Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone – Meaning No Harm

Awakened from a fitful sleep, I unzip my tent and direct my headlamp toward the gentle waves licking the high-water mark. Were Berners Bay experiencing the fierce winds these narrow fiord are famous for, this moment would have been very different, but fortunately the air is calm, and I am not scrambling to pack, pull up stakes, and retreat. My watch indicates two o’clock.

I turn off the lamp, roll onto my back in the dark, and listen. Detached from the visual, my mind is free to interpret the rhythmic pulsing with creative abandon. I waft back into a shallow sleep where brown bears swish through shoulder-high sedges and grasses, swiftly galloping horses crunch through a dune of blue mussel shells, a humpback whale empties lungs the size of a car then slaps, slaps, slaps, her eighteen-foot wide fluke on the surface of the bay.

Four hours have passed when, again, I wake. The sun is now bright on the Chilkat range, and the waves, still gentle, are splashing barnacle-crusted rocks 250 feet from shore. The tale-slapping whale of my dreams is still at it, her every whack carrying five miles across the bay to reach my morning ears. Seeing her with my eyes open makes me wonder about the bears of my dreams. It was here that two years ago a second year brown bear gave me a charge. Perhaps I heard more than just waves and whales in my sleep.

Eager to pump blood into my chilled toes, I slip out of sleeping bag and quickly into a couple new layers of wool, and boots. I glance at the food bag hanging in a spruce a football field feet away, then grab my camera and chase the retreating tide. The water will reach its lowest at 8:30. I want to be there when it does. Breakfast will wait.

Past the lichen covered boulders, alone I enter a black, volcanic canvas painted in blue mussels and beige barnacles where briny rivers drain crevices and canyons revealing sea stars, anemones, urchins. A closer look noses out limpets, shaped like little rice paddy hats, clinging tightly to the rocks where they scour for algae. Periwinkle snails leave trails, and hermit crabs hide in vacated periwinkle shells. Eel-like crescent gunnels slither for cover under rocks and tide-pool sculpin dart into the shadows.DSC_5676.jpgCarefully, I hop a narrow gap from one slick rock to another to reach the farthest exposed outcrop. A pair of harlequin ducks cases me from a hideout among the mussels. A couple dozen harbor seals, equally suspicious, watch safely from a haul rock beyond the reach of even the lowest tide, but like the artfully painted harlequins, the splotchy seals do not trust my interloping, and swim for safety as the ducks fly to the other side of the inlet. I wish there was some way to communicate my friendly intentions.DSC_5576.jpgA trio of black oystercatchers, their bright orange cigarette-shaped beaks glowing in the morning light, stands its ground at first, fidgeting at my explorations into their domain, and eventually takes to the air, voicing their disproval with a series of high-pitched, staccato peeps.DSC_5647.jpgThere is a clear theme at play here. Those who can run, hop, fly, or swim to get away from me, do. It is only those too slow, or too dependent on the vanished water for their mobility, who stay, and those remaining who have the means, do their best to hide.

I am glad that sea stars and anemones possess neither the ability to scamper, nor squirrel themselves away, and my attention turns to them. Every crack and canyon is home to some slow-moving, brilliantly colored critter.DSC_5665.jpgAt the bottom of the deepest gorge, water rushes around two sunflower sea stars surrounded by a variety of gracefully waving seaweeds. Each star has seventeen arms but beyond that, for one who hasn’t the greatest color acuity, nailing down a description feels futile. I spy hints of lavender, khaki, orange, and crimson, but I will let you, the reader, tell me what colors you see. These stars can reach diameters of three feet, and these two are not far from that. I estimate each to be around thirty inches across.DSC_5640.jpgFrom the head of the next canyon, a waterfall ribbons into a forest of urchins. Looking through my lens from below the falls, I find the landscape to resemble a distant desert scene from the perspective of a soaring turkey vulture, in which each clustered, tennis ball-sized urchin is a sage bush the diameter of a kitchen table.

At my feet, a handful of urchins are torn open and eaten. I suspect a nearby cawing crow of the carnage.DSC_5685.jpgBackdropped by the Pacific Coast Rainforest, volcanic rock and Lion’s Head Mountain, mottled sea stars congregate by score and by gross—slowly shifting rainbow mosaics biding their brief time in the sun.DSC_5712.jpgAlong the way, I run into two friends—first David, then Laurie—with whom I share my discoveries, and they theirs. I try to guide them through urchin canyon and sunflower gorge, but by the time we get there, they are reclaimed—hidden until the next extreme tide when there will be completely different residents to discover, new monickers to label the features.

I am tired and hungry as the rising tide chases us back to shore. David says his goodbyes. Laurie joins me for a socially distant bite to eat, then waits while I break down camp and reload my pack.

It feels strange walking out with a companion, but Laurie is an avid birder and tuned more to the voices and feathers of meadow and forest than to the man walking twenty feet in front of her. She teaches me the call of Townsend’s warbler, and reminds me of the names of a spring flower which I quickly forget again.

Mid-meadow, we pass by a pothole of a pond surrounded by muskeg. “Looks like a great place for a toad,” I suggest casually. Laurie steps toward the water and looks down. “There’s one.” Ah, to have a birder’s eye along!

I drop my pack and change lenses, but the large female boreal toad is too obscured for a good photo. I wait for her discoverer to take what photos she can, then kneel and carefully reach toward the unmoving amphibian. Surprising me, she tolerates not only the clearing away of view-blocking foliage, but having a giant eye thrust to within a few inches of her nose, as well.DSC_5806.jpgThe theme is broken. Fully capable on this warm spring day of hopping into the pond and disappearing, this toad makes a choice not to. Perhaps she trusts me, though I doubt such is the case. Maybe she thought she was so well camouflaged I couldn’t see her—doubtful as well. More likely, natural selection simply hasn’t armed her with a fear of something that looks and acts like me, and at least in this moment, that serves her well. It is breeding time for toads, and wasting energy on fleeing a harmless onlooker does service to no one.

Whatever the case, I wish she would have a chat with all the ducks, seals, oystercatchers, crabs, fish and other capable critters back in the tidal zone, tell them that the bearded guy in the hemp hat means them no harm, just wants to take their photograph. Then again, to educate them might take some of the magic out of those rare moments when I manage to walk alone, together with them.

What do you think?