Snettisham 2015 - 7: Tlaksiduk (Sweetheart Creek)
  August 20-23

Whales near Grand Island

For once we were unhurried on an after work departure. Chris and I left the house at 5:10 p.m., stopped by the Wharf for Pizzaria Roma pizzas, and headed to the harbor. We left the pizza on the hood of the car and the dog inside while we made three trips with the harbor cart to carry two bags of concrete, five jerry jugs, two totes, two pieces of lumber, and various other odds and ends to the boat. It was sunny, the wind calm, and the tide high—auspicious conditions for starting a long weekend at Snettisham. We got underway just shy of 6:00 with cold Blue Moons and succulent pizza, cruising down the channel (under possibly a few extra RPMs with the heavy load) on calm seas, a perfect evening on the water on the fall side of summer. As we passed Point Arden bound for Grand Island I observed a row of blows off the shore of Admiralty in Doty Cove. A few minutes later we saw the end of a large splash much closer and more blows in a different place along the coast. It looked to be the beginnings of the Stephen’s Passage group-up and I longed to detour and visit them on the still water, but it was too far away to make such a trip that late in the evening. However, up ahead of us in the passage between Grand Island and the mainland I saw flash after flash of black specks emerge and disappear again in such numbers and rapidity that I thought surely they must be orcas! They apparently dove and we headed in that direction, excited by the possibility of an orca encounter. A few minutes later, a group of humpbacks sounded directly in our path and I slowed down and veered toward Grand Island to pass them. Going perhaps eight knots with the whales still ahead of us a bit and now on the left, a whale erupted from the water right ahead of us, so I stopped and shut down. This new whale was only about 50 yards away and was soon joined by a second whale, both of which were headed in our direction. As we watched, astonished, one of the whales dove perhaps 35 feet from the boat and slid beneath the water; had the water been clear, we would have undoubtedly seen its body as it passed beneath the bow, but silt from the Taku colored the water a milky green, entirely opaque.
We were pretty giddy by that unexpected encounter when the whale sounded again about the same distance away on the other (north) side of the boat, rapidly followed by its companion who came up even closer. Meanwhile, a group of whales had come up behind us (to the north) and was now moving in our direction. Their blows echoed against Grand Island and sparkled in great plumes in the light of the fall sun. We later looked at video of the group and saw at least six backs above the water simultaneously, all moving purposefully in our direction. I think I stared at them, mouth slightly agape, as one whale after another came closer and closer to the boat until they were all around the stern. One took its last breath of the cycle about 20 feet south of the boat, followed by three of his or her companions just off the stern, one after another. It was some of the closest and most spectacular whale encounters I’ve ever had, and was completely unplanned.

Such a profusion of humpbacks was hard to resist so we stayed in the area, moving closer to Grand Island to get in its shadow and reduce glare should the whales emerge nearby again. The smaller group, which appeared to have a juvenile (it seemed significantly smaller and came up earlier than the others) lingered nearby, but the other group moved farther north and I took pictures of four flukes in the distance. We saw both groups another time or two, but never very close, and after about half an hour we continued on our way just as a large cruise ship passed, causing me to stop and turn into its wake in order to pass it (it was pacing me and I wanted to be on the other side of it). Reeling from such an intense encounter, we left the two whale groups as they reached the south end of Grand Island, noting two or three other small groups along the Admiralty shore as we traveled, plus a solitary animal that came up close by in the middle of Stephen’s Passage, another as we entered Snettisham (this one rolled on its side as it came up nearby, showing us half its tail before resuming normal breaths), another father inside, and another close to River Point. It was the most whale activity I’ve seen in Stephen’s Passage (or anywhere, for that matter) in many years. There seemed to be groups of six, three, and a solitary animal where we’d stopped, plus at least six in Doty (probably more), and at least as many farther south along the shore, plus the individuals. It was another sign of fall, as was the chill of the shadow as we entered Snettisham.

Despite the half hour stop for whales, we reached the homestead around 8:00 after the most smooth and pleasant boat trip of the summer. Chris donned waders and unloaded the boat as I handed him gear and then anchored the boat and helped finish hauling remaining items up the stone path. As soon as the pilots were lit, the perishables placed in the new refrigerator (!), and all our gear was stashed appropriately, I had to delay resting to deal with the foul odor emanating from Cailey’s neck. I’d smelled “death” near the front steps of lodge deck and Cailey had apparently enjoyed that or another similarly scented wonder. I heated up some water from one of the emergency water jugs (having found that the water system was not producing water) and used a rag to first wet her neck, then dishsoap to clean it, then more water to rinse it off. I let the water fall on the floor of the lodge, preferring to mop it up later than fight Cailey outside where she had more room to run. As it was, as soon as the dishsoap came into sight, Chris had to help me hold her as she put her full strength into escape.

At last we sat down to a quick glass of wine before marching to Hermit Thrush and settling in for the night. I quickly fell asleep despite an engaging Arthur C. Clarke story Chris was reading.

Whales in Doty Cove

A whale approaches

Whales near Grand Island

Cailey whale watches too

Whales fluke to the south

Looking down Stephen's Passage

Near sunset in Port Snettisham

The Ronquil at anchor

I slept rather poorly and woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It didn’t help that I deliberately delayed washing my face until I’d fixed (if I could) the water system, which meant that after I fed Cailey and grabbed a hoe from the shed, I trudged up the very overgrown trail to the water source and discovered, as I expected (but to my relief) that the olive barrel had merely been washed down over the little dam it sits in front of and into the pool below, no doubt by the high water events of early August that had followed the rainiest July on record (though, obligingly, nearly all the rain in August has fallen on week days and the weekends have been at least half glorious). The pool in which the olive barrel sits was mostly filled in with gravel, so I positioned myself on one side (keeping my right/leaky xtratuf out of the water) and swept hoe-full after hoe-full of gravel over the edge of the natural dam. Once I thought the hole was big and deep enough, I manhandled the barrel up the dam and back into place, securing it with large rocks behind which also helped to dam the pool. Once relatively secure, I added more rocks on either side to build up the level of the water and make sure the outlet pipe was lower. Disappointingly, nothing I did seemed to entice water to flow through the pipe and I wound up first moving the barrel aside for more excavation and then propping the front of the barrel up a bit to force the outlet hose lower. It’s something I often go through in the spring, but eventually I thought that water was flowing and went down to the top valve to test it. After closing it for a few second, opening it again made the proper rushing and gurgling sounds. I collected my hoe, fleece, and rain jacket (hoeing is hard work), and retreated down through the devil’s club, pleased to see some portions of the hose disappearing beneath moss and plant growth, thereby much more protected from naughty brown bears.

Still, though I cleaned up afterwards, I felt a bit off and desperately wanted some quiet and tea on the porch. After putting away the rest of the many small items I’d brought from town for various projects and organizing the lodge a bit, I finally broke down and returned to Hermit Thrush in the hopes that Chris would follow me back and we could have tea. In this I was successful, but tea on the porch (even with sugar cookies right out of the oven) did not help my mood very much. The day was sunny and the bushes and meadow saw a fair amount of bird action including juvenile Wilson’s warblers, orange-crowned warblers, Pacific wrens, and dark and light sparrows that might have been Lincoln’s. To my delight, an eaglet screamed on and off from around the nest and the adults spent a lot of time perched in that area. It appeared that they had been successful for the first time in three years!

After tea, we relaxed in the lodge for a little, and then I headed to Hermit Thrush in an attempt to complete an easy project and gain a sense of accomplishment for the day, setting up my new Mr. Heater buddy so I could heat the cabin (having decided that small propane heaters were really the best strategy for cabin heat). I should have known better! First I was unable to unscrew the propane hose from my old, non-functional heater, requiring a trip back to the shed for a large pipe wrench with the grooves that provide sufficient friction. With that removed, I found the new hole saw that was the closest fit, measured the distance from the tank on the porch and the most sensible place for it to enter the building, and began drilling the hole with Chris’s maquita. It didn’t go well. I’m not sure if the cordless drill just doesn’t have the power, or whether the battery was low, or whether I just lack technique, but the movement of the drill through the wall was barely perceptible. I gave up about maybe half an hour of trying when the drill was a mere half an inch through the nearly inch and a half wall and headed back to the lodge for lunch, finding a Pacific wren bumping the windows in the shed despite the fact that the door was closed. I left the door open and tried to encourage him through it from outside the windows, but he’d become frozen in place on a sill and was an easy capture. I placed him in a tote inside the lodge while we ate quesadillas for lunch. By that time he was tapping on the side of the tote, so we carefully opened it up on the deck and he flew into the bushes with a farewell chip and bopped around like a wren should. Phew!

The next task was pouring concrete to fill around the satellite dish pole. I’d brought two bags down, expecting to need one of them. I hauled water out to the site in the net bucket while Chris mixed the first bag in the wheel barrow and dropped it into the hole. It didn’t fill it up to ground level, so I put half the second bag in. We got that a little too wet, so I went ahead and dumped the rest of the bag in. The resulting volume allowed us to form a little cone around the pole so the water would drain away from it. I’d already been surprised to find that very little water sat in the hole, which had been full when I’d left it. I’d scraped off all the mud I could to improve contact between the two layers. When we were done molding the wet concrete, I wrote “2015” and together we pressed Cailey’s paw into it, which had surprisingly good results (though it later just filled with water). Chris and I then returned to Hermit Thrush with a new plan for the hole: since I’d already drilled the outline of the hole, maybe I could finish it by drilling individual holes with a small bit. This did wind up being successful, after more work than I think it should have taken. Unfortunately, it did break off some splinters outside the wall, pulling away a few pieces of stain. At least it’s only on my cabin. And at least we had a hole! I thread the hose through, hooked it up to the new heater, opened the tank, and……nothing. I tried a new tank, which I’d had filled the week before. Nothing. I had thought this would be an easy task, but I had to let it go and try to convince myself that my luck for the day could change, for we had other plans. I had a snack and a diet coke and finished packing before putting Cailey in Hermit Thrush (she jumped right up on the bed and didn’t attempt to leave when I shut her in).

The afternoon really was beautiful. We kayaked out to the boat together and headed for Sweetheart, watching a dark brown bear stroll along the water’s edge and disappear into the bushes north of the trail as we approached shore. We anchored up and kayaked in together, traveling light as I’d done on my last attempt—my standard adventure bag with bonker, net, tin snips, and garbage bags inside, along with an empty dry bag. It was so not awkward that Chris stopped me as we headed into the woods thinking that we’d left the net behind. Hard to believe it took me ten years to realize I didn’t have to lug a bulky bucket around with me!

We’d seen one boat at anchor when we’d arrived the day before, and one had left that bay that morning, so we were alone on the creek. Chatting up the bears and each other rather loudly, we made our way to the usual fishing point without incident. The water was still high, but much lower than it had been on my last visit and there was one green pool about eight feet wide, just at the edge of reasonable casting distance for me. I got the necessary gear out, set my bag on plastic, and cast. Not surprisingly, I caught pinks! We’d seen schools of them resting in pools in the lower creek, and all spread out on the spawning grounds, and huge schools were milling in the pools downriver of where we fished. Then, on my second (according to Chris) or fourth (according to me) cast, two sockeyes appeared in my net along with a pink or two! We efficiently bonked them, released the other salmon, then bled and secured the sockeyes on a stringer in the little crevasse on the rocks, washed with water on the higher waves.

For the next two hours we fished (more or less) with the easy pace we’d enjoyed at Pavlof—not getting too frustrated when casting didn’t go well, releasing the pinks with as much efficiency as we could muster (only one sustained an obvious injury), and enjoying the little bites we got on our fingers from their teeth. I caught three fish, then Chris caught three, then I caught one, then Chris caught one, then I caught one on my first cast thereafter, and later on I caught a tenth coho, which I nearly had out of the net before Chris turned around from bear watching. After we’d caught about six fish, we ran out of room in the bleeding hole and moved the stringer a few feet away around the corner in the creek proper. But, bears often wander over there, so that area needs constant protecting. We traded off on bear watch, only coming over if needed to help release fish or handle sockeyes.

Once in the middle of our fishing I heard a sound and looked up to see a young couple on the point downriver. A few minutes later I decided that the upper pool needed to rest a little bit, so I cast into the multitude of pinks below the immediate falls, thinking there might be sockeyes below or mixed in. Given that I had an audience, I was glad that that particular cast went well! Naturally, the net was loaded with pinks, but there was one silver individual in there! Chris was just about to bonk it when I realized that it had big spots on its head; it was a pink, the first real silver bright pink I’d ever seen at Sweetheart. We started to let it go and then decided to keep it. It had the added benefit of making it look like we’d just caught a sockeye to the people watching from a distance!

And so we came home with ten sockeyes (admittedly including two jacks) and one pink salmon after two hours of fishing. We fished in t-shirts in the sunshine, the barrier falls above putting out a rainbow here and there. There wasn’t any
indication that we wouldn’t have continued catching if we’d continued fishing, but we had a fair number of fish and a lot of work ahead of us, and probably an antsy and hungry dog. Chris heroically packed all the salmon out in the dry bag. We’d seen one bear (possibly the same one) carry a fish into the woods while we were fishing, but encountered none on the way back. Because of our heavy and precious load, I kayaked to the boat alone and picked Chris up on the way out. When we rounded the point and were in sight of the lodge, we stopped and cleaned the fish in a bucket of water on board, placing the cleaned fish in a tarp over the gas cans. When we were finished, I dropped Chris off on shore with the fish, considerably lighter now, and anchored the boat while he released Cailey. It was now 7:00 and we had a lot of work ahead of us!
Chris met me outside with a glass of wine and we set up a fillet station on a piece of plywood over sawhorses on the deck, complete with fillet knife, sharpener, spoon, bowl for scrapings, and bucket for carcasses. I started with the large male I’d caught and gave the head and backbone to Cailey, whose enthusiasm and crunching picked up considerably after some initial hesitant licking. I can’t say it was the best fillet job I’ve done—in fact it was rather messy and hurried, but effective. We put two trays of portions in the fridge and a small bowl of scrapings (for some reason, I had a lot of trouble scraping the meat off these backbones, whether because of species or the freshness of the flesh, or some other factor, I don’t’ know). I carried my little red generator over to the porch and started it up, making up a bunch of vacuum bags while I started dinner. After we ate (pasta and salad) we finished rinsing and drying the portions by candlelight, vacuum packing about three quarters of them before we ran out of bags. The rest we put in ziplocks and froze for vacuum packing back in town. It was a late night that culminated in the end of Bojack Horseman’s second season on my laptop, the finale to a brilliant afternoon! My plan to fish Sweetheart with the aid of my refrigerator and vacuum packer was wildly successful, and my day had certainly turned around.

Washed out olive barrel

Back in place

Wet forest

Brilliant mushrooms

Chris pours concrete

Cailey's print and the date in concrete

Chris plays with Cailey

Our first set of sockeye

Chris casts

Sweetheart Creek from the top of the point

Sweetheart Creek

Not enough room in the crevasse for all the fish

Picking up Chris and the catch

Feeling pretty good driving back

Cleaning fish on the Ronqjuil

Chris looking at our catch

Filleting on the porch

Cailey enjoys a carcass while I fillet

Vacuum packing at Snettisham!

In the morning I found the fish cold, but not exactly frozen. Some of them were lightly frozen, others not at all. I redistributed them more thinly and put some in the top of the freezer in front of the cooling fin (the coldest place there) and made sure the temperature setting was on maximum. That constituted much of the progress I made that day! We spent the morning on the porch watching the weather go from stunning partly-cloudy to mist to rain and back again (the rain won out in the end). After his first cup of tea, Chris carried our sockeye carcasses downriver, depositing most of them in the bent grass at the top of the intertidal zone and the rest close to the water. We were disappointed that the eagles didn’t swoop down immediately for a meal! In fact, nothing touched any of the bright red flesh until a group of mew and Bonaparte’s gulls strutted and defended and snuck up on the bits at the water’s edge, even carrying some of it off, though we watched surprisingly little eating activity. It seemed almost more of entertainment or an opportunity to display dominance than interest in food! We were rewarded with the slow, methodic flight of a juvenile eagle as he flew around the neighborhood, though, proving himself the resident eaglet by perching on or under the nesting trees unmolested. Both parents were also about. The eaglet was dark chocolate brown, paler from underneath, and with a beige triangle at the base of his tail (on top). I named him Columbus and we saw him all weekend. We hooked up satellite internet one more time before dismantling the dish to place it on the new pole, and checked the weather. To my surprise, a southeasterly system was supposed to be coming in that day and was meant to produce 4-5 foot seas outside Snettisham the next day. We agreed that overnighting would be an acceptable alternative, and the weather looked better on Monday.
Before lunch, I did a little trouble shooting on the propane system. I found a little disposable propane can in the attic attached to the Coleman stove I’d used when I first started camping there, which seemed to have a bit of gas. I hooked it up to my new heater, and sure enough, it lit right up. That eliminated the heater itself from the equation. I was also able to use it to light the pilot on the old heater, but I noted that its pilot burned straight up light a candle, while the new pilot burned at a 45 degree angle to make contact with another part. Thus, I think that two things went wrong with the old system: the fuel line within the old heater itself may be partially clogged, reducing the amount of gas getting to the pilot (or something else is causing it trouble). Separate from that, I think, is the issue of propane getting to the heater from a remote tank. My best guess is that the hose is compromised. At least it’s narrowed down, and I can use the new heater with disposable tanks in the meantime. I stapled hardware cloth over the hole in Hermit Thrush and let it go.

After a late lunch of quesadillas, I hustled outside to do my COASST survey as the high low tide was already starting to rise. I only had a few feet of sand and rock beneath the rocky point, beyond which I stumbled onto half a large pink salmon at the water’s edge. It looked fresh, as though someone had eaten the front half and left the back; the head hung on by a strip of skin. A fish skeleton was nearby. No wonder the eagles weren’t keen on our carcasses—the world was obviously full of opportunity. We headed up and around the outside of the point; by the time we got back to the creek the water was too high to cross, so we went back up through the woods to the lodge.
In the afternoon we took naps and relaxed in the lodge in a festive mood. There was a little Arthur C. Clarke involved and some trip reporting on my part, and then we had a late dinner of bison steaks, stuffing, and zucchini. After dinner we started up the generator and watched a movie on Chris’s laptop while dipping into a bottle of champagne.

Having gone to bed around 1:00, we both slept in the next day. I had hot chocolate while Chris had tea on the porch, looking out at a surprisingly calm river while reading about the five foot seas just outside in Stephen’s Passage. It was hard to believe it was blowing up out there and rather put me on edge. After lunch I brought out the long coaxial cable and we struggled together to attach cable ends, eventually succeeding after wasting several inches of cable. I dismantled the radio from the dish and loosened its connection to the tripod mount. Chris handed the dish up to me on the ladder and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it dropped tidily onto the pole. Whew! Next came the radio and then the cable (filled with nonconductive grease), which I zip tied to the pole. We had to go back later and unhook the connections because we’d forgotten to clamp the connectors to the coax cable, but that only delayed us a little. At last, we hooked up the modem and my laptop and Chris relayed signal strength from the deck while I painfully adjusted the dish. It was easy, again, to get a strong incoming signal strength, but the transmit failed. It was also easy to rotate the dish on the horizontal access. However, trying to adjust the dish by tilting it up and down was extremely difficult, as the only thing holding it in place was friction, so it was hard to loosen the screws enough to adjust it and still maintain its position when I let go. Long story short, it took a long time and was very difficult. In the end, the best we could do was about the same as on the porch: in order to get in the high 60s or 70 in transmit strength, the signal strength dropped from the 80s to the mid-50s. But, it was functional and on a pole. We’d threaded the coax cable under the porch to the opposite side where I’ll later drill a hole in the floor to bring it through. The only exposed length is the five feet between the pole and the deck, now covered in the spruce boughs that I trimmed away from the dish, and the short length at the end that leads to the cable ends wedged between the decking on the upper deck.

That afternoon I tried to accomplish a few other things, but mostly just learned. I scrubbed the bottom two feet of the back wall of the lodge, and rescrubbed a few places on the downriver side where algae was growing in preparation for covering them with metal. I carried the two thin metal sheets back there to assess how many I’d need and decided I’d want a couple more to do a good job of it. Since I lacked batteries for the drill, I decided to wait until I had everything I needed to begin the task. I also crawled under the lodge and confirmed that I had enough 4x4s to build a little porch over the back deck the next time I came down. I also did most of the prep work for leaving the next day, packing, cleaning, sweeping, newspapering the windows, etc., expecting an early departure. We ate chili for dinner and then tucked in for another movie and an earlier night.

Coming on fall at the homstead

Enjoying satellite internet!

The dish is mounted

The dish at the lodge

The next morning I woke up at 5:10, surprised it was so late given the lingering dark outside (kind of a pre-dawn gray). I guess it is coming up on fall! I got up around 6:00, cleaned the cabin, and headed to the lodge where I did the dishes, finished packing, hauled all the gear to the waterfront, kayaked to the boat, fueled up, motored in, and loaded up before rousing Chris. I had this crazy plan that Chris agreed to. Instead of leaving-the-harbor beers (after all, it was 7:00 a.m.), the last thing I did was make us both a cup of tea in plastic tupperware cups. While it steeped, I turned off the propane and then we just walked to the water with our cups of tea, jumped on board, and off we went, making tea offerings! The tea worked out well, the water was calm, the skies clearing into fall blue. The only seas we hit were near Arden where a little northerly chop was being challenged by a southeasterly chop, creating a lot of confusion; beyond that, we had another ten minutes of the northerly chop, but overall it was a beautiful ride home. The driveway was covered with leaves, an indication that there had been a storm after all. We put our now-thoroughly-frozen salmon in the freezer, took showers, and headed to work. I made it in at 10:15!

Chris casts into the one green pool