Taku 2014 - 1: Iced Out
April 27

Taku Glacier

Hooligan. The desire for a spring trip up the Taku River to harvest hooligan had haunted me for year and a half. I’d been frustrated in 2013 by back-to-back obligations during the run (hunter’s ed class and a work trip to Anchorage) and by unobliging weather the one free day I had between the two. This year I was committed to trying, refusing any obligations that would prevent immediate departure as soon as the run was on. I ordered a small dip net and a gillnet from Amazon (which thankfully arrived mid-April despite their surprise origin of Hong Kong and an expected month in transit) and emailed Mike Ward at Taku Lodge for intel on the arrival of hooligan. On Monday the 21st Mike emailed me that the gulls had arrived at the lodge and that he’d seen a hooligan; the ice was out up there, but he wasn’t sure that the sandbar ice was passable farther down river. The run lasts at least a week, so I began looking toward the weekend both for convenience, for company, and to let the ice retreat a little. When Friday came I decided to delay departure until Sunday to let a strong north wind blow through which was suggesting 4’ seas in Taku Inlet. I did launch the Ronquil Saturday morning to have it ready for departure the next day and spoke with some folks heading up the river into Canada who told me that that the ice was out and the whole river passable.

With that good news, Chris, my mother, and I took off for the harbor around 8:25 Sunday morning, departing at 9:00 a.m. with coolers, ice, lunch, and packs for an overnight at Bullard’s Landing. The sky was clear and the channel was calm, the boat ran beautifully, and we were all in a good mood; I even waved to one of my dog walking buddies on Sandy Beach as we passed. We all wore mustang suits; Chris sat next to me and my mom occupied a camp chair behind us. We were expecting a little southerly breeze, but instead fought against an uncomfortable chop between Point Bishop and Cooper. I was very much afraid that it would only be worse around the corner and was steeling myself against defeat, but the seas calmed the farther north we went (my mother says that Bishop to Cooper is often the worst stretch, for reasons unclear). A huge number of gulls were flying around toward Davidson Creek, but otherwise the inlet seemed normal—no whales, sea lions, or even porpoise.

Once we passed Flat Point, the fun began. Flat ice bergs off the river and the sandbars floated in a broken line down the shore, increasingly populated by seals after we passed Scow Cove. We were soon cruising past one cluster of seals after another, all hauled out on shelf-like icebergs lined up offshore; looking ahead we decided to escape their increasingly tight clutches lest we get stuck between ice and rock, and made for a lead between them (unfortunately scaring some seals into the water, as there was no way to avoid them, hauled out on a nearly unbroken line of ice as they were). Following seals already in the water, my gut, and my memory of running the river at low tide the previous fall, I made my way upriver more or less in the middle of the channel, managing to not ground myself. At Taku Point things got interesting, as the sandbar icebergs covered more of the channel and I had to weave through them until we reached deep water again against the cliff where it turns in toward the meadows. There, too, dozens of seals clustered on the icebergs. I was shocked by the size and nearness of big sandbars arcing out toward the cliffs and creating a much narrower passage than it seems at high tide.

We cruised along the cliff face toward the meadow, stunned by the abundance of wildlife. On top of the myriad seals in and out of the water, eagles were everywhere we looked, perched and on the wing; at one point, five eagles were in front of us at once and more were everywhere we looked, not to mention the gulls. Everything seemed to be going our way, and then we hit the edge of the (snow-covered) meadow and I suddenly got very, very confused. Something was wrong…there before me was the expected channel against the shore, where all my imagined hooligan fishing had taken place, but….that channel was not against the meadow and, in fact, curved well away from “shore.” The river was, indeed, passable by boat as I’d been told, but not where expected. An unbroken shelf of ice extended off the lower meadows and out to the one open channel which was right in the middle of the river. Normally we follow a deep water channel right against the meadows all the way up the Bullard’s Landing. It is narrow, and I imaged anchoring up in the middle and fishing from the boat.

But, we had no choice but to follow the only available channel. After running aground trying a lead as close to the edge of the shelf of ice as possible, we wound up in the main channel which was probably 50-100 feet across and lined by ice-covered sandbars. Many seals spyhopped at us as we passed and, some distance ahead, a large flock of gulls and eagles dove on what must have been a school of hooligan. When we neared that area, we anchored briefly in the middle of the channel and made a few cursory dips with the dip net and casts with the cast net, to no avail. Suddenly my ignorant belief in the relative simplicity of hooligan fishing was shattered. I’d envisioned a fairly narrow channel through which all the hooligan would run, where we couldn’t help but catch them if they were coming through. Instead, we were in a very wide channel of impossibly opaque water with absolutely no indication of where they might be or if they were in the area at all. Somewhat disheartened, we decided to go to a sandbar and see if fishing was possible from shore. The cut bank was collapsing here and there beneath its crust of ice with dramatic splashes, but we found a nice sandy cove to pull into. Cailey romped around on the ice ecstatically and played with Chris.

After a few minutes walking around on the ice and determining that fishing from shore was not likely to work (the water was fairly shallow as far as we could reach), we continued upriver, noting with interest that the river curved to the right, in the direction of the cabin. It didn’t curve far enough, though, and soon made a dramatic turn for the opposite shore. We anchored in the middle of this channel just beyond the turn and had lunch—bread, cheese, smoked hooligan, and blue moons. I was cranky, both from hunger and the frustration of a failed dream. The only way to stay at the cabin that night would be anchor the boat in the river or to the ice, risking its safety and security from floating ice coming down the river and/or nearby sandbar ice floating free; furthermore, the tide that night was significantly higher the tide during the day, which could set the Ronquil on stationary ice and leave it high and dry.

And so there was little we could do but turn around, as we had to exit the river by the same tide we’d arrived on. It was nearly noon when we finished lunch, and exactly high tide in Juneau. We made a few half hearted and feeble attempts to use the nets, then decided to spend the hour or so we felt comfortable remaining in the river by trying to reach the cabin. I was working on a GIS project with Torsten and we needed accurate corner coordinates to further map the property; I was determined to get them and at least have some success from the trip. We puttered downriver, anchored the boat to the edge of the ice (the tide had by then hidden the sandbar underneath), and began the mile or so trek across the flat ice to shore. Near the river, ice had crystallized in a loose network over the normal sandbar ice  and made a sound like tinkling crystals as we walked over it—frozen river water that had flooded the ice? We also noted quite a few isolated leaves in the ice that were inset about six inches; we pondered whether they were recently deposited and melted in from the sunlight, or whether they had lain there all winter and had finally drawn in enough sun to melt a tunnel as the depth of the snow diminished.

Naturally we found open water all along the shore in front of the cabin and down to around the slough. Big chunks of sandbar ice were floating in with the tide and made between our stable sandbar ice and shore. It was very tempting to try ice berg hopping (the pieces were mostly large and seemed stable), but we eventually decided against it. Chris was most enthusiastic, and probably would have gone if he’d known the exactly location we needed him to find on the other side. He did venture out onto one narrow piece with no trouble, but the ice was moving so fast there was no guarantee he’d be able to make it back across. We walked upriver beyond the cabin, hoping we would reconnect to shore, but there was open water there as well. I’d nearly brought out rubber raft and regretted leaving it behind as we could have crossed in that in no time. But by this time I was reconciled to my double failure and simply enjoyed the view. The mountains and snow were reflected in the still water and the valley was breathtaking in the spring light.

Soon enough our hour was up and we retreated across the ice to the Ronquil, passing old moose tracks. With the high tide, more seals seemed to have hauled out, and the entire opposite shore was lined with hundreds of seals, a staggering number. More ice had moved in with the tide, so I had to begin weaving my way through them while still along the cliff face above Taku Point. It was actually quite fun! All the way along the face of the glacier groups of seals hauled out—none of us could believe how many there were. Definitely hundreds—thousands maybe?

We found Taku Inlet flat calm and the early hour and sunshine suggested dalliance. In addition to mapping the property, I was also doing historical research on Taku and Snettisham, so we hugged the west shore past Flat Point instead of crossing to Jaw and poked our heads into Sunny Cove, the site of John Carlson’s cannery (the same John Carlson who had had the Snettisham properties surveyed in 1902). There were pilings at the entrance and the whole site—a large meadow with scattered tress and a large creek (Carlson Creek) flowing through—seemed like a delightful place for a cabin or to camp. We lingered there, then turned south again and made it back to the dock around 3:00, sun burnt and happy with our sunny day of spring adventuring.

Heading up river beyond Jaw Point

Seals on ice flows in front of Taku Glacier

Chris and Cailey romp on a sandbar

We walk to the cabin

Chris and Cailey venture onto an iceberg

Mountains reflected in the open lead at the cabin

Old moose tracks on the river

Harbor seals in front of Taku Glacier

Sunny Cove cannery ruins

The Ronquil moored to a sandbar in the middle of Taku River