Taku 2015 - 4: Heen X'ayaax (River Bank)
September 24-27


Cailey stands on Prometheus the log

We’d been weathered out twice, once in late August and again at the end of my final Snettisham trip in September. With fall coming on, we decided it was time to fly so our schedules were more flexible and our trip not dependent on the weather. My folks went up Wednesday morning, but (as I was by then quite low on annual leave), I determined to come up at little later. As it happened, the final deadhead to the lodge of the year was heading up at 1:00 on Thursday, a deal I could hardly pass up, since I had Friday off. Having sent the bulk of my gear up with my parents, I arrived at the seadrome building downtown with a backpack and a dog. The office was occupied by a couple of spaniels who didn’t care for other dogs, so I was led around the side of the building and sent down to the waiting otter. Another couple was loading gear, also on the way to the lodge. Cailey could not have behaved better during this trip, waiting more or less patiently until it was time to board, then climbing up the ladder like a pro. I think everyone thought she did this all the time, but she’d never been on a plane as large as an otter—though of course, she was very familiar with the concept of airplanes! I sat just behind the copilot and Cailey laid down in the aisle next to me, completely at ease.

The day was fair with a high overcast ceiling, so we flew over the ridge, spotting snow white mountain goats on the yellowing vegetation. It seemed as though we were at the lodge in record time, especially as we approached from downriver rather than circling from above. After disembarking, we wandered up the lawn and into a grip of tourists, the last of the season; I resisted the urge to tell them all how lucky they were to be there, to be at the lodge in late September on a rainless day, with the golds and burgundies of fall leaves warming the landscape. The lodge is perfect, how I wish I could have stayed.

Instead, I ran an errand. I’d remembered on the flight up that I’d forgotten to pack a hat, as the weather had been fair for several days. But rain was in the forecast and I wasn’t sure what I’d find at the cabin. It finally dawned on me that the lodge has a gift shop. I left Cailey to roam outside for a few minutes and found a hat in the crowded shop (not without difficulty, despite their prominent position). A nervous Cailey managed to squeeze her way in and, while I was extracting her, Michelle Ward walked in and told the clerk not to charge me for the hat, a very nice gesture. She said Mike was seeing off the planes, so I wandered back to the river to look in the hanger and the around the generator shed for nostalgia. I couldn’t believe the generator shed is so small! It seemed cavernous and terrifying as a kid. I also wished I could possess the old windows in that building…something about old windows warms the heart, especially the ones that are separated into many small panes.

Back up on the lawn, I overheard a lady warning someone not to try to pet Cailey, as she wasn’t a “house dog.” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but figured she might mean it wasn’t a lodge dog they’d been introduced to. I explained that it was my dog and that she was friendly and chatted briefly with a tourist from Montreal before heading into the kitchen where I saw Calvin again (who’d showed my brother’s family and I around last summer when I was looking for boundary markers). In due time, the crew congregated in the lodge and Mike met me there and brought out all the historical photos and documents he had. I’d been impressed by the photos courtesy of the “Ward Collection” that I’d seen in various publications and hoped he might have something relevant to my research. We leafed through it all and chatted about the road and the Koby’s Landing and other topics and I took photographs. I also mentioned a few items left behind at the lodge and missed: a children’s collection of stories that I used to peruse in the lodge as a kid, sitting in front of the book case, and the brown bear that my dad shot in Snettisham in the 1960s. Mike disappeared a few times and returned with both: actually two books from the same collection as well as the hide. As always, Mike is a paradigm of generosity and friendliness. I could have hugged him to have those books back in my possession.

As the crew had just said goodbye to the last tourists of the season and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, I headed out around 2:45 as soon as I’d reviewed the entire collection, books in my backpack and bear skin in a garbage bag in my arms. I said my thanks and then Cailey and I tromped through the backyard, stopping to visit briefly with the cottonwood tree, and entered the woods. Oh, the Taku in fall! One of the things I like about the lodge setting is the QUIET. Bullard’s Landing, as well as Snettisham, have waterfalls nearby that put up white noise, or louder, most of the time. But the lodge, and the woods behind the lodge, are quiet. The crinkling of the garbage bag eroded that, so I stopped here and there both to rest and to enjoy the quiet. Soon it began to rain, and then the quiet morphed into the shush of soft rain on spruce trees. A fall kind of quiet, and stillness.

From the lodge well down the trail we followed the clear tracks of a bear; I wasn’t confident about the species, given that Mike had told me that they’d had a brown bear recently. The toenails were pretty obvious, but it was also pretty soft mud. Cailey stopped and sniffed them in a few places, and carefully smelled a branch the bear undoubtedly rubbed on his way past. All in all it was a lovely walk, though carrying the brown bear in my arms was tiring and awkward and I was quite happy to reach the cabin about an hour and a half later (not very good time!). On the way I saw few birds—Steller’s jays, varied thrushes, and unidentified sparrows.

I arrived at the cabin in time for cocktails and quickly caught up with my folks, proudly showing them the brown bear we’d been parted from for about 25 years. We decided we’d see if we could come up with a nice mount for it, given that parts are falling off and three whole feet are missing. Perhaps he’ll come back to Snettisham with me.

Exhausted from the week and the awkward walk, I gratefully sank down into the couch next to an equally tired Cailey and allowed my mother to place a delicious dinner of organic, free-range chicken, beets, and potatoes in front of me. In the evening, my mom and I struggled to read some of our ancestors’ letters, sometimes with amusing results. My mother’s skills at reading cursive far outweigh my own, as I have not used cursive since the sixth grade or so!

Cailey on an otter

Hard to believe the channel is so narrow

I used that register for the gift shop as a kid

Awwww....Taku Lodge in the fall

Killisnoo

Mary Joyce (Ward Collection)

Bunchberry behind the lodge

We near the misty meadow

The next day I drank jasmine tea in the morning and chatted with my parents. It had rained early in the night, but not for long, and the day was pleasantly overcast, and perfect for working outside. I filled the chainsaw with fuel and lubrication, helped my mother gather all the tools we needed, and headed upriver with her to create new places for the floats and boat to overwinter. Last winter they sat at the northern edge of Debbie’s Meadow and had an alarming effect on the vegetation beneath, despite being moved to the river in June. I had urged my parents to find alternate accommodations, which my mother pointed out to me just above the trail from the bank where they pull the floats. But, at that point they were mere indentations among the edge of the invasive spruce forest and needed a little work.

By the time my father rolled up in the 4-wheeler perhaps half an hour later, my mother and I had cut a handful of young spruces, a grip of baby spruces, and had trimmed enough branches to create two boat/float sized cavities in the trees, separated by one narrow row. Most of the trees and branches I threw over the bank for restoration work later, the rest my mother laid out on the ground to help the boats and floats scoot. We also started back along the road through the woods, trimming down the stumps that are too big for clippers. If I’d realized how effective and easy this was, I would have done it long ago! With me cutting and my mom clearing the trunks of debris and pointing them out to me, we probably trimmed down over half of the remaining offenders, as well as some of the larger stumps left in Debbie’s Meadow. Not all are right down to ground level, but all are an improvement and most are no longer tripping hazards, or hazards to any tires.

Our first task then was to remove the engine from the riverboat, still perched on the bank overlooking the water. I’d carried the tripod up already and put it together with the comealong while my parents started unscrewing the bolts that kept it in place. I won’t say it was a graceful process, but we did eventually lift the engine off the boat and lay it sideways across the back of the 4-wheeler. We then headed back to the workshop and awkwardly repeated the process in reverse in front of Alder (the work shop), tying it onto a dolly for winter placement inside, wired securely to the wall.

With that done, we all trudged/drove back to the boat where my dad pushed the boat into the slot closest to the river with a little guidance from my mom and me. Then we got to work on the floats. A group of 2x2x2’ black plastic cubes five cubes wide and 12 cubes long, we needed to break them into manageable groups. My mother pulled out the pins that held the first four rows together, but couldn’t unscrew the pin on the outside edge. I retrieved a huge pipe wrench from Alder and my mother finished the job. We tied long lines to two corners of the freed float and attached them to a cradle line on the back of the 4-wheeler. Although it was high tide on a 17 some foot tide, the river water wasn’t above the clay shelf, so my mother and I dropped a piece of plywood and pulled the floats to help them up. That was probably the easiest part of the pull. We’d mistakenly begun to pull it up on the 5-cube wide side instead of the 4-cube wide side, so it was too wide for the opening in the bank. We had to readjust lines and turn the floats, my mother cleverly lengthening one side of the line so it would pull correctly once there was tension on the line. About five awkward scoots later the floats were finally on level ground, after which another four or five shoves with the 4-wheeler had them nestled into the back of to the second slot. All the while we suffered a bit for a surprising number of late season mosquitoes.

The process was repeated twice more for the other two sections of floats, slightly more efficiently. The worst part of the operation was at the top of the steep slope of the beach where the opening in the bank is just slightly too narrow for the floats. A little shovel work next year should help. This was only the second year my parents have used that area, taking advantage of a bank that was badly abused by a backhoe that the lodge had deposited on the shore there and driven upriver, leaving a gaping hole in the bank, ruts, a big pile of sand, and a ripped up meadow. As it had not grown back, they decided to try to use it for floats.

The second set of floats was awkwardly shoved against the first (awkward because the 4-wheeler doesn’t have a lot of room to turn around), and the final piece was lifted onto the second and pushed on top after some persuasion from me (trying to minimize damage to the meadow/maintain as much of its aesthetic value as possible) and help from my mom. All in all, it wound up looking very tidy and with minimal damage to the meadow. Just as we finished placing the final floats, a helicopter showed up at the cabin and my parents left to meet it, assuming that the manager had brought his wife up for drinks. I lingered behind and tidied up, gathering all the various pieces of line, tools fallen from the 4-wheeler, float pieces, clippers, chainsaw, etc. into a pile. When I got back to the cabin, the pilot was on a satellite phone, having mistakenly been directed to our cabin instead of his intended pickup on Shelter Island!

Making nooks for the floats and boat

Nook #1

Nook #2

Everything tucked away

By then it was 2:30 and we were ready for lunch and a break. While my dad took a nap afterwards, having slept very poorly the night before, my mom and I walked upriver where I showed her the second meadow I’ve been working on right at the edge of the property. It didn’t look very impressive without understanding how many large trees I’d cleared, so I pointed out their stumps, trying to help myself remember that I really had done a great deal of work. From there we walked back toward the mountain, skirting a little slough that was too wide and deep to cross until we found what looked like the remains of an old beaver dam grown with willows that allowed us to creep across. Around that time we saw the flash of a brown hawk toward the slough, her white rump patch identifying her as a northern harrier. It had been my not-so-secret goal to see a raptor on this trip, so this was a good sign.

We wandered down the opposite side of the slough on the way to T’awaak Eix’i (Goose Slough) and soon found what looked like a beaver lodge! A mound of sticks protruded above the ground about two feet but, oddly, it was surrounded by willows on three sides, including the side adjacent to the creek, which was several feet away. Very curious! My mom looked over the bank and thought she saw the entrance, so we slid down the four or five foot mud bank and peered up into the chute. At that water level, a lot of the entrance chute was above water, but most of it was overhung with the roots and branches of willows, so it looked quite secure. There looked to be another entrance higher up a few feet away and, on a wider mud shelf nearby we saw many, many beaver tracks, including some that were very fresh! From there we could see the junction with the main slough about 50 feet away and for a moment I thought I saw a beaver head there. It turned out to be one of several gorgeous green-winged teal, at least one of which was quacking softly. Suddenly a rusty bullet flashed across our field of vision above the main slough, making a quick arc in our direction before turning and flying back upslough. It was a brilliant and close look at our harrier.

The dogs eventually chased the ducks upcreek and we scrambled up the bank and explored the source of what sounded like a waterfall nearby. About 30 feet from the little slough was a tiny tributary rivulet that trickled down a small depression in the meadow before plummeting about four feet into a deep trench that connected it to the slough we’d been following. I’d just been reading about how beavers excavate channels to access food sources. It seemed the likeliest origin for such a dramatic drop.

From there we walked the rest of the way to the main slough, encountering more teal and a merganser and watching the harrier hunt all around us. She was a rich, ruddy brown, and we both watcher her for extended periods through binoculars, including one very close pass. Her coloring was extraordinary, mostly reddish-brown with beige and true brown in places. At the time we thought it was a female because of the coloring, but we later discovered that immature birds are reddish, whereas adult females are brown, so our hawk could have been of either sex. When she flew overhead and downriver along the slough, we turned and followed her, backtracking along the tributary slough to the little beaver dam to cross. As I walked up the other side along a gradual slope, I realized that there was a straight ridge a foot or two high ascending the gradual slope from the dam, perhaps 25 feet long, all overgrown with willows. I was a bit slow on the uptake, but my mom got it right away: it was the rest of the dam! Not a small structure meant to dam the 3’ wide slough, this was a much larger dam apparently hailing from a time when there was much more water in that shallow basin. Did isostatic rebound raise the land so much to change this once-wide basin into a narrow channel' It wasn’t even a particularly damp basin. How long ago was it a pond requiring such a wide dam'

Having crossed the tributary slough, we headed back to the main slough and followed it. In one low area of sedge on a wide shelf just above slough level, obviously intertidal, we encountered the intense aroma of rotting fish and saw a few pink salmon carcasses (or so we guessed) picked clean. Given the amount of interest the dogs took in the area and their lingering attentions, we suspected there were quite a few more carcasses around than we saw. A little farther on my mom found a fresh kill site where a predator had recently skinned, gutted, and eaten a rodent, leaving only the front part of the skull and the lower jaws. The blood was wet and red and we suspected hawk. Do harriers skin their prey' I haven’t found out. I wrapped the skull in the largest piece of skin (soft grey and brown) and tucked it away in a doggie bag.

When we drew near the edge of the forest that surrounds the cabin, my mom led me onto a game trail that skirts the outside of it; the dogs found it before we did. It was a neat area of willows and alders and little glens between the spruces and the meadow; there were a few brushy areas where the trail seemed to disappear, but soon enough we found ourselves under blue survey tape, back on our own trail.

It was getting on dinner time when we got back to the cabin, so we broke open the two small bottles of cabernet sauvignon that were stashed in the cupboard to sip on while I made dinner. My mother had brought a whole box of wine, but mistakenly grabbed sangria, which is a bit sweet for our taste, so this was the only dry wine of the weekend! While my parents cocktailed, I cooked forbidden rice with lemon juice and ginger (substituting forgotten broth with a little soy sauce), sockeye salmon rubbed in spices, and stir fried pea pods. After dinner we watched the movie Into the Woods; my dad lasted about 20 minutes. My mother and I watched the whole thing, wildly unimpressed. I quickly guessed that Steven Sondheim was the composer, as his music always leaves me cold. There was not one—not one!—song I enjoyed or ever want to hear again. Given that, a rambling story that never seemed to end, and a climax that was more of a confused morality play than a finale, I have no idea how it ever gained favor. That night, Cailey slept downstairs on the couch. I got up ahead of the others at 8:30 (thinking everyone else was up) lit a fire, washed up, and had a cup of cider on the porch swing until the others came downstairs.

Old beaver dam on a side slough

Crossing the beaver dam

Beaver house entrance

Beaver tracks!

Mom watches the marsh hawk

Mountain alder!'

Willows on the old dam!

Fresh kill

The dogs find a trail

Apparently everyone was feeling a little subdued that morning, and we sat around chatting until 11:30. Growing increasingly antsy, I did at least manage to set up my mom’s new motion sensor camera. Then I headed upriver ahead of the others and used up the rest of the gas in the chainsaw cutting most of the remaining stumps on the trail, more stumps in Debbie’s Meadow, and two trees near the entrance to the meadow that my dad can’t steer around on the 4-wheeler. Then I grabbed the clippers instead and began cutting baby trees scattered around Debbie’s Meadow. I must have cut 100 or more, especially in the area around the one large spruce I left near the entrance. It is amazing how fast they sprout up! When my parents arrived, my mom took over the clippers, making more room on either side of the boat so we could work, while I returned to the cabin for gloves. When I got back, we flipped the boat upside down pretty easily; it took a lot more effort to free several trees that had been caught underneath as it slid down. We stuck lumber under the sides to prevent it from collapsing, tossed the rest of the branches onto the beach, and headed back.

It had started raining in the night and didn’t stop all day. But that didn’t stop my mom and I from tackling a little project she had in mind. The bank just upriver of the point in front of the cabin is badly eroding under a cut bank 15-20’ tall. My parents have learned from experience that large logs provide some of the best protection against erosion and her idea was to move the big log above the landing area that I sometimes tie the Ronquil to onto that stretch of beach. We found the log apparently eager for the journey, as the incoming tide had turned and swept it upriver. Unfortunately, tension on the line tying it to shore had tightened the knot too much and we had to cut it. While my mother fetched a knife, I launched the canoe and soon we were both aboard with Cailey and had Prometheus (as we named the massive log) trucking along behind us. The current was moving strong and steady upriver, so it was easy going until we overshot a bit and tried to push the log back downriver after tying one end up. We paddled with all our might until the log was just beyond perpendicular to the bank, but eventually gave up, untied the log, and pulled that end downriver until it was in place. Then we tied both ends to alders close by until we could make more permanent arrangements. All that makes it sound pretty easy, but it was often quite awkward as we tried various means to move the massive log. The final step was securing a second line to the log on the root wad end, which was mostly underwater and quite wide. It didn’t help that our line floated. Eventually, my mother came up with an ingenious strategy, tying the line to the end of a paddle and shoving it under the log from shore. It was far too deep to grab, but I was able to drop my mom’s new grappling hook (that I’d bought to replace the one I dropped in the river), grab onto the paddle, and pull it up with the line still attached. The process was also not without its entertainment. Cailey had naturally jumped off the canoe as soon as we touched shore on the narrow, nearly submerged bank, and then was desperate to get back onboard. At that moment, one end of the log was on shore and the other end was projecting into the river about 15’ from shore and the whole thing was floating. Before we knew it, Cailey had traversed the log and was on the very end; we paddled over and she hopped gracefully on board.

We also had a few wildlife encounters. As we were heading back downriver, we saw a small round bird bopping and hawking his way along the alders and spruces overhanging the river. At first glance he looked like a ruby-crowned kinglet (darker bland-colored on top (I don’t know if he was gray or olive or light brown) with a prominent pale wing bar); his chin was a little lighter, fading to very light or even white on the belly. He might have had a white eye-ring, too. He was a bit large for a kinglet, but fairly round. Most striking of all, he had very white outer tail feathers when he flew.

And then there was out little seal friend. He came up as soon as we hit the water and observed our activity the entire time, sometimes from quite close. He was good company and I like to think we brightened his day in the river.

On the way back we tried to drag a log we found downriver to help protect the riverbank at the landing for the winter, as my parents had removed the stairs, but after failing to budge it, we discovered that it was already tied up and left it alone!

Once we’d had a little break, we talked my dad into moving the large spruce that was cut to make room for a helicopter landing space and that has sullied the view from the cabin for about five years. They wanted to use it to help the eroding bank rather than for firewood, and so it sat waiting for the right time. Unfortunately, the tree had in the meantime become deeply entrenched in the meadow and the 4-wheeler didn’t even begin to budge it. I wound up cutting clump after clump of branches from beneath it which had become covered in several inches of moss and dirt. Every time we thought we’d cut the last ones, we discovered more, spread out under the branches of the live spruce it was tucked up against. Apparently we were disturbing the residents under the tree, as Cailey was avidly hunting in the narrow space  beneath the lowest branches, not even enough room for her to stand I think. She shot this way and that in that dim cavern, so fast you could hardly see her moving. She was like that training drone in Star Wars that Luke tries to hit with a blindfold on! Finally, she pounced and, to my surprise, wound up with an enormous meadow vole in her mouth. She didn’t seem to know quite what to do, but did bite and chew it until she’d lacerated its middle and killed it. It was the largest vole I’ve ever seen, long and plump and completely adorable. To my amused chagrin, Cailey quickly lost interest in the carcass.

In the meantime, we’d finally cut the last of the grippy branches and were able to roll the tree over. Unfortunately, though we’d cut most of its branches, I hadn’t done so against the trunk, so now we had a tree with few skids and a lot of foot long branches poking out. Thankfully, with a little tugging and pulling on my part, the 4-wheeler was able to pull it up the meadow and to the bank without ripping up the meadow too much. I’d wanted to dump it over the bank a little farther upriver, but it proved too awkward to maneuver it between trees, so we wound up pushing it over the bank by hand just downriver of where we wanted it in the water. We had the bright idea of tying one end to a tree, hoping that it would catch the tree’s fall down the steep bank and flip its butt end in place at the bottom, after which we could untie it and swing the top end upriver, just about exactly where we wanted it.

It didn’t work quite that easily, as the angle of the fall caused the line to arrest all downward movement while it was in an upright (but upsidedown) position. We were all worn out and didn’t quite know what to do, so we abandoned that project temporarily. My mother then clambered down the bank to tie up a large spruce that had plummeted down this summer and I used the clippers to cut another 150 young spruces from one section of the meadow. Then we had my mom’s delicious fried rice for dinner!

Tell me that's not slug poop....

Morning on the trail (snow')

Towing Prometheus

On our way to Prometheus's new home

Trying to push Prometheus against the current

Cailey waits on Prometheus

Mom grapples a lost line

Cailey's meadow vole

Cailey considers her kill

Cailey hunting

At last the tree is gone from the meadow

The spruce dangling down the bank

In the morning I made sure to get an earlier start, as lingering inside in the mornings ultimately makes me cranky. I launched into riverbank projects while my parents worked on more pressing close-up chores around Alder. First I borrowed the 4-wheeler to gather up all the branches we’d cut off the tree the day before and transport them to the river bank to help with erosion. Then I retied the two lines holding Prometheus in place to trees on the top of the bank instead of the alders it was attached to below. Then I returned to the tree we’d moved the day before and cut the line holding it in place, which allowed me to drag it just a little farther down the bank. I left it with its top end hanging down the edge of the clay bank into the river, hoping that it would float at a higher tide and I could then shimmy it into place. I tied it back up, then tied up the log I like to sit on at the original landing spot which had come loose, then hauled the canoe and tucked it away, and finally returned to the branches I’d moved earlier. During this process I saw a hawk a couple of times, a small one that perched in the tops of the spruces, but never lingered enough for me to see it. I heard it calling a few times, but was unable to identify it.

Back at the branches I’d left at the eroding riverbank, I considered my options. My original thought was to bundle them together and lay them behind Prometheus, but they looked a rather small lot compared to its size, and there wasn’t any easy way to secure them. I looked for other options and decided to try a mini bank protection project in a small unprotected nook just downriver of the big live spruce that went in the water this summer. That spruce is now laying sideways on the bank behind a cluster of alders at river level that still seem to be alive. Just below its confusing snarl of roots is a naked shelf about ten feet wide, below which is a long tangle of alders that have been growing and apparently stabilizing the bank for years. However, this naked stretch was unprotected and a small indentation in the edge of the meadow ten feet up suggested it was eroding. I tossed all the branches down along with a spool of line and scrambled after them. The branches were ideal for breaking up the power of wakes and waves, densely clustered tiny spruce twigs, each one bow-shaped. I laid them across the length of the clay shelf with the large end on top and the rest of the branch draping over the cut bank. When in place, I tied them all together with line and tied the line to either side. It looked great, though I don’t really have a sense for whether they’ll stay in place or do any good. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re still there next year. While I was down there, the kinglet-like bird with the white outer tail feathers came by. I was foolishly without my binoculars, so I climbed the bank and trucked downriver to sit and wait for him, but never saw him again. I did, however, see a flock of red-necked grebes on the river, drifting with the current, all the world as though they preferred to float rather than fly their way through migration to salt water!

After I finished my project I helped out in the cabin, washing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom. After a snack, my mother and I headed along the trail behind the cabin to set up the motion sensor camera. On the way, the dogs flushed a large songbird from the forest floor into an alder where the trail first skirts the little slough. I figured it was a jay or thrush or something, and was delighted to find something else entirely! The yellow eye gave it away instantly—here was a blackbird, only the second I’ve ever seen in Alaska. She was absolutely gorgeous, her feathers a sort of brindle of grayish-cinnamon over her head and breast becoming deep rusty red over her back and on the edges of her wing feathers (see photo to right). So unusual and stunning! She was, of course, a rusty blackbird, whose numbers have plummeted in the last few decades to less than 10% of their former population. She watched us without much alarm from her perch and proceeded to preen for some time, stretching out those beautiful wings for us to see. After a few minutes, I left my mom to monitor her and set up the camera, returning to find her in the shallow slough, charmingly strutting around turning over leaves with her beak. I even managed to get close enough to take recognizable pictures with my phone before Cailey flushed her back into the trees and out of sight. The only other rusty blackbird I’ve seen was at the lodge near the clotheslines when I was a kid. It was a sunny day, and this black bird landed; I doubt I would have thought much of it except for that bright yellow eye, which I’ve always remembered.

When we returned, I headed upriver to tie a line around the pile of spruce trees and branches we’d cut at the boat pull so they’ll be available next year. I hope to help my folks do more dedicated bank protection work next summer, possibly making use of some of the many spruces I’ve been cutting. While there I saw another grebe on the river, a bit closer, and glassed upriver toward the grassy mash to see two groups of Canada geese on the river, 17 in all. I also noticed that the river was socked in, the glacier barely visible, Taku Point out of sight.

Back at the cabin it was nearly 2:00 and we all agreed that it didn’t look promising for a pickup, but that we weren’t that experienced with what helicopter pilots will fly in. We got as ready as we could without making things really inconvenient for us if we overnighted. At about 10 minutes before 2:00 we all sat down and I had the last beer. All of us froze and listened whenever we heard an engine (there was plenty of boat traffic on the river) and finally we heard an aircraft. None of us thought it sounded like a helicopter, but it was, and soon we were scrambling to finish up. It was 2:50. None of us felt like we were in that much of a hurry, since the helicopter was so later, but it did seem like it took a long time to shutter the windows, put the ladders on the porch, turn off the propane, drain the water tank, etc. Our gear on the porch seemed rather large as well, as the pilot had brought the 500, which only holds three passengers. He’d talked about bringing his wife in the A-star, which would have given us a little more room, but she’d stayed behind. The pilot also knew about me, but did not know I had a dog along! We wound up leaving a few non-essentials behind (like the box of sangria) but managed to shove everything else into the plane. My dad suggested several times to leave the bear skin behind, but I was determined to bring it back if I could and it wound up sitting between my dad and I in the back (my mom was up front, as she had the larger dog). I finally climbed in and pilot Eric was getting ready to hand Cailey up to me when Cailey made an impressive vertical leap into my lap, a height of maybe five feet! Eric shut the door and we adjusted, with Cailey more or less in front of my knees.

In moments we were airborne with that effortless fluidity of a helicopter, rapidly leaving the river behind. Eric flew close to the mountains over Taku Point for some dramatic view of the rock, which were the last dramatic views we had once we entered the fog in the inlet. Most of the land was obscured, but we picked our way down to Gastineau Channel and then to the airport, pleased to see big arcing swells on the water to make us feel better about flying instead of boating. And, at last, we set down at the Tempsco facility, unloaded our gear, and drove away toward fall.

The tree closer to the water

My bank restoration experiment

This doesn't look promising for a pickup

The tree begins to flood

View of the cabin as we head home

T'aawak Eix'i

Misty waterfall on the way home

Looking down Stephen's Passage



The 4-wheeler ready to haul branches to the river