Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ermine Invasions

            My most recent tour to the Upper Lagoon was an exercise in snatching partial victory from the jaws of defeat.   On trips to the Upper Lagoon, we paddle through a tidally-influenced channel that only permits travel up to Pedersen Glacier around certain high tides.   (Usually, the channel carries the glacier’s meltwater downstream to the bay.   But on some high tides, the level of the sea rises enough that the stream actually reverses directions – instead of fresh water flowing downstream, it’s salt water flowing uphill.)   This particular tide height was only 7.6, (we like to run at 8 feet or higher), so it was sort of a marginal high tide to begin with.   Additionally, we only had two people sign up for the trip, which is a good thing in some respects (guiding trips become progressively easier the fewer clients there are), but it meant that we needed to paddle up in kayaks.   Three people (myself and the clients) are simply not enough people to effectively paddle an eight-person canoe.   Unfortunately, tours in kayaks require a lot more time at the beginning of the trip to get everyone dressed in their spray skirts and cover the safety points about the boats.   So, that was two strikes against the trip going as planned.   The third strike came in the form of one of the slowest client paddling speeds that I have yet seen this summer.    (Some beginning kayakers do not immediately make the connection that in order to propel a boat through the water, you need to actually encounter some resistance against your paddle.   Some clients get their paddle wet, and not much else.)   The combination of a marginal tide, a late start, and a slow paddling speed made an unfortunate trifecta; by the time we reached the tidal channel, it was already a half an hour past the posted high tide.   For reasons I don’t fully understand, the tides in the lagoon can be delayed up to two hours from the posted Seward tides - however, this wasn’t a high enough tide for the water to stack up like that.   By the tie we got to the channel, the current had already reversed, and was flowing downstream, opposite the way we wanted to go.   

            I pulled out my tow rope, clipped my clients’ boat onto a ten-foot tether and started paddling for all I was worth.   With the weight of the double kayak, plus the fact that the current was heading the other direction, it was definitely a workout.   We inched our way into the channel.   After a few minute, we pulled far enough ahead of a low take-out on the opposite bank where we could potentially land the kayaks on shore.   I hollered to my clients that we probably weren’t going to be able to make it much further in (mostly because I knew that I was going to run out of steam eventually, and also that I didn’t know how great a tour experience my clients would have if the whole tour was just inch-by-inch progress up the channel…)   They seemed good with the change in plan, so we turned and ferried across the channel to the opposite bank.   

            One confession: I didn’t quite know how landing two kayaks in current, and with a boat on a tow, would actually work.   I had visions of getting my kayak into shore, then having to stop paddling to get out of my boat, and subsequently being dragged back into the water by the weight of the boat I was towing.   So I asked my people to paddle hard into shore and try to beach their boats as much as they could; which they did pretty well.   There was slack on the rope as I was getting out; then I pulled their kayak further up the bank and helped them climb out.   Not nearly as dramatic as I had expected.   

            Once we were on shore, we walked about 70 yards up the bank to a  place where we could see the upper lagoon, and get views of all the grounded icebergs at the front of Pedersen Glacier.   I felt very sorry for one of the clients, who had problems with her feet, and was having trouble walking in the rubber boots.   On the plus side, since it was just the three of us, we were really able to tailor the trip around what they were interested in doing.   So we walked out to the shore, took some pictures, and walked back.   This is another reason why tours with just a few clients are wonderful; its much easier to manage unexpected situations when there are fewer people to keep track of.    

            The next day was good; it was a five-bear day.   The first bear was grazing in the meadow as we were setting up boats for our morning trips.   The second and third bears were seen distantly as we were paddling across the lagoon for the morning canoe and hiking tour.   The third and fourth bears were a double feature for the afternoon canoe trip.   

            There is one bear around the lodge that we can recognize by sight, thanks to a large brown saddle mark on his rear end.   This brown spot has earned the bear the name Cinnamon Bun.   Cinnamon Bun has occasionally been seen hanging out with another bear; we wonder if the bears are litter-mates, as they don’t seem to act much like a male/female pair.   

            Anyway, Cinnamon Bun and the other bear were both on the shore of the lagoon, vacuuming up the plantago that grows near the high-tide line.   It was very clear from watching them who was the dominant bear.   Cinnamon Bun was just mowing the grass; he didn’t seem to care what the other bear was doing.   The little bear, on the other hand, was paying very close attention to Cinnamon Bun.   Every time Cinnamon Bun moved closer, the little bear would stop eating and take a few steps further away, and stare at Cinnamon Bun for a few seconds before going back to eating.   Eventually, Cinnamon Bun started moving purposefully along the beach in the direction of the other bear; the little guy  got spooked.   He loped up the beach and disappeared into the greenery, while Cinnamon Bun continued walking along and cropping plants.

            The next day, strangely, none of our guests wanted to go on any trips in the afternoon.   This turned out to be a good thing, as the best wildlife sightings of the day all took place inside the guest cabins.   

            The guests in cabin eight had gone back to their room after lunch, and were taking a nap.    They woke up in a hurry when a squirrel jumped in bed with them.   Within the hour, ermine were reported breaking into two other cabins (apparently they’d been taking clues from the squirrels).   The ermine look like tiny brown ferrets; they might appear cute, but they are also carnivorous murderers.   One of the ermine had drug a dead vole into the cabin with it; it apparently wanted to stockpile some food in their bed.   From the refuge of some high furniture, the clients took photos with their iPad of the ermine ransacking their room.   At the bar that night, everyone was sharing pictures they’d taken of ermine and squirrels climbing bedframes, chewing gloves, and scurrying in and out of cracks in the walls.    Two of the lodge staff were kept busy for a couple of hours chasing the wildlife out of the cabins, and crawling under the buildings with cans of spray-foam insulation, trying to identify and plug up their access routes.   The lodge manager comp’ed a bottle of wine to everyone who had had their room infested, and everyone seemed pretty happy with their up-close-and-personal Alaska wildlife encounter.   

             In other animal news, the camp porcupine got into the maintenance shed last week and chewed up a tube of silicone gel.   The porcupine was seen waddling out of camp with orange goo smeared all over his face.  We suspect he was probably high as a kite on glue fumes.   The maintenance staff are now talking about trying to live-trap and relocate the porcupine to the other side of the lagoon, to save our silicone gels from further destruction, and possibly to save the porcupine from ingesting more chemicals than are good for him.   

            I saw the porcupine a few days later on the ridge; we walked behind him for about seventy-five yards taking pictures.  He knew we were behind him, but the brush was so thick that he couldn’t get off the trail, or didn’t want to bother.   Instead, he’d turn around, give us a dirty look, and waddle faster down the trail.   Eventually, he dove into the bushes, shaking his quills ominously as we passed.

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