- out on a trip, return to town, pack up, meet the next group, clean up, pack up, head back out. One summer I spent forty days in a row doing back-to-back trips in the wilderness without a day off. From 2000-2010, I left the Tat and Alsek Rivers and began guiding up in the Arctic. And for the last few years my guiding has been mostly around Haines, even though I did guide two Tatshenshini trips over the last few years. The Alsek is more intense, more extreme, so there is a part of me that really misses the Alsek River.
The tour season 2015 was a great one for Rainbow Glacier Adventures. As a treat and to celebrate, a few of the employees and I headed out September 22-28th on a rafting trip down the upper Alsek River. I contacted Parks Canada and talked to the lady in charge of river trips.
“We are concerned about the late date of your departure”, she said in an official tone. “We are not sure about the water levels and water temperature.” I told her that I had dozens of trips down the river, that I’d written the guidebook to the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, and I’d even skied the upper Alsek in March years ago. We were prepared for hardship.
I asked her how many times she had been down the river. She seemed a little sheepish, and then admitted that she had never been down the river. I gave her a complimentary copy of my book, The Complete Guide to the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers, signed the paperwork and paid the park fees for our trip. “Be sure to contact us when you get back to civilization,” she said.
My big worry was strong winds, as the first part of the trip has minimal current and is known for piercing upstream winds. I remember several trips where it took us hours of gut-wrenching paddling to make a few miles progress. On one trip guide Liam Cassidy pulled so hard trying to make downstream progress that he strained muscles in his forearm and couldn’t row for the rest of the trip. Luckily, there was another training guide on the trip who took over for him.
So we were very happy when we started the trip with a downstream wind for the first two days! It was quite an adventure and we had everything from fairly warm, sunny days to some extremely brutal upstream winds that stopped us in our tracks. To escape the wind, we pulled a raft up out of the water and turned it on its side as a windbreak so that we could cook our meals.
At our last camp, Lowell Lake, we had to look for a good place for the plane to land to pick us up. Lowell Lake is where the Lowell Glacier calves icebergs into the lake. It is a surreal location. There was no vegetation where we camped; nothing but glacial dust, small rocks and a few pieces of driftwood. Icebergs roll and tumble at a distance, and when the weather clears the huge peaks of the Icefield Ranges dominate the horizon.
The area we chose is where Parks Canada requires groups to camp so that they do not encounter the many brown bear that frequent the vegetated areas. We were not sure if this was the exact spot the pilot had told us he was going to pick us up, but it looked like a safe landing area. We were happy when he came in, flew over camp, and landed nearby. We ran up to the plane, he looked at us, and the first words out of his mouth were, in a strong German accent…..”You’re in the wrong spot! Park Service doesn’t want me to land here, and these rocks can damage my plane.”
I was taken aback. I wanted to say….”Hi, my name is Joe, how are you?…..” But I have dealt with enough bush pilots to know that small talk is not their strong suit. I stuck to business, and asked…..” Where do you want us?” He said….” A half mile upstream and a quarter mile inland.”
We were a group of seven and had lots of gear. Our rafts were still inflated and the gear was in a huge pile. I said, “I have lots of experience moving gear upstream. We’ll get it there.”
He loaded up 3 members of our group, and the four of us remaining got down to business. Moving rafts upstream is tricky. If you just try to pull the raft from shore with a rope, the raft will run into the shore and hit rocks in the river. The technique is for one person to pull on the rope, and the other person uses a paddle to keep the raft from hitting the rocks and shore. If there are rocks in the river, then one guide has to stay in the raft and push the raft off the rocks, while the other guide pulls the boat upstream from shore.
We loaded all the gear in the two rafts, and started pulling. Soon enough we realized there were too many rocks for us to both stay on shore. One of us stayed in the raft, pushing off the slippery rocks, while the other tugged. It was a good forty-five minutes of hard work, and there was some danger involved. The water was ice-cold, the rocks were slippery, and the guy in the raft had to sometimes get out of the raft onto the rocks and muscle the boat around or over the rocks.
But there was no time to rest. We offloaded all the gear, and started hauling it to the spot where the pilot planned to land the plane. Load after load, up a steep sandy hill, over uneven terrain, to the spot, and then back to the river. It was two straight hours of additional hard work. The pilot came back and was impressed with our progress. He loaded more gear, took off and came back an hour later. By the time he was back, we had just finished carrying the rafts to the landed spot, deflated them and rolled them up. He flew off with the rafts; we finished hauling the gear, and finally had a minute to rest before he flew us back to Haines Junction where our bus was waiting. Funny thing, I had expected the hardship at the beginning of the trip….this time it happened at the end of the trip. I called Parks Canada and reported that we were safe and sound. Then we drove back to Haines, cleaned up the next day, and started planning another trip on the Alsek.
Encounters with owls are always special. For one thing, owls are more often heard than seen, at least here around Haines. The small owls make a sort of a peeping sound. The sound is fairly rhythmic and if you don’t know that it is an owl, then you might not guess what it is unless someone tells you. The other sound is the one most of us are familiar with, the “hoot.” This sound brings up feelings of fear in many people, perhaps because owls are mostly active at night. Some associate the call of the owl with death.
But there are some owls that are active during the day. The most common ones around Haines that I have had experience with are the short-eared owl and the northern hawk owl. This year, I have had two encounters with the northern hawk owl. One time I was up on the pass with my new friend, Matt Schetzer. Matt is an outstanding photographer who is spending more and more time in Haines. We went out together looking for wildlife and saw a hawk owl along the side of the road on a post. I knew right away it was a hawk owl by its medium size and its fairly long tail. We stopped further down the road and got out of the vehicle, prepared to hike back to the owl. To our surprise, the hawk owl flew towards us and landed on a post closer to us, providing for some great views. Of course, I wanted the owl to land on a tree or some type of natural object to give the photo a more “owl in the wilderness” feel. Well, he did fly to another tree, but it was further away, the light was in the wrong direction, so I couldn’t get a very good photo. But it didn’t really matter. As I said, encounters with owls are always special, and I went home happy that day.
Later on, I went out with my friend Oliver Klink. Oliver is my “photo guru”…his knowledge of photograph is amazing, he leads workshops all over the world and he has taught me tons about photography. We went to a place rarely visited by photographers in Haines, where there is a small bridge that crosses a stream, and a few houses and cabins nearby. Oliver looked the scene over, turned his camera towards the river and the mountains, and set up his tripod. I put my tripod next to him and took the same shot. Oliver had told me that it slightly irritates him on photo workshops when students wait until he sets up his tripod, and then set their tripod right next to him in the exact same location. I took the shot and then looked around a bit more. I saw a canoe, the bridge and the houses. The canoe was a sort of a bright green, the color of the houses was muted yellows and greys, and the rest of the scene was white with snow and some dark reflections in the calm river. I realized that the way to photograph the scene would be as a black and white. This would join all the colors, and give more emphasis on the tones and the composition, including the reflection of the trees in the water. I set my tripod up, and Oliver asked me what I was doing. I explained what I saw and what I thought the final image would look like.
He said, “ That is a great idea. That will make a very nice image.” Oliver set his tripod up next to mine, looked over at me with a slight smile and said “You have snatched the pebble from my hand!”
I’m not sure if all my readers know what he was referring to so I will explain here. In the 1970’s, there was a TV show called Kung Fu. The star, Kwai-Chang Caine, was a half-Chinese and half-Caucasian orphan. His master raised him in the Shaolin monastery. Every week at the start of the show, the master would test
Caine, ….”snatch the pebble from my hand.” And young Caine would try but he could not do it. The master would look at Caine with his wise eyes and say….”when you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.” After years of rigorous training and countless adventures, Caine snatches the pebble and leaves the monastery.
In the 1970’s, I was a young karate student in Staunton, Va and I watched Kung-Fu religiously. Between Kung Fu TV, Bruce Lee movies and daily karate practice, I was immersed in the world of karate. For a birthday present a few years ago, my wife and daughters bought me the entire Kung-Fu TV series on DVD, and I watched it night after night during the long winter nights here in Alaska. So when Oliver said that I had “snatched the pebble from his hand,” it had special meaning to me. It was like graduation day!
Oliver and I left the bridge and went to the Eagle Council Grounds stopping at 21 mile Haines Highway. A light rain was falling, all the other photo groups had left and we had the place to ourselves. There were a few eagles flying nearby, but for some reason we were uninspired. I really believe in inspiration when it comes to photography. When I am inspired, I pull out my camera and begin to shoot. I know it sounds like a cliché, but time stands still. I feel myself disappear into the subject, and in a way, I become one with what I am photographing. Maybe this is some of the Zen training from my youth as a karate student. Some call it getting “lost in the zone.”
A group of small birds called crossbills flew into the tree next to us. Crossbills are amazing with a specialized bill that they use to pry open pinecones to get to the seeds inside. We watched them and I felt a sense of peace and happiness. They were so close to us, almost tame, as they were intent on eating the alder buds and didn’t seem to notice us. I enjoyed the moment, and instead of getting out my camera to capture it, I just felt the good feeling that one gets from being close to a wild being.
Lacking inspiration, we decided to drive towards town to another spot where the light was better and maybe we could get some good shots of the mountains. I am not strictly a wildlife photographer; if you’ve looked at my book you know that I have many landscape shots. As a matter of fact, I think the landscapes around Haines are world-class and relatively unexplored photographically. While Haines is known as a place to come to photograph eagles, the word is not yet out that Haines is one of the great places in the world for landscape photography. With my career as an international guide, I’ve seen many of the most dramatic locations on the planet and Haines ranks up there on the top. I talk a bit about this in my radio interview with local radio station KHNS. http://khns.org/decades-in-the-making-where-eagles-gather-released-to-much-fanfare
As we drove towards town, Oliver looked out the window and said…..”stop, there’s an owl.” It was tough to find a place to park safely, with all the snow, but we finally found a spot and walked back towards where the owl was sitting on a post. It was a northern hawk-owl and it was great to see the same species of owl I had seen up on the Chilkat Pass a few weeks before with Matt.
Was it the same owl? I couldn’t tell, but, like the other one, it was sitting on a post. It was déjà vu all over again. Would the owl move to a more natural-looking location, or stay on the post? I took a few shots to make sure that all my settings were correct, so if the owl flew to a nearby bush I would be ready. The owl flew back onto some private property and landed up in a tree. Well, I knew the owner so I felt OK with following the owl a bit to see where it went next.
The owner drove up, and it turns out that the person I had thought was the owner was only renting the place. I explained what we were doing, who I was, and he welcomed us with a big smile. “Oh, you’re Joe Ordonez. I‘ve heard of you and your company, Rainbow Glacier Adventures. I thought maybe you or some other tour company might want to use this property for tours. We have a big house and we’re remodeling it for guests. Do you want to come check it out?”
Actually, I wanted to stay and wait for the owl to fly to a better location and take some shots. I was inspired. But what could I do? I said, “Of course, I’d love to see your place.”
Oliver and I went in and he gave us a full tour. He said that brown bear feed on salmon on the nearby stream, and maybe we could host photo groups in his lodge in August and September. Maybe in November we could host groups there during the bald eagle congregation. It all sounded good, but I kept thinking about that owl……
After a full half hour in the house, he said he was getting back to work and we were ready to head down the road. We stepped out into the fresh air, looked at the tree and the owl was gone.
As we walked back to the car, I said, “Boy, that guy sure was nice. But I wish that owl hadn’t flown away.” We looked across the road and there was the owl, sitting on a small tree broken tree trunk. It let us approach closely, and sat quietly while we set up our tripods. I got lost in the zone………
I hope you are doing well. Here ‘s some updates from the Chilkat Valley and Rainbow Glacier Adventures. I was up on the Chilkat Pass the other day with my friend and photography mentor, Oliver Klink. We were looking for wildlife and I told him the area we were approaching was a good place to look for wildlife because two valleys intersected. A few minutes later, this fox came out and allowed us to enjoy a close encounter.
Winter is here and the weather has been variable, everything from below zero weather to just yesterday we had six inches of snow followed by rain! I thought you might enjoy listening to my recent interview on local radio station KHNS. This link has two options….you can listen to the short version that was aired on the radio or listen to the entire unedited version (its about 25 minutes). Let me know what you think!
The link is: http://khns.org/decades-in-the-making-where-eagles-gather-released-to-much-fanfare
By the way, if you like the book, please leave a review for Where Eagles Gather at Amazon.com. You don’t have to have bought the book at Amazon to comment on it and it will really help us out.
If you happen to be in the area in the next month or so, we’re running a special at our Swan View cabin until February 20th…..if you stay one night the second night is half price! I’m looking out the window right now as I write this at Mosquito Lake and the ever-changing views are almost bringing me to tears…. The fog has been moving in and out, views of the mountains, trees and the lake are changing with each moment. Its like the “Dance of the Seven Veils!” Who needs TV?
The Northern Lights were out a few nights ago. Here is our rental cabin, Swan View cabin, with the Northern Lights above. We are keeping the cabin open and warm this winter, and running a “winter special” here until February 20th. If you book one night, the second night is half price! The skiing has been great, the sun has been shining during the day and there’s Northern Lights and incredible stars at night ! Joe
I was out the other night doing some night photography of Northern Lights and the stars here at our Swan View property in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. My neighbors Christmas lights were on, and they lit up the smoke coming out of their smokestack. The stars were incredible; there was no moonlight and, of course, no light pollution up here in the “middle of nowhere.” Joe
I’m not sure if this image was visible on my last post, so I thought I would re-post it. It is a mountain shot from the ferry ride between Haines and Skagway as we went over for the “Santa Train.” This time of year, the light can be fantastic with the fresh snow, dramatic light and ever-changing weather. Joe
Before the Holiday season is over, I would like to post a photo from the Santa train. With all my years in Haines, I never have gone to Skagway for the White Pass Railroad event known as the “Santa Train. ” My wife and I figured that since we were spending the winter in Haines, why not head to Skagway with our two daughters? It was lots of fun with over 600 people taking advantage of the free event. We were in a car with mostly French-speaking Canadians from Whitehorse, so the day had an international flavor to it. Following the event, I gave a slide show at the Klondike National Historic Park Visitors Center followed by a book signing for my book, “Where Eagles Gather.” The ferry ride over to Skagway was spectacular, so I’ve also included an image of one of the mountain views we enjoyed along the way with this post. Happy New Year to all!