Friday, August 24, 2018

Farewell the Ship's People

It was a totally familiar remote Alaska experience given new life by the boys' involvement.

They were scheduled to fly out of the village of Akhiok three days ago. Bit of an adventure getting to the airstrip. We moved the mothership around from the delightful Rodman's Reach anchorage over to Kempff Bay, and then undertook the final approach to the Akhiok airstrip in our new beach seining dinghy, Oom Jock. Big chop, water over the bows, plenty of spray, boys' duffles in garbage bags, that sort of thing.

Then we reached the airstrip, the boys alight with the excitement of it all.

And then...nothing. Fine weather in Akhiok, but Kodiak totally socked in.

This was NOT what the boys were expecting: a lesson in the total acceptance that is waiting for a small plane flight in a place with weather as predictably awful as the western Gulf of Alaska.

We ended up retreating to the Mothership after a few hours of waiting to see if the plane would make it, and then back to Rodman's Reach. But not before we had met some amazingly helpful and friendly people in Akhiok. We really really like that village.

We returned the next day to try again, although this time it was the weather in Akhiok that didn't look promising, with a low ceiling and patchy ground fog.

But then we got the call on the VHF that the plane had left Kodiak, and by the time we were beaching Oom Jock in Akhiok the plane was landing. It's always like that with a delayed flight in the Bush. You wait, and maybe wait a bit more, and then suddenly everything is a big rush when the plane appears.

Before we knew it, the boys were strapped in the plane, feeling a bit self conscious in their rain gear, and even more self conscious with all the hugs and kisses their parents were pestering them with.

And then they were away. By the time we had Oom Jock back on the deck of the Mothership the boys were being greeted in town by my Mom, who has heroically flown up from Boston to shepherd them through the start of school while we finish up the sampling.

Thanks, Mom!


The last time that Alisa and I did any sailing alone together was also on the east side of Kodiak. But it was 12 and a half years ago, when she was pregnant with Elias. All of our sailing since then has been a family affair. So it's not surprising that things are...different without the boys on board. I suppose that we're getting a tiny taste of empty nest syndrome, that experience for parents after the kids fly off to college and life beyond. But more than anything, the kids' absence is a reminder of what a delight it is to be on the boat with them, where they are so at home, and our daily life is an adventure.

We might have begun our voyaging life with the kids not quite as an afterthought, but certainly not as the main reason that we were going. We dropped everything 11 years ago and went to sea in spite of having a baby, not because we did.

But after ten years and one summer of sailing as a family, things have progressed to the point where the kids' involvement really is a big motivating factor, likely the biggest motivating factor.

There's just no kind of family life that we can imagine that compares with family life on a traveling boat - the mixture of freedom and closeness. And though it was time for us to give up the full-time sailing life and return to land life and school and all the rest, we have been very happy for the taste of that life that this last two months has given us.

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Aspiring Young Sailors Will Note...

..that putting paper towels down the head will not endear you with the parental units.

Just when you think a kid who lived full time on a boat from age 1 to 7 has got the basics down, Eric went and pulled that doozy.

The wad of paper towel made it past the pump, where it would have been *relatively* easy to clear, and into the exhaust hose, where it definitely was not.

Alisa, who is officially Doing More of the Engineering, was the one to pull off the hose and suffer the pressurized filial shit spray as a result.

Thanks, hon.

So, it turned into something *fun* for us to do while the gale raged outside. Alisa and I pulled the old exhaust hose on the head (NOT as easy as it sounds) and replaced it with the new hose that WE ALWAYS KEEP ON HAND. (Emphasis in the original.)

Only good side: Alisa's homemade pizza was delayed by the carrying on. So the boys got top ramen for dinner, and after the head imbroglio was over, A. and I got to sit down and enjoy both of the pizzas, in their entirety, on our very own.

(In Eric's somewhat tepid defence, the hose was clearly overdue for replacement. They get scaled up and progressively constricted over time.)


Meanwhile, the weather outside is completely filthy. No berry picking today, though there were a couple lulls when we likely could have pulled it off. We've settled into the low-vis phase of the blow now, with rain and general airborne moisture obscuring the horizon, and gusts pummeling us this way and that.

Amazing how fast a day can go when you're stuck on the boat.

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Alaskan Fisheries in the Global Warming Present

This summer of research that we've been pursuing from Galactic was motivated by the collapse of the Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska. Our work is aimed at understanding how young fish are faring post-collapse, and thus what the outlook is for recovery of the stock.

There's an interesting side to that stock collapse, in that we have a good scientific understanding of what caused it.

Cod in Alaska are very intensively studied and managed, so there are good data for understanding how the collapse happened in terms of the fate of different ages of fish within the population. This evidence points very clearly to the effects of the 2014-2016 North Pacific marine heatwave on younger fish, which apparently could not find enough food to meet their increased metabolic needs in the warmer waters.

An entirely separate body of research tells us that the heatwave was a result of human changes to the atmosphere, most notably our carbon dioxide output. Our best scientific understanding is that you can't get the North Pacific as warm as it was in 2016 without these human changes to the atmosphere.

So while cod populations have waxed and waned through the centuries in response to natural changes in the climate, we find ourselves in new territory, where the climate it outside the envelope of natural variability. The poor returns for many sockeye salmon populations in the Gulf this summer put us on notice that the fisheries repercussions will likely not be restricted to cod.

For as long as I've been working as a marine biologist the Alaskan marine science community has mostly dealt with human-caused changes to the climate as a pressing concern of the near future, the impacts of which would become apparent in a few decades. Suddenly we find that that future is now. For individuals and communities that were counting on income from cod or sockeye salmon the impacts of global warming are now immediate and concrete. And we have a very good scientific understanding that these are only the first shocks, and that the rate and magnitude of climate change affecting Alaskan fisheries will increase dramatically as the years go by.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Thoughts on Turning Fifty

One: I can give up on any notions of self improvement. What I am at this point is what I've got to work with.

Two: There could be few finer gifts on the big day than an unexpectedly fast sail along a rugged coast in diamond-sharp sunshine, getting us to our lonely anchorage with plenty of time for a leisurely birthday dinner. With the family, that best company of all.

We had two days in Kujulik Bay, using it merely as a convenient anchorage as on the outbound leg we found it to be one of the few bays that was useless for beach seining baby cod.

Two days because a big blow was forecast and Kujulik was a known and trusted anchorage. And blow it did. A shroud-vibrating, water-smoking kind of blow, for a few hours there.

Later when things had calmed down we got the ship's people ashore on an early season blueberry mission. It is heartwarming to observe the simple joy that searching for berries gives the boys. We came away with enough for two rounds of baked goods. And noted the suspicious autumnal cast to some of the maritime tundra plants.

Today...we had a ripper, honest forty knots kind of sail down the coast. Triple-reefed main and nothing else for much of the day. Waves steep due to the opposing current. Stack on the diesel cabin heater came adrift because of a mishap with the sheet when the jib was being furled. Always so easily avoided in retrospect, a mishap like that. It's already back in place, though, a few inches shorter than it used to be.

And, just like that we are back in Port Wrangell, a marvelous stone bowl of an anchorage, carved right out of the living mountainside.

Four sets for us tomorrow, plus some baited camera work. And Elias has been making noise about fishing for dollies afterwards.

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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Northwest weather

Sure sign that this is a work trip. Our willingness to anchor, for two nights no less, in a 20-knot northwest wind, in Fox Bay, which is open to the northwest with fifteen miles of fetch.

That's not anything that we would ever choose to do on a recreational trip. But we stayed here two nights with the barky bucking and snorting against the waves. All praise to our chips-down anchoring setup. Forty kilo Rocna and 80m of 3/8" G40 chain in 15m of water, good mud bottom, and we can put up with a lot.

We are watching the weather forecasts minutely on this trip. Especially now that we are retracing our steps from the outbound leg when we were choosing anchorages in consistent southeast weather. The weather has swung persistently into the west, which is a godsend for our progress back up the Peninsula, especially considering the knot and a half westward setting Alaska Coastal Current. But that switch in the wind will also change some of our anchorages into less sure bets. We were aware of the need to select sites that would be good in a variety of weather, of course, but there are precious few all-weather anchorages along this part of the coast.

The wildlife sightings continued yesterday. A peregrine, presumably the same one we saw when first entering the anchorage, came down and buzzed us yesterday morning, swooping back and forth around the stern of the Mothership. A very dark individual, and I've never in my days been buzzed by a peregrine before, that unreapproachably standoffish bird. And a porcupine on the beach when the family was dinghying in to sample, which for a wild moment was rumored to be a wolverine, the Alaskan mammal that is so famously difficult to spot and which I have never seen. There was quite a moment of fumbling with the binoculars before it was confirmed as a porkie. Lots of bear sign on the beach, including tracks of a sow with young of the year cubs, but no sightings. But, to everyone's delight, we deployed our baited underwater camera for counting age-1 cod, and came up with video of a salmon shark cruising the anchorage.

Now that was cool.

The northwest weather also gave us sunshine, which has been as rare as fresh laundry on this trip. We managed a walk. I got partway up one of the hills separating us from the open Gulf of Alaska, and the ship's people meandered on the foreshore. The glory of stretching our legs!

So sunny that Elias repeated his birthday trick of jumping in the water, twice. Eric was not to be outdone and jumped in, then scampered out and curled up in a ball on the back deck, waiting for a parent to pour warm water over him.

OK. Time to make tracks.
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Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Well, we seem to be getting plenty of young of the year cod in these beach seines that we're setting. Though it's pretty hard to know what constitutes a lot of fish on the first year of a study like this when you don't have anything to compare with, it is very gratifying to catch the species you're after. Pacific cod have been the most common species in our seines by far.

Aside from cod, it's a pretty unvaried fish community that we're sampling. Lots of greenlings, a handful of salmon smolts, plenty of sculpins. Excitement is getting juvenile pollock in a set, as that forces us to pay careful attention to distinguish every cod from pollock. They take a little studying to tell apart when they're only 5 cm long.

Oh, and the wolf eel we got back in Port Wrangel. That was excitement.

There have been a few good natural history moments outside of the seining. Some great views of salmon sharks in our last anchorage, making hay while the chum were running up the bay. And a peregrine falcon overhead at this anchorage. That sort of thing.


We had a ripper sail today. Plenty of wind on the starboard quarter and we might have touched 8 knots at times. And, for the second day in a row, it wasn't raining. Wonders.

We've got 76 stations sampled now, and are officially turned around and heading home. We're anchored in Fox Bay, on the Peninsula, which is the first of our sites that we will re-sample. The plan is to hit every station on the way out and on the way back.

Split tides tomorrow. We'll sample the 0530 morning tide once its light enough to work, and then finish the day's work on the evening tide. First, I'll take a look at the weather to see if we're in for any surprises. And then, to bed.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Son, Sun

We busted out of Sand Point yesterday. Not much of a bust-out, just the 15 miles across to Balboa Bay on the mainland. But a northwest wind does funnel out of that bay and straight into the face of an entering boat, as we were warned.

But we got here, soon enough, and all the family felt the relief, as much as we liked Sand Point, at being off on our own again in some miracle of a western Alaskan bay that we had never seen before, all by ourselves.

And, in that quick dash out of town, I got yet another chance to reflect on how much I enjoy running a boat with Alisa. Whatever else we may be good for in life, the two of us can certainly get a boat from one place to another while keeping family life humming along.

We found an open spot in the field of Dungeness crab pots that covered Albatross Anchorage, where we dropped the hook.

This morning dawned, our eldest's 12th birthday. And, for the first time on a sampling day since Agripina Bay, which was quite a long time ago indeed, the sun shone.

We Galactics like to make a big deal out of birthdays. Elias had a slice of salmonberry pie for breakfast.

The tide being conveniently late in the day, Elias and I sallied forth on a fishing expedition before the day's beach seining began. We fed the biting gnats, and watched chum salmon milling about and leaping from the last salt water they would ever see, just off the mouth of the creek they would ascend to spawn and die. Just out of our reach, maddeningly to Elias.

We visited the spot where a brown bear had dug so powerfully into the gravel just above high tide line, and I picked up a matted ball of the bear's fur. What had it been digging for?

We fed the biting gnats. We pursued dollies in the creek. With some gentle urging from me, we got back to the Mothership for Alisa's promised birthday brunch. Nothing eases memories of gnats that bit and fish that didn't like the smell of bacon and pancakes wafting over saltwater.

The seining went swimmingly, after a shaky start essayed by too much eelgrass and a net rolled in on itself until it had the fish catching ability of a rope.

We could actually see the mountains above us for a change. Eric and I went the day without rain jackets, braving the world in only our waders, thermals and lifejackets. Elias, enjoying a special birthday dispensation, brought along a fishing rod to cast for dollies while Alisa and I worked up the seine catches.

Though he was refused permission to take the dinghy on "short" fishing trips while Alisa and I worked.
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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sand Point

Sand Point
We are about to leave the town of Sand Point, that historical cod port in the Shumagin Islands. One more new bay for us to sample on the Alaska Peninsula, and then we will start retracing our track back to Kodiak.

We love Sand Point! What a friendly place, what a fantastic location, what a great harbor. The salmon season was a big disappointment here, but the salmon berries have been out of this world, and the boys have done their best to make a dent in them.
We've been in the Shumagins for a week now, sampling three bays and taking advantage of the internet to submit both a National Science Foundation proposal and a journal paper. Oh, and hiding out from some generally ick weather. We are loathe to even mention the idea of poor weather, lest someone think we are complaining. But, when the fishermen start bringing up the bad weather in conversation, as they have, I suppose it's ok to note that it has generally been...atrocious.

But, we've been getting the work done. And now, the wind is in the west, and it's time for us to make tracks.
The team, set to beach seine Sand Point

Cannery and slough
Chasing the salmon berries

Here and below - the taste of summer

Eternal Alaska

Eternal Alaska
There's a lot that's crazy about this undertaking of doing research from our own boat.

There really isn't enough time in the year for us to keep a boat and a house going. And the demands of my other science life - the papers and proposals and reviews and thousand and one demanding tasks that characterize the life of a scientist - all that doesn't go away just because I'm out in the field for a couple months.

And our days with the family revolve around, well, work. The boys are very used to hearing that no, there isn't time to do this or that fun thing in the fabulous places we are visiting because we have to sample on the tide, or we have to make it to the next bay.

But, for all that, there is a huge joy in this summer of muddy boots and shared enterprise that the family is embarked on. We're roughly half way through the job, and about to turn around to head back towards Kodiak. And as is the case with any worthwhile voyage, I find that time has stretched out. The first bays we visited seem a lifetime ago, and it feels (comfortably) like this trip will never end.

S'mores on the beach
Fifth of July fireworks. We were traveling on the Fourth.
He put on his dad's waders by mistake
At the very southern end of Kodiak
High-energy beach

Crossing the Shelikof
The dolly varden fishing of his dreams 
Fin whale blow
IDing salmon smolts
Each boy is working on a project for the summer. Eric's: an algae collection.
Swim-by from the locals

National Public Radio reports...

...that I am wiry and have a thick beard.

Seriously, though, it's gratifying to see interest in our work.

The reporter tells me the story will likely air on NPR this weekend.

That's Alisa in the photo with me.