Thursday, April 23, 2009

AK 4 - Paddling with Eagles

The water stands as still as a mirror, set in electric tones of silver, gold and black. I feel the slight breeze catching the stern of my Eskimo Style Kayak, that seems to want to wonder with each breeze. S'plook... My paddle catches the next wave as I causally correct my drift, eyes fixed on the setting colors of the sun as it fades out over the NW end of Tongass Narrows. Like the contentment of the evening fire's glow, this sunset caps. A beautiful two days here along the waters of Ketchikan. A glimpse at spring grows the hear towards the future. Knowing that three systems are working their way across the Gulf from the Aleutains, everyone has been soaking up the sun as it has brought warmth to these rain drenched forests. Tonights after dinner paddle is no exception, what seemed like a sleepy little Alaskan town has awaken from it's rainholes, to bask in the glory of the sun.

I make my way south along the pilings that make up the front of Ketchikan. A city so connected to the sea, it is built above it's very edge. Now at low tide, it towers 25 ft above my little kayak. Each piling plastered white and beige by columns of barnacles, while below great flowering anemone and sea cucumber forest the creosote beams below. Keeping just out from the traffic of fisherman heading out for an evening troll, the snowy cap of Deer Mtn rises above the Narrows
reminding e of the chilly nights of early this week. But tonight they catch the alpenglow with electric intensity, making a first-ring of the ridges cornice line, with glittering avalanche tracks descending below.

For the last week, we have been moored at port, cleaning and passing time. Between openings, as it seems again waiting is the ever constant variable in fishing, that seems not to make it to the action packed reality shows. But ever constant as time fades by. Each day had brought a deluge from the sky, keeping a man inside his wheelhouse perched above the Narrows looking out to a gray world. With 200 inches of rain a year, my old home has nothing on this place. But a midweek hike out to Shelter Cobe shown, 15 feet in diameter Yellow Cedars are common place. Pulling you in to their temple green glow, almost like sturdy beams of Tlingit Longhouses, holding up a roof of lichen and moss. Enough wonder to keep. Man going to the next break in the clouds revealing the mountains that had been lost from sight for days. But during these
times, work, books and conversations keep you occupied. Mulling over thought and ideas brewed in a vat of the most recent chapter or bar tale. It is the nature of this place, and part of it's people I have learned. Yet warm spring days as recent seem to remind the heart of the Alaskan spell that weaves itself deep.

As I turn back to paddle towards my floating home, I feel the great movement of air behind me. Whoop.....whoop.... whoop... And as though a large silent plane were about to land upon me an Eagle glides but paddle reach above me. I first catch his fanned out white tails feathers, displayed like a geisha dancer before me. Then with a mighty sweep 9 feet of wing span flowing down with a whoop of the air. Yellow talons reaching out, he plucks a herring out of the water in front of my port-side before climbing into the air without a splash. Time seems endless in these moments, and as I watch him rise, I feel the wilderness of this place, even if the town is but. 1/4 mi away. His silowet rises against the glow of the setting sun. The power of the sublime creating it's own temple out of the moment. This is what the tourest of yesterdays cruise ship missed, caught in the limited time of a four hour Port of Call. The time to just let Nature show her skirt
to you, and lead you away within the moves of her dance. Memories that cannot be bought at Trinket shops or admired on dusty shelves.

Before rounding into the cannery, I see the long V lines of migrant birds moving their way north to the Arctic. Tomorrow, we'll move north as well, towards the Fjord of Taku, the Glaciers of Turnigan Arm, and the protected tide flats of Seymour Canal. Yet another Herring Cycle will begin again, here in Inside Northern Waters...

From the waters of the Inside Passage,

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

AK 3 - Surrounded by Herring

An armada of small boats leave the protection of the harbor on a overcast day. Trailing behind larger boats, they bob up and down while in tow. As we round the bend and out of the rocky shoals of Metlakatla Bay, the chatter on the radio begins to heat up. With each conversation the excitement of the many fisherman is clear, as they have waited weeks now in anticipation for this Herring Opening. For some this will be the first paycheck in months since the close of Salmon fishing the previous fall. But to all this is the beginig of the spring and the stories to come over the next summer of following the fish through these forested channels of Alaska. For the tenders, we've been waiting for two weeks peeling away time from the calendar as well, and now with 60+ boats leaving the harbor it is a sight to see.

We make our way around the north end of Annette Island, the land of the T'Simpshian Nation. This fisheries is special to them, and only open to members of the tribe. The four tender boats act as large tanks pumping fish off of small aluminum skiffs and taking it back to the Cannery. As we enter Kwain Bay, the Armada stages like little floating islands, as about 10 boats and skiffs are tied to each Tender. With little room to cook or house waiting fisherman on their skiffs, Tenders back deck becomes a hub of activity. We take our place in the bay below the snow clad arms of Mt Tamgas rising above and wait for the opening anouncement. Then hours click away through the day till the evening comes. The anxieous drink their coffee and talk of years past while bouncing to and from eachothers rigs. The fish and game float plane passing overhead checking the progress of the fish, watching for the first sign of the Spawn. Waiting for the perfect moment for the harvest to begin. This catch is kent to harvest the Herring for their Roe or eggs to send out for coveted caviar, so while their has been hundreds of schools sighted, timing is of the essence to get the right quality.

With the crackle of the radio, the voice of the biologist comes over the radio reporting what they saw in the last pass and declaring the fisheries open along Crab Flats. A sudden flurry of activity takes over the bay. Boats begin to motor off to spots already scoped out. 54 boats total pass sound the reef, some crusing ahead, others puttering behind trying to catch up to the best place in the flats. For days the Orcas, Eagles, Seals and Gulls have had their fill of the schools, now that they have started to spawn it is the Fisherman's turn. Everyone knows eachother in this fleet, most are somehow related to eachother from this small village. So the opportunity to catch the first big set is king bragging rights. Words are tossed in the air as well as fists shaken as boats manuver to get out to "The Spot" that will bring home The Catch.

As soon as it started, the bay is now empty, only the sounds of the last boats wake slapping against the shoreline and the cry of Eagles perched on the breakwater rock, just as bewildered as the four remaining boats anchored in Kwain Bay. It seems so peaceful now, as I hear the small river flowing over the tide rocks and out of the cedar forest below Tamgas. A tranquility of the moment before and after action, broken only by the neccesity of passing time. There is always
that feeling of surreal I'm those fractions of time, when the canvas of the world takes center stage before the players walk on fade it towards the back. It is when you notice the voice of nature that abounds, always there in every other story playing out.

The silence is broken by the distant whine of an outboard motor. Soon the aluminum skiff makes the corner around the rocky island and work begins. Activity and life begin to bussle about as more boats enter the bay. The sound of giant vacumns take hold as skinny footlong Herring are Bering sucked out of the boats a ton at a time. The air is filled with the chatter of stories being told of doging in and out of other boats as they hurried to set their nets to surround the schools, while dodging others trying to cut them off. A few stories of collisions and bent egos make their way out, but as I hurry to off load the boats to return them to the grounds there is mostly laughter. It is amazing to hear, as tons of fish make it into our holds, that only 15-20% are harvested each year. Herring make up a large step in the food chain of these northern waters, and yet their numbers are staggering in proportions. To see a school is like watching a moving ball swarming by. The hope is to catch of of the balls just at the right moment.

As the evening continues on we work through the night. Cold hands cling coffee cups from sweetshirt and orange raingear cloaken figures as I work. Soon dawn begins to break over clear skies, and the boat reveals a full hold, 65 Ton of fish. With our last boat we pull anchor and head towards the processing plant at Metlakatla, three hours away. Passing the fleet clacking away as they repeatedly pull and a set their nets out from the shoreline. I wash down the deck and equipment, scalely fish slime cover everything. Soon the pressure hose does it's trick and I find the boat back to it's previous state. As the sunrise over the mountains behind Dixon Enterance, back to port with a full load of fish.

From the waters of the Inside Passage,

Sunday, April 5, 2009

AK 2 - Wilderness of Metlakatla

The surf pounds the rocky shores of Smuggler's Cove. Repeating with a slow rhythm, every fourth brings a spray out on the basalt stacks protecting the beach. These are the ocean swells running up Clarence Straits from the wave hatchery that is the Gulf of Alaska. The
sequence a tell-tale sign of their origins in the wild-er-ness of the open sea. Between each cycle smaller waves expose, the pools of low tide, and a open sand beach just long enough to find sanddollars
reflecting against the sun. Sunny days have caught me on Annette Island, exploring this undesignated wilderness. Here Nature seems both sublime and bold. The creak of boardwalks along Muskeg forests to the thunderous waterworks of the waves crashing against the rocky headlands, Nature holds ways here to play to each part of the symphony. I'm reminded of the last four months absent from the view of
wilds, how the city has a dulling effect to the ear. But the last week walking around this T'Simpshian World, has all my attention stirring.

I've spent as much time in Metlakatla exploring, as it seems the best use of the idol energy in waiting for fish. Watching from theshoreline wilderness as Orcas feed playfully on schools of Herring,Eagles catching fish and courting their mates from aloft in Cedar tree bungalows, to the Sea Otters working their dayscracking open shells of oysters muscles and smal crab. All these seem to signal Spring trying to take hold of SE Alaska. And yet still while climbing to the top of a local peak, snow squalls lay in, keeping the mountains locked in winters hold. But between arms of SE'sterly winds and Northern fronts, Alaska captivates the imagination of this Naturalist.

Annette Island, with it's villages of Tamgas Harbor and Metlakatla, is a sovereign nation here. Part of the greater T'Simpshian Nation, which range from lower SE Alaska, down through the BC Coast to Bella Bella just north of Vancouver Island. Boardered by the Tlingit to the North, the Haida to the East and Kwaquitl following the Inside Passage to the South, they are often over-shadowed by the culture of these
surrounding Nations. But due to an act of history, they have held Annette Islands their own in the face of modernity for 100 years. Before then the Tlingits held this island, in much of a wilderness state. But Metlakatla grew from a group of T'Simpshian Natives led by missionary William Duncan escaping troubles between settlers near Port Simpson on the mouth of the Stikine River near Prince Rupert.

The other evening, while walking back through Metlakatla after following the rocky beaches of Cemetary Point, I was lured in by the sounds of drums and signing coming from the cedar longhouse near the edge of the bay. Standing outside seeing the glow of lights from the firebox atop the roof, I caught myself listening to the drums and chants being preformed within the walls. Soon a Native Fisherman invited me in to watch. I walked in the hall clad in four clan poles carved in each corner and stained wooden benches. I watched as women dancers young and old donned in wool blankets outline with designs of mother of pearl buttons. Circling the center where a male dancer with a mask of a raven played out the story of stealing the sun and sharing it with man. The rhythm and beat of the five drummers, and the power of their chants, played in harmony to the sounds of the signing of the female dancers following in a circle.

I sat in awe at the spirit if this team practicing for the summer\tourist season. Four dances of the stories of different animal spirits, reminded me of how alive Nature felt watching that day. How some in the community were keeping that tradition power of myth and legend in connection. The dancers were made up of from the 2 yr old girl to the 65 yr old elder but most were of age of teens. In an isolated community, the urge to leave for modern pursuits comes at the cost of disconnected generations. And yet here they were trying as they could to keep the ties going, even if it was in the name of performing to the hordes of tourist who would arrive on cruise ships in the coming summer.

It is easy sometimes to see Nature as separate from man, yet we are part of it and need a wild-ness in our own lives. Through exploring the Islands forest, mountains and coast, listening to old fisherman tales and watching the stories of Nature's characters play out in song and dance I'm faced with thoughts and images. Of how it all intersects with man as he lives with his fellow inhabitants that abound here. How he changes it, as well as it changes him. Either in city or wilderness, it is always there, you just have to look.

From the waters of the Inside Passage,