Snettisham 2020 - 1: A Persistent Chill
April 18-20


Admiralty Island

Photo Album

It's April 18 at 6:30 pm and I'm on the couch at Snettisham with the year's first fire slowly warming the lodge and Cailey laying on the rug chewing on last year's cow hoof, left behind for this purpose. After a heavy dose of spring anxiety, I'd finally gathered enough of my gear together that leaving this morning was relatively easy. It first occurred to me on Monday that there was no reason I couldn't make an opening trip this weekend and the weather cooperated with sunny skies and light winds. That's when the anxiety started. I picked away at packing and preparation on Tuesday and Thursday (being in COVID-19-required video teleconferences for Family Promise and my book group on Wednesday) with the idea that I could leave on Friday. But I was heavy with dread on Friday and, thankfully, the weather actually looked better Saturday morning. So I spent that morning scraping barnacles, tightening screws, and cleaning and readying gas cans and (after a good rest) gathering gear from the boat house, picking up a launch permit, and filling gas cans. In the evening, I relaxed. It took me a little over an hour to finish packing and chores and load the boat before heading for Douglas Harbor Saturday morning. The day was clear and utterly calm, the harbor was quiet, and we launched without a hitch (though I gave up trying to start the kicker). It was a joy to see the mountains all covered in white due to the snowy winter, cold spring, and the early season trip. The channel was calm and inhabited by small groups of active scoters. I could see a thick bank of fog across Taku Inlet which dissipated as I crossed where we picked up a little breeze from behind Douglas. Seas started to pick up past Arden and soon built to a 1-2' out of the Taku, slowing us down and following us beyond Limestone Inlet. I was surprised to see neither whale anywhere on the trip or any sea lions at the haul-out, though I wasn't very close. The port was back to dead calm and I eagerly peered around River Point for my first glimpse of the homestead after my seven-month absence. First the satellite dish, than the lodge--they looked good! On the way in we passed birds all around us--teal were the only ones I was confident about, but many were colorful and I looked forward to getting closer looks. I'd passed what I suspect were a pair of grebes around Sentinel Point and an eagle was standing on the nest. The tide was high and I reveled in the clear water at the beach and the novel sight of the sand and rocks and grass beneath the boat. We unloaded and I anchored up, leaving Cailey on shore. The lodge looked perfect (though I can see that I need to repaint the front wall soon), just as I left it. From there my activity was perfectly normal--haul up the gear, light the stove pilots, unpack a little, get Cailey water, move the leather couch onto the porch, etc. It was around noon and I was hungry so I made a quesadilla while continuing to unpack. It was a joy to sit in the warm sunshine outside with lunch and a Pacifico, cold just from being inside the very chilly lodge. It was icy in there! I stayed on the porch a while, reading and gazing out over the inlet. No water birds were within identification distance, but I could see hundreds swarming out at the edge of Gilbert Bay. Over the dead beach grasses a robin foraged, a bird I only see in the spring here. I heard chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets, Steller's jays, and sooty grouse. Crows worked the rocks at the water's edge and pine siskins called and tittered everywhere. Cailey found crab shells and crunched on them happily. To my delight, orange butterflies flapped around the deck and alighted close enough to see their green fuzzy backs and orange and brown wings with their filigree borders.


Eventually I got up and Cailey and I made the rounds, finding all the cabins, shed, and outhouse intact and in good condition. Falling debris had popped off the rails on the upriver end of the bridge and the last 25 feet or so of the great fallen tree had snapped off and lay in two pieces along the side of the trail upriver from the bridge. I carefully crossed the raging creek on a log and picked up the motion sensor camera card there, opened up Hermit Thrush, then stopped by the outhouse to unwrap it and stow the trap. Back at the lodge I picked up the other camera card, then used a hoe to clean out the little stream that drains the hillside along the side of the shed, which was a swamp. Like the creek, there was above average water flowing from the ground, seeping from just below the trail at a steady rate. It was easy work clearing out the channel, resulting in a satisfying flow of water down toward the beach. A lot of water is spilling out of the ground there! I also picked up some nails and a hammer to have a go at getting the smoke stack up, knowing (if only by the icy temperature inside) that it would get cold when the sun went down. Once I went back for more nails, having lost my first batch, and swapped out the step ladder for a real ladder, it went fairly well, just with the usual awkwardness. I picked up the driver, the diesel fuel, and the six pack of beer I'd brought and headed to Hermit Thrush to put up its smoke stack. I dropped the latter items off in the snow patch below the outhouse and picking up the outhouse ladder on the way. I again lost one of the two screws that hold the strap around the stack to the cabin, so went back for more, picking up a funnel there with which I put a coffee can and a half of fuel into the fuel tank. I'd opened the valves and was pleased to see a film of diesel in the bottom of the stove for later!

After that I raked from the start of the boardwalk downriver and around the lodge before heading out on a COASST walk. I was amazed at how long the sun was staying in the sky--we must get longer light in the spring! It was so hot in the sun that I sought shade a couple of times. The river was low and so was the tide, so I walked far beyond the boat before hitting any water. We headed downriver first as usual, finding that there were actually two robins--a male and a female--working the meadow. Upriver we found a similarly low river, noting a line of white seagulls (hundreds certainly) in the distance upriver and the remains of winter avalanches in the chute across the river creating a vertical wall of snow above the water. There was no sign that the bears are up. The grass on the point was only just poking up, no more than an inch. Pine siskins were abundant all along the walk, chattering loudly as they have been all over Juneau this winter and spring. Cailey wasn't very energetic, and neither was I, but I did make the rounds with a broom and swept the boardwalks, porches, stairs, bridge and deck before coming inside for dinner. While my pouch of Indian food warmed up, I started the fire and hooked up the faucet in preparation for trying for water tomorrow. (Last fall I took the faucet home to prevent any freezing damage.) And so here we are! I'm going to get up and stoke the fire, then enjoy this place as I listen to the gulls crying outside. Tomorrow I hope to spend more time on the water with the local flocks.


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I read on the couch until the fire died out and seemed safe enough to leave, around 8:10. I brushed my teeth, packed up my gear, and slung it to Hermit Thrush, the chill a stark contrast to the cozy warmth inside the lodge. It was dusk and I sung to the (likely sleeping) bears as I walked, and it was too dark in the cabin to see when there was oil in the bottom of the stove. Forgetting all about the flashlight on my phone (and having forgotten to bring an actual flashlight or the lantern), I guessed, incorrectly, a couple of times and dropped burning bits in there that didn't help anything. Each time I let the flames die out before opening the valve for more oil. In between working on that, I made the bed with the clean sheets I'd brought over, Cailey waiting patiently all the while, staring up at the bed she apparently longed to climb onto. Eventually I changed into my makeshift fleece pajamas and snuck into bed, only after which Cailey hopped up and curled up next to me, warming my legs with her head. It was cold enough to see our breath, though I was reasonably comfortable. At 9:30 I reluctantly got up to extinguish the fire for the night, unable to tell if the cabin had really warmed at all. I kept Cailey covered in a blanket until it was light and she never shivered; neither did I, but it wasn't a warm night of sleep either. I woke up a little after 7:00, then managed to doze off again and didn't get up until it was quite light and 8:30. I hastily dressed in the cold and headed for the lodge, surprised to find a brisk northerly coming down the river, the morning cold and unwelcoming. The sun was still some time from hitting the upper porch. I fed Cailey and washed up, but delayed breakfast and tea--neither of which sounded immediately enticing--and instead hiked up to the water barrel, beginning on the new path I started last September. The creek, as I'd noticed yesterday, was roaring--whether because of the weather this winter or just a product of spring I don't know. There would be no problem getting enough water into the barrel this day, but I wanted to set it up so I didn't have more work to do later in the summer when water levels dropped. I set about my usual hoeing, scraping the small rocks out of the hollow where I place the barrel, creating a makeshift dam with them between the hollow and the rightmost creek channel. I scraped and scraped, gathering rocks and a few pieces of waterlogged wood for the dam, and drug the olive barrel in place. The hose was several inches below the rushing water and I probably added a few inches by making the dam once it was in place and by shifting the excavated rocks on the far right side to reroute that channel from going straight over the falls to passing by the barrel first. I've never used wood very much in the dam, but I think the three pieces I found will be a good addition. Since the volume of water was so high, the dam worked without filling in the cracks with finer material like I usually do; perhaps I'll have to go back and do that later.


Thinking about the trouble I'd had with getting water to run through the system in the past, I'd shut off the top valve before I put the barrel in, thinking that perhaps filling the 30' of hose at the top first would help it flow. When everything was in place, I grabbed the hose where it dipped over the creek, shook it a few times, and could feel water rushing through it. When I turned the valve on, I could hear water rushing down. Success. On the way down I scoped out a good possible path for the remainder of the trail, then closed the valves to Hermit Thrush and Harbor Seal. I'd already turned off the two junction valves, but wanted these closed when I opened it again. I regretted my dallying when I got to the lodge, though, and realized that I'd forgotten to shut the valve at the filters; water was shooting through not only the open valve for the hose above (intentional), but the head of the first filter in line. I quickly shut if off, grabbed the lodge filters (replacing the 10 micron filter insert with one from another cabin that was cleaner) and soon had wonderful, cold, clean water flowing from the sink. It was delicious! Still not ready to stop, I carried filters over to Hermit Thrush and hooked up the water there. Perhaps it'll be an earlier night there to heat up the cabin, and brush my teeth! After that I boiled water for oatmeal (with a little peanut butter) and a PERFECT cup of jasmine tea which I sipped on the steps to the lower deck (in the sun) while enjoying the close company of a couple of chickadees in the bushes. It was 10:30 by that time and I relaxed just a little bit before heading out on the morning's adventure across the river. Cailey and I kayaked out, everything I needed tucked into my backpack. We headed upriver and never saw any sandbars, going ashore toward the bottom of the grassy bank since crossing it would be relatively quick and easy with no live grass. I anchored the boat and we headed upriver, some fresh grass just beginning to poke up through the mass of dead stalks. Close to the start of the trail was a shallow pond that I had to skirt. A foot or two of snow remained all along the inside of the alders; there were no discernable tracks and large open areas were covered with varying degrees of sand on top of the snow.


While I explored, I heard tantalizing bird songs from downriver; I thought I might seek them out on the way out, but didn't hear them again. Something like golden-crowned sparrows, but...different. I didn't hear them again, but did have a curious jay watch us pass and saw a robin foraging among the alders near the meadow. On the river, I trained my binoculars on one of the most spectacular birds I've ever seen--a female Barrow's goldeneye! I've seen countless in the past, but this bird was in the sunshine and absolutely stunning, golden eye gleaming, body shining. Her mate was nearly as spectacular, purple head gleaming. I approached them slowly and obliquely to try to capture a few pictures on the way out, then left them alone. Other groups of goldeneyes and a pair of buffleheads were also on the river. I puttered slowly downriver, stopped close by the bottom of the avalanche that sheered off in a vertical snow wall maybe 15 feet high above the water. It was a bit unnerving to be so close; if it broke and slid off, I could be in a bit of trouble! So we moved on, Cailey a figurehead on the bow. The wind had mostly calmed and the river was a spring green, though not quite transparent this far upriver. I was hoping to get in among the masses of birds I'd seen toward the edge of the inlet yesterday, but saw only groups of goldeneyes as we cruised and one huge flock (50?) of mallards. They were so skittish that they flew away long before we got anywhere close if we were under speed. They let us get closer if we were idling, but we didn't cover very much ground that way. Where were all the birds! I did eventually get up to speed, resolving to follow the coast into Gilbert Bay and the putter across the entrance where I could still see dozens and dozens of birds sitting on the water. A pair of shy sea lions distracted me, but soon disappeared. I turned across the mouth of the inlet and encountered the first of many pairs of murrelets, but not in the numbers I'd seen earlier. They were always, always in the distance! So skittish, or something. Coming in around River Point yesterday I'd passed green-winged teal and other colorful birds in large numbers, but now I couldn't find any. Finally I scanned ahead and saw a group of seven horned grebes and behind them flew what may have been a flock of loons. More small birds with white wing patches flew by which may also have been grebes. I could clearly identify the ones on the water with their bold yellow facial feathers from a distance, but they all flew away into Gilbert Bay and beyond into the port long before I was close enough for good looks. I crossed the inlet and saw another sea lion, but my birding hopes went unfulfilled (though it was very cool to see a flock of grebes, which I'd only seen in ones and twos before). After we anchored, I moved everything off the back bench area and wiped it clean, rinsing off the salt with my fresh water supply, with the idea that I might paint later.


Although it was after 1:00 already, I decided to do a little raking, clearing all but the trail from the outhouse to Hermit Thrush and down to where the water line crosses the trail above Harbor Seal. Then I grabbed a snow-chilled beer and had a quesadilla on the porch while watching a red sea runner (or similar) boat cross the river right in front of me, stopping periodically along the way. Perhaps he was scoping out spots for crab pots, but he didn't leave any behind. It was a little odd. I hope he saw my no hunting sign. I stayed on the porch for a little while past lunch, watching the tide slowly fall. A ruby-crowned kinglet bopped amiably back and forth in the shrubs and lower spruce branches, hawking and feasting. I observed how he often gave a "chitIT" or just a single chit when he landed after hunting, and several times heard the clack of his bill in midair. Once, I heard a scuffle and saw a ruby-crowned kingly displaying his pink-red crown at what looked like a golden-crowned kinglet! It seems like a territorial display, but cross species? I don't know that it was a kinglet, but it was the right size and had eye stripes. At least one of the robins spent the day feeding in the grasses and a pair of yellowlegs worked the edge of the water, never flying into alarm at us (mercifully), even when we approached by kayak relatively close. Crows came in and out, golden-crowned kinglets occasionally sang (as did the ruby-crowned once) and I heard another song upriver briefly, maybe a savanna sparrow. I think I heard a song sparrow across the river too.


Around 3:30 I thought the tide was probably low enough for me to wade to the boat. I'd already taken off my socks (and sweater) in the heat, so headed barefoot to the boat with paper towels, paint brushes, and sandpaper. Walking over the shoreline was pleasant, but the water was icy cold and I could feel my feet numbing before I made it to the boat. Inside I put a coat of pale gray paint under both seats and on the back benches that I hadn't treated yet. By the time I finished less than an hour later, the boat was aground and I finished the back bench with the boat at an angle. The sun was hot and had quickly warmed me back up as I worked in a tank top. I have enjoyed the lack of biting insects, though two mosquitoes did land on me feebly. I saw another species of butterfly--this one brown and orange--and Cailey killed a bumblebee. I'm not sure what the instinct is, but she is hugely motivated to snap at bees and, I think, large flies, and only mildly so with other insects. When we got back, I fed Cailey dinner, ate an apple, and made nectar for the hummingbirds. They aren't around yet, but they will be soon and, I'm sure, will be grateful for it so early in the year. The blueberry bushes have flowers on them, but I'm not sure if they're open yet. I cleaned the brush in a bit of paint thinner and read for a little bit outside while the sun went behind the mountain and the air grew quickly chilled. I lit a fire and had a small glass of wine outside, enjoying the warmth when I came in, chilled enough to camp out by the stove to type this. Now it's 6:20 and my stomach is interested in dinner. It's been a good and productive day! I think the spring chores are done. Tomorrow I need to take a look at the sink plumbing to see what I need for the grease trap that should arrive this week and maybe see what a jack would do about the fallen outhouse. Finish raking, maybe work on the trail up to the olive barrel.


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I read for a little bit after a dinner of instant brown rice and beans with a little cheese on top and some chipotle sauce, then retired to the cabin early when it was still light, though dim inside. I don't remember it being that dim during the summer, so I'm thinking it's still just early in the season. This time I was prepared with a flashlight, so it was easier to monitor the oil stove and it started without a hitch. I was also ready with tea and put a cut of water on to heat. After I finished ablutions in the cold, fresh water coming from my lovely little sink, I tucked into bed with Cailey and started writing a letter while the stove slowly took the chill off the cabin. After more than 45 minutes, the water still hadn't boiled, so I made tea anyway, finding that it must have been just short of boiling and made a steamy mug that warmed my hands while I read. The cabin was noticeably warmer than it had been when I shut it down for the night after perhaps two hours of running, and I was a bit warmer than I had been the night before, so much so that I even removed my wool socks in the middle of the night! It got colder after that, though, and the hat went back on. Probably because of the hard work the day before and the cold, fitful sleep, I had a hard time finding the motivation to get up and stayed in bed until around 9:00. Then, after cleaning the cabin, I went downhill instead of to the lodge, to Cailey's chagrin, and raked my way from where I'd stopped the day before back up to Hermit Thrush and then to the outhouse. At last Cailey had breakfast and I did too after taking some measurements of the gray water system for the future grease trap. A light mist was falling and the inlet was still and fogged in. It was eerily similar to a calm fall day--but snowier through the mist. Was there a feeling of hope and expectation rather than the feeling of closing in that I love about the fall? It was heartening that I was glad it *wasn't* fall, which is a good sign that I am ready for summer. A yellowlegs flying from upriver landed next to one on the beach and there was some squawking and hopping and the newcomer flew a little ways down the beach. I wondered if that was a bit of courtship until another yellowlegs flew in and joined the first one. Two had become three, so perhaps this isn't a regular pair after all, or maybe this was a hopeful interloper. My pair of robins became three, then four, then five, and finally (as I was packing gear to the river later) six. The kinglet and chickadees continued to bop in the bushes and three green-winged teal (two males and a female) stopped by before I startled them away when I came outside.


It was cold and I wrapped myself in a quilt on the porch while I ate oatmeal and a cup of Russian tea. Cailey paced a bit, then accepted my invitation to join me, shivering under the quilt for some time before warming up. I read for a few minutes, but the morning was waning and I was getting more and more chilled, so I left Cailey there and went inside to start a fire and heat up water for the dishes. When it was hot, though, I decided to run a few more errands while the lodge continued to get warm, after which I planned to bring Cailey inside and get us both warmed up for the boat ride back. I hustled about the property setting up motion sensor cameras--including one from town that I put on a branch of the fallen tree top facing the bridge--and placed the remaining beers in the freshet. On the two upriver cameras I put some raw, wonderfully smelly sheep wool in front, either for nesting birds or for animals to sniff at curiously. Back inside, Cailey enjoyed a fresh hoof I found and I washed the dishes, swept, and otherwise finished packing before having a quesadilla and then huddling by the fire for a while. While there I heard birds alarming and looked up to see a male northern harrier hawk fly past the window--the first I've seen there, I think. I could also finally see that the calm inlet was full of birds, including some grebes that were just close enough to identify in the spotting scope. It was after noon when I started thinking about another cup of tea before realizing that I really needed to get going. The tide was at 12:30 and I wanted to be underway around 1:00 before the falling tide made departure awkward. I was out of energy for more chores and really didn't want to fight the tide, so I finished getting ready to go, got the boat, swapped out two jugs of gas for the ones that overwintered, and off we went just five minutes after 1:00. The inlet was calm, but a little chop began to develop, though it didn't slow us down very much until we got into Stephen's Passage. We passed many pairs of murrelets, a few herring gulls (I think) and a black-headed loon (near Seal Rocks) along with other gulls, but the others were too far away to distinguish. The rolling sea carried us into Gastineau Channel where rain started in earnest. We pulled into the usual spot at Aurora Harbor and had just arrived at the top of the ramp with our small load of gear when Ezra pulled in to pick us up. I'd never really warmed up from overnight and my hands burned like fire in the shower, my fingers remaining numb for some time afterwards.



Early spring at Snettisham