Thursday, October 27, 2011

Escape to Blake

One of my favorite viewpoints of and from Seattle has always been from the Alaska Way viaduct that ran overlooking  the piers of Elliott Bay. Passing through Seattle on my shortest way home from the airport  I always looked forward to the rejuvenating  view to one side of the steep city streets and tower buildings, with to the other side a spectacular panoramic view of the piers, docks and beyond toward the Olympic Mountains.  

Demolition of the viaduct began this week. The city plans to replace the aging structure with a hopefully earthquake-proof toll-tunnel to by-pass the city center by 2016. Then my route will likely follow the dreary I-5 corridor. But there is an alternative way to experience the wide panorama without going through Seattle.

Out across Elliott Bay and past the peninsula of West Seattle is the small tree-covered Blake Island. 

From Seattle's Golden Gardens Park in northwest Seattle, Blake Island is just a short journey by kayak.   

A lighthouse-hopping mostly coastal route takes you past West Point lighthouse in Discovery Park, across the mouth of Elliott Bay to Alki Point lighthouse, then over the narrow channel to arrive at Blake Island. 

 A quieter more direct alternative down the center of Puget Sound from West Point lighthouse leads directly past the south end of Bainbridge Island to Blake; quiet that is apart from boat traffic which includes the occasional container ship bound to or from Seattle or Tacoma, and ferries crossing the sound. 

If you're lucky you might spot a passing orca or two.


 Blake Island is unbelievably calm compared to the mainland; an oasis of peace within sight of the city. A state park since 1959, the only development is at the northeast corner. Here is the Tillicum resort, with its boat docks and the largest of the island's three camp grounds. 
Ceramic artist Kristin Nelson of krikristudio
The rest of the island, logged of its forest in the mid-1800's at a time of strong timber demand from San Francisco, has grown back into what might be described as a wonderful woodland park.  Through this woodland meander miles of trails, including the round-the-perimeter trail of about 4 miles.

Black tailed deer

At the base of the spit on the west side  is the second largest camp ground. Boat moorings offer a mostly sheltered tie-up a few yards offshore the main camp sites. 

Photographer Joel Rogers sets his tent
A more exposed area of the spit is reserved for kayakers and canoeists and is part of the Puget Sound water trail. It's not wilderness, but it is a treat and retreat!
Water trail camp sites at the spit
Sunrise over Seattle

"In the view" between Blake Island and Seattle

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Whale Ears; Bones from a Faeroe Beach.

In 1980 I revisited the Faeroe Islands with a group of kayakers from the south of England. The Faeroe or "Sheep Islands" lie out in the Atlantic roughly halfway between Scotland and Iceland. With big swell that year, coinciding with peak tides, we had some wild rides through the tidal rapids between the islands and around the headlands. But that's why we'd come. With the constriction of the mid-Atlantic tides the water accelerates to 10 miles per hour. Even the lightest breath of wind can produce spectacular white water.

Returning to Torshavn after two weeks, adrenalin appetite sated for now, Drew heard about a whale kill. Some 230 pilot whales from a much larger pod had been herded by small boats into the channel between Streymoy and Eysteroy, to a beach near Havalvik, a town whose very name means "Whale Bay". It was late in the day, but anxious to see, we drove there.

The killing, thankfully, was already over. The whales had been hauled ashore with ropes and now lay on the beach all around the bay in the half-light like a fleet of dark upturned curraghs. We could see the deep cut behind each head which severed the spinal cord to kill the whale. The water must have blazed red with blood.

Each 20-30-foot-long whale had since been disemboweled. The several long cuts needed to open the belly revealed the thinness of the skin, and the thickness of the pinky-white blubber immediately beneath it. These cuts, someone explained, prevented gases building up inside the body cavity. People with buckets were reaching inside the still-warm bodies to pull out the liver and kidneys, which by ancient law belong to anyone who cared to take them. Each whale now had a number carved into its skin to keep tally, the number gleaming white from the underlying blubber.

There was little activity now, save for a few boats zigzagging against the tidal stream in search of any whales that might have sunk after killing.

Dead pilot whales sink, which is the reason they must be so carefully herded to a beach before slaughter. Ironically the so called "right whale" was named simply because it floated after death, so it was the "right whale" to hunt. Whales that would sink were the wrong ones to hunt, unless you could get them to the beach before killing them, as in the Faeroe Islands.

When we had seen enough we returned quietly to Torshavn.

Early next morning Drew hitchhiked back to Hvalvik to see what would happen to the whales. He returned with the surprising news that there had been nothing to see. During the night all the whales had been butchered and the meat and blubber taken away. The entrails and bones had also been disposed of, leaving the beach clean. It seemed remarkable that so much could be done in just a few hours, but I suppose the meat would spoil if left for long.

Meat and blubber is divided around the district by an old and complex system. (see Kenneth Williamson's book "The Atlantic Islands" (1948) for a good description). Blubber is nowadays usually refrigerated and eaten raw, while the meat is frozen, or traditionally dried in strips under the eaves of the house. Hard as bone, these cudgels make ideal provisions for coastal and offshore fishing trips. I tasted slices pared from such a piece with Trondur Patursson, the Faeroese artist and expedition adventurer, at his home, sampling it as he recommended with a piece of raw blubber. It was easy to eat; rich and warming. Patursson took such supplies with him on a skin boat that crossed the Atlantic when he accompanied Tim Severin to retrace the voyage of Saint Brendan in the 1970's. (You can read the story in "The Brendan Voyage" by Tim Severin.)

Revisiting the beach at Hvalvik some years later I spotted a curiously-shaped white stone just an inch and a half long. Perhaps it was a shell? I picked it up. It was heavy for its size, too dense to be bone. It was polished smooth. Turning it in my fingers I was struck by its odd shape. From one angle it appeared like a carving of a shiny bald head with two eye holes peering from the partial shelter of two over-sized hands. A small hole the other side seemed to spiral inward with a pitted texture like octopus suckers. Was it carved? It didn't seem likely. Perhaps it was a fossil. I slipped it into my pocket to look at later.

Farther along the beach I found another, almost identical but a mirror image of the first. Now I searched more carefully! Soon I had a pocketful of pieces of two shapes, the second a distorted "L" shape. They clacked together like stone. So what were they? Whale ear bones! Whale ear bone is the densest of all bone.

So why is whale ear bone so dense? Hearing is all about what happens at the interface between a fixed heavy object and lighter objects that vibrate with sound waves. In humans the sound waves travel through air, which is much less dense than our bodies. The vibrations pass via the ear drum through little ear bones to move the liquid in our inner ear. The movement of the liquid relative to the ear bone stimulates the nerve messages to our brain.

But whales receive sound through water, which has similar density to their body. The whale vibrates with the water. For a whale to hear, something must vibrate less. It's a little like a seismograph frame that vibrates with the earth movements in an earthquake. The heavy weight suspended within the frame vibrates far less, so the instrument can show the relative movement.

A whale operates a little in the same way. The dense ear bone vibrates less than the rest of the whale. Vibrations are transferred via fat pads to the liquid of the inner ear, where the nerves detect the relative movement.

(You can read the original 1980 story about the Faeroe Islands at nigelkayaks

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Touch of Silver; Canoeing the Silver River Florida

When winter draws to an end in Florida When winter draws to an end in Florida it's a good time to paddle to a spring. This time it's Silver Springs; the source of the Silver River. We start at a nearby put-in, just a few miles from the spring head, slipping from eddy to eddy to avoid the current.

Cruising upstream on the Silver River 
 Close to the water among the lily pads and the swamp cypress knees is an ideal place from which to view wildlife.

Not that the creatures here pay much heed to a group of canoeists. And there are about eight of us paddling solo canoes, from Sweetwater Kayaks Florida, from San Diego, from Seattle and New England, and a few other places. 

Russell leads the way

Several kayakers have been learning canoe technique from Phil who has come over from England to teach… and to soak up the rays!

An anghinga takes off

 An anhinga crouches on a low branch, ready for take-off as someone pushes along underneath. Phil calls a warning. Anhinga typically squirt before take-off and it's no fun being hit! 

Phil is looking forward to seeing monkeys. Rhesus monkeys were introduced here to add to the jungle-like atmosphere by the resort at Silver Springs, some say for a film. Several troupes of them range through the trees along the bank, occasionally biting a tourist or snatching sandwiches from the unwary. I keep a cautious distance from them while we watch the crazy antics of a group of youngsters overhead. The watchful mothers growl a warning.

A night heron watches from a perch on a root

Monkeys are not the only creatures to deserve a little respect. Alligators sun themselves on the banks, and lurk like logs in the floating weed. They're so well camouflaged that sometimes one will erupt form the undergrowth and crash into the river, startling us as we pass just feet away. 

An alligator warms up in the sun on shore

 I can only imagine how quickly alligators can snatch their prey. Turtles and wading birds are everywhere along the banks and on logs and branches by the water. I watch a little blue heron stilting across a raft of floating vegetation seemingly unaware that one of the logs in the raft was a 'gator.

Peering down to watch the fish

Kristin and Phil peer down at a catfish through the clear water

catfish on the bottom

A Little Blue Heron on a branch

There's a little blue heron watching the alligator.

Deer creeping through the undergrowth

Deer move quietly through the woods near the shore. When they swim they risk being grabbed by alligators.

An alligator hauls out on a log to catch the sun

A 'gator hauls out on a log in the sun, ignoring us as we pass.

A turtle shows its bright orange undershell

Turtles have climbed out onto longs and roots to soak up the sun, every watchful for alligators. 

Swamp cypress with a fresh tender leaves

We are approaching the spring head. The top of the river is a series of deep pools, and there really is nowhere further to paddle. The river begins here, gushing out from the rock far beneath us. The water is so clear it's easy to see the bottom, which appears a clear pale blue.

The water is blue at the spring head

There are some statues down there, once part of a film set. The water is clear as air. We can see the tops of the statue heads from the surface.

Water bubbles from the rock below us
When we turn to head downstream, thankful the current will finally be in our favor, the wind perversely begins to gust against us, rattling the dry palm fronds on the shore and downing some loose branches, and it doesn't let up. But after a warm day with no biting flies, a few puffy white clouds adrift in a wide blue sky above fresh new leaves sprouting on the trees, I'm not complaining!

I'll be back!
All too soon it's time to leave Florida for sunny Seattle... but I'll be back! And if you're interested,
Sweetwater Kayaks runs adventures in Florida year-round from St Petersburg.