Winter at Sit'ku
February 13-15, 2015

Pickup, 3:20 p.m.

January filled up, and March was looking worse, but Chris and I found a good weekend in February for the first ever winter trip to Snettisham. We were encumbered with an extra dog, but Marcy said she loved the idea of Jeb dashing through the forest with Cailey, so we boldly took him on his first airplane ride. Just like Cailey, he took it like a pro, only showing slight nervousness when we started across Taku Inlet and began getting bounced around pretty bad. He probably handled it better than I did! The breeze coming down the Taku buffeted and jerked us around uncomfortably to the point that I began trying to remind myself that small planes in Alaska usually go down due to lack of visibility, not because of high winds (right'). Thankfully, the winds eased off once we got past the inlet, picking up to a lesser degree coming into the port. By the time we reached the river, I’d forgotten the bumps and was busy feeling awkward as the pilot flew past the homestead and beyond Ox Point, much farther up river! We’d flown right past it, but I thought I’d given him a pretty good idea where it was and I usually give pilots the benefit of the doubt (after all, for all I knew he was gaining some distance for a landing against the wind or something—or maybe he just wanted to look around). He did seem to be looking around rather hard, though, especially when we started flying over snowy sandbars! Eventually he turned around and asked where exactly it was and I pointed behind us. He did find it, eventually, on the way back (I think it was confusing because the folks at Ward Air had said it was at the edge of the river and, at high tide, the “edge of the river” looks much farther up the valley than the homestead). But, he found it on the way back and soon dropped us off at the beach. Thankfully we were able to step off the floats in only our xtratufs as we’d forgotten to bring waders.

As soon as we had our gear and dogs on the beach, covered with several inches of soft snow, and looked around at the valley all grayed in and misty in the winter morning light, and the plane headed back to town, I knew I had made the best decision ever. It was SO much fun to be there in the middle of winter, even if it wasn’t exactly the winteriest winter on record! In fact, it was probably in the 40s all weekend and rained on and off, as it had most of the winter, but we had no complaints. It was also immediately clear that this was going to be the highlight of Jeb’s month-long stay with us. Chris and I dropped our gear at the lodge and walked around the property, immediately noticing the plethora of crab parts on the deck, the trails, and everywhere we went. Crab (mostly dungeness I think) must be an important food source here in winter, and we wondered what assortment of creatures had left them strewn about. There was quite a bit more snow in the wet section where the first boardwalk is, but it was pretty thin over the rest of the property. All cabins were in good shape, but falling branches had knocked off the middle handrail on either side of the bridge, one of which was actually broken in two. The rocky point was the highlight. In addition to unseasonably warm temperatures and little snow, the winter was also characterized by intense northerlies (Takus) for extended periods, which we’d experienced not long before this trip. The rocks were covered with rime (frozen salt water) up to the vegetation and had even coated some small trees.

We also picked up the memory card from the motion sensor camera on the way. Back at the lodge we eagerly looked at the handful of videos which included what was probably a mink once or twice and several videos of varied thrushes throughout the winter, indicating that they were overwintering here, which charmed me. No big animals triggered the camera that we could tell. We installed the stove pipe, settled in, and had lunch. That afternoon on the low tide I took the dogs on a COASST/exploration walk upriver. The valley was serene, the dogs romped on the flats, and a hard rain began driving down. The low tide coupled with low winter water flows meant that I could walk farther upriver than I ever had before by perhaps a quarter of a mile, crossing several shallow channels that would normally have stopped me. What a vista! I eventually reached a channel too deep to cross, though not by very much, which I think is the main channel that crosses the river. I walked along the edge of it toward the other side, interested to see mergansers that far upriver in the channel. Thoroughly pleased and thoroughly soaked, we headed back to the lodge.

Long nights made for cozy evenings of Mexican train dominoes, the game “hive,” and reading. I wasn’t sure how much firewood I had on hand for a winter trip, so I’d made sure to bring along a maul and wedges in case we needed to split rounds, but we wound up having plenty to work with and enjoyed an awfully comfortable lodge. The first night Chris slept on the couch with Jeb at his feet and I slept on a cot next to him with Cailey at my feet.

Cailey and Jeb romp

Snow on the boardwalk

The damaged bridge

Harbor Seal

Rime on the rocks

View from the porch

We snuggle in

Rime on the rocky point

The dogs and I head upriver

Glacial scouring

Such a low river!

The extent of our wanderings

In the morning we had tea and enjoyed the bright inlet. Already quite a lot of the snow in front of the lodge was melted and I had to move the drinks we had chilling in the snow to keep them cold. In the afternoon we took a walk and wound up exploring underneath the eagle tree, looking at all the fallen branches and eaglet bones. At dusk (4:00 or so), we drank mimosas and played hive. That night Chris built a fire in the fire pit and grilled steak outside for our Valentine’s Day dinner!

Winter dusk at Snettisham

Jeb perches near the eagle tree

Hive and mimosas

The dogs relax

Jeb takes a sip while Chris grills

The next morning the weather was calm and overcast, so Chris and I went for a kayak in the inlet. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind, but we both independently headed for the sandbar ice floating in the middle of the river, apparently lifted off the upriver bars on the high tides. Chris was much bolder than I was and had soon paddled his kayak entirely onto the iceberg and then stepped out! Not wanting to miss the fun, I soon followed, amazed at how easily the kayak slid up onto the smooth ice. We cautiously stood on the ice a few times, hovering above our kayaks.
Back on the river, we enjoyed breaking apart some smaller ice flows before we headed back to the lodge for lunch and to enjoy the last few hours before out plane picked us up. The dogs, who’d stayed inside while we kayaked, romped around the meadow and the front porch with abandon. We packed up, took down the smoke stack (not knowing if we’d get any significant snow the rest of the winter, but not wanting to take any chances). At 3:10 we gathered up our gear, closed up the lodge, and headed down to deep water. Our 3:30 pickup would be at low tide, so we’d told the pilot we’d meet them at the edge of deep water. The plane arrived at 3:20 and came right into the beach, again close enough that we didn’t need more than our xtratufs to keep our feet dry. Almost. This time Jeb was less than eager to get on the airplane. At first we were able to coax him close to the floats, but he refused to go farther. No amount of coaxing, commanding, pulling, or pushing would get him to close enough to the plane to hoist him onto the floats. I think the tide was still falling, too, which didn’t help. I finally resorted to picking him up, but he’s close to 90 pounds and rather stout, so I couldn’t do it the way you normally would (under the rump and under the chest) because I just couldn’t lift him that way. Instead, I very awkwardly looped my arms under his belly and carried him, staggering, the 20 feet or so to the float. Thankfully the pilot met me there and picked him up, plopping him right inside the cabin; I don’t think I could have hoisted him onto the float on my own. In the process, a bit of water eased its way down one of my boots.

I quickly clambered aboard and off we went. Jeb made himself at home on top of the other seat in the back and Cailey for some reason chose to board with the cargo behind me. Jeb was wet from wading around, so I’m afraid his seat got rather soaked as well. (I do appreciate the casualness with which bush pilots take to canine passengers.) On the way, we went over the mountains beyond Mallard Cove in the late evening light. I was relieved that crossing Taku Inlet was relatively calm and had Chris take some pictures of the light shining on Devil’s Paw up the Taku. We landed on the runway and taxied back to the Ward Air office and civilization in the middle of winter.

Chris kayaks onto an ice berg

View from the ice berg back to the cabins

Jeb and Cailey play

One last winter afternoon

Evening comes on as we wait for the plane

Chris and our gear at the low tide pickup site

Me and the dogs

Looking up Taku Inlet at Devil's Paw

Chris kayaks in the inlet