Monthly Archives: June 2014

Siberia

The far eastern coast of Siberia is not a place I ever dreamed to find myself, but here I discovered a wild, bountiful and theatrical coast. The backdrops should be scouted for a new season of Game of Thrones.

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Small Zodiacs are stunted by the spiked and rocky Yamskie Islands.

Outrageous spikey rock islands are literally crawling with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Murres, Puffins and Auklets of several species.

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Horned Puffins on the rocks above their burrows.

Elegant in the sea and wallowing on the shores, are Northern Fur Seals and behemoth Steller Sea Lions like blond kings and queens of their realm.

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Steller’s Sea Lions plow through the water and congregate on shore.

Despite thick fog at almost every destination, we launched the Zodiacs and with the aid of GPS technology, switched to the olfactory and auditory senses to creep and crawl landward through the gray haze. Chattering seabirds, grunting pinnepeds and lapping waves were our guides into most island stops.

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Common Murres by the thousands on the water around Malminskie Island

At Piltun Lagoon I witnessed a mother and calf Western Pacific Gray Whale – two of the remaining ~130 left in the world. They stayed with our boats and let us marvel at their size, giving us glimpses of their barnacle-encrusted bodies.

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A critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale calf outside Piltun Lagoon.

Perhaps an hour after leaving the encounter, I was trying to find the entrance to the lagoon in the fog with a couple of colleagues in a Zodiac and the whales reappeared. They were travelling with us, parallel to the coast, swimming beneath the boat and shadowing our passage close enough to be touched. Astounding.

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Anglers and visitors at Piltun Lagoon with the lighthouse in the distance icey haze.

Fedora Bay was new for everyone on the ship since it’s almost always iced in at the far north reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk. Our Russian guide had tried a handful of other times to access the bay, but had always previously been blocked by fast ice.

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One of four Russian rangers who live year-round in Fedora Bay with their dogs and a cat as guardians of the fishery and wildlife resources here.

Somehow I was swept up in a spontaneous hike with one of the local Russian-speaking rangers to the summit of a nearby peak. Beating our way through nearly impenetrable brush, we became the first foreigners to ever reach the mountaintop and take in the views. It was an exhausting, but exhilarating accomplishment and is probably the wildest spot on the planet that I’ll ever set foot on.

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Looking down over stunted pine trees at Fedora Bay and a rivermouth ship wreck from our unchartered Siberian peak.

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Russian wildlife ranger/guide and his dog at the top of a mountain he claims no one has climbed since the 1960s and that no foreigner has ever climbed.

In a dramatic about-face we visited the city of Okhotsk with about 5000 people living on the coast between Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk. Language was an issue, but despite the communication barrier I spent time with some of the local kids letting them try out my binoculars and swapping simple vocabulary words.

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Local kids in the city of Okhotsk. I showed them my binoculars and they taught me some Russian vocabulary.

Seeing the indigenous people with their clothes, lifestyle and beadwork so similar to people in North America was thought provoking. Reindeer, cranberries, dog sleds, fur lined skin clothing and meals cooked fireside were all icons of the culture. The people are relatable and realistic in this remote setting.

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A little girl in her traditional beaded clothes happily chewing away on an apple brought from the ship.

 

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Works of art in progress.

Back out into the uninhabited realms we encountered Ursus arctos, the brown bear. One particularly curious bear purposefully walked the shoreline within a few meters of our small fleet of Zodiacs, at times resting pensively on the shoreline and staring out at us through the rain drops. The rest of the time it appeared preoccupied with searching for food and filling its belly with mouthfuls of fresh green grass. I never knew a bear could or would eat so much grass, chewing on it like a grazing cow.

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Ursos arctos, the brown bear checking us out in our Zodiacs around Zaviyalova Island.

Far Eastern Siberia is not a target for the “1001 Places to Visit Before You Die” crowd – yet. There have been days I’ve had to pinch myself that I truly had the chance to visit this faraway borderline between Russia and the North Pacific Ocean. The mind-blowing magnitude of birds and marine life has truly amazed me.

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I’m glad to know a place this rich in wildlife, wild flowers and wild places, and at the same time I am afraid for its future in light of the fact that it’s all perched on some of the richest oil and natural gas fields in the world.

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Thick-billed Murres

Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk may be one of the world’s last major proving grounds of our ability as a species to cohabit with wilderness.

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Common Murres sitting on eggs while Northern Fur Seals start to haul up onto the beaches of Tuleniy Island for their breeding season.

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Tiny Whiskered Auklets rest in a rocky crevise.

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A Northern Fur Seal full of mating season aggression.

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Temple Run

I went for the most A-M-A-Z-I-N-G run this morning in Narita, Japan through Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Thanks to jetlag I was out by 5:30 am with a bright sun already at a low angle in a clear blue sky. The temple grounds are ~1000 years old and are some of the largest in all of Japan, and as luck would have it – are about a 5-minute jog from my hotel.

The Naritasan Temple at dawn.The Naritasan Shinshoji Temple at dawn.

I was absolutely gob-smacked running through the stunning grounds this morning, which I had virtually to myself thanks to the early hour. The temple is a series of buildings over a huge area, which also houses a monastery.

Someone had already been by to light incense and say a prayer.Someone had already been by to light incense and say a prayer.

A local lady feeding the pigeons in a shaft of early morning sunlight.

A local lady feeding the pigeons in a shaft of early morning sunlight.

As I approached the lower grounds I could hear chanting. I ran up the stone steps to the temple where the sound was coming from, and just as I arrived the low droning chants ended and a procession of monks left the prayer room in purple, green, yellow or black robes.

Monks leaving the temple after their early morning chant and prayer.

Monks leaving the temple after their early morning chant and prayer.

Each man put on a pair of traditional Japanese high platform wooden slippers and in single file they began clacking their way all around the temples and the grounds. I kept running into lines of monks as I continued my run. They started giggling when they saw me again and again.

These must be headstones, but they are HUGE.  The temple grounds are peppered with them.  These must be headstones, but they are HUGE. The temple grounds are peppered with them. 

With an hour and 20 minutes into jogging and exploring the grounds and temples, I finally headed back to the hotel, but I’ll never forget waking up in a new city, seeing a temple spire poking up above the tree tops on a few small wooded hills across the way from my hotel window, and thinking to myself, “Hmm, looks like a good place to run to and check out.” Little did I know that one spire, on the highest temple building, was just the tip of the iceberg as to what was was hidden in those wooded hills.

Hard to know which way to go sometimes….

Hard to know which way to go sometimes….

One of my favorite expedition runs of all times for shizzle. Now on to the next adventure…

Offerings at an alter.

Offerings at an alter.

Dragon water fountain with bamboo dipper for taking a drink.

Dragon water fountain with bamboo dipper for taking a drink.

Steps leading up to the main temple building.  Below this manicured garden was a wood riddled with twisting, earth paths.

Steps leading up to the main temple building. Below this manicured garden was a wood riddled with twisting, earth paths.

 

 

Bering Sea Bound

Tomorrow I board the first of three flights out of Boston that will take me to Otaru, Japan on the west coast of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.  From here I’ll begin the first of three voyages to explore the Russian Far East, the Bering Sea and Alaska.

The initial expedition will explore the Sea of Okhotsk including Sakhalin Island, the eastern Siberian Coast, the western coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the Kuril Islands. The ship will end up back in Otaru after 19 days cruising around the Sea of Okhotsk. Along the way, I hope to see smoking volcanoes, remote Russian and indigenous cultures, and wildlife like the massive Steller’s Sea Eagle, Arctic foxes, and sea otters.

The first of three voyages I will undertake circumnavigates the Sea of Okhotsk visiting eastern Siberia, the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The first of three voyages I will undertake circumnavigates the Sea of Okhotsk visiting eastern Siberia, the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The second voyage will take us back up through the Kuril Islands and then outside the Kamchatka Peninsula to begin island hopping across the Bering Sea through the Aleutian island chain. We will visit Attu, the western most point in the United States, Dutch Harbor (well-known to fans of the “Deadliest Catch” TV show), and finally the stunning Katmai National Park. This second voyage ends in Seward, Alaska.

The second of three expeditions crosses the Bering Sea while exploring the Aleutian Islands and the Central Alaskan Coast.

The second of three expeditions crosses the Bering Sea while exploring the Aleutian Islands and the Central Alaskan Coast.

The final two weeks in the North Pacific Ocean will take me even farther up the Alaskan coast, almost all the way to the Arctic Circle, and into the Chukchi Sea.  This expedition should reveal calving glaciers, bears scavenging the shoreline at low tide, and thousands of seabirds. The ship will also call in at Big Diomede Island where Russia and the US are separated by about one mile of open ocean, and by the International Date Line. I’ll literally be able to look into yesterday on Little Diomede Island – one mile to the west and 23 hours behind. But right now, this is making my head hurt to think about…

Voyage #3 heads north up the Alaskan coast and into the Chukchi Sea.  I'll fly home at the end of July from Nome, Alaska.

Voyage #3 heads north up the Alaskan coast and into the Chukchi Sea. I’ll fly home from Nome, Alaska.

Meanwhile, my camera batteries are charged up, memory cards are formatted, and the lenses are cleaned and ready to go. I’m itching to get out into the Zodiacs and look for rivers full of salmon, whales, wolves, ptarmigan, bears, sea lions, puffins, auklets, and albatross.  And unlike Antarctica, where I spent my winter months, these lands are home to both indigenous and modern people who live off the land by herding reindeer, foraging, and fishing for salmon.

I expect to go in with eyes wide open and to learn all I can from the fascinating people and the wild, remote places soon to come.

Join me!