Category Archives: Stellar Sea Lion

They Eat Rain or Shine

I didn’t really want to leave the house today. I wasn’t looking forward to splashing under  heavy, wind-driven rain falling out of clouds that cover the mountains along Gastineau Channel. It’s a day of grays, not blues. It’s the time for catching up on a good book. But a poodle like Aki is owed a small adventure a day so we slide into the car and head out to north end of Douglas Island, where the heavy forests can protect us from the worst of the rain. 

            When just a few miles from the trailhead, I spot gangs of sea lions hammering herring just off shore. Two whales do the same out in the middle of Fritz Cove. I park the car and step out. Ignoring heavy rain bouncing off my parka, I take photos of the hungry and aggressive sea lions. 

            In a few minutes I switch and watch the two whales conducting a similar hunt out in the cove. I think they are humpback whales, who sometimes winter over in the rain forest waters. A little gang of sea lions run just in front of the whales. The sea lions must be snatching at the herring being chased by the humpback. 

            I get back into the car before rain soaks through my parka. We drive to the end of the road and walk to the beach, now flooded by the high tide. Just off shore surf scoters have tightly tucked themselves into a tight raft. Are they stumbling over each other to harvest food or just enjoying a tight hug? In a few minutes they disburse as Aki and I head back to the car and then home.  

Trust Me Guys

This is a weird day, typical of a year of weird weather. One day six inches of snow falls. A few days later, the temperature rises well above freezing and all the snow falls off all the trees. Maybe in a week or even a few days, snowy winter may return. 

            There are positives about today’s conditions even though wind and rain slam the car while I park it along the edge of Fritz Cove. Rain starts to soak my parka as I walk to where I can get a good view of a half-a-dozen sea lions. They are chasing feed near the mouth of a small creek. I’ve caught silver salmon while trolling past this sight on summer days. Today sea lions are doing something similar. Three or four of them pull up half out of the water and caste me hard stares. Don’t worry my hungry friends, I’ve already put away my salmon gear for the winter. 

Over Confidence

“Crap.” I should have taken the little path around the flooded part of the wooden trail. But my feet were protected by rubber boots. Only a few inches of dark water covered the plank trail. Piece of cake. Then things were very wrong.

            Passage over the first part of the walk filled me with too much courage. While Aki had had to be carried over flooded sections of the forest trail, my rubber boots kept me dry. Then we had to cross an icy meadow trail to the beach. But we managed work arounds so man and dog made it safely to the ocean. I could relax and think about the dozen sea lions we watched feed as we drove to the trailhead. We were circling back through the forest to the car when things got very wet. 

            Once, Aki and I could have easily walked over a now-flooded wood trail. When she reached it, the little poodle-mix took the rough work-around path that requires us to squeeze through drenched blue berry brush. Aki had already finished the side path by the time I had reached the sunken part of the wooden trail. To show off, I continued down the trail, trusting my boots to stay on the submerged trail planks. Less than a foot from the finish, my right foot slipped off the trail and dropped into a deep, mucky pool. Water filled the boot and soaked my jean leg. After watching the drama, Aki turned and trotted toward the car. 

A Little Whippy

Last night the temperature dropped to well below freezing, making the snow covered trail a little icy. Aki can move back and forth on it like she has magic paws. I can’t. But we manage to safely move through the woods toward Point Louisa. 

            Through openings in the woods, I can make out a small gang of walrus, feeding just off the beach. Nearby, gulls and harlequin ducks also track food. 

            A wind picks up as we leave the woods and walk across the open portion of the point. A large collection of gulls flies away when we approach but land close to the beach. In seconds most return to the snowless portion of the beach. Another gang of walrus passes the gulls on their way around the point. 

Messy Eaters

This morning, the weather offered little promise for good photographs or even a decent walk. Wind whipped raindrops around the yard as the little dog and I headed to the car. We drove out to the old Tlingit village site where an old growth forest offered some protection from the storm.

            It was almost cozy in the woods but inclement on the spit we had to pass over to reach Point Louisa. Three guys in heavy weather gear fished for silver salmon on the spit. Just off shore several harbor seals had more success harvesting salmon. 

            At the end of the spit we ducked into a sparce forest before reaching the point. On the other side of the woods we watched a trio of harlequin ducks sped across the water, heading toward Favorite Passage. A minute later they reversed course and returned to Auk Bay. 

            A loud croak made me look away from the ducks to where two Stellar sea lions seemed to be cuddling in the small waves. Another sea lion shot its head out of the water with a salmon in its jaws. It flung its head back and forth, trying to break the fish’s spine. Several gulls soon arrived to pick up the scraps flying from the sea lion’s mouth. They know that sea mammals are messy eaters. 

Famine Time

The beach is empty and so is the little cove the beach fronts. Aki and I are only ones making tracks on the snow-covered beach. While I search for the raft of golden eye ducks that usually fish these waters, an eagle flies from the top of a spruce tree and flies across the cove. It flushes to flight hundreds of gulls that had been resting on the opposite shore. 

            During the food-rich summer, gulls ignore an eagle flying overhead. But this is famine time for the big birds. This one must have already tried to snatch one of the gulls. I imagine the eagle also tried for one of the ducks. 

            We take a trail off the beach and over a headland to another bay. A raft of nervous golden eye ducks fishes offshore. Other ducks, in groups of twos and threes fly over to join them. When something spooks them, all the golden eyes panic into flight and soon disappear. Where Outer Point pushes out into Stephens Passage, a couple hundred scoters burst into brief flight and then regroup back on the water.  I wonder if his is all the work of the one eagle.

            After our hike, I look for the golden eye ducks while driving home. They must have turned north into Lynn Canal. But we do spot the Fritz Cove pod of Stellar sea lions growling and lounging. An adult male sea lion can be 11 feet long and weigh over a ton. Females weigh 800 pounds. The eagle that flushed to birds poses no threat to them. Only killer whales can interfere with their leisure time.    

Rainy Day Gifts

During my recent visit to Talkeetna, Alaska for a writer’s workshop, KTNA, the local public radio station was kind enough to record me reading of “Dirty Work,” an essay that first appeared in Gravel, a literary journal of the University of Arkansas. Here is the link to the radio website if you would like to listen to the reading. https://ktna.org/2020/02/susitna-writers-voice-2-2-2020-dirty-work-by-daniel-branch/

Aki and I returned home wet from this morning’s walk. She sleeps curled up near one of our radiators. Before we left, the sound of rain drops hitting our kitchen window discouraged her for leaving the house. Eventually she agreed to join me in the car. Seeking a sheltered hike, we drove out to North Douglas and stopped in the Rainforest Trail parking lot. But first we had driven past a pod of sleeping Stellar sea lions. 

            Most of the pod huddled around one of their brothers who floated on his side with a pectoral fin in the air. These had their eyes closed. One sea lion swam in front of his sleeping brothers, eye wide open. He must have been the one that croaked out a warning. The pod didn’t panic and dive. They just slept on. That’s how we left then as we drove on to the trailhead. 

            The trail provided us with a lesson on the value of old growth forests in winter. Snow still covered the trail and ground where it cut through alders and blueberry bushes. There was less snow after we entered a newish hemlock and spruce forest. The ground was bare under the big old growth trees. We looked for the deer that seek out such areas of old growth in winter. Saw none. 

The rain was flooding beaver creek, pushing muskeg brown water over the top of white ice. The ice seemed to be lit from behind like a stain glass window. Water running over the ice glowed with the ice light. In the rain-drab forest, the creek scene was a miracle of bright colors, as pleasant a surprise as the sleeping sea lions.   

Teenagers

Aki and I are following Fish Creek to its mouth. The trail takes us along the spine of a spit. Two eagles watch us pass from roosts on the other side of the creek. A strong flood tide is quickly expanding the creek, covering the dead-grass meadow bordering it. 

            While Aki investigates the base of a cow parsnip stalk, I look seaward, hoping to see the Chilkat Mountains on the west side of Lynn Canal. I can make out Admiralty Island but clouds hide the Chilkats. In the foreground something that looks like a half-submerged drift log is moving around Fritz Cove at an impossible speed.  With the help of my telephoto lens, I figure out that my log is actually a gang of adolescent Stellar sea lions.  

            What I took to be a blackened root is actually the fin of a reclining sea lion. His buddies swim around and under him, sometimes jamming their heads together only to explode away. Another eagle watches the sea lions with what could be a judgmental expression on its face. 

Aki’s Day Off

Yesterday hid in her kennel as I gathered gear for our daily walk. I managed to coax her out but she was back in the kennel by the time I opened the front door.  It had been snowing for hours by that time. Six inches of fluff covered the hiking trails. I didn’t push the matter. But this morning I am wondering whether she will balk again.

            The snowstorm ended an hour before. But it was still storm gray out. Aki didn’t seem to mind. She waited at the front door for me to secure my boots. She leaped from the car as soon after I stopped the car at the trailhead.  We had to climb an two-meter high snow berm to reach the trail. That didn’t slow her. But a half-mile down the trail I discovered that I was alone. Backtracking, I found the little poodle-mix chest deep in new snow. Golf-ball sized snow clumps covered all four of her legs. 

  Looking like a guilty child, Aki slowly turned and headed back toward the car.  I knew we would soon be on a snow-free beach so I picked her up. While I carried her up the trail, I pulled snowballs from her fur. Most were gone by time we reach a spot where she could smell salt water. She wriggled as I lowered her onto the trail. 

  In ten minutes were on a beach swept clear of snow by the ebbing tide. Aki, her legs again loaded down with snowballs, stood by my side. Together we watched a sea lion, just fifteen meters away, raise its doggie head out of the water to check us out. Aki gave out a low growl. The sea lion immediately disappeared into the water.  After that, the little dog had no problem leading me back to the car.