Taku 2020 - 1: Hordes
June 8-10

Cottongrass sandbars in the river

Photo Album

I've only been here for about three hours, but I may as well cross this off the list before I completely crash. I'd intended to come up yesterday, but a brisk southeasterly kept me home, which meant that I could work most of a day today before my intended 2:15 departure. It makes for an awfully odd and long day to work before an expedition! I shut down at 1:45, fed the ravens, picked up a drill from my mother, and headed to the harbor with Ezra. With one load of gear and the boat already fueled, it was a short process and I was, amazingly, underway at 2:13, passing a couple of harbor porpoise in the channel. It rained most of the way and we had smooth 1-2 foot seas to contend with, but so mild that I couldn't even see them on the rippled water through the wet windshield. I had the rain catcher on board, which made things a bit awkward, but it wound up sitting pretty well by itself on my backpack on the passenger's seat. The river was choppy but seemed to have a lot of water running despite the low flows I've been seeing online. We opted to try to make it up in the "new" passage off of the grassy meadow, which I was confident about for a while until I saw an unavoidable ripple in the water and touched bottom briefly. We then headed to shore and finished as usual. On either side of the usual landing were exposed vertical shelves of sand where trees perhaps went in over winter and nowhere was there evidence of the clay shelf typically at the bottom on which we might land. Faced with nothing but a vertical wall there, I opted for the first landing father up, which used to have a nice wide side and clay shelf covered in cuttings to protect it. Instead there were two logs tied to shore and a vertical shelf of sand hidden by the cuttings I'd dropped over more recently. With no better option, we pulled in between the two logs and very awkwardly unloaded. Cailey had to jump directly from the bow onto the nearly vertical loose branches and scrabble up from there. I had to move all the gear to the bow, then stand on the tiny shelf of mud at the bottom of the bank or on the log and push it onto the top of the loose pile. When that was done I tied one end of a line from the boat to a branch and the other end to the stern and headed out to anchor, pulling myself to shore with the line to disembark. It seems to be sitting in a decent position. The water just offshore is very deep, so I don't worry about going aground. Alarmingly deep, where that shelf has been for years. I fear for that whole bank.

To my relief, I found the cabin and shed in perfect condition. After carrying all the gear up in two loads, I opened the shutters, the door, and the propane and brought everything inside. Not needing the fridge, I closed the propane line for that, then got the stove going after waiting a good long while. My mother had wisely sent her cordless drill with me to open the shed (screwed shut after it was broken into last summer). When I began to unscrew the door, I heard the most alarming yowling and growling from inside! It was so loud and scary sounding that I almost feared it was a wolverine! When I finally got the door carefully open (having put Cailey inside) I was greeting with fierce vocalizations and TWO adult marten! I've never had that greeting before--I wonder what is going on? They kept at it for a long time, but eventually I was able to go inside without the yelling.

Before settling it too much, I took a gander at getting the water pump going. The fuel tank was empty, so I put some gas in and primed the pump. The engine started, to my delight, but soon died and I couldn't get it started again. By then I was well and truly hungry, so I heated up some vegetable curry in a pouch while I filled the small water jugs from overwintered olive barrel water and restacked the firewood that had fallen down over the winter. After dinner I found the manual for the water pump and learned more about how to start it with the choke and the throttle. I also saw that it has a bottom cap for the priming tank and inserted the one I found in the cabin, as my mom had said. Perhaps the reason it died. I filled the tank, got it running, and used the overflow line to rinse out the olive barrel and clean the top of the catchment, setting that up while the tank filled. At least it started to fill. It was taking so long I went up to the deck to check and heard it trickling it, and the hose connection was spitting, so I figured it was going. However, when I went back a second time I could no longer hear water going in and it occurred to me that the manual said never to run it dry. I ran down and turned it off, finding the primer tank empty. Strange. I'll work on the plugs later to see if I can get them sealing better. The bottom plug didn't go in very well and was leaking a little, but I didn't think it would matter with so much water flowing through.


I watched an episode of The Deuce, then headed to the hammock for the night, reading with my new rechargeable headlamp before sleep. Though the hammock often aggravates my sciatica, I slept well and woke up around 7:30 with Cailey's antsiness. Before breakfast I checked on the boat, running my little mower down there to make a more dew-proof tail, and verified that it was still sitting nicely at anchor. Though it was two hours to low tide, there was no more bank present than there had been yesterday. I estimated the water was about two feet deep on the other side of the log against the beach, beyond which it drops off quickly. Then I tackled the water pump again, trying to clean off the threads of the plug fitting so it might seat better, adding some grease to the plug (which it seemed to have already) and using a wrench to add a little more torque. I filled it back up with water and started the engine, but water was leaking out the plug and none was pumping through. I closed it up, satisfied that at least it still ran and that I'd made an effort to troubleshoot. I kept hearing an unusual bird some from the alders nearby, maybe a warbling vireo, so I decided to seek him out. Working my way through the alders was mildly awkward, but a far cry from the tangle it will be when the devil's club are mature and the other plants have come up to obscure the ground. I worked my way well into the thicket of alders and around a few clusters of spruces, but the bird eventually stopped singing, as did the other unusual song I'd picked up on the way. I headed back and had oatmeal for breakfast, then Cailey and I headed to the canoe to launch it at around 9:00. Pulling it to the shore was easy, and gravity did the rest, and soon we were on the river. I've been intrigued for the last several years about the sandbars in the middle just out from us that have been growing a permanent layer of grass. I decided to check it out on the way to the slough. Getting there took a little longer and a little  more work than expected--it just didn't feel like I was getting any closer, and I was having to compensate for the current. On the way, a pair of geese flew downriver and landed on a sandbar farther away and, as I got closer, I saw that a pair of geese were on the sandbar I was approaching. I pondered for a minute whether they might be nesting there--they've certainly been favoring those grassy bars the last few years. They would be protected, but also prone to flooding and limited food. The pair flew to a sandbar farther away where one of them proceeded to honk until I left. I also flushed a pair of mallards. If they persist, it looks like they'll be good places for water birds. I found more vegetation than I expected--one or two types of sedge and a species of cotton grass with small fluffy heads [narrow-leaved cottongrass, which was possibly the only species in retrospect]. There are several sandbars covered in vegetation out there. I opted not to go ashore both because it was a bit muddy and just in case anyone was thinking of nesting.

It was deep next to the sandbar, but on the way out we passed through shallows and had to detour below a long sandbar too shallow to cross. A large bird in flight caught my eye--a swan! She flew downriver and out of sight. I wonder where she is off to? It then dawned on me that my albino eagle or heron at Snettisham was probably a swan in normal plumage! That had simply not occurred to me. Eventually we cruised our way into the smooth brown water of the slough and were greeted by the energetic songs of savanna sparrows and several types of warblers, among others, as well as a rather macabre scene. The water was covered in drowning or drowned flies, a medium sized, slender species with red hints, a non-biting variety I thought. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of them, singly, in pairs, or in writhing groups, all floating on the water, every few inches of it. This continued, interspersed with a few bare patches, the entire trip. I rescued a few dozen of them as well as a couple of moths. I couldn't figure out how so many had been washed away. Were they all on the ground somewhere and abruptly got flooded? Mass suicide? It was baffling, as was the sheer number of individuals.

As we turned to follow the mountain at a distance, the bird song resolved into primarily common yellowthroats and yellow warblers. A common merganser female was diving for prey, a female goldeneye was floating near her, and a pair of green-winged teal flushed from the sedge. We passed the canoe landing and paddled around Yellowthroat Island (inhabited at that moment only by a Lincoln's sparrow), then back to put the canoe away. The cacophony of birds was encouraging, but they were typically allusive. I did find it very very quiet there--is it possible I've so come to expect airplane traffic that I notice the quiet without them? What a treat that I wish I could share.

After securing the canoe I looked for the no hunting sign that should have been nearby; I didn't find the sign, but what I did find were the relatives of the flies on the water (or so I assume). I have never seen such a horde of insects, such a dense mass of bugs, swarming together over the willow stands. Though they made no attempt to land or bite, just walking at a normal pace through them had them hitting me in the face, and everywhere. Wherever I went along the shore was this endless swarming mass of bugs. If they had bitten me, I surely would have died! As it was, I got claustrophobic among them! After stashing the paddle, I headed into the meadow and was surprised to find that they followed me away from the bushes. At one point I ran to escape them! When I stopped in the middle of the meadow, they were still there, and I waved the seat pad I was carrying, hearing it thwack multiples of them on each stroke. Eventually they diminished and we crossed the rest of the meadow.

By then it was after noon, so I had a quesadilla inside away from the mosquitoes. They weren't swarming as densely as the flies were, but they might be one of the worst, or the worst, batch of mosquitoes I've encountered. But I got chilled and soon found myself outside with a mosquito coil burning in my lap to seek out the sunshine on the edge of the porch. I wasn't ready for a long break yet, though, and headed upriver with a pair of clippers. It was the start of gratifying afternoon, finally seeing the long-term effects of my rampant and (seemingly) neverending clipping of the last several years. The new path through the woods, of course, was in good shape, but I was very surprised to find the trail leading to Debbie's Meadow to be nearly as tidy. Did I even clip it last year? I trimmed a few reaching branches, but otherwise found it in good shape. Debbie's Meadow badly needs weeding for spruces and an alder, but otherwise looked good. Although I didn't have this goal in mind, I wound up trimming back the spruce branches in Spruce Alley, so pleased at the wonderful result of a spacious corridor. I was worn out by the time I reached the blueberries in the path, but so happy that I'd found the space to trim back those lower-priority branches. I tried to restrain myself from much more, but couldn't resist clipping the odd spruce here or the overreaching willow there until I was back in the woods. Poor Cailey found these endless pauses a burden, as the bugs swarmed her as much as they did me, my deet already failing. Most of the way down the trail I abandoned the clippers and plunged into the woods in search of that same elusive vireo-type song, which I was sure emanated from a nearby cottonwood. It was impossible to go quietly through the dense underbrush there, the ground covered in dry leaves and twigs even if I wasn't scrabbling over and under alders and devil's clubs and spruces, but this bird stayed in place. However, the foliage and bushes were so dense that I never laid eyes on him, though I must have been close. I circled the cottonwood, dove out into the surrounding alders, but no luck. Eventually the bird headed across the alder toward another cottonwood and I followed, with similar results, until he quieted. Noting some chainsaw-cut alders that probably indicated the old trail (otherwise hidden), I plunged through the thicket and back to the current trail.

Soon I was back in the meadow and onto Forest Service land, noting the young spruces and clumps of alder in our nagoonberry meadow that need clipping. As I crossed our property line, I heard two birds countersinging, a slightly buzzy song I was unfamiliar with. To my surprise, I found the second singer at the very top of a spruce tree off the road and watched him sing from a distance. My guess from the song would have been a type of flycatcher I was unfamiliar with, but instead I found what looked decidedly like a thrush. I verified that he was the singer. Unfortunately, all I could make out was what appeared to be a spotted, or possibly lightly streaked breast, pale belly, gray back. But, in form, he struck me as a thrush rather than a flycatcher or anything else. When I glanced while trying to get closer, he disappeared. The only thrush I could think of that is supposed to live here but that I didn't know is a gray-cheeked thrush, a creature I've very much like to encounter, and the song was quite close. I think I may have seen my first gray-cheeked thrush. Unfortunately, though I wandered in that direction, I did not hear either of them again. What I did find was a large area of open berry meadow and scattered spruces, quite a lovely place to walk (especially with the vegetation so low) and what may be a hidden berry field to explore later this summer. Although vegetation is up everywhere, it is still young in many areas, some poking just a few inches above the accumulations of loose dirt from winter activity. It is obvious where snow has lingered longest, and I even found a small patch on the trail.

On the way back, I walked down to the slough at the bottom of the grassy marsh, then propped up our signs at the property line as well as I could. I tried to resist clipping too much on the way back, so very pleased to find the trail already in such good order. When I got back, I was quite eaten up and Cailey and I both appreciated being protected inside, but before I took a break I carefully dug up the little cottonwood I had my eyes on in the front meadow that I hoped to transplant to Snettisham to join Nigel Cottonwood. In its place I planted a potato with an extra scoop of sand from the riverbank. I also cleared a small area in my mom's old planter box and planted a second potato, watering them all with water from the tank. Then I read for a bit (partly with mosquito coils on the swing) and had a cup of tea, then headed out again to sweep the meadow here for young spruces. Rather than meandering aimlessly, I made a more careful patrol using informal vectors, so hopefully found a larger percentage. From the area just downriver of the cabin I pulled 28 small tress; from the downriver side of the front meadow, over 50. Then I started pulling as many of the young alders coming up as I could, surprised both by how many came up and how few there were relative to recent years. The area down by the pocket view only had perhaps 40 little ones to pull up, where a few years ago I could have pulled 40 without moving my feet. It looks like it isn't repopulating young alders as readily as it had been, which is a relief, but may also mean that it is getting sufficiently shaded that most things won't grow. From there, I walked down to the first landing, pulling up many more spruces and alders, leaving the ones that wouldn't come. The mosquitoes swarmed mercilessly down there and convinced me it was time for a break. I walked back up the path toward the shed and pulled more on the way, then made a sweep for spruces on the upriver side of the cabin and front meadow, pulling another 101 small trees.

At last it was dinner time. I made mac and cheese with an overwintered can of peas, then made a short walk and began clipping the alders I'd left behind. By then, though, I'd rinsed most of the deet off my face and hands and it wasn't long before I was driven back to the cabin. Cailey beat me there and was waiting anxiously on the porch. She runs from deet, but this morning I'd sprayed a paper towel and used that to wipe it on her, which worked pretty well. I'll do the same tomorrow, but more thoroughly. There's a little more clean up clipping to do, but I am overwhelmingly pleased at what little there is to do. I was beginning to think that a thorough sweep of chainsawing alders and plucking spruces would be needed annually to keep the meadow, but I think we may be at a point where mild maintenance will do the trick. How pleasant it is, and will be more so, to walk the open trails here without the anxiety and frustration of seeing the unstoppable encroachment of spruces and alders.

Before I forget them all, let me recount the birds I have seen and heard (more often the latter, whether because I am working or because of the dense foliage in which they reside or the distance from the canoe to the shrubs). At the cabin: ruby-crowned kinglets, robins, Swainson's thrushes, hermit thrushes, varied thrushes, yellow-rumped warblers, Townsend's warblers, orange-crowned warblers, chickadees, unknowns. From the canoe: yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, savanna sparrows, Lincoln's sparrows, sooty grouse. In the meadow: gray-cheeked thrush (?), yellow warblers, mystery bird, Swainson's thrushes, varied thrushes, etc., and I flushed a snipe. [One of the mysteries was an American redstart.]

After dinner I watched another episode of The Deuce and then finished photographing the cabin log for preservation.


When I got up I checked on the boat and then had breakfast followed by a gratuitous cup of tea on the porch. The mosquitoes weren't nearly as bad as yesterday, perhaps their mood dampened by the periodic rain during the night. The morning was pleasantly cool and overcast and I started out by finishing the alder work from yesterday, clipping everything that I wasn't able to pull by hand. This was a satisfying task in most areas, since only a handful of large alders were left, but in other areas like near the landing, it was a bit of work. From there I went along the river through the corridor that I feel I only barely rescued from full overgrowth and that now looks like a proper and pleasant trail, clipping and pulling more as I went, finding of courses spruces that I'd overlooked before.
A very large, ruddy bird popped in and out of the bushes which I thought was probably one of the more reddish fox sparrows and was gratified to hear him sing shortly after. Feeling very content, and quite sweaty, I had a quick break, too a walk, had lunch, and read for a while before heading upriver with gloves and clippers to see if I could work on Debbie's Meadow as well as I was working here. In short order I'd cut over 125 small spruces and hemlocks and cut down the large clump of alders in the middle of it, its impacts already seen in the dearth of vegetation in a large swath around it. It took such a short time that I headed upriver, not intending to cut on the way but doing it anyway, compulsively, whenever a branch reached for me. Poor Cailey isn't fond of that way of walking! Upon reaching the meadow at the end, I walked through it and carefully cut the spruces that were growing up--most a foot or more high. They were fewer in number than in the other meadows, which was a relief, and the meadow looked much better without the 25 or so that I cut. I also buckled down and cut about eight independent stands of alders, which probably had more effect, hauling all the branches into the woods. This was work I'd been wanting to do for a couple of years now. There is one swath of alders that I still want to cut, but I just didn't have it in me. I was pretty worn out by then, but couldn't resist more little trimming on that end of the trail on the way back, which is lighter (so experiences more growth) and more neglected than the rest of the trail. It is, overall, such a nice trail to walk now. I even pulled up a number of small stumps that had rotted enough to come right up out of the ground.

I got back around 3:00 and cleaned the cabin, washing dishes with the absolutely minimum amount of water to conserve what we have. As I write this it's about half an hour until departure. I've written in the log, taken two loads of gear to the landing, screwed the door of Alder shut again, turned off the propane, and closed the windows. It turned sunny again around noon and is absolutely beautiful, and hot, out there! I hope it is a pleasant ride on the water. I look forward to being in town having opened both cabins (even if the internet is still looming over Snettisham) and ready to have some sunny early summer town time. Perhaps a beach? I also very much look forward to showering off all this deet and sweat!


Loading the boat was a bit labor intensive; pulling in the boat was easy, but clambering up and down the bank with each handful of gear was not fun. Once, I had the push mower in one hand and the potted cottowood in the other and lost my footing, literally, landing on the log at the bottom and wrenching my right shoulder, newly pain-free (or had been). But, neither was lost and neither went in the river. With the bugs back in force, I was grateful that I'd fueled the boat when we'd arrived. The narrow clay shelf was visible, the water maybe eight inches lower than when we'd arrived. I decided to try to find the channel offshore the meadow below the slough, counting on the rising tide (an hour away) floating me off if I went aground. I was feeling pretty good about it, watching the current swiftly pass along the shore and wondering if I would be able to see it change as it went over the shoals. Then a breeze coming up the river disturbed all surface impressions. I touched bottom several times as I passed the same cliffs by which I mark the shoals close to shore. A landing craft came up the river and stayed much farther off shore than I was before turning in south of the slough. I kept a slow pace until I reached the cliffs, then picked up speed. Normally I don't worry too much about depth along Taku Point, but I should have taken a cue from the skiff I saw downriver that seemed to be still. I soon passed him, and then promptly went aground at half speed. I backed up and ducked around the sandbar of my imagination, watching the sinuous path followed by an incoming boat and wishing its wake would lead me along it. I sort of tried to do so, running into its wake and steering off to the side of it, but I was cautious, and ultimately did not cruise the Scow Cove shoreline as I think it did. A breeze off the Taku was on our stern, a big one or two foot chop that died a little as we reached deep water. I saw a couple little spouts of water in the distance that looked like whale (porpoise?) blows, but I saw none when I got there. The waters there were squirrely, big patches of flat swirly water flanked by swaths of a little chop. The breeze then seemed to be coming from the valleys, from the northeast. The water got better and better as we passed each point until, like breaking through the clouds, we cruised onto glassy water past Bishop and all the way home under golden evening summer light. We made it home around 8:30 and crashed.

We enter the slough