Category Archives: Alaska Salmon

Grumps

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Aki doesn’t want to be here, neither does the eagle. Both are bothered by the rain. The eagle hunkers down on the roof of the old mine ventilation tower. From there she can scan the beach for food. There is plenty here. Just seconds ago, Aki was sniffing the relatively intact body of a plump chum salmon. In famine times, the eagle would have gorged itself on the salmon’s flesh. The bird must be stuffed with other carrion.

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From its perch fifty or even sixty feet above the beach, the bald eagle could ignore the little dog and me. Neither Aki nor I do anything to disturb it. But when our path takes us too close to the man made aerie, the eagle lifts up and flies over our heads and then follows a line of broken wharf pilings toward the mining ruins. So there.

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Salmon Salt Chuck

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My pant legs are as wet as Aki’s fur. I’ve spent the last half hour pushing through rain soaked meadow grass. Aki followed close behind. When I could, I used a bear path. The bear’s wide body crushed a nice swatch through the meadow grass. The bear and we were heading to the Peterson Salt Chuck—a flooded staircase of rock that homecoming salmon used to climb from salt to fresh water.3

At the edge of the meadow the bear trail lead us over a forested headland, past a river otter den, and down to the salt chuck. Careful not to step on any of the partially eaten salmon littering the ground, I walk toward splashes on one of the salt chuck pools. Several bald eagles, a coven of ravens, and some watchful gulls stirred during our approach. Three or four chum salmon squirm in the pool. They had had to clear several waterfalls to reach the pool. Now they wait to jump the falls feeding the shallow basin where they stage.1

Wanting to photograph one of the salmon in mid-leap, I stand and wait for action. Aki rests on of her rear paws on my soaked boot. She looks behind us, covering my back. When a Stellar’s jay scolds us from a nearby rock, I turn away from the pool. Seconds later, the dorsal fin of one of the salmon cuts the water above the waterfall. I missed it. Resolved to photograph the next attempt, I ignore the efforts of a belted kingfisher to get my attention and the didgeridoo sound of a raven flying just above my head. An eight-pound chum salmon throws himself onto the waterfall, thrashing with his tail, and slumps back into the pool. 2That will have to do little dog, we don’t want to keep the bears from their lunch. Aki and I climb over an exposed headland and drop onto the beach occupied by a landed raft of mergansers and their three-gull escort. Between the ducks and the woods are fresh tracks of a black bear. Aki follows the tracks into the forest and disappears. But when I catch up she isn’t growling, just smelling the scent left behind by the bear.1

Heavy Shower

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We rain forest dwellers have many words to describe rain. There’s snain (mixed rain and snow), drizzle, mist, downpour, monsoon (long periods of washout rain), and showers. According to the weather service, Aki and I are experiencing a shower. I can’t argue. Rain streams from the sky like water from a showerhead. Even though we walk under the big cottonwood trees of the Treadwell ruins, drops hammer my parka and soak Aki’s fur, turning both dark gray.

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As she tends to do when displeased, Aki uses mind control tactics to turn me back to the car. She plants herself and stares at my back as I move further into the woods. Only when I stretch to the emotional breaking point the invisible rubber band that connects us does she start to trot after me. Near the beach, the little dog relaxes and starts to check the pee mail. It provides her with more distractions than I can find on the beach.

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Across Gastineau Channel, a salmon seiner moves toward Taku Inlet. Near the collapsed glory hole two gulls complain about the weather. They don’t even bother with three plump dog salmon that washed up during last night’s flood tide. I can’t even enjoy the drama of heavy raindrops slamming into the channel because the shower has become a drizzle. We return to the forested ruins and amidst its monopoly of summer green and decay-brown a recent wound on an alder tree mimics the golden orange of autumn maple leaves.

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You Would Be Nervous Too

 

4Fifty feet ahead an immature bald eagle rises from the creek, a twelve–inch-long fish dangling from its talon. The fish drops as the bird wings skyward. I know the scene took only seconds but when I play it back in my head, the bird and prey moved in slow motion, like I could have dashed over and caught the fish before it hit the meadow grass.

3Aki clung to my side during the walk. She was spooked by the sound of 10-20 pound king salmon splashing in the creek pond and the off-key symphony performed by ravens and crows in the creek side alders. I was spooked too by the angry sounding splashes and the smell of dead salmon, both of which draw bears.

2It was low tide when we reached the creek delta. Clutches of six or more eagles loitered on the exposed wetlands. One burst out of the tree just above my head when I stopped to count its cousins. Any peace the eagles and gulls had reached was broken when an immature eagle flew over a gull-feeding zone. The little white birds dived bombed the eagles and drove them into a nearby spruce forest.1

Now Aki and I prepare to pass again through the salmon zone. Just ahead a Sitka black tail deer feeds among a thick patch of flowering fireweed. Aki will never see it or its companion. In a fluid series of jumps, the deer reach mid-meadow and turn to look at me until I lower my camera, walk beneath two roosting bald eagles, and enter the spawning zone.5

Back to the Pass

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Sorry Aki. There is no room on the boat, even for a little poodle-mix. Aki took it well, didn’t even get up from the bed to say goodbye. Now I’m watching two humpback whales feed while we troll for silver salmon in the north pass. It’s seven A.M., but the sun already warms. It is easy to forget the weeks of rain that we just went through. I’ll return home with two more silvers for next winter and a touch of tan?

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Cursing Crows and Gulls

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Reunited after a week’s absence, Aki and I patrol the Outer Point Trail. The little dog slips back into her role as monitor of the smells. This morning’s strong sunlight makes her squint each time a pee mail message draws out of the shadows. We are well back from the beach when the sound of gulls and crows shatters the forest quiet.

2It’s low tide. Just off the mouth of Peterson Creek pink salmon leap out of the water and then drop back to join a school of their kind killing time until the flood tide arrives to carry them to their spawning grounds. The crows and gulls sound impatient for the fish to die.3

The beach is empty of people and the trombolo to Shaman Island is exposed. I carry the little dog across the temporary land bridge, which has become a nursery for shellfish. Vagrant crows and gulls warn us away from the island but I press ahead, walking first on a path of crushed shells between the sparkly-orange rockweed and then the dull black trombolo. I wonder if Aki or the birds think that the little dog is royalty. When it is clear that I won’t be deterred by their noise, the guardian birds circle around and take up station behind us.4

Aki is calm in my arms but is slow to move onto the island after I put set her onto a grassy path. The bird din has not stopped. They won’t shut up until we return to the forest. To spare the little dog and I further abuse, I carry her back over the land bridge, the target of crow curses the whole way to the woods.

Putting Up Fish

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It wasn’t supposed to be sunny today, but it is. I’m on my friend’s boat heading toward the Auk Bay fuel dock. Aki is home, hopefully stretched out on a sun-warmed section of the floor. Painfully bright light bounces off Favorite Passage and a bank of quick-moving fog. It’s a beautiful monster that could cause the boat to crash onto the rocks if it doesn’t lift. It does. We gas up and head out to the place that has always provided us with salmon for the winter.2

The pass is almost empty of other boats and, as we will soon find out, empty of silver salmon. There are whales—three humpbacks that cruise along the surface feeding on the small fry that usually attract salmon.4

Taking advantage of calm seas, we pull up our gear and motor over to the eastern shore of Admiralty Island where we fall into a line of charter boats trolling for salmon. They are catching lots of pink salmon for their clients. We want to put up the more desirable silvers and drop our trolling lines deep in hopes of getting below the pinks. This works. When we run out of bait we have in the boat four silver-bright silvers that together weigh more than thirty pounds—a good start.3