ADVENTURING TO A NEWFOUNDLAND OUTPORT

Examining a map of Newfoundland, I noticed some dashed lines curving out over the Atlantic Ocean and paralleling the coast. One of these lines led out from the remote port of Burgeo, on the south coast, and looped along the coastline, stopping at a few tiny and isolated communities. I wanted to experience one of these outports, which are connected to the rest of Newfoundland only by a small ferry, so we made plans to visit the village of Francois in the middle of February.

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm

The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.

View of Bay In Burgeo, Newfoundland
View of colorful houses across rocky bay from Sandbanks Provincial Park in Burgeo, Newfoundland

We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.

Karen Rentz on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz on ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo, Newfoundland, Canada
Captain on Bridge of the Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoun
Captain steering Ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo
Passenger Cabin on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Passenger cabin interior on ferry Marine Voyager

There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there. 

Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.

Houses in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Waterfront with floating pancake ice at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager

The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.

Structures in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Unloading and transporting cargo at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager
ATV Transporting Cargo from Ferry to Store in the Outport of Gre
Transporting cargo from dock to store by ATV at the outport of Grey River
Waterfront and Sea Ice in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundlan
Waterfront with glaze of sea ice at the outport of Grey River

We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.

Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached the outport village of Francois
Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in the outport village of Francois, transportation of cargo by snowmobile and ATV
Karen Rentz in Snowstorm in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz in snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached Francois
Snowstorm and Ferry in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in Francois

We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois
Wooden Sidewalk in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Wooden community sidewalk in Francois, a place with no roads

Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois
Colorful Houses and Stages in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Colorful houses and stages along the fjord containing Francois
Public Outhouse in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Public outhouse in Francois, with the slogan “I take crap from everyone!”
Shed with Moose Antlers in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Shed with Moose and Caribou antlers in Francois
FIshing Stage in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing stage window with fishing ropes coiled inside along waterfront in Francois
Cleat and Rope for Docking in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Cleat and rope for docking in Francois

We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.

As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.

Fisherman in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundland
Cody, a fisherman who has lived his whole life in Francois, and now owns his own boat harvesting scallops, lobster, crabs, and sea cucumbers
Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois
Fishing Gear in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Fishing gear on a boat in Francois
Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois
Fishing Boat in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Red building with firewood, crab traps, and a high birdhouse
Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois
Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm
Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operator transporting stuff on a trailer on the wooden sidewalk in Francois
Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois
Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Old fishing stage in Francois, where gear is kept, bait prepared, and fish cleaned

 Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year! 

A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.

Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operators meeting on the wooden sidewalk in Francois
Sharons Place and Snowmobiles in Francois Outport during a Snows
Sharon’s Place, a general store, liquor store, and gathering place, with snowmobiles in Francois
Sign on Public School in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Sign on St. Simon-St. Jude Academy, the public school, saying “A Clean Town is a Happy Town”

As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.

We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.

Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm
Fishing Stage and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a Sn
Fishing stage and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm
Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois
Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing stage, where gear is kept and equipment maintained and bait prepared
Fishing Boats in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing boat in Francois during a snowstorm
Crab Post and Stage  in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Crab pots and boat on a dock in Francois

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.

I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight
Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight along a fjord with mountain towering above
Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois, at blue hour twilight with lights reflecting off the fjord
Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Colorful homes in Francois

There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.

Francois Bay in Early Morning from the Ferry Marine Voyager in N
Francois Bay in early morning from the ferry Marine Voyager, after leaving the quaint outport of Francois in Newfoundland
Newfoundland, Canada
Francois Bay in morning light
West Point Light Tower at Mouth of Francois Bay in Newfoundland
West Point Light Tower at mouth of Francois Bay viewed in winter morning light from the ferry Marine Voyager
Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland
Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland
Waves from Ferry in Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newfo
Waves from ferry Marine Voyager distorting mountain reflections in the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River
Colorful Houses and Sea Ice at the Grey River Outport in Newfoun
Ferry Marine Voyager passing the colorful houses and sea ice at the outport of Grey River
Ferry at Entrance to Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newf
Ferry Marine Voyager passing mouth of the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River
Bridge of Ferry Marine Voyager Plying South Coast of Newfoundlan
Bridge and wheel on Ferry Marine Voyager near Burgeo

The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.

Ferry Passing Colorful Houses at Burgeo, Newfoundland
Arriving in Burgeo from Francois and Grey River outports in Newfoundland, Canada

To view more of the photographic work by Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com, where you can see thousands of photographs and purchase a special one for your walls.

ROUND ISLAND: Walrus Sanctuary in Peril

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodulesPacific Walrus male

Horned Puffin on cliffHorned Puffin near our campsite

There are times that remain hazy and golden in my memories; times when life came to a peak of wonder that is only rarely experienced. Five days on Round Island was one of those defining times in my life.

In 2009 my wife and I flew to Alaska, then took a second flight to Dillingham on the west coast, then boarded a beat-up puddle jumper to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Togiak, then sped by tiny boat, piloted by a man of that Eskimo village, across part of Bristol Bay to Round Island, where we were greeted by Alaska Fish and Game staff. We set up camp on the small island, on platforms erected atop campsites used by ancient peoples, then set off exploring the island. Within a minute we were watching a Horned Puffin about 50 feet away standing atop a rock jutting out over the ocean. Later that day we watched half a dozen Pacific Walrus stretched out, resting atop a flat rock near shore.

Walruses and Dragon's Tail on Round IslandFlat Rock with first view of walruses, with Dragon’s Tail in the distance

Windy day in camp, Round Island, AlaskaOur expedition tent enduring high winds

Headlands Trail on Round Island on windy dayTrail along the grassy headlands near camp

Sanctuary Office on Round IslandStaff quarters and sanctuary headquarters

As the days went by, we listened to giant blubbery walruses singing sweetly. Endangered Steller Sea Lions performed synchronized swimming as their “Jabba the Hutt” harem defender gazed out imperiously. Wildflowers were at their peak, including the bright yellow Alaska Poppy. Red Foxes trotted around the island unseen by us, like ghosts of the landscape. Beaches were entirely filled with pink walruses resting after days of diving deep into the ocean. A high wind came up and rattled the tent with its terror all night. Parakeet Auklets gossiped constantly on the rocks below. A Tufted Puffin watched us watching him, and only snuck into his burrow when we glanced away briefly.

Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's TailDragon’s Tail and its walruses from the top of the island

Pacific Walrus males on haulout at Dragon's TailTide’s coming in!

Castle-like formation on Round IslandJagged rock formations atop Round Island’s peak

As I said, it was a peak experience, but those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know that I have already written at length about our Round Island experiences in these blogs:

Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

I Am the Walrus

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

So, why am I returning to Round Island in this blog? Because I passionately love this place and I believe that it is in danger.

Pacific Walrus threat postures in a haulout

Pacific Walrus tusk and shadow

Pacific Walruses sparring in the waters off Round Island

Pacific Walrus male pale from deep ocean diveWatching the walruses basking and sparring and emerging from the depths is always entertaining

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, in a misguided attempt to save a few bucks, has decided to close the camp on Round Island after this year. There will be no seasonal staff to serve as island stewards, and the important work they’ve done in scientifically monitoring walrus and sea lion numbers will be abandoned. The campsites will be abandoned, and tourism to Togiak and Round Island will become a distant memory.

Why do I care? Because this is one of the greatest places in the world to experience wildlife that is not behind bars. Yes, there are a few walruses protected in zoos. After returning from Round Island, we went to see walruses in the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washingon. It was a profoundly sad experience. The walruses had lost their tusks completely, as they often do in captivity. They were trained to open their mouths to have their teeth brushed and to take a fish on command, then they would swim a pattern back and forth, back and forth, in the big tank lined with fake rock. This is not how sentient creatures should live.

Swimming Steller Sea LionsSteller Sea Lion harem and young out for a swim

Pacific Walrus exhalingWe could often hear the walruses coming up for a deep breath

Pacific Walrus portrait

People need to see wild creatures in wild places, and that’s where Round Island shines. After we left the island, the next visitors coming were high school students from all over Alaska, camping on the island for days to study the wildlife of that magnificent place. The memories of that experience will remain with them for their entire lives. When we were there, the other visitors were two men from Manhattan, making their second trip to Round Island. Photographers and videographers from all over the world have come here to create a record of walrus behavior. Including me.

Alaska PoppyDelicate Alaska Poppies, one of scores of kinds of wildflowers at the height of summer blooming during our visit

Tufted Puffin at burrow entranceWary Tufted Puffin

Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayBlowing bubbles while surfacing

Cook tent on Round IslandShelter provided for campers to eat and hang out during times of high winds and rain

Dramatic clouds over Round Island summitLooking up at the top of the mountain during a morning of unsettled weather

Alaska Fish and Game claims that they might still issue some permits to visit the island, but I suspect those will be few and far between. Instead, we are more likely to have surreptitious visitors shooting walruses for the ivory, and boats and planes buzzing the walruses and creating panicked stampedes that will trample and kill individuals. People will be able to land on the island with nobody knowing, and will undoubtedly force walruses away from the beaches. The island will no longer be a sanctuary.

Is this speculation on my part? Of course, but it is informed speculation based upon my experience on the island. When we were there, we felt that the two staff members were extremely serious about their jobs, and that their first priority was to protect the walruses. When we were seen by the refuge manager watching walruses from atop a cliff, we were told in no uncertain terms to crouch down so that our silhouettes wouldn’t scare the walruses off their rock. I felt bad at violating the rules, and in retrospect I’m glad that someone was there to keep protection of the walruses as top priority.

Abandoning the camp on Round Island would save $95,000 per year, which I think is a drop in the bucket compared to the lost opportunities for environmental education and tourism in the region, which bring far more dollars than that to the Alaskan economy (our trip alone added $5,000 to the Alaska economy–it isn’t cheap to get to remote places!).

Can this decision be modified or reversed? Who knows? All we can do is try. If Alaska Fish and Game is adamant that they are going to save money this way, perhaps they could come up with a Memorandum of Understanding with The Nature Conservancy or another not-for-profit to operate the island as a sanctuary with a provision for allowing visitors to come and camp. Perhaps the National Park Service should buy it from Alaska and operate it as a national park unit, similar to the manner in which Channel Islands National Park off the California coast in operated. Perhaps an Eskimo corporation could run it. Maybe volunteers could assist a paid staff member. Perhaps the University of Alaska could run the visitor operations in conjunction with research. Since the infrastructure is already there, it would be obscene to just abandon it, and it seems that the state has not explored these and other avenues for protecting the sanctuary.

In the meantime, if you would like to write a rational and passionate letter supporting the continued use of Round Island as a place to view Alaska’s native wildlife, please contact:

Alaska Department of

Fish and Game

P.O. Box 115526

1255 W. 8th Street

Juneau, AK 99811-5526

Or email them from their website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=contacts.emailus

Leaving Round Island, AlaskaSadly leaving the island

Charter boat loading passengers for trip back to TogiakFerrying gear to the small boat just prior to departure

Karen Rentz and PiperThe small plane we arrived on in the Eskimo village of Togiak

Laundry on the line, Togiak, AlaskaDaily scene in Togiak

Air drying Sockeye SalmonSome of the Sockeye Salmon from Bristol Bay smoking at an Eskimo smokehouse in Togiak; the Sockeye Salmon fishery here is called the most sustainable fishery in the world, but the Pebble Mine proposed in the watershed could change that. That is another important environmental issue facing the region (see below for a link to more information).

 

For what could be your last chance to visit this enchanting isle, go to http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=refuge.rnd_is

To read the article that announced the closure of Round Island, go to Round Island Closure

To read what Trout Unlimited has to say about the Pebble Mine, go to Save Bristol Bay

To see my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

 

 

 

HAWAII MANTA RAY ADVENTURE: Night Snorkeling with Huge Winged Fish

At one point, a big Manta Ray swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-129A Manta Ray glides toward us in the Pacific Ocean, lit by the lights of divers and snorkelers

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-77A magical view of fish gathering in the lights

The idea was intriguing. We would go out at night in the Pacific Ocean and snorkel with huge Manta Rays with 15′ wide wingspans that would come within inches of us. Or maybe the idea was just plain scary! Anyway, we decided to do it.

One key thing to realize is that Mantas are not carnivores who would eat people. That helped. Yes, their mouths gape wide and could swallow Jonah or Karen, but that has never happened (to the best of our knowledge!). They eat the ocean’s small stuff, such as shrimp and plankton and small fish, much as many kinds of whales eat small krill and some Grizzly Bears eat moth larvae (oops, not a good example, because they eat much bigger stuff too!).

We checked in at a dive shop at a strip mall in Kona. The enthusiastic staff outfitted us with wetsuits and prepared us for the experience. They had us sign the waiver form, and told us to meet at a marina at 5:30 p.m. We drove there and met up with our group, and with the staff who would be guiding us.

We signed up to go out on a tiny boat with three crew members. Our group had ten snorkelers and two scuba divers: four Swiss, two French, two Canadians, and four Americans. All of us had some previous experience in the ocean, though in the case of Karen and I it was just a few hours previous snorkeling, and that was in shallow waters.

When the boat was ready, we climbed aboard and motored out of the marina and into the choppy Pacific Ocean. We surged north along the coast, bouncing along the waves in the early evening. When we reached our destination, we set anchor and wriggled into our wetsuits, enjoying and enduring all the joking of the crew. The staff really went out of their way to make us feel at ease in what was a really alien experience for all of us. However, we were there long enough, bobbing in the ocean, that Karen grew queasy with the motion; we should have taken two tablets of Bonine.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-4Preparing for the experience, putting on wetsuits and checking our gear

One guide asked the divers if they were sure they could handle the idea of a huge Manta brushing right by their heads; one tiny young woman from Switzerland looked scared to death, but she decided to do it anyway. The divers were told not to wear snorkels attached to their masks, because the Mantas can sense the electrical fields of the human body and not touch living flesh, but the snorkel projecting above the head wouldn’t be sensed, and they could collide with it, ripping off a diver’s mask. I don’t even want to think about that possiblity, but I suspect it happened once upon a time.

Viewing Manta Rays is a surprisingly social experience. Several companies take out clients to one spot in the ocean, near the Kona airport, where the Mantas are known to feed. The people who want to scuba dive go down to the ocean bottom with bright dive lights. They are spaced out by the boat crews so that they cover perhaps a 100 x 100′ area of the ocean floor, and they project their dive lights upward. Those who want to snorkel grab onto a floating square made of PVC pipe with their two arms, and look downward. Each boat has its own floating square, and each square is equipped with lights projected downward. The night we went there may have been about 100 people participating, with perhaps twice as many snorkeling as diving.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-52Snorkelers holding onto a square assembly of PVC pipes that holds lights (looking up toward the ocean surface)

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-53Self portrait at night, using a noodle float to help stabilize me and my big camera housing

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-73Bubbles rise from the scuba divers below; Karen was wearing a shorty wetsuit and said that the bubbles uncomfortably tickled her arms and legs

The whole experience hinges upon the lights, so the more lights the better. With all the lights in the ocean, plankton and other small prey creatures swim toward the lights, which concentrates this source of food for the Manta Rays. The rays have come to expect this, so they come to feed near the lights. Which is why we get to see these otherwise hidden creatures of the deep. Over two hundred different Mantas have come to feed here; the staff can identify them by the markings on their bodies.

We climbed down into the dark water and swam over to the floating square. As a group, we moved out away from the boat and began peering down into the water, at once seeing the magic of all the lights projected up from the ocean bottom. I felt like I was in a spaceport, expecting the alien Manta spacecraft to arrive any second. By this point on our Hawaii trip, breathing through a snorkel became almost second nature, so we were able to relax in the ocean. The ocean was warm enough that we felt entirely comfortable in our wetsuits.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-83

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-89Hawaiian Flagtails gathered in the lights to feed, attracted to the concentration of plankton

Actually, it took some time for the Manta Rays to arrive. In the meantime, fish swirling in the lights kept us entertained and gave my itchy shutter finger something to do (I can’t stand it if I can’t take pictures!). Eventually, two Mantas swam gracefully into view, and I discovered that my alien spacecraft vision was not very far off. They truly do look alien.

At one point, a big Manta swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-113

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-130

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-131The huge mantas wheeled gracefully in the ocean

Eventually, the lights on the ocean bottom switched off as the divers started ascending, and we kicked our way back to the boat and climbed aboard, adrenaline and endorphins coursing through our thrilled bodies and minds.

That night we only saw two Mantas, but some nights they see about 25. It was such a profound experience that I would love to do it again.

Video by Karen Rentz of the experience

The company we used for this trip was Big Island Divers, and we were extremely pleased with their competence in dealing with all of us novices.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

We traveled on a small boat along the south coast of the Big Island of Hawaii in order to experience the dramatic natural event of lava flowing into the sea.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

MOUNT ASSINIBOINE PROVINCIAL PARK: Staying in A Mountain Hut

An account of a September hiking trip in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, with descriptions of the Mount Assiniboine Lodge and Naiset Huts.

Our Naiset Hut, the Forget-Me-Not

After a long night, with five of us sleeping in a cramped cabin, one of my hutmates asked: “Seriously, dude, have you ever been tested for sleep apnea?” Snoring and snorting in my sleep is an issue: if not for me, then certainly for people I sleep near. Such is hut living for a few days; it takes a person out of their spacious home and tosses them in with other people for a terribly cozy experience. Yet I would certainly do it again.

Ten of us came to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, which is wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks, by helicopter. Yes, hikers do come in on foot, but it is a two day backpacking journey for many, which cuts down the time in the splendid high country. So our Mountaineers group chose a twelve minute helicopter ride to whisk us to the shore of Lake Magog, which sits in the mighty cirque of Mount Assiniboine and a ring of other magestic peaks. The helicopter whizzed past rock glaciers and old burns and several lakes, and zoomed close to an immense rock face, finally setting down in a meadow with a blade-driven blast of snow. From there we schlepped our gear to the Naiset Huts area, about a half mile away.

In this basin there are three lodging choices. For the affluent or those who want to be most comfortable, there is the Mount Assiniboine Lodge, which offers rooms in a small lodge, as well as pleasantly rustic cabins with stunning mountain backdrops (and real sheets!). The lodge serves good meals and provides guide services, though the only toilets are outhouses–pleasant outhouses, to be sure, but outhouses nonetheless. The cost of the lodge and

The Mount Assiniboine Lodge was originally built in 1928 by the Canadian Pacific Railway to promote train travel

cabins is $260 to $420 per person per night for summer rates, as of 2010, and slightly lower during the winter ski season. While we were in the vicinity, a group of dentists were having a conference at the lodge, combined with hours of fly fishing. A small tour group of hardy Japanese tourists also stayed at the lodge. The dentists were busy on their iPhones and laptops during the conference, so there was at least some connection with the outside world. The lodge serves tea at 4:00 pm each day, so those of us who wanted the English/Canadian experience of high tea could at least take a rustic tea in the lodge’s log dining room.

The second lodging opportunity, much less expensive at $20 per night per person and where we stayed, is the Naiset Huts. These are a group of five approximately 13  x 15′ cabins, modeled after trapper cabins of long ago, each sleeping six people on padded bunks in hostel style. Each cabin has a wood stove for warmth, which occupants heat using Presto logs purchased from the lodge. These structures are dark and cramped, but keep hikers warm and dry when necessary. The surprise bonus at the huts is the central cookshelter, which is a beautiful new log cabin, built in

The log cookshelter is an inviting place during a snowstorm, but take off your boots before entering!

2006 by BC Parks. This spacious shelter provides propane lights and a propane stove, as well as a place to get out of the weather or to gather for games or reading in the evening. Again, outhouses are the bathroom choice, but one of them is a wonderful and sweet smelling composting toilet, constructed with aromatic cedar, with a piece of natural artwork on the wall and a glassless window showing the forest and Grizzly Bears outside. Which reminds me: it might be a good idea to carry bear spray on a midnight ramble to the outhouse, given that bears also ramble about at midnight. In early autumn, go easy on the Presto logs, we put one whole one in the stove and soon had the cabin temperature up to about 90 degrees F!

The Naiset Huts were used by a variety of people during our stay, including a German couple who had backpacked in with the idea of camping, but the early autumn snow and cold convinced them to stay inside. There was also a pair of hardy Canadians from Ontario, and our group of ten Americans, among others..

There is a third lodging option, and that is a BC Parks campground about a mile (two kilometers) from the lodge. I didn’t visit the campground, so I can’t comment on its comfort or aesthetics, but I did meet a man who moved from the campground to a hut, during our stay, because a Grizzly Bear paid a visit to his camp. Enough said! But if you only want to spend $10 per night, the campground is your ticket.

Our plan, as a photography group from the Seattle area Mountaineers, was to take day hikes radiating out from the huts. The big advantage of staying in a

Muddy boots from a wet trail

hut, rather than backpacking, is that on a day hike I can carry just my camera pack rather than all the camping gear. This is important, because my camera pack grows heavier with each lens I bring. In addition, when I am tired from backpacking, I am less likely to have the gumption to work for still another photo.

Our group consisted of people who wanted to photograph the park, so we already had a lot in common. The different personalities and backgrounds made for a fun time. There was Barb, already our friend, who celebrated her 82nd birthday during the trip (and outhiked us on the uphill grades!). Her son, Rob, kept us constantly entertained with improvised comedy, such as his rock

Rob enjoying rock radio

Rob on his stone phone; as a primitive communications instrument, it only had eight number keys!

radio and stone phone (see the pictures!). Then there was Elston, who spent his working life as a corporate man and then transformed himself in retirement into a big and burly guy with shoulder length blond hair who looks like a mountain man. I was the dullest one among us!

Members of our Mountaineers group at afternoon tea in the Mount Assiniboine Lodge

On the evening of Barb’s 82nd birthday, a grand cake was prepared, consisiting of ten Hostess Twinkies piled up log cabin style and topped with candles. As the special honoree, Barb enjoyed her Twinkie with 82 wild strawberries gathered during the day’s hike. It was a wonderful birthday!

Mmmmm … Twinkies with wild strawberries!

Karen and I eat simply during these trips, with freeze-dried backpacker meals and instant coffee (ugh!). Our goal is to keep meals as simple as possible so that we can concentrate on photography. Others prepared more elaborate meals, including fried potatoes and meats that made the cookshelter smell

Cookshelter interior

wonderful. In the evenings, some of us read while others played a simple dice game or chatted with the Germans and Canadians. It was pleasant to get out of the cold and into a warm and steamy place (steamy because we had to boil all of our water).

After dinner and reading for a while, we pulled on our boots and walked to the outhouse by headlamp light, then to the hut. We then lit half of a Presto log in the stove, which warmed up the cabin enough to get to sleep. Karen passed out earplugs to anyone who didn’t want to listen to me snore, then we would say our goodnights, as in:

“Good night, John-boy.”

“Good night, Mary Ellen.”

“I love you …”

“You better!”

Our hut had a couple of other inhabitants; we believe that at least two critters lived under the cabin floor in the crawl space. These rodents are also known to biologists as “Bushy-tailed Wood Rats,” but when I called them by that name, everyone seemed to focus on the “rats” part and got squeamish. So I started calling them by the more Disneyfied name of “Pack Rats,” which is more socially acceptable. Every night, the Pack Rats would venture out from the cabin to harvest wildflowers. In the morning, there would be little bouquets of purple asters neatly clipped to a length of about 6 inches, with the flower still attached, stashed on a stump and on bare earth in front of the cabin. We felt like they were leaving us gifts, though they might have simply left the piles hoping that the sun would dry the flowers for winter use. Karen and I celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary on this trip, and purple asters were the wildflowers we gave out at our 1972 “hippie wedding” in Ann Arbor’s arboretum, so the little “gifts” had sentimental value.

We had hippies on our mind during the trip; we learned a Canadian common name for the seed stalks of Western Anemone (commonly called “Towhead Baby” in the US) is “Hippie Sticks,” because the seed head looks like the hair of a 1970 flower child. Great name!  Anyway, getting back to asters and Pack Rats, Karen decided to borrow a couple of purple aster flowers to use as eyes on a snowman she wanted to build.

But then we couldn’t find any snow, until our last night at Mount Assiniboine, when it began to snow steadily. After enough accumulation, Karen and Barb and Eileen made a snow lady that they christened “Hippie Chick,” who had the starry-eyed look of a young hippie woman, with her aster eyes. Purple haze, indeed! Meanwhile, Rob and I were out photographing the snow falling heavily about the lodge and cabins. It was magical.

Detail of “Hippie Chick,” our official snowlady for Mount Assiniboine

By next morning, the overnight 4″ snowfall transformed the landscape beautifully and gave us the opportunity to photograph snowy mountains and trees while waiting for the helicopter, which eventually set down in a maelstrom of whirling snow.

Mount Assiniboine Lodge during a snowy twilight

Our hut, like the others, had short doors suitable only for Hobbits. More than one head was bumped!

Karen at our Forget-Me-Not hut

The Ranger Cabin, now occupied by lodge staff since BC Parks eliminated its back country rangers in a budget cutting move

The lodge cabins have some wonderful rustic furnishings

The lodge has plusher cabins than our huts, and with better views, such as this cabin overlooking Lake Magog and the cirque of Mount Assiniboine

A graceful sign for the Aster, one of the Naiset Huts

The Mount Assiniboine Lodge outhouse sports a satellite dish, making me wonder if the stalls have big screen televisions

Trails lead out in multiple directions from the hut and lodge areas

The Ranger Cabin during an early autumn snowstorm

A rustic interior detail of the lodge

The chefs put out their aprons and kitchen towels behind the lodge to dry

Barb and her son Rob emerge from the helicopter at the end of the trip

The helicopter landing after a commute from the lodge

This Seattle Mountaineers trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore, whose love of all things wild in Canada is clearly evident. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a British Columbia park wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. For more information about transportation to and facilities in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to the British Columbia Parks website.

For another story in my weblog about Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to Grizzly Bears.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.