Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone in a Chihulean Wonderland

The moon is setting over Admiralty Island and the sun is about to rise over the coastal range when I arrive at the trailhead. I am surprised to see a lone truck already parked this morning. Usually, I am the first. Frosted windows suggest it has been here all night. Just as yesterday, and the day before and the couple weeks before that, I am alone.

It has been a week since my last visit to the plank trail through the beaver ponds, and in that time, the woods have changed. Unlike the glacially-cooled valley where the past three days I trudged through heavy snow, the forest on this northwest corner of Douglas Island, is snow free. Only a thin patchwork of easily avoided frost decorates the boardwalk.

I don’t need the spikes that are tucked into a side pocket of my pack, and consider for a moment returning them to the truck, then laugh at the idea. Just as not carrying a rain jacket assures precipitation, leaving ice cleats in the truck is the best way to guarantee a slippery trail. Even the least superstitious recognize this as universal truth.

The saturated boards are pleasantly soft underfoot, and boots hardly make a sound, allowing birdsong to take center stage. The raspy caw of Sellers’ jay—the most recent addition to the dawn chorus—possesses neither the musicality of the pacific wren, nor the whimsy of the varied thrush, but his voice is no less representative of spring, and no less welcome to my ears.

The ice on the ponds is retreating, and the otter hole, no longer a singular portal, draws only passing curiosity. The moss-covered forest floor and watery ice provide little reason to look for tracks, and I move through the bog with hardly a pause.

Beyond the bog, a rapidly expanding beach greets me. Even as low waves roll in, the tide is racing out. Over a six hour period, the water will drop twenty-four feet this morning, and soon a narrow spit will open up between the beach and the small island a few hundred yards out. When it does, I will have several hours to explore before the slender egress once again slips into the sea.

As I wait, scoters and harlequin ducks come and go from the shallow bay on my left. Excited crows fly in from all directions to gather noisily in the middle of the forested island. The way before me unfurls steadily like a slender tentacle until waves lap at either side of a clear path to the island. I wonder if this is what it looked like for Moses escaping the Pharaoh, plagues behind him, a vast, unknown desert ahead—a particularly curious analogy this Good Friday morning during a global pandemic.

When I reach the far shore, I hear a voice in the woods. “Good morning!” A young boy sporting fleece pajamas and rubber boots is emerging from a gray tent nestled in the trees. I return the greeting as his father—presumably the driver of the frosted truck at the trailhead—steps out behind him. “It’s gonna one a beautiful day,” I offer. “Already is,” he responds with a smile.

Respecting their desire for solitude, I move on, knowing as they do, that they will not be alone for long.

I take my time, beginning a slow counter-clockwise exploration of the rocky shore. Already, some of the higher pools are revealing brilliant green anemones, purple urchins, and small blotchy fish that blend perfectly with their stippled habitat.DSC_9449.jpgSoon, the spit is out of view, and I am in the shadow of the island, where I peer over cliffs and into crevices in the eroded black volcanic rock. Mottled anemones resembling so many Chihuly glass eggs nesting patiently in the retreating tidewater, wait to be discovered on Easter morning. Other anemones, stretched by their own weight like the melting clocks in a Dali painting, hang from the scarp above the tide.DSC_9486.jpgBelow one face, a huddled rainbow of sea stars is cemented to the rock with glue produced by glands on thousands of tiny tube feet. Like the anemones, there is not much for them to do above the waterline but watch the tide roll away like so many otherworldly Otis Reddings, just “wastin’ time.”DSC_9505.jpgI walk along a clearly defined demarcation above which a heavy crust of aging barnacles provides sure footing. Below, where the anemones and sea stars live, the rocks are mostly barnacle free, and more slippery than any ice.

Nowhere do I find traction enough for a foothold to climb down. It seems the rocks are slickest where the greatest treasures hide, and my rubber-soled boots are no match for whatever mystery mucous coats the wet rocks.

Pondering my predicament, I take off my pack and sit down. Sometimes, when faced with a challenge, I find the best response is to take a break, take a breath, and feed the brain. I reach in the side pocket of my backpack for an orange, and find instead… my ice cleats. Bingo!

I retrieve my citrus from the other side of the pack and enjoy the fruit and some water, then stretch the spikes over my boots, and ease down the escarpment. Spikes grip the wet rock with the certainty of a mountain goat and I lower myself into wonderland.

Every bend and crack reveals more reds, greens, purples, and yellows than the last, but even with my new goat feet, reaching some of them with my lens proves challenging. Often, I want to lie down on the rock to get the right angle, but life dictates where I can stand. Anemones the size of thimbles live in the tiniest pools, and little starfish are flipped here and there, feet to the sky, vulnerable to the beak of a hungry gull. I don’t want to be the reason any of these creatures fail to see the tide return.DSC_9442.jpgA dead green sea urchin, its purple and while shell partially crushed, rests atop the oral disc of one particularly handsome khaki and red anemone. The opening at the center of the anemone’s disc serves as both mouth and anus, and I wonder if this a meal or just detritus that drifted here on the tide.DSC_9510.jpgIn another pool, a pair of unlucky urchins share a confined space with a sixteen-legged sunflower star—a fierce hunter that can race after prey at a blistering 1 meter per minute on its 15,000 tube feet. DSC_9457.jpgEventually, tired from so much crouching, stretching, climbing, and balancing, I take a moment to enjoy the other view. Across the water, the mountains of Admiralty Island, and beyond them the Chilkat Range, glow white in the late morning sun. The crashing sound of waves shattering on the rocks below remind me of the power of the Pacific, and I step back. A pair of belted kingfishers chatter behind me, and I turn to watch them disappear into a nest tunneled in a crevice high on the cliff face.

A familiar sound, like a giant blowing his nose, turns me back around. I am smiling with anticipation before seeing the twenty foot plume of water vapor hanging over the waves, and the black arched back and dorsal fin of my first humpback whale of the season—a fitting end to my exploration down below.

Carefully, I ascend back to relative safety where I remove my cleats and navigate a short traverse through blue mussel- and barnacle-crusted terrain, avoiding damage to these vulnerable creatures as much as possible, then I complete my circumnavigation along the beach, and back to the spit that has now widened to include the entire bay. Where hours before, ducks socialized in large flocks, now dozens of people, isolated in small, largely nuclear groups, turn over rocks or probe the muck.

Keeping my head down, I allow a wide berth for these scattered tide-poolers and hopeful geoduck diggers. Happy as clams in the tidal mud, they will never know that right over there, on the other side of the island, is a slippery rabbit hole to a Chihulean wonderland, and I will not be the one to tell them. Alone, I walk back to my truck.

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Once I was in a kayak close by Admiralty Island, wanting to take a video of the other kayakers further from the shore. The single seater kayak was very tippy, and my camera was under several layers of rain gear and jacket, so I beached the kayak and then took the video. Later realized that I could have been some bear’s afternoon snack – but all went well.

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