Taku 2020 - 4: Small Craft Advisory, Seas to One Foot
  October 16 - 18


Fresh snow over Taku Inlet

Photo Album


Our 185 arced above the wetlands at 10:30 toward the snow-capped mountains of Taku Inlet. I noted the seas sweeping down Stephen's Passage from behind Douglas and soon also those sweeping down Taku Inlet, relieved to find that the ride was not rough at all. I sure didn't want to be on the water down there! Both dogs were in the back with Mom and took the ride surprisingly in stride, though both required some assistance to climb in. The river was low as we flew over, the 20 some foot tide had yet to reach it, so I had a superb view of the channels and the endless flats and sandbars and saw finally the course through the channels I've been learning to follow. I took copious pictures for study and felt somewhat vindicated that I hadn't found the channel past the meadow--there really wasn't one. Ed flew over the meadow behind the cabin and descended on the river, touching down effortlessly just as the water deepened downstream of the marsh. He turned around in front of the slough and dropped us off on the riverbank there. A shelf of sand just off the bank made offloading a little awkward. I hopped out to hold the plane against the current and my mom grabbed the gear from in the water. Although our gear kept catching on the stairs as it was passed down, we managed to start our trek with dry feet.

The view was stunning. Split Thumb above Taku Glacier was awash in brilliant white snow and the lower mountains around us were dusted. There were patches of blue sky through which the sun occasionally shone its fall light on the landscape and highlighted the white. Instead of fighting our way through the young spruces along the river, we skirted the trees at the edge of the meadow, exploring a few openings that might make good trail camera locations. There were no real obstacles--the only slough we crossed, which was close to the property line, was fairly low--and we soon found ourselves gazing on one of the no hunting signs. At the cabin we bustled about unpacking and lighting a fire and discovered that we were hungry. It had taken us a little over an hour to make the walk, which involved a slow pace (both of us were wearing packs) and wandering, so it was then 12:20. Sadly, despite a lot of very careful packing, I managed to leave the tortillas behind somewhere, so I made grilled cheese sandwiches using the large rolls I'd brought for dinner (which turned out amazing) and had ice cold beers that had been sitting on the porch.


By then the wind had picked up and was roaring around the cabin and the sky had turned mostly cloudy. We bundled up and headed upriver on the trail, then turned in to skirt the property line and pick up more camera cards. All the way we were admiring the gorgeous view of brown meadows, blue mountains, white snow. Aster seeds blew around us as we walked through them, red strawberry leaves brightened the ground, and all the while the wind roared through the trees.


Back at the cabin we had some red wine and watched camera videos before a meal of madras lentils and couscous. Now I'm cozied up on the couch, having decided not to expend the heat to open the hatch upstairs and afraid that I'd be very chilly without doing so. I don't think there are any stars out there, but it may still freeze. Either way, it is cold cold cold, and very windy. What a gorgeous place this is, though, and I am so delighted to be here and be able to explore. Tomorrow we go canoeing.


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We were both ready for bed early, I having spent the previous night on the floor to watch for porcupines in my new feeder. I was sinking into comfort on the couch at 9:15 and probably drifted into a sweet sleep around 10:00, Cailey curled up next to me. It lasted until around 11:00 when I awoke hot and claustrophobic, caught between the back of the couch and Cailey stretched out on the other side of me. I don't think I slept much after that until around 4:30, though I must have dozed here and there. The wind was roaring and bangs around the cabin were frequent, jarring me awake just as I would doze off. I'd already shut the bathroom shutters to prevent them from banging, but they'd blown loose and continued. I got up around 11:30 to secure one of the front window shutters which had just started banging, catching a glimpse of a spectacular night sky including what I presumed to be Mars by its brightness and reddish color. Cailey wound up at the bottom of the bed, but the extra length of the comforter doubled up in the bottom took up too much space and she wound up vying for space with my feet. In addition to the random bangs, a steady sound was emanating from the bedroom downstairs which I took to be the snores of a soundly sleeping human or, possibly, dog. I couldn't believe my mom was sleeping so well with all the banging going on! I even shut the door to her bedroom at one point. At some point when I was on the back porch I realized the sound was coming from outside, somewhere near the corner, but what could be causing it I didn't know (though by then I'd figured it probably wasn't from my mother as it was altogether too regular). I was so tired by 4:30 that I lost by cool, shed a few tears, kicked Cailey (from inside the comforter) and then took everything upstairs. With a wool blanket on top, I was warm enough, as was Cailey under her own blanket as well as her top half covered by mine. We slept until around 8:00.


The wind continued to howl as we lit a fire and had breakfast. It scurried around the water in flurries on our side of the river and the far side of the river was obscured by a wall of blowing sand, perhaps 30 feet high. It looked to be hundreds of feet high in front of the glacier. I was surprised to see a few songbirds pass by, and one perched long enough for me to see a yellow-green body and white wing bars: white-winged crossbill! Around 10:00 we took off for an abbreviated hike from what we'd originally intended. All the sloughs had a skim of ice on them and the ground was frozen, making for easy walking. We were back in an hour. It was pleasant enough in the woods, but enough to knock us off balance in exposed areas. As we left Pretty Meadow, the sun emerged from behind the mountain and we both warmed up more than we had all morning.


Back at the cabin, I made grilled cheese sandwiches again while mom cut the offending branches that had caused the rhythmic snoring sounds of the night before by rubbing on the cabin and brought up the canoe trolley she'd bought after hauling the canoe solo across the meadow one fall. Seeing the wind raging down the river discouraged our original intent to bring the canoe back to the cabin for the winter, so we thought we'd give this a try. After lunch I got the camera I'd fetched in order and then helped put the trolley together. The instructions had only pictures which were extremely unclear about one particular element. It took us some time to figure it out while my frustration mounted, but eventually we had it together. Around 12:30 we headed out for canoe adventure, unsure what we'd find out there. When we exited the woods, I remembered that there was only one paddle in the canoe, so my mom returned to bring another while I went to set a camera. When we met back up, we headed to the canoe and the slough, which was in a wholly unfamiliar state. There were sheets of ice flowing upstream and waves coming downstream and the wind was howling. It was only about an hour before high tide, but we still had to drop the canoe down a foot of vertical bank after dragging it to the slough. It took Mom a while to coax Jenny into the boat, where she wound up in the bow with my mom, and then it was chaos. Our paddles hit ice with every dip, the wind was so strong it wanted to push us back, against the current, and sweep us broadside. It was so loud it was difficult to be heard above the roar as we fought our way upstream. There's an island mid-stream where the landing is, and we had to double back on the other side to reach the beaver lodge where I had a camera which was also a challenge, especially as there was a large stash of beaver cuttings mid-stream. It didn't seem to matter which way we were going, it was a hard paddle. It didn't help that the beavers had made a good cache right in the middle of the channel, so the current was rushing to either side. With quite a bit of effort, and more than a few awkward maneuvers including multiple encounters with the bank, we reached the side slough and paddled up to the new dam. It was too narrow to turn around there, so we back paddled and my mom stayed aboard with Jenny while I went to reset the lodge camera. It took a long time as I moved it down the pole, taking a video each time, zip tying and finding the position wrong, cutting the zip ties, and trying again. I went through three zip ties before I was satisfied, frustrated and my fingers frozen,  A reddish hawk flew by, perhaps a juvenile harrier.


Finally I was satisfied and we picked up Cailey from the other side of the slough and fought our way upstream again. The wind was coming, oddly, off the mountain, so the best place was right against the right shore, but we had to constantly work to keep the wind fro turning us and sweeping us across the slough. At least we escaped the ice pretty quickly. Mom had brought me rubber work gloves that I thought would be better for paddling, rather than my warm gloves, but I was so cold from working on the camera that I put my warm gloves on over the top of them. We saw a few clusters of ducks, including a male that may have been a mallard, and several mergansers. We finally reached Big Bend and....did not get very far. There were 6" seas and white caps and we were in the teeth of the wind. It was not worth the battle. Instead, we headed to shore and left the canoe, trekking overland to the sphagnum meadow that we'd encountered like an ice skating rink a few winters ago. 


On the way back we stopped by the cottonwood copse and then had a relatively pleasant canoe ride back. Although it was about two hours past high tide, the slough was much higher than it had been on our way up, but it was surely falling, which may partly explain the relative calm of the water. Because of the lack of vegetation, we spotted a metal post on the mountain side of the slough that we'd never seen before: a boundary marker, not far upstream of my no hunting sign on the other side. With wind and tide with us, the trip back took hardly any time at all. We drug the canoe up the bank and beyond the willows and then set it on the trolley for its trip across the meadow. With both of us pulling, it worked pretty well, even with the dense grass and shrubs. We paused briefly about five times before winning the cluster of spruces where it overwintered several years ago. By then the sun was very nearly setting and it cast golden fall light across portions of the landscape. We were all four of us extremely happy to be heading home! We were back some time after five, totally exhausted. We had some potatoes that were grown here this summer and chili for dinner, then tiny bottles of prosecco.


Before heading to an early bed, we ventured outside, me wrapped in a wool blanket, and gazed up at the marvelous sky. It was a spectacular Alaska sky--the Milky Way clearly stretching across the horizon, the Big Dipper blazing to the north, the cabin with the fire visible inside outlined against the sky with spruces behind it. Now I'm lying on the couch again downstairs after setting up one of the chairs as a bed for Cailey to give me more room (my mother's brilliant idea). It seems to be working beautifully and I am very warm. The wind had died down a little on the river since the morning and there were no longer clouds of dust/water, though the wind still roars through the trees. So far, no banging and definitely no more moaning from the branches! We both hope to sleep very well tonight.


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Which we did. The morning sky was hazy with high overcast and, for a time, I thought the wind had died down. There was no roaring sound and the dust from the sandbars no longer swept down the river, though the branches around the cabin still quivered. I lit a fire, put on water, freshened up, and put the couch back together, feeling very cozy and wishing more than a little that we could stay longer. We drank mimosas, toasting to my father's birthday (he would have been 93 that day), and I made perhaps my best batch of pancakes ever using a mix that had been left, powdered milk, and baking soda, each pancake turning a beautiful golden brown. Eventually I had a cup of Russian tea, gazing out on the river.


We weren't moving very fast and by the time my mother had done the dishes while I packed and worked on cameras, it was close to 11:00. We decided to forgo locks this fall in favor of a long walk. For myself, I didn't relish the idea of leaving the door open for extended periods while installing them, not to mention not being sure I could stave off frustrated rage, already stressed about leaving that day. Instead we walked upriver, finding the sandbars covered in frost and ice and the wind picking up and blowing sand across the river again. With the white on the river, the cold, and the overcast sky, it looked like it had turned to winter overnight.


On our way north, a big gust of wind buffeted us and I feared we'd be in for a cold walk and an uncomfortable plane ride, but it was the last one we felt. We wandered toward the slough and then upriver, enjoying the ease of walking on frozen ground and thinning vegetation. We found the boundary slough dammed some distance from the main slough and followed its wide arc to the other side. Although the slough was only about five feet wide there, the dam curved back on itself past the bank on either side, flooding a cluster of willows. There appeared to be an overflow in the middle of the dam (now frozen) which could have been a beaver slide as well. It would make sense if the beavers are harvesting upstream from the dam but need to return the branches to the main slough, but it's hard to picture. The dam was about four feet high and quite narrow and I thought it would be a lot more treacherous if not mostly frozen on top. From there we wandered upriver exploring erratics and discovering illegal 4-wheeler tracks in the meadow leading to the hill at Big Bend. A northern harrier hawk flew past and out of sight upriver. It was very pleasant walking, and fast walking given the conditions, but we too soon had to turn around. We made our way back to the dam and then home.


Back at the cabin we ate ramen and peas for lunch and went about close up chores, heading for the plane at 2:40. The water was drained, with full drinking water jugs inside--one in the bathroom and two in the sink--and the wash water jug outside. We skirted the forest again, noting what looked like good habitat to explore in the sloughs that wound into the timber. We flushed a snipe near one of them. It was a fine afternoon for a walk over the frozen ground and the wind was so calm I began to even overheat in my layers under my pack. We arrived at 3:20 just as the 185 landed. He came in on a flooded portion of the meadow and hastened us on. The dogs were a lot more cooperative this time and he helped haul Jenny in. My mom got water over her boots, but I managed to stay dry and, just at 3:30, we were off the water. We hopped over the mountains at Norris and caught a glimpse of the ice field upriver, dusted in snow (Devil's Paw was solid white) and glowing in patches of sunshine. On the way down Perseverance Valley we saw goats on the side of the mountain, and more above our houses. The first snow reached the ground in Juneau a few days later: it was finally fall, and already winter!


A raging north wind kicks up silt off the sandbars