Paddling Sitka: Rain sends 'softies' home

Posted: Friday, July 09, 2010

A rainy night at the "bear park" left us with drenched tents to pack, but the next day was sunny. So we made a short day of it, found a lovely sandy beach, and spread everything out to dry. That night's camp area was distinguished by its crab populations. There were purple shore crabs of assorted sizes, scuttling in all directions, tussling with each other, and feeding oh-so-delicately on wee morsels of dead barnacles and mussels. Young Dungeness crabs buried themselves with astonishing rapidity in the soft sand.

Courtesy Of Pam Bergeson
Courtesy Of Pam Bergeson

Then there were the hermit crabs. Only the smallest hermits had periwinkle shells that fit them. Some of these shells had attached barnacles almost as big as the shell itself. So the little hermits were hauling around a significant extra weight, which pulled them off balance, and they seemed to have trouble negotiating complex terrain. All the bigger ones carried snail shells that were woefully inadequate, leaving ninety percent of the crab's body exposed.

There were not many empty, undamaged snail shells to be found, but a diligent search turned up about ten of a size suitable for the bigger crabs. We put a nearly naked hermit crab in a pan with sea water and sand and offered it several new shells. It showed no interest in them; it was only concerned with escape, circling the edge of the pan incessantly. Then we added a second hermit. Now the first priority was establishing dominance (bigger wins over littler) and, after that, escape. New housing was clearly not a priority in this little experiment.

Many small streams were dry this year. But camp number five offered a flowing creek and the chance of a quick clean-up (which felt really good) and a refill of water containers. I noted a few individuals of blue-eyed grass, a plant that I had not seen for many years. This is not a grass at all, but a kind of iris, and it turns out that there is a species that is characteristic of shorelines. The small blue flowers are very dainty.

On day six, another friend joined us, and we headed up to Salisbury Sound. We avoided the main channels with their heavy boat traffic and, instead, went up Sukoi Inlet. The narrowest part is passable only at a high tide, which lets kayaks wiggle through the rocks. During the next four days, we saw lots of deer foraging in the shoreline meadows. In one small bay, a fawn came bounding out of the forest, bounced along the beach with that wonderful four-footed springy gait, and then bounced over the beach rye back into the woods.

To our surprise, we saw more deer than marine mammals during this trip. One humpback whale cruised by, briefly. There were a few seals and solitary sea otters here and there, and a couple of groups of harbor porpoises. Some of the porpoises were having an exciting time chasing prey with much splashing and dashing in all directions. In fact, their behavior so resembled that of Dall's porpoises that we looked very closely indeed, to be sure we had the right identification. We saw no river otters or mink at all, and just one set of mink tracks. I found this astonishing as these two species are usually seen on kayak excursions around Juneau.

In the quiet waters of Sukoi, a gang of male shovellers, still in breeding plumage, occupied a small backwater. We also came upon a little flock of brant. These diminutive geese were grazing in the intertidal zone. They were a motley bunch, apparently in all stages of molt. Presumably they were nonbreeders, because brant normally nest in the high Arctic; or they could have been birds whose nesting attempts failed and so they came south early.

Somewhere along the way, a south-facing beach held an anomalous array of plants: A potato garden! Some enterprising person had packed dirt in the space between logs high on the beach and planted two or three rows of spuds, which seemed to be thriving. Would the ubiquitous bears be tempted by this easy meal?

Near one camp we noticed a small (about three inches wide) opening in the ground. The back of the hole was lined with gray, papery material, and a piece of "honeycomb" lay at the entrance. The nest of some wasp or bee had been neatly dug up, with hardly any disturbance of the surrounding soil. A bear was the most likely perpetrator, but it was an amazingly neat job of excavation for such a large-pawed forager.

On our ninth night, after a day of prolonged, soft rain, the heavens opened and it poured. All the gear was drenched and it was hard to stay warm. So some of us opted out of the last day and headed for hot showers and dry beds in Sitka. Softies!

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

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