Taku 2019-2: Aasx (Trees)
August 31-September 2


Photo Album

It was about the worst discovery I can imagine (not involving a living creature anyway); driving home from a weekend out of town, glancing as usual to check on my boat in Aurora Harbor, and it wasn't there. Surely the tide was just low and I missed it, right?? I hastened down there, my heart in my throat, and there was no boat. No lines, nothing. Panic rising, I called my mother, the only person I could think of who might have moved it. She knew mothing. My boat was gone. I called the harbor office, trying to keep the panic down, and let them know, then went home and called the police so I could give them the AK numbers, discovering to my deep regret that my boat key was not, in fact, where I was certain it would be. I must have left it in the boat after fishing with the kids the week before. A dispatcher took the information (being awfully kind about the keys) and said an officer would call me. I immediately returned to the harbor to walk the docks in case it was stashed somewhere among them. No Ronquil. My wonderful mother headed over to Douglas to walk those docks. Meanwhile I missed a call from an officer, so when I finished at Aurora, I headed home to look up the serial numbers on my engines. My mother walked Harris Harbor as well.

There was a good deal of sobbing that night, thinking about my wonderful boat, which has taken me faithfully so many places, being towed to Kake or taken into a shop to sell the engines or torn apart for parts, or who knows what. All becaase I'd left the keys in the ignition. The next day, the dispatcher called me and put me in touch with a different officer, as the other one was on leave for a couple of days. I continued to mourn, sorrow mingled with panic at the lack of ability to go anywhere without my boat. Flying is expensive, and limiting once I'm here. I certainly wouldn't be making an attempt at Sweetheart Creek. I looked into deadheads for the planned weekend on the Taku and realized I could make the trip that way, so that was a start. On Tuesday I got a call from an unknown number; with a tiny bit of hope, I heard exactly what I wanted to hear. Jeremiah from Docks and Harbors thought he'd seen my boat by the Little Rock Dump, which happens to be owned by them. It was nearly noon, so I hastened down there and laid eyes on my precious boat, floated not far off shore in the inside corner of the bite. Hallelujah. Everything looked okay. Terrified that I'd tip off the thieves, who'd take her away somewhere else, I did look with binoculars, then parked on the other side of the island and walked around the point, nervous because of the three cars now parked where I'd been and trying to pretend I was interested in the coho fishing taking place there while keeping the Ronquil in my peripheral vision. I was there for maybe 20 minutes when I got a call from dispatch telling me the officer was there; I said I'd meeting him back on the road, but when I got there, no officer, no car. I called back and was told that the officer wanted to meet me at the Docks and Harbors office near the tram. I didn't even know there was one there! With great reluctance, I drove there, relieved to find a parking spot for Twisted Fish available and decided they'd appreciate the situation if they knew about it. There was an officer standing in front of the office who knew who I was right away. Sean introduced himself and Scott, a Docks and Harbor fellow, and they informed me that they'd be taking me out to my boat in the harbor boat! I was relieved that they were as concerned as I was about the boat taking off.

And so with a tiny bit of relief, I spied the boat waiting for me as Rich and I walked down the dock. After loading all the gear from the boat house, we were underway just a minute before my deadline of 1:00 for a 2:08 (Juneau) tide. The weather was fine, and the ride down the channel smooth. We ran into the expected breeze around Bishop and bumped our way a bit from Cooper to Jaw against an ever shifting Taku chop until it calmed as we entered the river. Rich had never been up the Taku before, so it was a little satisfying to be there as the magnificent glaciers came into view and the valley unfolded above Taku Point. Along the cliffs above the point we encountered some drifting ice bergs and chopped some small pieces off with a screwdriver before picking up a whole small berg that was unusually laced with silt. With an 18 plus tide, we made it over the bar against the meadow without touching bottom, then I completely overshot the landing. This was a little embarrassing until Rich pointed out some lines tied to the bank and I saw the yellow line that had secured the steps at the landing lying along on the top of the bank. It looked like the step it was tied to had pulled off and the stairs had washed away. It was the first of several alarming surprises. We pulled into the bank (no beach was showing) and Rich tied the boat tight and clambered up the bank so I could pass gear up to him. After anchoring (tossing the anchor just below the dead horizontal tree above the landing) and lengthening, then shortening, the anchor line, I paddled to shore and tossed Rich the yellow line, now tied to the stern, to tie off to an alder at the top of the bank. Soon we were carrying our gear up to the lovely cabin where I started opening up while Rich grabbed the rest of the gear. As I rounded the back porch, I was shocked to see that the back door was standing wide open. Terrified of what I might find inside, I peeked in and called out, with no answer. Amazingly, it didn't appear that anything had been disturbed or that any critters had come inside (though Rich later pointed out what looked suspiciously like mouse droppings in the bathroom). I can't believe that a bear didn't ravage the kitchen! The door was locked, so my guess is that a bear came to investigate and pushed the door open when leaning against it like Samantha has been doing the past two years, then was probably startled by the result and bolted away.

I was able to light the pilots on the stove, but we struggled with the fridge until I finally changed the propane tank, which was low; when I still had no luck, I finally realized that the gas level on the prime was turned all the way down and wasn't letting any significant gas out; once I turned that up I could hear the gas hissing and, with Rich holding a match to the pilot, we got it lit. We had a little time before dinner, so we walked upriver well onto Forest Service land and marveled at the beautiful place while I chattered away about the place. The blueberries were sweet and a wonderful treat along the way, and the nagoons we found were still pretty good, if not plentiful. After our walk, Rich made caribou spaghetti and garlic bread with fresh garlic from his garden and we feasted and chatted as dusk fell and a bat flew into view briefly. The cabin, which had been surprisingly warm when we arrived, quickly took on a chill and we lit a quick fire to warm it. An expedition outside revealed a sky speckled with the best night sky I'd seen in a long time. We walked ot the riverbank gazed up, trying to decide where the Milky Way was. It looked like there were two Milky Ways which crossed above us! After a few minutes, either side of the one that crossed the sky east to west grew brighter over the horizons until one was like a bright search light shining over the mountain. We watched with wonder as the two which bands met in the middle and formed a solid, glowing arc from horizon to horizon. Aurora. One band of aurora crossing the sky, crossing the Milky Way. Occasionally it would split briefly and once the middle of it danced a little bit. I saw half a dozen shooting stars as well. Pretty spectacular.

I slept exceptionally well that night and didn't even hear Rich when he got up well before me. We had some instant oatmeal and peanut butter for breakfast, then decided to do some manual labor to warm up in the morning chill while the sun made its way from behind the mountain. I got the chain saw started and we headed down to the river where I pulled out the two sizable spruced I'd cut last year and limbed and bucked them. They produced about a dozen little rounds, but worth keeping. The rest of the trees I drug over the riverbank, cleaning up the areas where they'd been stashed. After the first couple of times, I just gave Rich the chain saw every time I needed it started, as he proved far more proficient at it than I was. It was almost magical how I would struggle to get a smooth pull and he would start it in one casual motion! Meanwhile, Rich pulled spruces and alders from the meadow. When that was finished, we cut off one of the two spruces that overhangs the riverbank below the line that I'd tied onto it last year before chickening out. This time Rich helped me but some limbs, which made it a lot easier, and we cut some more from the bottom that we left to help the view. Rich held onto the line as it fell, but the tree predictably got stuck in all the other branches I'd thrown over and may not have even reached the river. Rich also cut some limbs from the spruce on the other side of the gap pulled out all the alders that I'd thrown onto the debris pile there that were overhanging the bank so the bank in the divot, which is eroding, might be able to germinate some alders to help stabilize it. Everything there looked much tidier and I was pleased with the progress.

We still had motivation to work, so we walked upriver to one of the pair of downed trees I'd found the previous year which I thought would have the easiest access. Rich limbed all but the branches sticking into the ground, then started cutting rounds near where the trunk descending into onto the ground, moving toward the base. I took over after a while, then we finished limbing them and Rich cut a few more rounds until they got smaller and "punkier" where the ground contact had hastened rot. On the way back, I walked ahead to stake out a trail for the 4-wheeler and gave instructions to Rich as to where to cut limbs and trees; it didn't take much to make a path through those open woods, and nothing live was harmed. It was hard to even tell we'd made a route, circuitous as it was. When we reached the trail, I asked Rich to follow me down to the little trunk that we trip on so often past the old eagle tree and he cut it and several other roots down to the ground. Then to my surprise I found myself backing the 4-wheeler out of its house, hooking on the trailer, and headed upriver! I was a little relieved that I found the key and remembered how it all worked. I twisted through the route we cut, then awkwardly turned around with Rich manhandling the trailer. Then we loaded it up, putting a few rounds on the 4-wheeler itself, and slowly headed back down the trailer. We didn't lose a single round and I only had to stop and back up once to avoid running over a sharp stump. Soon we had the rounds nicely stacked on the back porch in front of the stack that Mike had cut. It had only taken about 40 minutes to cut the rounds and the trail and not much longer to haul it away. Very promising that there is another tree ready to cut in the same spot.

We ate leftover spaghetti for lunch on the porch, now partly in the sunshine, with a cold beer before heading behind the cabin to the canoe. Having failed to find the paddles where we usually leave them, I was very relieved to find them in the canoe itself. We paddled down the predictably serene slough, eating up the view and the peace. There were the chips of birds here and there, but none in large numbers; one duck, which may have been a small merganser, repeatedly flew ahead of us and eventually joined a small flock of what I think were goldeneyes which we pushed ahead of us most of the rest of the paddle. Around the Big Bend we spotted a red-tailed hawk flying above us which was soon joined by another, rushing in with wings half tucked and talons extended. They vocalized, and didn't seem to be aggressive. We made our way closer to the cliffs and to the first beaver dam, which was 2-3 feet above water on our side. We pulled it over the low side and, instead of immediately heading down the main channel, we turned right and paddled through the pool and into a tributary slough which quickly ended in much narrower dam. At its base was a perfect little wading pool about three feet deep that was full of juvenile salmonids! We also saw one larger fish dart away as we arrived. So cool. We left the canoe on a little beach and followed the creek, finding more tiny fish in the riffles just above the dam. Rich wanted to see if we could get closer to the mountain and maybe get a view, so we followed the stream, in and out of it as long as we could. It was predictably overgrown in salmonberries, devil's club, and other shrubs, but we found a spot in which we could claim to "conquer" the stream by spanning it with our foot (toe to heel) in the "crickin'" game we used to play as a kid. The stream above the dam was clear and rock and varied from shallow riffles to pools. Everywhere there was any depth, and especially in the lovely little hollows in the bank, juvenile fish schooled in abundance. It was fantastic to see. We explored both branches of the stream without getting much closer to the mountain, inspecting prints in the mud and other spore. With Rich's encouragement, I hatched a plan to survey all the slough's tributaries for juvenile fish and add what I could to the Anadromous Waters Catalog.

Back in the canoe we returned to the main slough and followed it some distance on, past a few most shallow dams that didn't require leaving the boat, and into a long section that was so narrow the grass grew to or even over the canoe. Where it widened a bit, we climbed the bank to take a look at the view, then paddled back to the smooth cliffs where the slough meets the mountain and where a rope remains from Dolphin Jet Boat's abandoned tours. The tide had raised the slough about two feet, so we were able to slide over the dam and little remained of the rock that had been three feet dry on our way up. I'd shared my dream of reaching the mixed birch forest at the top of the cliff face with Rich, who was still a little skeptical about my identification. Soon, though, we came upon two good sized trees, if somewhat more twisted than the birches he typically saw. Making our was up was a little awkward, forcing us to push through some dense cranberry and salmonberry bushes in the ledges and cracks between cliff faces, but we found a way up, with the bonus of stumbling onto two subalpine fir trees, one of which had cones. They are the only ones I've seen in the valley behind the stand behind the lodge. From there the going was easier, if a little harrowing, as we carefully scaled the rock face, staying on the bare rock and avoiding the more slippery patches of lichen. Cailey was her usual mountain goat self, but it was unnerving to think of what would happen if she did slip, so after enjoying the stunning view a little longer, we headed back down before reaching the denser woods up above at the top of a long steep slope. There were birches growing singly in the cracks all around us though, so I could that part of my birch forest.

When we arrived back at the cabin, I hastily made a jello cheese cake and put it in the fridge before joining Rich on the swing for a classy drink consisting of Rich's mix of whiskeys, a little Taku sweet gale schnapps, and glacier ice. The silt in the ice gathered in little pools at the bottom of our glasses and the reddish amber drink was beautiful in the afternoon sunshine. Rich made incredible caribou quesadillas for dinner while I clipped back most of the remaining clumps of alders in the meadow and around its edges--the ones that had been trimmed by the brush cutter or cut rather than uprooted. I was really pleased to see the results of my hard work last summer--the edges of the meadow were noticeably more open and it looked like the blueberries were thriving with the additional sunshine (or so I like to imagine). Especially with the trimming I did and the uprooting Rich had done, it seemed like we were actually making progress as well as preventing additional encroachment. The other trails need maintenance, but I was pleased with that area. After dinner, we enjoyed looking through the summer's game camera photos. After dark, an owl flew straight toward the cabin and pulled up to alight in the big spruces. She flew between several trees, lingering in full view enough to see her silhouette clearly against the lighter sky as she looked around and bobbed her head to hunt. She was medium sized and there were tiny ear tufts on her head, so maybe short eared owl?

I had another very peaceful night of sleep upstairs. Having failed to accomplish this before dark the evening before, I immediately picked a couple of cups of blueberries, mostly from the area I'd cut the spruce tree and alders last year, then made some rather flat and chewy blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Rich had the idea to walk back into the meadows early, before the sun hit, to look for wildlife. When we reached the meadow, the sun was shining on about half of it. We slowly worked our way across while Rich carefully glassed the area. I didn't know what to make of it when he quietly and nonchalantly said "moose", but sure enough, there was a moose at the edge of a clump of willows unconcernedly browsing. I couldn't believe it. Meanwhile, a small falcon had flown into the tip of a spruce tree nearby--a merlin we think--so I split my time between watching the moose and the merlin. The latter was very accommodating, flying to the tips of nearby trees and allowing me to approach. As I watched, it focused in on something and darted away. Rich watched it make a mid-air feint and then land in a tree to eat something. It had its back turned and was farther away, but Rich suspected it was a dragonfly. Very cool. The sun was approaching the moose as it rose over the mountain and she melted into the trees. We made our way to the slough where I hoped to see resting ducks; all was quiet, but Rich spotted another moose browsing across the slough and upstream. I was shocked! How often have I missed these things by charging my way through the brush, with no expectation to see them? And how often have I only seen animals because I glassed? Rich thought we might be able to approach by quietly canoeing, so I launched the canoe and slipped upstream. The moose by then had slipped herself into the brush; we watched carefully as we quietly paddled by, but it was very brushy there and we never saw her. What we did see was a brown raptor standing on the edge of Pink Salmon Flats; her white rump and ruddy body revealed her for a young northern harrier hawk. We stopped to find the remains of her kill on the sedge--intestines with a few organs attached and clumps of (presumably) vole fur. Very cool. I suggested that there were good places to explore with high points up ahead, so we landed just past Big Bend and walked up to my favorite hill there, where we watched the harrier hunting over the meadows. Rich stayed there to continue glassing and I wandered over to a clump of trees I wanted to explore, the one where I saw an alder flycatcher a few years ago. I love those licheny patches of scattered trees and was pleased to see quite a few nagoonberries growing there, very pickable. On the way, the harrier flew directly overhead and, I think, looked down at me once.

On the way back I stopped by the eagle tree and noted that it was surrounded by a few dozen birch trees and seemed to be a favorite bear bedding area. There were many bear piles, including several together, and a suspiciously smooth area between the roots. Two ruby-crowned kinglets bopped in the branches. It was getting late in the morning, so we headed back to the cabin for lunch where I made quesadillas using the rest of the caribou from the night before. We were relaxing afterwards when we heard a plane buzz the cabin; I rushed out and waved when the Ward Air 182 made a second pass to let them know that we'd seen them. They were an hour early, so I rushed to the boat to fuel up while Rich hastily packed. We could see the plane on the banks of the river near the slough from the boat--and the pilot could see us--and we headed down river after adding a jug of gas to the tank. I pulled up just below the plane, said goodbye to Rich, and welcomed my mother aboard once she pushed the plane off the bank. On a whim, I asked if she wanted to go on a little expedition before heading to the cabin, suggesting we visit the waterfall downriver, which is where I'd intended to take Rich to kill time while waiting for the plane to land. She agreed and so we headed downriver instead of upriver. It was still somewhat before the high tide and we soon touched bottom on the sandbar; it got even shallower as we passed across the cliffs and I was mildly worried, though the tide was rising. It was shallow nearly to the slough entrance. Much deeper inside, we slowly headed for the waterfall, cautious of rocks in the semi-opaque slough. We puttered past that and down the slough which puzzlingly extends quite a distance along the rock face past the falls. It is such a beautiful area there and the slough is deep and still. Some distance on there was a small grassy shelf at the bottom of the inviting cliffs, so we tied the boat to a bush and climbed up. Paradise. Lichen and moss on the rocks, clumps of small trees including bright green mountain hemlock and cedars growing in the crevasses. It was wolverine country and we both loved it. The extraordinary views over the valley as we climbed higher didn't hurt either. Chickadees vocalized and a Steller's jay came and closely inspected us before launching over the cliff and plummeting toward the meadow. There were tiny pools of water, sphagnum moss, a bonsai-like pine tree. And another tree that puzzled us. It was spruce-like, but with intensely symmetrical, horizontal branches. The bark was like that of a spruce, but that symmetry was too regular to be coincidence on two separate trees.

After wandering high on the cliffs, we descended to the boat and hopped directly onto the bow as the incoming tide was flooding the slough. On the way back, Cailey sat on the front of the bow like a figurehead. We'd watched several boats descending the river and tried to imitate their route off the sandbar, though the river was flooded and we probably could have gone just about anywhere. I anchored back at the landing and paddled to shore, completely forgetting to take the stern like with me so we could pull the boat in later. We settled in a little, then took off for the canoe to take advantage of the flood tide to bring it back to the landing. Near the slough we saw what was probably a merlin sweep by quite closely, then cruise along the treed mountain slopes into the distance until I couldn't lift the binoculars anymore. We paddled upriver with the tide a little, making a loop around Yellowthroat Island, then made our way to the river, disturbing a couple of teal along the way who made a wide loop around us. The river only gave us minor resistance as we paddled up, a welcome change from the year before, and the landing craft that swept in from behind was kind enough to slow down and minimize his wake. We tied the Ronquil's stern line to a tree and then opted to head upriver to the original landing site in the hopes of a lower and less steep bank to push the canoe up (there wasn't even a clay shelf at the bottom to help at that tide). This was a bit awkward, as the landing is covered in brush and logs, but we found the logs sturdy enough to step onto and the biggest problem was getting Cailey to exit the canoe. I'm afraid I lose my temper a little and urged her out to the point where she woudn up in the river, thankfully not at all deep at that spot. My mom got on the bank and pulled while I pushed from the bottom, then we drug it under the trees nearby, she with her long-sleeved shirt going inside to pull. Moments after we'd turned it over we found a much more open entrance on the other side of the same tree that would have made things much easier!

My mother had brought a corn casserole and popped it in the oven; with 45 minutes to kill, we decided to take a gander at starting the splitter. This of course involved rounding up the right socket for removing the case around the flywheel, a phillips screwdriver to replace the cleaned air filters, etc., which probably took longer than doing the actual work. We cleaned off the new rust on top of the back of the flywheel--just a thin layer this time--figured out how to insert the air filters properly, added some gas below the new spark plug, and gave it a pull. When the engine caught, I threw my arms in the air in triumph only to have it die immediately. We tried again (adding more priming gas) and this time I metered down the choke more slowly, which was the key. Most engines want their choke off ASAP once it starts, but it needs the extra gas for a while. This time my mother was more shocked than I was. With dinner still cooking, we quickly decided to start splitting wood. One hour later, our backs complaining, we had split all the rounds from the porch, creating a pleasing stack of firewood all around the back of the splitter. My mother manned the lever while I set up most of the rounds and tossed the split pieces away. We took turns bringing/tossing more rounds down to our level. Amazingly, the engine ran beautifully right up until I made the first split in the second to last log--my seat--when it ran out of gas. Although it took a couple of tries to start it (it still needed the choke to start, though warm), we did get it going again to finish up. My mother had brought carburator cleaning agent which may help the starting issues next summer. In the meantime, we had more firewood to dry. And so we earned our casserole, green beans, wind, and apple pies (from her tree) that night. Not eating until 7:40 or so, we watched the game camera videos, chatted a bit, and took ourselves to bed.

I woke up a little earlier the next day and managed to put some water on and make pancake mix without waking my mother up. We ate a much better batch of pancakes this time, utilizing some mix at the cabin with the buckwheat that I'd brought, then headed back to the meadow in my secret attempt to recreate the previous morning with Rich. But the day was quite different--quiet and serene, overcast, cool, and it was a bit later, and the only unusual life we saw was a single waxwing in a spruce tree. At least, that's our best guess, as it was only in sillhouette, but we could not think of another animal with that shape. Cailey had opted to remain behind, so we were dogless. We visited the slough, then walked back toward the forest to the south and met up with the moose trail that fringes the trees, peeling off along a side trail that entered a promising stand of trees. Along the way we saw a high density of moose beds in the irises, one much larger than the others and in close proximity to another. A family? The trail was clearly trodden through the fringe shrubs and trees, then opened into a little glen that was largely devoid of ground vegetation other than moss. Three trails converged there--ours, one to the south that appeared to enter into a pocket meadow, and one that continued toward the river. In the middle the ground was bared in a large patch where I pictured moose lingering. It was the perfect spot for a camera (or so I think!) and we set up the one from the river facing the clearing. Tickled about that, we made our way back to the cabin, me being deliberately but surprisingly unconcerned about close up. I showed Mom the trail to the tree we'd cut and she identified the other tree as the one she'd spotted before.

Back at the cabin we got to work, starting with towing the wood splitter down to Alder with the 4-wheeler and tucking it inside. Then my mom showed me how to start the engines, shut off the fuel, and run them dry (generator, brush cutter). Unfortunately, on closer inspection of the bolt, she determined that Alder had been broken into, not left open; the bracket was badly bend and the end of the bolt had been pushed through the inside of the door (out of its hole). Both small generators and my brother's new chainsaws had been stolen. Very disappointing and discouraging. I left my mother to drain and run the water pump and figure out a way to secure Alder for the winter and started work on stacking the firewood. First I moved the dry firewood along the wall by the door so it would accessible, then replaced it with the newly cut wood. I made about six trips down to pile wood from the ground to the porch, then back up to pile it, making a grid on one side to support it. It took about 45 minutes. I also partially filled a water jug with water from the rain barrel (so we have about one and a half available), and did some other odds and ends. We broke for a lunch of quesadillas at 1:00, after which I washed the dishes while my mother took care of the toilet (we had no antifreeze so she added sugar once most of the water was out. The water tank was drained, the outhouse trash burned, the floor swept, the swing taken down. Alder was secured with two PT boards screwed into the door and the frame, but I remembered that the tarp had come off Fox Hole. My mom took a load of gear down to the landing and plugged the gap while I started filling out the log, following her with another load. Finally, all was ready, and we set out around 3:30, an hour after I'd originally intended but with plenty of water still coming up. In fact, the clay shelf was still visible at the bottom of the landing. Just after we pulled out from the bank, a contingent of six boats swept past, waking us out. We slowly followed them south, using the middle of the channel to below the lowest slough mouth, then heading back to shore knowing I could get up to speed there, but not feeling confident out in the middle. It was only misting when we left, but just past Taku Glacier as the dense fog lifted, the rain started pelting down. I was elevated on the throw so I could just see over the windshield and the rain stung my eyes and I had to lick the rain off my lips every few minutes. The seas were mild all the way to Cooper, but there were little swells that rolled and bumped us around after that, following by larger swells the swept us around beyond Bishop. By then we had long been thoroughly soaked, neither of us having donned raingear in the pleasant weather at the cabin. Cold and wet, I kept my texts at a bare minimum as there was no avoiding the pelting rain and nothing to dry my phone with. Chilled and tired, we tied up and unloaded as quickly as possible and headed home to shower.

We explore the slough