Snettisham 2018 - 2: Birthday
May 25-27

No hunting signs line the beach

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It's Sunday night and I'm back in town after a very pleasant late spring weekend at Snettisham to celebrate my mother's birthday, earlier in the week. We'd intended to come down a week ago and actually catch her birthday, but a storm that never materialized kept us in town. The weather this trip was much better, especially with the gift of the Kathy M to use. After a couple of hasty side trips Friday morning (I sent my mother to get a harbor parking permit while I loaded the boat, then ran home to pick up the boat key) we headed over to the fuel dock and then off to Snettisham late in the morning. The ride was pleasant, a little choppier south of Grand Island, such that I was grateful for the larger boat. Cailey, for her part, seemed to really enjoy her padded seat. A whale or two blew and we passed some loons in Stephen's Passage. Just over an hour and a half after pulling away from the dock we glided into the beach, thankfully still fairly high and close to the log despite it being two hours past high tide. We quickly unloaded and I anchored the boat and hauled the last of the gear up to the lodge. The vegetation around the path was reasonable, but around the fire pit and the stairs it is already a jungle. I'd thought about bringing my weed whacker but the weekend was supposed to be rainy, so I elected to leave it behind.

After starting the systems and a little fire, we picked up the cards from the motion sensor cameras. Or, one card, as the camera on the bridge had not taken any videos. I took my mom to the shelf where the bear carcass lay, relieved to find the camera intact but puzzled and disappointed to find hardly a trace of bear. I was afraid that the hunters had returned to move him, but on the rocks below we saw the bones of one front leg and then the whole rib cage up the mountainside wedged between two logs in an area that was heavily trampled. Someone had drug the carcass there, someone with a lot of strength. The rear leg that the hunters had left had evidently been ripped off the carcass as it went up the hill, but the other front leg was still attached to the ribs and vertebra. There was no flesh left, only bones and sinew. We agreed to come back later and look for sign.

Back at the lodge we eagerly watched the videos from the camera, hugely relieved that it had worked this time. The batteries were dead, but it had taken videos for a little over a day. The first afternoon, the day that I left, was dominated by three ravens. It was fascinating to watch them pull at the carcass, mostly around the exposed backbone and organs; the sounds they made in some of the videos were astounding. That night a deer mouse appeared many times, though we never saw him actually eat anything; I suspect he was nibbling off camera. In the evening, a very unexpected creature showed up twice--a Wilson's warbler! He pecked around the front of the carcass and I remembered the tiny bugs that were beginning to be attracted to it. The next day began with ravens which were quickly supplanted by eagles. First a juvenile came in, joined by a transitional eagle with a brown flecked white head, then an adult. Sometimes the ravens joined them, but mostly they dominated until the batteries ran out. We didn't watch every video from start to finish, but what we did see was captivating, especially the interactions and tussles between birds.

By that time is was after three, so we had a late lunch of quesadillas before walking upriver on the low tide. We encountered no fresh tracks. We ate smoked salmon and snacks for dinner while we watched great blue herons feeding in the shallows. The first one that came in caught a small flounder that was really too big to swallow. We watched his fascinating process of dropping and picking up and gulping and dropping and picking up and gulping and shaking through the spotting scope until he managed to choke it down. We were really surprised that he continued to hunt after that! He was joined by a second heron who quickly caught a small fish, maybe 7", greenish on top and white on the bottom, a little wide in the mouth. The first heron soon caught a very small, very silvery fish. It is evidently good hunting out there! We chatted until bed, after which we both had very cozy nights of sleep. Cailey smelled a bit like....well, probably like decaying bear, so she got a spit bath before bed which made her very tolerable. We both woke up early and lounged around in bed for a while before heading to the lodge where I quickly installed a new filter on the gray water system and put it all back together. The sink itself is leaking a little, so it may need a new washer or new plumber's putty (need to do some research there). The day was drizzling on and off and a little chilly, so when we moved to my standard position on the porch after breakfast we each wrapped up in a blanket/quilt. We chatted and watched Wilson's warblers, a Pacific wren, and hermit thrushes move around in the bushes. To my surprise, the currents, which had yet to bud very much on my last trip, have still not budded out and appear to have experienced about a 90% die off on my section of beach along with the two elderberries on the downriver side. There are a couple of stalks that have small green leaves, but for the most part they are barren stands with green salmonberries among them. Very puzzling!

As the tide came in, we watched an eagle hunting in a circle of gulls in the river; he actually hovered quite effectively a few feet above the water before gently descending and grabbing fish--multiple fish I think. He nibbled at them a couple of times and still had something left over and I was reminded of watching an eagle pick up two fistfuls of sandlance that murrelets were driving to the surface at Auke Rec last weekend (which I happened to catch in binoculars while I was watching the school boil above the hunting sea birds). When I looked at the gulls with binoculars I saw that there were hundreds of murrelets around them sitting on the water.

We stayed there for most of the morning, then had another round of quesadillas for lunch. Then I managed to finish a task that had been weighing on me--washing all the windows on the property and replacing the UV reflective stickers with fresh ones to help the birds avoid them. I also changed the blade on my skilsaw and read a little bit before rallying for a big task before dinner: posting my property. I've always been afraid of posting no hunting signs for fear of retaliation, but the sorrow I feel over the death of that wonderful bear and the possibility that signage might have saved its life, or might save the life of a bear in the future, dissolved all uncertainty. I had custom signs printed (Alaska law requires official signs to have the owner's name and address on them) that only include "no hunting" and left out "no trespassing" which I did not want to post. I don't mind people walking on the property, I just don't want them hunting (plus I think that would invite vandalism). I managed to get my little generator started and cut a 45 degree angle in three 2x2 posts, then headed out with my mom to set them up. We put the first post by the log near the corner of the property, then two more along the shore line toward the rocky point. The beach is mostly rock there but I found a few places where there was good purchase for the posts. The upriver boundary was a little trickier, as it is all rock, but we found a small tree on a rocky promontory closer to the creek that looked like a good prospect; I checked it out from below and my mom from above. That required a return to the lodge for more signs and supplies. Before we headed back, we moved the main piece of the recliner back onto the porch and covered it, as we decided it was too heavy for us to want to haul back to take to town. Then we picked up another sign at the lodge and went back to the woods behind it where I posted a sign on the opposite side of the tree with a boundary marker, just a few feet from where my bear had lain when I found him. While there, we both scoured the area for sign; my mom found an arear near the original site with four or five degraded, grassy bear piles and we found a few other bits and pieces nearby. Other than that, there was just the trodden path in three directions from the current location of the rib cage. We both agreed that the shelf where I believe the bear was shot was a perfect little lookout with a commanding view of the land below from the back of the lodge along the bear trail to the downriver exit, protected by the walls of the waterfall channel from some angles, a logical place for him to stop and see what followed. If only he had kept going. I thought I might keep one of each of his legs and we tried (and failed) to figure out which of the front legs was which; one of the back leg bones was broken and we wondered if he had been shot there. None of the other bones were damaged. We also pulled the rib cage from the crevasse between two logs that it was lodged in, skin crawling at the small maggots swarming underneath it. It took us a minute to figure out which way the rib cage was pointed (the section with the hind leg attached had broken off) until we realized that the rib cage on a bear is larger toward the back, as that is where his belly is and where he carried his weight (hence the bigger footprint of a back paw). I carried the two front legs back to the lodge along with a rib and laid them out next to it to further decay. Then I grabbed clippers and headed back upriver to scale the rocky point, clip a few branches of the stunted spruce tree growing there, and posted my sign. I was so pleased with the whole process that I walked back along the water just to see them all lined up. In theory, it's a tiny, tiny bear sanctuary.

By that time I was thoroughly soaked, so I changed clothes and warmed up by the fire my mom had lit before making a dinner of coho, pea pods, and sourdough toasted in a skillet. We drank wine with spruce tips (from the bough I'd cut) floating in it, which added a delightful aroma and a hint of flavor. Again we chatted until about 9:30 and then headed to bed for another cozy night of sleep beneath occasional heavy showers. When I finally really woke up, I figured it was maybe 8:00, which is typical when I feel like I've slept a long time at Snettisham. To my shock, I discovered that it was 9:45 and I'd really just woken up a little before that! Somewhat embarrassed, I headed to a warm and cozy lodge. My mother, who'd been up for hours (!) headed out to clean up the stuffing and styrofoam strewn about the forest from the destruction of the recliner while I stayed behind to finish getting ready for the day, after which I washed the dishes, packed up, and swept the lodge before heading over the Harbor Seal to help my mother pick up the last bits. It was a lot of work! Thankfully, the styrofoam had not disintegrated into pieces smaller than a golf ball. I also picked up the aluminum cans from the freshet that had burst and/or been chewed. After that we set up motion sensor cameras, one on the rib cage. Then we hauled all the hemlock siding I'd set aside for Fox Hole at the Taku cabin out from under the lodge and ate lunch on the porch as the sun came out and the Wilson's warbler started singing, downing two delicious mimosas while we lingered over the inlet. Mom said she thought that two of them were courting in the bushes while I was inside, flitting around each other in a non-aggressive way. We both managed to catch him signing in the sunshine in our binoculars. A thrush also came through and there were two hummingbirds, though still only rarely. All weekend until the night before there was only one, and not a common visitor. Where did the others go? It seems like I usually have a crowd even before fledging.

Finally it was getting near high tide, so I shut down the systems, moved all my gear onto the porch, and asked my mom to cover the windows while I started loading everything down to the water. By the time I brought the boat in a little after the tide turned, it was sprinkling heavily. My mom handed lumber up to me and I placed it on the top of the cabin, followed by all the recliner and other trash I was bringing back and our gear. It was a very efficient operation with the two of us. We puttered out into the river and tied the lumber to the top securely before puttering back upriver to view my no hunting signs again and then heading out. The huge assemblage of murrelets (and gulls and loons in smaller numbers) was out in Gilbert Bay with a whale (we'd had a whale in the inlet Friday as well, but not close in). Not far from their property at the mouth of Snettisham we circled a large, interesting ice berg with a covey of gulls on top. Smaller chunks were floating down along the shoreline toward Tracy Arm and out into Stephen's Passage, whether independent or fallen off of this one we couldn't tell. Another whale blew out in Stephen's Passage. The calm of the port gave way to a gentle following sea which built as we approached Grave Point. By the time we reached the end of Grand Island, we were getting a lot of spray and I finally realized that the seas were then coming out of the Taku, which had been hinted of on the river that morning. We sloshed around quite a lot and really could have used the non-functional windshield wipers, but we made it past Arden and into shelter, and back to the harbor with no incident, happy to throw all our trash in the harbor dumpster on the way out!

The bear skeleton wedged between two logs