Whales, kelp, and a cinnamon bear

Jeff and I went south again today in search of kelp and a black bear. Once we left Gastineau Channel, I think we saw one or two other boats today. We knew where the kelp was after the last trip, and on our way there, we found another bed so we stopped and got what we wanted and piled it into the cooler. The kelp is growing fast now, and we got some real trophy stipes.

We continued on, seeing lots of whales. We saw 15 total today, with 2 cow/calf pairs.  We went to look for a bear in Limestone Inlet, and there were 5 whales in the narrow bay. There is a hatchery release of chum salmon there. The smolt have already been released since the net pens are gone, but apparently the smolt stuck around and the whales were taking advantage.

On we went south to a long creek flat bordered on either side by steep hills. That was our destination, as today we were going to look around this flat rather than cruise lots of beaches. Jeff thought it looked the good last time we visited this place. After I anchored the boat and rowed to shore in the punt, we started walking up the big flat of grass. Not 5 or 10 minutes of walking and I spotted a bear on the opposite side. It was eating grass along the tree line at the base of the hill. We sat down under a tree to be out of sight – not that the bear would have spotted us some 500 yards away – and watched.

I initially thought it was a brown bear. It was brown, and had what I thought was a hump. But Jeff wasn’t sure. The bear was continuing to come our way on the opposite side of the flat. We decided to head to the other side now while we had time and hope the bear kept coming all the way out to our position near the ocean.

The creek through the grass flat was deeper than my knee boots. Jeff forded the river in his hip waders, and I stayed put. There were some huge boulders here at the mouth of the river, spread out across the flat, making perfect cover for us.

As the bear continued our way, it would go in and out of sight behind rocks, or in the brush, but eventually it was visible again, and it kept coming up along the edge of the woods, ravenously eating grass.  As it got close to us, I watched though Jeff’s spotting scope as it hopped up and over a rock. I saw its paws and saw it was a black bear. A cinnamon bear.

A couple times the bear ran a few steps forward and looked nervous. He always looked back where he’d come from and not our way. Like maybe there was a bigger bear in the area. We never saw another bear, although from all the grass cropped on the flat, there surely could be one in the area.

He kept coming toward’s Jeff’s position. Jeff was prone on the top of a rock with a perfect rest and watching the bear move his way. When the bear was about 100 yards away and broadside, Jeff squeezed off a .338 round. I saw the shot go through the middle of the bear, maybe a tad high and a tad back from the heart, but certainly a shot through the boiler room. The bear kind of hopped just a bit and ran into the brush.

I headed over to help Jeff find the bear and take care of it. I went upstream to find a spot to cross in my knee boots, but finding none, I just waded across and got wet.  I met Jeff at the brush line where he thought the bear went in. With the sound of the rushing creek, we couldn’t hear any brush crash when the bear ran in. The brush was a tangle of devils club and alder, with a few big spruce trees here and there, and big craggy rocks. There were only a few paths you could take to go up hill in the tangle.

We looked for blood or hair and found none. Jeff indicated the spot he hit the bear and where the bear had run into the brush, but I didn’t see any sign of busted brush. We both entered the brush side by side about 20 yards apart, heading up hill. The slope uphill was gradual for about 20 yards, and then turned steep. I couldn’t conceive that the wounded bear could have gone up the steep hill, but we didn’t see any sign.

We regrouped, and this time we paralleled each other going side hill, venturing much further on either side of where the bear entered the brush, but again, no sign. I didn’t think we could have missed it and thought somehow the bear must had gone up the steep hill.

By now, the tide had turned and was starting to rush in. I needed to back to the punt before the tide got too high and move the boat over to our side of the cove. I had to cross the mouth of the creek. I was already wet, and so was prepared to wade. As I got to the middle of the creek, the water was up to my belly, and I thought the other side would shallow up to the bank. It didn’t. It was a cut bank of sorts. I got to my nipples and was on my toes, between swimming and wading, when I got to the other side and up the bank.

I rowed out to the boat, pulled the anchor, and moved the boat to the other side of the cove, where Jeff met me with our packs gear. I had spare clothes in the emergency bag on the boat. The clothes were vac packed in bags, and so were fresh and dry. As I changed, Jeff said he wanted to go take one more look near the beach for the bear and would be back in an hour or so. I said to fire off a round if he found the bear.

As Jeff returned the 1/4 mile to the spot the bear went into the woods, I changed out of my wet clothes into dry ones, and hung the wet clothes up on the bars of the roof rack. Then I muscled the punt up onto the roof rack and secured it. Next I got out my gun case and started to case my rifle when the shot rang out. I dropped everything, put out the anchor with a line tied to it, and ran the line up to a tree. The tide was rising so the boat would float right here by the shore.

I walked back and found Jeff just finishing gutting the bear. I held on to the bears legs as Jeff finished removing the innards. The bear had been less than 10 yards from where Jeff hit him. He’d run into the brush, and fallen under a log. The bear was right there all the time. It’s one thing to go hunting and not have a chance at game. It’s worse to shoot, know you hit your target and not find it. We were elated.

By now, the tide was really flooding. After wading the creek mouth over an hour prior, I knew I could run up the creek not far from our position and load the bear. Jeff and I floated the bear across a slough into the creek.  This was easier than dragging it, and helped to cool the meat down and wash out the body cavity.  Jeff loves bear meat.  He gave away much of his first bear so he was grateful to get his second bear as the season closes tomorrow.  He mainly cans it, which ensures it’s fully cooked as bears can carry a parasite that can be passed to us humans.

Jeff continued to the rendezvous site, while I returned to the kill site to collect our packs and Jeff’s rifle, and headed for the boat. We were both happy campers now and the walking was easy.

I picked up Jeff and the bear, and we headed for home, reveling in our luck and grand adventure.

Today: Pesto

About out of the pesto I made in 2017, so gathered up what I need for a new batch.

I used about 6 cups of raw fiddleheads, 3 cups of raw nettles and 4 cups of frozen blanched devils club buds,  1/4 (? – 6 to 8 oz?) pine nuts, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup lime juice, 3 tsp garlic powder, 3 tsp pepper, and several cranks of salt from the salt grinder thingy.

Steamed the nettles and fiddleheads, then dumped into a colander and ran cold water over them. Put the greens and nuts in the food processor little by little to finely grind it all, added the juices and spices to it all it a big bowl, then added olive oil til it was the right consistency.

This year, I’m gonna try to freeze it in the ice trays like I’ve seen online and then vacuum pack bags of a few cubes each.

Spring Hunting and Gathering

Took my buddy Jeff bear hunting. He loves to eat black bear. I’ve eaten it, but never been interested in hunting for bear. I have been wanting to harvest some kelp to make relish, salsa and pickles. And especially after attending the kelp farming workshop this winter, I was armed with a lot more information on how kelp grows and this made me more enthusiastic to harvest some, which I’ve never done.

The weather has been hot, hot, hot. I used to say I never need it warmer than 70 degrees. Well, it’s 70 degrees. No I say, I never need it warmer than 60 degrees. We left on a bluebird day at 6 am with light winds and blue skies.

The spring bear hunting trips I’ve tagged along on in Southeast Alaska are pretty simple. You cruise the beaches looking for bears to be out eating the new grasses on the beach. South of Juneau,  you travel on the waterways between primary land masses of the mainland and Admiralty Island. There are both black and brown bears on the mainland, and only brown bears on Admiralty Island. So we ran the mainland shore. We saw some killer whales at the mouth of the Taku River in Taku Inlet. We saw humpback whales a couple times down Stephens Passage. There were about 50 sea lions barking at each other on a haul out. Lots of cruiser boats were in Taku Harbor. We turned into Port Snettisham and found some beautiful coves.  What a day.

We didn’t see any bears. We did pick bull kelp in a couple spots. This was my first time harvesting. In the second spot, the kelp had herring spawn on it. We each tried it, and then it was game on. One swath of spawn on kelp for the cooler, one to eat. One swath for the cooler, one to eat. I thought I was way over doing it but couldn’t help myself and we filled the cooler. I thought – I’m gonna regret this when I get home and have to process it all. It was all very exciting understanding what I was seeing on the kelp. The plants we were picking had grown all this mass since last fall, and the brown splotches on the fronds were the spores that are the seed that would eventually release to seed next year’s crop.

Turns out, what we harvested was just right. The processed kelp broke down to about 16 lbs of stipe, a 6 gallon bucket of naked frond, and 3 gallons of fronds with spawn. The stipes should make a batch each of relish, pickles, and salsa. I vac packed the spawn on kelp pieces. The naked fronds I hung in the garage to dry. I’ll plan to somehow pulverized the dried kelp to use later as a powder for seasoning.

Springtime in Alaska

It’s been an incredible second week of May here in Juneau town. In the 70’s during the day and light winds. It got to 80 a few days ago in Ketchikan and Craig. Meanwhile, it’s been snowing back in my hometown of Bolivar, NY.

I boated over to check the crab pots. Nothing but a couple small tanners in 4 pots!

I got a Lazyboy rocker recliner on Craiglist that was the exact same model we had in the house, and I packed this in to the cabin. The woodpile on the porch had fallen over, so I restacked it, ate some African food Andrew gave us for lunch, then took a sweet nap in the new recliner.

I planned to pick devils club buds today, but when I got down to the beach, I saw I was too late. The leaves had burst the bud sheaths and were past picking. But wait, I looked some more, and here and there were a few that were still good. So I spent some time and got a half a nut container of buds.  I’d noticed lots of devils club along the road near the boat launch, so I headed back home and thought I’d try there.

In any other year, there would be whale watching and other tour boats galore out on the water.  Now, just me and another local on the glassy water as there’s no cruiseships this summer due to the corona virus. Perhaps the first time there are no cruiseships or steamships coming to Juneau since before the gold rush in 1898.

There were some good stands of devils club by the boat ramp that still had pickable buds, and plenty of stands that were too far along. I picked down the road for a quarter mile or so and got maybe a couple quarts of buds.

Later, I drove up to look at the pasture where we get fiddleheads and nettles, expecting it to still be snow covered, and I was surprised to see it had all melted and there was even some green starting to show. So time to get up there.

Second Hand Crab Pots

Jeff and I have the same affliction. We both like look at other people’s stuff and buying other people’s stuff. With no garage sales and the thrift store closed due to the virus, we made a plan- to cruise the beaches where people set their crab pots and see if we could find any derelict pots ghost fishing.  I’ve happened along pots a few times when I would just happen to be out at a minus tide. The pots are not hard to spot – buoys and the crab pot line are covered with mussels and seaweed. Sometimes you can’t even see the buoy, but the clump of seaweed growing on it doesn’t look quite natural.

As we launched the boat, I could hear a hooter up the hill. I thought I’d go try to find him when we got back. We’re in for a stretch of beautiful May weather – in the 60’s and sun for several days.

The first pot we found was a commercial dungy pot. It had been there so long most of the framing had dissolved so it was just a circle of stainless steel mesh. We cut out the escape rings for use on other pots, and took the line and buoys.

The next pot we found was a jackpot, really. It was clearly a commercial pot because it had a special tab required by law for these pots. The buoy was covered with algae, but not seaweed or shellfish, so I figured it was not too long lost – probably from the most recent commercial opening last fall. We could read the numbers on the buoy. When I looked them up, I was happy to see I knew the boat. It was the same boat that saved Bob and I several years ago when my skiff capsized at anchor while we were out deer hunting. Talk about karma.

Jeff and I continued our tour, and saw a big shiny black bear on the beach, then a sea lion, a humpback whale, but no more pots.  Nobody was out and about except for a few local kayakers. Fishing is closed for king salmon and the cruiseship season is cancelled.

As soon as I got home, I called the crab boat skipper. Turns out he lives just out the road from us a couple miles, so delivered his pot to him. He wanted to give me the pot, but I refused- this was great partial payback for me.

Hooters. Again. Finally.

Finally got out hooter hunting after, if I remember right, I didn’t go at all last season. It seems like years are passing in 100 days now.

Bob and I went to a spot I hadn’t been since my Bolivar classmates came years ago. It was Bob’s first time hooter hunting. He’d harvested spruce grouse up north, but not these big grouse in Southeast Alaska.

We found a beach to anchor that was fairly protected from the 1 foot chop. The winds weren’t to come up today,  so I thought it would be okay. When we beached the boat to offload our gear, there was a beautiful plastic boat dock cart that somehow floated to this remove beach. In great shape. We were already making money for the trip.

We couldn’t hear many birds hooting as I anchored the boat and rowed to shore in the punt. It was a beautiful day. Partly cloudy, dry,  and on its way to about 50 degrees.

As soon as we got out of the white noise of breeze and waves on the shore and entered the big woods, we heard birds. We got to the first one after a short hike. We looked for this bird for 45 minutes or so. It wasn’t in the worst place I’d ever seen, but the bird was sitting somewhere up there that we just could not detect it.  At least that’s what I hoped it was, and not that I have 56 year old eyes and Bob’s eyes are a decade older.

We finally gave up and side-hilled  to the next bird, again a short hike on about the same elevation  This bird, too, seemed to evade us. We looked and looked and I thought – is this how it’s gonna be all day?  That we never see a bird?  After 20 minutes or so, I finally spotted the bird. When Bob looked at it, he didn’t think it was a bird. Then it moved.

I forgot to stop to get my 12 gauge shotgun I’d stashed at another skiff I have stashed in the area, but as Bob had a .410 over .22 and his .44 pistol, and because there were two of us, I didn’t go back to get it as I felt we were okay for the birds and protection from bears. I got this bird with the .410, and we side-hilled again a short hike to the next bird.

This time, it took us 5 minutes or less to spot the bird. He was high up in the tree, right next to the trunk, and facing away from us. I positioned myself below the tree in case the bird flushed, so I could see where it landed, and on the third shot with the open sites, but hit the bird with the .22. The bird immediately glided towards the ground about 50 yards to the right of Bob. I couldn’t see where the bird landed, but Bob did, and he mentally noted some land marks to where we’d search. He got to the spot, and I joined him about 5 minutes later from my position. There were blueberry bushes under the trees and a couple little creeks and the open green of the forest floor. I was very doubtful we’d find the bird since it went so far. It could run on the ground, and I’ve seen wounded birds crawl under a deadfall or into a hole to hide. We kept looking. I went a little further away than Bob was looking and as I crested the side of a little creek- there it was. I couldn’t believe it. Bob came over and collected his bird and we were both relieved, and I especially happy that Bob got a bird. On my way back to get our packs, I found a 3 point with eye guard shed as a bonus.

We went downhill to the next bird hooting, again a short hike. We found an almost full set of deer bones on the way. The bird was in a tree located in a muddy little flat that had lots of skunk cabbage. There were several deer tracks in the mud. And a very recent brown bear track. We saw this bird even faster than Bob’s bird. I laid down and had my back against a log and shot. And missed. The bird flushed, and went to a nearby copse of tree tops, but we didn’t see exactly where. No feathers fell from it, and it looked like the bird was flying in good health. We hoped it would start hooting again, but it did not. We decided to call it a day and head back to the boat.

I’ve hunted the side of this ridge for 20+ years, but rarely, if ever, happen to get to this section during deer season. I’ve been here a few times hooter hunting. We came to a series of beaver ponds. We weren’t sure if the ponds were active or not. Then we saw some fresh beaver sign. The beavers were working on a big tree 2 to 3 feet – maybe more-  in diameter. One side was about chipped to the middle, and on the other side  the beavers had stripped the bark and started in.  Almost look out of place in the wilderness where we were standing. Like it was man made.

We ambled our way along the ponds, and found our way down to the beach, right where we came in.  The boat was just about to go dry, and we got there too late to skid it into the water. We figured we had 3 hours to wait til the tide went the rest of the way out and came back in. We pulled the birds out of our packs, and plucked and dressed while we sat in the beach grass in the evening sun. As we lauched the boat on the rising tide, two mink ran by, one chasing the other and chirping. Spring is in the air.

Ten years ago I would have thought two birds for the day wasn’t that much and how I need to get back and get more before the season ends. Now, it was just a perfect day in the woods. I had some expected leg cramps overnight, but other than that, I slept like a baby. Luckier than ever to live here and still be able to get around, stiff knees and all.