Times and Travels: Orca Watching

The waters of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are home to many kinds of sea mammals. Some of the most exciting ones to encounter are the pods of whales that roam around the islands of Puget Sound and the Canadian boundary waters. On our recent trip to San Juan Island we were hosted on a small excursion boat with a crew of one, Captain Jim. Many thanks to Ryan’s parents for setting up this unusual outing, and for ordering perfect weather for carrying it out.

Our excursion started the west side of San Juan Island, the small harbor of Mitchell Bay. The whale watching boats are independently owned and operated by men who know the islands and surrounding waters well. We were six in number and a pretty good fit for the captain’s boat. We set out from the harbor with no idea of where to look for whales – a problem which was solved by communicating with numerous other boats on the water. The closest pod of orcas that had been spotted was about an hour north, close to the Canadian border so off we went.

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I loved the tiny cabins at this resort. Have to go back and stay longer!
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Captain Jim getting us on his boat.
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Captain Jim’s boat is equipped with GPS, depth finders, binoculars, and a bathroom!

The sun was out, the temperature was moderate, the water was relatively quiet. All this was not the usual. We went north and west to the Strait of Georgia. You really need to look on the map sometime in order to know how crazy the international boundary is in that part of North America. It zigs and zags through the islands and is connected to some little known history of the Pig War. I had never heard of this war but most of the islanders can tell the story and it is rather colorful.  By the time we located the orcas we were in the Strait of Georgia within sight of Vancouver, in Canadian waters.

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Another whale watching boat and the ferry on the nearly glassy smooth Strait of Georgia

The Strait is a very large area and often has ocean size swells, but as I said, it was almost glassy still. We had Dramamine with us but didn’t need it at all. There were three or four other boats watching the pods with us as we followed them along. The orcas are not whales but are the largest mammals in the dolphin family. They travel in social groups, as large as 40 members, that get numbered and are recognizable by individual dorsal fin characteristics. They are often called killer whales because they are skilled hunters and feed on other marine mammals. They cooperate in the hunt, acting a bit like a pack of wolves.

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Exhale!

If I remember right, we were watching pod 34 and possibly pod 37, which were both resident pods. They stay close year round, whereas other pods travel through as transients.  A number of dorsal fins would appear as the orcas came up to breathe, and we would hear the rush of air as they exhaled. They would dive again and reappear farther ahead.  We kept hoping they would find something to feed on and actually breach completely out of the water, but that didn’t happen. Boats are restricted from getting closer than 200 yards from orcas and are not to block their path or be closer than 400 yards ahead of them but we still got good views. Captain Jim had binoculars for everyone which helped.

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We used binoculars.
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And evidently not just for the whales.

 

After an hour or so of watching, we headed back through the islands, often slowing to photograph the awesome views. Mt. Baker is the volcano visible in many of the photos. What a perfect day it was to be out on the water in the PNW!

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Esther and Ryan enjoying the sun and the water
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Gorgeous scenery like this the whole time.
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Majestic Mt. Baker in the distance

#AtoZChallenge: My Favorite Things K

My Kayak

The first reason for having this fine thing for a favorite is that its word is a fun palindrome. Kayak is kayak no matter which way you look at it.  I love words that look quirky too and having those k’s at the beginning and end give it a nice balanced look. Balance is a very good thing for a kayak to have, believe me.

I had a birthday recently and one of my hopes for every birthday is to do something mildly scary (or new) that makes me know I am still alive and meeting challenges. I also love to share my birthday experience with someone, but this year there was no one free to help me out. I had to do something alone, and that was probably the needed scary factor – doing it alone.

I decided that I would go out in my kayak to a new place, Lake Manatee, which is a reservoir on the Manatee River east of the town where I live. I have done a birthday kayak outing once before but at that time I rented a kayak. Having my own now, the first challenge was to get it on top of my car and fastened in place, by myself. Doing something a bit difficult and awkward with someone watching on makes me feel a little like a two-year-old screaming “I do it myself!” but that’s the way it had to be since I had to know if I could do it.

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Yeah, just try to figure one of these out….

The most difficult thing was figuring out how to work the ratchet straps. I’ve never studied them long enough to really “get it” but now I do. They are very handy things but you have to know how they work.

Since I’m always a nervous driver when something is strapped on to the outside of my car, this process of loading up was very important to me. Can you imagine my kayak laying out in the middle of I-75? That’s not just mildly scary, it’s nightmare material.

I’m happy to say I did it, I enjoyed it and I lived to write about it. In the interest of keeping posts short, I’ll post my picture story and be done.

 

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Here’s how I travel. Safely in the parking lot at the lake.
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Looking a bit wild. It was windy. But, I am all color coordinated which is the important thing.
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I saw an alligator in one of the backwaters I investigated. I left rather quickly.
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It’s even more windy in the middle of a lake, and of course, that’s where I went. I don’t know why.
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It was beautiful along the shore, sun made the water sparkle.
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An outing is no good without food. I found this sheltered shore with a “hitching post” and had my snack.
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I rescued this balloon out of the water. Things like this can pose danger for water birds and other wildlife.

What do you like to do on your birthday that makes it memorable. Don’t say “eat cake” please…

#3: Boating on Round Lake

wp-1470780259001.jpgWe had a gorgeous day for this outing – clear sky, warm air and warm water.  My brother had agreed to take some teens tubing on our favorite lake.  Round Lake is a large, deep, spring fed, recreational lake about eight miles west of Hayward.  Our family farm was  only a quarter mile from Round Lake and our childhood memories are pretty much dominated by the times we spent there, swimming, skiing, fishing and boating.  It is known for it’s clear, unpolluted water.  I don’t know it’s present status but when I was younger, it was known to be clean enough to drink.

We met the kids at the boat landing and put the tubes in the water. I don’t want to say that my age is responsible, but within ten minutes of being there I had gotten my leg tangled in the tow rope and fallen down in the shallow water, clothes and all.  But, hey, I was there to get wet, right?

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These girls play hard…

The tubing was fun to watch and the kids had a great time being viciously competitive. After they learn how to hang on, the only real excitement is in knocking someone else off or flipping their tube over.  At the mid-point of the afternoon we parked the boat out in the middle and spent some time diving off the bow and swimming. It was as refreshing as any of my memories, and that is unusual since memories often take on a life of their own.

 

 

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This time I really got wet.

 

A to Z Family Stories: S for Summer Swims

Summer is very short in Wisconsin, but often there are a few day of blistering heat and few are prepared with air conditioning. The only good way we had to cool off was to go swimming and our summer life was defined almost as much by the swimming and the lake as it was by the farm. Because of the beautiful area lakes there was an active tourist trade. Summer meant the resorts were full, there were summer jobs of cleaning cabins and babysitting to be had, interesting people to meet, water skiing challenges, and weekend picnics at the beach with friends.

We claimed Round Lake as our own playground. The sandy beach called the Narrows was within walking distance and when we were young it was unregulated and frequented mostly by us locals. Situated on the narrowest part of a peninsula, there was water on both sides of the road, one side being better for swimming and the other side a little more rocky was mostly for boating. The water filling this fairly large lake was clean enough to drink, and very cold. It was our goal to try to go swimming or skiing by Memorial Day but most years, it required a wet suit to be comfortable.

a crude drawing of The Narrows and our Peninsula
a crude drawing of The Narrows and our Peninsula

Our usual swimming time during the busiest part of summer was evening, right after the last bale of hay went up into the loft – when everyone was still hot, sweaty and dying to get cooled off. Everyone would get into their suits quickly, often neighbor families would stop in on their way, we would load up inner tubes and truck ourselves down to the beach. Ritual dictated that each person run into the water until it got too deep and then dive in quickly. There was no other way to get used to the icy chill. After being in the water a few minutes we all seemed to “get used to” it and didn’t mind. As it got dark, the crayfish in the water and the mosquitoes in the air would get thicker until common sense dictated that we all go home.

There were always a few weeks when visiting relatives were around. My aunt, uncle and cousins from the city would bring their boat up and those were great times when we got to spend hours at the beach with them. My uncle would pull us water skiing behind the boat, always trying to scare us by going over big waves or turning tight circles. We all learned to ski slalom and some of the brothers even went on to kick off the skis and go barefoot. We all have stories about falling, losing our swimsuits as we tumbled in the water, or being dragged and nearly drowned as we tried to “get up”. Skiing is not for the faint of heart.

We would often follow the road to the end of the peninsula, where it curves around and almost forms a complete circle around a small bay. At “the point” as we called it, we would walk the sandbar and swim the channel to the other side. The trees on “the point” have initials carved in them and many memories were made there. I especially remember sitting there looking out at the lake and talking to my mom as we planned my wedding. I wanted to be married at the lake (however it was in January and there was NO SWIMMING.)

Years later my parents moved to a house on the lake. My brothers and I were able to take our families there often and my children have developed their own attachment to Round Lake. That house has been sold again several times but whenever I visit home we take a ride out Peninsula Road and dad makes me drive in to it so he can walk around and look out at the lake (don’t tell the owners please).

Oh yeah, lots of fun at the lake
Oh yeah, lots of fun at the lake
My girls and their dad enjoying a moment on the dock after a swim.
My girls and their dad enjoying a moment on the dock after a swim.

Everyone in our family has been to some fantastic beaches in the years since childhood but I think we all put Round Lake and our memories of summer swims right up at the top of the list of special places. We all go back and visit, and remember, and maybe you should too. Just sayin’…

The beach at The Narrows,
The beach at The Narrows, “our swimming hole”

Personal Challenges

I have not been pushing myself to write for many months and am feeling the need to challenge myself in some way.  I want to see how many days in a row I can find a meaningful thought or experience to write about, starting yesterday.

Several months ago I had the opportunity to buy a boat, a kayak, something that I had wished to do for years.  And even better, I had someone who also wanted to buy one, and go on outings with me.  We bought our used boats and excitedly brought them home.  Mark, my cousin, has gone out in his boat several times.  He’s fitted it with ropes for his anchor, so he can fish without drifting.  He’s renewed his fishing license.  He’s been out enough times that he’s “settled in” to how the boat feels and he’s comfortable.  Me?  I’ve lent my kayak out to a friend for a month.  That’s it.

So, last week we planned to go out on the water.  We decided to explore the north end of Longboat Key, Florida since my boat was already out there.  On the west of the key is the Gulf of Mexico.  On the east side is the Intercoastal Waterway with it’s bridges, bayous and mangrove hammocks, and that was the side we were most interested in.  It’s waters are calmer, more protected and have interesting features.

I have a lot of questions about my ability as a kayaker.  I know enough about paddling to impress someone who has never done it at all, but I really don’t know how far I can paddle or what challenges there might be when someone starts going out a lot.  I wonder if I could get lost (we didn’t).  I wonder if I could end up in the wrong place and get run over by a yacht (didn’t happen either).  I wonder if I could meet up with dangerous marine life (no).  I wonder if I could get stuck in the shallows, capsize, get tangled in brush ( um.. nearly happened).  For all these reasons, this first trip in my new (used) boat was a challenge, in it’s own way.

There was never a prettier day to be out in a boat!
There was never a prettier day to be out in a boat

Mark and I started from different points with a plan to meet up in the middle.  The first challenge was to time it right and not miss each other.  That was actually pretty easy.  Longboat Key has a lot of man made canals with houses along them, much like streets in a neighborhood.  We paddled south looking at houses and seawalls for a while but that got boring.  Boats were everywhere and the water didn’t look very clean, probably because the canals were deep and the bottom was dark.  I don’t think I saw anything alive in the water either.  I don’t blame the fish for not wanting to hang out there.

Mangroves grow right down into the water ... no beach here.
Mangroves grow right down into the water … no beach here.

We headed out across the boat channel to a more deserted looking island.  It was mildly challenging to avoid all the speedboats and yachts navigating the channel, but kind of fun to ride the waves in their wake.  The water started looking cleaner with a lot of sand bar area and beach with mangroves on the shore.  Very pretty but still not much life in the water or on the shore. We got around the northern point of this little island and had the most fun of our outing.

A wide spot in the inlet where we could turn around...
A wide spot in the inlet where we could turn around…

We spotted a part of the interior of the island that had no trees.  As we got closer we saw a narrow inlet – it looked like someone had swept a path about a yard wide through the foliage and mangrove roots.  It was calling my name.  The path had a current and it kept going further and further into the island.  Lots of birds and lots of minnows.  I would say it was like an estuary where fish go to be born and hide until they get big enough to make it on the outside.  I was a little surprised to see that Mark had been able to follow.  He weighs a bit more than I do and has a heavier kayak, and there were places where the water didn’t look more than eight to ten inches deep.  We were able to get turned around and back out without having to get out and drag our kayaks, but it was a place where you could imagine that happening. Very interesting.

He's fishing, but not catching.
He’s fishing, but not catching.

The second really nice place was a little farther down the shore on this same island.  The surface of the water was very calm in a small curved bay so it was easy to see  when a school of mullet arrived.  The water began to boil with ripples everywhere.  Mullet love to jump.  They are a very exuberant fish.  They are the kind that actually might jump into your boat if you are quiet and stick around long enough.  But you don’t catch them with a fishing pole – they don’t have eating on their little fish minds when they are like this.  We watched for a while and then started the trip back.

The last task we had set for ourselves was to see if my kayak could be safely carried on the roof of my Mazda 3 (a rather small car).  The answer is no, not without a roof rack.  We did get it up there and strapped it down before Mark noticed that the roof was denting a bit.  These are one person kayaks, but they are 13 feet long and hefty for one person to handle.  My goal is to be able to load and unload by myself and I think I’ll be able to do it after I get a rack for my car.  Now we know.

Having made an investment in this form of recreation, and I absolutely love it, I am challenging myself to get out there and get some good experience.  And I love taking friends out with me if anyone wants to come – Mark and I agreed to share our kayaks if we had need for two.  And I need to pick a name for my boat…  what should it be?

 Help me name my blue Ocean Kayak.

A Day in which I Acquire a Boat

For some reason, I have had presents on my mind lately.  No, not because of the not so subtle Christmas marketing EVERYWHERE. It’s more because my parents’ birthdays are both this month, and I was making a gift or two to take to our family Thanksgiving next week.  I love presents.  It’s fun to make them, fun to give them, fun to get them.  I can plan the first two, the making and giving, but it’s hard to plan getting a present unless you are great at buying yourself gifts.  As I pretty much always do when thinking to myself, I ran that thought past God. ( He’s listening to my thoughts anyway so I might as well be conversant.) ” It would sure be nice to get a present God.  I know there’s really nothing I need, but if there is something you wouldn’t mind giving me, I’d just like the excitement of getting a present. ”

For years now I have been taking guests and friends out on the water in kayaks that I borrow from a good friend.  When I know someone wants to go I call my friend several days ahead to make sure he isn’t planning to use his kayaks, then I borrow the husband’s truck, drive 20 minutes and pick up the kayaks which are on a trailer.  I have to have the right size hitch on the truck, which means I’ve lost and bought at least two of them.  I have to hook up the lights on the trailer, which means I’ve lost, borrowed and bought at least two electrical adapters.  I have to lock and unlock the trailer hitch, which means I’ve had to buy and replace a couple of padlocks.  I’ve had to buy and borrow life vests for numerous people of varying sizes.  All this to say that there is a lot of work involved in having fun on the water.  But it is still just so interesting to float around on these beautiful rivers, surrounded by birds and tropical wonders that I’ve considered it well worth the trouble.

Last winter my cousin Mark, who loves to fish, decided we should look for used kayaks.  If we each had one, he and a buddy could go fishing in them, and I could take friends out for a paddle too. They would get more use if we shared them. So we spent most of the season looking on craigslist and at sales but nothing was quite right. I continued borrowing from my friend.

Last week my cousin arrived for the winter and decided to go buy his fishing kayak. There was a sale at a sports store and he wanted to get it done.  Back he came with a kayak in his Suburban.  His wife’s remark was “You know this means that tomorrow you’re going to see a great deal on a used kayak…” I was there, I heard her say that.  Unbelievably, fifteen minutes after I got home I got a text from another cousin in town, Kim, telling me that her neighbor was selling his two kayaks for less than half their value and they were in like new condition, with paddles, seats and life vests.

Something like that almost demands to be considered.  I’ve been a little financially stressed lately, making sure all my medical bills get paid, lots of house repair expenditures, etc… Even though I’ve managed to meet these demands I still feel insecure enough that it’s hard for me to shell out money for fun when so much serious stuff has to be paid for. I mean, I get nervous eating out, much less buying a boat.  I decided to ask the husband if he would be upset with me if this came to pass.  Would he tell me the garage was too full already?  Would he remind me that we’re trying to downsize, not accumulate more?  In what direction might he freak out?  What he said, “No, kayaks are always easy to sell again so if they’re a good deal, get them.”  Ha ha.

I still thought they might be terrible kayaks, ones that wouldn’t be sturdy enough to hold  Mark (who is a big man) or maybe they would smell like dead fish, or be some awful color.  All of those possibilities could keep me from having to make the decision… But they were beautiful, hardly used, top quality, and the friendly man from England who was selling them clearly wasn’t out to get his money back.  Oh my goodness, we bought them, picked them up an hour later and went immediately out to the river to test them out.  They floated very nicely.

Instead of spending the day at home like I had planned, I got to do this.

the water was still and almost black!  My boat is blue!
the water was still and almost black! My boat is blue!
Reflections!  Two of everything along the bank.
Reflections! Two of everything along the bank.
love to look at all this crazy Florida plant life!
love to look at all this crazy Florida plant life!
did you know pelicans roosted in trees?
did you know pelicans roosted in trees?
Cousin Mark in his new fishing kayak.
Cousin Mark in his new fishing kayak.
Our two beauties.
Our two beauties.
Me, enjoying a present.
Me, enjoying a present.

It’s not that my prayers for blessings always get answered in the affirmative or immediately.  But today I got a present and I really had no idea it was coming. I’m going to give God the credit.  It’s the kind of thing he would have fun doing. I’m just sayin’…