At this time of the year we hear floatplanes flying low over us every day, in ever wider circles. They're spotter planes, sent out to search for the schools of herring that spawn in the spring, for the sac roe fishery.
An entire school of herring can spawn in a few hours in the intertidal zone, laying their eggs in seaweed, and producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. The above picture may look like scrambled eggs, but it's actually a stretch of seaweed covered in herring eggs.
This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the herring fishery early for this area, 4,600 pounds short of the quota they had established, due to the unexpectedly low number of herring spawning.
Overfishing caused the herring fishery to collapse worldwide in 1993.
"Beneath him on the endless slope and boundless floor of the valley, moved a black mass, creeping with snail-like slowness toward the south. It seemed as long as the valley and as wide. It reached to the dim purple distances and disappeared there. The densest part covered the center of the valley, from which ran wide straggling arms, like rivers narrowing toward their sources in the hills....This black mass was alive....Acres of buffalo, miles of buffalo! The shaggy, ragged herd had no end. It dominated slopes, level bottom lands, and the hazy reaches beyond." --The Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey.
I remembered reading this as a kid when one morning in spring I woke up to the sound of a vast herd out on the strait. And when I went to look, there was a river of black, moving bodies stretching as far as the eye could see up and down the strait. They were ducks, interspersed with seagulls. The noise was tremendous as they squabbled, splashed, and beat the air with their wings by the million as they gorged themselves on the enormous school of herring that had come to our shore to spawn.
The water had turned to a beautiful, milky, electric green and herring eggs coated every inch of seaweed as far as we could observe, sparkling in the sunshine. Sea lions roared and snorted. Humpback whales glided with majestic slow grace through the endless stream of ducks and gulls, spouting out their blowholes.
Little did we know as we stood on the rocks, in the last decade before the turn of the millennium, and watched the scene for hours, that it would be the last time we saw such a sight.
Like the buffalo that had roamed the American plains in their millions but then were decimated for their hides in the mid-to-late 1800s, the herring that were once so plentiful--I remember going to school in the nearby village and seeing the harbor flash solid silver, it was so clogged with herring--are now a vanishing species.
Yesterday it was a beautiful, sunny day and my Maine Coon was eager to go out and explore the arrival of spring. I had to carry her over the stream running down the beach since she's phobic about getting wet, but after that she took the lead. We strolled through the forest, lit by the sunshine and filled with birdsong, and stepped out onto a sandy beach. Katya rubbed and rolled all over it and reluctantly left it behind as I stepped from rock to rock below the forest. When we were kids we used to chase each other over the drift logs and pretend that the beach below was lava. If you slipped and touched the beach you lost a leg to the lava. Those memories came back and made me smile.
We came to an enormous rootwad with an alder tree growing out of it. The first buds of spring were sprouting on it. (See above.)
The tide was all the way out and we had the expanse of the beach to ourselves. Well, almost. There were jellyfish sprawled all over the place, undoubtedly hoping the tide would come in before they were baked by the sun. Katya studied them aloofly, then decided they were too slow moving to be of interest. One jellyfish, down by the waterline, looked like it was making a break for it, back to its ocean home. (See above.)
One of the curious things I've always noticed about Southeast Alaska is how you can be walking on a remote beach with no sign humans had ever set foot in the area and suddenly you'll come across the remnants of those who had gone before. Katya and I came across a buried cable and huge pulley buried in the gravel. It had been commandeered by the barnacles and sea life and no longer belonged to the human world. (See above.)
Katya and I stepped back into the woods on the other side of the beach and found skunk cabbage in full bloom. (Above.) Their bright yellow, bristly stalks are a welcome reminder that spring is here. It made me remember the skunk cabbage wars we had as kids. Those cones can really raise a welt, especially when they are launched from a catapult.
The bright cones also reminded me that bears were said to munch on the cabbage in the spring when they first emerged from their dens and there was nothing else to eat. At this time of year it can feel a bit as if we're under siege since we don't feel it's wise to leave the house without a gun. I had the .44 strapped to my hip, which is not my favorite piece of apparel. For one thing, it's heavy. I always wonder how those cowboys in the Old West didn't develope one larger leg than the other with that weight constantly on one side. A friend and I decided that this was probably how John Wayne developed his famous walk.
At any rate, the sight of the skunk cabbage made me be more alert as we continued our walk.
A little deeper in the woods Katya and I found a swamp. We crossed a mossy deadfall that bisected the dark brown water. We were surrounded by reflections of the forest so that it seemed that the trees grew above and below us. At one point Katya thought this was a really bad idea. That was water on either side! She sat down right in the middle of the log with her back to me, quite plainly saying, "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into." (Above.)
After I got her moving again, she decided we'd had one too many adventures and it was time to head home. As if to say good-bye an eagle wheeled overhead, it's six foot wingspan black against the sky. (Below.)
My earliest memories are of deer.
I was a toddler when daddy brought home an orphaned fawn to the logging camp we lived in at the time, in the mountains of Montana.
Its favorite food was graham crackers, so I called it Graham. When I was weaned, it inherited my old baby bottle. It was my sibling and best friend. We seemed to be made of the same music.
I wondered later if "speaking its language" in my toddler years was why later on the deer always seemed to sense a "kindred spirit."
It seemed odd to everyone else that whenever we were around deer--in parks and in the wild--the deer would come to me, straight over to me, whoever else was around.
And that just felt right and natural to me.
There was always a "re-connection" feeling for me, that the deer seemed to share....
When I was seventeen and used to wander all day in the mountains of Montana with my then best friend, Gretchen, a wise and wonderful Belgian Shepherd.
We lived on an old ranch high in the hills. I would get up early, have breakfast, feed Gretchen and the horses, then I would sit my record player on an old wooden chair on the porch, but my Bob Dylan album on at "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Gretch" and I would go, hearing the music all down the old dirt road.
I knew we would cover many, many miles in a day, as it was six miles to the mailboxes where we would check for mail, and then branch off for a daily ramble. We would explore and not come home until dark.
We discovered interesting things--arrowheads left behind by an ancient Indian tribe that no one knew the name of. There was a university "dig" up there that summer and the nice man who owned the property allowed me in to dig and glean, too.
In one of our explorations Gretch and I discovered an old, abandoned, derelict homestead way back in, with no road to it. It was so far up and tucked back into a tiny valley that I wondered if anyone had seen it since the early settlers. It looked as if it had been hastily abandoned, the owners' antique belongings scattered around, dust motes stirred by my presence. The pioneer past seemed close enough to reach out and touch it.
We ran into many wild things, bear, porcupines, and once a lynx in a tree who stared and stared at us as we stood and stared and stared back. I never felt in the least bit of danger in those forests but when I told my dad about the lunx he said it was a miracle it hadn't ripped my throat out.
The most thrilling moment, though, in those long rambles, was when the deer came down over the mountain.
It was a large group of deer--until that moment I hadn't realized that they would all travel together like that. Bucks, does and babies. They all came straight to where Gretchen and I stood, quivering. I stretched out my arms to them and they walked quietly on both sides of me. Not as if I wasn't there, but as if they understood that I belonged to, and with, them.
I stood there with my arms outstretched for quite awhile as the herd passed on either side, my hands on their backs as they went by, one by one, my hands sliding along backs and haunches. Bucks, does, fawns.
They felt like..."alive" feels. The only alive I wanted to be. I never wanted anything so much as to turn and go with them....
I don't know what stopped me. Whatever part was human with human needs, I guess. When the last one had passed, Gretchen and I stood there for a long, long time.
I wondered if she felt as left behind as I did.
When we visited the Bison Range, both in my younger and teen years, the deer would come straight to me. My folks would marvel, because though the deer were tame, and were used to being fed by humans, they would always come to me whether or not others had food and I did not. Maybe I was still "speaking" their language, the language of Graham, whether I knew it or not.
Even later when I was grown up and living in the remote S.E. Alaskan rainforest, the experiences continued. One day I was sitting alone on a rock by the creek rushing by our home, staring at the waters, when something moved and from the corner of my eye I could see it was a deer. I sat and looked at it, it looked at me, and then, as if it was saying "I know you" it came up and gently pressed its nose to mine.
We were like that for a while and then it walked away.
One of my tribe, making connections.
Once, in some long, dreary days of storm and darkness, and feeling unconnected to the world, I decided to pick myself up and take myself outside, as much to get away from too much "me," as anything else. As I stepped outside I got that "part of all creation" feeling, as I almost always do here.
I walked to nearby Half Moon Bay, just wishing I could go somewhere, anywhere and "have a vacation!"
As I went to step out from the woods onto the beach, the sun came flooding at me and as I stood there in the goodness of it, a deer stepped out onto the beach and just stood looking curiously at me, like, "What's your problem?"
And I realized I didn't have one, that, in fact, I was spang in the middle of my "vacation." The very one I'd been praying for just moments ago.
These days I don't get out much. Severe arthritis keeps me close to home. But sometimes the deer will come and graze on beach grasses and the branches hanging down, or in the winter stroll past. We will go out on the decks and talk to them.
They seem to feel at home here. And it is their home, after all.
Maybe they look back at us and think, "They seem to feel at home among us. That's good."