Category Archives: Kayak

Would Merton had seen the Koohsdakhaa?

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Thomas Merton sought the solitude of a hermitage to enhance his appreciate of man. He would be happy taking this heavily tracked trail as it winds through old growth forest and open meadows. I doubt if Merton ever walked it even though he tested the solitude offered by the Shire of St. Teresa a few months before he died.  Those two grey swans would be at the Shire in minutes if they weren’t resting on this huge beaver pond, floating with distain among a mixed gang of other migrating waterfowl.

P1100661Last night’s hard freeze set up the trail for us, cementing the churned mud, firming the remaining meadow snow into useable bridges for skirtting around flooded portions of the trail.  With nothing to block the strong spring sun it will all turn to muck and mire by late afternoon.

Aki only tolerates solitude. Preferring company of any kind she sniffs the wind and ground for evidence of approaching friends. Near a slough backing up from the big beaver pond the little dog alerts and then dashes to the snowy edge, throws on the brakes but still slides forward, head down, rear in the air, until her nose almost enters the water. Something, probably an otter, splashes down the slough as if calling Aki to follow. She does, charging along the bank with wagging tail until coming to another sliding stop where the slough makes a sharp left turn. Is she chasing a Kooshdakhaa?

I call Aki back, remembering my experience with the Kooshdakhaa—something magical P1100670shaped like a large land otter. It was this time of year. A friend and I were returning by kayaks from Berners Bay, entering the narrow pass between between a large sand spit and the shore.  Something like a small pear shaped black bear ran down the spit toward my kayak then dove into the water. Entering the water like an otter, it allowed itself to be carried into through the pass on a tidal current strong enough to form small whirlpools.  Distracted by the surprising scene, I didn’t see a whirlpool until it grabbed my kayak’s nose with enough strength to twist the boat. With luck and a desperate paddle brace I righted the kayak before it flipped me into the water.

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Is it time for the kayaks?

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I can’t believe myself taking more pictures of these two humungous beaver lodges. They draw me to this small stream draining the edge of a great meadow. We could be out on the flat expanse of white snow with its texture perfect for skiing—firm top layer of corn snow that allows one ski to slide while the other grips in anticipation of its chance to shoot ahead. Each beaver lodge rise above our heads,  collections of gnawed branches formed into an almost perfect domes.

A beaver dam connected the two dens during our last visit. Today the stream runs through unimpeded and I suspect the hand of man. This may explain the new construction site down near the old river otter slide where a dam almost spans the creek.

L1200321We have full sun shinning from a cloudless ski. It would be too hot if not for the breeze coming at us from the North. Out on Lynn canal this wind forms horses out of the flat fjord waters. Here it merely speeds the melting of snow and keeps it cool enough for us to ski in comfort.

With much of the world’s weather turning fickle, if not violent, I have no confidence in predicting whether winter has move north to wait out the threatening warmth of Midsummer. We woke just two mornings ago to four inches of new snow. Today green shoots of gray push up through the meadow snow and widening bare patches threaten to cut off large portions of the meadow from our skis. I think of the berries beneath their dwindling blanket of snow and the kayak waiting for me in the storage unit. I think of the Candle Fish that even now might be charging up the nearby Antler River to spawn even while chased by hungry sea lions, whales, and clouds of birds. Time to gather the gear of summer.

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Precious Sun Break

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As precious water is to a man in the desert, is sun to dwellers of the February rain forest. Today the gray gave way to sun shine for a half hour, sending brightening beams through the old growth canopy to light up acid green moss, paint sunny pools on the snow covered forest floor, bring the blue and reds out in Aki’s new sweater.  Over a muskeg meadow a smile shape tear in the gray emits a powerful light—as if from a smile of God watching our funny little dog trot along in patterned wool.

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Portaging to Tenakee Inlet

This morning a heavy fog blocks our view. Sunrise begins its demise.  Drinking morning coffee on the cabin deck the Captain and I are just able to make out the yearling brown bear fishing at the salmon stream mouth. Two of his elders, both making him look tiny, stir from makeshift beds in the stream side meadow and walk sluggishly into the woods. A small cloud of gulls forms around the young one, which at this early hour, annoys him. After a few half hearted attempts at grabbing a salmon he passes down the beach in front of the cabin and disappears into the fog.

Today we take the portage from Port Frederick to Tenakee Inlet. A friend ran into three habituated brown bears at the portage when he made this trip last May.  It was only with great effort that he and his two companions were able to keep the bears away from their food laden kayaks. In May bears spend much time grazing on beach grass at places like the portage. Little should keep them there this late into the salmon spawn. On this hope we push aside fear, pack the kayak and leave for the portage an hour before high tide.

It takes a 14 to 15 foot high tide in order to paddle all the way to the actual portage trail. Today we will only have 11 feet and expect to spend a long time moving the kayak and gear just to get to the trail.

In full sun we wind our way through a serpentine channel at the foot of Port Frederick. It leads us to a narrow tidal stream now too shallow to float the kayak with us in it. We line the boat for a few more minutes until it goes completely aground in the stream far from the portage. The stream braids into three channels. The Captain and I explore each until settling on one leading into a small pond. At its head a rough trail, marked with a metal diamond, leads into the woods. We unload the boat and I start carrying the food and gear along a bear trail stomped into the muddy grass lining the pond. While I make multiple trips from gear pile to trail head the Captain lines the kayak, its keel dragging in foul smelling black mud until he reaches the head of the pond. 

We pass through a section of blue berry bushes still laden with water from last night’s fog. This means no bears have recently passed this way.  In minutes the trail crests and we see through the woods a green meadow rather than the sparkle of salt water.  Pushing on we reach the meadow and walk across it to where a small stream enters another mud bottom pond. In a few days, when the high tide would crest at over 16 feet we could have easily paddled up the stream and across the pond to the actual portage trail.

We are both tired but aware that the more time spent making the portage the greater chance of an uncomfortable encounter with bears. I hang the food in a nearby spruce tree and find that it is surrounded by tall yellow cedars. Their pretty majesty  can’t delay our efforts so I grab some dry bags and hike with the Captain up the trail calling out a gentle warning to any bears that might be ahead. They hate nothing more than being surprised.

 

After dropping our load at the pond’s edge we start back for more, passing holes recently dug by bears hungary for the rice like roots of Chocolate Lilly plants. Hurrying on we make the several trips necessary to move the kayak and other gear to the pond, which is not deep enough to float us and the gear. The captain again has to line the boat along the pond shore while I use a paddle to keep it from grounding in the muddy pond side grass.

It’s been three hours now since the kayak went aground and we still have to move gear, food and boat over another land portage to Tenakee Inlet. The trail is short but muddy and in 90 minutes we are eating a delayed lunch along side a mountain lined fjord. Across the inlet we spot an island with a small stream nearby. We paddle to it with plans to make it our camp.  Tall tree covered domes rise from the inlet. To our right we can look into an intriguing wet land at the head of the inlet. Tomorrow, if the good weather continues we will explore it before starting the paddle up Inlet to the Tenakee Springs ferry terminal. 

Eight Fathom Bight Bear

The paddle to Chimney Rock takes up up Port Frederick toward Necka Bay.  The wind builds as we travel to produce small  waves. They present no problem until we approach the spit marking the passage into Necka Bay. We land to survey the passage around the spit, calling out in confident tones to any bear that might be sleeping in the tall grass bordering the beach. When none rises to our voices we hop out of the kayak and find recent bear sign.

The sun breaks out from the clouds to make the beach a warm and inviting place. The captains finds a sunny hollow at the point lined with more Bluebells of Scotland. From here he raises a couple of bars on his cell phone and makes a last call home.  There will be no more cell coverage until the ferry ride from Tenakee Springs to Juneau. While he calls I watch a fat black and yellow bumble bee climb in and out of the flower bells, completely disappearing on each foray into the flower.

After making a quick sketch of Chimney Rock  I join the captain in a survey of the passage into Necka Bay. We could make it in but would have a hard time on the return trip. Then an ebbing tide would be working against the wind to build a nasty little sea. It would be worse at the exposed spit. Saving the bay for the next trip we paddle down Port Frederick to the Forest Service cabin at Eight Fathom Bight. We saw out humpback whale heading up bay he was heading back to Hoonah. We never saw him again.

Wanting to pass through a choke point in the bay before the tide turned we paddle without rest. This flooding tide and tail wind gives us a nice push.  Waiting would mean fighting waves and current produced by the ebbing tide as it pushed through the choke point.

Just past the narrow spot we hear a waterfall and then see where a small stream enters the bay. Here we refill our water jugs and eat lunch washed down with clear stream water. Here also we watch the sun chase off the remaining clouds then sit quietly in the newly delivered warmth.

It’s an easy paddle down back to the Eight Bight Cabin where we will stay the night.  A cloud of white gulls erupts from a nearby stream as we approach the cabin, telling us that the stream holds spawning salmon and probably brown bears to eat them.

After helping to unpack and secure the kayak above the high tide line I put together a fishing rig while the captain heads over to the stream to stretch out on the gravel bank.  A yearling Brown Bear suddenly walks out of the brush to disturb his rest. We are downwind so are able to watch the bear from a respectful distance. From other bear tracks along the stream we know that other larger bruins are fishing the choice spots of the stream. They must have driven this young one here where deeper waters makes for tougher fishing.

The bear manages to display a wide range of emotion with body language as he tries different methods to dig a pink salmon out of the stream. Sometimes he looks like a playful cat with upraised bum and half submerged face. When that doesn’t work he tries batting a fish out of the water with his strong left paw.  Once he looked right at us with his weak eyes.

In time the bear forages a meal and we head back to the cabin for ours.

Breaking Camp One

Something wakes us early this morning—a complaining eagle or raven, surfacing whale, or just the end to rain. A whale does pass the camp while I’m drinking coffee, which I abandon to watch the big creature make two shallow dives before showing its flukes on a deeper one.

With the tide out we can walk all around this fortress like island. Under gray skies invaded by patches of blue I find a natural cave decorated by Bluebells of Scotland flowers as if it were an Irish worship grotto.  A different sort of pilgrim today I do a quick sketch and walk back to camp, passing a large round boulder along the way. As out of place as a child’s marble on the rim of flat tide land that rims the island, it could have been dropped by a giant bird or fallen out of a giant’s pocket.

Kayaking out of Hoonah

So much work getting ready for a kayak trip! Gear must be assembled and made to fit along with food for a week and clothes into waterproof “dry” bags. My paddling partner and I loaded all in the car, put the kayak atop of it and drove to the Alaska Marine Highway Terminal at 6 am.

We leave Juneau on the MV Le Conte. Low clouds obscure the glacier and its surrounding mountains which is just as well. We are too tired to stand on the rainy deck to watch our town slip away. In three hours we reach the Tlinght village of Hoonah on Chichagof Island. There, in a drizzle we carry gear and kayak off the ferry to a rocky path that leads down to the waters of Port Frederick. After filling a used gallon milk jug with water from the terminal we carry everything to the sea and begin to load the kayak as it floats near shore.

The sigh like exhale of a humpback whale diverts us from the task and we look up to watch it’s black back rise and then roll as it re submerges. The whale repeats this two more times before throwing its flukes skyward in a silent dive. Good start for the trip.

The whale comes and goes from our field of vision as we paddle toward the island where we plan to camp. Rain continues to fall from low clouds that seem to collapses over the green hills lining the shore. At first only golden seaweed lining the shore break the monopoly of grey and green. Then we begin to pass islands of rock worn into provocative shapes like castles and mansions. We stop near one, now stranded from the water by the low tide and eat a sad lunch of dry bread and peanut butter that is soon covered by a film of tiny biting midges (no-seemuns).

When spirits flagged a sea creature appears to lighten the mood. Often it is our new friend, the humpback whale swimming along for a bit before diving. Sometimes a pair of Dahl Porpoise streak past us while chasing down homeward bound salmon. The whale puts on a great show just before we reached our island goal. Over and over it throws itself from the water and sends up great splashes on each side of its body as it crashes back into the sea. We began to worry that it might inadvertently crush us with one his exuberant displays.  It returns beneath the sea as we round the island and pull out at a suitable spot on its back side.

Here no bugs bother us while we set up the tent, cook dinner, and use ropes to suspend the food bags from tree branches to keep them from the reach from the local brown bears. (grizzlies). The rain continues but so do chances to watch animals. Porpoise and the whale hunt for food within 50 meters of camp. Beyond them the waters of Port Frederick offer us passage to the portage where we will have to carry boat and gear over land to a beach on Tenakee Inlet. But that challenge is days away so we settle onto comfortable rocks on the beach to drink after dinner tea and watch the whale roll on his back just off shore.