Paddling in Sitka: First installment

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2010

The ferry arrived punctually at the Sitka terminal, and a little later we launched our loaded kayaks from the nearby boat ramp. The water was smooth and the weather was fine, but we didn't go very far that first afternoon, on the theory that an early camp would serve as a "shakedown" opportunity - getting all the bits and pieces of gear in the right places. Then we headed into the many channels on the north side of Sitka Sound.

As we paddled along, I was struck by the number of small landslides on the steep-sided hills-many more than I see around Juneau. I was later told that Sitka gets a lot of ferocious storms off the ocean, with very heavy rains. These tend to loosen the grip of trees to the Earth, sending cascades of trees, brush, rock, and dirt down to the shoreline.

Great swaths of dead trees are spread across the hillsides. Apparently, yellow cedar mortality has hit this area really hard. The going hypothesis is that frost in early spring kills the roots when the snow cover is inadequate. So the composition of the forest, at least at lower elevations, is changing radically here.

Crows and ravens called raucously all along the shores. Both species had large juveniles out of the nest, great lunking offspring that were fully feathered, capable flyers, and still thought that mom and dad should be feeding them. The adults flew hither and yon, tailed by a string of juveniles, all yelling at the tops of their lungs.

The second night, we carved space for two tents out of a stand of pushki (a.k.a. wild parsnip or Indian rhubarb) and a tangle of dead spruce branches. After the tents were set up, I wandered along the beach and found a recent bear trail through the beach rye, complete with a fresh scat deposit. This scat was an unusual blue-gray color, and closer inspection revealed that it was composed largely of tiny crab claws and bits of barnacle shell.

Shortly thereafter, I noticed some odd boulders at the tide line: Three or fours rocks had no barnacles on the upper surface but the rest of the rocky beach was covered with small barnacles. Hmmm. I rolled one of the boulders over-and yes, there were barnacles on the lower side (which was once the top side). Clearly, a large, furry creature had turned over these rocks in search of small crabs.

Purple shore crabs are a popular food of brown bears near the outer coast. They are small, seldom exceeding a couple of inches in breadth of carapace. The body is very flat, allowing them to scoot under rocks and seaweed easily. They are not always purple; some are red or greenish, and they may have whitish spots on the back. A bear needs to eat a lot of them to make a decent meal.

The entertainment in late afternoon was provided by a brown bear across the channel, casually grazing its way through the sedges. We watched it for almost an hour, as it slowly moved through the long strip of vegetation above the high tide line. This was to be the only bear we saw in ten days.

The third day felt rather long, because of the paucity of usable camp sites. We investigated at least ten benevolent beaches, all of which were backed by dense thickets, heaps of mossy logs, or lumpy boulders, with no place for even one tent. Finally, we found an area of flat, open ground under the conifers, with scattered small ponds (mostly dried up), and a well-demarcated squirrel trail running from one hole to another. This also seemed to be a crossroads of bear trails, showing signs of regular use. We camped in this "bear park" anyway, peacefully. The next morning, I chanced to raise my eyes a little higher and spotted a worn place on a tree trunk where bears (very tall bears!) had scratched away the bark, as a sign post.

There was bear sign at our next camp too-in fact, the bruins had left their traces everywhere we camped. We soon ceased to worry much about it; there were not a lot of options!

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

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