Alaskan Desert

My boots break through the thin crust, increasing my chill rate. If I keep walking, toes will stay warm, but this is a waiting game. Iced feet are a small price. I will stand still in the center of the marsh, hopefully blending with the old stumps and logs that surround me.

A cool November morning sun, low over Douglas Island, shines coolly across the snow-covered wetland. A scene only a few weeks ago dominated by the pink flowers of fireweed, is now a sea of dry cow parsnip stalks, their waist-high seed heads crusted in glistening hoar frost.

Scanning the field, I imagine myself surrounded by an army of giant dandelion soldiers awaiting orders to release their potential on the unsuspecting terrain. Here and there, rivulets of steam rise from bare soil at the edges of narrow sloughs kept warm by the silent slipping in and draining out of the tide—smoke from the weedy battlefield. My imagination, fueled in equal measure by the surprising newness of winter-boding weather, and the anticipation of arriving wings, is hyperactive.

A dollop of crusted snow breaks from a larger sheet and falls from heavily laden grass behind me. I close my eyes and listen. I am all too aware of my luxury. Taking the time to listen to any stage in the succession of decomposing snow is something not everyone finds the pleasure of experiencing.

Beneath the bowed grasses, a network of small rooms and sparsely connecting tunnels gridiron the field. Not having surveyed the inhabitants of this place, I do not know what scurries about the labyrinth at my feet, but if ever there was a place made for meadow voles, this is it, and I am grateful for whatever makes its home beneath snow and blade, for it is credited with my presence here this morning. More accurately, whatever kin of mouse are here are the attraction for the owls, and the owls have attracted me.

A flash pulls my scanning eye westward, beyond the stumps. A short-eared owl, too far off to photograph, nonetheless brings me a smile. I raise my binoculars. Buoyant on the thin air, his flight more moth-like than raptor, the owl lifts itself with long wings pulsing white with every soft, powerful push. Low over the ground, he jerks one way, then the other, then quickly, suddenly, drops out of sight. If he had pray, he would not immediately reemerge, but this time he is right back in the air, talons empty, continuing his hunt. I return to scanning the marsh.

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A pair of photographers stand together a couple hundred yards north. They are looking away from me towards the Mendenhall Towers—a group of show-covered jagged peaks erupting from the Juneau Ice Field. In front of the towers, Mendenhall Glacier is also freshly covered in snow concealing her summer blue with white. Perhaps they see another owl in that direction. Their voices carry softly across the marsh, not loud enough for me to decipher. I wonder if they hear the snow melting over their conversation.

When I look back to the west, I see a second owl, closer than the first, followed by a third near the tree line. The two photographers see the activity and begin moving that way. I remain in place, watching the far off birds, listening to the snow. Behind me, the tide is slipping in. An eagle calls from somewhere in the distance, then a gull. A mallard, spooked by owl-chasing photographers wings a broad circle around me. If the owls never come close enough to photograph, it is a perfect morning in the marsh.

Out of the north, a songbird approaches. It’s flight is familiar. Rapid wing beats alternating with wing-tucked bounds create a shallow undulating path from a spruce some five hundred yards away in a straight line toward the stumps. Perfectly lit by the morning sun, the robin-sized gray bird is immediately recognizable, and I forget about owls. I forget about the marsh. I forget about the snow and frost, about Juneau, about Alaska. I am no longer here.

With recognition, heat and aroma overwhelm me. My nostrils flare as the warm, dusty scents of desert sage, and creosote bush flood in. Stumps become saguaros, parsnip turns to ocotillo, sage, and paloverde. The northern shrike drops low, then swoops upward to land on a barrel cactus. Training my lens on the unique bird in front of me fades the mirage, but the aroma lingers. I am in the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix twenty-five years ago. Having just found a horned lizard impaled on a thick green paloverde thorn, I am looking for the gray and white songbird sporting a black mask and decurved raptor-like beak.

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A planned hour-long walk that day turned into the whole morning when I found the shrike hunting in its usual fashion, flying from one perch to another swooping low in between, searching for lizard, sparrow, snake, just about any small critter it can pounce in front of, hop over and back, confuse, and finally grab by the neck, dispatch, and hang on a thorn, twig, or barbed wire fence for later.

I do not move, and my blending with the stumps pays off, as the shrike bobs its tail a couple times then flies straight toward me to a new stump a mere twelve feet away. Trying not to breath, I track him through the camera, and trigger the shutter as soon as he lands. Startled by the machinery, his eyes find my lens. It does not take long for him to realize I am not a snag, and remove himself forthwith from my immediate proximity, taking the smell of the desert with him, but leaving behind his image both in memory and on disc, and returning to me my cold feet.

Seeing two of the owls have made their way within striking distance, I return, with my toes, to the marsh, and I waste no time taking photos. Owls come and go over the next couple hours and I manage a hopeful handful of photos before my stomach tells me it is time to go.

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Behind the shadow of a stump, I file through the images on my camera, pausing first on a short-eared owl with prey in its talon—a detail I missed when I took the photo. Zooming in, I verify vole. On to the shrike, I lam pleased to see a sharp, shiny black eye.

Walking back across the wintery marsh, my toes are warmed by rich, aromatic desert air that is oxygenating my blood and reminding me why I love sitting still and listening to snow melt.

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A Bird in the Hand

The English say “A bird is the hand is worth two in the bush,” the Germans: “Der Spatz in der Hand ist besser als die Taube auf dem Dach. (The sparrow in the hand is better than the dove on the roof.) I ask, “What about the bird on my shoulder?”

With glacier blue washed in its first white robe of this season’s snow, alders, leafless, standing bare and vulnerable before coming cold, with most of the bears fattened and retreating to mountain crevices, salmon spent and no longer gasping for breath, and ice creeping from the margins of creek and lake, one little bird remains unflinching, and unmoved. She does not molt to a winter plumage, and she is still singing her flutelike song.

For only an instant I detect it, through wool sweater and rain jacket, the faint pressure of two avian ounces. I cannot say what one of those ounces might be worth in my hand, but on my shoulder, two avian ounces is all it takes to trigger adrenaline. Two feathered ounces.

It is late October, and enough hours of sunlight remain in a single turn of Earth for twenty-four hours to feel almost like a day in Southeast Alaska. One last, lone bear sniffing up and down steep creek hoping for a salmon grants a momentary illusion of summer, but the lack of tour busses stacked, and packed with cruise ship visitors, clearly signals that autumn has reached this little corner of Tongas National Forest.

No rain falls today, and the quiet around the Mendenhall Visitor Center area is a welcome respite for the handful of local photographers accustomed to being overrun by tourists vying for the best view of one more bear. Over the summer more than a half million people visit here, and they all want to see two things: glacier and bear.

I understand their excitement, their hope. Glaciers and bears are not easily tired of, but for all the power, wonder and potential of this dynamic duo, there is a much smaller sight to behold here—one that thrills me every time I see it. It weighs just two ounces, and this morning it lit upon my shoulder.

To the casual tourist or bear watcher, the tubby little little gray songbird is easily overlooked. She does nothing to announce her presence, flying low, following the stream, landing in the shadows. She is not rare, does not wield talon or venom, yet since I first encountered this starling-sized bird bobbing, diving, swimming, and rafting the currents of Bright Angel Creek, in Grand Canyon twenty-five years ago, she has been a primary object of my affection anytime I’ve had the opportunity to visit her haunts.

On this quiet morning, we crouch streamside as a pair of birds, twenty feet from shore, perch on beaver-chewed sticks, dive in the pond, surface, perch again, and repeat.
They work their way towards us for a few feet, then separate, one of them hunting her way downstream past us and ever closer to the bank. My attention stays with her, as Rachel, my bird-watching partner for the morning, stays fixed on the other one, still foraging along the dam.

When the southbound bird floats out of sight behind a large boulder, I race downstream to wait, stopping six feet from the bank, turning to face upstream, and holding my breath in anticipation.

Small, radiating ripples, revealing from behind the rock, tell me she is nearing my field of vision. I plant my elbows on my torso to brace my camera, and train my lens on the tip of the rock, but she does not float by. Instead, she flies back into sight, landing on a small stump, ten feet in front of me.

I take a couple photos as she hops into the water, then back on the stump. I can see horizon line, sky, and a tree trunk reflecting in her soft brown eye. Pink legs appear almost translucent. Robin-like yellow beak is at the ready.

John Muir described the bird he called “water ouzel” as “a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders.” I cannot do better than that. Muir went on to say of this delightful little bird, “He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows.” I would only add to his simile: “…as I love dippers!”

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Soon, the days will become noticeably shorter, the light snow on the glacier will find its way to the valley, and the thin ice on the margins of the stream will close in anywhere there is not enough current to keep it at bay. I look forward to that transformation when dippers’ hunting grounds will be limited to those open portals.

I have watched this pair all summer, seen them feast on salmon eggs and fry, caddisfly, dragonfly, and who-knows-what-other aquatic insect larvae they find beneath the surface, out of my sight.

Using sharp wings to fly through the clear, cold water, they use strong beaks to turn over rocks, revealing so many delicacies. On shore, they dip down and back up, down and back up, on slender pink legs, their stubby, wren-like tail stands at attention all the while, frequently uttering short, thin “zeets,” perhaps to a mate. Some pairs will stay together throughout the winter, others will separate. Either way, their flute-like songs can be heard around the stream year round.

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I am trying not move, barely breathing, keeping my arms locked in place, lens trained, my thumb on the focus button. She dips. She dips. She turns toward me. She flies. Straight toward my camera lens.

So focused on remaining still, I fail to keep focused on the bird, and will find later that the two shots I take as she flies toward me leave her blurred in front of a sharply focused stump behind. She is quickly out of my sight, presumably flying over my shoulder, and across the road, when I feel her weight on my shoulder. Two ounces.

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Neither of us say a word, but I suspect we are thinking similar things. Me: Holy shit she just landed on me! Her: Holy shit, I just landed on him!

No sooner has she landed, she is back on the wing, back to the pond, distancing herself from me. However matched our internal dialog might be, clearly our feelings are not in the same emotional galaxy, and though this comes to me as no surprise, it comes with grave disappointment.

There is no way for her to understand how much of a friend I am, how nonexistent any threat is on my shoulder. If I thought it would make a difference, I would return to the stream with a handful of grubs and sit just as still, hand outstretched as I do when offering sunflower seeds to the chickadees who so quickly accept my gifts, and even, at times, land on my shoulder to suggest I fetch them a snack from the kitchen.

I ponder this prospect. Perhaps I will return with salmon eggs, I think, but the thought does not linger. My love for dippers comes from their behavior, their wildness. As much as I enjoy every chickadee who lands on my shoulder or takes a seed from my palm, it will never produce the excitement I felt the time a dipper mistook me for a stump, or a rock, and, for a moment, perched on my shoulder.

That moment is unlikely to ever be repeated, but as long as she remains wild, there is still the possibility, if I am still enough, patient enough, present enough, it might happen again, not because one or both of us is trained, but because in that moment, in her eyes, I am but a sump. In that moment, am part of the landscape. In that moment, to her, I do not exist, and to me, she is all that exists. The hope for that moment, that one bird alighting on a stump, those two ounces perching on my shoulder—is worth more than all the chickadees in Alaska eating out of my hand.

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Good Thursday

A singular beauty is the wild landscape bathed in a fresh snow. A still higher gamut is that landscape awash in quietude.

I found the truck sitting in and under several inches of clean, new, powdery snow Thursday morning—a surprise to the handful of us staying at the Northern Rockies Lodge near Muncho Lake in British Colombia. Forecasters told us the snow was finished before we went to bed. I delighted in their error.

When the dining room opened at 7:00 I was the lone guest. Others opted for an earlier start and, as I sipped my tea, I was wondered if I should have done the same. With this much snow on the road, traveling would surely be slow. The previously anticipated seven-and-a-half hour drive north to Teslin was likely to be more like nine or ten hours in these conditions.

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I sped through my eggs and bacon, cleaned the snow off the truck, filled the tank, shifted into four wheel drive, and pulled onto the Alaska Highway heading north. The road was out of sight under the deep snow but, with the sun low, the roadway was distinguishable by shadows cast by the sharp edges formed where plow blades ended.

Easing my way through the gears, I was pleased to hear the snow compressing beneath my tires, and to feel the truck sure beneath me. The speed limit was 100 km/h and I was surprised to have reached that speed and be cruising comfortably in sixth gear in short order.

I stopped on a long stretch where visibility was good in both directions, shut down my iron horse, and stepped outside. A singular beauty is the wild landscape bathed in a fresh snow. A still higher gamut is that landscape awash in quietude.

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The boughs of Douglas firs heavy with snow, mountains steep, jagged, and white outlined by gray clouds on the horizon, whispy white clouds above, a Nissan truck, and a single yellow sign warning me to beware of bison in the road completed the scene. I wished the truck removed from the scene, but not bearing the coat of a bison, that wish passed quickly. As I stood silently breathing it in, the first sun caught the tip of a peak to the west, turning it salmon. I watched as the color slowly seeped down the slope—the higher gamut of beauty expanding. In the far distance, a plume of snow signaled the approach of a vehicle. Time to go.

A few miles farther, the forewarned bison appeared in the form of a calf following her mother in the road from the right. I stopped well shy of the pair and watched them pass. In the deeper snow off the road, they plunged their giant heads into the snow for whatever browse they sniffed out. Another—a larger one—stood beyond them doing the same, while yet a fourth lounged comfortably in the snow nearby. Later in the morning, caribou, less tolerant of carbon-spewing steeds, appeared and disappeared along my drive, not interested in posing for photos.

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So many places I wanted to stop, set up the tripod, try to capture the scene, but without shoulder, or straightaways long enough to feel comfortable blocking the road, I didn’t dare stop. Truckers delivering goods to remote towns do not care to slow for photographers, nor would they have time to stop should they find me around a bend in the snow. To be safe, I had to keep moving. Perhaps it is best, as I certainly haven’t the photographic skills to freeze the beauty of that landscape in a way fully appreciable by another. I think this might be the nature of such a singular beauty. To possess such a moment is to hold in my hand a non-transferrable deed. Another might smell a whiff of my supper, but I can no more offer them a taste than can I can find a suitable simile to express what they are missing.

My phone had not worked since entering Canada, and ever since the radio lost all waves the day before, I did not try to find a station. I was pleased with both absences. To enter into this scene either song or speech would have been to contaminate it.

There was one great disappointment in the day, coming six-and-a-half hours into my drive when I reached my destination: Nisutlin Trading Post. I wanted to turn around and drive back to Muncho Lake, experience it from a new perspective, then do it again the next morning, but I had reservations ahead and a ferry to catch in Skagway on Friday.

The flip side of the disappointment came in the opportunity before me. I was early and full of images, ideas, and words. For a week-and-a-half I had traveled with two beers in a cooler in the back of the truck. Tonight, I would open one of them and spend a few hours writing and processing photos—remembering, relishing, reminiscing, trying to do my experience justice.

After checking in and unloading the truck into my room, I took a few minutes to check email and let the world on Facebook know I was alive. Wrapping up that task, I realized my computer battery was low. I would pull my power cord out of my bag and charge up the laptop while I showered, then head to the one restaurant in the blip on the radar that is Teslin for dinner and writing time. Later, I would continue my writing over a beer In my room.

Any other time, what happened next might have upset me, might have really pissed me off. Not today, not this singular day. Flip the apple cart, spill the milk, pick your metaphor. I would not be shaken by the discovery that my power cord was not in my bag, nor on the floor, in the truck, or the parking lot. My computer would soon die, and I had no way to recharge it.

As a result, over supper that evening, I had the great fortune of writing with fountain pen on paper. I suspect the other diners wondered what it was a man dining alone in the corner, writing with an olde fashioned pen, could possibly be smiling so broadly about as they did their thumb calisthenics with their devices. Had they asked, I would have tried to tell them, but they did not.

Back in the room, the mandolin came out and I played, and I sang, until my fingers were sore from their workout, then I wrote some more. My two beers never emerged from the cooler, not due to any decision, but rather the result of a contentment leaving me no reason to think about it.

The next day, I found out my white power cord had fallen out of my bag in the parking lot at Northern Rockies Lodge and landed silently in nearly a foot of white snow where it was later plowed into pieces by a good man on a Bobcat doing an important job. When I asked the man on the other end of the phone if it would be worth mailing it to me and repairing it, he replied with a chuckle, “Oh, hell no. The wires are okay, but that cube in the middle is toast.”

Earlier that morning, with a full moon setting on the mountains before me, I drove to Whitehorse, YT in search of a new cord only to find the only store carrying them dark and lifeless, with a sign on the door saying “Closed for Good Friday.” I smiled and thought, No, you got it wrong. The good day was yesterday: Good Thursday. But I had a sneaking suspicion Friday was gonna be pretty good, too.

The Marge of Lake LaBerge

“I wonder where Lake LaBerge is,” I said.

“What?”

“Lake LaBerge. I’m pretty sure it’s in Yukon.”

“What’s Lake LaBerge?”

I looked at my traveling companion Laurie who was focused on the road ahead. We had recently crossed the border from British Columbia into Yukon, and had just pulled back onto the road after watching mountain goats on a steep mountainside. The light snow we drove through in BC was behind us, and early evening sunlight lent extra mystery to the jagged landscape. I was quickly becoming entranced by Yukon.

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Mountain Goat Above the Klondike Highway

“Lake LaBerge… you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Sure you do…

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t remember the name of the lake.”

“But you remember the story.”

“Sort of. Not really”

“Well…

“Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
Where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam
‘Round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold
Seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way
That he’d “sooner live in hell.”

“On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
Over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold
It stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze
Till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one
To whimper was Sam McGee.

“And that very night, as we lay packed tight
In our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead
Were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he,
“I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you
Won’t refuse my last request.”

“Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no;
Then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold
Till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread
Of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
You’ll cremate my last remains.”

“Remember?”

I was hoping she would remember the story because, although proud of how much I had just recited, I was nearing the part of the poem I always forget if I haven’t brushed it up in a while, and it had been a long while.

“No, I don’t remember. somehow he ended up in a furnace, right?”

“Yeah. Well, Sam ends up in a boiler, because of a promise…

“A pal’s last need is a thing to heed,
So I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn;
But God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
Of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
That was left of Sam McGee.

“There wasn’t a breath in that land of death,
And I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid,
Because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
“You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you
To cremate those last remains.”

I had reached the point at which I knew if I kept going, I would start mixing up lines in the next two verses and likely end up in an endless loop of mumbling about cursing the cold… or was it the load? Loathing and singing, and cursing…

“Anyway, it’s a long poem,” I said. “He carried around his dead friend Sam for while until…

“…I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
And a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
It was called the “Alice May”.
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
And I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry,
“Is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

“Some planks I tore from the cabin floor,
And I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around,
And I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared —
Such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,
And I stuffed in Sam McGee.

“Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like
To hear him sizzle so…

“I don’t remember exactly how it goes from there,” I said, for the first time admitting I couldn’t recall the whole poem. “But eventually, after he returns from his hike to the Alice May and opens the door to the boiler…

“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
In the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
And he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear
You’ll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
It’s the first time I’ve been warm.

“Then the poem repeats the first verse…. So… I was wondering where Lake LaBerge is.”

“Look in the Milepost.”

“Great idea!”

I reached behind the driver’s seat, pulled the thick guide book out of the pocket, and turned to the index.

“Let’s see… There it is. Holy Crap! We’re headed right to it. It’s on the Yukon River.”

“Let’s go see it, then.”

“I think we must. In fact, we are staying very close to it tonight. The resort is just a stone’s throw from the southern end of the lake. Let’s hit it in the morning before we head south to look for Lynx.”

“Okay.”

We stopped in Whitehorse for a nice supper, then drove 30 kilometers out of town to Sundog Retreat. The retreat center was not our first choice of places to stay, but the hostel was full, and Sundog was the only place we found far enough out of town for our liking, with an available room. Being in town would have lessened our driving the next day, but if there was any chance of an aurora we wanted to be far from city lights.

After lugging our stuff through the snow, and checking to see what the hours were for the hot tub, we sat down to discuss our plans. We had all day to wander. The drive was only about 90 miles along the Alaska Highway from Sundog to Haines Junction where we had a reservation for the next night.

It was quickly decided that we would first find the marge of Lake LaBerge where we would look for a certain derelict of note, take a couple pictures, then drive south of Whitehorse to explore Fish Lake Road where wetlands gave hope for good birding, and where we heard there was a chance of seeing lynx.

After a hot tub, showers, and a few test shots showing no trace of the aurora, we hit the sack.

I slept well enough that night, woke without an alarm the next morning, and was eager to get moving.

As we ate breakfast, Laurie asked me if I knew how to get to Lake LaBerge.

“I think we continue out Policeman Point Road,” I said, reaching for the Milepost.

A quick look at the map, told us we needed to head north on the highway a few kilometers for a lake access road.

“It’s not that far.”

“We should go,” she said.

“Yeah… I guess… you know, there won’t be a derelict there.”

“What?”

“The Alice May. It won’t be there. If we go, there will be no Alice May—no boat with planks missing from the floor, no coal lying about, no greasy smoke. That stuff is fiction, and even if it wasn’t, it was written around the turn of the nineteenth century. There won’t be a boat there now.”

“But don’t you want to see the lake, anyway?”

“I don’t know. It will just be a lake. I guess we might find a sign that says Lake LaBerge, but even if there is a sign, it won’t be spelled right. Robert Service changed LaBerge to LeBarge, I guess to rhyme with marge. No. Let’s take it off the list. We have a lot to see today.”

“Okay. Then we’ll start with Fish Lake Road.”

“Fish Lake Road, it is. Let’s go find a lynx.”

We did not find a lynx, or very many birds along Fish Lake Road, just a single muskrat, and soon we were back on the Alaska Highway headed for Haines Junction, driving slow and looking for wildlife.

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Muskrat

Along the way we watched a huge bull elk bugle and mate, saw several hawk owls, and more golden eagles than we could keep track of.

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One of several Hawk Owls along the Alaska Highway

A coyote loped across the road in front of us carrying a very large meal we surmised might have been a snowshoe hare. We saw mountain bluebirds, trumpeter swans, ducks, a rough-legged hawk, and a northern shrike. Pine grosbeaks were plentiful foraging seeds in the tops of snow-covered trees.

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Mountain Bluebird
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Mallard Ducks Taking Off in Front of a Family of Trumpeter Swans

 

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Rough-legged Hawk Hunting Near the Takhini River

Oddly, in the midst of all the magnificent wildlife, a rusty blackbird hopping along the Takhini River excited us as much as anything. Rusty blackbirds breed in muskegs and other wetlands across Canada and Alaska, and winter in wetlands in the eastern half of the U.S. Although widespread, their populations are in rapid decline so sightings are special.

That night we stayed in a nice house in Haines Junction and while Laurie was in the bath, I took advantage of a good wireless signal to look up The Cremation of Sam McGee.

I searched several sites with little luck, then turned to Wikipedia.

Apparently, Sam McGee was a road-builder whose name Robert Service found on a bank form, and who gave permission to Service to use his name. But McGee was just a name. The poem was inspired by a Doctor Leonard Sugden who used the boiler of a derelict called Olive May to cremate the body of a miner who died of scurvy. The Olive May was wrecked some fifty kilometers downriver from Lake LaBerge. Curiously, a boat called the Alice May did sink on Lake LaBerge a decade after Service published his poem.

William Samuel McGee died of a heart attack in 1940 and was buried.

Perhaps, with some research, some remnant of the Olive May to the south, or the Alice May on LaBerge could be found. Perhaps the location of the wrecks are noted in some record. Perhaps I could stand in those places, but to what end?

I have been reciting that poem—when I can remember it—for a decade, and when I recite it, I see LeBarge the way Service’s words engrained it in me. Visiting the shore of Lake LaBerge would forever change that for me, and I don’t want that. There is a time for fact, and a time for personal truth. In this case I have my truth and, queer as it might be, I don’t want any facts taking it away from me.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

A Little Luck in SE Alaska

Following a morning of ritual waving of fly rods at oblivious coho salmon, we park the car on the edge of the Glacier Hwy. and start north down a narrow trail. We dip quickly into woods that soon give way to marshy muskeg. A few scattered, puffy clouds accent a crystal blue sky over a landscape that averages 222 days of measurable rain a year, and we feel lucky. Southeast Alaska is mostly rain forest. Looking west over the swamp, clumps of rushes, scattered grass, and gnarly coastal pines grow out of heavy, wet sphagnum and peat. Beyond the muskeg, unnamed peaks—numbers 4897 and 5894—form a venerable white crown atop it all.

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We are, indeed, lucky to have this perfect weather, but we also did our homework, studied forecasts and schedules. Along with clear weather and backcountry cabin availability, a third factor had to align: high solar flare activity. We are headed for the Cowee Meadow cabin—chosen for its situation in an open meadow, and the short walk from there to the shore of Berners Bay—perfect places for viewing the object of our quest: the Aurora Borealis.

Out of the muskeg, the trail follows the marge of a wet meadow. Where water cuts through the forest, boardwalks keep us dry as chestnut-backed chickadees and kinglets chip in the canopy, and raven’s boisterous knocks bounce here and there. Scattered horses graze the meadow.

An hour in, the cabin comes into view, tucked into a pocket at the northwest corner of the meadow. Narrow walkboards over water-logged moss that connect forest to cabin have a thin covering of ice, and we appreciate the extra stability our trekking poles lend to our calf-high rubber boots.

We doff our packs in the simple little cabin and waste no time in unpacking the gallon jugs of kerosene we have lugged a little over two miles—weight we thankfully will not have to carry back out. There are other backpacks, gear, and several more jugs of fuel about the cabin and we hope there will be no confrontation. We have a reservation but anybody can open a door without locks.

With two or three hours remaining before dark, we take advantage of the day and walk a quarter mile to the shore. The muskeg trail is on walkboards the whole way, and slippery. We advance slowly and cautiously, agreeing that we should bring our trekking poles next time.

Near the shore, a small porcupine, oblivious to our presence, waddles between clumps of grass. When approached,the odd little critter buries its head in a thick clump like a young child who thinks by covering her eyes she cannot be seen. Unlike the vulnerable child, though, this youngster has a heavily-speared backside protecting it, and we keep our distance.

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A hundred yards off, close to the water’s edge, three people lounge in the sun on a large boulder and we wonder if these are the people belonging to the gear in our cabin. Giving them space, we wander in the other direction—exploring the receding tide on the edge of the bay. Sculpin dart from our shadows in tide pools rife with anemones, chitons, limpets, and hermit crabs.

Looking up from a pool, we see the three sun bathers coming our way and move towards the trail to greet them. They are, indeed, the folks from the cabin, and we are pleased to find them very friendly and happy to evacuate.

As they walk back to get their gear, we walk around the shore where harlequin ducks mingle with mallards, scoters, and gulls. A far-off flock of shorebirds rallies to a boulder covered in blue mussels and barnacles.

We get back to the cabin as three bodies emerge, packs on their backs, into the waning light. They are nice enough to give us tips on starting the kerosene heater and warn us that our two gallons might not be enough for two nights. “We used two gallons each night,” one of them said. “You might gather some firewood for the supplemental heater.” We note their advice and set about emptying one gallon of fuel into the stove tank, filtering water, then cooking some supper.

Darkness is full by the time we clean up from eating, and I am eager to get outside and take some test shots. I set up my tripod in a flat spot in front of the cabin and scan the horizon. The big dipper sits low on the horizon over the cabin. I trace a line from its front edge up and to the right to find the north star—always a comforting and grounding sight.

By the red lens of my headlamp, I carefully check all my settings against the notes in my pocket—f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 800, long exposure noise reduction on, auto focus off, focus set to infinity…

To the right of the dipper a faint white light glows on the horizon through the trees. I hope that rising moon doesn’t wash out the aurora

I level the camera, zoom out to capture Ursas major and minor in the view, and depress the shutter. There is a click, ten quiet seconds, a second click, ten more seconds for noise reduction, a third click, and an image appears on the screen.

“Laurie, Come look at this!”

My companion emerges from the cabin and huddles around the back of the camera with me.

“Wow! I don’t see it.”

“There is a glow on the horizon over there, to the east.”

I point through a nearby stand of sitka spruce.

“There.”

“But it looks white…”

“I know. I thought it was moonlight.”

We stare at the little image on the back of my camera, back at the sky, and back to the camera again. The faint white light on the horizon appears in the lower right corner of the camera screen as a green glow—the aurora borealis.

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I reposition the camera farther east, and snap another. This time the green is a little brighter, fading higher. Above the green, as if being poured from the big dipper, is a red splash.

Farther east, the white glow is now turning green to the naked eye and I turn my camera toward the pleiades where the camera reveals vertical bars of green light, a green glow across the the horizon, and more red above it all.

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I am giddy. I can’t shoot fast enough. I point my camera to every corner of the sky. The greens are becoming brighter and brighter, streaking up into the stars and back down again. The reds are appearing in blotches here and there. In the southwest sky, Orion lays on his sword in the dark. I photograph it all.

After an hour or so, the show has settled, but there remains a glow to the north, so we put our tripods over our shoulders and head for the shoreline. Halfway out the trail, we are stopped by a new light in the east and step out into the muskeg to shoot. With water halfway up our boots, we shoot bright green streaks rising high into the sky.

At the shore, Lion’s Head Mountain is silhouetted in a green light that reflects on the bay in an eerie display. We shoot and shoot and shoot until, from somewhere along the shore, we hear a snort.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know.”

Senses heightened, we stand still and listen. There is another snort. I feel an uneasiness in my stomach. We are in bear country, and it is dark.

“Can you tell how far away it is?”

“No.”

“I’ll take a picture.”

I train my camera in the direction of the snort and open the shutter. Twenty-five long seconds later, the image appears on my screen.

“It’s too dark.”

I increase the ISO and click again.

This time the photo is bright but grainy. I zoom in on the tiny screen until I can just make out the fuzzy shape of a horse standing in the tide flat. Relieved, we go back to shooting.

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A little while later, we hear a loud neigh followed by a fading gallop. Uneasiness returns to my stomach. We never find out what spooked the horse.

For unmeasured time, we photograph an ever-changing show. It is well past midnight when we return to the cabin where we set an alarm for an hour nap, then head back out, once again, first shooting the meadow, then heading to the bay.

It is two o’clock in the morning and ice is forming on the boards. Halfway to the bay, in the same area where we stopped to shoot earlier, I slip on a loose walkboard and find myself twisting, fighting to keep camera above the water as I splash down, soaking my right side. Fortunately, sphagnum makes for a soft landing. Unfortunately, the water is cold! Most importantly, the camera is fine. Undaunted, we continue on. Shortly after my slip, Laurie has a similar fall, but lands on the board, avoiding the soaking I got.

Between two and four that morning, we capture the most spectacular scenes of the night. Lion’s Head is awash in an emerald glow rivaling Oz. No camera is needed to appreciate the grandeur of it. It is four-thirty when we return to the cabin for some sleep.

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I am still floating when we crawl out of our bags a few hours later. I take down my pants from where they hang over the stove. They are dry, but the stove is out and the cabin is cooling. Outside, frost covers the meadow. I rustled some wood from the porch and build a small fire. We are impressed at how quickly the cabin warms back up.

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We spend the day walking, photographing birds—belted kingfisher, song sparrow, bald eagles, ducks and gulls. The highlight of it all is stalking and photographing a flock of mixed shorebirds—black turnstones, surfbirds, and rock sandpipers. We eat lunch on a boulder by the bay.

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Surfbird and Black Turnstone Squabble over Turf

Our second night has a few more clouds, plenty of sky, but little aurora. We spend most of our time sleeping, alternating every hour to get up and check for light that never comes.

By morning, it is overcast and we decide on a side hike up a steep trail along echoing creek to cedar lake, foraging blueberries along the way. Cedar Lake is a beautiful pond offering stunning reflections, and a perfect lunch spot. From there, we hike back down, load up our packs and head back to the car.

Along the trail, we watch pacific wrens hunting spiders, play peek-a-boo with a raven, and unsuccessfully attempt an overgrown, unused trail through the muskeg to a beaver pond, but quickly find ourselves headed into water too deep for our boots, and retrace back to the main trail.

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We pause, again, for a view of 4897 and 5894, but find them mostly obscured by clouds. It has drizzled the whole way out, yet I am not ready for the trail to end. I find some solace, however, in the knowledge that I have ten more days in Alaska.

On the way home, we stop at the Eagle Creek bridge, where bald eagles dot the spruce trees. I train my lens on a close one and snap three shots before it flies, then one more in flight before it quickly comes too close for shooting, and passes overhead—a throwaway shot, I think. When I import my photos later, I find that luck was on my side again.

Take off near Juneau

That night we consult calendar, weather and aurora forecasts, and scout lodging possibilities for Yukon. We are just getting started! Stay tuned…

And Then There Were None

Yesterday evening five little beaks snuggled cozily, unconcerned by the giant black eye peering in on them. They looked up at the unfamiliar cyclops as if I were a normal part of daily life in the garden shed. It is hard to identify emotions in the eyes of nestling wrens, but my estimation of their reaction was indifference.

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Mom, of course, had a different reaction. Out the back door she raced to a nearby cherry tree where she vocalized her displeasure with gusto. I can only imagine the feelings of horror and powerlessness after weeks of building, laying, incubating, feeding, and protecting, to now see her five young, so close to fledging, in such immediate peril.

Needless to say, there was no peril. I pose no more threat to those young than their own parents, and without the responsibility of raising them, am free to feel nothing but delight in their well-being. But mom cannot know this so, in deference to her pleas, I closed the door and planned to revisit them today–perhaps while both parents were out, and the light was better.

The door to the shed faces west, so for the best light, I planned to return during the golden light of evening, just before the sun dips below the crown of the pear trees along the drive. Prior to the planned shoot, an afternoon visit, I thought, would be quick–snap a handful of test photos, then away.

Given the impassivity showed yesterday, I brought a wide angle zoom. No need for a telephoto when I can walk right up to them. I waited until an adult flew from the shed, then quickly approached and swung open the door.

The nest exploded. Yesterday’s passive little down balls wanted nothing from today’s intruder. Three flew directly up, over the wall, and out the back door. One dropped down to a shelf below the nest, and the fifth made tracks for an upper corner of the shed where he was enmeshed in a decade of cobwebs and all the flotsam and jetsam that come with them. I snapped a quick pic, then retreated.

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By this time, mom had heard the commotion and  was back in the orchard calling her brood, trying to keep track of the mayhem. While she flew from perch to perch, checking in with each fledgling, I found one of them clinging to the trunk of a pear tree. I took one photo. He flew to a higher perch. I took two more. He was gone.

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In remarkably short order, all five were tucked into an overgrown thicket across the orchard, mom overhead on a sweet gum limb advising them loudly to stay put. I took a couple quick photos of her, and went my way. Enough stress for today, I thought.

Garden Shed Nest

With any luck I will see them around the house in the coming days as they explore their world, and next spring perhaps it will be a nest built by one of these five that draws the cyclops to their door. If so, I can only hope mom will remember from this year that I did them no harm, but that is unlikely.

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Cause and Effect and Dullness

On my way to the north end of the farm I pass the blueberries. They are plump, dark blue, and sweet, and I would rather be picking them, but I have a job to do so I pass on by, across the stretch I covered yesterday and turn the tractor east and down the slope.
Across the fence, the neighbor moves along much slower on his larger, newer, shinier orange tractor than do I on this smaller green one. His mower is designed for shaving vast swaths of lawn and he covers his lawn deliberately, meticulously. My mower churns and chops, tears and shreds overgrown blackberry, flower stalks, thick grass, and small trees. He waves from across the fence and I wave back, then we both return to the necessary focus of our labors.

Even as I type the word “labor” I realize it does not feel like the right word for my act. I am strapped into a diesel-fueled iron horse named John who never gets tired, never questions my commands, never starts at the sight of a snake, is content to sit for weeks without food, water, sunshine or exercise and requires only that I remain in the seat and steer to keep her on task. My back will ache from the pounding of uneven terrain, but that is the the result of genetics—bad discs—not exertion. My shoulders will be uncomfortable only due to sunburn. The most pain I will feel from the job is from the large blackberry cane that catches the inside of the front right tire and whips my hand and forearm before I can get them out of the way.

I am nearly finished with my mowing, and feeling satisfied with the near completion of a required task, but I do not like what I am doing. I see the deer trails criss-crossing the hillside, and the handful of beds in the thick. I see small ripe blackberries deep in the patch disappearing beneath my machine. Had I mowed around them, I would not have eaten them, but I know something would have. Black and blue dragonflies, and grasshoppers as long as my middle finger scatter at my approach, and I cringe wondering what didn’t get out of the way. This is the corner where I release the copperheads I save from neighbors who insist I move them farther away from their homes than I would like. I want them to be safe here.

I have just made a turn when a surge of adrenaline says “go!” I feel the rush for a split second before I see the swarm surrounding the tractor. There is nowhere I can go. Nothing I can do but keep mowing. In second gear with the PTO engaged, my throttle pedal would not have the necessary effect, and I have no window to roll up. Hundreds of large, buzzing, black insects surround me, then retreat. One flies into the back of my neck, another hits my arm, yet a third lands in my hair. I wait for the stings.

As quickly as the irritated colony is aroused, they retreat to their disturbed home, and I turn to see the remnants of a shredded paper nest I guess to have been the size of a basket ball prior to my rude home wrecking. I can’t imagine why they did not sting me, but I heed their warning and give them a wide berth in subsequent passes. I never come close enough to identify the species.

Amazed by the lack of stings, I wonder if it might be a bumble bees colony. I have heard of them nesting above ground in thick grasses, but have never encountered such a nest. Whatever they are, if I thought they would enjoy a bottle of beer, I would gladly take them one for not counter attacking.

In the next pass, a rat snake slithers as quickly as a racer from my whirling guillotines, unscathed. Just after the snake, a large box turtle gives me a start. I fear I might have caught her high dome with the mower, but she, too, unharmed, is making a beeline south. I wonder if she is the old lady who buried her eggs in my blueberries last year.

These are but a few of the reasons I do not like to mow, and why I so often put it off. If I want to stand for anything, it is wildness. Aldo Leopold wrote that, “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” but I would rather strive for the tension and danger of a wild meadow evolving back into a forest, and I suspect deer, snake, turtle, and hornets agree.

This meadow was a forest for thousands of years before being logged maybe seventy-five years ago, then again in the last decade, and a forest is what it wants to be. In the midst of all the grasses, flowers, bramble and vines, young oaks, poplars, sweet gum, and sourwood are trying to reestablish, but I stop them. Stopping them is my job and this part of my job is not negotiable. So I churn, chop, tear, and shred as infrequently as I think I can get away with. My landlord probably sees my infrequent leveling of the brush as laziness, but it is not that. Were I granted permission to manage this plot to be what it desires, I would be out here far more often to nurture it.

Were I managing the land to reforest it, I would labor over it. Selective cutting cannot be achieved with this giant machine. To steward a small forest is work best achieved on foot with hand tools–labor.

When my work is done, and the tractor in the barn, I walk back out to the barren scape with camera in hand, stopping first to check on the Carolina wrens nesting in the garden shed. Mother wren retreats, scolding loudly to a nearby cherry tree, and I take a couple quick photos of the five nestlings.

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Out in the meadow, I stop short of the broken paper nest for a few photos with a long lens. What is left of the nest is crawling with bald-faced hornets, and I realize how fortunate I am that cause and effect is sometimes lost on hornets, and that mother wrens do not have stingers!

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Not wanting to push my luck with the hornets, I wander across the meadow. There is no evidence left of deer trails or beds. Rat snake and turtle are out of sight. Even the dragonflies and grasshoppers seem to have disappeared, so I move to chat with the robins who are busy harvesting my blueberries for me. I suppose that is their job, so in the spirit of the peaceful hornets, I pretend to not know the cause and effect of robins and disappearing blueberries, and do not scold them.

It is nearly dark when I reach the house where life is safe, prosperous, comfortable and dull, and I do not have to share my beer with hornets, whether I labored enough to earn it, or not.

A Froggy, Froggy Night

The mood of the land was palpably different tonight as I tucked my pant legs into my socks before traversing the tall grass. Fireflies poked tiny holes in the darkness on the edge of the wood while distant lightning flashed softly in the southwest sky. The air was still and no thunder could be heard, so I didn’t worry about the far off storm.

Knowing the weather could change at any minute, I abandoned my usual strategy of stealthy ambush and went straight to the heart of a chorus at the end of a small pothole in the south meadow—a 150 square foot, shallow depression that stays filled with water nearly year round and serves as an incubator for a plethora of forest and meadow life.

Several crawfish hung motionless a few inches beneath the still surface and were unbothered by the bright light supplied by the magic of fresh batteries.

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I followed the call of a leopard frog at the west end. Along the way, a large frog—startled and confused—jumped from behind me, bumped squarely into my left leg mid-flight, landed, then quickly launched himself into the water—all of this too quickly for me to get a good look.

I was still chuckling from the encounter, when I looked down to see the leopard frog at my feet, his bright green back standing out in the grass, yet too hidden for a good photo.

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As I watched the leopard, something hopped a foot beyond him, and I shifted my light to see a gray tree frog clinging to the grass. I snapped a handful of pics, then turned back to leopard, but he had taken advantage of my distraction and moved on.

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From there, I walked to the pond where frogs were eager to pose. Stealth to the wind, I crashed through blackberries and rushes, keeping my light trained on eyes ahead. I don’t know what changed from twenty-four hours earlier when voices seemed separated from any physical form, but tonight calls came from bodies, and the bodies were inhabited by willing models.

Green frogs remained hidden, and the big bulls evaded me yet again, but cricket frogs and smaller bullfrogs were not the least but shy. The stars of the night were a medium-sized bullfrog who remained unflinching as I bore down on him with my lens, and a cricket frog sporting a brilliant green pattern who I caught with his vocal sac inflated.

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I shot steadily for twenty minutes until few rain drops and a strong wind signaled time to tuck the camera in my shirt and run for the house. As soon as I closed the door, the heavens released. An initial heavy shower was brief, but followed shortly by a steady light rain and rumbling thunder—perfect for writing beside an open window.

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Hunting the Giant Bullfrog

I am wading through chin-deep grass toward the pond. At the far reaches of my lamp, two pair of low, narrow-set eyes watch me for a moment, then slink into the woods. Gray foxes? I have seen them in that corner of the farm before, and these eyes did not move like the litany of others I might encounter—possums, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes. From a few feet in the trees, they turn once more in my direction then disappear.

As I near the edge of the pond, the once distant chorus drawing me is now beginning to surround me. It is almost June and the late winter songs of peepers, chorus frogs and American toads have been supplanted by the clacks cricket frogs, short, the rich trills of gray tree frogs, green frogs sounding like guitars swallowing their fattest strings, and the deep, squelching bassoons we call bullfrogs. It is the latter I hunt, not with gig or net, but with audio recorder and lens.

The sweet spot for bullfrogs is a quarter of the way around the pond to my right, but I will take the long way, giving eyes, step, and stealth time to adjust to the night. A shiny forehead greats me at the marge, and I am hopeful. Many of these walks net not a single sighting. A bullfroglet, still sporting the scars of tail and gills, sits motionless in an inch of water. Any more than that would cover him completely. I pull out the camera and manage two clicks before he flees the intrusion.

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A giant bullfrog bellows behind me as I begin a slow circumnavigation. I will be patient.

Occasional splashes precede me as I am discovered more easily than I would like. By the lengths of jumps and volume of splashes, I guess these to be small to medium bullfrogs, or green frogs. I slow my pace.

Halfway around the shore, I see my prey. He is not the giant, but is larger than my fist, and I freeze. These big ones are big because they are alert and wary. In slow motion, I remove my lens cap, tilt back my hat, and lift the camera to my eye. I forgot to change the batteries in my flashlight before leaving the house, and It is too dim for auto focus, so I reach forward and set the lens to manual. It is awkward holding camera and flashlight on target, while also focusing, but I manage. The shiny green frog emerges in the viewfinder, I press the shutter halfway, and he leaps forward. I watch him under water for a few feet until he fades into the depths.

Several times I stop along the route for loud green frogs or cricket frogs, but come up empty. At times, I can hear as many as a dozen voices within three feet of me in the grass or the rushes, but never see a single frog until I almost step on a green frog who gives me a start as he explodes from underfoot.

I am nearing the sweet spot. The booming voice of what must be the biggest bullfrog in the pond is just beyond a small wooden pier. I approach as slowly as I am able, but as soon as I came into the open at the foot of the pier, he stops. I sit on the pier for ten minutes recording, and never hear him again. This is what I have come to expect.

When I get back to the house, I find that I didn’t close the door behind me, and I left a light on in the living room, so the house is filled with insects. A large green lacewing greets me just inside the door. I consider capturing his portrait, I think about moving him outside, but I am eager to write, so I leave him alone. Perhaps if he is still there when I am ready for bed, I will usher him to the garden. He would be a good counter to the aphids on my tomatoes. If not, I’m sure plenty of prey made it in the house with him. I will allow him to do his work here.

As I sit down to write, cricket frogs are clacking away through the open window. Cutting through them like a semi truck on a go-cart track, the giant bullfrog by the pier declares his presence once more. He knows I am gone. He knows he is safe. And I suspect he knows I will be back looking for him soon.

Queen Walter of the Little Pond

There is one largemouth bass in my pond. By bass standards she is not particularly large, but by small pond standards, I would call her a lunker. I say she is the only one because in three years of observing and fishing my little pond, she is the only one I have seen. The pond is populated mostly by red-eared sunfish and frogs. These more abundant residents, no doubt, fall prey to the patrolling behemoth who I suspect eats just about anything she wants.

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Spring Peeper at Pond Edge

I had just moved to the little farm on the mountain when I first encountered her. While casting a small spinner to see who lived in the neighborhood, I saw her lying along the south bank in the shade, ignoring the sparkly lure that easily fooled one shell cracker after another. I switched to some larger baits, tried topwater and jigs. When I tossed a rubber worm in front of her, she ran so fast you’d think I had thrown a stick of dynamite in the water. That was when I named her after the giant trout of legend in the movie On Golden Pond. “Henceforth you will known as Queen Walter of the Pond,” I told her. “The one who will not be caught.”

Over the seasons, I have pulled countless sunfish and a handful of crappie from the pond, but mostly I stalk the edges for frogs. Beginning in February, there is a succession of them—chorus frogs, peepers, cricket frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs… Year round, bullfrog tadpoles dart from my shadow as I make my way along the bank. I always feel little guilty for flushing them from the safety of the shallows to the deeper water where Walter lurks.

Young Bullfrog
Young Bullfrog

When the water is low I find crawfish holes, each surrounded by telltale mounds of excavated mud, and imagine Walter eating them, too. Occasionally, I hear a kingfisher chattering in the direction of the pond, but he never sticks around. Slightly more frequently, a great blue heron can be found wading in the shallow end and, somewhat regularly, a pair of Canada geese spend their morning foraging the shallows.

But it is Walter who, for me, defines the pond. An apex predator with no full-time rival, her movements and feeding schedule surely dictating the habits of all other inhabitants of the little pond.

In some ways, she is like the giant buck who lives in the woods where I hunt. Last year, on the final day of the season, he and I entered into a standoff lasting nearly twenty minutes. From twenty-five yards, we stared each other down, each waiting for the other to make a move. In the end, he made a swift turn and disappeared back down the path, his ten point rack fading into the forest. Since that encounter, I cannot visit those woods without thinking about the big buck, and although I was hunting deer when I met him, I am glad he escaped my rifle. Knowing he is still out there makes sitting in those woods more exciting. Had I killed him, that ultimate potential of the woods would be lost. Without him, I might still hope to see a big buck, but there would be no reason to expect one. Similarly, Walter provides that highest possibility when I fish the pond. Every time I cast a lure into the deep end, I know there is a chance of hooking Walter. But there is a fundamental difference between the buck in the woods and the fish in the pond.

This season, as winter rains refilled the pond, I took my spinning rod out to see what sunfish survived the drought. Usually, a sixteenth ounce spinner practically guarantees red-ears. I slipped through the broom sedge on the east side of the pond, found a break in the blackberry, and flipped a cast to the middle of the deep end. On my third cast, the spinner had no sooner hit the water than it was hammered. I set the hook and my ultralight rod doubled. Walter dove deep, then shot to the surface. In the air, she twisted and contorted, giving her all to shedding the offense embedded in her jaw. She ran, she jumped, she dove, but ultimately, she tired and I lifted her from her watery home.

In the sunlight, Walter is a beautiful fish covered in rich green spots with a shiny, silvery-white, fat belly. Concentrated food in a drought-shrunken pond had clearly treated Walter well over the past several months! I removed the tiny hook, and admired her for a moment, then gently slipped her back home where she quickly turned and disappeared.

The ability to handle and release is the difference between bass and buck. There is no returning a buck once he is caught. Had I shot the buck, his woods would be forever changed (until another matures to take his place). His presence would no longer determine the status of every other buck in his woods, his DNA would no more influence the traits of so many fawns who begin life in the woods each spring. Of course, being the only bass in the small pond, Walter will have no opportunity to pass on her genes, but her presence will will continue to be felt by all who swim her waters.

One evening last week I spent an hour casting for red-ears while waiting for the frogs to begin their seasonal daily ritual. Over that hour I caught no fish, leaving me concerned that Walter might have taken a large toll on the sunfish during the drought. How else can I account for catching not a single shell cracker on a warm evening with a shiny spinner?

Following my hour of fishing, I went about the more important work of stalking and photographing spring peepers. I photographed a half dozen males, their vocal sacs full of air, calling for mates. At times, I was surrounded by so many peeping peepers and chorusing choruses that traffic on the nearby road was drowned out. I have read that largemouth bass can decimate frog populations in a pond, but clearly Walter has not had that effect. I wonder, though, if last summer was the year for her to thin out the red-ears, might next year be the time she thins out the frogs? Another difference between bass and buck is that I don’t have to worry about a buck eating my amphibians.

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Peeping for a Mate

Since long before this tract of land was domesticated, the ephemeral creek that forms its east border, and the marsh it flows into, have supported frogs and plenty who might prey on them—crows, raccoons, perhaps herons in the open areas… Now they are also preyed upon by Walter—an extension of man’s hand on the landscape.

People who preceded me on this mountain based their decisions on who gets to stay not on what is best for ecosystems, but on what made them comfortable. There are too many deer in the woods because they were uncomfortable with wolves and lions. At the same time, they dammed the waters and added predators they were comfortable with—namely largemouth bass. Now I am left to decide how to manage the aftermath. I am confident the big buck’s presence or absence has little effect on overall deer population, but I am not yet certain of the effect of a big bass on the frog population.

Bass, buck, and frog—one in hand, one in my memory, one preserved digitally, all left to fill their niches, at least for now. Next year I will have my camera in the woods with me in case the buck wanders my way again. I like the idea of capturing him the same way I do the frogs, and will decide then whether he ends up in the freezer. I will continue to stalk, camera in hand, the many amphibians who make the pond their breeding grounds throughout the spring. But as for Walter, I don’t know if she will be granted a second pardon should the opportunity arise. That is something that will require more thought. One thing I am certain of, is that knowing there is a bass in the pond holds little appeal for me if I cannot hear frogs on a warm, late-winter Georgia night.

March night peepers 1