Snettisham 2017 - 5: Sweetheart Vestry
  August 9-13

Brown bear at Sweetheart Creek

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It's a busy time of summer, and this week's hecticness was compounded by fine, sunny, hot weather, in which all of Juneau glorified after about a solid month of rain and overcast skies (really since the week after I returned from Mongolia). I was in town over the weekend to dance and visit with my aunt, and managed to even take a day off to hike Mount Juneau. All that time I was hatching a plan to come to Snettisham to make a try at Sweetheart Creek before Holy Trinity's expanded vestry showed up Thursday evening for a two-day retreat. Except for 45 minutes to say goodbye to Vicki, I worked until 9:30 Tuesday evening getting ready, and again in the morning, not leaving the house until 9:30 a.m. I faced three loads of gear on a very hot morning at the harbor. It was a beautiful, bright day. My boat was loaded down with food and propane, camping gear and the odd bit of furniture. The water was reasonably flat and everything was going well until the engine kicked a few times and sputtered and I stopped it, realizing I was probably out of gas in the tank. No problem, I put five gallons in and....once again struggled to get fuel to run through the hose to the tank. I just could not get it to move all the way to the engine. Sometimes I heard and felt what might have been a bit of gas, but then it was all air again. I tried the engine periodically, I pumped hundreds of times at every angle, all the while perched awkwardly on the tote on the back bench. I filled the fuel filter with gas to help it out, I even tried to switch the two hoses to put the pump on the tank side of the fuel filter, but after I had it set up (which required cutting the fuel hoses off the filter housing), I realized that this make the pump pump in the wrong direction. When Scott, my mechanic, installed the new engine he used crimps instead of hose clamps, so I didn't have my usual spare hose clamps on the lines to change the pump out altogether (I found my spare in the glove box after thoroughly looking through my emergency bag). I went through my emergency kit a second time looking for a second hose clamp to install it (the first I found in my tub of spare drain plugs in the stern), but to no avail. There was utter dismay, there was panic, there were a lot of tears, drifting around Stephen's Passage near Grand Island. An unbelievable hang up, such frustration. I found to my surprise that I had a cell signal, so I called Scott and left a message, then quickly lost the signal. I emptied the fuel filter, finding only a little water inside, and pumped more, discovering when I checked that the fuel filter was full of fuel, which was a good start. But nothing brought fuel the last few feet to the engine. I took the hose off and pumped, but nothing seemed to be happening, and I was approaching the rocks off Grand Island. I finally gave up and started the kicker to move off the rocks at the very least, and probably start for home, and, though it started right up, I couldn't get it to into gear. Then the phone rang! It was Scott, helping me in my panic. He told me to partially take the hose off the engine and pump and, while I had him on the phone, I did so and immediately felt gas moving through the bulb. What magic was that!? I was also rapidly approaching the rocks so I hastily said goodbye to Scott, who was breaking up anyway, and pushed myself off with a paddle. The engine started with ease and off I sped to Snettisham after an hour and a half drifting around.

So I arrived a little later than I expected. The rest of the trip was pleasant, ripply in Stephen's Passage and downright breezy in the port with a good one foot chop from behind, so much I had to slow down. I saw two boats anchored at Sweetheart, which was somewhat promising. I unloaded all the gear, discovering that my newly repaired boots leak in several new places (these old xtratuffs are officially hiking shoes now, I think), and lugged it all up. Thankfully, the tide was rising, so I put the anchor on the beach and left the boat there for later. After unpacking and getting all the systems up and running, I had enough time to make some much needed quesadillas for lunch, enjoyed with a room temperature Molson Golden. All I'd had to eat that day was a bowl of shredded wheat, a lemon cookie, and the butterfinger I'd pilfered from my emergency kit while drifting around. The tide was high at 3:10, so I tucked Cailey away with a peanut buttered hoof in Hermit Thrush and took off for Sweetheart in my waders, day pack cleaned out to carry only a smattering of emergency gear, a piece of kindling for a bonker, tin snips, and brand new cast net. Ten minutes later I found three boats at anchor, one full of people. It looked like I'd have two groups to contend with. Chatting with the bears, I walked across the peninsula and up the creek, spotting one group on the opposite side. At the next point I saw that my fishing point upriver was in fact taken, by three or four people no less. Disappointing. But, it was nearly 4:00, so maybe they'd be calling it a day soon? The folks on the boat had asked me about the weather coming down and I'd in turn asked them about the fishing--they said it had been slow but followed that up with the fact that they'd had some luck, a comment that almost seemed defensive (as if to save face in case I found it otherwise). I thought I'd try fishing from the crevasse below the lowest falls to kill time and with the possibility of catching sockeyes there, even if I had to let the pool rest between casts (I'd caught fish there before, but usually with the first cast, after which the fish scatter and don't return for some minutes). I can't cast out into white water from there. I could, indeed, see a ton of fish out there, and scrambled down the pleasant little series of shelves to reach the water. I exchanged friendly hand signs with a gentleman across the way who I think caught a sockeye while I was there. He gestured downstream but I have no idea why. My first cast came back with a net full of pinks, maybe half a dozen or more, hopelessly tangled. I could see it was going to be a tangly net. It took some work to free them, and the same on the second cast (no need to let the pool rest with so many pinks). I then moved upstream a few feet along a little ledge right below the falls and tried again with the same result. There were lots and lots of pinks in there. I think I only made three of four casts altogether from that spot. The second time I hopped along the ledge to get close to the falls I startled a brown bear who'd been walking along the outside of the promontory and whose rump I saw fleeing from about eight feet away. We'd just about run into each other at the falls coming from different directions. A few moments later he appeared below me walking in the creek in my direction and I abandoned my crevasse, feeling rather vulnerable and not expecting to have any luck with sockeyes anyway.

So I wandered up to the point and said hello to the three young men there. They indicated that they weren't doing tremendously well, either, but hastily added that they were catching some, much like the folks from the boat. I saw no stringer, but there was a small dry bag sitting in the water next to them. I asked them how long they thought they might stay--they didn't know--and then said I thought I might hang around there, but not to put pressure on them. It was a perfectly pleasant place to linger. Lots of sockeyes were comically jumping at the falls--I saw one make a perfect, arched dolphin jump--but I admit a certain despairing frustration. I can't claim to have made a great effort at Sweetheart Creek the year before (a matter of miscalculated timing), but was I to be skunked again? At the right time of year? What was I doing wrong? After all that rain in July, I'd welcomed the recent sunshine, in part thinking that it would drop the water level at Sweetheart which becomes unfishable after heavy rains, the strong current sweeping the net closed before it has time to descend over the fish. But this had taken another extreme--I don't remember seeing the water so low. There were rocks exposed below the falls I'd only barely known were there. The little inlet upcreek between the two falls was only a foot or two deep, and not very long and there was hardly any white water in the main channel over the center of the falls (and what there was was too far for even the young men to reach). The pool was all green water, with one rushing current right along the cliff face. I didn't watch the men too closely, not wanting to be rude, but I did see them cast a few times right on top of the current, and it seemed like they may have kept what was in their net at least once. I also happened to catch a few rather poor casts. Noting the low water downstream, I waded into it and considered casting into the strong current there, which I thought I might be able to reach. Pink salmon scurried here and there, some swimming around me, darting by in fast schools. I startled them a little bit, but it was the beautiful round brown bear across the way that soon had them nervous (I think). I made one cast and caught a few pinks, but it wasn't going to be an effective method for me. I returned to the point and watched the brown bear for a while, who was working his way up the opposite side of the creek, not seeming to catch anything and moving on pretty quickly. He soon humped it up the steep slope and disappeared into the woods.

It was about 4:10 when I'd talked to the guys and I'd decided to give them an hour in my head to leave, after which I could fish for an hour, and make it home by seven or so (I try not to leave Cailey locked up for longer than that). Thankfully, they packed up and took off around 4:50. I politely asked for tips and was told that they'd mostly caught fish in the upper pool but had caught some below too. The dry bag they carried away did not seem like it could have many fish in it. It was not promising. But, I set myself up and tried an awkward cast just upriver, which I think came back empty. A couple more casts caught pinks, but at least they were somewhat easier to release than the others had been. In an effort to get closer to the falls I made a pretty good cast right into the middle of the green pool, not far from the point (my reach is really not good, possibly with this slightly larger net even worse than usual). Based on what I'd suspected, and the poor success of my predecessors (because it was the easiest place to cast), I had low expectations for that spot, but I sure felt a lot of wonderful fish vibrations coming up the net. And when I started to see fish flashing as the net came close to the surface, there were extra-whitish flashes in there....could those possibly be from sockeye...? And they were! I had a net full of pinks, but there was my beautiful sockeye. "Okay, game on!" I murmured to myself, as I drug the wriggling net onto the rock shelf and reached for my bonker. I found my sockeye, then found another, and then found another! Three sockeye in one cast! It was hard to extract them and the last two pinks I released were barely alive when I did, but there I was suddenly with three sockeyes! I think it was the fourth cast I'd made.

So I made another cast a little farther away, and came in with three more sockeyes and a grip of pinks. This time they were even more tangled than usual and it took forever to find the sockeyes in that net, so much so that I was a little surprised that the sockeyes still bled from their gills when I finally cut them on the stringer. It was so arduous that I tied the first two I extracted to the line on the cast net while I freed the rest rather than take the time to walk over and string them. I really was trying to save the pinks, but they were too tangled and I believe I released a few very dead ones back into the stream. I immediately had to extend the stringer length to accommodate these fish. My usual bleeding hole was well above the level of the water, but someone had put a big rock a few feet into the stream on the rock shelf and I added a couple more rocks to it to make a more secure pool for them to sit and bleed in. Now I had six fish--well worth the trip! And in two casts only! It's been many years since I've had that kind of casting, way back to the very beginning. I think I only caught pinks in the next cast, but the one after that was closer to the rushing water nearby, a half a pancake cast, not very good, but it came back with more of those welcome flashes of white. This time before I cast I saw that my bear friend was on the next point up. This was a little unnerving, and he watched me make the cast, but not with any special interest. I made sure to bring the fish up well out of his sight from there, but that also meant that he or she was out of my sight! And there were four sockeyes this time, including a jack, as well as a mess of pinks. It was scary work, wildly wriggling splashing fish right next to my stringer of fish, and a hungry bear around. It didn't help that when I peeked around the corner again, the bear had gone. I frantically tried to bonk and free fish, looking up all the time to make sure a bear wasn't approaching, keeping mace handy. Sure enough he showed up downriver of my point, but after talking loudly to him, he turned around; he really didn't want anything to do with me, he was just continuing his wander up and down the river. I hoped he would find some of the dead pinks I was releasing.

When I had those sockeyes strung I was exhausted and had to sit down to release the last of the pinks. I think I'd only been fishing for about half an hour, and most of that had been spent releasing fish. I had TEN fish at that point, more than I'd ever taken away when fishing by myself. It was an auspicious number, and I was totally delighted. I thought maybe I should quit right then--how much more would I want to carry?--and I didn't want to seem greedy. But I decided it would be fun to cast again and with the next sockeye, I'd certainly call it good. The next net was empty, and I really wondered if that was the sign to stop. Then one pink, then two. It seemed like it was time to call it, but it was actually pretty fun to cast repeatedly and not spend forever releasing fish afterwards. I think it was the fourth or fifth cast, back into that pool, that came in with another huge mess of fish. Among the wriggling, struggling fish were four more sockeyes, including a jack, which I managed to let slip away after making a feeble attempt to rescue it. Well, that was really all I could handle, so after laboriously releasing everyone, stringing and bleeding the sockeyes, and straightening out the net, I rinsed the net, packed up, dropped my backpack at the top of the point, and slid all my fish into my newish dry bag backpack, cinching it up so the fish hung over my waist instead of on my thighs like with the last bag I'd used. Oh, it was hard climbing that cliff with 13 fish on my back! At the top, I strapped my day pack to my chest, surprisingly light now in comparison to the fish on my back. Hiking to the boat was tedious and agonizing. I had to sit on a log and sling my leg over once, and slid down the cliff face on the next point down. There was a mother bear and two young-of-the-year cubs on the other side of the river, but she politely turned her back and stayed over there while I trundled on my way. A huge relief to make it back to my kayak, followed by an equally agonizing drag to the water. I could barely lift the bag into my boat, and then started the long process of cleaning the fish, gutting on a tarp laid across the bench, sitting on the cooler, and holding each fish over the side with a line through their mouth to rinse them out. After the first five, and then the four after that, I hung them on a line over the side to chill. Just as I was finishing, the one remaining boat pulled up and congratulated me on cleaning up for the couple of hours I'd been fishing. I think it was the friendly man from across the creek. I confessed that it had only been about half an hour in which I caught them all! We chatted a little about where we'd fished and he said they'd caught about fifty, but after fishing all day. Wow! It's hard to believe everyone didn't clean up--how could fishing have been so good for me and not for the others? Was it the spot, the timing? Whatever it was I was extremely grateful. I soon pulled anchor myself and sped home, pulling up almost exactly four hours after I left. The tide had gone out, so I had to carry my catch across the mud a little, leaving it on the tarp below the log. I anchored up and came back, lugging those fish to the porch before releasing an exuberant Cailey.

By then I was nursing a little stomach ache, which would have made the evening of processing pretty uncomfortable, so I first drank a tiny coke and laid down for about eight minutes, which made me feel better. Then I set up a fillet station outside with a piece of plywood on the card table, mosquito coils hung on it, with paper towels, knife, sharpener, paper plates, spoon, bowl for backbone scrapings, and wine. I also listened to music. It was pretty pleasant. I filled a plate of portions with every two fish and carried them into the fridge and freezer to stay as cool as possible. At 8:45 the filleting was done, so I moved the table inside against the picture window and set up the vacuum packer there. My process was to take one plate of portions out at a time, wash and pat them dry on the counter, seal them all, and start over. There were 36 pre-made bags in my box and I made another 40 bags and used them all (though some failed and had to be thrown away). When the vacuum packer got too hot, I cut bags or labeled them. There wasn't very much down time until the end when I could read a few pages of a book at a time while the machine cooled down. At last I finished sealing the five cups of salmon scrapings and the freezer and top part of the fridge were full of fish. Thirteen fish. It was 11:45. I don't know how I did it.

I don't think either of us moved much that night--poor Cailey had only finally relaxed a few minutes before I sealed the last bag, but I was up around 7:15 looking forward to a relaxing day. In the middle of the night I'd found my right hand half numb and changed positions, but it was still half numb in the morning. Thankfully, a little stretching brought feeling back, which I had to repeat later. It was a pleasant day, starting with tea and breakfast, then a COASST walk which included stopping by the boat to clean it up a little and put the rest of a partial jerry jug in the tank. One of the eagle parents was perched directly over the nest and I could see the nestling's head beneath. I did chores on and off, mostly cleaning up and getting the cabins opened and aired out, but made sure to rest. It was a pleasure to have worked hard enough one day to feel no pangs of guilt about not working hard the next. I wonder how old I will be when I no longer feel a need to work hard to earn my peace? Maybe it will never come. In the afternoon I took a well-needed nap and after 2:00 I logged on to begin my period tracking of the Carina's passage to Snettisham. An hour after the second SPOT in Harris Harbor, they were no farther than Dupont, so I was surprised when they showed up outside Snettisham after 6:00. I realized they must be close and popped outside in time to see them coming into view. I grabbed a last few things from Hermit Thrush and kayaked out to the Ronquil with Cailey, coming up to the Carina while Larry was still anchoring. There were a lot of smiling people on deck! Eventually we loaded all the gear and Bob onto my boat and most of the rest of the crew on Father Gordon's boat and we headed to the beach. It was the middle of a falling tide with flats exposed, so I told the other boat that they could either follow me and jump into water that needed at least the height of an xtratuff to keep them dry, or they could hop off farther away and walk the slippery beach. I evidently did a poor job of presenting the options, as I think few if any of them would have preferred the walk to getting a little wet, but walk they did. Bob and I, and then Gordon (who'd hurried down the beach) had the Ronquil unloaded and everything on the stone path by the time the first of the others arrived from downriver. My mistake.

There were so many people that it was impossible to wrangle them all. People had already made the rounds and checked out the cabins, but I eventually mustered a partial group to walk around with me, losing some at each cabin. The Grubbs stayed in Cottonwood, the Blues in Mink, Bob and Jane in Harbor Seal, and Sarah and Gordon in Hermit Thrush. In the evening, I moved my tent from its perch on the riverboat to the deck for the night. While we sat around the lodge chatting, I ate a sandwich and some of Sarah's fruit salad for dinner, as I'd had a late lunch and hadn't eaten dinner yet. Almost immediately, the first couple left for bed, followed not long after by everyone else. I was in my tent by 10:00, but probably didn't fall asleep until closer to midnight.

Father Gordon, Larry, and Dee Ellen were up at 5:30 and I rose shortly thereafter. Everyone enjoyed a Snettisham Parish Breakfast as they trickled in including quiche and hashbrowns (and sausage for the others). I even had some coffee. It was quite an unusual experience! Later in the morning, Father Gordon, John, Larry, and Gordon went on the Carina to fish for the day; from shore we watched them stop at a few places in the inlet and then disappear around the corner. The rest of us chatted and wandered the property and napped and read according to our will. For myself, I didn't move far from the lodge. I showed my Mongolia photos to Bob and Jane and, just as the Carina was pulling back into view, crawled into my tent for a little rest and lost consciousness for at least a couple of minutes.

The boys had failed to find any halibut, but had made their way to Sweetheart Creek where John came back with a sockeye. Jane was preparing fish tacos for the evening, so the sockeye was offered up instead of the cod she'd brought. I gave John some cardboard and beach grass to get the fire started in the pit and laid out all the dry alder I had. Conditions were not the finest for outdoor grilling, but the smoky fire, supplemented with charcoal, did eventually cook the sockeye more or less through. I stayed out of it--I was not in charge of grilling or cooking! The tacos, salmon included, were fantastic. After dinner a few rounds of boggle were played which I did not take part in and Episcopopoly was opened, but not played. I slept better that night with a little rain on the roof of the tent.

The next morning passed quickly. Dee Ellen prepared another feast, this time making French toast, and then folks cleaned their cabins and packed up. We played a few more rounds of boggle so I could learn the game, as it was graciously left behind for me, and then we all got together on the two decks outside and said morning prayer, after which we collectively wrote a psalm, starting with the first verse of that day's psalm with each of us writing the next verse in turn. Father Gordon made grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone, mercifully using most of the cheese and bread that was left. There were some mud flats exposed when everyone was ready to go, but at least the tide was rising and eventually everyone was aboard and off to the Carina on their tender. It had been an intense couple of days with the most independent and the largest group of people I've ever shared the place with. I cleaned up the lodge, even mopping the floor for the first time in a couple of years, and made the rounds of all the cabins, all in good order. Michael had whispered conspiratorially as he left that I might enjoy the bottle of wine I had that evening, which I most certainly did, sitting on the porch and in the lodge resting before enjoying being back in my bed for the night. I had considered leaving that evening, since the tide was convenient then and certainly would not be the next day, but decided I did not want to rush out after my guests left. I had tea on the porch in the morning, very much enjoying the quiet and the solitude, and read. The inlet had a hint of fall serenity to it and I had a period of intense joy in the quiet, punctuated by two whales in Gilbert Bay. It was peace beyond measure.

At 10:30 I decided it was time to pack up if I was going to walk to the boat instead of kayaking. As the tide wouldn't make bringing the boat closer practical until the middle of the afternoon, I thought I'd better catch it before it floated. I closed up and started carrying my gear down there which, if much less than what I packed in, was still a lot more than I wished! I had all my camping gear, the vacuum packer, my clothes and books, an empty propane tank, and all my salmon. The first load was a tote and my bag, carried all the way to the boat, which was anchored far out in "deeper" water. A long, long way across the mud in boots that leaked as I waded out. I pulled the anchor to the edge of the mud to make sure I didn't lose it to the tide and went back for another tote, leaving it at the edge of the rockweed just past a little creek. Back at the lodge I shut down the systems, loaded my sockeye into a garbage bag (the grocery bag I grabbed proved much too small), pleased that for the first time all weekend it was frozen solid (at least, the pieces in the freezer were). These I lugged down with the propane tank, which I also left at the edge of the rockweed while I took the fish on. Eventually I did have everything on the boat and the anchor aboard as well, relieved to get on board because the tide was rising and threatening to overtop my already soaking wet boots. I was very thankful that the cooler still had some ice in in. I removed most of it, leaving a slurry of cold water and ice in the bottom in which I put my non-frozen fish. Then I stuffed the rest of the cooler with frozen sockeye and put the rest, a considerable volume, in an emptied tote with the rest of the ice. By noon I was ship shape and ready to go and had a cold Molsen Golden while I waited another fifteen minutes for the tide to rise.

And then we were off, chopping our way across the port toward Stephen's Passage, singing a spontaneous psalm along the way. Stephen's Passage was perfectly pleasant with a 1-2" following sea on the way north. It built beyond grave Point to three footers, but we made it through and up the channel, noting that the harbor was quite breezy, making me grateful I hadn't stayed longer. The wind picked up quite a bit in the afternoon. I ran into my parents on their way to the boat house as I was walking Cailey up to the car and enlisted my mother to bring a cart down with her. I moved the car from 14-day parking to the ramp, then managed to load all my gear into the two carts and to the truck. I guess it makes sense that a cart can carry more than I can. As I was rolling along the harbor road, a strange sound followed me like I was dragging something. I got out to look and discovered that I was driving on a very flat tire (later found to be the result of a screw). I pulled into the nearest spot and went back to see what my parents were up to. They'd intended to take the Alaskan out, but had aborted due to the brisk breeze, so my mom graciously agreed to drive me home. We transferred everything to the truck and she ran me home where I soon unloaded my precious, precious sockeye into the freezer that would keep it for me over the next year. That which was frozen was still frozen, to my relief.

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