Berner’s Bay

day 2 of 2

The day dawned gray and cool, with a sharp breeze coming down from the north and big swells rolling in from the south. The combination of swells with the chop from the opposite directions would make for interesting paddling.

On the previous day, we’d notice clouds of white birds over on the Berners River, so we knew that the eulachon must be headed upstream. The herring shoal that entertained us last night had moved on, and we intended to check out the action at the eulachon run. The plan was to paddle across to the west side of the bay and hike up along the Berners River.

The tide was starting to go out, which meant that finding a good place to park our kayaks near the mouth of the Berners River would be difficult. Vast amounts of silt come down the rivers into the bay, creating a broad apron of shallows all across the north end of the bay. If we left our boats anywhere along the shore at low tide, they could be stranded far from water deep enough to float even a kayak (unless we waited for hours, until the tide rose again). Parking on the inviting sandy beach would mean that we’d have to carry our boats hundreds of yards over the tideflats to reach navigable water. So we hauled them up on some miserable, slippery, slimy rocks on a steeper shore, where the distance to water would be less.

Snowbanks still lined the fringe of trees above the high tide line, but spring was indicated by a few nearby wildflowers in bud and bloom. The cold north wind spattered our glasses and binoculars with rain as we trudged up the edge of the tideflats, but the white clouds of gulls drew us on, up the river.

The sandy flats, exposed by the outgoing tide, held a record of other recent visitors. A pair of moose had just passed by, leaving one set of very large footprints and another set of somewhat smaller ones (?perhaps from last year’s calf?). In the fringing willows we also noted many broken branches where wintering moose had pulled down twigs to eat. A beautiful trail of an otter was so clearly defined that we knew this animal had been there that morning. There were slightly fuzzier prints of mink and a possible wolf, from an earlier time.

Most interesting, maybe, were the large prints (about seven inches wide) of Brother Bruin, ambling up and down the gravelly shore. The shape of the foot pads suggested ‘brown bear’. A large and very fresh pile of fist-sized droppings hinted at the possibility that we might be under observation ourselves.

With all the interesting things along the way, our progress was slow. Eventually, however, we got far enough upstream to watch the gulls snatching fish and trying to steal fish from each other. Dozens of eagles stood around on the sand bars or perched in the trees, just watching; since ‘taking turns’ is not likely to be part of eagle etiquette, perhaps they were sated. In some of the slightly deeper channels, we could make out long columns of dark forms slowly swimming upstream, running the gauntlet of predators.

On the way back to our boats, we noticed wads of what looked like tiny eggs, washed up on the sands. Our best guess was that these were eulachon eggs that had stuck to each other rather than to sand grains. Eulachon eggs have a double membrane around them. The outer one breaks open and folds back to make a little pedestal that normally attaches to a grain of sand. The egg then incubates in cold, fresh water until it hatches and the tiny larva washes out to sea. But these clumps of eggs (if that’s what they were) were doomed, all stuck together and getting washed into salt water way too soon.

After lugging our boats about a hundred yards back to floatable water, we headed back to the cabin. The water was smoother now, and the going was easy. A squadron of about forty sea lions reared up, giving us the eye and a continuous roar as we went by—a trifle unsettling, even when you know it’s all talk.

So the weekend was a huge success. We’d won the lottery and got to the bay when things were happening, with a bonus of many other attractions, including good company. Our cups were running over, leaving lots of good memories.

Equinoctial explorations

days of discovery in the snow

About the time of the spring equinox, we enjoyed a renascence of winter, with single-digit temperatures at night and gloriously sunny days. A strong north wind whipped Lynn Canal into a turbulent froth. There were several inches of fresh, powdery snow all over everything. The wind tore the loose snow from the trees, creating showers of tiny, sun-lit crystals that made me think of falling stars.

I set out, with a friend, to walk the route from the first muskeg on the Boy Scout trail over the saddle to Saga meadow. The plan was to reach the beach and then circle back through the long meadow near Saga. The route first follows the old horse-tram line, but where the tram line dips down into the long, narrow meadow, the trail stays in the upland. We were the first humans to tread this route since the last snowfall. Ducking under, over, or around numerous wind-thrown trees, we had no trouble following the route until we reached a muskeg not far from the shore. We could almost hear the waves crashing on the rocks, but the continuation of the trail was nowhere to be seen. We looked in several likely spots where the trail might re-enter the forest on the way to the beach, but came to a dead end each time. Growling gently, we went back the way we came.

The very next day, I went out there again with two other friends, and this time we started from the Saga end. Up the CBJ trail to the little cove, over the tiny stream, make a sharp right, and keep going until the trail enters the first muskeg. Lo and behold, there was our trail from yesterday, right where I’d hoped to intersect it. The point where the trail crossed from the muskeg into the forest was very brushy, so it was little wonder that I’d missed it the previous day. It was good to get the route reconnected in my mental map.

The snow was perfect for recording mammal tracks, and we found an almost-full roster of those we could expect to find. Here, an otter had slithered over the ridge and down into the big meadow and there, it had come back, through a culvert under the CBJ trail, and over the ridge to the rocky shore. A porcupine had ambled along, and a deer or two had trotted hither and yon. Near the shore, mink had left several trackways, which often ended in a hole under a log or stump. Red squirrels had been busy, sometimes leaving little highways of repeated use. A tiny shrew had tunneled and scrambled, leaving dime-sized holes of entry and exit. A coyote had run purposefully across an opening in the forest. We were especially pleased to find the trackway of a mouse that had used its tail for balance, flipping it from one side to the other, as it lurched through the snow. But no evidence of snowshoe hares.

Photo by Katherine Hocker

A few dead leaves hanging off blueberry twigs drew our attention. There seemed to be very small galls at the bases of the leaf stems, where the leaf was connected to the twig. The galls somehow may have prevented the normal process of cutting off the circulation from twig to leaf, so the leaves didn’t drop off in the usual fashion. A quick internet search determined that several things can cause galls on blueberries but nothing resembled what we observed. One more thing to learn about!

Under a rotting stump we found a miniature ice-cavern, complete with stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, and icy sheets over the old roots on one side (like flowstone in a real cavern). There was just enough sunshine coming through the tree canopy that the little cavern was lit up, glittering and gleaming. Even deep in this cavern, the ice seemed to glow with blues and purples.

To top it all off, we saw our first red-breasted sapsuckers of the season. They’re back!—so spring can now begin. Ravens already knew this, of course: they’ve been lining nests with fine grasses, ready to make a bed for eggs and chicks.