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On the Trails: Day 2, in Berners Bay

Posted: May 18, 2012 - 12:02am
Two Steller sea lions, who seem to be singing a duet, were part of squadron, all of which were rearing up and roaring as our kayaks passed by.  Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Two Steller sea lions, who seem to be singing a duet, were part of squadron, all of which were rearing up and roaring as our kayaks passed by.

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 direction would make for interesting paddling.

On the previous day, we’d noticed 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 the night before 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.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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