Taku 2016 - 6: Here There Be Dragons/Gukl'x'
  September 16-18

Katie and Rob tromping the meadows

One weekend at Snettisham, one up the Taku, a work trip to the Kenai, and then I would close Snettisham. That was the plan, a good one, if a little exhausting (but, after all, summer was nearly at an end). But then I got sick the morning after my cousin Jeannette left town with a 48-hour flu and wound up canceling that first trip to Snettisham, which was not a great start. The next weekend I met up with Katie and Rob around mid-day on Friday to catch the Taku tide, excited to finally take the Ronquil out again (having borrowed the Kathy M twice on account of lively seas), and finish breaking in the new engine. Thursday after work a huge gale raged and I faced it in the harbor to start Sally and make sure everything on the boat was working in preparation for the trip the next day. Everything worked fine and, because of the unpleasant weather and that fact that I'd be taking off just the next day, I decided to leave the key on the boat. That's something I don't normally do, but it seemed reasonable, and that way there'd be no risk of losing it or leaving it behind. I tucked it into one of the little plastic tubs of odds and ends that I leave in my glove box.

When I stepped onto the boat on Friday, I was puzzled to see that the battery box cover was off, apparently pushed aside with the strap that secures it still in place. That was odd, but I left it and turned to the glove box to get the key so I could start the engine warming up. The tubs were gone. Just gone. My one and only key was gone. I swore, but felt nothing, panic and frustration dying in my belly before they rose to my heart. Dead. What is the use in railing? Katie asked if I needed a minute to get mad, but I felt nothing. How could I have been plundered the one night I left my key on board? There is nothing of value in any of those tubs, either. What were the thieves after anyway? Why knock the top off my battery case? I'll never know, and it doesn't really matter. Thankfully, my dad had already offered the Kathy M in case the weather looked bad, so we transferred gear there and took along my battery to discourage the thieves from stealing the boat if they figured out they had the key.

And so we took off, a little later than ideal, for the fuel dock, an unexpected stop. I did not have a credit card, so Katie was kind enough to pay for the gas. About 45 minutes before the tide, we took off in the sunshine with leaving the harbor drinks. Cailey laid on the bench with Katie while poor Hank began to act a little ill. He charmingly kept laying his head on Cailey's back, on the bench and later when she was standing on the floor. They two had really become good friends over the adventure they'd shared three weeks prior. The trip up was uneventful and we found the river flooding the meadows below the slough, covering the grass and bottoms of the little stands of willows. I don't recall seeing it quite that high before. It was a large tide--18 something, but it didn't seem like it should cause that much flooding. It was so high that getting to shore was a little awkward, as the bottom two steps of the stairs were flooded and the dock wouldn't get quite close enough to make an easy jump. The humans all made it, but Cailey miscalculated and plunged into the water, sinking over her head. Hank took the water route too, but a bit more voluntarily. As for the Kathy M, I let out all the bow line there was and tied it to the tree, then puttered out and anchored in the river just off the dock, pulling myself back in. When I'd shut the engine down initially, I'd heard a ticking noise in the back which I figured might be the prop being turned by the current. I checked it out after anchoring and discovered that the bilge pump was running with no water coming through. I examined the system that was exposed to see if I could find a fuse or could disconnect a wire from the battery, but everything was sealed up. Instead I turned the battery switch off and the bilge pump died with it.

We hauled our gear to the cabin in one load and opened up. When we were through it was only about 3:00, so we decided to go for a walk. I took off shoes and socks for what I thought might be my last barefoot adventure of the summer. We all suited up in raingear for the gale-drenched vegetation, though the afternoon was clearing. In fact, the afternoon was so lovely that we just kept walking, onto Forest Service land and then upriver toward the forest. The ground was flooded from all the rain and the sloughs that cross the trail were high enough that I had to hike up my pants above the knees, though the others were able to ford in xtratufs. Whole sections of the trail were flooded in several inches of water, the yellow and red leaves of cinquefoil shining under the clear water. Before we knew it we were at the Bradley-Ogden Bridge and we stopped to consider our options. None of us were tired or hungry just yet, so we decided to press on to the lodge since we were so close anyway. On the way we met a very surprised lodge employee out for a jog, who clearly did not expect to see any people on the trail. When we reached the back of the property, we held the dogs' collars and poked our heads out, letting the dogs off leash once the lodge labs met them. I was relieved to see Mike sitting on the patio, so we went to chat with him and his wife and baby boy. The evening was really lovely, the lodge settled into fall, the tourists recently flown away. After chatting with Mike for a while, I took Katie and Rob to the docks and then to the outside of Killisnoo, showing them my childhood home, then stopped to watch the guys beginning to butcher a moose they'd taken just that morning (the season had opened the day before).

By then the light was beginning to fade, so we hastened back down the trail. The light on the mountains as we broke out of the forest was worth the whole walk alone. Cailey impressed us with catching a big vole (at least I think that's what it was) on the side of the trail, but seemed reluctant to eat it, though she worked it more than the vole she caught last fall. Hank was interested and we were fascinated to watch Cailey let him eat it, noses together where Cailey left it on the ground. Back at the cabin, Katie and Rob put out chips and salsa for snacks and then made amazing halibut tacos for dinner. I'd neglected to bring jugs of fresh water, so we used water from my mother's new rain collection barrel and decided that the faint olive taste (which Rob pointed out tastes more like devil's club than olives) was quite acceptable. In the evening we chatted about our impending canoe adventure to the headwaters of the slough and I drew a little map showing the location of the cabin and the lodge and the route of the slough just past Big Bend. Since its sinuous route was unknown past that point, I let the line squiggle out and wrote "Here there be dragons," in part to playfully heighten the excitement of venturing into country I haven't explored since I was 16 when I brought the canoe down with Rory and Kellee.

Very high water

Purple mushrooms

Classic wet meadow

Cailey hunts

The trail is flooded

Rob and Katie on the lodge dock

Taku River Road

The view here is worth the whole walk

Cailey's vole

Hank eats Cailey's vole

Typical K&R wilderness meal

The dogs hold paws

In the morning, Rob picked delicious late season blueberries and made us pancakes as we enjoyed coffee and tea (no lingering olive flavor at all). Our fine weather had diminished and we headed out with full rain gear (I was even in xtratufs that day) and day packs. This time I remembered to quietly approach the slough and look for waterfowl (having scared interesting birds away the last two times), but found it flooded and deserted, a stark contrast to two weeks before. The canoe, formerly several feet from the water, was now sticking into the water several feet. We got the dogs inside, settled on our positions, and took off. I was in the middle, sitting on one of the little stools my mother had purchased for the canoe, which worked brilliantly. It was an odd experience not paddling, though I was kept busy compensating for the dogs as they endlessly switched sides and threw the balance off. We did see a few ducks here and there, including some teal, but only a handful. The rain came on and off and made binocular work challenging. I kept tucking them into my raincoat to keep the lenses clear of water, but then they'd fog up and I'd have to wipe them off with increasingly damp tissue to see at all.

At the Big Bend I quizzed Rob about where we were on the map and he recognized the turn in the slough and the impending mountain before us. Weaving a little bit around the slough, we made our way to the next curve and startled a merganser who'd been sitting on the big boulder in the middle of the channel, leaving a bit of white poop behind. Hank was enthralled and leaned toward the boulder as we passed and somewhat after, though the duck was long gone. We also flushed a large raptor Rob and Katie had spotted in a spruce tree from back at Big Bend and it let out a classic red-tailed hawk scream as it took flight. We'd also seen at least one northern harrier hawk, brown with bright white rump patch in the dull landscape.

Soon we encountered the beaver dam that had stopped my voyage with my mother and Vicki in early August. Instead of a three foot dam, this dam was now only about a foot high due to the higher water. I rather badly expressed my interest in pulling the canoe over but without enough details to the others. I got out, followed by Katie, and balanced on the sturdy dam attempting to pull Rob over the top and failing completely. Rob got out and I hauled it over and we climbed back in. I'm writing this now some weeks later, so I don't remember how soon we hit another beaver dam, but I think there was a long stretch without another. The wider pool on the far side of the first one quickly narrowed into a sinuous slough and we found ourselves paddling between steep banks, occasionally passing wider areas that we think may have been pools formed above ancient dams, one or two of which could be seen protruding from the banks. The dogs kept leaning to get out and we finally let them run for a while, though Cailey just as quickly attempted to get back in. There were obviously more rodents in the grasses on the banks and Hank quickly scored one of his own and promptly ate it.

After quite a few bends we came upon another dam, requiring us all to exit, and we took a bushes break. As with everywhere along the way, we saw strong sign of beaver activity and I passed three clear trails in quick succession from the water to clumps of shrubs. In the distance I saw a large glacial erratic and couldn't resist checking it out. The brilliant green moss on the top was in stark contrast to the misty, dull landscape around us, just a little too tall and steep to climb. By this time we were all thoroughly wet and I no longer made any attempt to keep my seat dry on the canoe. But we weren't ready to get aboard so soon, as two beaver dams rose before us in quick succession. Instead Katie and I took the bow and stern ropes and pulled along the shore while Rob held the canoe off the banks with a paddle. With no more dams in sight, we boarded again and continued on our way, soon hitting a couple more dams. We finally got into a pattern, all of us disembarking and pulling the canoe across and clambering back aboard. Once we tried to leave Rob in his seat in the stern while Katie and I pulled the canoe part way over a low dam, after which I climbed into the bow to try to tip it into the higher pool. But, the center of the canoe popped and bowed where it had bent under the strain of winter snows some years ago and we quickly abandoned the attempt. Thankfully it did not fracture.

After a couple more dams we came across a really interesting one that had apparently flooded, but just to one side where the water flowed over a grassy slope like a slip-n-slide. It almost looked like we could paddle up it, or at least sit in the canoe while someone (Rob) pulled us up, both of which we tried without success, but at least we could walk up the slope and pull the boat easily. On the other side was a wide pool and ancient beaver lodge grown with shrubs. At this point we were pleased to be making good progress in the direction of the mountain and soon were passing what must have been a slightly elevated strip of land grown up with young spruce trees. Katie and Rob explored it a little bit while I padded up to the next dam. A few more dams and we were finally approaching what I was calling the "headwaters" of the slough--not the diminishment of the water body in a spring or waterfall, but a series of channels and large pools at the base of the sheer cliffs of L'kudaseitsk', the giant of the Taku. When I was a kid, this is where I paddled alone after my mother, brother, and I hauled a canoe back to the headwaters and left it at the edge of the trees there. It's where I started birdwatching (yellowlegs and red-winged blackbirds), where I paddled alone one misty day and heard wolves howl, where I sat on a tiny, steep bit of land at the base of the cliffs where snow kept spring at bay until well into summer and I could find spring flowers late in the year. I hadn't been there since Rory, Kellee, and I fetched that canoe and took it down to the cabin some 23 years ago.

As we approached what would turn out to be the last beaver dam, Katie pointed ahead and asked what she was looking at. I saw what appeared to be two pale sticks rising above the grasses, but then they bobbed and moved in and out of sight. In all that bleakness were two white swans in utter contrast to the brown, tan, gray and deep green of the surrounding landscape. We quietly crept up to the dam and beached the canoe, spotting the swans on a mound of land at the edge of the water in the distance. Katie and I got out, as gently and quietly as possible, but the swans, after considering us a few moments and honking gently to one another, took flight. With impossibly slow wingbeats, these giants flew down the meadows, visible far into the distance as they passed the cliffs near Big Bend, honking all the way. These were our dragons, white perfection in the wet, dying summer.

From that dam it was a short paddle through a water-lily choked channel to the pool at the base of the mountain and my tiny islet (half surrounded by water, half by impossible cliffs). On the way, Katie plucked two swan feathers from the water for me, though neither made it home. We disembarked on the little triangle of land and stood around a shallow runoff of water which had smoothed the grass down beneath it. Most of the rest of the rock was covered in green salmonberries and was steep and slippery beneath. We ate our lunches, crafted by Katie that morning, with gusto as we gazed out over the meadows we'd canoed through and over the forest behind the lodge to an occasional glimpse of Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier. There were even shafts of sunlight in the distance, but we only had a few minutes without at least a drizzle. As I ate my delicious smoked salmon sandwich, I noticed a long, black shape on Katie's boot, rather disturbingly waving its head around at is slinked along the rubber. Although I intended to do better, I rather awkwardly announced that Katie had a leech on her boot, which caused her to yelp a little and kick the offending creature off, as I surely would have done in her place. It landed in the slick runoff and we gazed at it in surprise and a little horror. It was at least four inches long and kept raising its head as though to sniff for blood. We all agreed to check ourselves later for passengers, and I flicked the leech back to open water, missing the inside of the canoe by inches.

And as the rain began to pour, we boarded the canoe again, changing places so Rob was in the bow and I was in the stern. All of us were wet and cold and looking forward to a fire (dogs included I think). With a following current and greater experience in beaver dam crossings, we made better time on the way back, clambering out at each dam with confidence, if a little reluctantly. Once we again tried to leave a human in the canoe crossing a low dam, but popped the crease again dangerously. Even the dogs had to exit. Hank romped more on his own during the narrow, sinuous turns, hopefully warming himself with exercise, as his short coat was long soaked through. We reached the final dam so quickly that no one was quite willing to believe me that it was the last one, but having seen it twice before I was confident. We were amazed to find it flooded by about a foot of water, where before it had been a foot above water. It had been raining a lot that morning, but none of us could imagine that the slough would flood so quickly. Likewise we found the merganser's rock covered in over a foot of water, where before it had been about a foot above water. It was all quite shocking and hard to take in. It wasn't until much later that I realized that the tide had come in while we were upstream, pushing back the brown waters of the slough miles above its mouth.

As we neared Canoe Landing, I was delighted to see that our dragons had landed there and they honked to each other as we ever so slowly drifted and paddled in their direction. The rain was hammering down, so use of binoculars was impossible, though I did manage to get a couple of pictures where the white dots are recognizable. I also took a video to capture their calls in the hopes that they would help me determine whether they were tundra or trumpeter swans and, when I listened later, they turned out to be classic alarm calls of trumpeters (I'd also seen no yellow on their beaks and they were HUGE). But the really impressive thing about the video is how loud the rain is on the slough and surrounding vegetation. At least two northern harriers had shown themselves on and off too, hunting over the meadows as we paddled.

Not surprisingly, Canoe Landing was entirely flooded. Not yet understanding the cause, we pulled the canoe up a canoe-length above its usual station and tied it to a horizontal spur of the mountain alder it's usually tied to. It had taken us three hours of canoeing to get to the headwaters, and about half that on the way back. And then less than fifteen minutes to the dry cabin, a fire, and snacks. We ate more delicious food brought and cooked by Katie and Rob and had a somewhat mellow evening after our adventure.

We head out

Tramping to the slough

Katie and Hank in the bow

Rob in the stern

Brilliant mossy rock

Beaver trail

Flooding around a dam

Dam and lodge

Headwater cliffs

Lunch at the headwaters

View from the cliffs

View in another direction


The swans are to the right of Cailey

Back on land

This pretty much sums up the evening mood

The next morning I helped Rob pick more surprisingly sweet blueberries for pancakes and we had a somewhat leisurely morning. Though I think I would have been content staying around the cabin until high tide, I was happy to go out on a trek when suggested. Plus we had a task at hand, as I'd asked them to help me turn the riverboat upsidedown so my parents wouldn't have to do that when they closed up. From there we walked upriver onto Forest Service land and then headed out into the meadows to the eagle tree and the hill above Big Bend. On the way we met voles, and more voles, and more voles. They danced around our feet as the dogs hunted endlessly, darting every which way, even stopping to stare at us or the dogs before disappearing. The ground was covered in their runs and, in some spots, a patch of ground 20 feet in diameter was torn up with runs and burrows. In those areas we could stand and watch a seemingly endless parade of terrified rodents, as many as three at a time, some chasing others down runs into holes, others stopping and staring. Though their solid black, beady eyes make it difficult to tell for sure, I believe I made eye contact with several of them. The first patch we found was just past the narrow slough off the road, but we stumbled upon several more, including on the bank of the moraine leading to the Big Bend hill. I kept trying to take photos, but they rarely cooperated. Once I saw a big vole run toward Cailey and stop just a foot away from her, frozen for some seconds while she focused in a different direction, then turn around and scurry safely in another direction. I should have taken a video and captured the action! Cailey caught another vole and this time seemed more interested in eating it, actively turning her head away from inquisitive Hank. She mouthed it and didn't drop is as often, though when she finally did, she seemingly reluctantly allowed Hank to take it, turned her head away like a dog nervous about another dog. It was just another sign of what good friends they'd become, as I remembered how the very possessive Nigel would allow his friends to play with his toys, but no others.

While the dogs watched for voles, I watched for hawks. Two brown or reddish-brown marsh hawks hunted endlessly over the grass, frequently plunging into the vegetation. With all the rodents around, it was not hard to imagine why. The rain had diminished and I was able to use binoculars which allowed me to enjoy in detail their precise maneuvers, detailed markings, and owl-like heads as they passed by. It was good hawk-watching, practically non-stop. As we worked our way downstream, we paused by the beaver lodge on the slough just off the main slough, seeing evidence of recent activity, and had to walk along the waterway far inland to find a place to cross (I managed to cross over the remnants of the ancient beaver dam my mother and I had used during lower water last fall, but only barely, and the others wisely went on to a better crossing). Just on the inside of our property line, we found a puzzling game trail we couldn't decipher, several feet wide and leading to the slough, which had done considerable destruction to the sweet gale and larger shrubs along the way. It made no sense to us. Though it was well-worn, there were no four-wheeler tracks, nor did the trail really look like the work of a vehicle, but it also didn't look like the work of any animal we could think of and there were few tracks. Katie and I followed it to the slough where we found no clues, then returned and met up with Rob at the source of the trail, a moose kill site. The gut pile was there, relished to some degree by Cailey. Dragging the carcass to a boat in the slough had created the trail.  Deeply saddened that a local moose, probably the young male we'd seen on our motion sensor camera, had been slaughtered on our land, we trudged the rest of the way back to the cabin. We had some lunch and packed up, heading back to town on the tide. There we found the water too high to take the Kathy M to its usual moorage near the Alaskan (not enough room under the ramps), so found the only spot along the transient float that was free and squeezed in.

Morning tramp

Cailey and Hank hunt

Moose kill site

Rodent trail to a spruce

We enter the headwaters