Snettisham 2014 - 8: The Way it Should Be, Days 1 &2
  September 9-22

Looking upriver

By the time I made it to the harbor it was 8:58 a.m. and, naturally, not long after an extremely low tide. It took me until 9:42 (about 45 minutes) to load the boat, even though the lumber and a few other items were already stowed. I had more supplies for possible projects, food, cooler, camping gear, more clothes and books than usual, tools, etc., and I had to arrange this all onboard. At last I climbed the ladder-like ramp one last time to use the outhouse and pick up the dog, patiently waiting in Trucky. The tide was so low that there didn’t appear to be enough water under the ramp for the Ronquil to pass through, so I took the long way out of the harbor, something I haven’t done in years. The morning was, thankfully, very mild to begin with. The point-specific forecast was calling for 1-2 feet throughout my section of Stephen’s Passage, but it wasn’t until I was nearly across Taku Inlet that the sea wavered at all, and then a small clash of a northerly coming out of the Taku and a southeasterly coming up. It built as I headed south until there were regular swells above Grave Point. It can get a little squirrely right there, but passing around the point turned out to be insane. The 2-3’ seas were closely spaced, jumbled, and totally chaotic. The Ronquil was thrust up and down with waves smacking her sides from every direction. There was such a continuous sloshing of salt spray that I could barely see well enough to direct the boat. I poked my head up a few times, enough to see that the seas apparently lay down around the corner (enough to keep me going), but other than that I just had to bully through. Indeed, closer to the entrance to Taku Harbor, the chaos ended and was replaced by steady seas rolling up Stephen’s Passage. They weren’t pleasant, but they were manageable, and we slogged through them, Cailey choosing to spend most of her time on the 2x12s slanting down the center of the boat on her blankets.

The seas were calm all the way through Snettisham and the tide had risen enough that we were able to pass over all the sandbars and get to the shale beach. But, with a -3 something tide behind it and a 19 something tide ahead, it was rising fast! I had holes in my xtratuffs, so I used boards as walkways to move a lot of the gear and the rest of the boards off the boat. On one of my first trips I took a load all the way up and then brought the kayak down, setting it down pointed toward the water but not quite touching it. By the time I was done unloading, the kayak was floating. With most of the gear safely stowed above the log, I anchored the boat and came back to shore. At that point I didn’t have the energy to bring all that lumber up to the lodge, so I satisfied myself with loading all the rest of the gear up and then opened the lodge, checking the propane system for leaks before I lit the pilots.

Just minutes after I’d opened the shutter on the picture window I heard a huge crash and turned to see a wet smudge against the window the size of a grapefruit and a single tiny white feather. It has always been a relief to me that I don’t get many window strikes against the picture window; just one, many years ago, a female kingfisher who quickly died. I hurried outside and found nothing on the top porch or the deck below. I crept to the edge of the porch and looked down to see a spectacular kingfisher on the ground, wings spread. Heartbroken, I found a box inside, lined it with a towel, and placed him inside, setting him on the shelf beside the fire to rest.

While he rested and, hopefully, recovered, I hauled all the lumber up to the deck and stacked it there, then made myself quesadillas for lunch (and drank a summer shandy from the freshet). For dessert I ate some of the strawberry shortcake from Chris and my last visit to the Twisted Fish the night before and relaxed on the porch. I decided at that point to check on the kingfisher, who’d been silent, to see if he was still alive. Not wanting to risk an accidental release inside, I brought him onto the porch and saw that he was alive and alert. I closed the box and put him back inside, but apparently I’d aroused him enough that he was no longer content to rest; he pecked at the inside of the box until I took him back out and released him. He flew toward the river, then turned downriver, his slightly unsteady wing beats becoming strong and regular. He flew into an alder at the end of the game trail downriver, then fluttered a little and disappeared. I realized immediately that I should have checked his feet; like other probable window strike victims I’ve cared for, it’s possible that he could fly but not perch. Concerned, I walked down to that area and searched for him, to no avail.

I read in the afternoon until the riverboat floated around 2:30, then I loaded it up with the essentials (e.g., action packer, paddle), took it and the kayak out to the Ronquil, and left the latter there while Cailey and I zoomed upriver. My goal was Whiting Point, but first I explored a little farther upriver to stake it out for future adventures. I didn't learn very much other than that the lowest sandbars above the point are mostly flooded at that tide and that the main channel is therefore difficult to locate. We stopped by the point, dropped SPOT on the meadow beach to send a message, looked around a little, and took off. Naturally I left without SPOT, so I had to turn around for that. On the way back I was in no hurry to leave the riverboat, so I thought I might stop and see if I could whale watch at all. Having seen no whales on the trip down that morning, I’d been delighted to find a whale move into the inlet and feed as the tide rose. He’d been lunge feeding on the opposite side of the inlet in front of the main river channel, where they and the gulls often focus their attention. I saw the gulls intensely diving at that spot and headed in that direction. The whale was in the middle of the inlet moving in that direction. While I was still a little distance away, the whale lunged in the middle of the gulls and I figured I was in for a nice show. I crept a little closer and watched, surprised at the sudden cessation in activity from the birds. As soon as the whale’s lunge was complete, the gulls sat down on the water. No more feeding. It was very curious!

Meanwhile, I could see that another group of gulls was diving on the opposite side of the river and the whale seemed to be heading in that direction. Maybe the food source here had scattered at a single lunge and he was heading back to another bait ball? It was as good a theory as I had, so I sped across the he river and beat the whale, shutting down long before he got there at a respectable distance from the birds. Sure enough, some minutes later, the whale lunged in the middle of the flock, sort of a belly lunge where you see the bottom of the whale’s jaw come up followed by a pectoral fin and probably a tail, but the whale otherwise kept a fairly low profile. Just as before, the gulls immediately dispersed or sat down on the water. Meanwhile, gulls were again circling across the inlet and the whale turned and headed in that direction. Could this happen more often than I realize? Could this be part of what fuels that typical Whiting Inlet whale activity: big “circles” around the inlet, rarely spending much time in a single place? What behavior of the food source/characteristic of the feeding location causes this?

Much as I would have liked to continue whale watching, both Cailey and I were ready to return to the lodge—and keeping up with this whale would have been exhausting! I tied the riverboat to the Ronquil, made it back to the lodge by 4:30, and lit a fire (perhaps only my third or so this year). I read some more, heated up some soup for dinner, and with the last bit of energy I had, I glued two patches to my xtratuffs. One patch from earlier in the summer had fallen off on the back of my right boot, and I found a new hole next to that one, plus I’d discovered a new crack in the front of the ankle of my left boot while unloading the boat that morning. After I was done, I relaxed and was so tired that I fell asleep at 6:45 for a few minutes on the couch! I continued reading through the rest of the evening and then headed to bed.

Cailey's makeshift bed

Unloading the Ronquil

The riverboat is back in the water

Are those ax marks in the tree?

Licheny tree

Whiting Point

The next morning I was up at 8:10, but I lounged around in bed for an hour—after all, I was on vacation, there was no hurry to do anything, and it had been a long couple of weeks prepping for this! For breakfast I ate more of the Twisted Fish biscuit (though I avoided the strawberries which were starting to taste funny), half a granola bar, and a cup of Russian tea on the porch, looking out over a very foggy river. A fox sparrow bopped around the bushes downriver along with a ruby-crowned kinglet or possibly orange-crowned warbler. Later, a robin flew by the deck. The inlet was very foggy and the air perfectly calm. It was another extreme low tide, so Cailey and I went for a COASST walk at 10:00 a.m. On the way back I stopped by the net washing basin (a concrete wall built into a natural corner of the rocks just upriver from the creek mouth) to inspect it for signs of staining. My dad was familiar with net cleaning stations from the early Alaska fishing days from a friend; apparently the pre-nylon nets needed to be cleaned and treated, which they would do with a blue colored solution in these basins that were commonly built at canneries. He saw some very similar ones at Hut Point (Taku Point) and said that this one was stained blue when he first saw it. It’s one of the reasons I’m sure the homestead was still adjacent to deep water at the time that it was first used commercially (as boats would have pulled right up to the basin, something they couldn’t do today even at high tide).

I hadn’t looked closely at the basin for some years, so I clambered up the rocks there and inspected it. Part of the top of the wall was crumbling (I took a loose chunk back to the lodge to save), revealing the rebar inside that gives it support. Rebar was also exposed in a few other places. The drain hole in the bottom of the wall was obviously still functional, as the basin did not hold water, but I discovered after digging through several inches of pine needles and other detritus that the hold is actually lower than the bottom of the basin (the concrete wall there extends below the rock at the bottom of the basin) so I couldn’t actually feel it from above, only see a tiny bit of light. There was no sign of staining on the outside, but the bottom foot or so of the wall on the inside was a bright sea green color. I wetted my finger and rubbed it to determine if it might be algae, but I wasn’t certain. Could the stain have been retained in the relatively protected interior of the wall, and not on the outside? I took photos to show my dad and see if it’s the right color. The only other sign of staining I found was on a vein of crystallized rock (quartz?) that was exposed just below the drain hole. The crystals were sea green! Could they have been stained like the quartz crystals from inside the Crystal Mine? Or are they something else altogether?

After that I poked around some other rocks in the area—the big boulder in the middle of the creek wash and the rocks on the other side of the creek. Some of Rob’s information has finally seeped in this summer and I’m beginning to see rocks in a whole new light, particularly quartz formations. I also snooped around more for the corner marker of the property without luck. All this time Cailey was lingering far out in the middle of the sandbars. I was curious about what interested her, but didn’t feel like walking all the way out there for what were probably the dregs of a salmon carcass, so instead I called her back and we finished the COASST walk. Back at the lodge, I finished unpacking all the food and supplies I’d brought down, then started cooking an artichoke while I washed the dishes and finished packing for a night of camping. The high tides of the week were quickly diminishing, so if I were to make a foray upriver it would have to be that day, which put me up on an 18 something foot tide and back on a 17 something foot tide the next day. After that they weren’t very dramatic at all. I had my camping pack with tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, pot, and cup all ready, and to that I added food, Cailey’s blanket, and a few other supplies. I melted some butter and ate the artichoke for lunch, then decided to work on a project for a little while as I waited for the afternoon tide to rise (high tide was at 4:08). I’d been so pleased with the installation of the stairs on the new path to Harbor Seal (and with the improved trail system in general) that I decided I would tackle the other steep slope, the much longer and wetter freshet bank just past the cabin outhouse on the way to Hermit Thrush. Me and others had slipped our way down and scrambled our way up that slope many times.

All the stairs I’ve ever made myself were short sections using precut stair stringers from Don Abel (for a maximum of four steps). Using a pair of three foot risers I had on hand, I estimated that I’d want six treads to make it up that slope. To that end, I’d brought down two 2x12x12s. I laid them out on sawhorses, put the precut riser on top, and traced a pattern, continuing until I had drawn all six steps. Once they were traced, I started up little Joanie (my red generator), cut the tops and bottoms off, the fronts of the treads, and most of each tread. Back when Carp built the stairs up to the lodge, I’d seen him stop short of cutting all the way to the back of the tread support since the circular saw would then overcut the corner at an angle from both directions. That’s probably a terrible description, but the point is that to make a clean 90 degree angle in the middle of the board, you have to stop short with the skilsaw and finish the cut by hand. Frustrated by the slow pace of the hand saw, I admit that I resorted to a hammer and chisel for most of the corners, an effective if less elegant strategy. I treated all the cut sides with Jasco.

During a break from working on the risers, I enjoyed some exciting fall bird watching. In the current bushes upriver from the deck I watched two fox sparrows and a juvenile white-crowned sparrow (which breed farther north) scratching on the open ground where the riverboat goes for the winter and eating berries. It was one of the few times (maybe the first) that I saw birds without a doubt targeting and eating gray currents. Apparently the berries were a little too large for them, as they would pick one, drop to the ground, and worry it, mashing it and working it with their beaks. I’d also seen a Pacific wren earlier, and chickadees had been chattering and moving all over the property.

With that done, I went to set up the motion sensor camera on the bridge so it could capture any creatures passing by while I wasn’t around. Normally I assume that bears avoid the property when we’re there, but it looked like one had come through on the last trip, and it was evident that they had used the bridge since. In the same place where a splinter still held a clump of fur (which Katie and Rob had noticed a few weeks before), a bear had chewed two pieces off the edge of one of the rails, pushed out two balusters entirely, and left one catawampus. I tried to set up the camera to face as straight down the bridge as possible. Then I grabbed my toothbrush from Hermit Thrush (the last bit of packing I had to do), swept the sawdust off the deck of the lodge, jotted down some notes for this trip report, and took off for adventure.

It was exactly 3:00, right on schedule, when I kayaked out from the beach to pick up the riverboat. Jumping into the riverboat from the kayak proved to be much easier for Cailey than boarding the Ronquil! I left the kayak tied to the Ronquil, returned to the beach to grab the gear, then headed upriver. The lower sandbars were flooded, so I headed up the middle of the river where I remembered the main channel being three years earlier. I got scared away by all the barely submerged sandbars I was passing—my wake washing over them as I sped past—so I turned back toward Whiting Point and then followed the shoreline up to see if that was any better. Soon I could see what seemed to be a channel crossing the river and heading right for the point on the other side that I wanted to head for (based on aerial photos of an unimpeded channel along that side above the lower sandbars). I took off in that direction and soon encountered a strong current, one that was easy to recognize. In fact, it wasn’t long before the water was gray and fast and I seemed to be largely out of the influence of the tide. It was terrifying. In my head I was chanting “follow the flow, follow the flow,” my nerves on edge. I was already much farther up the river than I had been before (at least since I was a babe in arms). I was also constantly rehearsing in my head the steps to stop the boat (slow down by turning the throttle to the left, away from me, then press the button).  The current took me to the far bank, then curved back into the river winding around sandbars, a number of them long-term structures with shrubs growing on them. Sometimes I looked back to see what it looked like when I passed over obviously shallow areas. Finally, the current seemed to split; one channel went straight upriver between closely spaced, vegetated sandbars; the other headed back toward the shoreline. I only had a moment to decide and, like a fool, I went left even though more water seemed to be coming from the other channel. Part of it was that I was nervous about going between those sandbars; the other part was that I was pretty sure that the aerial photo I’d taken four years ago showed a solid channel from right where I was up beyond the sandbars.

In retrospect, I know better than to make decisions based on four-year-old data in ever-changing glacial watersheds. First I passed over a deep shoal, then encountered a very deep channel along shore that was very promising. I made it about half way to the next point, dodging some logs stuck in the current, when the channel again split and shallowed. Neither was a good option, but I went for the greater flow to the right. I wanted to stop and turn around, but there wasn’t room to do it without stopping, and I knew that even the channel I was in might be too shallow to move through without being on step, so I went for it in the event that it was in fact deep enough. It wasn’t. I soon felt the bottom under the engine and shut down as quickly as I could. I bet it was almost fast enough, but the prop froze. I was a good 25 feet from deeper water, so I jumped in and laboriously scooted the boat a foot at a time into deeper water. From there I drifted downriver, passing a beautiful vertical cliff and leaving a tantalizing row of cottonwoods behind until I found a nice sandbar against the shoreline to clean the engine out, aided by a big snag to let it rest against.

There wasn’t much sand inside the engine, so the process went fairly quickly (I’m not sure I ever even saw any come out with my sloshed buckets of water). The hard part, of course, is taking the bolts of the “boot” off and on, since the socket (a teeny one) is nearly too wide to fit in the space available. My mood was not improved by the fact that I put the boot back on 90 degrees off of the proper angle (because the engine itself was tilted to one side). Removing it once is enough! Meanwhile, Cailey was exploring the beach and sniffing into the tracks of a large brown bear. The clouds had broken during the afternoon and I’d had some sunshine as I was heading upriver (I had to strip out of some of my layers when I started moving the boat), but it had now disappeared behind the mountain. It was 4:30 and I had to make a choice. Try again in the (probably) correct channel or head home? I think if it was earlier I would have tried again. But at that point in the fall it was getting dark at 7:30. If I got stuck in the other channel I might wind up in the middle of the river taking my engine’s boot off again. And again. What if something happened and I was stuck for there for the night?  I could certainly camp on one of those long-term sandbars—maybe even find enough wood for a small fire—but it seemed wiser to head back. I wasn’t sure I could escape the lower sandbars without the tide, so if I did get stuck again in a place I didn’t want to camp, I might not have a choice. The tide was already falling. I had a steak back home. I called it.

I was a little bolder going down, and I learned a few things about my ability to travel over certain sandbars. I had a long enough channel off my beach to get up to speed and I followed the current down again, religiously even when I thought it was going the wrong way (but I later recognized it as the same channel). The channel that crosses the river leaves the west side right where a shrubby permanent beach begins to stick out in the river from a point, so I turned there and headed to the middle. I could see that the sandbars were already beginning to emerge and was unable to recognize a channel once I was in the tidal influence again. I made a guess, crossing several very shallow sandbars in the process. I think I can recognize the difference between their depth and the depth of the shoal that grounded me.

Despite my failure, I was already ready to try it again next year by the time I hit tidewater. Earlier in the summer, perhaps, when the river is higher and the daylight is longer. On the way back we paused at the net washing basin to get a GPS coordinate. Then I dropped Cailey and the gear on shore, tied the riverboat behind the Ronquil, and kayaked back. After depositing my gear at the cabin I realized that I’d only been out for two hours. I carried the risers over to the gully and leaned them against the slope, concerned that they were not tall enough after all. But I quickly decided that I was too tired to work that evening, so I drank a beer on the porch and then cooked myself a cube steak on the stove top with a pepper and half a zucchini (using mostly soy sauce for seasoning). It was a lovely evening, overcast again with a little sun on the river. It was so pleasant, in fact, that I spent a good part of the evening there reading with a quilt wrapped around me, looking up to peer into the bushes at the occasional cheeps of the relatively scarce birds. As dusk descended I decided to head to my cabin and finish reading there, maybe even lighting the propane heater to warm the place up for both of us. From inside, though, I soon spied a bird fly across the front of the porch with strange wing patterns—a bat! So I returned to the porch for some time, observing several visits by the bat who seemed to be moving up and down the riverfront.

Cailey helps herself to gray currents

The boats dry at low tide

Strange formations in the silt

Neat stump upriver from the grassy point

Green crystals near the basin

The net cleaning fluid stain inside the basin

I think these are garnets

I am more interested in rocks these days

Damage to the bridge

Looking across the river, sandbars in the foreground

Bear tracks on the beach

Beach where I cleaned the engine

Looking downriver from the point

On to Days 3-4