A Short Trip to Piper Island Cabin
14 March: Getting there and settling in
Randy and I left Sealing Cove harbor at a little after 4pm. Randy said it would take him about two hours to make the run up to Fish Bay (where Piper Island is located) and we hoped to be up there by dark. As we were leaving the harbor, I saw a blue heron along the shore close to where we would be passing by. Unfortunately I had packed away my camera in a zip-lock bag in its normal case. By the time I finally got it unpacked we were past the best place for a picture, but I still got a shot where the heron was at least recognizable.
Shortly after passing the breakwater at the end of the channel, we saw two whales. There were many gulls on the water, and it seems likely that there were large schools of herring in the area. We caught up with the Haskins (who had left a little earlier than we had) by the time we reached Old Sitka Rocks, so we traveled fairly close for the duration of ride. The water was mirror calm through most of the trip north until we turned the corner at Salisbury Sound and went into Kakul Narrows. The wind was blowing through the narrows and it seemed to be going against the current. This results in steeper, higher waves and, combined with the irregular shoreline, there was little pattern. Still, the waves were not a significant impediment to our progress and we made it to Piper Island about 2 hours after we left town.
Piper Island cabin was built in 1993 and sits on the western shore of Piper Island near the mouth of Fish Bay on North Baranof Island. As we arrived, it was clear that there had been more snow here than there had been in town. There was a brisk wind from the northeast and, based upon the snow drifts, it appeared that it had been blowing so for at least a day or so. Someone had failed to latch the window at the back of the cabin, and some snow had blown in and accumulated in the loft. There was also drifted snow a foot or more deep on the porch when we arrived. We were happy to get the diesel stove going to warm up the cabin and help dry out the cabin after the snow melted. After getting settled in somewhat, Randy, Chuck, Anthony, Brandon, and I ate dinner, waited to see if Jim Wilson was going to make it and discussed sleeping arrangements.
I thought that it might be interesting to try sleeping outside. Although the wind was blowing pretty good, temperatures were above freezing, so I figured that I could sleep comfortably as long as I stayed out of the wind. After dinner, I went out to work on building a windbreak. I decided to use the snow drifts and a tree to build a windbreak. The wetness of the snow made it relatively easy to get the snow to stick together in the break, but I found myself thinking it would have been nice if I had decided to bring my snow shovel instead of convincing myself that there probably would not be much snow. Fortunately, one of the oars used to row ashore made a serviceable shovel and I used it to move blocks of snow from the drifts to my windbreak. As I worked, I would occasionally lay down in it to check for adequate length as well as to make sure it really was going to keep me out of the wind. After getting a good start on the windbreak, I went inside to play some cards with the others and wait for Jim Wilson.
Jim ended up arriving some time after 8pm, and stopped by the cabin to talk for a while. He said that the revised 4pm forecast called for strong southeast winds blowing in by Saturday afternoon. That was not an especially good forecast for making it back to town on time, so the boat owners decided to check the forecast again in the morning. If the forecast had not improved then we would head in Saturday morning to avoid getting stuck an extra day. Jim was planning to stay on his boat, and when he left to go back to his boat, we decided it was time to get ready for bed. I went outside to finish off my sleeping arrangements. After testing my windbreak by laying down in it, it seemed like it could use a little extra, so I built it up a little more. Although it was night, the moon was high in the sky and with the snow reflecting the moonlight, there was plenty of light to work by. When I was satisfied that my windbreak would be effective, I put down a tarp, thermarest, and then my bivi sack and sleeping bag and got inside to go to sleep.
15 March: A short hike and the trip back
I vaguely recall hearing birds singing and a squirrel chattering, but I fell back to sleep before I woke completely up. I suspect that when I finally got up, it was around 7am, but I am not sure. Upon rising, I decided that it would be interesting to walk down the beach to see what I could see. Due to the wet snow, relatively recent tracks were easy to find along the shore. I saw mink tracks on shore and just at the edge of the trees as well as squirrel tracks just inside the trees. At one point I saw a strange looking mark in the snow but I did not know what it was and kept going. Later on, I saw a set of river otter tracks leading up into the woods. I thought it might be fun to try following the tracks. Although my skills are not great, the softness of the snow and the size of the tracks made me think that I might be able to keep from losing the trail.
As the tracks lead up from the beach, it looked like the otter was bounding. It started right up the hill once it reached the trees and it was a little challenging for me to make it up without sliding back down. The otter did not take a direct route, as it would occasionally move along the hill side. Where the otter had gone down hill (no matter how slight), it slid on its belly, leaving a smooth groove in the snow with no foot prints. It looked like the otter had occasionally gone into holes in the ground under stumps or fallen logs, but I was usually able to see where the trail emerged with no trouble. Near the top of the island, the otter trail intersected with a set of deer tracks that looked like they had been made earlier in the morning. I followed the deer tracks a short distance before going back to the otter. Not long after the deer tracks, the otter tracks disappeared under a log and I could not find where they emerged. I looked under the log and wondered if perhaps it was an otter den, but I did not see anything that, to my untrained eye, made it likely. After looking around I decided to head back to the cabin. After a few steps in that direction, I noticed more otter tracks headed in the same direction so I resumed following them. From this point, the otter mostly slid down the hill to the beach. When I came out at the beach following the trail I realized that the strange mark in the snow was the end of the trail; the otter had slid on its belly to the water.
After returning to the cabin, I found out that Jim still had not come in from his boat, so I got my camera and went back to take some pictures of the tracks along the shore. Randy decided to go with me, but shortly after we left, we saw Jim bringing his skiff around, so Randy went back to talk with him while I continued on. I photographed the mink and otter tracks along the shore as well as some squirrel tracks just inside the trees. The squirrels seemed to have been especially active just at the edge of the trees, so I decided to go back to the cabin in the trees rather than on the beach. While I was walking back, I noticed a winter wren flitting about a short distance ahead of me. It did not seem bothered at my presence. In fact, it seemed to me that the bird would wait for me while I was taking pictures and then would lead me forward. I assume it was eating, but I am not sure what it could have been finding. When I saw it take a couple of hops on a patch of snow, I decided to see if it left distinguishable tracks. I found that it did, although they were subtle. I doubt that I would have noticed them had I not been looking for them specifically. Eventually it disappeared under a log and I did not see it come back out, so I headed back to the cabin.
Upon reaching the cabin, I found out that the forecast had not improved, so the decision was to head home. We spent the next hour or so getting packed up and moving gear and people to the boats. We were fortunate to have Jim there with his skiff and outboard motor. We could have rowed the gear out to the boats, but it would have been against a stiff breeze, so Jim's outboard saved a great deal of effort. The trip back was largely uneventful, although we did see a couple of deer on the beach and a small group of sealions. The wind was picking up and much of the waves were bigger than they had been on the trip up, but we had no trouble and were back in time for lunch.