Photo Essay: Winter Turns to Spring

First posted in May, 2001

Okay, so last month I moaned a bit about how everyone else I knew (outside of Alaska) seemed to be enjoying spring. I (think I) am done moaning, for this year at least.

The weather, despite how I'm dressed in this photograph, seems to be warming right up. I've been getting outside more and more, and am beginning to remember many of the reasons I enjoy living in Yakutat, Alaska.

In April, I had the extreme pleasure of being invited to join the Yakutat Charter Boat Company on their maiden charter of the season. We spent the morning anchored in the Gulf of Alaska, just outside of Yakutat Bay. We had a lovely morning filled with sun, good conversation, and great fishing. While I love fishing for seven to ten inch trout in small mountain streams and ponds, I have to admit that landing a hundred pound halibut is fun, too. I won't start telling too many fish stories, but suffice it to say that you have to shoot these fish before you dare bring them on board the boat with you - they're that big.

The photograph you see here is of me and just one of the many halibut we brought in that day. The five of us split the meat up evenly at the end of the fishing day, and I'd say I came home with close to 100 lbs. of fish, comprised of halibut and sea bass. The following evening, we enjoyed a delightful meal of friend sea bass nuggets, hush puppies, and fries... can you hear my arteries hardening?

Later that same weekend, Jon and I decided to get over our fear of landing the plane off the runway. My mother and grandmother, who love to worry about me, will be especially happy to hear that we've finally started landing the plane on the hard-packed sand of the beach at low tide, opening up a world of beachcombing that we have never before had access to.

Most folks in Yakutat love to beachcomb, so the competition is tuff. If you don't hit the beach at just the right time, all the good stuff's gone. Sometimes, with the aid of an ATV, you'll make it to a section of beach that no one's walked yet and locate some fantastic treasures. However, more often than not, someone's been there before you. If you have a bush plane, though, you can skim along the beach at about 80-100 feet, search for the goods at a nice slow 80 mph. The photo you see here was taken of our plane's shadow on the sand. The best part is that you can land on sections of beach inaccessible by foot or ATV to get the goods!

"What sort of goods?" you might ask. The Kuroshio, often referred to as the Japanese current or the Black Stream because of its dark color, flows right along the shores of Yakutat, dropping off all sorts of debris. Japanese bottles, toys, and ~ best of all ~ glass floats, can be found. Glass fishing floats are the crown jewels of beachcombing here. These items take months or years to reach Alaska's shores, but often arrive unharmed by the long journey.

On our recent flightseeing/beachcombing day, I found my very first Japanese fishing float. While flying along, I spotted what appeared to be a buried ball of green glass in the sand. After a couple of passes, I decided it was definitely what we were looking for. As we landed the plane, I saw something massive floating in the surf; I thought it was a stump or log, but it didn't seem to move with the surf - oddly, it just stayed fixed in one spot. Suddenly, the "object" turned to look at me - it was a huge stellar sea lion, and I wasn't quick enough with the camera!

After a short walk from the plane, I was able to locate a landmark that I had noted from the air to help me find what I thought was a glass ball. As I approached, however, my heart sank - the item appeared to be nothing more than a submerged plastic bucket! As I got closer, however, it turned out that my initial suspicion was correct - it was indeed a glass float, larger than a basketball, and buried three-quarters of the way into the sand. I would have taken a photo, but in my excitement to locate a piece of driftwood and dig the float out of the sand, I completely forgot about my camera!

I made my way back to the plane and took time for a photo with my new float. It has a seam around it, and lacks the air bubbles that would let me know it was hand-blown. I'd say this float is rather young - probably only forty or fifty years old. Fabrication of Japanese glass floats ended in the 1960s.

Before I knew it, we were back in the air and headed back to Yakutat. As we flew past the mouth of the Alsek River, we got a great look at the herd of sea lions camped out on the beach. I wondered if the sea lion that watched us land was one of their heard, though he had been seen dozens of miles away. I wish I'd gotten a photo of him, to show you just how large his head was. You can see from this photo, however, that the animals are huge (remember that this photo was taken from the air, a few hundred feet away). Males grow to be eleven feet long and weigh in excess of 2,500 pounds. Females are smaller, though still fairly large, measuring nine feet long and weighing in at around 750 pounds. This month and next, the females will give birth to their young, who will weigh 35-50 lbs., and will stay with them for two weeks before venturing back to sea to hunt. For the next one to three years, the mothers will spend equal amounts of time hunting and nursing their young. They are fascinating animals, and are simply amazing to watch.