The Magic of Warm Springs Bay

It’s a cold spring in Lingít Aaní, also called Southeast Alaska, the land of the Tlingit people who have been its stewards for over 10,000 years. The sea is frigid and cloudy with primary production, ice hangs low in the mountains, plants are cautiously extending their tips of new growth in late May. “Tlingit” means “People of the Tides” in their own language, and indeed this is a landscape of tides. Mountains rise dramatically on countless islands between and across the misty fjords and life here is inextricably rooted in the sea, which breathes against the shore in 12.5 hour cycles, exposing and re-enveloping colorful intertidal communities. The biological richness of this marine ecosystem makes for bountiful feeding grounds for a variety of species, from salmon to bald eagles and, of course, whales.


Photo by Dana Bloch. Humpback whale fluke. Photo obtained under NMFS Permit No. 19703.

In the midst of this cold and mystical damp, our home base at Baranof Warm Springs rests at the foot of a waterfall on the hot, pulsing vein of a geothermal spring that fills natural pools and community bathtubs with its perfectly steaming, slightly sulfurous water that warms our toes at the end of long days on the water.


Photo by Alex Jenkins. Boardwalk at Baranof Warm Springs, spray from waterfall visible in the background.

Our team came together gradually over the last month, with a few folks arriving early for a pre-season project. Some have spent several summers at Warm Springs, while the rest of us are discovering it for the first time. Adjusting to life at the research station has been made easy by the warmth and camaraderie of the team. For the most part, we live communally, eat communally, work communally, and laugh communally at the silly things that always happen when you bring together a group of passionate and quirky people.


The Warm Springs community is constantly fluctuating: the handful of friendly summer residents are punctuated by the daily comings and goings of local journeyers, fishermen, and small tour boats who stop in for a quick walk through the woods to soak in the natural spring pools. Seeing new faces is welcome, until they crowd the three public bathtubs on the boardwalk, each in its own private room with a curtained view of the bay and mountain backdrop, fed directly by piped geothermal water. We might be a bit spoiled!


Photo by Alex Jenkins. View of Baranof Lake from the muskeg overlook.

Humpback whales are so abundant here, it seems more likely to see one than not each time we leave the bay. Occasionally, one will enter the bay and, spotting it from the field station windows, we rush out to the boardwalk. A few days ago, we watched as a whale lunged at the base of the waterfall during low tide between exposed orange, seaweed-coated rocks. Sea otters and seals will pop their heads out of the water from time to time. In the woods, deer are evidenced by the chomped stumps of skunk cabbage (a common big-leafed plant that sprouts a yellow corn-cob-like flower in spring). The gouged roots of the same plant indicate that a bear has been foraging nearby.


Photo by Alex Jenkins. A gregarious gathering of sea lions on a sea cliff, spotted from the boat.

A few slow days have given us time to explore the bay, from kayaking to a secret lagoon only accessible during high tide, to plunging in the glacier-fed lake and exploring the adjacent muskeg (bog). It has also given us time to catch up on data, which is an infinite task and constantly growing as we collect more each day in the field. But, when “data” means flipping through photos of humpbacks diving, lunging, and bubble-net feeding before snow-capped mountains and vast forests of spruce and hemlock, I can’t find any reason to complain.


Photo by Alex Jenkins. Kayaking in Salt Lagoon.

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