Archive for November 2010

Chapter 4: It’s okay to get wet!

November 26, 2010

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Lessons in living in the wilderness but living abundantly

It’s not about surviving

Many books exist about humans surviving in the wild, of men who went for days without food, or were shipwrecked on islands for months or even years. TV shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivor Man have been popular in recent years. Survival though, is something wild animals naturally do, but people only do in desperate situations. God however, wants us to do more than simply survive, he wants us to live. God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to save the world, and give people an everlasting and abundant life. And when we study Scripture, we learn God wants us to do much more than hunt for scraps! He has not made us to be like the animals, for He has made us in His image, and has called us to take dominion over His creation, to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Such messages are often shocking to unbelievers as well as believers swayed by secular opinions, especially regarding population control. In the last hundred years, humans have killed other humans at alarming rates and for stupid reasons, with over 100 million murdered at the hands of communist dictators, and almost as many babies murdered while still in the womb. Many Christians have also become lukewarm on the issue of homosexuality, a sinful lifestyle choice which emphasizes extreme selfishness. Not only that, it is a “sterile” lifestyle, with a birth rate of 0.0.

On the opposite extreme, Christians sometimes mistake their own selfish feelings with God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”. Without considering the cost, they produce large families they cannot support, and become slaves to debt as they struggle to survive. A family in this position is often much more likely to sin against their neighbor as they find ways to provide for their family. It does not help though, that governments do not celebrate large families, but instead find ways to tax them.

In the United States, there are some tax breaks for families with children, but they are not near enough. Governments should never make laws limiting the number of children a family can have, but they can encourage citizens to be responsible and follow Christian principles such as abstinence, marrying one spouse, and discouraging divorce. All governments should remember the simple fact that in order to have an economy, you need people. Russia, a country trying to recover from the depopulation brought on by years of rule by atheist dictators, understands this. In 2006, Vladimir Putin enacted a policy whereby families would receive $10,000 USD for having a second child. Ultimately though, the only incentive a family really needs for having children is God’s word.

If you are a young person, consider some day that you and your peers will inherit the land your parents once lived in and ruled. What will you do then? I hope you will choose to live an abundant life, and to ensure that both human life and all life prospers under your reign. It would be good for you to apply Christ’s parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Be like the servant who, when given 5 talents, went and earned 5 more. This is the proper view of Christian living. Don’t be like the wicked, lazy servant who, receiving 1 talent, went and hid it in the ground. The proper Christian ethic is that when you are given something, whether it is money, an education, the ability to have children, or other gifts, don’t hide it in the sand, but wisely use it and multiply it.

And, when you venture into wilderness, apply the parable of the talents as well. Go with the mindset of doing more than just surviving. But before you go, you must gain some talents of your own, the most important of which include knowledge and experience, physical fitness, and proper supplies.

Hold onto instruction
In Proverbs 4:13, King David exhorts us to “hold onto instruction, do not let it go, guard it well, for it is your life”. While the most important instruction for a Christian is to learn and apply what God said in the Bible, we should also study what God made. Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, couldn’t have explained it more clearly when he said

A man cannot be too well studied in the book of God’s word or the book of God’s works.

Before preparing for an adventure of any type, it is good to read as much as possible about His works. Probably the most important study that you can do is about plant and animal life. Field guides are an excellent source of information. One of Adam’s first “jobs” was to name the animals, and God probably did this so that Adam would build a relationship with His creation, and as a result, feel a greater responsibility and respect for it. Likewise, studying field guides will allow you to learn many things that you did not know, and when you start your wilderness adventure, you will have a greater respect for and enjoyment of your surroundings.

Field Guides are helpful before and during any wilderness adventure. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz

For any adventure into Alaskan wilderness, you will want to know as much as you can about edible plants. There are many salmon streams in Alaska that you could float down and live off of berries and salmon, just like the grizzlies do. Think about it; if the salmon stream ecosystem has enough food to support one or more grizzly bears, then it has enough food to support you! A good field guide that you should plan to bring is Alaska’s Wild Plants by Janice J. Schofield. Most of us are so conditioned to purchasing edible plants from the grocery store, we almost think that is where plants come from. Others may think edible plants only grow on farms. Of course, edible and poisonous plants grow in the wild, which is why a field guide is such a valuable resource before and during the adventure.

Twisted stalk, a watermelon-flavored berry common along the banks of Lake Creek. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

And in Alaska, what an abundance of fruit there is!  Along the banks of Lake Creek in late July and early August, twisted stalk and highbush cranberries abound. These are also favorites of bears, as evidenced by the seeds and undigested berry skins present in their scat. Less common are currant berries, cloudberries and raspberries. Fireweed is everywhere, and its flowers and leaves are edible. Have a headache? Grab a few leaves off a willow tree and start chewing. Willow leaves contain a natural pain reliever, salicylic acid. A derivative of it, acetylsalicylic acid, is the active ingredient in aspirin.

Our favorite Alaskan berry is the blueberry. On Lake Creek their preferred habitat is in open forest on the tops of drumlins, hills formed by glacial movement centuries before. Hiking into the woods along bear and moose trails, we would find literally buckets of blueberries. Several varieties of blueberries exist in Alaska, and the variety along lower Lake Creek consisted of 3-4 ft tall bushes. We ate many of the blueberries raw, but also mixed them with oats, sugar and butter to make a delicious blueberry cobbler.

Other field guides to study before and during a trip down Lake Creek or other Alaskan rivers include guides on birds, fishes, and wildlife. Alaska Pocket Guides, published by Alaska Northwest Books, are excellent resources. Use the guides as a springboard into learning about a particular species, and then if you want to learn more, search the internet or visit a local library. Of course you will want to learn as much as you can about grizzly and black bears, but as you study the guides, you will quickly realize that there is more to Alaska than bears and salmon. Another worthwhile guide is Trout Stream Insects, by Dick Pobst. This is a very helpful guide for learning about the abundance of aquatic invertebrates found in Alaskan streams.

A final field guide you might consider is the Golden Guide on Geology from St. Martin’s Press. Besides Alaska, there are few places in the world with such a variety of geological features, including mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes. Fossils are relatively easy finds, and in many streams, including Lake Creek, you can still pan for gold. In his ingenuity, our outfitter provides us with plastic serving bowls which are actually designed for gold panning.

These bowls serve a dual purpose of either gold panning or holding the evenings meal of rice and Northern pike. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

It’s okay to be wet!
A normal part of most summer days in coastal Alaska is rain. Where I am from in Texas, outdoors activities are typically postponed on account of rain, but not in Alaska. In order to truly enjoy Alaska, one must welcome the rain as easily as they would welcome a sunny or cloudy day. Nevertheless, this does take some getting used to. On our first Alaska Science Adventure Camp in 2002, we had almost no rain until the last night. The following year was different. For the first three days, it rained almost non-stop. A longtime friend, Mike Boriack had come along on this trip, bringing his oldest son John. Mike and John are avid hunters and fishermen, but like all of us, were used to staying inside when it rained. When you go on trips like this that test your limits, you learn things about people you didn’t realize. Mike is one of the most faithful Christian men I know, and I realized that even more on this trip. James 1:2-3 teaches us how we are to be joyful amidst our trials, and it is definitely more difficult to live in the rain, especially outdoors for three straight days! So on that third evening, after rafting through the rain all day, as we were setting up camp Mike loudly proclaimed, “you know what I’ve learned, that it’s okay to be wet!”

Campers acclimated to Alaska's summer rain sit by a fire, while others prepare the evening meal under a makeshift rain fly. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

This encouraged all of us, and simple lessons like those are great for young people to learn at an early age. Often, when we are faced with a new situation, we have two choices to make; either let it get the best of you, or persevere and be better off for it. Unfortunately, perseverance does not come naturally, but as James teaches, if we count our trials as joy, we will develop perseverance, and become mature and complete. All Christian parents long to see their children mature and complete in Christ, and since God has given parents the responsibility for raising children, it is up to them to allow their children to work through trials. Of course, wisdom must be applied, and you don’t send your son or daughter out into the Alaskan wilderness without a raincoat and waterproof bag full of dry clothing, hoping he’ll “pass the test”. The goal is not to see if they will live or die, but to give them a little more to handle than they are used to.

The great thing about most trials is that after you go through them, you realize they really were not as bad as you expected, and that your main problem was that you were letting them get the best of you instead of counting them as joy and understanding that God was trying to teach you something through your trial. I have definitely learned a lot about persevering through less than pleasant weather conditions in Alaska, and I now actually look forward to the challenge of inclement weather, rather than immediately running from it.

What to bring
On a wilderness trip in Alaska, expect some trials, but most importantly, be wise and plan well. Knowledge, experience and prayer become important. And when you think about it, if you compare a group of uneducated, inexperienced heathens to a group of educated, experienced Christians, it is easy to see who would get more out of a trip to Alaska, and more out of life! Thomas Jefferson saw the importance of education and experience when in 1803 he asked the well-educated Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition into America’s West. And Lewis picked a friend who was an experienced outdoorsman and military leader, William Clark, to help lead the expedition. The famed Lewis and Clark expedition helped shape America’s future, and a National Park and Preserve in Southwest Alaska is named for these two explorers.

Lewis spent months planning and preparing his expedition. Planning is the most important step on any adventure into new lands. To prepare for Alaska camps I read as much as possible about the land before departing, and I encourage the other campers to do the same. On the first Alaska Science Adventure camp, I relied heavily on the camping and outdoors experience of my friend, Jim Kronjaeger, and the knowledge and experience of our pilot and outfitter, Joe Schuster. With their assistance, I learned what worked and what didn’t.

Some of the most important things to bring on an Alaskan float trip include a hooded raincoat, chest waders, and felt-soled wading boots. Waders and raincoats made of breathable material work the best, but are also the most expensive. Breathable waders allow water vapor to pass out, while preventing water from entering. This is important, especially when you are perspiring a lot, as perspiration can collect and even soak your clothing when wearing canvas, vinyl, or other non-breathable rain gear. As longs as you are careful and do not overexert yourself, you should be fine in less-breathable gear, but you do run a greater risk of hypothermia with the extra dampness.

Felt-soled boots can be worn with or without waders, and are great for gripping slippery, algae-coated rocks. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Some Alaskan fishermen wear hip waders, but on a week-long rafting trip, chest waders are better. As you raft down the river, your raft will get stuck on rocks, and one or more passengers must get out and free the raft. The water surrounding the raft is variable in depth, from knee deep to over chest high. Chest waders come with a “wading belt”, which should be secured and tightened while on the river. In case you fall in and water comes over your waders, the wading belt limits the amount of water that will enter, and often prevents you from becoming completely soaked.

Boots are also important, and as mentioned, felt-soled boots are preferred. If you have never fished rocky streams before, then felt-soled boots may sound really strange. When I first heard of them, I thought “are you serious? Somebody actually sells boots with felt soles? Why?!” However, the felt that is used is not like the felt in your daughter’s craft box. It is much thicker and sturdier, and I have boots that have made it through several-years of float trips and have many more to go.

The purpose of the felt is to help your boot cling to algae-covered rocks. It just doesn’t seem like it would work, but with felt, you dramatically increase the surface of the sole exposed to a rock. And in shallow water, the rocks are almost always covered with a slippery layer of algae. Felt-soled boots don’t completely prevent you from slipping on algae-covered rocks, but the difference is orders of magnitude better than ordinary soles. The felt-soled boots become even more important when you are in strong currents, or if you are less than 150 lbs, as the current sometimes tends to sweep lighter people off their feet.

Another important item is the tent. Our outfitter has always provided us with Cabela’s Alaskan Guide 6-man tents. They actually comfortably sleep 4 men on cots, and cots are pretty important because most camping is done on rocky gravel bars. When camping in bear country it is important to camp in an open area, which prevents surprising a bear, and also gives a predatory bear fewer places to hide. Camping in an open area like a gravel or sand bar also leaves the land less-disturbed. Our outfitter provided us with lightweight aluminum-framed Roll-A-Cots, which are a little small for my 6’ 3” frame, but were much better than sleeping on rocky ground.

You also want a good sleeping bag, and there are many to choose from. You do not want to bring one that is big and bulky, but one that stuffs to a small size and is rated to keep you warm in temperatures of 32° F (0° C) or lower. I bring a sleeping bag that is rated for 45° F, together with a silk liner, and the combination has kept me warm on the coolest Alaskan summer nights.

One year, I forgot a sleeping bag. The first problem was that the airlines lost my luggage. It was expected the following day, but my float plane was scheduled to leave that evening, and I could not wait. I made a trip to Sportsman’s Warehouse, and purchased everything that I thought was in that suitcase, but forgot the sleeping bag! Of course, the first night was almost always the coldest, as it was at the highest elevation. I just wore some extra clothes and everything seemed fine, but about 4 hours later the cold set in and woke me up. I searched for more clothes, but did not want to disturb the other campers too much. I curled up into the tightest fetal position a 40-year old man possibly could, and slept fitfully for a few more hours. In The Wilderness Hunter by Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th president described sleeping outside in sub-freezing weather, wrapped in a “buffalo robe”. And I was wishing I had a buffalo robe now! By 4:30 a.m., the sun was already out, and I could not stand it any longer, so I got up and made coffee. Another camper heard me and assumed it was breakfast time, but when I told him what time it was, he staggered back to bed. I had never been so happy to see the sun in my life, and grateful I had not awoken to a cold and rainy day! To warm up, I walked up and down the shoreline of Chelatna Lake, and when the sun was high enough, I found a sunny spot to stop and sip my coffee. I never slept in a sleeping bag that whole trip, but the other nights were warmer, and I dressed with even more clothes than the previous nights, and all was well.

Clothing is another extremely important part of any Alaskan adventure, and I have come to appreciate the warmth and water-repelling characteristics of fleece. On an Alaskan float trip, being wet and cold can be deadly, so bring clothing that will maximize your ability to stay warm and dry. Fleece does better than any other material I am familiar with, and it is also relatively inexpensive. I always bring at least two pairs of fleece long-johns, as well as some gloves and a hood-like covering called a balaclava. A popular myth is that 80% of your heat loss occurs through the head. This may be true if the rest of your body is covered, as your head would be about the only place where heat loss could occur. Whatever the case, keeping your head and neck warm with a balaclava can mean the difference between comfort and peril.

Try to avoid anything made of cotton, and use polyester instead. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it readily absorbs water. Polyester is hydrophobic, and repels water, which is ideal when you want to keep moisture away from your body. Bring polyester socks, underwear, t-shirts and long-sleeved fishing shirts. You may want to throw in a cotton t-shirt in case the weather gets exceptionally hot and sunny. For socks, some people like to wear a polyester liner with a cotton sock on the outside. The polyester sock pulls moisture away from the skin, which is absorbed by the cotton sock.

You will also want to make sure your clean clothes and other supplies stay dry. There are many good “dry bags” on the market, and I would recommend storing clothes in Ziplocs or similar bags, and then placing these inside your dry bag.

A hat is also important for keeping the sun off. I prefer a baseball cap, as I can leave it on all the time, and when it rains I just pull the raincoat’s hood over the cap, and the brim serves to keep rain off my face. Always remember, the weather is extreme in Alaska, so be prepared for long, bright, sunny days by bringing sunscreen, chapstick, and sunglasses. If you are a fisherman, polarized sunglasses are essential, as their glare-reducing qualities allow you to see underwater better than regular sunglasses. This is extremely important in clear waters where you can see the salmon and trout, and greatly increases your ability to properly direct your casts.

One thing you will quickly learn in Alaska is that there are lots of mosquitoes. Next to rainy days or falling in the river, mosquitoes are probably one of the biggest trials to endure on an Alaskan float trip. Bring some insect repellent with 100% DEET, even though you may not even use it. Like rainy days, I have also learned to endure the mosquitoes, and I rarely use insect repellent unless the mosquitoes are particularly vicious. I just stay clothed most of the time from head to toe, leaving only my hands, face and neck exposed. I have also used insect-repellent clothing made by Ex-Officio. Their Buzz-Off clothing is treated with permethrin, and I was surprised how well my long-sleeved fishing shirt worked. You can also buy permethrin-based clothing repellents from camping supply companies, and apply the repellent to any of your clothes.

So as part of your Alaska Adventure, expect to get wet, cold, and mosquito-bitten. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun at all, but before you think you really don’t want to have an adventure after all, let’s review what an adventure is. According to Webster’s Dictionary, an adventure is “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.” Hopefully, getting bit by a mosquito is not your idea of a dangerous and/or unknown risk, but if so, then Alaska will be full of adventure for you! Seriously though, mosquitoes, water, and temperature changes, should not really define your adventure, especially if you prepare accordingly.

Some other items to consider include your camp towel, soap, waterproof matches and a lighter, and other personal items. Foot or talcum powder is essential, and since you won’t be taking a shower for a few days (although you may want to rinse off in the river), apply the powder to feet and other areas that need some dryness. Hand lotion is also very helpful, as your hands will be wet almost all day, and they tend to lose oils that keep the skin soft and flexible. A little lotion can keep them from chapping and becoming sore. A travel packet or two of hand/body wipes are also great to clean up.

And of course, don’t forget a first aid kit! Bring pain killers, plenty of band-aids and gauze, emergency splints, elastic bandage for wrapping sprained ankles, etc. In the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, bear expert Dr. Stephen Stringham recommends packing a bungee cord or surgical tubing to make a temporary tourniquet, gauze to press against a wound and duct tape or a Velcro strap to hold it in place, and a powder called Urgent QR to assist with coagulating blood. Also bring medicines for digestive problems such as antacids, Pepto Bismol, and laxatives. Coleman makes some mini “survival kits” that contain general first aid plus other survival items such as fishing line and a hook, and matches. An emergency blanket, scissors, extra lighters and waterproof matches round out any well-stocked first aid kit.

What tastes good

Although the goal of my Alaska Science/Adventure camps was never to survive, but to live abundantly, we purposely did not bring enough food. In the relatively untamed wilderness of Lake Creek, we fully expected to find a bounty to harvest, and we were not disappointed. Salmon was the main entrée almost every night. Occasionally, some of the boys would refuse to eat the fish, which I always found to be ridiculous. I have never had much tolerance for “picky eaters”, and was usually not overly sympathetic to them. We were on an adventure, and that meant a culinary adventure as well! It is true that young people have more taste buds than adults, and they are naturally more sensitive to strong tastes. The boys who refused to eat salmon were probably exposed to some bad tasting fish at some point, and therefore assumed all fish had a strong “fishy” taste. However, this is simply not the case with fresh-caught, sea-bright salmon. The key is not to overcook them, which is sometimes difficult to judge properly in a rain shower with swirling winds that constantly alter the camp stove’s temperature.

Salmon, rice, and corn, a hearty streamside meal! Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz

The first order of business is to fillet the fish. Salmon are relatively easy to fillet, and for their size, yield a bounty of tasty meat. I usually bring a standard Rapala stainless steel filet knife along, the inexpensive kind found in most outdoor stores. Don’t forget a knife sharpener. Cutco makes a nice fillet knife with an adjustable blade length. Its sheath has a built-in knife and hook sharpener, a clamp to grip the fish with, and a snap to secure it to a belt.

To fillet a salmon, I begin by placing the head to my left, with the belly facing me. Using a gentle sawing motion, I make a cut immediately behind the pectoral fin and down to the backbone. The cut is made at an angle that begins slightly above and to the left of the pectoral fin and passes down and to the right of the fin. When I feel the vertebrae, I pull back up slightly, and begin cutting and twisting the blade until it is parallel to the backbone. With the knife resting against the backbone, I then continue cutting towards the tail. As I cut, I gently wiggle the blade up and down, which helps keep it positioned along the backbone and maximizes the amount of meat removed. Cut too deep and you cut through the backbone and have difficulty removing the fillet. Cut too high and you miss a lot of meat. When the first side is filleted, flip the fish over and repeat the same procedure.

Always make sure you are cutting in a direction leading AWAY from your body, and make sure no one is standing in the path of your knife in case you slip. If you are a novice, you may even want to consider wearing some fish-cleaning gloves, which not only prevent knife injuries but help you grip the fish. Some people don’t like the salmon skin left on, but I leave the skin on the salmon and remove it after cooking (or eat it). The skin helps hold moisture in and contains fats that help keep the salmon juicy. This technique works well on salmon of about 12 lbs or less. Unless you have a really big knife, the technique will be more difficult on larger salmon, but the general principal of cutting along the vertebrae still holds. Some people also like to cut larger salmon in steaks, which usually yields more meat, but also has more bones to deal with.

Sockeye and silver salmon fillets. Note the beautifully-colored meat. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Now that you have your salmon filleted, it’s time to eat! Our outfitter provides us with Coleman propane camping stoves and iron skillets. I add enough canola oil to cover the bottom of a skillet, plus a couple of tablespoons of butter. I cook the fish on both sides, until it flakes easily. If it becomes “brittle”, then it is overcooked. I usually add some salt and of course dill, which I think is the best herb for seasoning salmon. A splash or two of white cooking wine also enhances the flavor. I usually served this with a heaping mound of rice or pasta. In later years, we started using quinoa, a high-protein grain similar to rice that is popular in South America. For campers wanting to add a personal touch to their meal, other seasonings, including black pepper, lemon pepper, and Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, were always available.

One of our favorite ways to serve salmon is to make a sauce using McCormick’s Creamy Garlic Alfredo Sauce mix. The small and lightweight packets were great for camping, and required butter and milk. We bring along powdered milk, also great for packing compared to hauling gallons of perishable milk around. I would cook pasta along with this, and it never seemed like we could make enough of the sauce, as the boys in particular were especially fond of it.

Another favorite method of eating salmon is not to cook it at all, but instead, to marinate it, along with the roe, in teriyaki sauce. I liked eating raw salmon plain or with a little salt, but after marinating for about an hour in teriyaki sauce, it is heaven! Cut into half-inch thick strips, the teriyaki sauce tenderizes the salmon, and makes it seem like you are eating some sort of juicy berry.

Lunch is our least exciting camp meal, and is designed to be eaten on the go, as we want to spend our daylight hours fishing, and exploring. Trail mix, Cliff bars, and crackers with meat and cheese are standard lunchtime fare, with some fruit thrown in as well.

Oatmeal is a staple on our trips, and is the main course for breakfast most mornings, along with some beef jerky, which is either eaten at breakfast or saved for lunch. We usually prepare sausage, egg and cheese breakfast burritos the first few mornings, but for the rest of the trip, steaming bowls of oatmeal greet bleary-eyed campers. We always bring along plenty of butter to go with the oatmeal, along with raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar. We also use oatmeal to make a delicious fruit cobbler. Typically made from blueberries, we have to switch to crowberries in Katmai National Park, as blueberry bushes are almost nonexistent along the river we rafted. Blueberries are cooked, together with a bit of sugar. A few spoonfuls of flour are dissolved in water and then added as a thickener. This is boiled for several minutes until it begins to thicken. In a separate iron skillet, some butter is melted with a few spoonfuls of sugar and a dash of salt, and then oats are added and toasted for a few minutes. The toasted oats are poured on top of the cooked berries and served. Blueberry cobbler is a highlight of our float trips, and I now make it on a regular basis at home, much to the delight of my family.

Wild blueberries along Lake Creek. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Harvesting the natural bounty of berries. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Berry-stained hands. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Serving up wild blueberry cobbler. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

 

At breakfast and dinner, a hot pot of water is always available for instant coffee or hot chocolate. During the day, we drink filtered water, and we bring plenty of powdered Gatorade to add to it. Some of the boys discovered that hot “Gatorade tea” is actually quite enjoyable on cool evenings. It is important to filter any unboiled water, as surface waters likely contained the microscopic, protozoan parasite known as Giardia. The illness caused by this parasite is called giardiasis, and a popular slang term for the disease is “beaver fever”, named after another of Giardia’s non-human hosts.

The most common manifestations of giardiasis include diarrhea and abdominal pain. Symptoms and signs of giardiasis do not begin for at least seven days following infection, which has occurred for me on more than once occasion. However, I am usually not as careful with my drinking water as I should be, and occasionally drink straight from small streams. And while it tastes wonderful at the time, I sometimes pay for it a week later! As with most illnesses, the young, old, and unhealthy are most susceptible to having a severe reaction to the parasite, and I have been fortunate that my reactions have been very mild. In most cases, giardiasis is self-limiting and lasts 2-4 weeks. The best cure for beaver fever is to follow comedian Tim Hawkins’ advice. According to Hawkins’ a common “cure all” procedure his mother prescribed was “to go sit on the pot”, which is not helpful if you have a broken leg, but is sound advice for sufferers of beaver fever!

So, if you can stand the rain, cold, wet, mosquitoes, bears, and beaver fever, then a week on an Alaskan salmon stream should be right up your alley! Some readers may be thinking “I cannot wait to go!”, while others may be thinking “why would anyone ever want to go?!” But, as I have said earlier, the adventure is not about these things. These are things that you prepare for so that you can have an adventure. And when you do end up cold, wet, and mosquito-bitten with an upset stomach, you either follow James’ advice and count it as joy, or you let it get the best of you and have no adventure at all.

The beginnings of another adventure down Lake Creek. Adventures are things people do that few, if any, have done before. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Four years of science/adventure camps on Lake Creek taught me a great deal about Alaska, salmon streams, and wilderness camping. By this time, we had many science camp regulars, including Rob Sadowski, Mike and John Boriack, and Troy Finney and his sons, Luke, Sean and Sam. Troy is an amazing outdoorsman, who grew up near Yellowstone National Park. After their second trip down Lake Creek, both Troy and Mike were ready to “take it up a notch”, venturing deeper into Alaska’s wilderness. Lake Creek is a wonderfully remote place, but quite a few people venture to lodges on the Chelatna Lake headwaters, with even more lodges and fishermen at Lake Creek’s mouth. We wanted to find a place that would have almost no people or lodges, and after looking over options, we chose American Creek in Katmai National Park. Known for its remoteness, hordes of sockeye, and large rainbow trout, we were particularly interested in the possibility of seeing many grizzly bears. Some outfitters who floated the river claimed you would see 50 to 70 grizzlies on the 40-mile float. Little did we know that this would turn out to be an extreme underestimate. With our confidence elevated by our successful Lake Creek adventures, we headed boldly on to American Creek. But would we be ready for it, and for the bears that lie ahead?



Chapter 3: Lake Creek Years

November 18, 2010

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Making a plan

God has allowed me to be a teacher, so I knew that when I returned to Alaska again I would want to share the experience with students. In the fall of 2001, I started hatching a plan to conduct an Alaska Science Adventure Camp. My first idea was to rent a van and trailer and camp at numerous spots on the mainland. This would be great fun, as there are many incredible places to visit from the road. I may still do a trip like this someday, stopping at places like Denali National Park, the Russian River Falls, and the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. 

 
 

Sockeye salmon ascend the Russian River Falls, Alaska. Copyright 2000, David E. Shormann

 

What I really wanted to do though was conduct a camp in the wilderness of Alaska, in a place where bears outnumbered people. My family and I had canoed and camped along the Brazos River between Lake Granbury and Lake Whitney, and we always enjoyed the seclusion and natural setting provided by those trips. Those trips got me thinking about doing the same thing in Alaska, rafting down a salmon-filled river and learning about the incredibly productive ecosystems known as salmon streams. Almost devoid of life in winter, in summer salmon streams can sometimes become literally choked with salmon. The salmon build nests, called “redds”, lay their eggs, and then die. It seems strange that they die, but their Creator did this for a reason. If all of those adult salmon had to eat while they were in the stream, they would quickly eat up the food supply and starve. Instead, salmon eat their fill while at sea, then stop eating once they enter freshwater. More aggressive species like pink, silver and king salmon will strike a lure or bait, but less aggressive species like chum and sockeye are more difficult to catch. Spawning salmon strike out of habit, not because they want a meal.

I started researching about rafting trips, looking for a good first time opportunity. Joe Schuster’s Sportsmen’s Guide and Air Service website caught my attention. Based out of the Lake Hood float plane airport in Anchorage, Joe guided fishing and hunting trips, but also provided rafts and camping gear for groups wanting a more do-it-yourself approach. This is exactly what I wanted, and I contacted Joe and began making arrangements. He suggested we do the Talachulitna River trip in late July. At this time, there was the best chance of having all 5 species of Pacific salmon in the river, along with good numbers of resident rainbow trout and grayling. Being the closest to Anchorage, the “Tal” was also the least expensive float trip. I was quickly learning that getting into remote Alaskan wilderness was also an expensive proposition, but it was a cost that was worth every penny to me.

Joe Schuster and his DeHavilland "Beaver", dropping off campers and supplies at Chelatna Lake. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

 

Wise counsel

As plans for my first Alaska Science Adventure Camp materialized, my wife and others began to ask questions, mainly about my experience regarding wilderness camping. Prior to Alaska, my longest camping trip had been two nights, and I had never camped in bear country. Proverbs 12:15 describes the wisdom in seeking counsel and the foolishness of not doing so. I have chosen not to seek counsel on more than one occasion and ended up “playing the fool”, but I knew this float trip, where more than just my own life would be at stake, was one where I should seek as much advice as possible.

Enter Jim Kronjaeger (pronounced krone-yay-ger). Jim was a Boy Scout leader, and led many camping expeditions, including snow camping in New Mexico and float trips down the Colorado River in Central Texas. An Eagle Scout himself, Jim’s two sons, Timothy and Micah, followed in their father’s footsteps. With his extensive knowledge of camping on rivers, as well as wilderness camping with large groups of boys, I knew his advice would be invaluable on this trip. Not only did Jim help with preparing the trip, his camping experience really shined during the trip, when we came across any number of problems.

Jim Kronjaeger with a nice silver salmon. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

 

One of Jim’s many great ideas was to conduct a one night “practice” by floating down the Colorado River. The trip gave the boys who signed up a chance to meet each other, and to test our skills at camping. It also helped us make proper preparations for food and first aid. In addition, it reminded us all that when you are on a float trip, you are going to get wet, and you need to prepare accordingly.

Jim also had some experience camping in bear country. Newly married, Jim took his bride on a camping excursion through the Rockies, and even camped near a site where a grizzly had attacked and killed a woman the night before. Much to their relief, the grizzly did not visit them, too. Jim understood some basics of camping with bears, the most basic of which was to store all food away from the tents. Unfortunately, with neither grizzly or black bears on Texas’ Colorado River, we did not gain any experience with them on our practice trip, and we would wait for Alaska to experience them firsthand.

Change of plans-Chelatna Lake

Our group arrived in Anchorage on Aug. 30th, and soon we were headed northwest in Joe’s float plane to the Talachulitna River, or so we thought. It turned out that the Tal was too low to float, and Joe made the decision to take us to Lake Creek instead. Lake Creek, which was a river by my standards, was formed by the outflow of glacier-fed Chelatna Lake. The lake was near the base of Mt. Mckinley, which at 20,000 feet is the tallest mountain in North America. Lake Creek also had as good or better fishing than the Tal, so how could we complain about this change in plans? The only drawback was that I had studied topographic maps of the Tal until I knew every twist and turn of it, and now I was heading to a river I knew almost nothing about. Fortunately, our outfitter was on top of things, and provided detailed topographic maps complete with campsite suggestions.

The change in plans to Lake Creek turned out to be one of the best surprises ever, and solidified my trust in Joe as a competent outfitter. When someone changes your plans for you, then drops you off in the middle of nowhere and flies away, you better be sure they know what they’re doing. From the look of the camping gear and rafts that Joe provided, together with his skill at piloting the DeHavilland Beaver float plane, it was easy to see he knew what he was doing. I enjoyed Lake Creek so much that I floated it 5 times in 4 years, taking from two to 12 others along each time.

Chelatna Lake is an emerald jewel of a lake. Its waters are a milky, emerald green, typical of many glacier-fed lakes. The lake itself was actually formed by a glacier, and its dam is a terminal moraine of the former glacier. As the glacier receded over the years, Chelatna Lake was formed. The shoreline of the lake forms the characteristic U-shape of a valley carved by glaciers. We set up camp at the outflow, the headwaters of Lake Creek. One thing we learned about Chelatna Lake was that it had a healthy northern pike population, and a slough about 2 miles away from the outflow held the highest concentrations of this aggressive gamefish. We caught many pike from the lake, some as long as our legs. We also learned that they made a tasty meal.

Chelatna Lake from the air. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Sam Finney weighs a nice Northern Pike at Chelatna Lake. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

 

On more than one occasion, we swam in Chelatna Lake. Although we never measured a water temperature over 62° F (17° C), many days were warm enough for a refreshing dip. One thing that is different in Alaska compared to where most people live is that there is an over-abundance of daylight. In early August at Chelatna Lake, the sun was up for 17 hours! On calm and sunny days, 17 hours of sun is a lot of sun, and even if the water is a little cool, a brief swim feels unbelievably good and is a welcome relief.

Lake Creek

Although Chelatna Lake is beautiful and very relaxing, we had not come to Alaska just to relax, and after a day or two, the campers were eager to begin our float trip. We never saw any bears at Chelatna Lake either, but were hoping that would change soon. Our outfitter told us that earlier in the year, a grizzly had walked through a riverside camp, and was sniffing around a tent. The camper inside never fired, but he pressed the muzzle of his gun into the bear’s snout, with only the tent between them. The bear left without harming the tent or the campers in the party. While we hoped to see a grizzly bear, none of us wanted that close of an encounter!

Lake Creek begins as a slow and lazy river, and rowing is required in order to move at a decent clip. In a few miles though, the speed, and the noise of the river begins to pick up. Numerous Class II and III rapids appear, but the pools beneath the rapids are great fishing spots. Literally every pool contains some king salmon. In years with good sockeye salmon runs, pools may have hundreds of sockeyes resting up before continuing their journey to Chelatna Lake.

Sockeye Salmon make their way up Lake Creek. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

In Lake Creek, king salmon are the first to arrive in late May, followed by sockeye salmon in mid-July. Pink salmon (in even-numbered years) are usually right behind the sockeye, followed by silvers and chum salmon. My trips on Lake Creek have always occurred the last week of July and first week of August, when silver and chum salmon are also just entering the river. On one trip taken during the second week of August, we caught silver salmon most of the length of the river, but usually they were concentrated in the lower half of the river.

King salmon are fun and often hard-fighting, and the 30+ pounders found in Lake Creek are incredibly difficult to bring in. We were always on Lake Creek after the king salmon season was closed (July 13), so we could catch but not keep the kings. We tried to leave them alone as much as possible, because many had begun digging their redds and were spawning. The king salmon were the dominant salmon in Lake Creek. While the sockeyes were usually more abundant, they were just passing through, headed to Chelatna lake to spawn in tributaries feeding into it.

John Boriack hefts a big Lake Creek King Salmon. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Silvers are my favorite salmon species to catch. They often strike aggressively at lures and flies, but other times it takes more finesse to get them to strike. The Lake Creek silvers also usually had changed color the least upon entering freshwater. By early August, the kings had metamorphosed from bright silver with olive backs to a rich and deep red coloration. All Pacific salmon go through a metamorphosis upon entering freshwater, changing color, growing larger teeth (and hooked snouts on the males) and thicker skin. Their muscle tissue changes as well, and they are not as good to eat after undergoing this metamorphosis. Lake Creek silvers however, lived up to their names, and were more often than not shiny and silvery! Their flesh was a brilliant orange color, and when cooked properly tasted fantastic. If we floated Lake Creek later in the year, then the silvers would have been red, too.

A pair of Lake Creek Silver Salmon

Sockeyes were our favorite salmon to eat, but also the most difficult to catch. They just don’t display the same aggressive strike response as some of the other kinds of salmon. Although I have seen relatively fresh-from-the-sea sockeyes on Lake Creek strike a fly, this seemed the exception rather than the norm, and snagging them in the mouth was really the best way to catch them. When hooked, they put up an exceptional fight, usually jumping multiple times before being brought ashore. And their meat is fantastic. It is a bright orange-red color, and when cooked in a little oil and butter along with some garlic, dill, and salt, they are exceptional eating. Some of us also enjoyed eating them raw, although not all the campers were interested!

Pink salmon were our least-favorite to catch and eat. The smallest of the Pacific salmon, they are also the weakest-fighting fish, and their flesh was a pinkish-tan coloration and usually a bit tough. However, we did eat them on several occasions when we were unable to catch any sockeyes or silvers. Male pink salmon are called “humpies” because of the large hump they develop upon entering freshwater. Pinks only run in even-numbered years, but we would inevitably see a few in the river in odd-numbered years as well. Pinks have the shortest life cycle (2 years) of the Pacific salmon, and immediately head out to sea in the spring after hatching, returning as adults the following summer.

Lake Creek Pink Salmon. Pink Salmon are mainly in Alaskan rivers in even-numbered years. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

Chum salmon were the least common species on Lake Creek, and the last to run up the river. I was always intrigued by the timing of the salmon runs. While there is some variability in individual runs, you can usually predict within a week, two at the most, when a salmon run will occur. One of my goals with the Alaska Science/Adventure Camps was to purposely not bring enough food with us, forcing us to live off the land. By observing the timing of the salmon runs, I knew that the two best-eating salmon, silvers and sockeyes, would be in the river the last week of July. However, the salmon runs can be quite variable in quantity, and in 2002 and 2003, there was an abundance of sockeyes, while in 2004 and 2005 sockeye numbers were very low and we had difficulty catching them. Chum salmon were never in abundance, and we only caught a handful and never cooked one.

Rob Sadowski (left) and Paul Grass holding Lake Creek Chum Salmon. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

If you are a fisherman, you are probably wondering what we caught our salmon with. The majority of sockeyes were caught with streamers of any color, with a half-ounce weight attached 18 inches above the fly. With spinning reels spooled with 15 lb monofilament and 6 to 7 foot rods, we employed the “Russian River Flip” method of fishing. The method involves holding a length of line in your left hand, and “flipping” the streamer upstream, letting it drift through a school of sockeye, and repeating. Polarized glasses are very helpful, so that you can see when the fly enters a sockeye’s mouth. At the slightest resistance, the hook is set. Fishing for sockeyes usually results in a number of hookups in other spots on the fishes’ bodies besides the mouth, but even though the majority of fish are snagged anyways, legal capture requires they be snagged in the mouth.

We used a variety of bead-head streamers for catching kings, silvers, and pinks. These were attached to a 7 or 8-weight fly rod spooled with sink-tip line. One of my favorite methods for catching silvers was to spot some resting close to shore in relatively fast-moving water, and, approaching stealthily, present a bright bead-head streamer such as a Cabelas #8 Crystal Bugger. It took patience and concentration on my part as silvers in this position usually did not move much to attack the fly, but you would see a slight turn to the side. Even with polarized glasses and clear water, the swirling current still made it difficult to follow the fly, and many times I set the hook on nothing but water. However, I was rewarded on more than one occasion with a great battle and a tasty silver.

We caught most of our salmon on spinning tackle, and #4 Blue Fox spinners in chartreuse and pink were very effective on kings, silvers and pinks. However, our favorite lure was a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin rigged on a 1/16 or ¼ ounce lead jighead. I knew that salmon were attracted to brightly-colored lures and flies, and one day while fishing for speckled trout in Texas, the thought dawned on me to try the Saltwater Assassins in Alaska. The 5-inch, soft plastic body is threaded onto the lead jig head, and is a very effective lure for catching speckled trout and redfish. On our 2003 Alaska Camp, the Saltwater Assassins worked wonderfully. King and silver salmon struck at them aggressively. We were all excited to have “discovered” a new lure for catching salmon, one that did not exist in any tackle store in Alaska, but that outfished many of the more conventional salmon lures. The chartreuse Assassins also worked exceptionally well on Chelatna Lake pike.

This Lake Creek king salmon couldn't resist a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin, a lure normally used for Gulf Coast speckled trout and redfish.

About half-way down Lake Creek is a place referred to as “the canyons”. Here, the river cuts through a terminal moraine, and the walls of the canyon are composed of dirt and rock. Although small for a canyon, with walls maybe 150 feet high at the most, it is still a spectacular place. More importantly, the canyons held a series of deep pools that are sometimes filled with large schools of silver salmon. On our first trip in 2002, I was standing up in the raft as we entered a large pool, and noticed a dark streak in the water that stretched for 25 yards. As we got closer, I realized it was a tightly packed school of silvers! We pulled the raft over and began casting Blue Fox #4s, and we all hooked up immediately with 6-10 lb., hard-fighting silvers. It was a blast catching them in the clear water, watching them dart and cartwheel both below and above the water. The action fizzled after about 15 minutes, which we learned was a typical pattern. Anytime we would stop to fish a pool, the action was good for a few minutes, and then the fish would get used to our lures and ignore us.

A nice haul of silver salmon from the "canyons" of Lake Creek

Not only did we catch salmon, eat salmon, photograph and video them, we also dissected them. Since my camps were science-oriented, we brought along all sorts of field guides and science equipment to help us explore this fascinating ecosystem. For studying fishes, a 1980 copy of The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska by Robert Morrow proved invaluable. In our first year, none of us had much experience with salmon, and we especially had difficulty distinguishing between female silvers and sockeyes. Morrow’s book made identification easy, as he described not only color and shape, but also quantized accounts of the number of scales along the lateral line, number of pyloric cecae, egg size, and number of dorsal fin rays, to name a few. With Morrow’s help, fish identification was easier.

Dissecting salmon in our outdoor classroom, a gravel bar on Lake Creek. Copyright 2002, Jim Kronjaeger.

All of the students on my first trip had taken high school biology with me. I own a teaching business, and homeschooled students meet me at various locations around Houston for weekly math and science classes. Science class involved a hands-on-lab activity each week, and now I had my students deeply engaged in dissecting salmon on a gravel bar in the wilderness of Alaska, quite a different setting than a stale classroom. We would literally pick the salmon to pieces, going over every detail.

A fish’s gill rakers always tell an interesting story. Fish gills are composed of three parts, the gill arch, gill rakers, and gill lamellae. The rakers and lamellae branch from the arch in opposite directions, with the rakers pointing anteriorly (towards the head), and the lamellae pointing posteriorly (towards the tail). Lamellae to a fish are like lungs to a human, and are the place where they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide and other waste products like ammonia. Gill rakers are arranged like teeth on a comb, and their length and spacing reveal clues about their feeding habits. Silver salmon had shorter gill rakers that were spaced up to 1 cm apart. Sockeye salmon, however, had longer, thinner gill rakers that were closely spaced. Sockeye salmon are planktivores, meaning their main diet consisted of plankton. They ate some of the same foods as the chuchkis of the Pribilof Islands, and perhaps fed together on occasion. The long, closely spaced rakers act like a sieve, trapping plankton and preventing their escape past the gill cover.

Silver salmon, unlike sockeyes, are piscivores (fish eaters), and their gill rakers identified them as such. You may be wondering why a fish even has gill rakers, and why it cannot just keep its opercula, or gill covers, shut when its mouth is open. The reason is that when a salmon feeds, its mouth opens and its buccal cavity -the area between its jaws and gills-expands. This expansion creates a suction, drawing the prey inside their mouth. The fish cannot just swallow all the water it sucked in, so it opens its opercula to let the water exit. The gill rakers prevent prey from exiting through this opening.

While something like fish gill rakers may not sound all that exciting, they really are amazing, and are yet another testimony of God’s creative powers. The timing of salmon runs, the ability of the fish to swim thousands of miles to return to the place of it birth, gill rakers designed in specific ways for each species, all of these are testimonies to the purpose and plan God puts into everything. Scripture teaches that God knows so much about His creation, that he even knows how many hairs we have on our heads.(Matthew 10:30). While God created us in His image, giving us some of His creative powers, it is impossible to comprehend the absolute thoroughness of His understanding. He cares for His creation in ways we can only partly comprehend. Unfortunately, many people have given up hope in understanding His creation, and concoct weak explanations for the interactions they see. Some people actually believe that fishes like salmon, through a long series of genetic mutations, turned into human beings. This idea,known as evolutionism, flies in the face of every method we have of interpreting reality, including science, reason, and Scripture. Evolutionism is anti-science, because all scientific research on genetic mutations proves that mutations are either lethal, or they cause slight modifications such as changes in color and shape. Evolutionism theory is also against reason, because to truly believe it, one has to think that fish were unhappy with their aquatic habitats and wanted to get on land somehow, so they changed their genes over millions of years to accomplish this feat. That seems very unreasonable to me. And of course, evolution theory is against the ultimate foundation for truth and reality, God’s word. God tells us in Genesis and other places that He made the universe, the seas, and all life forms, and it even says He made living things “each according to its kind”. Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, made it clear on page 62 of The Descent of Man, that his chief end in writing his seminal work on evolution, On the Origin of Species, was “to show that species had not been separately created”.

A salmon's gill rakers give clues about it's diet. This is a set of silver salmon gill rakers. A sockeyes would be a bit longer and much more narrowly spaced. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Fortunately, more and more people are realizing the fallacy of evolutionism, and are accepting the mounds of scientific evidence revealing there are limits to genetic change. Since no one was there to see the formation of the universe, there will always be two opinions about it. Some will speculate about origins, and others, like myself and millions of other Christians, will simply trust God’s word when it says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Salmon dissection was probably the most intensive scientific investigation performed on those first Alaska Science trips. We observed every part of their bodies, including their heart, brains, and even the beautifully spherical, crystal-like lenses in their eyes. We made the most of those salmon as well, and when dissection time was over, we would fillet them and cook them for dinner. This is one of the rare times in science class when it is okay to eat your experiment!

It doesn't get much fresher, or better than this! Pan-frying some Lake Creek silver salmon.

Lake Creek-Trout

The fish that provided the most entertainment for us though were Lake Creek’s rainbow trout, Salmo gairdneri. I had fished for rainbows in the lower 48 states, but nothing came even close to the fishing experienced on Lake Creek. Most of the fish caught during our trips were rainbow trout. On the 2005 trip, we performed a detailed survey of rainbow trout size, measuring every trout we caught. The twelve of us caught a total of 506 rainbows, with an average size of 12.5 inches. The majority of the fish were in the 10-13 inch range, but we did manage to catch 27 fish that were 20 inches or more, a nice rainbow in anyone’s book.

A beautiful Lake Creek Rainbow Trout. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann

 

The wild Lake Creek rainbows are absolutely gorgeous and much more colorful than the hatchery-raised rainbows I was used to catching in the Lower 48. I had never seen rainbows with such brilliant, and thick, pink stripes. Even their gill covers were pink, and on some, their pelvic and pectoral fins as well. The males’ colors were typically brighter than the females, but there were also variations within the sexes.

Since Lake Creek rainbows are regulated as a catch-and-release only fishery, we were unable to perform any dissections or stomach content surveys. The stomach content surveys would have been interesting, just to see whether the salmon-egg “flies” we used to catch rainbows were also their preferred food source. We had tremendous success using egg patterns that matched the size of the king salmon’s eggs. Smaller egg patterns did not work near as well, if at all.

Nevertheless, our trout measurement survey taught us a lot about the size distribution of rainbows in the river. Trout in the upper half of the 54-mile-long river averaged 13.7 inches, over two inches longer than trout in the lower river. Upper river trout were probably able to migrate into Chelatna Lake during the winter, where its warmer waters provided a longer growing season. Trout in the lower river either wintered in pools, or migrated down to the lower river and its confluence with the Skwentna River, a cold and turbid glacial-fed river with little aquatic life.

Besides egg patterns, we also caught numerous trout on Cabelas size 10 bead-head Prince Nymphs, and Mepps Aglia #1 spinners. Cabelas orange size 6 yarn eggs caught numerous rainbows. The best producer of all was the D’s King Salmon Super Eggs. All they are is a plastic bead of the approximate size and color of a King Salmon egg. We would slip these on the line, and then tie on a #8 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. The bead is “pegged” about 1 or 2 inches above the hook by inserting a toothpick into the top of bead and breaking it off. The purpose of pegging the bead was to create friction by sandwiching the fishing line between the toothpick and the bead. The bead worked best on fly rods, but could also be fished with spinning tackle by attaching a few split shots. In fly-fishing, the goal is to cast the line, so the weight of the fly is not that important. With conventional tackle, the goal is to cast the bait or lure, so its weight becomes important, hence the added splitshot.

One of our favorite places to camp and fish was Yenlo Creek, on the lower half of the river. This location was usually loaded with king salmon that were waiting patiently for high water and a chance to spawn in the creek. And any place there was a concentration of kings, there were also lots of rainbows. One evening, while cleaning pots and pans in the river, I noticed swirls in the water immediately downstream. I quickly realized the swirls were being made by rainbow trout gorging on the scraps I was putting into the stream. I had brought a diving mask along with me, and we had some salmon roe (eggs) left over, so one of the campers got upstream of me and I leaned over a rock and put my face in the water. The camper released some eggs, and I watched in amazement as several trout rushed up, inches from my face, to inhale the eggs. We all took turns with the mask, and had a great time watching the feeding frenzy. It was quite apparent that the trout were “trained” to feed on dinner scraps, and had dined on the scraps of other groups as well.

Lake Creek Grayling

Lake Creek also has a good population of the arctic grayling, Thymallus arcticus. With a body shaped like a trout, it is easily distinguished from salmonids by its beautiful sail-like dorsal fin and small mouth. Not as colorful as rainbows, Lake Creek grayling are dark gray on top with crème-colored bellies and scattered small dark spots on their sides. The dorsal fins usually have small orange and yellow spots, and the pelvic fins usually have some yellow stripes. From a distance, grayling are, well, gray and dull, and you have to look at them close to better appreciate their beauty. Not as hard of a fighter as the rainbow, we could usually tell we had a grayling on before we saw it by the way they fought to stay near the bottom. While Morrow’s Freshwater Fishes of Alaska text described grayling as “primarily a surface and mid-depth feeder”, we usually caught them at the bottom, where they dined on abundant aquatic insects, including the larva of caddis flies, and mayfly and stonefly nymphs. While we did catch many grayling on egg patterns, nymphs seemed to be their preferred food, and the #10 bead-head Prince Nymphs worked well.

A Lake Creek Grayling. Note the large, sail-like dorsal fin. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann.

If you have never looked at the rocks on the bottom of a trout stream, when you do you will be surprised at the abundance of life, especially in the summer months. Rocks near the shore will be covered with a variety of insect nymphs and larvae, primarily stonefly and mayfly nymphs, and cocoon-forming caddisfly larvae. I enjoy fly-fishing, but not as much as some, and have often been surprised at the detail some will go to “match the hatch” by creating fly patterns that mimic the flies that are hatching that day. However, just like I am amazed at the importance of salmon to bears, others are fascinated by the connection existing between insects and fishes like trout and grayling. If you want to develop your skills as a stream ecologist, there is probably no better way than to avidly pursue fly fishing, as this sport forces you to understand the connections between predator and prey, organism and environment.

Alaska regulations allow keeping 5 grayling per day on Lake Creek, so we did keep a few for dissection and for eating. Dissections confirmed that their preferred food was aquatic insects, although we did find a few king salmon eggs mixed in. One thing we learned was grayling are big eaters, as the stomachs of fishes we studied were always full. We enjoyed their mild white flesh, but we almost felt silly keeping them when one sockeye salmon would feed 4-6 hungry teenage boys, while one 12-15 inch grayling was a mere snack. We mostly appreciated the grayling for their willingness to strike our flies and their strange but beautiful dorsal fins, which were yet another reminder that God creates with a purpose in mind. Seeing that grayling inhabit fast-flowing streams, it almost seemed like God made a mistake, as their clumsy-looking dorsal fin might pose a real problem for navigation in fast current. Trout and other salmonids have a small, triangular dorsal fin, which acts like the feathers on an arrow, adding stability to their movements. However, grayling have many uses for this fin. Like salmonids, they use it for stability and propulsion. Males also use theirs as a way to display aggression to other males, raising it in a way similar to the “betas”, or fighting fish, found at most pet stores. Males also use it during spawning, draping it over the female to hold her in position over prime spawning locations. Grayling don’t dig redds like salmonids do, but rather lay strings of sticky eggs on top of the gravel. This difference in spawning strategies alone is enough to convince me of the plan God had when he made grayling, and in His goodness He knew that we would also appreciate their uniqueness and beauty.

First Grizzly at camp

On my first Alaska Science Adventure Camp, we were all eager to see a grizzly bear. However, most of our bear entertainment was provided by black bears. At Yenlo Creek, a mother black bear was raising her three cubs. Quite shy, she kept at least a hundred yards away from us. Yenlo Creek was a great fishing spot, which meant that it was also a good spot for bears. At all camp sites, food was stored away from our tents, and no one was allowed to bring food into their tents. It is easy however, to relax the rules when you don’t see many bears, but now that we had, our sense of proper bear etiquette was increased. One of the most important rules in bear country is to never spook a bear, especially a mother with cubs. Also, supposedly bears have never attacked a group of 5 or more people, which is also Rule #5 in the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual’s “10 Golden Rules of Bear Viewing” by Dr. Stephen Stringham. Keeping these rules in mind, any ventures from camp were done loudly and in groups. This was especially important when fishing along the river, as the rush of whitewater was quite loud and could easily drown out the sounds of a person walking along the stream. Not only that, bears focused on eating salmon are attracted to splashes in the water, and will investigate any splash, whether from a fish, a thrown rock, or a person walking. It is important to make sounds other than splashing when walking along a stream. Some people wear “bear bells”, but the river can easily drown out their sound. The best thing to do is to just yell “hey bear!” every 15-20 seconds while walking.

Mother Black Bear and cubs, Yenlo Creek. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

We never saw any grizzlies at Yenlo Creek, or any other part of Lake Creek, until the very end of the trip. The last night of the trip was usually spent on a sand bar a few miles from the end of Lake Creek near a lake called Bulchitna Slough. We usually saw black bears at this campsite, and signs of grizzly bears were evident. The unmistakable tracks, along with large piles of scat, revealed their presence. The grizzlies seemed very wary of people however, and were more nocturnal than bears I would later see in Katmai National Park. During that first trip in 2002, one evening after dinner, we decided to fish some braids in the river upstream from camp. After hiking about a mile and catching a variety of fishes, we found a nice pool that held chum salmon. Two of the campers, Rob Sadowski and Paul Grass, caught chums, and we snapped a picture and released them. Also known as dog salmon because of their enlarged canines, we were careful when removing the hooks from their toothy jaws. It was almost dark by now, so we started walking back and suddenly, on the opposite shore, a grizzly bear appeared! Not more than 50 yards away, he looked at us and then headed into the water and searched for fish. Some of the campers wanted to return, but my instinct was to stay and watch. I had my video camera, but it was too dark to film the bear, and some of the campers were getting extremely nervous, so we turned and headed back to camp.

That night, we woke to the sound of cracking branches in the alder trees directly behind our camp. By the sound it was making, we were sure it was a grizzly passing through. We were all excited about the grizzly bears around our camp, and the boys had some memories that would last forever. We never saw any other grizzlies until a 2007 trip that Rob Sadowski guided, when they saw 7 on Lake Creek, most of them on the lower few miles and near the mouth of Lake Creek at the Skwentna River.

That first grizzly encounter on Lake Creek taught me something. Although some of my students were scared silly, in reality the grizzly showed no signs of aggression towards us. Perhaps it was our large group that intimidated him, or was it? Was the fear some of the campers displayed justified, or were grizzlies more predictable than most people thought? My years as a scientist had taught me that the latter was probably more likely to be true, and if I took some time to learn more about grizzlies, I could greatly reduce my chances of being attacked when venturing into their domain.

End Ch. 3

Here’s a YouTube video I made about syllogisms, using Lake Creek rainbow trout as an example:

Ling

November 14, 2010

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Ling, a.k.a lemonfish, or cobia (Rachycentron canadum).
  

A pair of ling swimming near an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Copyright 2008, David E. Shormann

 

With their large, triangular dorsal fin, together with their tendency to swim near the surface, adult ling look a lot like a shark. Their shark-like shape, together with their curious nature can be rather disconcerting when scuba diving. On more than one dive I have seen a large shark-like fish approaching rapidly, but thankfully it has almost always been a ling. They will get so close sometimes that you can scratch their backs. Females are usually larger than males, and often have one or more suitors in pursuit. Cobia get big, over 100 lbs!

Ling were designed to prefer coastal waters, and they like salinities around 30 ppt, not as salty as average ocean seawater (35 ppt), and not as fresh as the typical estuary. Ling like to hang out around Gulf Coast oil production platforms, and upon approaching a platform, will often be the first fishes to greet your boat. Notice the lower lip extends past the upper, indicating ling were designed to attack their prey from beneath. Note the small sharksucker hitching a ride on this ling’s back.

 
 

Ling, with sharksucker attached. Copyright 2008, David E. Shormann

 

Juvenile ling look very much like these sharksuckers, minus the suction cup on top of their head:

Sharksuckers attached to the hull of my boat. The stripe along the side of their face, along with their general body style, is very similar to a young ling's. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann.

Ling prefer water temperatures above 68 °F (20 °C), and prefer to spawn in waters between 75 and 84 °F (24 and 29 °C). They have extremely high fecundities, and can lay hundreds of thousands to millions of eggs per year. Eggs are small, a little more than 1 mm diameter, and buyoant. They hatch within 24-36 hours, and grow rapidly. Ling grow very fast, plus they taste great, so it is no surprise that commercial farming of ling is on the rise worldwide. Ling reach a marketable size of 10-13 pounds (4-6 kg) in about 1 year.

Ling have many other common names, including cobia, lemonfish, and crabeater. They don’t eat lemons, but they do eat crabs, and a fresh blue crab is a good bait for them. Many offshore fishermen like to keep a rod ready with about a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook and 30-50 lb test line. If a ling is spotted, they will quickly attach a crab or other bait, pitch it towards the ling, and hang on. Sometimes ling will eat almost anything, while other times they are extremely finicky and difficult to catch.

Ling have an almost worldwide distribution, and while I don’t know about other places, I do know that in Texas, late April through October are the best times to catch them. Ling are sometimes caught near the shore at piers and jetties, but the best places to catch them are offshore around oil production platforms and floating patches of sargassum. I sure enjoyed catching, and eating, this one:

38 lb. ling I caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann

As always, before fishing, check your local regulations for ling size and posession limits.  I mentioned earlier that ling have a high fecundity, and since the one in the above photo was a gravid female, I decided to estimate the number of eggs she was carrying. Like most fishes, ling have two ovaries, and the combined weight of her eggs was about 1 kg (2.2 lbs), about the weight of most of the fish I’m used to catching! To estimate the fecundity, I weighed two separate and smaller clumps of eggs. The clumps weighed 0.10 and 0.09 g, and had 318 and 326 eggs respectively, which averaged to 322 eggs per 0.095 g. Using this ratio as a conversion factor, I calculated this ling held about 3.4 million eggs!

Strong, curious, tasty, big, and extremely productive, ling are an amazing creation enjoyed by millions of people all over the world!

Click here for a COLORING PAGE: ling

Chapter 2: The Great Land

November 12, 2010

 

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Adventure: an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks

 
Pribilof Islands
There is probably no better place in the world to have an outdoors adventure than Alaska. The Aleut Indians gave it the name “Alyeska” meaning “Great Land”, which indeed it is. With an area almost 2-and-a-half times larger than America’s 2nd largest state, Texas, and a human population only 3% of Texas’, there is plenty of room to roam. In Texas, we have a saying that “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”. This is even more true in Alaska, as I have never seen a place with such rapidly changing weather. And I don’t think I have been anywhere with more rapidly changing weather than the first Alaskan place I visited, the Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1992 David E. Shormann

The village on St. Paul Island

The Pribilof Islands are composed of two inhabited islands, St. Paul and St. George, and several smaller islands. A common saying on the islands is “”This is the only place in the world where you can experience all four seasons in one hour.” I arrived on St. Paul Island in July 1992 as part of a scientific team studying the local ecology. I was a graduate student at the time, working on my master’s degree in marine science. My advisor, Dr. Terry Whitledge, had worked extensively in the Bering Sea and knew the area well. Whether researching Texas bays, the Mississippi River Plume, or the Bering Sea, his ability to organize and head up an expedition never ceased to amaze me, and this was no different. At a time when the economy of the former Soviet Union was collapsing, Dr. Whitledge had organized this research project, consisting of the two of us and 5 excellent Russian scientists who probably desperately needed some cash.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Michael Flint (right), and another Russian scientist heading out to sea to do research.

The Naturalists
While the Russian scientists did not have access to the same array of high-tech tools we had, they made up for that with their knowledge of plants and animals in the area. The Russians were my first experience with people that I would truly call “naturalists”. Up until my master’s degree, all of my education and employment was engineering-related. I started working at General Dynamics in 1989 on the then-secret Navy A-12 project, but the project was canceled in 1990, and everyone was sent back to the main office to work on the F-16 Falcon. I could see the writing on the wall, and after lots of thought and prayer, decided to pursue a master’s degree in Marine Science. The University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas was searching for graduate students, and I wrote them a rather silly letter about how I wanted to be a “fish conservationist”. Dr. Whitledge liked my engineering background, and while I never directly studied fishes, I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor or a better area of study (water quality). Providence led me down the best path, and I started in August of 1990. That December, General Dynamics released everyone with 5 years experience or less (which would have included me), and I was sad for many of my friends who lost their jobs.

When I started my master’s degree, I had little experience with biology or even science. Engineering is more deductive, where you apply rules in new situations to build things. Science is more inductive, and is about finding rules. And my master’s research focused mainly on water chemistry and a single algal species responsible for creating a “brown tide” in local estuaries.

A love of the outdoors and fishing led me to naturally learn the names of many of the birds and fishes of the Texas coast, but until I met the Russian scientists, I had never met people who were so incredibly gifted and knowledgeable about everything in the ecosystem they were studying. They knew more than just the fish and birds; they could identify practically anything, from the largest whale to the smallest plankton. They loved the ecosystems they studied.

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Horned Puffin, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Black-legged kittiwake, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Thick-billed murres nesting on a cliff, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Arctic Fox puppies, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Stellar's Sea Lions, Pribilof Islands

 

In the book of Genesis, one of the first things God tells Adam to do is name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). I think one reason God did this was to help Adam care for the animals. One of the very basic ways we care for other human beings is by knowing their names. It is rude and inconsiderate to call out “hey mister” to a person we have known for a while. Not only that, it shows ignorance and a lack of concern. In the same way, if we do not know the names of any of the creatures God has made, it is easier to not care about them.

The Russian scientists taught me a great lesson in the importance of being a naturalist, and this is something I encourage everyone to do, especially children.I think that training children to be naturalists is an extremely important part of their education. In government schools, evolution is emphasized in high school biology, and too much time is wasted teaching this ridiculous theory. Rather than lowering a teenager’s already fragile self-esteem by telling them they evolved from monkeys and that they are products of random chance, it would be far better to teach them about the local flora and fauna and their responsibility to care for it. Students that are more familiar with their local environment are more likely to care about it. But until government schools in America, Russia, and elsewhere start teaching children they were created in God’s image and have a unique purpose, children are much better off learning at private Christian schools or in home schools.
Pribilof Adventures
I had many adventures on that first trip to Alaska. The flight from Anchorage to St. Paul was an adventure in itself. Climbing aboard a Reeve-Aleutian Airlines Lockheed Electra, I noticed the date of manufacture stamped on a bulkhead. I do not remember the exact date, but I do remember that it was before my birth year (1965). I was used to flying in large passenger jets, and getting into this 4-engine turboprop that was older than me was a bit unsettling, but it performed flawlessly, and a few hours later the pilot made a nice landing on the dirt runway in St. Paul.

The next big adventure was driving with one of the Russian scientists, Yuri, from the airport to the house we had rented, which doubled as our research station. Come to think of it, driving anywhere with Yuri was a bit of an adventure. Yuri was in his late 40’s, but had never driven a car. However, he was fascinated with the 13-passenger van we had rented, and he insisted on driving it everywhere. He actually drove pretty well, but his main problem was that he overcorrected, a typical characteristic of inexperienced drivers, and this always kept us hanging on to the seats a little tighter than normal.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

More than one adventure has been terminated by an unexpected run-in with the Pribilof Islands.

Conducting research in the Bering Sea around the Pribilof Islands was amazing. We hired a local captain, an Aleut Indian with a Russian name, Timon Lestenkof. The uninhabited Pribilof Islands were discovered in 1788 by the Russian explorer Gavriil Pribylov. Soon after, Russians forced Aleuts Indians from the Aleutian chain (several hundred miles south of the Pribilofs) to hunt seal for them on the Pribilof Islands.Today, the Pribilof Islands are home to the largest Aleut Indian community in America, and many of them make a good living through fishing. Timon was a wonderful man who had served America in Vietnam. He would take us just about anywhere we wanted to go, provided it was close enough for him to pick up the island on radar, a distance of about 10 miles. This was in the days before GPS was in widespread use, which would have made navigating around the island and beyond much easier.

We would collect water samples from various depths using “Niskin bottles”, and use the winch to raise and lower them. We would also tow plankton nets and store the samples. Northern fur seals would come and visit us while we conducted research, as would fulmars, gulls and kittiwakes. While waiting for us to collect water samples, Timon would sometimes fish. One time I watched in amazement as he tore a 3-inch chunk from an orange-colored rubber glove, threaded it on a hook, and proceeded to catch several 15 to 30 lb halibut. Timon had a painting in the wheelhouse depicting Christ standing behind a sailor, directing Him through a storm. On more than one occasion, the fog set in while we were at sea, and we had to rely on instruments to direct us back to the harbor. The Russian Orthodox church was the lone church on St. Paul, and while I don’t agree with some of their teachings, I am still glad they trust Christ for their salvation. And I was glad that Timon trusted God that our instruments were right and wouldn’t send us crashing into a cliff or a shoal in the foggy weather, which they never did.

One of my favorite parts of research on the Pribilofs was catching seabirds for Dr. Sasha Golovkin. My main job was to perform chemical tests on the water samples we collected, but due to the extreme weather conditions, we often had to wait for days before we could get out to sea. So when I could, I helped the other scientists with their research. I would travel with Dr. Golovkin to the cliffs where millions of seabirds nested, and we would catch and weigh puffins, murres, auklets, anything we could catch. Dr. Golovkin was particularly interested in least auklets, which the locals called “chuchkis”. Dr. Golovkin was studying their diet and metabolism. About the size of a sparrow, chuchkis would fly out to sea in large flocks to catch small crustaceans called copepods. The chuchkis lived along rocky shorelines, and built their nests in the crevices of rocks. In the evening, the chuchkis would return to the rocks, and we would hide behind large boulders, and when a group of chuchkis would come by we would swing large nets into the sky and capture them. Most of the birds were released immediately, but some were kept for further observations. Dr. Golovkin would sample their stomach contents, and they would invariably be full of one species of copepod about the size of a rice grain. Like freshly cooked crabs or shrimp, the copepods also changed from their natural opaque coloration to a pinkish-red color, the heat from the chuchki’s body in essence “cooking” the copepods.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Golovkin holding a horned puffin, Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Crested Auklet, Pribilof Islands

 

Chuchkis, like puffins and other auklets, were able to “fly” underwater. Denser than most birds, the majority of the chuchki’s body was submerged underwater when swimming on the surface. Dr. Golovkin built a 5-foot square holding tank to observe the chuchkis swimming, and we were all amazed at the ease with which this tiny bird moved underwater. It had to be incredibly agile to catch the small copepods that were its primary food.

We spent many hours exploring the island. There was a 500-head herd of caribou, and one time I spooked them and sent the whole herd stampeding in front of me, inches from the front of the ATV I was driving. We saw many ships hopelessly wrecked on the beaches, along with whale carcasses. Snowy owls, arctic foxes, and of course, Northern Fur Seals inhabited the island as well. The Pribilof Islands are the summer calving grounds for approximately 500,000 fur seals. Almost every beach had fur seals on it, some more than others. In prime spots, there were tens of thousands of seals. The males would form a “harem”, consisting of 1 male and a group of females and their pups. At the larger rookeries, the sound, and the smell were incredible. I could sit and watch the seal pups for hours, playing and interacting with one another. With such an unbelievable amount of animal and bird life, the Pribilof Islands were one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and highly recommended, if you can stand the smell.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Flint photographing a baby Arctic Fox. Note the caribou herd in the background. Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Baby Northern Fur Seals. Larger, lighter brown seals are mothers. Pribilof Islands.

Mainland Alaska-Kenai Peninsula
Research continued on the Pribilof Islands in the summer of 1993, and I was also able to experience a bit of the mainland and its world famous salmon fishing opportunities. Before I left for the Pribilofs that summer, my father and I .made a fishing trip to the Kenai Peninsula. Our destination was the Kenai River and a guided trip for king salmon. While the majority of Alaska is devoid of people, the Kenai River in late July is not one of those places. Known worldwide for the incredible size of its king salmon, the Kenai River is probably the busiest river in Alaska. If you are looking for pristine wilderness, the Kenai River is not the place to be, but if that doesn’t bother you, then it is a beautiful place with lots of fishermen.

We failed to catch a king salmon on our trip, although one of the men in our boat did land a beautiful 50 pounder. The Kenai River also sports one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the state, and anglers flock to its banks for this tasty prize. Since sockeye are very reluctant to strike a lure, fishermen must basically “snag” the salmon in the mouth with a streamer fly. Occasionally they do strike a lure or fly, but most sockeye are caught by snagging them in the mouth. I managed to hook a few, but my tackle, which was meant for light-tackle speckled trout and redfish in Texas bays, was no match for the combination of powerful fish and strong current.

Those two summers on the Pribilof Islands, and the time spent reading about Alaska, had me hooked for life, and I was determined to make it back to this great land. Besides the wildlife, there were other features about Alaska that intrigued me as well, such as the mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Alaska seemed to have everything an outdoors enthusiast could want, and in 2000, I was able to return again with my father.
As a young boy, my father would take me fishing, and before long, I was passionate about it. Growing up in Kingwood, Texas, I would ride my bicycle several miles to the San Jacinto River and fish for catfish and bass. My love of fishing seemed limitless, and I pestered my hard-working father to no end, constantly wanting him to take me fishing. I am now more reasonable about the amount of time and effort I put into fishing, but I still love to go, and my second fishing trip to Alaska in 2000 is one I will never forget.
West Cook Inlet
On this trip we decided to head to the west side of Cook Inlet to fish for silver salmon. It was early August, and the silvers were beginning to show. We were on a guided trip with Talon Air Service, and took a float plane to fish the Kustatan River. The river was high and muddy from recent rains, and the fishing was slow. Growing up fishing the spring run of white bass on the Trinity River, I knew that the bass would stack up in clear sloughs and creeks when the Trinity ran high. I had noticed that we traveled down a clear slough to get to the Kustatan, and suggested this as a possibility. We returned to the slough, and immediately began catching silvers almost as fast as we could get a line in the water. We had our limits in short order.

The next day we had a halibut trip scheduled, but it was canceled due to rough weather. We decided to try again for silvers, but this time we fished a spot where Wolverine Creek emptied into Big River Lakes. We had great success with silvers again, but more than that, we were treated to front row seats of a mother grizzly bear catching salmon for her two cubs. This was the 2nd wild grizzly bear I had ever seen, and my first Alaskan grizzly. Little did I know that it would not be my last. Sockeye salmon were stacked up beneath the outfall of Wolverine Creek, and the mother grizzly had easy pickings. When a large male black bear came on the scene, the mother grizzly bear chased him up a steep incline. We simply could not believe how an animal of that size could move so quickly up something so steep.

Wolverine Creek was a fascinating place, and after we had caught our limit of salmon, I persuaded the guide to let me out of the boat to get some pictures of salmon swimming up the creek. Several people cautioned me about the mother grizzly being nearby, but I could not see it and proceeded upstream. There were at least a dozen boats fishing in the area, and the mother grizzly seemed perfectly at ease, so I was not too apprehensive about hiking up the creek.

Suddenly, someone spotted the mother grizzly bear heading towards the creek, and everyone started yelling at me to come back to the boat, but I could not hear them because of the rushing water. It was not until I saw my guide approaching and waving his hands that I realized I needed to get back. The bear kept approaching, but it never charged or seemed concerned about my presence on the creek. This was my first experience that convinced me of the fact that all wild grizzlies are not ferocious man-eaters.

I took more photographs of the mother grizzly bear and her cubs than of anything else that trip. As I photographed the bear, I couldn’t help but think about Thomas Mangelsen’s photo I had seen back in 1989. That photograph was such a perfect trinity of bear, salmon, and photographer. It revealed the incredible abilities of all three, the bear and its hunting prowess, the salmon and its ability to leap up and over a rushing waterfall, and the photographer’s ability to have the camera settings optimized for the occasion. The bear I was photographing had a different hunting technique than the Mangelsen bear, and would “snorkel” and then dive down about 6 to 8 feet to catch its prey. And while I knew I would not get any photos like the Mangelsen bear photo, that snorkeling bear provided plenty of opportunities for photography practice, and made me realize more than ever that I wanted to be around these magnificient creatures and the salmon streams they loved.

Cubs at Wolverine Creek.

Cubs at Wolverine Creek.

 

Mother Grizzly, Wolverine Creek, Alaska

Mother Grizzly, Wolverine Creek, Alaska

Sockeye Salmon congregating at the outflow of Wolverine Creek.

Sockeye Salmon congregating at the outflow of Wolverine Creek.

 

Cubs' mother returning from her snorkeling trip with a sockeye.

Cubs' mother returning from her snorkeling trip with a sockeye.

 

After returning home from the 2000 Alaska trip with my father, I spent hours looking over the photos I had taken, longing to return to Alaska. Flying on the float plane, as well as observing the huge number of aircraft flying in and out of the Lake Hood float plane airport in Anchorage, made me realize that to get “off the beaten path” in Alaska, I would need to either go by plane or by boat. Since 1997, I had been conducting Marine Science Camps in Port Aransas, and the thought occurred to me that I should attempt an Alaska Science Camp. I discussed the plan with Rob Sadowski, a former student-turned-camp-assistant, and he couldn’t agree more.

By the summer of 2001, my beautiful wife Karen, and I owned two math and science education businesses, we were homeschooling my 15 year-old son, Kenny, and we were the proud parents of a daughter born in June. When Christ said He came to give us an abundant life, He wasn’t kidding, and mine was getting more abundant by the minute. I knew though that for some reason exploring Alaska figured into the picture of this abundant life, and I was determined to find out how.

Chapter 1: My First Grizzly

November 10, 2010

I am a Christian, and I am in awe of God and His creation. One of His works that I am particularly in awe of is the grizzly bear. The father of the classification system, Carolus Linnaeus, originally classified it as Ursus arctos in 1758. Many “new” species were identified afterwards, but now all are classified again as Ursus arctos, with two subspecies, the Kodiak bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi and Ursus arctos horribilis, which includes all other grizzly bears.

I saw my first grizzly bear in 1989 in Yellowstone National Park. Fresh from graduating with a B.S. Degree in Aerospace Engineering from The University of Texas, I was taking one last family vacation before fulfilling my responsibilities designing military aircraft at General Dynamics. We were staying at the Yellowstone Hotel on the shores of Lake Yellowstone, and heard rumors that a mother grizzly bear was feeding on spawning cutthroat trout in a stream near the hotel. We went out to inspect, and sure enough, there stood a mother grizzly bear about 100 yards in the distance. A Yellowstone Ranger had the formidable task of keeping about 100 tourists behind an imaginary line he had drawn. With a Nikon N70 35 mm camera and 300 mm zoom, I hoped to grab a few photos of the bear. The light levels were a bit low for my lens, but I did manage to at least capture the bear and one of her two cubs on film.

That first grizzly bear fascinated me, and I have been enthralled by them ever since. I watched in amazement as the mother bear would jump out of sight down into the creek bed, and then suddenly, up would come a cutthroat trout, flying through the air and onto the bank. The cubs would then proceed to pounce on the trout and devour it. I watched this scene repeat itself several times. That first encounter with a wild grizzly bear left a lasting impression on me, and I hoped it would not be my last.

Another lasting impression on that trip to Yellowstone came in the form of the photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen. We were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming one day and visited his art gallery in town. The photograph that became permanently etched in my memory was one of a grizzly bear the split second before it closed its jaws on a leaping sockeye salmon. I would learn later that this photo was not taken at Yellowstone, but at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. The photograph made me realize two things, the importance of salmon to grizzly bears, and the incredible hunting skills these bears possess. To be able to catch a salmon with its teeth while holding its position against a torrent of whitewater seemed like an almost impossible blend of concentration and agility.

One thing I noticed on that first grizzly encounter is there are two kinds of people; those wanting to get closer to grizzly bears, and those wanting to stay as far away as possible. That day, I discovered I am of the former persuasion, much to the dismay of friends, parents, and my lovely wife, Karen. And while I do like to get as close as possible to bears, I don’t want to be a fool, and two things I will always do when in bear country are 1) make every effort not to surprise a bear and 2) Make any bear that shows even the slightest interest in me or my campsite feel very unwelcome.

In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Yellowstone grizzly bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. However, with the combination of good management practices and abundant food, Yellowstone’s grizzlies came off the threatened list in March of 2007. But how did they get on the threatened list to begin with? In 1800, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. By 1975 only 1000 remained.

The massive decline of grizzly bears was primarily a result of ignorance on the part of American settlers combined with a love/hate relationship with grizzlies. Just the mention of the name “grizzly bear” is enough to get an emotional response from the average person. The early settlers loved grizzly bears as a food source, as well as a source of profit through the sale of skins. In California, “Bear grease” was a sought after lubricant for greasing wagon wheels. Bears were also hated, especially by livestock owners. In his 1881 book, Reminiscences of a Ranger, Major Horace Bell recounted that in the 1850’s, “grizzly bears were more plentiful in Southern California than pigs”, and were so numerous in some areas they made cattle ranching nearly impossible.

Worst of all, grizzly bears killed humans. Lewis and Clark, in their famous journey through the American West at the dawn of the 19th century, described how the “Indians [gave] a very formidable account of the strength and ferocity of this animal, which they never dare to attack but in parties of six, eight or ten persons; and are even then frequently defeated with the loss of one or more of their party.” One 1852 report from California stated that “schools were closed because it was unsafe for children to use trails”.

These factors, along with creation of the Sharps rifle in the 1840’s, led to the rapid decimation of the grizzly bear. Meriweather Lewis frequently walked alone in the mornings, but “armed with my rifle and espontoon; thus equipped I feel myself more than an equal match for a brown bear provided I get
him in open woods or near the water.” Although Lewis used a muzzleloader and not a breech-loaded Sharps rifle, he felt quite confident in his rifle. However, it was the spear-like espontoon that saved him in one incident. He had just killed a buffalo with his rifle when he noticed a grizzly stalking him less than 50 yards away. “I thought of
retreating in a brisk walk as fast as he was advancing until I could reach a tree about 300 yards below me, but I had no sooner turned myself about but he pitched at me, open mouthed and full speed, I ran about 80 yards and found he gained on me fast, I then run into the water the idea struck me to get into the water to such depth that I
could stand and he would be obliged to swim, and that I could in that situation defend myself with my espontoon; accordingly I ran hastily into the water about waist deep, and faced about and presented the point of my espontoon, at this instant he arrived at the edge of the water within about 20 feet of me; the moment I put myself in this attitude of defense he suddenly wheeled about as if frightened, declined the combat on such unequal grounds, and retreated with quite as great precipitation as he had just before pursued me.”

The rifle gave men a sense of strength they never had before, and I think in many cases they failed to realize just how well it was working. Technology has a way of instantly replacing skills that used to take months, if not years, to acquire. Digital cameras are a great example. Excellent photos used to take great skill, with bulky and expensive equipment. Now however, someone with almost no experience can pick up a digital SLR and start shooting fantastic photos. This is a good example of technology, because it allows more people to capture beautiful images, but it also forces professional photographers to take their game to a higher level in order to offer something truly unique and original.

Guns are another good use of technology, unless of course they are put in the hands of a fool. For someone looking to defend his household, feed his family, or protect his country, guns are a useful weapon. However, put in the hands of a fool, a gun can be a dangerous tool. I feel sorry for people who live in countries that do not give their people a right to bear arms, but I am also glad I live in a country that doesn’t allow fools to carry guns.

And just like a digital SLR in the hands of a novice, the Sharps rifle allowed instant access to skills that used to involve much greater danger and more time to develop. Instead of building skill and knowledge about grizzlies first, many ignorant people used technology as an excuse for pragmatism, thoughtlessly and needlessly killing many grizzlies. I think the same thing happens today, and we have all been guilty of replacing skill and knowledge with ease of use, whether its overharvesting a fishery with no thought of maintaining a balance, or a young person overusing a calculator without first memorizing their basic math facts. Technology is a gift from God, and we need to use it to improve our abilities to rule His kingdom, not to destroy it and ourselves.

The removal of grizzly bears from the lower 48 states followed the Westward expansion; the last grizzly bear in Texas was killed in 1900, the last in California in 1922. Although currently extirpated, the grizzly bear is still California’s state animal and adorns their flag.

Trophy hunters also took their fair share of grizzlies during the late 1800s and early 1900s. I am not a hunter, but I am a fisherman, and while I do enjoy catching a large fish, my main goal when fishing is not to go on a “trophy quest”, but rather to enjoy God’s creation and bring home some good tasting fish for dinner. While there are a few trophy hunters that have self-esteem issues and have a need to conquer something more powerful than themselves using an extremely unfair advantage, I think most of them are simply in awe of the animals they pursue, and they want to put the animal to some use after killing it, whether that use be food or decoration. But no matter what the use, the main issue is that it is a limited resource, and unless someone has a reasonable estimate of how many animals are alive, it is impossible to know how many can be hunted while maintaining the population.

Some people have a hard time with the idea of “limited resource”. I have noticed this mostly with the boys on my adventure camps. In their immaturity and naivety, I think boys tend to believe that they are “the only ones” who have walked the land and rafted the rivers we are on, and therefore, they are free to take as much as they want. Unless we are short on food, I follow the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game regulations, and in some instances go above and beyond their expectations. I do not believe in wasting the resource, and we do not keep the allowed number of salmon “just because we can”. We only keep enough for the campers to eat in one night. I also encourage the use of barbless hooks even when it is not required. Most of the fish we catch on a trip are going to be released, and this is fun to be able to do, but it is extremely detrimental to the fish when it gets hooked in a way that the barb does considerable damage. You lose a few more fish with barbless hooks, but the damage to the ecosystem is considerably less.

In hunting though, the goal is to kill the animal, and there is no “catch and release” like there is in sport fishing. This makes it even more important for somebody or some group to have a population estimate of the species being hunted. To understand the importance of population estimates, consider for example a certain small pond, small enough to throw a stone across. If no one knew how many people were fishing and how much they were catching, it would be easy to catch all of the fish in a short amount of time. This is basically what happened in North America with the near extinction of the grizzly bear. No one had a good estimate of how many bears there were, and no one knew how many bears were being killed each year. There were some famous bear hunters such as Ramon Ortega from California, who reportedly killed 200 grizzlies in his career and 15 in one day. For the most part though, few records were kept, and it was the love of hunting grizzlies, combined with the ranchers’ and other humans’ hatred that led to their demise in the lower 48.

I am also a proponent of using the plants and animals God created for our purposes. This is what God intended, but he also told us to “rule over” His creation. We can be good rulers or bad rulers. People have a hard time being good rulers, especially when it comes to something like grizzly bears. While grizzly bears have many opponents, there are those who want them for their parts as well. For example, the bile from a bear’s gall bladder has been used for medicinal purposes in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years. I do not know much about the use of bear bile in medicine, but if it is truly helping human beings, then I think hunting bears for this purpose should be allowed as long as it doesn’t destroy the bear population. Many places currently permit the sale of gall bladders taken from hunted bears, including Nova Scotia and Maine. If more places permitted the sale of bear parts, it may actually curve the tide of poaching and black market trade that occurs. Also, it may help to eliminate the cruel “bear farms” that exist in some Asian countries, where bile is extracted directly from live, caged bears. Taking bile from a bear is NOT the same thing as taking milk from a cow or eggs from a chicken, and is a very cruel and painful process for the bear. Other parts of the bears can also be sold.

I am all for using plants and animals to cure ailments, but if humans can find a less destructive method, then we should do that. Since the Japanese synthesized bear bile in 1955, it seems like killing bears just for their gall bladder is not a worthwhile pursuit. Current estimates of prices for bear gall bladders vary anywhere from US $30 to $3,000, and not being a bear gall bladder expert, it is difficult to say which price is more realistic.

Ironically to some, hunters were probably the reason grizzlies did not become completely extinct in North America. Although often stereotyped as bloodthirsty savages, more often than not hunters are some of the best conservationists around. One of the best hunter/conservationists was America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an avid hunter of many animals, including grizzly bears. But he also loved bears and wanted to make sure future generations would enjoy them too. He set aside more land for national parks and preserves than all of his predecessors combined, 194 million acres (785,000 km²). Roosevelt explained, “There is an intimate relation between our streams and the development and conservation of all the other great permanent sources of wealth.” During his presidency, Roosevelt promoted the nascent conservation movement in essays for Outdoor Life magazine. Roosevelt believed we should find a balance between use and conservation of our natural resources. A Christian man, Roosevelet understood the meaning of taking dominion, and realized that America’s future depended on it. But he also understood there was a proper way to do this, one that included the Christian principle of unity and diversity. The Trinity, and the “body of Christ” are two of many examples of unity and diversity in God’s kingdom. The concept can be applied to many situations, including resource management. One place, like a forest for example, should have a diversity of uses, and we should learn how to properly care for and use such places. God did not give us His creation to plunder and destroy, but rather to manage and enhance. Roosevelet saw forests as places to protect, but he also saw the benefit it would provide if timber were harvested. Instead of making large tracts off limits, Roosevelt encouraged the efficient use of the resources.

I think Roosevelt would be appalled at the current state of affairs regarding oil and gas production in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and other places. This is a perfect place to show that man and animals can coexist. Although we have failed miserably in the past with destructive mishaps and polluting practices, man has also learned a great deal about how to properly mine for oil and gas. One amazing fact is that even though there were hundreds of oil and gas platforms in the path of Hurricane Katrina, there was no significant loss of oil from that storm. No beaches were soaked with crude oil, no oil soaked birds to clean, no fish kills from oil. Even the recent BP Macondo disaster was not as bad as predicted, and was stopped in 1/3 the time of the Ixtoc spill of 1979, even though the BP spill was over a mile deep, while the Ixtoc spill was only 160 ft. down. This is really quite amazing, and is a testimony to just how far we have come regarding oil spill prevention.

Nevertheless, thanks to Roosevelt and others, the grizzly bear did not go extinct, and its numbers are currently increasing in the lower 48 states. In March 2007, the grizzly was removed from “threatened status” in Yellowstone National park, and now over 500 live in the park. Established in 1872 under Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone was the first national park in America’s, and the world. Setting aside tracts of land as parks “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was not a new concept, but no park had ever been created of such a vast size that also had the purpose of providing “for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition” as stated in the 1872 Act establishing the park. Yellowstone has been a huge success, and millions of visitors flock there annually to see not only bears, but wolves, bison, elk, and countless other natural wonders.

Grizzly bear populations are on the rise in other places as well. While only receiving about 20,000 visitors annually compared to Yellowstone’s millions, Alaska’s Katmai National Park is home to more grizzlies than any of America’s national parks. More than double the size of Yellowstone, the current grizzly population is around 2,500. Alaska has the most grizzlies of any state (32,000) and more than all of Canada (22,000). Russia, however, takes the prize for most grizzlies, with current estimates around 70,000 to 80,000 bears, and most of these living in the eastern half of Russia, an area roughly the same size as the United States.

Poaching and other illegal hunting activities still affect bear populations worldwide, but overall their numbers are on the increase. And with human populations also on the increase, the number of grizzly/human encounters is only going to go up. So will we start killing bears off again? I don’t think so. I think the attitude towards bears and most wildlife is different than it was in the 1800s. We have lost some animals, such as the passenger pigeon, that people loved dearly, and we almost lost many other great animals, such as the bald eagle, whooping crane, and bison. These have been humbling experiences, and people are more concerned now than ever to have wild places for animals to run free.

So how do we deal with more bear/human encounters? How do we better manage bear populations? Well, probably the best way is through education, and that is part of the goal of this book. Through the setting of a rafting/camping adventure in Katmai National Park, you will learn what it means to humans to have wild places, and you will learn a lot about survival in the wild and what it is like to live in close contact with hundreds of grizzly bears. You will experience some of the raw beauty of Katmai National Park and other parts of Alaska, and you will learn the importance of taking dominion of His creation. With that said, let the adventure begin!

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Bottlenose Dolphin

November 10, 2010

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Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)are a common sight along the Gulf Coast. These images are from Port Aransas, Texas. The photo below was used on the cover of the October 1, 2009 edition of the Port Aransas “South Jetty” weekly newspaper:

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

Adult dolphins reach lengths up to 12 feet (4 meters), and males are normally larger than females. Dolphins typically live 20-30 years, but have been known to live up to 50 years. Bottlenose are dark gray on top, fading to white or pink underneath. An average sized (550 lb) dolphin will eat 20-50 pounds of fish each day! Dolphins find fish to eat using sight, but they can also hunt at night and in murky water by using echolocation. When a dolphin uses echolocation, it is basically creating a picture of its environment using sound. Although dolphins produce a range of sounds, the most useful sounds for echolocation appear to be clicks of short duration released in single pulses or trains of pulses. These clicks may be repeated up to 800 times per second. Dolphins have no vocal chords, so the sounds they produce are believed to be created by forcing air through their nasal passages and nasal sacs. The bulbous head of the bottlenose is filled with fatty tissue, and is believed to act like a lens, concentrating the clicks into a “beam” of sound. Their sounds can travel over half a mile, and they can even use their sounds to stun prey. So not to confuse outgoing sounds with returning sounds, outside sounds enter through the lower jaw and travel through the skull by bone conduction. Fat and oil bodies within the lower jaw vibrate, adn the sound is channeled directly to the middle ear. The hearing center in a dolphin’s brain is well-developed, probably so that it can analyze and interpret returning sound messages. For comparison, a human ear can hear in the range of 16 to 20,000 vibrations per second. A bottlenose dolphin responds to frequencies above 150,000 vibrations per second!

A dolphin’s vision is not as good as human’s, and it is believed they have no sense of smell, but they can taste. Dolphins reproduce sexually, and like all mammals, give birth to a baby that feeds on its mother’s milk. Dolphins have an 11-month gestation period, with babies being born mainly in the spring. Dolphins swim in groups or pods of related dolphins, and work together to trap fish, squid, and other food items.

Sometimes dolphins like to jump in the bow wake of large ships, like these three dolphins are doing:

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

Sometimes they jump for no apparent reason!

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

Here is a video of dolphins jumping in the bow wake of a tanker:

While the dolphins in these photos and video are jumping, they also like to dive, and have been recorded to dive to depths of about 1,000 feet (300 m)! They have a horizontally-positioned caudal fin, which they move up and down for propulsion. This is different than in fishes, which move their vertically-positioned tails from side to side. A rigid dorsal fin and a pair of flippers are used for stability and turning. Dolphin’s skin is smooth and slippery, allowing them to attain speeds up to 25 miles per hour (16 kph).

Dolphins rank second in intelligence only to us humans, but even as smart as they are, their creative abilities are less than toddler’s. Only humans, who were created in God’s image, were designed to be anywhwere near as creative as Him. You won’t see dolphins building skyscrapers, composing music, or drawing self-portraits! Dolphins are capable of learning many things though, and are easy to train in a way that shows off their incredible strength and agility, as shown in this video from the Texas State Aquarium:

The Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids harassing, feeding, or interfering with a dolphin’s normal activities. Sometimes, their “normal” activities include being extremely curious and approaching humans within just a few feet.

Copyright 2009, David E. Shormann

If you visit the Gulf Coast, you may not be greeted by a dolphin in such a personal way, but if you are, turn the boat motor off, keep out of the water (dolphins may bite), and enjoy the show!

Click on this link to print a COLORING PAGE:       bottlenose dolphin

Sharing the Gospel’s liberating message

November 10, 2010

I made this video after a mission trip to Vladivostok, Russia in September, 2010. Russia was once part of the communist Soviet Union, or USSR. Communism, with its atheistic foundation, is a horrible system of government. America, with it’s Christian foundation, has an imperfect, but definitely better system of government. Unfortunately, many Americans are accepting of socialism, a form of government that is a pathway to communism. We should never forget how bad communism is (in places like North Korea and China) and was for citizens of the former Soviet Union. Over 60 million people were murdered in the former Soviet Union, basically because they disagreed with the goals of communism.

Governments don’t provide true liberty, Jesus Christ does (John 8:36). As more Russians acknowledge Christ as their Savior, more pastors and churches are needed. Two ways to help spread the Gospel in Russia are to support the Slavic Reformation Society and its seminary, as well as the church-planting ministry of CREC Eurasia.

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