Snettisham 2014 - 5: Stairs in the Woods
  July 10-13


A cruise ship emerges from the fog bank

Sometimes a trip just feels right. By the time we left I was wildly sleep deprived, a condition not helped by a late Tuesday night at the Imperial to see Torsten off. Yet there was a favorable forecast ahead, and somehow I managed to run all my errands, take care of all the birds, pack, fuel the boat, etc. on Wednesday and Thursday without breaking down. Wednesday after work I purchased  a 2000 watt Honda generator (Joan) before I went grocery shopping, sit spotting, dinner making, food packing, and dishes cleaning. Thursday I got up early and cleaned Bebop’s mew and paid bills before work. At lunch I took Cailey for a short walk at Sandy Beach so I could fuel and haul all my jerry jugs to the boat. I left work at 4:10 and had time to pick up extra beer, pack clothes and perishables, feed all the animals, and back up the photos on my phone before returning to the liquor store for ice (which had been half the point in going there in the first place), picking up Chris, and heading to the harbor. With everything prepped and only two quick loads to bring down, we were underway a little after six into a lovely, calm evening (myriad wakes aside). We traded off driving so the other could eat the Subway sandwiches Chris had picked up and had a thoroughly pleasant ride south. The tide was low enough that we decided to wait until it rose a bit more before unloading our gear, so I anchored it to the beach and opened up the lodge. By the time we dumped our gear inside, two whales had blown in the inlet, one in Gilbert Bay and the other quite close to the sandbars. We were to have whale company all weekend, probably feeding on the same prey that had drawn in the many clusters of murrelets we’d passed on the way in. We lit a fire and watched the second episode of “The Leftovers” on my laptop, then unloaded all the gear when we could bring the boat almost to the log.

After going to bed late, I didn’t get up until around 9:00 a.m. I have finally officially caved and allowed Cailey to sleep on the bed at Snettisham all night, so I was uncomfortably sandwiched most of the time. While Chris slept in a bit more, I read the manual for my new generator, then started her up for the first time and weed whacked the path down to the beach and around the benches and campfire. The grass was so long and thick on some of the path that I had to stop a couple of times and unwind it from below the spool, eventually using a screwdriver to painstakingly draw it out. Later I also weed whacked the path up to the lodge outhouse and trimmed some of the larger shrubs with clippers. A hummingbird came by, one of two that frequented the feeders over the weekend. Then I took two of the half racks of beer to the freshet, dumping some and leaving the rest on the porch of Harbor Seal, after which Chris appeared. We had tea and quesadillas before heading out on a small excursion upriver to Whiting Point. This time I didn't cross the river to the main channel, but stayed out from shore on this side some ways past the grassy point before hugging the bank. We bothered a merganser mother with a passel of ducklings just as we left shore to cross the river and I was relieved to see her double back to them after she'd left us behind. This time I didn't touch bottom until I tried to go ashore too far downriver of the point and came up on the sandbar there instead; nosing into the rocky nook was a little more tricky this time, but we pulled it off and left the boat securely tied to alders while we looked around--that point is such a pretty place.

After a little break, I continued my trimming project while Chris went to search for artifacts. With the clippers and Swede saw I finished trimming the path from Harbor Seal to the point, mostly taking out small dead spruces and alder branches. Chris found a bent metal strap in a clump of blueberries between Harbor Seal and the edge of the cliffs overlooking the creek, then found something that looks like a shovel or perhaps the ash tray from the bottom of a stove right in the middle of the new path beyond the bridge. I carried Joanie over to the trail junction past Cottonwood and weed whacked the paths to the outhouse and to the bridge (old Slugger was so heavy I did not carry it unless I had to). Chris then chose two out of many metal detector hits in front of Mink and we each excavated one. I found a larger piece of filigreed metal with a central dome that matched the one I’d found on the other side of the cabin earlier; his hole produced four different artifacts, most of which could have been part of a stove and two of which had numbers and letters that could help us determine what it is.

Throughout the bugs were terrible—noseeums and larger flies--and they eventually drove us inside. But by then it was getting toward dinner time, so Chris starting taking supplies to the rocky point where we planned to have dinner. He started a fire in the small rock circle there while I managed to cut five 2x6s and a 4x4 in half with a sawzall in preparation for working on my steps down toward Harbor Seal. Naturally I’d left my skilsaw in town, but the sawzall functioned well enough with the new blade I put it in it, and Joan is a joy to work with, so light and quiet! By the time I was finished the fire was ready for alder sticks for grilling, so I got that going while Chris prepped steaks. Then we traded off and I heated up some green beans and made stove top stuffing while he grilled on the point. The steaks turned out amazing—the alder wood flavor is wonderful—but the dining experience left something to be desired. On top of the steady, if light, rain, the bugs were still vicious and we quickly retreated inside once we were finished. That evening we watched Cloud Atlas on the couch in the lodge, fueled by dessert café francais that kept me up hours past the end of the movie.


Prepping Joanie

The path before weedwhacking

The path aftee weekwhacking

A clearer path to the point

Starting to tame the trail to the outhouse

Someone's been eating a lot of berries

Chris and a barrel hoop (?)

Chris excavates

Finished taming the trail

Iron artifact

Excavating in front of Mink

Steaks on the point

Consequently, I again slept in, not getting up until around 9:30 a.m. Cailey took off on an adventure all her own, so I didn’t meet back up with her until after I’d had a little breakfast and had delivered a box of nails and some other tools to the work site and then gone to sit on the rocky point for a few minutes. I was feeling out of sorts and not eager to either go on a COASST walk or work on the bridge, but the longer I saw on the rocks gazing upriver the more I wanted to go up there and look for tracks. After Cailey showed up, bright eyed and full of joy and very affectionate, we picked our way down to the beach and wound up doing the COASST walk. I’d forgotten my bag of clothes in Hermit Thrush and so was barefoot, and the mud and water felt wonderful on my feet.

When we got back I carried a load of 2x6s over to the stair site, then picked up my clothes so I could put on socks and shoes (working on a slope with lumber seemed dangerous to the tops of my feet). First I nailed a 2x6 to the back of the top of the risers to connect them, then nailed on two treads to form a stable set of stairs to work with. I’d already done most of the excavation work necessary for the risers, and they were surprisingly level when I set them up. On further inspection, though, I decided to back them into the hillside a little more to make the slope down to the top step less dramatic, so I hacked away at that and brought the stairs in another six inches or so. That brought the bottom of the stairs up even higher than before, and I could see that I would need more than the 4x4 to support them than I originally had hoped. I wound up turning the stairs over and nailing a 2x6 across the bottom for added height. With some more excavation, I added the 4x4 below that and nailed it on through the top of the 2x6. With the addition of a small rock I’d dug out from the bank earlier, the stairs were stable and square. All that sounds very simple, but all the excavating required clipping small and large roots many times over. Not to mention all the trips to other places for more tools, gloves, and the rest of the lumber.

I nailed in the rest of the treads (two required shims to level out, which I had to retrieve from the shed) and admired my work. It left something to be desired. The stairs themselves look pretty good (a few not quite accurate cuts with the sawzall notwithstanding), but it really needed another step to make it all the way down the slope. I knew that to start out with, but Don Able doesn’t make stair risers with more than four steps. I did start scraping away the topsoil from above the stairs to make a more pleasant slope down to them and  would up digging out a large, flattish round rock, which I temporarily placed at the bottom to ameliorate the drop. By then I was tired, sweaty, and famished, and the mosquito coils that had helped the deet keep the bugs at bay were long burned out. I dropped my tools, stashed my gloves under a log, and headed back to the lodge where I found Chris. It was after noon and I was hungry, so I made lunch and we relaxed. After a little post-lunch trip reporting listening to two whales breathing in the inlet, I fell into a nap. Cailey was on the couch with us but eventually escaped over the back (probably from all the legs on top of her); this led her to pace around the lodge looking for a comfy place to lie down (her bed was outside) until I eventually dropped my blanket on the floor for her. All the while I managed to nap and make up a bit of my lost sleep.

In the meantime, it had begun to rain densely on and off. I had ideas about kayaking out in the calm inlet with the whales and the mist, but didn’t follow through. I read for a bit and then finished cleaning up the stairs site and further scraping down a path to the top. I found a potential rock to place at the bottom on the path to the rocky point which I hoped Chris would help me dig up later. By the time I got back to the lodge it was 6:00 p.m. and I drank a cold Tecate on the porch while watching two whale fluking in the inlet. Crows wandered the beach and, as we’d heard all weekend, fledglings begged from adults, flapping their wings compellingly. We both noticed the abundance of crows in Snettisham this weekend, starting with a large flock at Sentinel Point on the way in. The eagles weren’t very active at that moment, but earlier I’d seen one fly a stick into the nest and they were both working the area over the weekend so I have hopes that they have an eaglet or two up there. There are also an abundance of varied thrushes around and I often startled them in the salmonberry bushes near the lodge. They sang frequently, that soft fall call that seems strangely out of place mid-summer coming from so close and so often. I’d heard Pacific wrens chittering in the woods, chickadees calling, and seen a juvenile Wilson’s warbler by the porch. I was also hearing a brand new song high in the trees while I worked all weekend, indescribable but unfamiliar, and hopelessly lost in the forest. Bonaparte’s gulls, including many immature, fed along the water along with mew gulls. Earlier I’d seen an unusual congregation of seals near the boat—seven seals stayed in close association while others were more normally scattered around the river. They kept raising their faces up like sea lions—very interesting.

A little later I made dinner (roast beef/bison melts and corn on the cob), wandered down to the boat, and called it a night.

I slept in egregiously the next morning again, not rising until 9:30. It’s quite a change to have an adult dog! Chris followed shortly thereafter and we had a little breakfast and tea on the porch. I did a bunch of little chores, including putting a pillow case on the pillow in Cottonwood, sweeping, bringing lime and wet wipes to the cabin outhouse, and filling the wood box. Then Chris and went in search of a large rock to place at the bottom of the new steps. We found a couple of likely candidates on the way to the rocky point and below it, but he wound up convincing me that it would be better left to the group of guys we hoped to bring down the next weekend. Instead we set about finishing the stairs which I’d leveled from one side to the other but not front to back. This turned out to be quite a bit of work. We kept excavating under the 4x4 that was supporting the stairs, figuring that if we did so they would naturally drop and level themselves out. When that didn’t work we excavated along the risers, since the stairs were also resting there. Chris suggested that we pivot the stairs straight out from the mountain to access underneath rather than awkwardly holding them up or moving them aside, and that worked very well. We did this several times until it finally sunk in that we were only perpetuating the situation deeper each time. I’d been reluctant to work from the other end—propping up the stop of the stairs so they tilted down a little more—but this turned out to be the correct strategy. I found a handful of rocks about an inch or an inch and a half tall and placed them level under the top of the stairs while Chris held them up. With only a little more work excavating under the 4x4 again to level it out under there and adding another rock in the corner and we were done. I swept them off with m gloves, removed the PT tags, and admired them. Coupled with the big paths around them, they look great. Hard to believe (well, not really) that that whole area was a wild grove of devil’s club just last year. It continues the transformation of the property into a slightly more civilized and easily navigated homestead.

By that time it was after noon and we were both hungry and tired. We had a cold beer on the porch, then ate lunch, and as soon as I was done cleaning and packing we headed out around 4:15. Just outside the inlet, we passed over a vivid river/salt water transition line; I’m not sure what conditions create such a stark contrast (most are gentler) but there could hardly have been a more sharp contrast between the gray brown water and the deep green, and it felt like we lost a bit of elevation too. It wasn’t even low tide.

The seas were blissfully calm through the port and out into Stephen’s Passage up to about Limestone Inlet where we encountered sharp, cruel seas from the northwest or so, coming down and across Admiralty. It’s not a wind direction I’m familiar with there, as most northwesterlies aren’t very lively in that section below Point Arden. I hoped we’d get some shelter from Grand Island and then be in the trough of it past Arden, but like virtually every solid seas prediction I’ve made this summer, I was dead wrong. The seas did lighten up just a bit past Grave Point, but we still fought them into Taku Inlet. Ahead of us a fog bank lay across the inlet and the eerie visage of a cruise ship emerged from it. Before we knew it, we were inside the fog and the green water was glassy calm. It was some of the densest fog I’ve ever been in, dark, with no hint of a sun through it. We quickly ran up on a gillnet and lurched to avoid it. It was the first of several encounters with gillnetters fishing in the fog. Once we rode up on another net in the water. The terminal buoy was lost in the fog and the boat was half shrouded, though not far away. It was pretty exciting! At one point there was a dim shadow of land to the left and we’d run out of gillnetters so I figured we’d passed Point Arden. However, there was no glimpse of Douglas to set a course by! I continued in the direction we’d been traveling in, as I don’t generally change course significantly on the way into the channel, and we cautiously continued on our way. A boat emerged from the fog to our left in a slow and terrifying way—it turned out to be the Alaskan Dream and we passed safely across her bow.

That was the last boat we saw. We stayed on course and went on and on and on, peering into the fog for any sign of Douglas. I wasn’t timing the ride and we weren’t going at full speed anyway so I wasn’t sure where we should have been, but it did seem like we ought to have found the channel by the time we saw the hazy shape of land to our left. But it wasn’t Douglas. I thought about taking a close look to orient myself, but instead decided that it must be Admiralty and turned away from it in the hopes of running into Douglas. We were soon shrouded in fog again and the longer that went on the eerier it became. I wasn’t scared, but it was very unnerving to genuinely not know where I was. Chris and I both had an idea, but there was no way to be sure! To make sure the compass on my boat was working, we dug out our iphones, losing the signal just before Chris got the GPS program to work (which suggested that we were, in fact, on the back side of Douglas). We shut down, hearing boats in the distance in two directions, then decided on a northerly trajectory. We would either hit the mainland or hit Douglas.

We probably didn’t travel in that direction very long before the shape of land finally appeared off the port bow. I thought it was the hump of a mountain contour and sped toward it, only to pull back 100 yards from a rocky shoreline, realizing that the mound I thought was a distant mountain was only the first line of trees on a nearby shore. Believing it to be Douglas, I hung a right and followed the shore, shocked to suddenly come upon a huge cove, the inside of which was almost lost to sight through the fog—I could certainly see no details. Ahead was a reef jutting out from the other side of the cove. It was the most unnerving thing yet. I could think of no place I knew that had these features, and I was nervous about entering the cove because of possible rocks in an unknown place! I was very out of sorts. And then I realized that the cove was at the southern end of Douglas and the reef and land ahead was Marmion Island! We were back on track, and had been exactly where Chris and I had thought we were. We hugged shore so we kept it in sight all the way up the channel, which mean staying closer than I would normally feel comfortable. The fog lightened a little closer to town and it began to rain, so our fog-damp faces and hair became soaked. We wound up home a little later than expected, but it was well worth the adventure!


Artifacts from Mink cabin

Cailey "helps"

High tide


Lost in the fog