2018 - 1: Opening
6:12 on a Tuesday; there's a varied thrush purring outside, where
I have spent most of the day, but I am at the card table now by the
window as the evening cools. A fire is slowly warming the lodge and I
am experiencing a glimpse of the Snettisham serenity I hoped for and
expected. The winter in Juneau was cold, dominated by brief snow falls
followed by long stretches of sunny, cold weather; rainstorms were few
and far between. The spring was also cold and late and, while the
meadow here is green with grass and flowers and forbs eight or ten
inches high, the hillside across the inlet shows no hint of green and
the currents are only beginning to bud. And so early spring sort of
passed me by with busy weekends in town and not much spring like
weather to inspire me to prepare. I began sorting out a preliminary
summer schedule last week in the hopes of actually spending longer (if
fewer) periods of time down here, if I could only know with some
advance warning when I would want a weekend in town and when I had a
week free. With May always a busy month, I started to look at last
weekend as a good opening opening. Having worked very hard for several
weeks at work and still feeling generally exhausted and discouraged, I
took much of Wednesday and Thursday off of work and, among other
things, hustled to get the boat out from under shelter and scrubbed,
all my summer gear out and ready, gas cans filled, and even managed to
launder my big comforter at the laundry mat. But, the 1' seas that had
drawn my attention earlier in the week turned to 2-3' on Thursday and
4-5 on Friday and Saturday as a SE front moved in. I scrapped ideas of
coming down that weekend, but at least I'd overcome some of the initial
hurdles, starting the boat engine in the driveway with astonishing ease
over the weekend.
On Monday, a look out the window at the mild and sunny day, a look at the forecast, and a look at my May schedule suggested that I should really make good on my promise of using the weather to quickly head south. I spent over an hour at lunch packing my gear and the boat, charging my extra laptop battery, etc., until I was nearly ready to go; Cailey spent it watching from her pen after she finished with her knuckle bone. Watching a steady southeasterly wash up the channel in the afternoon, I talked myself out of a Monday evening departure in favor of Tuesday morning when the wind was supposed to shift from the NW, if pick up a bit. But those seas diminished and a look at Stephen's Passage through the weather cam at Grave Point showed a glassy ocean. Though it was hard to psych myself back up after that, I could hardly turn down such a gift. After work I swung by the store to pick up groceries and beer, hitched the boat, finished packing, did the dishes while I ate the Foodland jojos I'd bought for dinner, fed the critters, and stopped by my mother's house a little before 6:00 to pick her up on the way to Douglas Harbor. We launched without a hitch and then my mother drove my truck back home and I glided out of the harbor at 6:11 p.m. The evening was quite lovely, the sun at my back, the ocean almost entirely glass calm. Four sea lions snouted around Point Arden and two whales fluked north of Seal Point, one with pure white flukes that glimmered in the evening sunshine. A few loons floated around as well as flocks of scoters. While I was grateful for the weather and companions on the way, and making it to Snettisham before the spring had passed entirely, I was not in the finest of spirits. I refueled at Seal Rocks to make sure we didn't run out (having put only five gallons into the tank) and finished the trip without incident. Upon arrival at the peaceful homestead, I unloaded the gear, grateful that the water was only about 20 feet below the log, and had the boat anchored by 8:10. After lighting the stove and failing to light the refrigerator, I took linens and comforter to Hermit Thrush and made the bed, so relieved and pleased to find all cabins intact, everything intact and just as I left it (except that I seem to be missing most of my kayak paddles). When I went to pick up the SD cards from the motion sensor cameras, I saw a strange brown lump next to Harbor Seal cabin. A naughty bear had destroyed the leather armchair that was on the porch, wrapped in a tarp. I'm not sure when it happened, but I'm guessing it was last fall based on the scattered bits of stuffing around the forest.
The cards could barely have been more disappointing. One of the cameras took two videos of me just before I left, and never took another; the other took 16 videos, one of a raven, and one rather nice one of a bear. It died in late December. By then it was time to take myself to bed, somewhat grumpy. It had, of course, been a very long day. Washing my face with hot water improved my mood a little bit; I packed up and walked to the cabin with an extra blanket, bear mace, and a bottle of water in addition to my pack. The cabin was surprisingly warm and I turned off the little buddy heater as soon as I'd finished getting ready for bed. Just as I started watching an episode of Taskmaster (which never fails to cheer me up) I remembered that I'd left the refrigerator gas setting on in the hopes that the propane just needed a little more time to make it through the pipe; with an explosion catastrophe in mind, I ran back to the lodge to turn it off. Half way through the episode when I was back in bed, I closed my eyes. It's been nearly eight months since I'd been here. It was a bit surreal to see the little projects I'd done over my week here last September, the new pictures on the walls, the clear area where the lumber used to be. It seems like that that week was a dream, so long ago.
In the morning my motivation was not high, and there was really no hurry, so I dozed and then lay in bed for a long time before I checked the time, thinking it must be 10:30 or so; it was actually only 8:45 and I read a little, settling Cailey with a blanket over her; she'd spent the whole night snuggled against me, but not shivering, wearing only her fleece jacket--after such a cold spring, it's surprisingly warm for early May. I unwrapped the out cabin outhouse on the way to the lodge, fed Cailey, ate a banana, washed my face, and immediately washed the inside of the refrigerator. For some reason, I'd left several beers and a tiny coke in the door of the fridge (all the other liquids were in the sink) and one had exploded. You'd think that the can would break with slowly expanding ice, then the liquid would simply leak when it thawed, but this had managed to spray the entire inside of the fridge, and even some of the outside as well. I guess it exploded when it froze...? I'd also left water in my two big soup pots for emergencies/spring use and, to my surprise, the black lacquered one was rocking on a huge bulge pushed out in the bottom and bits of black lacquer covered the table it sat on. I would have expected the expanding water to just come out the top--could the lid have made a seal?
In any event, my mood had not improved and the lodge was uncomfortable and cluttered. After adding some hose tape and resecuring the nut that covers the cold water intake in the sink, I thought that I'd sit on the porch and watch spring birds and feel good, but that didn't even sound good. Instead, I opened up the shed to grab a hoe, pausing to excavate the channel that drains the swamp in front of the door, and then trudged up to the water source with rubber gloves and boots on (not water proof but better than nothing for standing in the creek). The last couple of summers have given me good lessons to remember in setting this system up. I excavated a deep hollow, built up a dam along the whole front edge except where the olive barrel outlet pipe would go, excavated a deeper channel for the side channel of the stream in order to divert it over to the olive barrel pool instead of over the falls, and plopped the barrel in. Although the exit pipe was obviously below water level and immediately dipped down, I knew enough to check before finishing the dam; sure enough, no water was flowing; some readjustments and hose shaking started the flow, so I shut off the valve (so as not to flood the forest through the open valve I'd left by the lodge), and finished the dam. There's a lot of water flowing in the creek now, probably a combination of recent heavy rains and the sunny weather, and the creek is probably high; nevertheless, I was pretty pleased with the several inches of water covering the pipe and the deep pool the barrel is sitting in. At the lodge I installed the filter system and had running water with little effort. A nice success, and made the sink area just a bit tidier.
Still not interested in relaxing on the porch, I changed the propane tank on the refrigerator and managed to get it going, unpacked the rest of my gear and food, and installed the transmitter on the satellite dish. Everything went together perfectly and the modem started right up, but evidently the dish needs to be readjusted after over two years of use, so will have to wait until I have company to help me out. Even if I wanted to try to move the dish while watching the signal strength, I don't have a cable long enough to bring my laptop to the dish where I can see it. It's the first time I've been in here in two years without being able to send at least a brief email! Finally I settled onto the porch after filling the hummingbird feeders. There was quite a bit of bird activity across the inlet and I focused my spotting scope on them and discovered a cluster of Pacific loons. As the tide rose, the local activity slowed, but the spotting scope revealed a huge conglomerate of birds out toward Gilbert Bay, scores or hundreds of mergansers.
That I hadn't entirely missed the spring migration was evidenced by American pipits on the beach. Varied thrushes have been abundant and singing, I've heard Townsend's warblers, golden-crowned kinglets, and brown creepers, and saw a very wet chickadee preening in the currents. I'm not sure if they always bud this late, but the currents look lifeless and, though still dense, allow me to see a lot more of their bird activity than usual. To my delight, a lemon yellow Wilson's warbler appeared, my first this year, and he and a second black-capped individual have been around all day. Once I was looking at him on the other side of the current patch and he abruptly flew straight toward me; I couldn't focus as he flew, but did so as soon as he landed, the purpose of his quick flight caught in his slender bill, a large, long insect, soon mushed and eaten. One of them perched briefly on Nigel Cottonwood, to my delight--could that be the first bird I've confirmed perching there? She is tall and leafing out beautifully in yellow-green leaves, smelling sweetly, a good four or five feet taller than me. I am tickled. My rose is alive, but not expanding as quickly as I hoped; but, given time, I believe it will take hold, if it survives. I gently weeded around it to make sure it had ample light. I heard a Lincoln's sparrow once or twice, and this evening had a perfect view of him at the edge of the meadow, the buffy band around his chest complimenting his gray and brown and buffy head. What a beauty! I see them so rarely in the spring. A pair of yellowlegs has been about all day, as is typical at this time of year, alarming on and off but not as much as usual. I wonder if they nest around here? I never see them after spring, but there are just the two, here so consistently.
Eventually I ate some lunch and continued to read and bird watching until about 3:00. The sky was mostly sunny and I'd changed into a tank top and rolled my pants up into shorts. Barefoot, as I had been most of the day when boots weren't a more practical choice, I took Cailey for a COASST walk, stopping by the boat before wandering downriver and spotting a white head on the eagle's nest. Upriver, crows foraged on the flats and rows of Bonaparte's gulls and mew gulls lined the edge of the river and the sandbars. American pipits popped up here and there and, north of the grassy point, a tiny sandpiper, startled by Cailey, landed quite close to me and let me have a very nice look (possibly a least sandpiper). The grass on the point is only a couple of inches high and looks more like a sand dune than anything.
When I got back, I managed with less trouble than usual to put the smoke stack up, removed the plywood from around the back porch, unwrapped the lodge outhouse, and swept the porches, gathering some of the little branches for kindling. I futzed around with the satellite dish and tried again to get a signal, and failed, finishing instead the Taskmaster episode from the night before which put me in the mood for wine (one of the contestants did some rather surprising stunts with wine). I poured myself a little glass and sat back on the porch, reading a book I'd recently started called "Salmon, Salmon People" which, so far, is interesting philosophy. And, to my surprise, precisely the sort of thing I needed. For the first time on this trip, I felt well and engaged and serene. Eventually, hunger drove me inside and I cooked a little bison tenderloin steak and some peas for dinner, lighting a fire to take off the spring evening chill and for a ceremonial first fire of the season. Just as I sat down to eat here at the card table, a second hummingbird joined the one who's been here since shortly after I put up the feeders. She, however, charmingly first stopped on the red tray at the top of the stepladder by the satellite dish and probed it repeatedly before zooming up to one of the feeders, chased off by the first lady.
I am in a somber mood, and I wish there was someone here to talk to. After dinner this evening I decided to tackle a few little chores, having spent most of the afternoon being unproductive, and so grabbed the motion sensor camera I'd pull off the stand near Harbor Seal cabin which, it claims, has 100% batteries. I believe it, since it only took 16 videos, but why it failed after that I don't know. By the time it arrived at the tree where I was going to place it, it had taken 11 videos, so that's a sign that something is working anyway. On the way back, the color red caught my eye and there, perched on a ledge of the avalanche slide behind the lodge was a carcass, the backbone exposed in red. I started to walk up there, but didn't want to involve Cailey in case she was unaware of it--she certainly didn't seem interested, so called her back to the lodge. I first set up the filters on Harbor Seal and Hermit Thrush cabins so I'd have water there tonight and grabbed the battery tray from the other motion sensor camera on the way back to replace them. Then I enticed Cailey inside with a little dessert and left her there to look at the carcass. To my great sorrow, it was what a feared, a bear body, headless and footless and skinless. His back had been cut open to take some of the backstrap and scavengers had picked at the rib cage. Guts spilled out, but most of the body was covered in a stiff black shell. There were ants and a few flies if you looked closely, but the smell was more gamy than decayed and there were no maggots. I don't know how long it takes for that shell to develop on the exposed skin. Filled with sorrow, I prayed over the body, having finally met the horror I fear every spring. Someone had shot a brown bear on my property. The ground around the carcass was well trampled, as was the ledge just above where a rock sported a splash of red blood. The back of the lodge was clearly visible and a sign that marked the national forest boundary just a few feet away from the body. When I'd approached, a raven had been on it, the same raven with the short, ratty tail I've seen a few times, probably not to nest in the area as I hoped, but to scavenge. I've not posted the property against hunting for fear of retaliation, but I believe I will now. This may also explain the two missing kayak paddles from below the lodge.
So now I'm sitting on the porch, as the inside of the lodge is far too warm from the fire I lit earlier to ease the chill brought on by this breezy front that chased away the sunshine. It hasn't rained but a few sprinkles yet, but I hope that, rain or no rain, the front will have passed tomorrow and this new system will carry me home. The third hummingbird that joined the two from yesterday is now part of a pack of five--I wonder when it will stop growing. Earlier today I heard a song that sounded suspiciously like an orange-crowned warbler downriver and, not long after, he showed up bopping around in the alder tree. The sun shown on his yellow body and his head glowed faintly orange, which is pretty uncommon to see. Last night I heard for certain the hermit thrush that I had imagined hearing early in the morning; today I heard one upriver on my beach walk and several times near the rocky point. During dinner, one perched beautifully in the currents and, just behind him, a fox sparrow scratched in the duff. Again the edge of the inlet was alive with hundreds of birds, mergansers again presumably, but this afternoon in the breeze they seem to have been replaced with a large raft of scoters. Harbor seals are quietly in the river, but I haven't seen any other large wildlife. You wouldn't think that the removal of one bear would make a place feel barren, but that's the way it's felt this whole time; perhaps he or she was not the only one.
When the sun was still shining, I was moved to wander along the outside of the currents upriver of the lodge, my feet sinking into a deep line of wrack close to the lowest bushes. A little movement in the middle of it caught my eye and I crouched down to see an insect apparently caught in something; a closer inspection revealed that she seemed to be emerging from a cocoon in the wrack; she was about four centimeters long, with two slender wings and a slender body marked in squares of pale orange and black. Another, much brighter individual flew by with a smaller version attached at the end of her tail--a mating pair who perched in a marsh marigold leaf to rest. My female must have been so close to fully emerging and I thought surely her struggles would free her soon, so I sat back and watched for a while. I wanted to help her, of course, but I figured that it was important for her to emerge in her own time, as perhaps there is adjustment and hardening and such that needs to take place in its own time. While I watched, a much smaller male flew over to her and frantically searched for a place to mate; he probed all over her abdomen, but was ultimately frustrated, as the place he sought was still in the cocoon. He flew away and started flying erratically over the wrack until, to my astonishment, he quickly found a perched female and went straight to mating with her. She made no visible response. I eventually grew weary of waiting, marked my friend's position with a spruce twig, and took Cailey on an uneventful walk upriver in the sunshine and growing breeze. When I checked on her later, she was dead, still stuck in her cocoon. I wish I had helped after all.
I slept for what may have been 11 hours last night, shockingly, though I was awake for a long time after getting up at 4:00 a.m., thinking it must be several hours later by the light and the birds. Varied thrushes and a hermit thrush chimed the dawn chorus, followed by a quiet time, and then more varied thrushes. When I got up, I wasn't in the mood for porch time for long, so after a banana and some oatmeal and a little philosophy and prayer, I raked all the paths around the property. It was a lot of work, as it always is, but somehow not as bad as I expected it to be. And that's about all I can think of to say about the day. Before I go tomorrow I'd like to set up the water systems on the other cabin, which shouldn't take long if all goes well, and I need to fix a bad leak in the water line just downriver of the upper cabin valve. There are enough holes there where the pipe is suspended over a little gully that I'll have to cut if off entirely and splice it back together; if I don't, a big area of forest is going to die.
Humans are creatures immersed in symbols. During this trip, out of sorts and lacking the serenity that nearly always accompanies my presence here, there have been aural moments when a sound has lightened my spirits, brought me closer to that serenity and connectedness than I long for. What was the first....the first hummingbird to zoom the feeders? Certainly the first hermit thrush singing in the evening, melting a little my grumpy heart with every song. And then this morning, out of the blue, a whale blow cracked my heart open a little more. I've finished all the tasks I want to do today and am mostly ready to go, just sitting on the porch for a little while and feeling more at peace than I have these three days. I remember when I was growing up that the transition between winter life in town and summer life on the Taku was sometimes a little jarring, and the spring transition became more so as I grew older. Could it be that it just takes me longer now than it used to? If I looked back at last year's spring report, would I see a similar reaction? I still fear I am in another existential crisis.
night before bed I installed the water filters on
Cottonwood and Mink cabins so I could simply turn the water on this
morning to finish setting them up and put batteries in the bridge
camera. A hermit thrush was singing on the mountainside again as I went
to bed. This morning I dozed on and off for what felt a long time, then
lay awake noting the bright sun through the windows, though I could
see a ceiling; only a little rain fell overnight, irregularly pinging
on the roof. I was quite surprised to find that it was not even eight
when I got out of bed, which is a very good sign; I feared I would
never catch up on sleep. After I cleaned and locked up the cabin, I
headed to the lodge to feed Cailey, having decided to fix the leak in
the water system before working on the cabins. I put a full kettle of
water on to boil and began cleaning up the cabin for departure. I was
nearly ready when it was hot, my gear stacked outside, the floors
swept, etc., and washed my face and had breakfast. Then I washed the
dishes and, as the water heated up
again I kept working and found the hose connector, tin cup, and hose
clamps in the attic that I needed for the job; I also grabbed an intact
foot long length of pipe in case I wasn't able to pull the two ends
together (as I continue to cut out leaking sections and as the pipe
gets increasingly overgrown with moss and fallen logs, it's getting
hard to find slack). I stopped by the shed for a hack saw and
screwdriver and headed up to the leak via the cabin outhouse, dropping
my gear there to climb to the top and shut off the water. It was just
finishing draining the pipe when I arrived back down. All in all, the
task went pretty well and I was just able to pull the two sides
together and clamp them over the connector. I was thankful for that,
because I'd found two more leaks a little farther up--just two holes
several inches apart, but spraying out onto the mossy forest floor
from beside a rotten log. I didn't mind it dripping under the log,
which was already a pretty soggy area, so I decided to just wrap the
two holes in hose and clamp them down. This required a trip to the shed
to cut off a piece of hose; back at the site, I sliced down the garden
and then cut two lengths that nearly circled the water hose. Each was
with a hose clamp, tightened a last time after pouring hot water over
them. They still dripped a little after I turned the water back on, but
just under the log so it should do little if any damage.
I'd put everything away, I fetched the motion sensor camera from
downriver and set it up to look at the bear carcass. I expect it'll get
knocked over, on the ground as it is, and/or only pick up a lot of
raven activity, but it seems like an opportunity I shouldn't miss.
I'll be very interested to see what, if any, wildlife checks it out, if
the camera even works. On the way back I stashed the plywood from the
back porch under the lodge, made a cup of tea, and sat on the porch
enjoying what turned out to be two whales working the inlet. At least
one seemed to be favoring the north shoreline near where I watched two
common loons feeding through my spotting scope yesterday. One of them
is out near the boat this morning. I suspect I have more
hummingbirds today, but I cannot count above five. The jays have been
calling from downriver and passing through here as well and last
evening I heard one whisper sing on and off just uprier in the alders.
And now I have a new and unexpected friend--a lovely, pale female robin
is foraging in the meadow in front, currently right on the rocky
path. So peaceful here I hate to pack up and go now...