A kayak trip to Berners Bay teems with life

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008

The weather forecast was ominous: four-foot seas, winds gusting from the south, and rain. We launched our kayaks anyway and, once through the chop at the entrance of Echo Cove, we found flat water and easy paddling.

We had missed, by a week or so, the major excitement of the annual herring and eulachon spawning runs and all the attendant predators. But we still found plenty of interesting things to see during our three-day visit.

The tides were very low, and the slough that enters the bay in the northeastern corner didn't have enough water in most places to float the kayaks. So we lined them several hundred yards upstream, dragging them over the sand from one little channel to another. We disturbed flocks of green-winged teal and mallards that had been resting in the quiet spots and sculpins lurking in some of the pools. There were schools of tiny salmon fry flitting about in the shallows near the mouth of the slough and along the shores of the bay.

The meadows at the head of the bay offered the very beginnings of green shoots in the open areas and residual snowbanks in the shade at the forest edge. We found moose and otter tracks in the snow along the slough. One patch of meadow was riddled with vole tunnels, and a bear had roto-tilled a swath, looking for tasty little bites of vole meat.

The bay itself hosted a few thousand surf scoters, along with a few white-winged scoters. The huge rafts of birds parted protestingly as the occasional boats passed through, fluttering and squawking off to the side and then regrouping. During some of the day, they seemed to amuse themselves by flying in small groups from one end of the bay to the other and back again.

Lots of other birds were present too. Arctic terns dove for small fish and harassed the gulls. There were a couple hundred red-breasted mergansers and several flotillas of harlequin ducks. Marbled murrelets were seen in pairs and small groups and filled the air with their plaintive whistles. Two kinds of loons, horned grebes, pigeon guillemots, Barrow's goldeneye, and common mergansers were there in small numbers. Sea lions and seals were rare.

The best action was provided by the humpbacked whales: sometimes just cruising and diving, other times lunge-feeding or slapping the water with long pectoral fins. They seemed to be most in evidence when the tide turned. We enjoyed several close looks as these leviathans passed along the shore. Eagles swooping down on a school of small fish near the surface had to dodge quickly, when a whale emerged in the midst of the same concentration of fish.

When we were all rafted up close together, discussing our next move, things got more exciting. Just to our left (and I was on the left side of the rafted kayaks) there suddenly appeared a very large black back, coming straight toward my cockpit. I think I involuntarily invoked the name of some heavenly being. Then, so close I could have touched it, the large black back smoothly passed under the rafted kayaks, without a ripple. Our hearts started beating again, and it was over. That's as close as I care to come to personal encounter with a humpback whale, however amiable.

The low tides left numerous tidepools in the rocky headlands. Here we found anemones of several colors and tiny fish, well-camouflaged, that spurted hastily from one hiding place to another as we disturbed the water. Hermit crabs were wearing snail shells many sizes too small for them; the only part of the crab that was covered was the very tip of the abdomen. So we wondered if suitable shells were scarce and hard to find.

The weather continued fine and mostly fair, with a moderate north wind that wafted us toward home. Berners Bay may not always listen to the weather forecasts, and it pays to go and see for oneself how the weather is behaving.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology and a Trail Mix board member.

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