Monday, August 15, 2011


Monday, August 15

After dreaming of waves all night, I wake early at Pakenham Point to a beautiful day of thin clouds above and ribbons of fog over the water. I go to retrieve the food bag I had stashed in the grass away from the tent but it 's gone. Was I right in being so cautious? Did a bear travel down the narrow point and take it in the night? Or perhaps one of the eagles we had seen? But I then spy a bit of red in exposed roots of the hurricane trees that ring the gravel, which explained two mysteries. There were in fact waves lapping near my head, the high tide had found its way into the depression behind my tent and filled it with water, rising only feet from my tent and, of course, carrying off my bag, before retreating as I slept. I was glad for the few feet which lifted me above a nighttime soaking.

After breakfast we row out to the Dora Keen to make our way into College Fiord where a cruise ship is scheduled to travel. Barbara is going to measure the emissions which are sure to hang in a light blue ribbon after the ship passes and because the fiord is surrounded by mountains, they linger, then move into the forest covered slopes where they cause acid rain and fog.  Barbara is hoping to evaluate the emissions visually, but her and Tim also have another way to measure the impact, and that's in testing the lichen.
"Over 500 species grow here, hanging like long beards from branches, clinging to trees in leafy clusters, or sprawling along the forest floor....Because lichens absorb airborne moisture and elements, they are also air quality indicators.
The United States Forest Service uses lichens as a cost-effective way to bio-monitor air quality on the Tongass and Chugach National Forests...Samples are analyzed for sulfur, nitrogen and 26 other contaminants, including mercury, and the lichen community surveys can detect changes occurring in species composition...

Alaska’s air is perceived as clean, but research indicates change may be underway. Lichen biomonitoring informs Prince William Sound communities about air quality and climatic changes that may affect recreation, fishing, tourism, and forest health. The work stems from the US Forest Service stewardship plan for the Wilderness Study Area, which aims to protect its wild character."

—from Using lichen to monitor air quality
by Tim Lydon, US Forest Service
published in Delta Sound Connections, 2013,
a publication of the Prince William Sound Science Center
As soon as we round Pakenham Point we are met with a thick bank of fog. Tim turns to the radar to try and place the ship, but it keeps cutting out. Hailing the ship isn't any more successful. Because it is impossible to see or be seen in the fog we cannot proceed further into College Fiord, and as we debate what to do next Tim picks up the faint sound of the ships horn. "It's here". Two more blasts and the fog lifts slightly, enough to see the ship growing smaller as it leaves College Fiord.
As we move back toward Pakenham and out of the fog we can see a thin wave of blue smoke snaking through the fiord. Cruise ships have developed a practice of switching to cleaner burning fuel while in the Sound especially when they know they are being monitored, but the trails can still be visible an hour after the ship passes. As Barbara photographs the emissions trail I get a glimpse up College Fiord and feel regret that we are not able to explore it.

But for now we are heading to where Barbara and Tim have set their shrimp pot, looking for the buoy that marks the spot where the rope plunges over 500 feet to the bottom. Once found, Tim works the pulley to reel in the rope while Barbara watches for knots so they don't catch.  As it emerges the wire and netting basket shimmers like a treasure chest. In it are dozens of glowing orange shrimp with bursts of wriggling long legs and beadlike eyes on stems, at first bright orange then dimming to black . Fish heads and other chum glisten. My treasure is in the color of the orange shrimp against the bluegreen rope.

Tim and Barbara pick out the shrimp, and Tim reveals a spiritual side that does not surprise me at all. He chooses the first shrimp, the symbol of our catch, and thanks it for feeding us. He then tosses it overboard, to sink into the icy blue waters to the bottom where he, or she, depending on what stage of its life cycle, will resume feeding on diatoms and mollusks, which it will not thank. Or it may be eaten by a halibut, which may thank it, for all we know.

And then things take a turn. Barbara explains how a shrimp is deheaded, by putting thumb under the translucent shell in back of head and in a single motion, flipping off the head. I can't bring myself to watch and hide in the cabin until the deed is done and the lovely shrimp bodies are chilling in a bucket on the chuck of iceberg retrieved earlier for this purpose. The heads, legs still attached, are tossed back and the pot lowered again.

Once again we anchor in the cove at Pakenham Point.  Barbara and Tim are going to investigate a trash strewn bear baiting site further down the cove. I walk down to the tents to get some work gloves for them but it takes longer than expected, as the tide is rising quickly and has reached the level of a jungle-gym tangle of tree roots which I need to climb over and around. When I finally reach the tents I see my sleeping bag, which I had spread on these same roots to air out, is now suspended over the encroaching waves and about to be soaked through. I don't want to even think about how I would fare the next few nights in a wet, cold sleeping bag. I stash it back in my tent, which I now know is safe, but just barely, from the tide. By the time I return Zodiac has already been launched, so I decide to try some watercolors of the downed trees wildly flailing their roots against the sky. Perhaps I am working too small, I fail be be able to catch their energy. And apparently I am on the wrong side of the point, as the radio suddenly crackles with a message from Barbara and Tim that they have seen a whale breach in the cove. I hurry to the cove side and scan the quiet surface in vain, he is gone, I will see no whales this trip. 

The water sparkles with white light and a feeding frenzy is taking place across the fiord as I settle back in under the yellow tarp, my back against a smooth log. I take off my Xtratuffs and let my feet dry out for the first time in days as I catch up on my writing. Except for the gulls I have had Pakenham point to myself for hours. The tide continues to rise, the gravel bar narrows till I am sitting on its high spine.

Through my binoculars I see Barbara and Tim are loading trash from the Zodiac into the Dora Keen, so I radio to bring my other pair of pants I left on the deck to dry. They reply that they are going first across the fiord to meet with some people they've heard are camping there. It's a strange feeling to see the Dora Keen leave the cove and realize I am really alone, on this tiny spit of land in the fiords of Alaska. Which is not to say it isn't very thrilling. 

I try another watercolor, this time a downed tree with branches like a whale's ribcage. I'm starting to get a bit cold when I look up to see the Dora Keen returning from an unexpected direction. Barbara and Tim have detoured to harvest the shrimp pots again and are now anchoring, a little boat circling in a smooth cerulean sea. The sun is warm on its bow and silhouettes Barbara, balanced on the stern, assisting at anchor. The sound of the ropes straining against the anchor travels over the water as Tim tests it. When he is convinced it is secure they row to shore and we are ready for dinner, mac and cheese with fresh shrimp. I still can't dehead them, but have no problem shelling and deveining their pearly pink torsos.

After dinner Barbara is going to take a "bath" with fresh water they collected from a waterfall on the opposite shore. Tomorrow she is scheduled to don her Forest Service uniform and meet and board a cruise ship. I go for a walk to give her privacy. The tide had receeded just enough that the narrow tip of the point is once again curling into the fiord and is quickly populated with screeching and chattering gulls. One in particular has taken a violent dislike to me, dive bombing my head with fierce screeching. I wave my hat above my head in a vain attempt to fend it off and hurry down the sand bar. She eventually leaves off, but I will surely meet her again on the way back. Curious seals poke their black heads out of the water and swim alongside me as I walk.

At the end of the point I turn to see the light warming the snowfields on the mountains. I head back to camp, an oyster catcher runs ahead of me, silly and nervous, then I take on his nervousness a I move quickly through the gull's self proclaimed territory. Barbara walks up to meet me and heads me off. Tim is taking advantage of the bath water, so she and I walk over to the tents and talk as the sun sets. When Tim finishes his shore-bath he joins us, telling us to turn around.
A moon like a searchlight is rising behind the trees. We watch till it springs clear of the mountain, then keep watching and talking till it is time to turn in.

No comments:

Post a Comment