The silver salmon are returning to their home rivers around Juneau. Time to put up some silvers for winter even though it is raining. This is bad news for Aki. But she doesn’t sulk when I leave the house burdened down with lunch, a thermos of tea, and heavyweight Scandinavian rain gear.
We leave Tee Harbor under heavy rain. The captain bounces the C Dory through the south Shelter Island tiderips toward the Point Retreat lighthouse. From there we cruise along the shore of Admiralty Island to grounds that usually offer good fishing. A humpback whale surfaces while we gear up our trolling leaders with herring. The whale, like the salmon, targets herring. Diving on them, the whale tosses its flukes skyward and disappears.
We boat a pink salmon, a rockfish, and a potbellied silver salmon. Because they don’t freeze well, we release the other pink salmon we hook. Between strikes a trio of orcas appears, seeking the same thing we do—salmon.
Posters inviting people to an American Fourth of July celebration usually feature sunlight, fireworks, and attractive legs descending from bathing suits. One inviting Juneauites to our Fourth festivities this year should portray rain falling on soaked streets from clouds that seem to tear themselves apart on the mountainside spruce. If the clouds don’t clear or at least lift, they will swallow tonight’s fireworks. We will peer up into the rain as each explosion paints the gray sky with orange, red, or yellow light.
Aki doesn’t mind the rain and appreciates that it cuts down on the amateur firework explosions that usually rattle her during the Fourth of July weekend. She would have enjoyed yesterday’s whale watching trip where she would have attracted almost as much attention on the boat as the humpback whales that we watched. Once we saw a stellar sea lion dogging a feeding whale. But my favorite view was of the clouds breaking open above the Chilkat Mountains. They parted, not to dump more rain, but to expose sun and patches of blue. The eyes of every Juneauite on the boat turned from a surfacing whale to the lightening sky.
This morning it is raining hard as Aki as I start walking up the Brotherhood Bridge Trail. In the first meadow we spot two patches of crushed grass where a bear slept last night. Later I photograph a caramel-color slug feasting on a devil’s club stalk. On a normal day I’d turn away from the slug and search for the bear. But today, under low. gray skies, there is little competition for the lovely slug.
Snowflakes, fine as ash from an extinguished house fire, fall on the whale. They settle and then melt on nearby truck tractors, a screaming-red crane, and the concrete slab to which the whale is bolted. The city fathers promise that one day, the bronze humpback whale will breach over a summer garden. It will entice cruise ship tourists to walk a mile down the multi-million dollar sea walk, away from the Franklin Street jewelry stores and Tee shirt shops. But now, the whale breaches in a construction yard, as startling as a sunflower in Antarctica.
The phone rings. It’s the captain. “I’ll pick you up in a half hour.” That gives me plenty of time to ready for what might the last salmon hunt of the year. As I pack, I think of the guy at Tee Harbor who said, “Tomorrow should be sunny and flat calm, lots of fish.” Today’s marine forecast gives further cause for optimism. It calls for calm winds and sun after the fog burns off at 10 a.m. I buy three trays of herring, instead of the usual two at Foodland when the captain stops there for supplies.
Fog obscures most of Tee Harbor as the captain and I load the boat. We mount the downriggers, ready the fishing poles, and set the herring to soaking, sure that the fog is about to lift. As I bend down to unclip the bow line a couple walks by. One of them says that they are heading home with plans to fish on a day without fog. An hour later, a red Lund skiff emerges from the fog driven by a standing man with the look of an escapee from tragedy. The captain still reverses his old Sea Dory from the mooring and motors us slowing into the thin white wall.
We find clear skies and sunshine at the mouth of Tee Harbor but fog still obscures most of Favorite Passage. It even covers half of the nearby Aaron Island, where we once caught a brace of silvers just after Dall Porpoise swan under and around the Sea Dory. We find neither fish nor porpoise during the hours we troll around Aaron. But the fog’s slow reveal of sun on nearby islands, mountains and glaciers entertains us during the wait. So did a large raft of scoters and a pair of oystercatchers that flew laps around our boat.
Finally, the fog lifts enough for us to cross the channel without getting crushed by a whale watching boat. But it still clogs the upper opening of the North Pass, where there should be salmon. We wait for more clearing. When it comes, and we can finally fish the pass, we have little luck. One whale breaks water near our boat, then makes its tail a black silhouette on the painfully-bright sea. A sea lion follows us, snatching each herring that we removed from our hooks when we change bait. Eventually, as a wall of storm clouds builds over the Chilkat Range, the captain catches a male silver salmon. But the wind, that had helped to blow away the fog, is already raising waves in the pass. Its time to start the bumpy ride back to the harbor.
Aki is not on the boat. We can’t afford to have a dog on the boat for this, our first attempt of the summer to catch silver salmon. The guys at the Sand Bar will tell you that targeting silvers this early in the season is foolish. Call us fools but here we are in the North Pass between Shelter and Lincoln Island, trolling for salmon.
At least we have whales, I think as four humpback whales bubble feed near the shore of Shelter Island. They swim around a school of herring, building a net of bubbles that force the school into a tight ball. Then one swims underneath it, opening its huge jaws to capture them all.
We will see many whales today. One will surface fifty feet front our boat, swim under it, and reappear on the other side. Others will bubble feed near the spot where we actually catch two silver-bright silver salmon. We will butcher them with the care that wild things deserve and freeze the filets, eat the backbones fresh with kale from the garden. Aki will enjoy salmon skins for breakfast tomorrow.
Today I planned on writing about the rain after Aki and I returned from walking a circuit around Outer Point Trail. A hard storm had hammered the forest just before we arrived, leaving behind beads of water that clung to berries and mushrooms. These water beads captured all the surrounding light and then shined like globes of hope until destroyed by wind. Globes of hope are compelling subjects, more interesting than politics or street violence. But a whale trumped them when it surfaced and exhaled a one hundreds meters from the little dog, swam through its own mist cloud and disappeared. Aki, who finds squirrels the most compelling things, turned away from the whale while I fiddled with the lens cap on my camera. But she waited we me, without complaint, for the whale to resurface. When it did, all but its spume hidden by the Shaman Island spit, she led me back into the forest toward the chitterling squirrel.
I would call this sea mammal rock if I wasn’t inadvertently sitting on the remains of a river otter’s meal. From the amount of scat and empty shells, it must be a favorite meal spot for the big weasels.
On prior visits Aki and I have looked down on harbor seals raising their curious heads into the air and watched a raucous pod of stellar sea lions swim around us on a high tide. Today two humpback whales feed just a quarter-mile away.
One of the whales is two-thirds the size of the other and I wonder if they are related. They are all business. We see no showy breaches or even an iconic flash of a tail framed against the sky. They just feed like they would at the end of a fast. Have they just returned from Hawaii, where humpbacks are so busy procreating they don’t eat? Or are they part of the minority that stays all year in Alaska waters?
Concentrating on the whales, I don’t notice that my little dog has begun shivering. Stiffly, I rise up, poke my head over the rock edge like a curious otter, and lead Aki back into the woods.