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Alaska 2003
  • Places: Washington State, British Columbia, Alaska
  • Time: May - August 2002
  • Vessel: "Teacup", Nordic Tug 37
  • Level of adventure: high to ridiculous
Copyright © 2003, P. Lutus. All rights reserved.

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine taking a four-month break from the early twenty-first century (I think historians will recall this as a time of insufferable corporate smugness) and living instead among animals and ice. If you can picture this, then you can picture my second voyage in "Teacup." But you don't have to imagine it without help — I have some rather dramatic pictures to share with you.

Last year, at a place called Geographic Harbor in one of the wilder parts of Alaska, I met a mama bear and her three newborn cubs (described here), and she treated me with more deference than I expected. Over the winter, I wondered about her and her family — would they survive? Would she lose her cubs to predators?

Sophisticated bear posing for primitive human
(click here for full-size 1 MB image)
On my return to Geographic Harbor, while paddling about in my kayak, I got my answer — there she was, with three yearling cubs (picture above). On seeing them again I was pleased in ways I cannot easily describe. Then I was forced to realize how remarkable their survival had been, because over the next few minutes I watched this bear family defend themselves against an attack by a pack of hungry teenage bears (more on this later). This kind of drama is rather alien to the experience of a typical human, but in some ways I found it familiar. Bears and humans aren't that different, not really.

Then mama bear gave me my next spooky lesson in bear behavior. After a brief spell of anxiety on my arrival, I noticed she began to stick close to me as I paddled around. I would move along the shore of the bay, and she would move her cubs to maintain a certain comfortable separation — not too close, but not too far. Later on I met two people with a lot more bear experience than I have, who had similar encounters with mama bears and cubs — it turns out that most large male bears, the biggest threat to cubs, are justly terrified of humans (every human might be a hunter). Mama bears quickly realize that, as the old saying goes, the enemy of her enemy is her friend.

This reconfirmed for me that bears aren't stupid, and I am gradually finding them more pragmatic than a lot of people.

You may think I zone out while boating, allowing my mind to go slack as a flag on a windless day. That's only true sometimes. Other times I'm able to think more clearly during boat excursions than at home, surrounded as I am by computers and other distractions. For example, during this outing I found myself constantly missing the time of a desirable tidal condition called "slack water" that would allow me to safely enter a large bay with a narrow entrance and occasional fast currents.

I realized I needed to mentally picture the system formed by the ocean tides, the entrance channel, and the bay, all interacting according to the laws of physics. So I did — and I wrote a differential equation that describes the system. I developed my model as a replacement for a traditional rule of thumb, then successfully applied it to choose a more appropriate time for transit. I'll describe this idea more fully later (this is more than a mere travelogue, you see).

This year I rescued a boat with three people on board in British Columbia, also I prevented a disabled sailboat from careening out of control in a high wind in Seward, Alaska. I have the goal of rescuing at least one boat per season, so it seems I am ahead. I call this my "Holden Caulfield" complex (a character from the book "Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger). Rescuing people in boats is what passes for karma among sailors — well, I see it that way.

I describe all this and more in the accompanying pages. I hope you enjoy this narrative and the pictures — just choose from the list at the top of the page (or click the arrows to read in sequence). And to put this voyage in context, you may want to read the "Alaska 2002" page set as well.

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