St. Lazaria Island
Thursday July 10, 2014
The morning starts out calm and easy. Stuart, Nicole and I take DRIFTER out to do our tenth Pigeon Guillemot (PIGU) circumnavigation of the summer. I enjoy these, because I drive the boat, while Stuart sits on the starboard side, facing the island, and counts guillemots on shore. Nicole writes down the data, sitting on the port side facing away from the island, and counts any guillemots she sees on the water. It’s fun for me to have the opportunity to watch everything: helping to spot the guillemots, but also paying attention to the swells and the wave action, sneaking peeks to try to find the Peregrine Falcon nest or see the Black Oystercatcher chicks. And I love to practice operating DRIFTER. I’m feeling more confident with my boat-handling skills every day.
After the PIGU survey, we return to shore briefly. Leslie joins us and we go back out on DRIFTER so she can orient us to the water-based murre counts. Here’s how it works: you’re in the skiff, floating around in the swell just off the rocks on the outside of the island, engine sometimes on, sometimes off. You have to look through binoculars at the cliff face as you’re drifting by, and count how many murres you see in a certain section of cliff. Exhaust from the outboard and heady guano smells from the murres make this a sure recipe for seasickness. And in fact, Nicole thinks she might “ralph,” as she puts it. We do the Cliff Colony first, on the outer southwest part of the island, using clickers to keep track of the numbers. Then we motor over to the Cave Colony, on the westernmost end of the island. This spot is slightly less exposed to the big ocean swells coming in from the Gulf of Alaska. Murres are tucked inside the cave, and surprisingly, there are about the same number of murres here as there are on the Cliff Colony. I like the Cave because the zones have creative names: Deep Pocket, Upper Slide, and Guano Bowl. On the Cliff, the plots are simply 1 through 9. But my enthusiasm is waning; now I’m feeling pretty seasick, too. I will definitely try taking some seasick meds for the next time. The plan for the rest of the summer is for Stuart and I to do the water-based murre counts, while Nicole sits on the cliff above doing the same thing, but without the seasickness factor. We are calling this “one if by land, two if by sea.”
After the boat ride, and no one actually vomiting, we return to shore, gear up for grubbing, and hike first to the southwest end of the island to look at the murre Cliff Colony from land, then to the northwest part of the island to search the Rhinoceros Auklet burrows for chicks. From the top of the cliffs at the Rhino plot, we look down and see that the ALASKA has anchored in Peregrine Cove. This boat, a beautiful wooden troller, was formerly owned by Kelly from Halibut Cove, by way of Seldovia. Kelly sold her this year to Blaise, and in April, Blaise hauled her out on the beach at Walt and Sachiko’s to repaint the bottom. We had a big bonfire on the beach right before I left and Blaise came to the party. He was excited to hear that I’d be on St. Lazaria this summer and asked me what kind of beer I like. I’m happy to see the boat here and hope we connect. Esther, his deckhand, plays the fiddle. Maybe we can ask her to play some tunes!
We work for two hours in the Rhino colony, weighing and measuring chicks. A humpback whale, which we’d seen earlier from the murre observation point, is feeding just below the cliffs as we work. We mostly have our heads down, either grubbing the burrows with our faces literally in the dirt, or taking notes in our Rite-in-the-Rain data books, so we can’t actually watch the whale. But we can hear it exhaling each time it surfaces. A Peregrine Falcon from the nearby cliff eyrie is around, but it’s not screaming at us like it did last week. It’s a peaceful afternoon… I’m calming into the slower rhythm set by the whale’s dives and breaths… but I’m feeling headachy and seasick the whole time. There’s a big spruce tree near the northwest corner of the island, where we’re grubbing the last of the Rhino burrows. While off-trail on this fragile island, I like to walk or climb onto the roots or horizontal branches of the trees. Maybe there’s a burrow underneath the roots, but in this case, the tree roots form a sturdy roof that I can’t collapse. This spruce tree has a large horizontal exposed root, perfect for reclining on, with a knob as a pillow for my head. Stuart is still trying to find a particularly elusive Rhino chick, but I have a few moments of pure bliss, listening to the whale and relaxing on the tree.
Back at camp, there’s a text from Blaise: “Hey Cindy, anchored behind St. Lazaria tonite, July 10… Got some beer for you! Let me know how we should get together.” In spite of having looked forward to this moment since April, when I read the message I feel… I don’t know… a bit weary and wary. It’s been a very long day already, with about twelve hours of work, including two boat rides, seasickness, hiking, and grubbing. But I text him back right away and offer to come fetch him and Esther with DRIFTER. Nicole comes with me, which makes hauling the boat in from the running line and through the kelp field much easier. We tour the ALASKA, one of the nicest and cleanest wooden boats I have ever been on. She’s very similar to Walt and Sachiko’s DUNA, which they sold right before I moved to Seldovia. I can pretend I’m touring DUNA while Esther and Blaise show us around, and wonder what it would be like to work as a deckhand on a boat like this. Maybe I could ask Blaise later if he ever needs extra help.
The four of us take DRIFTER back to the island and go to the cabin. It feels a bit awkward, not knowing them really at all, and Stuart and Leslie have dinner ready, but had made our usual amount for four people. Visitors don’t come to the island, and other than our boat driver and one volunteer from Sitka, we haven’t spoken to anyone since late May, six weeks ago. We’re standing around in the cabin, struggling to make small talk. Daylight is fading fast. I finally offer to take them on an island tour, and skip dinner – honestly, not feeling hungry at all. In fact, I’ve been battling an upset stomach for a few days, even before today’s headache and seasickness.
For the fourth time this day (two by land and two by sea), I visit the murre observation point. Blaise and Esther, among the hundreds of fishermen who anchor next to this island each year, and probably thousands of tourists who have circled the island by boat on day-trips from Sitka, are probably the only ones who’ve had a guided tour on land. Although the wildlife refuge is technically open to the public, visiting is not encouraged because of the fragility of the habitat here. There’s no easy place to land a boat, either. I tell them about the center of the island being awash during some high tides and storms, and how it’s shown as two separate islands on charts. Six-Inch Rock is our gauge to tell whether we can make the crossing from the east end of the island, where the cabin is, to the west end. If there are six inches of water showing on that rock, you can make it along the north side. Otherwise, you have to go through the Gull Colony instead. And if the tide is a big enough one, you’ll be swimming, no matter where you try to cross.
“The tide is going out, right?” I ask. None of us know, but carry on anyway. We climb up to the west trail on the ladders through the thick tundra vegetation, and peek into Burrow Nester 2 (BN2), one of our chick growth plots. This is where Fork-tailed and Leach’s Storm-petrels raise their chicks in underground nests. Grubbing is the word seabird researchers use to describe the peculiar act of reaching one’s arm into a seabird burrow or crevice, sometimes all the way up to the shoulder, and gently feeling around for adults, eggs, or chicks. In a chick growth plot like this one, we extract the chicks we find, to measure and weigh them. Esther asks if grubbing damages the burrows. “We try really hard not to do any damage. When you’re grubbing you have to be aware of exactly where your knees and feet and elbows are, because you could be wrecking a burrow somewhere other than the one you’re working on, if you’re not paying attention. It can be pretty stressful. But you end up being super-aware of your body. My yoga teacher called it proprioception. This job is like doing yoga for twelve hours a day. But, yes, it’s possible to collapse the burrows, or put your foot through. That’s why we never go off-trail unless we’re on hard rock surfaces. This island is like crumbly swiss cheese, and all the holes in the cheese are burrows, filled with birds. There’s something like 430,000 storm-petrels here! Anyplace there’s soil, basically, there are bird nests. For me, it’s helpful to remember that the data we collect is important in the grand scheme of things, to know what’s going on in the ocean. But, yeah, I struggle a bit with the potentially destructive aspect.”
We stop at Chin Up, a chick growth plot named for a big tree with a horizontal branch, then hike through the forest, and out into the thick grasses of the maritime tundra. We can smell and hear the murres at Cliff Colony before we can see them. Both Thick-billed and Common Murres nest on the ledges here; about a thousand of these penguin-like birds stacked almost vertically on the cliff. They are quieter than in the daytime hours, but still raucous. I think their voices sound like a bunch of drunk guys telling jokes at the bar. An especially funny one will get the whole colony laughing.
By now it’s dusky and the storm-petrels are returning to the island from the sea, bringing the day’s catch to their chicks in the nests. We just stand and listen several times on our hike back, Esther quiet and enthralled. Black silhouettes of storm-petrels flutter against the darkening sky. Like the murres, the Leach’s Storm-petrels’ calls sound like laughter; in their case, a burbly chortle. The Fork-taileds have more of a rhythmic scratchy sound. We can hear both species calling all around us, in the air and from the sweet earth beneath our feet. I guess Esther and I could probably stay out all night listening and watching, but Blaise is thinking about his boat. It’s been a long time to leave the ALASKA at anchor with no one aboard. And their alarm clock is set for 3:00 AM, to get up and fish in the morning.
Of course, the tide has been coming IN all this time, not going out, and Six-Inch Rock is submerged. “We’ll have to brave the Gull Colony,” I say. I had told them some stories earlier, about how when we go to count the eggs and chicks, the parent Glaucous-winged Gulls dive-bomb our heads. One had made contact with Stuart and gashed his scalp with its claw. Since then, he and Nicole have been sticking orange pin-flags in their hats, and Stuart wedges a piece of cardboard into his collar to protect the back of his neck. Although it can be hot in the sun, I wear my grubbing rain jacket and keep the hood up when I do the survey. The gulls also shit-bomb us when the opportunity presents itself. About a week ago I took a direct hit: a full, steamy, wet load right onto the back of my head, the volume of the impact so loud that I screamed. The hood was great at keeping the shit out of my hair, but since it was my grubbing jacket, with the sleeves cut off, the hot guano had splattered all down the backs of my bare arms. This evening, the gulls are riled up as we pick our way through, but we don’t sustain any damages. “Hitchcock was a genius,” says Blaise.
When we arrive at the Channel, I can see the tide is up above boot-top height in the crossing between us and the boat. There’s no help for it now; we just have to get wet. I feel bad, imagining them having to fish tomorrow in wet, salty XtraTufs. “Sorry, this wasn’t very well-planned,” I say to them, before we wade in and flood our boots. Actually, it wasn’t planned at all.
We make it to DRIFTER, and the water is up almost to the running line’s spreader bar. Once I haul the boat in, I hand the bow line to Blaise and hop in. The boat is side-on to the shore, and suddenly a huge swell hits it, pushes the boat sideways, and flips me right out into the water. I go in over my head, but because I’m wearing my float coat I come right back up. The wave has carried the boat up onto the flat rocks and turned her around so she’s facing bow-out. Somehow, I’ve managed to climb out of the water and onto the shore, too. Or maybe the wave deposited me there, right side up.
Blaise and Esther ask me if I’m alright, and of course I say yes, but truth be told I’m a bit shaken up by this point, a little cold, and probably not thinking so clearly due to being exhausted and not eating anything since 2:00 PM. We decide to go for it and take DRIFTER back to their boat (instead of me walking up to the cabin for help) and all get in. No more rogue waves hit. But now I can’t start DRIFTER’s notorious outboard – I may have flooded it – so Esther rows us back to ALASKA. We pour the water out of our boots and then stand in the warm galley. Blaise insists I eat a granola bar. I am feeling wobbly now, maybe a little bit hypothermic. I realize I will actually need to have someone meet me at the running line, both to make sure I make it back to the island, but also to help me situate the boat and bring me a headlamp so I can see on the way back to the cabin. I try calling camp on the VHF and on the camp phone, but apparently they have all gone to bed and shut the phone and radios off to save batteries. And I turned my phone off and left it in camp when we had started our hike.
Finally, Blaise decides to lend me a headlamp, launch ALASKA’s dinghy, and row back alongside me to make sure I make it to shore safely. Esther starts DRIFTER’s outboard, effortlessly, and I climb in, soggily. Esther will stay on the ALASKA. Blaise is strong and can row practically as fast as DRIFTER can motor. I’m guessing he’s pissed off at this point, but holding his temper admirably well. The full moon is above, shining through the mist in the sky, and all the usual landmarks are underwater. No electric lights mar the natural moonlight, or give clues to navigate by. It’s eerie how I don’t recognize anything. In spite of the stress of the situation, and the technical and survival parts of my brain which are actively operating on the forefront, I’m awed, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This island’s beauty and power inspire respect, veneration, and fear. This familiar place I thought I knew reasonably well after half a summer of living here… it has completely transformed. It has the space to do this, the flexibility to shape-shift, because it is wilderness.
I arrive on shore and secure DRIFTER without any problems. Blaise makes me promise to text him and let him know when I make it to the cabin. It’s not a stretch of the imagination that I might disappear into the night, since the whole center of the island is now awash – just as those charts show it. Two islands. I even have to swim a bit to make it across a spot we can usually rock-hop.
Back at the cabin, I do text Blaise. I light the Coleman lantern and strip down, and at that moment the lantern runs out of gas— unbelievable. I do the rest by headlamp only. Soak all my clothes in fresh water and put on warm, dry woollies. I look at the tide book and see that high tide was at 11:50 PM, a 10.9-footer. This is one of the highest tides of the summer, higher than any others I’ve seen since I’ve been on the island. It’s at least one in the morning when I finally climb into bed.
Sleep is elusive.
The rogue wave hitting DRIFTER replays in my mind. We don’t normally see wave action like that on the north side. Could it have been a boat wake? Less likely, though more romantic, I imagine the chances of a big swell traveling across the North Pacific from Japan, wrapping around the east end of the island to come straight at us from the Sitka Sound direction, totally unexpected, invisible in the dark. And at the very moment I was most vulnerable, standing up in the boat.
I tally my mistakes tonight: I didn’t eat, didn’t have a float plan, forgot to check the tide book, didn’t have any way to communicate, misjudged how tired I was, underestimated how long our tour would last, didn’t bring a headlamp, and waited too long to ask for help. Wearing that float coat was the one thing I did correctly. When I went into the water everything happened so fast. The float coat popped me right up to the surface. I stifle a laugh and make myself snort out loud: I don’t suppose I could ever ask Blaise for a deckhand job now, after he witnessed the most unseaworthy moment of my life.
Blaise and Esther: my interaction with them feels unbalanced. They brought me two 12-packs of beer and gave me a granola bar and a headlamp; I took them on a tour, but soaked their boots, and robbed them of sleep during their busy fishing schedule. How will they remember this evening? Does the sound of hundreds of thousands of storm-petrels returning to their island burrows factor into our trade?
How much value does such wild magic have?