My hand reaches out for the little dog, but she is not there. My mind knows this but apparently, not my hand. Aki is cozy at home. I’m sitting on a folding chair on the deck of an old fishing boat. Two hooks baited with herring spin behind the boat as it moves through the north pass between Lincoln and Shelter Islands.
Two eagles watch from Shelter Island. A sea lion follows in case we hook a coho salmon. It would see that we would not be able to get the salmon into the boat. A few minutes ago, three Dahl porpoise weaved in and out of the water to our right. In a half-an-hour, a humpback whale will do the same.
Salmon will make several attempts to pull herring from our hooks. One will be hooked briefly. Neither the sea lion nor I will catch a fish.
A year ago today a mega cruise ship was plugging its way up Favorite Channel. The on-board naturalist would have used the public address system, the same one used to announce the opening of the casino, to direct passengers’ attention to Shelter Island where two humpback whales had just surfaced. I would have grumbled to Aki that the whale watching boats couldn’t be far away.
If we didn’t move from this rocky headland, we would have seen four or five go-fast-boats circle around the whales as more on-board naturalists clicked the microphones on their PA systems. I would have remembered the time, on an early spring day, before the first cruise ship of the year, when two newly-arrived humpback whales surfaced less than fifty meters from here. The little dog and I were the only ones to see them.
This morning, the channel is empty of cruise ships and whale watching boats. No one follows the whales as they swim from Pearl Harbor to Shelter Island. This will be the first summer in decades without cruise ships or whale watching boats. No helicopters loaded with cruise ship passengers will buzz overhead on their way to the Juneau Ice Field. The city’s economy is going to take a hit. But the whales won’t mind.
I’m bouncing through the North Pass, riding in an old fishing boat to the east shore of Admiralty Island. Aki is safe at home. The little dog does not like boats. The boat captain and I will spend day in a fruitless attempt to catch silver salmon. We will have to settle for one pink salmon. But there will be whales.
We already passed four humpback whales in the pass. But up ahead, just off Point Retreat, a pod of them will be bubble feeding. They will swim circles around krill, forming a net of bubbles that will hold their favorite food in place. Some of the pod will burst up through the krill, jaws open wide. The rest will chase the remaining krill before forming a new net of bubbles around their prey.
The rain, the absence of unnatural sounds, and the calming dominance of forest greens are needed this morning. The little dog and I are near worn out by our recent stint of warm and sunny weather. Like the just sprouted seeds in our garden, we needed a little water from the sky.
The flowering forest plants are ahead of schedule. Tiny green balls have already replaced the lantern-shaped flowers on blueberry bushes. Yellow water lily flowers unfold onto the surface of the beaver pond. The fallen petals of cloudberry flowers dot the muskeg meadow we must cross to reach the beach.
No one would call all these small beauties exciting. But I’m fine with that. We had out excitement quota filled for the day when I stopped for a moment at the boat ramp. The old troller boat that had been beached was now afloat just offshore. I wanted to photograph it against a background of the smuggler cove islands softened by low lying clouds. Twenty meters away two eagles fought over a scrap of fish. The winner carried it down the beach, leaving the loser to sulk.
Thinking about the disappointed eagle, I follow Aki onto the Outer Point Beach. A solitary eagle flies from Shaman Island to a beachside spruce. Otherwise, only gulls and gulls animate the grey scene. A puff of vapor forms above the surface of Stephen’s Passage. In seconds I can make out the black back of an exhaling humpback whale. Just behind the surfacing whale, another vapor plume appears.
The whale sightings provide more reassurance than drama. I’ve seen humpbacks breach near my kayak. But reassurance that there are whales is all I need on this gentle morning.
On this rainy morning, Aki and I are going old school. Rather than drive to some remote trailhead, we will start an exploration of Downtown Juneau from the house. On the way we will visit some sculptures and watch ravens fool around. There will be an eagle, only one, but it will sulk on a light standard with it’s back to us. Aki will refresh her pee mail trap line. Her stubborn streak will appear and she will throw on the brakes to keep us from exploring new paths. We will pass a great bronze whale and life-sized bear made from the same material, each glistening with rain. When we return home, I will need extra time to dry the little dog with a towel.
It’s 7:30 in the morning. Aki has had barely enough time to wake up. We are taking a short walk through the neighborhood. The little dog needs to relieve herself before her humans leave for a whale watching adventure. She takes her time, stalling over scent left last night by our local black bear. Aki knows what is in store for her and she is not happy. As her humans are walking out the door, the little poodle-mix hears me promise a proper walk later in the day. She shrugs and sulks into her kennel home.
The whale watch boat leaves Auk Bay with a load of girl scouts aboard. It bounces into Saginaw Channel and over to Barlow Cove where we see our first humpback whale. The young women scream and dash around the top deck, letting their pony tails stream flag-like behind them. They cheer when the boat digs into oncoming waves. They scream and point each time the whale announces that it has surfaced by expelling a plume from its lungs.
The up and down motion of the boat makes it difficult to photograph any of the whales we will see on this trip. After managing to secure one or two decent tail shots I sling the camera over my shoulder and just enjoy the show: the excited children energized by wind and waves, clownish Stellar sea lions, and diving whales.
Grey clouds dominate North Douglas Island this morning but some shafts of light manage to reach the glacier. This promises a sunny day ahead. But I don’t mind the low contrast lighting, which increases the chances for solitude. For the nose-dominated Aki there is little difference between blue or gray skies. She rarely looks above the horizon.
Two ravens spar like fighter pilots above the beach. One drops onto a rock near Shaman Island. When it curls its wings back for landing, the finger-like wingtip feathers curl back like an eagles. For a moment I believe that the raven has transformed into one of the big predators. Then it croaks, spoiling the illusion.
Down the beach, a mature bald eagle eyes us from its spruce tree perch. I walk out onto the beach for a better view of it while Aki waits on the trail. The sound of a surfacing humpback whale surprises me. When I turn to look, it is throwing up its flukes for a shallow dive.
While Aki and I wait for the whale to surface again, a walker approaches on the trail. He waits with us for the whale. He is old, but not stooped. With one hand he touches his beard. The other seems to grip an invisible cigarette. We talk of fishing the river that Aki and I visited yesterday. He points out the eagles strutting along nearby Peterson Creek. We agree that they are there for the returning salmon. The whale surfaces again but only long enough to toss its tail up for another dive.
I am out in the North Pass, competing with Stellar Sea Lions for silver salmon. Aki is out berry picking with her other human. Three hundred meters away, a humpback whale throws its tail up in the air and dives.
We will only boat on silver today. The sea lions will be much more successful. One surfaces with a silver trapped in its mouth. The sea lion snaps its head back and forth as a small flock of gulls dive on it in an attempt to snatch away bites of the fish. They know the sea lion is a messy eater.
Aki didn’t come with on this fishing trip. It’s for the best. She’d been bored after she investigated the boat for crumbs. The boat’s rhythmic pounding as it rounded Shelter Island would have sent her searching the cutty cabin for a place to hide. She wouldn’t have been calmed until the banging stopped, even after I assured her that the waves would drop at the changing of the tide. Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed home with the little dog.
I was thrilled and frightened by a humpback whale that surfaced less than fifty meters in front of us as the boat headed for the fishing grounds. The captain and I both felt relief after he made a course correction letting the whale slide by twenty meters to port. Now I am a little bored and feeling put upon by the rough motion of the boat beating into sharp-edged swells. The captain and I sank our herring-baited hooks an hour ago. At the edge of our vision, a pod of humpbacks bubble feed. But to move nearer to them would take us away from the fish we seek.
Right now the Juneau Costco store is opening its doors. If home and not being hammered by waves on Lynn Canal, I could buy two immaculate red salmon fillets nestling under plastic wrap in a foam tray. The tray would cost less than the gas used to reach the fishing grounds. But if I substituted that salmon for the one I hope to catch this morning I could not have watched the peaks of the Chilkat Range climb out of low lying clouds. There’d be no more whale encounters if I only fished at Costco, no more chances to see a bear work the tidelands for found food.
The tip of my trolling pole dips down and then pops us as a fish pulls my line from the downrigger clip. I grab the pole and reel in slack until I can feel hooked salmon struggling to escape. When it breaks the water and I know it is a silver. My fishing partner reels in his line and cranks up the downrigger cables so they can’t interfere with the boating of the fish. With the net, he moves in front of me as I gently reel in my line. Three times the silver will undo my efforts when it swims away after being brought close to the boat. It will be too tired to resist the net the fourth time. Then I will remember that it is this ballet of salmon and friend that I would miss most of all if I only fished at stores.
Aki looked concerned, even desperate. It got worse after she watched me carry my fishing gear to the front door. If she could have understood, I would have reminded her how much she hates bouncing up and down the back side of Admiralty Island in a 24 foot Sea Dory. While walking out the door, I reminded myself that in a short time the little dog will be chasing her Frisbee down a North Douglas Island beach. After I left, her other human took her on an outing after I left for the boat.
After leaving the harbor the captain and I bounce up Favorite Passage on chop formed by wind blowing in the opposite direction of the ebbing tide. It’s worse when we round the top end of Shelter Island and enter North Pass. I can barely see a pod of humpback whales bubble feeding near Hand Troller’s Cove. Ten whales splash and release bubbles to trap krill and herrings in a net of bubbles. Then they burst up through the resulting ball of bait with open mouths.