December Shrimping

We went to the container house in Craig for Christmas with Sara’s sister’s family. Lots and lots of wind and rain. This was Sara’s first time spent in her container house, and she immediately went to work organizing. She liked it a lot more than I think she thought she would, as do I. The more time I spend in it, the more I like it.

After several years of finishing the container after receiving it mostly constructed, we’ve got the place dialed in pretty well for living.  There’s a bathroom with sink and shower and small hot water heater, a kitchen sink and cabinets, two futons to use as couches during the day and beds at night. Most of our cooking is done with an electric frying pan and toaster oven. I put in shelves along the front wall that are about 7 feet above the floor where we can store boxes or duffle bags with our clothing and spare bedding. We have a shed that my brother in law gave us where we keep a chest freezer and dorm-sized fridge. It’s warm and dry with hot showers. It’s simple. I have a cell signal booster so we have good cellular service now. We have good reception for XM radio to listen to ballgames when we’re not listening to KRBD from Ketchikan, which is one of my favorite public radio stations ever, alongside KDLG in Dillingham.

I’d replaced the old, bigger Toyo stove with a practically new smaller Toyo stove. Perfect size for the container. The only problem – I came to find out – was when the power goes out and comes back on, regardless of what temp the stove was set at, it resets to 70 degrees. This isn’t a problem when you’re in town, but it is if you’re not. I set the stove at 50 degrees when I left, and there must have been a power outage shortly after I left in November based on the number of gallons of fuel burned heating an empty building to 70 degrees for over a month. I figured all this out only after we got there and I experimented with unplugging the stove and plugging it back in. I hope an uninterruptible power supply battery will fix it. I also put a big thermometer in the window so my neighbor can see it and asked him to adjust the heater if he sees the thermometer too warm or worse yet, below freezing, although that’s a rarity here.

I also brought down a dehumidifier after not being able to dry things out much when Charlie and I were deer hunting in November. The place is warm and dry, but clothes didn’t dry very fast with the humidity contained in the small space. The dehumidifier really did the trick, as  I could see how fast wet boot prints on the door mat evaporated when the unit was running versus when it was not.

My brother in law had not checked his shrimp pots in quite a spell due to the weather and the distance the pots were from town. When the weather broke for a day, he and Sara’s sister, my two nieces, and a cousin of the nieces recently graduated from UAS, all headed to check the pots at first light. It was the last week of December and the temperature was in the 40’s. Not much winter in this part of Alaska, at least at sea level. For some reason, varied thrush birds were all over the place along the coast.

The trip to the pots took about an hour and a half. We saw several humpback whales along the way, feeding in groups of up to six or seven whales.  Groups of sea lions were at their regular spots along the way as well. At a couple narrow passes, water rushed so hard with the tide and current that marker buoys can be taken under water.

As we checked the pots, they had some shrimp, but not the usual bonanza they see at this spot. It looked like a combination of the bait being consumed in the pot and some of the shrimp escaping, as well as an abundance of shrimp-eating octopus, as we caught one in about every other pot.  Everyone on the boat had lots of fishing and sea time under their belts, so there was always a hand to help the captain handle a pot or remove bait from jars or move gear around the deck.

Lots of hands made the shrimp cleaning easy. We pinched the tails off the shrimp in between pulling pots, and ended up with about 6 gallons of tails, along with the octopus, so it wasn’t a bust by any means.  Gale winds were forecast for the afternoon, so we headed straight home. The crew shucked their rain gear and went inside the boat cabin. I left my rain gear on, pulled up a half barrel full of crab line, set it next to outside wall of the cabin for a back rest, and took a seat for the ride home. It was comfortable in the 2 to 3 foot chop.

As I looked at our wake behind the boat, I saw a humpback breach. Then it breached again. Then did a tail lob.  As we put more miles between us, I could see it slapping the surface with it’s long pectoral fins. All these behaviors I’d seen when captaining the whale watch boats near Juneau, but they seemed especially wild now out here with only me watching. I could still see the whale pectoral slapping the water when I finally lost sight of it when we were some 5 (?) miles away. I settled in for the rest of the ride home, out of the spray and snug and warm in my layers of clothes and rain gear.

As we got closer to home, we were protected by islands and some of the water was almost flat calm, even though I could see the trees along the channels bending in the wind higher up. As we neared town, we lost much of our protection and had some more chop, but I knew we’d beat the blow and would be in port before it hit.

We entered the harbor just as the wind picked up. As I wrapped the stern line around a cleat at the dock, a big gust shook the harbor.  Then the gusts became just wind and the blow was here just as we secured the boat. We gathered armfuls of rain gear, fishing gloves, and buckets of octopus and shrimp tails and fought the wind and rain for the short climb up the dock ramp to the parking lot .

Sara picked me up in our truck and I stripped off my rain gear and climbed in. The rest of the crew went home in their truck. Back at the container, I welcomed the rush of warmth as I entered the house and began putting my gear away. I hadn’t spent this much time with my nieces in many years and it was good to reconnect with them.

Deer Hunting 2019

Went to Craig to deer hunt in late October.  Weather was lots of wind and rain much of the 3 weeks I was there.  The rain was a blessing after a dry season that left many of the hydroelectric lakes in the region in a desperate situation.

This was the first time I’d hunted down here out of my boat.  It took a few trips to gain some confidence with anchoring the boat and going to shore in a punt.  Turns out it’s a lot easier than in Juneau. The tides are smaller here, and lots of coves around the numerous islands to get out of the wind.  Since the weather was crappy during the first two weeks, not many friends and family wanted to go out in the boat and I wasn’t confident enough to go myself so I hunted spots from the big road system.  Didn’t see much.

The first trip in my boat was with Brian and Howard. It was exciting to be the boat driver for the first time in 20+ years of hunting, and Brian remarked how great it was for him to just get dropped off and picked up, instead of having to be the last in the woods and first out, along with worry about the boat, when he did all the driving.

I dropped the two of them off at one spot, then traveled down the beach about 5 minutes to my spot. I carefully anchored the boat, rowed to shore in the punt, changed out to cork boots, and headed up the hill. At the first spot, I called in more deer than I think I saw driving the roads all week. I think there were 4 deer that all came in from below me. I saw a medium fork stop, and took him. There was at least one doe, and another deer that sure looked like a big buck that came closer, but I never could see the head of the big deer and it walked away up the hill and wouldn’t come back. I dressed the deer, turned it over so it could continue to cool and drain but not be open to scavenging from ravens, and continued hunting up the hill. I didn’t get another deer further up the hill, and so about noon, I returned to my deer. I hung it up in a tree, got the hide off, then cut off both front quarters, the torso at the hips, and kept the hind quarters together. I stuffed the four sections of meat into the big game bag I sewed from a sheet that lined my pack, put the pack up on a stump, sat down under it so it sort of fell onto my back, and headed down the hill.

Then my friend from Kodiak, Charlie, decided to come down.  He had only hunted from the roads here, and showed me some new spots. But when the weather broke and we got out in the boat, that sort of changed everything.  Now I had a captive audience to go every day. We hunted alot in pouring rain and wind. We ran into a nice 4 point one day – a deer just in the wrong place at the wrong time, as no bucks were coming to our deer call.  Charlie got the deer, then made the mistake of thinking it would be a good idea to drag it back to the beach. We were some distance from the beach, with lots of woods and dead falls between here and there. I’d advised him to bring a frame pack when he said he was coming down, but he only had a little day pack on.  I’d been in this position before, packing out someone else’s deer in my frame back because they didn’t bring one, and had decided I wasn’t gonna do that again. It was a long, wet, up and down hill drag for Charles. But he made it. The next day was a gale and we weren’t gonna hunt anyway so lucky for him we just slept in.

I wanted to go to a spot we’d gone to 10+ years ago with the brothers Bue, and we tried there next.  As great a place as I remember, but we didn’t see much. Then we picked out another spot on a new app my sister in law showed me.   It’s called On X. You can download satellite maps to a smartphone or tablet that has GPS capability. Then you can use those maps to show your location via the gps, even if you don’t have cell phone reception.  Some simple high tech stuff that sort of changes your whole operation.  

Although I can tie up my boat to my inlaws dock, I like to keep my boat on its trailer, especially when the weather is so windy I’d need to move it off the dock anyway.  The boat launch is located about 3 miles from our place, and so places I normally hunted with my inlaws dockwould mean considerable back tracking from the launch to get to. I used the On X maps to find some promising deer hunting closer to the boat launch, and we headed there after sleeping in til past 8am.  It was a little lumpy in some of the exposed weather, and when we were just about in the lee of an island and calmer water, I realized we’d forgot the guns in the truck, so back through the lump to the truck. By the time we got to the spot I’d picked, it was getting on 10 am. Days like this where things don’t go as planned sometimes produce the best memories.

I dropped Charlie and our packs, survival gear, and guns on the beach, then backed off the beach, anchored the boat, and rowed the punt to the beach.  As I swapped my regular extra tuffs for corked extra tuffs – rubber boots with golf spikes – our friend cruised by hunting the beaches.

We saw some deer and got one small fork horn late in the day about a mile from the beach.  This time Charlie had a pack I’d loaned him, and it was a lot easier for him getting back to the beach.  We cruised the beaches looking for deer on the way home when I spotted a downed evergreen I thought might be a cedar that my brother in law might want. As we idled to the beach, we saw a deer near the tree.  And it was a buck. As we touched the beach, the deer walked into the woods. Apparently, when I blew the deer call it stopped him, as he was just inside the beach fringe and we got our second deer. Since we’re not rural residents, we can take 2 bucks each here on federal land (which most of it is in this hunting area) as the deer hunting success for the local hunters has not been good.  Normally we could take 4 bucks each. And that’s okay with us. We’ve now got our deer for the season here, and can take a couple more up in Juneau if we want.

By the time we got the deer dressed and into the boat, it’s about dark.  I white-knuckle it in the darkness by GPS through the rockpiles back around the island in front of town, and once we see the town lights, I relax as I see the boat launch in the distance.

I got up the next morning at 5 am and had my deer butchered and packaged by 9 am.  Then Charlie started in on his and he was done in the early afternoon. We both wished we had more deer to get because we were just getting the hang of it but we’ll be ready to go next year.

Getting home to Juneau is an all day affair. Howard and Michelle pick us up at 630 am for the 40 minute ride to the ferry in Hollis. After a 3 hour ride to Ketchikan, we take a taxi to another ferry that crosses to the airport. Then it’s a 5+ hour wait til our flight to Juneau, which stops in Sitka on the way. We get home on time at 8 pm. After 3 weeks of sleeping on a futon, it’s a simple pleasure to be back in my own bed.

Life on the Flats

Stikine River

Finally got over to the Stikine River after our initial plans were delayed by the weather. We borrowed a floathouse on the flats that I went to 20 years ago almost to the day with Don and Alan. That cabin since burned I’m told, and the replacement cabin was very tidy with an oil stove and four bunks.

We got to the cabin on a high tide that was also the higher high tides of the month. We pulled right up to the cabin. When we climbed onto the porch, we could see through the decking that the logs underneath looked alive. With mice – more specifically as far as I can tell – voles. We’ve since concluded both meadow voles and long tailed voles. The voles were flooded out from their burrows by the huge tides. When we looked around, we could see voles swimming and climbing into willows or anyplace above water level. We also saw a small buck deer about 75 yards from the cabin but I’d left my rifle back in Wrangell and none of us had any slugs so he’s still out there.

When we walked out into the flooded flats, voles were scurring everywhere. The swimming voles looked like windup toys plowing their way through the water to someplace dry. The flats were alive with predators. Marsh hawks, ravens, owls, bald eagles – even sea gulls – were all hunting the voles. The ravens seemed like the most efficient with the bonanza. We’d see a raven with a mouse in its mouth fly by, land on a log, cache his catch, then repeat this over and over until the tide receded and the activity waned. The bald eagles, on the other hand, looked to eat their voles one at a time, first taking off the fur, then eating the remainder. The gulls didn’t seem all that successful hunting the voles but got a few.

The next few tides were very high and the scene played out each time. All the birds up and hunting for an hour or two, then they’d all disperse when the tide ebbed.

We did get in some hunting. It was the first time using the big shot gun Paul gave me – his Remington 1100. It’s got about a 30 inch barrel and felt like driving a sports car. I still didn’t hit much but did get my first two Canada geese and a nice drake mallard.

We moved up to the cabin we usually stay in after a couple days to do some work. Right at dark, we heard wolves start to howl – I think only my second time ever hearing them, as the first time was near Juneau 25 ish years ago. My sister in law was going out to the outhouse before daylight the next morning and saw 3 sets of eyes in her headlamp beam. It took awhile before she was relieved to see the eyes belonged to deer and not wolves.

Good Samaritan

As I rounded the spit to my haul out at the beach, I saw smoke coming from a campfire on Admiralty Island and saw a person walk down to the waters edge. As I turned away from him towards Horse Island, the person waved and I headed over to see what was up. It was two hunters, and their boat had pulled anchor and they couldn’t get out to it. I said I’d take them both out, and the hunter at the beach said they had a deer so it would be easier for me to take him to their boat and then he’d pull anchor and go to the beach.

I dropped him off, and headed to my haul out. As I was pulling my crab pots, I saw him get his partner and load their deer and gear into their boat and head for town.

I went to the beach and was pulling the boat out on the clothesline when I saw movement over on Admiralty Island. At the exact spot I ‘d just picked the hunters up. It was the teenage resident brown bear that spends some time on Horse Island as well. He was sniffing all over the area the hunters had just left. Must have smelled the deer. I didn’t notice if they’d dragged the deer out or had butchered it and had it in their packs. Either way, it was kinda creepy to see that bear right on their trail so quickly after they’d left. I wonder if the bear was waiting in the woods til they left or just hadn’t caught up to them until they left. Since they’d been there long enough to start a fire, I’m guessing the bear was hanging back in the woods.

That bear could be trouble for successful hunters if it makes it to adulthood.

I had 6 keeper tanner crab (my favorite) along with one of the usual dungeness crab. All the tanner crab were good – none had the milky innards that indicates bitter crab disease and a cause for discarding them. I steamed them all back at the cabin and I picked them all by lantern light after a dinner of pizza topped with onions, mama lils peppers and moose sausage.  After the crab was all picked, I read an Alaska Magazine from 1975.

Day Off

Getting more days off of work now that the tourist season is winding down. I got up with no plans on Tuesday. Then I thought- you need to get your fat ass out and do some walking after sitting behind the boat wheel for days on end since August 1.  I looked at the tide table and saw low tide was right now. So perfect. I have about 90 minutes to get to the spot in the channel to snag cohos.

I already had my bag of items together from earlier attempts – extra snagging hook, lures, water bottle, gaff, plastic bags and fish cleaning knife. After slogging the distance in the super heavy wading boots I’d used at ADFG, I replaced them with some old Keen hiking boots. Heaven. Like walking on air compared to the heavy boots. I walk out onto the flats to the spot, and see 3 people fishing there. When I got there there were 2 fly and one spin fishers. Plenty of room for me to fish one end of the run while they fished the other.

One of the fishers had worked at the Salvation Army store so we quickly strike up a conversation. He told me there were lots of fish in the run.  I soon see a school rush and make a wake. We’re in business.

For some reason, I can’t remember to buy polarized glasses. It was overcast today so I could see okay, though. It took a few casts to get back into practice, and then it was one fish after another. On the first fish, when I yarded it onto the beach, the line broke. I hustled down and moved the fish up the beach with my foot. Then I noticed the hook had come out. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Luckily I had a spare. I conked the fish, broke a gill, and put the fish on a ganglion line stringer tied to my pack on the beach. It didn’t take long to catch four more. On fish number six (the limit), I actually snagged the fish in the mouth – at least that’s what it looked like. Or maybe he bit it. Either way, just as I had it into the shallows, it broke off. I tried directing it up to shallower water with my leg, but it got away. I tried a few casts with a pixie but a pixie is no snagging hook. I start cleaning my fish, and as I get to the last one, I look up and see my pack floating away. The incoming tide was here and would cut me off from short-cutting it through sloughs if  I didn’t leave soon. I load the fish into a plastic bag that’s in my big waterproof pack, shoulder the pack and slog back to the car. I make a mental note to bring a frame for this pack next time.

When I get to the car, I get a text from my friend and firewood source, Ed (and Kathy). The text read merely “Wood?”.  I thought- I have 5 fish to butcher to get ready to can. But hell yes, I want wood. They key to being a wood recipient is when your source asks, you always say yes. So I tell Ed I can come over in a hour (which turned out being more like two hours), fillet, skin and chunking the five fish, and put the meat into colanders on a cookie sheet in the fridge.

I borrow Jeff’s truck and head over to Ed’s. I told Ed he called just in time as I had so many crab I didn’t know what to do with all of them. I hand bags of steamed dungy crab halves to Kathy, who thanks me profusely, which kind of embarrasses us both. He loads me up with a load of slabs from his mill, then says to bring back my chainsaw when I return. On the second trip, he picks up logs with his skid steer forks, and I buck them off into two-round lengths. After we’d cut most for the logs, Ed then switched the forks to a bucket, and started loading them into the truck. I gotta get a skid steer.

As I was leaving with the third load, Ed said to come get the remainder whenever was easy. At home,  I bulldog the rounds off the truck and into my storage areas between the spruce and hemlock trees, spray out Jeff’s truck bed, and return his truck.

Next I look at my inventory of canning jars. I am getting down to the last of my pints, which I don’t remember happening in 20 years. I didn’t learn til I was about 50 to store jars upside down, so these jars have spiders and dust in them and need to be washed thoroughly. I put them in the dishwasher and start it. I won’t get to canning today.

Yesterday was a full day of boat driving in the day and boy scout meeting in the evening. I get up early this morning and start loading my jars with the well drained fish from the fridge. I load the jars into my two identical 21 quart Mirro canners placed on the three burner stand up cook stove I got on Craigslist. I had one of the canners since I my early years in Alaska, and bought the second off Craigslist when I was up in Kenai fishing with Keith a couple years ago. Having the two big canners and the big stove makes things so efficient. I can can 36 wide mouth jars at a time now, and the cook stove heats the canners to steaming very quickly. Another lesson learned after 50.

Protect the young

On my last whale watch trip, right at sun set tonight, I witnessed two orca bulls trying to kill a humpback whale calf.  The calf was surrounded by 4 to 6 adult humpbacks, though, and I think they may have been on all sides of the calf and even underneath it.  The orcas were driving all around the group of humpbacks.  I had to leave to get my group back to the dock before it was settled, but I never saw any blood and think the humpbacks were successful in protecting the calf.