Snettisham 2017 - 4: Wonderment
  July 20-23

Cailey waits for me

Photo album

Sometimes God communicates to me with weather; sometimes God challenges me with weather. After my last trip to Snettisham, I stayed in town the following weekend, full of plans. The next week I looked at tides and other summer plans in town and mapped out a trip to Snettisham and a trip up the Taku before the end of the month. The weather looked perfect for a Friday evening departure, but I couldn't do it, and thankfully my guilt and shame diminished once I'd made the decision. I made good use of the weekend, attending to all kinds of little things then and into the following week that had been weighing on me. And so here I am today, a Thursday, with the bright promise of two full days here before my return on Sunday. The longer stretch of time--not uncommon not so long ago--feels like an extravagant gift. And, for the first time this summer, I seem to have a little bit of energy. After a predictable lunch on the porch and a bit of reading in the balmy, overcast day (not so balmy that I didn't eventually wrap myself in a quilt), I managed to measure all the cabin porches and then cut my asphalt shingles (which have lain in their bundle on the lower porch for a year I think, or more) into all the right pieces. I carried them to the cabins, tore up all the cardboard stacked by the firewood inside the lodge (most from my refrigerator of two years ago), and did a handful of other odds and ends.

It was after six before I set about working on dinner, a delicate ribeye steak cut into strips. The lodge was smoky afterwards, so I ate outside and then sat with a small glass of wine to start a new book. While there I casually looked up to watch an eagle begin to dive on the river not far past the boat. So many of these dives are aborted, I didn't get too excited, but this eagle did not pull up, and appeared to actually turn and dive into the water at the last moment (rather than pulling back with feet extended as we often see them do). He popped up and began swimming back to shore. I trained my spotting scope on him and was astonished and delighted to see a full six inches of salmon tail, slightly pinkish, extend out of the water behind him! This tail periodically swished into view as the eagle efficiently swam to shore, for once choosing the shoreline within sight of the lodge. I watched eagerly as the eagle pulled the salmon up, but I couldn't see its size or species. Hoping for a better look, I walked down to the water and a little closer, surprised when the eagle flew away and left the salmon flopping about, quite close to the water, when we were quite a distance away. I hadn't intended to get anywhere near enough to bother him, but now that he was gone, I ran over with Cailey right beside me to find a large, humped male pink salmon with lacerations along his back and blood at his mouth. Cailey circled him, intrigued, but unnerved by the periodic flops. I took a few pictures and a video, then carried him farther from the water and bonked his head to kill him a little. In the meantime, the eagle had apparently doubled back and was drying his wings in the tree above me (we were near the nest at that point). Tickled, but wanting to let the eagle at his hard-earned meal, we headed back. I admit I was a bit disappointed when the eagle did not immediately go down to claim his prize, but continued to sit and dry and preen on the tree tops as the tide came in rapidly. I continued reading and waiting on the porch for a bit until the noseeums drove me inside where I set up a chair under the window for light. Something made me turn around and I caught an eagle apparently just landing on a branch about 20 feet off the ground, I'm guessing it was the same one, for the top perch was empty. As I watched, he flew off and dropped into the water several feet from shore, dragging the salmon back onto the rocks. Naturally, he'd known exactly where that fish was the entire time. At last, he began to eat. I watched it through the spotting scope, the clarity as sharp as the best documentary. At first I couldn't see the fish, only the bites he was taking, but then he drug it to higher ground and stood on it and I could see the fish, the eagle's orange feed on top of it, and the gouge in behind the head where he was eating, damp feathers over his chest and belly protruding in dank spikes.

In an effort to make better use of it, I'd brought the spotting scope onto the porch as soon as I set up my chair out there and immediately decided to see if it could help me identify a pair of seabirds next to the Ronquil. The light and distance was such that I could only tell shape from here. Imagine my surprise when these two birds, the only ones in sight, turned out to be two Pacific loons. I have seen loons, some much closer, but I have never seen them like this. The detail was exquisite, the bright eyes and upward pointed beak, the red throat patch, the striking stripes down the back of the neck, the speckles on the back...and not just loons at a distance, intimate loons, loons whose eyes I could see clearly as they peered in my direction, faces narrower and sweeter than expected. What an amazing device! Birds have been quiet, normal for mid-summer and no longer disappointing. I heard Pacific-slope flycatchers a lot when I first arrived, heard distant jays, several thrush calls (not songs), and a flock of chickadees came by. I found a dead varied thrush by the lodge on the downriver side, and saw others in the woods, one of which seemed quite young. Mew gulls. A large flock of crows, eagles. Both hummingbird feeders were empty, one of which was clean and the other smothered in a thick layer of insects. I'm guessing that was the less popular feeder, but what exactly causes it to bring the bugs, I'm not sure. Maybe the hummingbirds left before they finished it, and so it was finished by the insects who could not escape? I put out one feeder early, soaking the other, but have seen no takers. That may be the worst thing about not coming more often...maybe I just need more feeders!

The river is calm now and I am reminded of my ride south, such a relief after the battles I've fought this year. It is mid-summer now, in that time when we lack those extremes of weather, when you can for once feel confident about going out, when "seas two feet or less" can actually mean calm water. It's that Sweetheart Creek time of year, when somehow we always make it down. There were bits of chop here or there that slowed us down, and rarely was it ever really flat, but it was infinitely better than anything we've seen, and rarely did we have to slow down for the seas. Cailey spent most of the time laying down, even closing her eyes south of Grave Point, then perked up around Seal Rocks all the way in, nosing up over the windshield when snuggling with me before we entered the port. No whales on the way, despite my peering around often. The day was overcast after weeks of rain (the last really sunny days I remember were right after I returned from Mongolia a month ago) which have only given us half days without precipitation, and those rare. It is a relief, and tomorrow promises sun for weedwhacking and other outdoor chores. Once here I was again overwhelmed with how much I love to be here. Maybe every third weekend--and a long weekend--is a schedule I can manage, with enough time to have a life in town and take care of town life so I am not a basket case in both places for exhaustion and stress. The seals are slapping the water out there. With my new camera, I actually caught flippers in the air last time. I wonder how deep that pink salmon was? It was in river water...there was a ripple on the water near where the eagle dove, so maybe he'd finned and caught the eagle's attention. I am excited to go walking there tomorrow, and to spy on the eagle nest from my aerie. Now I think I will wander to bed, a blessedly serene night of sleep ahead of me (I hope), now that at last I have returned.

I did have a wonderful night's sleep, starting in my fleece sleeping clothes, finally returned this trip, and ending without them. I turned my phone on at 8:24 after lying in bed a while, got up, and then came back for another half an hour or so. It feels so lovely to lay there, physically comfortable, with no obligations yet. When I got up, it was with joy and energy. I fed Cailey, washed my face, had a snack, and decided the tide must still be low enough (only half way up a rising tide to a mere 12.8') to take Cailey for her promised morning walk, hoping to alleviate the anxiousness she was certain to display all day otherwise. I grabbed the motion sensor camera from downriver and the cross post it was attached to last winter, and headed for Harbor Seal to reach the sand. But there was no sand, the tide already puzzlingly high. Was the river high from all the rain? So I carried everything back and, to what I imagined was Cailey's dissappointment, started work instead, nailing in the asphalt shingle strips on the steps down from the lower deck. That turned out to be more physically tiring than expected, I was still hungry, and not in the best of moods. I fixed the picture that has been hanging in the cabin outhouse for years (screwing in the fastener that had fallen off and fortifying the backing with a piece of cardboard from the wine box), then decided I needed more food, and tea, which I had intended for the morning. An old fig bar and a cup of Russian tea and I felt worlds better. A little after ten I started making the cabin rounds to both nail in the asphalt shingle pieces and screw in the cross pieces with the new screws I bought last week. Cottonwood was first, naturally, shingles (minus one I needed to get from Harbor Seal, having carried the wrong one down yesterday) and then cross pieces. I had to go back to the shed for the bit to back out the few square screws I'd apparently put in to hold them in place. Then I went to Mink and repeated the process, then Harbor Seal, then Hermit Thrush. None of them wound up exactly finished, as I decided I need to put asphalt on the edge of the decks above the single stair, or no stair, on all but Cottonwood, but these are the ends of the deck, not the edges, so small squares have to be cut to fit. Plus I'd forgotten to screw in the cross piece to Cottonwood's door and still had that last asphalt piece as well. So I returned for more shingles and eventually had the project finished after a couple of hours. I wasn't very hungry yet, so I had a cold beer on the porch to celebrate. Then I grabbed clippers and trimmed the upriver side of the path to the water near the porch, then around Nigel Cottonwood, then along the path against the lower deck. Nigel Cottonwood is huge, perhaps two inches at the base, with new branches at the top; even at an angle it towers over me, probably having put on a couple of feet this year, hung with big beautiful leaves. What joy!

Then I did have lunch and experienced a few minutes of the sunshine I'd been hoping for today. It had been very pleasant working in the woods with flycatchers singing, but had been pretty much overcast the whole time, if plenty warm. I saw a couple of sparrows drop into the grasses and heard sooty grouse, but otherwise the bird life was similar. After lunch I was ready to work fairly quickly again, so carried the generator over and weedwhacked to the river, around the firepit, and along the lower deck, then along the boardwalk. After raking and carrying the hay mounds to the river I saw that I hadn't done nearly as nice a job as Rob had earlier this summer, but it's still a great improvement. I read a little more and then finally roused Cailey for our walk upriver, stopping along the way to drill holes in the cross mount for the bridge camera. From there we headed upriver around the outside of the grassy point beyond which, with some difficulty, I found a place to mount the camera. The area is too rocky to use the pole on its own, so I used it in connection with a horizontal log above the normal high tide line (though lower than the alders, so it may be in the splash zone). I hope it is adequately high, and that it is at an angle to catch movement on the flats. It's a good idea, but a lot can go wrong, and it's too far away to want to test it with my laptop. I had chili, bread, a third of a honeydew melon, and a nectarine for dinner on the porch, enjoying the serenity of the inlet (broken only by a handful of helicopters that seem to be disappearing around the corner to Sweetheart Creek, to my chagrin). While I read, my attention kept getting drawn to the soft warbling song or chatter of a bird in the salmonberries upriver, like a robin or a jay or a dipper, so soft, like a whisper. Down on the benches I had a glimpse of him or her, a small sparrow with a streaked breast that I think centered in a spot, eyeing me but continuing to sing. With the short grass, I also had the privilege to see two rodents or shrews meander across the path/along the porch, one of which drew Cailey's languid attention to sniff where he had been. A dozen or so marbled murrelets avidly worked the inlet, barely staying above water long enough for a few breaths.

I slept well again and woke up earlier than I have been, feeling perfect. A soft rain had begun to fall on my way to the cabin for the night, so I made good on my intentions of sweeping all the porches while they were still dry. With a tantalizing low tide upon my arrival at the lodge, I didn't even have breakfast before heading upriver with Cailey in the steady rain carrying my backpack with laptop and card reader. I decided that, with such an enticing tide and the need to walk the antsy dog anyway, I may as well head up there, fully suited up in rain gear but barefoot. My temperature was perfect. I admit I was a little alarmed at how close the water had come last night on a 17' tide to swamping the camera--the pole it was on was wet up to about 12" inches below the camera. It only took a glance at the tides to see that it would have to move--it might survive the upcoming 18 footers, but why risk it? It did take nice videos of me out on the flats, though it evidently took some time to wake up as I was able to walk right up to it before it turned on. I unwrapped the whole thing and trekked back to the rocky point, setting the cross brace up against a rock outcrop, the camera tied to it and loosely to a spruce tree behind it, with rocks piled at the bottom to help hold it in place (my pounding with a hammer drove it only a few inches in the bit of soil over the rocks). I had some breakfast and then puttered around on and off all morning, and afternoon, interspersing tasks with reading on the porch and, for a little bit in the early afternoon before lunch, on the couch. I think that was after I did the dishes and made a cherry cobbler with some rather old but not quite too stale biscuit mix of unknown origin.

One thing I tackled was the inside of the shed, which had become unbearably cluttered and crowded. It doesn't seem like it's been that long since I last cleaned it out, but I was able to make considerable difference, largely by removing the two old saw horses and shifting the riverboat gear and the old generator to the back. I still need to sort the screws and nails, but overall there is a lot of room and it looks quite nice. I finally drove some more nails in the studs to hang more things. In the lodge, I sorted and cleaned the food shelves and did the same with the little end table where I keep all my spare books. In the afternoon I made the cabin rounds again, dusting each of them (mostly the vanities and window sills), sweeping them (inside and the front wall outside), and hanging a couple of orca pictures in Harbor Seal that I've kindly been given to replace the old paper prints I'd had in there before. I also swept up the cabin outhouse. All the cabins but Hermit Thrush are now locked and, hopefully, ready for guests. Before dinner I dug out a hoe and started making what I hoped would be relatively quick rounds again to all the cabins to scrape away whatever dirt had built up against the buildings. I did the shed first, then a little around Cottonwood, and then discovered to my dismay that the whole back wall and half of the upriver wall of Mink was quite built up. I unearthed the latter, but the other was too overgrown for my hoe. As was the upriver wall and porch of Harbor Seal. I gave up and hope to return tomorrow with a hand tool and more patience. That is my only other ideal task for tomorrow (other than cleaning up), the other being the creation of more firewood from old lumber. I made a stack today of the 2x4s that had made up the sawhorses and hope to cut them and some of what I suspect are rotting 2x4s under the tarps. I really should clean that out soon and put the lumber that's worth anything under the lodge.

In birds I saw more thrushes today around the salmonberries and what I think was an orange-crowned warbler, and a wren. The edges I cut off the salmonberries and currents along the walkways has helped, I think. And a second hummingbird showed up, prompting me to put up the second feeder. I'd considered not doing so, figuring that the one large feeder would feed the single hummer until she went south and that a second one would only kill a gazillion more flies, but when they were fighting over the one, I relented and put up the other. I also put together, after many years, a few of the "solar lanterns" I bought years ago to entice bats, but I don't think they will get enough sun this afternoon to light tonight, so I'll have to wait to see the results. It has been raining steadily all day, at times hard enough to sound extremely cozy in the lodge.

I had another solid night of sleep and was shocked when I looked at my phone to find that it was 9:30, after not going to bed late at all! But there was really no hurry to return to town, so I avoided the temptation to feel stressed about a limited morning. I had my promised cup of Russian tea on the porch and then tackled the one big project I wanted to accomplish (well, big is an overstatement). I uncovered the back corner of the lumber pile and pulled out a stack of rotting 2x4s, some dry, some wet, but all decomposing, and all from the unused remnants of the ADF&G murrelet camp fifteen or so years ago. I carried them to the porch and then cut them into burnable pieces along with the remains of the two sawhorses I'd disassembled the day before, now all neatly stacked and drying out under the porch. I restacked the whole area, pleased that there was more wood from the rounds I chopped last year than I'd realized. I also took Cailey downriver to spy on the eagle's nest, climbing up through a very wet slope of sodden berry bushes. At first I saw nothing in the nest and, after lingering for a bit, was about to give up when I noticed a small brown mound on the far left of the nest. Sure enough, it was feathers; I watched for a while and was rewarded with a view of the eaglet's head rolling across its back to preen. So the nest is successful. Other than that, a charming group of jays dashed around the trees poking around for snacks and calling loudly. 

Back at the lodge, I headed to the point with my partially-charged laptop to test the new position of the motion sensor camera. After finishing with wood cutting, I'd left the generator running while I attended to cleaning chores to give it enough charge for this task (it had run out about 15 minutes into a Doctor Who the night before). I'd intended to walk out on the flats to see at what distance I could trigger the camera to run, and laughed when I discovered that the tide had made that impossible much earlier in the morning and there was only water out there. I tried throwing rocks with uncertain results, but it was beginning to seem unlikely that it would trigger from an animal so far below when the tide is out. I moved it into the forest, facing the trail that leads from the creek below my cabin. If wildlife sometimes uses the trail by Hermit Thrush instead of the bridge, this should catch them.

I did some last minute tidying in the lodge and in the shed and spent some more time on the porch, going through the noon time service since it was then early afternoon. I even had a cup of jasmine tea, which had the added benefit of emptying the stove's propane tank such that I could swap it out and take the empty tank back to town. I considered taking the fridge's tank back too, as it is low, but I could still light the pilot this morning, so I decided to let it run out. Having a spare next time means I'll definitely have enough for my guests. I'd found the fridge defrosted in the morning apparently because I'd turned the temperature down too low. Tea and prayers were a wonderful combination looking out over a mild, overcast inlet. Charging my laptop also allowed me to check the weather, which looked the most promising all summer.

Unhurried, I left the homestead at 2:47 and soon realized that this would be a good time to run my kicker. Relieved that it started as well as it did, I sat in the back and we puttered out of the river. I soon threw my fishing line overboard and saw that the big pixie spun quite nicely at a moderate pace. Crossing Gilbert Bay, I picked up speed and pulled the pole up, figuring the salmon were more likely to be running close to shore, slowing down again short of Sentinel to troll along a break in the water there. I continued around the corner through successive water lines and even saw salmon jumping nearby, but no bites. I shut down, filled the tank and, just as I was about to head out at speed, an Allen Marine monohull came into the port from the south, blazed past me, and turned around where the port splits. My guess is they were looking for bears or whales. I got up to speed just as they came abeam and was tickled to find that I matched them exactly under full throttle. I paced them out of the port, then turned north at Seal Rock where they crossed Stephen's Passage to the other side. I had the pleasure of dodging gillnets all the way up and the even greater joy of a nearly flawless sea (broken by numerous wakes, but not by wind). The whole trip, in fact, felt a little magical and I had expectations of something amazing happening. I think the amazing bit was the intimate look at the trees and shrubs and lichens lining the shore in Snettisham as I trolled southwest of Sentinel. It was perfection.

A good looking lodge