The Blowhole of the Earth

The blowhole of the Earth is not a geological phenomenon, as one might first think. There are many volcanic regions of the world where you might find a geyser or a fumarole, which many would consider to be earth blowholes. The blowhole of the Earth I am referring to is a biological phenomenon. The occurrence shifts spacially and temporally, so one cannot predict when and where they occur. However, it is such a propitious omen, for those who are fortunate to encounter them!

In many years of traveling and guiding throughout Southeast Alaska, I have happened by chance on the blowhole of the earth several times. The first time was in lower Chatham Strait in 1990, just to the east of Port Armstrong off the south coast of Baranof Island. In 1993, I found it again a couple of times, mostly near North Island, a tiny, islet about 35 miles north of Juneau in the Lynn Canal Fjord. 1993 was Juneau’s “100 year summer”, because of the extraordinarily calm and clear sunny days during that summer. These meteorological conditions are a prerequisite to finding the “blowhole of the earth”, but by no means are a guarantee to finding it. But one thing is for sure; you have to be “nowhere” to find it.

It is one thing to discover it on your own. The location and time always changes. But, to be there when someone else discovers it for the first time and to see their reaction to it…..well, that is really something special.

I was leading a custom guided sea kayak trip excursion many years ago for a father and son from the upper Midwest region of the U.S. It was their first expedition in Alaska. Dave and Todd were strong paddlers and experienced outdoorsmen, having spent a lot of time canoeing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Northern Minnesota. It was their first experience on salt water, so not being savvy about tidal fluctuations and the local weather and wildlife, they decided to hire a guide.

I knew by their level of fitness and experience, and by not having a large group to manage, that we would be in for a great adventure. But I never imagined that they would experience the blowhole of the earth their first time out in salt water! It is important never to let clients’ expectations get too high, so we never guarantee what they will see. The goal is to first keep them safe and then prep them to be alert for what secrets may be revealed during our sojourn.

The trip was an early season mid-May trip. The few tourists that were in town were the hearty and adventurous ones. The mountains were still covered in last Winter’s snow and the temperature of the water was around 40F. Frigid water means a relatively short time of suffering before you die of hypothermia if you capsize and can’t right yourself. But is also makes for great refrigeration for fresh food that you pack in the bottom of the boat. By lining the perishables in the bottom of the sealed compartment of the fiberglass boat, it makes it possible to create quite a varied menu of tasty meals. For our five day excursion we brought along eggs, meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and cheeses. I don’t provide alcohol on guided trips, but clients are free to bring their own, as long as it is consumed at the end of the day in camp. Dave and Todd brought a six pack of beer that would have to last the two of them for the whole trip. Nothing better than a cold beer around a beach fire at the end of a wonderful day on the water!

The first day we paddled about 12 miles and saw some Humpback Whales and a couple of Stellar Sea Lions, which made a great start to the adventure. That first night, we made camp on a small islet called Hump Island, so named for the small conical hill in the middle of the island. We pitched our tents on a fine-grained black sand beach, above the seaweed ring marking the high tide line. It was a relaxed camp, with no bears on this tiny, 1/2 sq. mile sized islet, in the middle of the fjord far from the mainland. Bears are great swimmers, and they are capable of making the 5 mile swim out to the island, but with no salmon streams and not enough resources to make a go of it on the island, why would they even be there? The only other critters we would share the island with were some red backed voles, and a few ravens or eagles who were stopping to rest on their way to somewhere else.

I pulled out the fry pan, and cut up some fresh chicken breasts, onions, zucchini, bean sprouts and water chestnuts. When the sesame oil was good and hot, I sauteed the chicken and onions first, then added the other ingredients, sprinkling some salt, pepper, garlic powder and soy sauce, stirring constantly. When that was done cooking, we heaped it on a bed of sticky rice. The sizzling sounds of the stir-fry and the olfactory sensations of sesame oil, soy sauce, ocean air, mixing with the eau de spruce and hemlock trees, made this memorable first night out.

On day two, we awoke to clear skies and no winds, a rare combination in Southeast Alaska. The surface of the sea was completely calm and the water was like a pane of glass which perfectly reflected the white mountains. I checked the weather report on my hand-held VHF marine radio. The forecast was as good as it can ever get for paddling; variable winds less than 10 knots. Both Todd and Dave were raring to go when they heard this. They both had a hard time believing that the sea could be as still as pond water. I broke out the map and we discussed the many alternatives. When leading larger groups, the guide makes more conservative decisions and informs the group of the logistics. However, with only one other double kayak to worry about and with strong paddlers and favorable conditions, I decided to play more of the “consultant” role and spell out all of the available options, weighing the positives and negatives of each option. After a brief conversation, we decided to head across to the west side of Lynn Canal to the base of the Chilkat Mountains to explore St. James Bay and the Lynn Sisters area. The Chilkat Peninsula is rugged and remote and there are no permanent settlements for its entire length of over 100 miles.

Southern Lynn Canal Marine Chart….St. James Bay is halfway up the map on the left side
Hump Island is lower left of center. Ralston Island is 2nd Island north of Hump Island. Blowhole of the Earth was between Ralston and Little Island

We decided to paddle hard while the conditions remained favorable, so our goal for the day was a lofty one of about 14-15 miles. Most group outings only cover less than 8-10 miles per day, and many outfitters do much less by setting up a base camp for short paddles in all directions while keeping the same camp. Dave and Todd handled the 12 mile trip yesterday and were none too worse for the wear. If we were going to push mileage today, we would have to do it on a good hearty breakfast. Everyone had kitchen duty as we peeled potatoes and chopped onions. We feasted on a large helping of bacon and eggs, accompanied by a lumberjack sized portion of hash browns and onions. After getting everyone kick started with some strong coffee, we broke camp, loaded the boats, and headed northwest toward St. James Bay and the mighty Chilkat Range.

The tide was ebbing hard at about 3 knots, moving from our right to left. As we headed toward our destination on the far shore, we had to redirect our bow angle and shift it about 45 degrees to the right of our intended path. Without doing this, the current would sweep us too far south and our path would take us in an arc shaped route instead of a straight line path. The tidal fluctuations in Southeast Alaska are huge, especially during a new or full moon. Sometimes you can experience as much as a 24 foot vertical change in just over 6 hours. When all of this water funnels through any narrow channel between two islands, the currents may reach up to 7 or 8 knots….faster than anyone can paddle. This was a new experience for Todd and Dave, as it is for most inlanders.

As we paddled away from Hump Island, the low angled sun warmed our backs and lit us the mountains in front of us. Because it was still very early in the season, the east slopes of the mountains were still choked with snow. As we got closer to the shore, we could see that the snow line was barely above sea level in some shaded gullies. We passed by a huge raft-like group of Surf Scoters, who noisily took to flight as we paddled by. In just a few hours, we had crossed the entire fjord, and we pulled up the boats onto a rocky beach in the shadow of imposing Mt. Golub. The tide was still ebbing, but it was moving much slower now. Since we were close to the low tide exchange, we left the boats where we beached them at the water’s edge and let the tide keep falling around the boats. In about another half hour, the tide would begin to rise again and re-float the boats, giving us a nice rest break without having to strain and move the heavy, fully-loaded kayaks.

Surf Scoters…..photo by Tim Bowman

The sun was much higher now, and we let the warm sunlight beam onto our faces as we took a cat nap on the beach. There was not a noise anywhere; no wind, no planes overhead, and no other boats on the water. Surprisingly, there weren’t sounds of any other birds in the area either. It was hard to believe that we were just only 35 miles away from the state capitol building in downtown Juneau. That is one of the great things about Alaska. One does not have to go very far from civilization to get away from it all and enjoy the beauty and solitude offered by wilderness lands.

After our break, when the tide had risen to the point where our boats would soon float, we got ready to depart. We munched down a snack of smoked coho salmon on Pilot Bread crackers and readied ourselves for the trip north to St. James Bay. Now we would have the current helping us and gently nudging us toward our goal. Todd asked if he could try paddling my single kayak. Although I rarely let clients do this, the conditions could not be better, so there was no reason to deny his request. I readjusted the foot pedals to accommodate his longer legs and then I jumped in the back of the double kayak and paddled with Dave. The three of us proceeded to lazily paddle to the north and continue taking in the awesome views.

The scenery was breathtaking, but there was still an uncharacteristic lack of marine life in the area. I rarely come over this far west, so I was used to seeing many more marine mammals in the Channel Islands towards the east side of the fjord where I usually guide trips. We did finally pass by a few ring-billed gulls and a lone harbor seal just off the little islets referred to as the Lynn Sisters. Actually, since the tide was still pretty low, the Lynn Sisters were still connected to the mainland by a rocky spit. They would not become islands again for a couple more hours.

Late in the afternoon, we finally found ourselves at the entrance to St. James Bay, an idyllic little bay that offers great protection from northerly winds and the high waves that accompany them. The bay has many little islands in the center, which would make for good camping. We were now in black bear country, and unlike the eastern side of the fjord, we would also be in moose country.

We were tired from the long paddle. Before looking for a camp spot, I wanted to first cook dinner on a beach in the inter-tidal zone and then move to another spot to set up camp. Since we were in bear territory, I wanted any smells or scraps from dinner to be washed away by the incoming tide. If any lingering smells remained, we would be at another location camping.

Just as we were breaking out the cookware and stove to prepare dinner, I pulled out my hand held VHF radio to double check on the weather forecast. The National Weather Service updates forecasts at least every 12 hours. Although, we had a favorable long-range forecast, the weather does change rapidly in this part of the world. I have learned not to trust forecasts farther out than 24 hours. It is always prudent to keep checking, especially considering where we were. The west side of Lynn Canal is no place to get caught with your pants down concerning the weather.

“Continued calm variable winds less than 15 knots for the rest of the day”, the voice spoke over the radio (good news). “For tomorrow, a small craft advisory, with southerly winds greater than 25 knots (VERY bad news). The small craft advisory continued for the next few days, which makes the seas dangerous for small fishing boats (and especially for little kayaks!)

The west side of Lynn Canal is NO place to be in a kayak (or ANY vessel for that matter) when the wind blows hard. The geography of the fjord makes Lynn Canal one of the most feared stretches of water in all of Southeast Alaska. Historical maps are littered with information on the sites of many shipwrecks in the area. The fjord is over 100 miles long and straight as an arrow, due to a geological fault. This long “fetch” or uninterrupted distance for wind to blow allows for the seas to build quickly. The steep mountain walls of the fjord act as a wind tunnel and funnels the wind, increasing its force. This is akin to putting your thumb over part of the nozzle of a hose to increase the speed and flow of the water. Finally, the geographic location of the fjord enhances the possibility of strong, gusty winds. Being the most northerly fjord means that it is the battleground where continental and marine air masses meet. The exaggerated differences in both moisture content and temperature of these air masses causes great air pressure differences between the two. The forecast showed a weather front coming in.

Map of Shipwrecks in Lynn Canal

Although it was calm at the moment, in all likelihood we would not be able to paddle tomorrow. We could make camp here and wait it out for a couple of days, but I wasn’t fond of being stuck in this small bay for days on end, with few opportunities for hiking and the constant threat of black bears. One option was to eat dinner here, and then paddle all the way back to Ralston Island, a small, narrow island in the middle of the fjord, but closer to the eastern shore. That would afford us a little bit of hiking with no bears and safe coves to land on in two different directions. The only problem is that Dave and Todd were already tired and Ralston Island was another 6.5 miles away to the southeast. However, if we did decide to go there, we would have the most dangerous possible crossing of open water behind us. I had to make an executive decision and break the unpopular news to Dave and Todd that we would be adding a few more hours of paddling to this already long day.

Entrance to St. James Bay

Aches and pains aside, they agreed that it was the prudent thing to do, so we agreed to go after dinner. I pulled out the skillet, browned some ground beef and onions, and pulled out the spice bag. Dave grated some cheese, while Todd helped prepare some hot drinks. We dined on Tacos, Mexican style. For dessert, we had cookies and Ibuprofen.

While feeling guilty for pushing paying clients so hard, I satisfied myself that this was the safest and most logical course of action. I just hoped for something that would take our minds off of the grind. Little did I know that in a few short hours, we would all be experiencing one of the most magical and memorable moments of our lives.

The guys paddled perfunctorily towards the low outline of Ralston Island, their eyes gazing straight ahead. I knew that they were being pushed both physically and mentally. We took rest breaks on the water, as the surface was still like glass. A layer of stratified clouds were forming high overhead, a sign of the approaching warm front. The air was still and moist. Every once in a while, a small raindrop would fall and barely disturb the glass-like surface of the water.

Just as we approached Little Island Light, a small navigational aid on a small islet just to the north of Ralston Island, I heard a whale in the distance. Dave and Todd didn’t hear it at first, so I signaled them to stop paddling. We drifted with the current and listened for a while.

At first there was nothing, then we heard some faint breathing in the water behind us. We turned our heads and spied the spotted, gray head of a harbor seal, with her big, black, puppy-like eyes staring back at us. Due to the shape of her head and the way she barely peered out of the water, her head looked like half of a bowling ball floating on the surface. Then, to the right, we heard a different sound. We turned to see the fins of four Dall’s Porpoises swimming toward our boats. Dall’s Porpoises are playful and inquisitive. They have thick black and white bodies, and often surf in the bow wake of motorboats. Tourists often mistake them for baby orcas. We were going too slowly for them to surf in our wake, so they gently circled our boats to give us a look over. Their breathing sounds were somewhat louder than the harbor seal’s.

Harbor Seal

WHOOOOOOOSSSSSHHHHHHH! All three of our heads swiveled towards that loud sound. It was a Humpback Whale surfacing a mere 50 yards away!

Next, a couple of Stellar Sea Lions popped their heads up and took a long breath of air. The three different breathing sounds of Sea Lion, Porpoise and Seal mixed together well, like a symphony of woodwind instruments. The Whale was the Tuba. Some creatures had nostrils, others had blowholes of various sizes. Each one resonated a different sound. It seemed we were in the middle of a group of bait fish and everyone was coming to the picnic. There were even a couple of otters that chimed in.

I looked over at Dave and Todd. Their mouths were agape; their eyes seemed to pop out of their heads. The Humpback whale surfaced again and blew another loud exhale. The sea lions continued their snorting. The seal, otters, and porpoises continued to chime in. There were no other noises around; no wind or waves. We could hear nothing else but the cacophony of respiration sounds. What a magical concert we were experiencing! Any pain that we felt from paddling melted away and was replaced with unbridled joy! We were in the middle of the “Blowhole of the Earth!” The sounds of life all around us reinvigorated our souls and our bodies….

I had experience something like this a few times before, once in Chatham Strait and another time in Glacier Bay. A few times in Lynn Canal, I experienced something similar, but with fewer members of the symphony. But this was the first time I was there to experience it through the eyes of someone else who was seeing it for the first time. I knew that this moment would be a defining moment in each of their lives; comparable to how you were different after the first time you experienced love-making; or witnessing the birth of your first child. Events such as these mark a time in your life that you can identify how you were different before and after that event.

In the stillness, we continued listening to mixed chorus of breathing sounds, never wanting it to end. It seemed like time stood still. In actuality, it probably lasted for only 4 or 5 minutes, but each and every second of it would be forever burned into our memory.

The porpoises were the first to swim away. As the bait ball became less concentrated, they continued their search for herring and became less interested in giving us a free concert. The humpback whale took a deep breath, and then took a deep dive, showing us his massive fluke fin as if to wave goodbye to us. The sea lions followed suit, following the whale. They sometimes feed together. A few minutes later, all was still and calm again. Had we not diverted to St. James Bay, we would not have been in this exact place at this exact time, and would have missed this wonderful experience.

I’m sure that this biological phenomenon plays out in many different places, and at many different times of the day. Often all of the animals are in one area at the same time, but the breathing sounds are muffled out by other sounds, such as wind and waves. All too often, breathing sounds are drowned out by the whine of a boat motor. I’ve seen whales, porpoises and sea lions together many times from the deck of one of the Alaska State Ferries, buy the only thing I heard was the whine of the engines and a few gasps of the few tourists who were paying attention to their surroundings. Although this is a pleasant experience, it does not hold a candle being in a kayak in the middle of a chorus of breathing sea creatures on a calm day when the sea surface is like a pane of glass reflecting white capped mountains.

We slowly paddled the last 1/3 of a mile and beached the kayaks on the southwest side of Ralston Island, next to the remnants of an old pier that was built almost 100 years ago. Small islands like these were used as fox farms in the early 1900s.

Ralston Island Beach…..one remnant of the old pier left
The beach at Ralston Island…..Lincoln Island is in the near background

Even though our muscles were tired, nobody wanted this day to end. I showed Todd and Dave a good spot to camp just inside the trees and had them set up their tents, while I prepared a surprise for them. I thought….”I know one thing that could make this magical day even better!”

As they were setting up their tents, I dug a shallow hole in the softer part of the beach nearer to the high tide line. I then pulled out a plastic garbage bag and lined the shallow hole with it. I grabbed a bucket and filled it with ice-cold sea water and brought it up and filled the shallow hole with it. Now, I had a 3 inch deep refrigerator. I had to hurry, so the guys would not see what I was doing. They would soon have their tents up and would be changing clothes and back out on the beach, so I had to work fast.

I grabbed the kitchen bag and quickly melted some butter, while I mixed fresh water with powdered milk in another pan. When the butter was melted, I reached for the crushed graham cracker mix and molded a pie crust into a plastic pan. Once that was done, I mixed the milk with a package of Jello-No-Bake-Cheesecake Mix and poured the mixture over the graham cracker crust. Then, I set it all in the shallow pond I made on the beach to congeal. It would be ready to eat in about 30 minutes.

As Dave and Todd had now set up their tent sites for the night and changed, they made their way back to the beach. I had some hot water on the stove and we planned to have some hot chocolate and reminisce about the wonderful day we just had. After relaxing for about half an hour, I said “You know, if we only had a dessert to go with our hot chocolate, this day would get even better.”

Todd replied, “Aren’t there any cookies left?”

“There are a few left. But wouldn’t a real dessert like cheesecake be nice after the day we just had?”, I asked.

“Yeah, right!”, Dave replied. “Let’s just paddle another 5 miles and go into town and get some. Better yet, let’s see if we can call in an order and pay for boat delivery!”

“That might take too long.” “Why don’t I just go up the beach and get the one I just made while you were getting changed”, I replied.

I got up and walked 20 yards away to the shallow hole I dug in the beach and removed a firm cheesecake from the cold sea water bath that surrounded the plastic dish. Jaws dropped as eyes gleamed! An already memorable day was just about to get even better!

Jello-No-Bake-Cheesecake

I’ve been to Yellowstone to witness the eruption of Old Faithful Geyser and I’ve walked through the park’s geyser basins and listened to its fumaroles. I’ve stood atop volcanoes in New Zealand and listened to the belching of the earth through steam vents. All of these things were quite impressive. However, to experience the biological phenomenon known as the “Blowhole of the Earth” is by far the most magical thing I have experienced in nature to this day. And re-living the moment while eating cheesecake and drinking hot chocolate in a remote wilderness setting made it even more memorable. I think that if you asked Dave and Todd, they would also agree, even though this eventful day happened more than 23 years ago. I hope that you too, dear reader, may be fortunate enough to experience the “Blowhole of the Earth” for yourself someday. But, you will have to travel to Nowhere to find it!

4 thoughts on “The Blowhole of the Earth

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