It’s low tide as we skiff ashore from John’s old tugboat. Following a deep channel, the captain brings the dinghy in as far as he can and then I step out into the incoming surf. In hip boots, I slosh through the water over hard-packed sand following in the footsteps of my guide to avoid any unseen, underwater holes. Once out of the waves, its still a long trek to the beach. This part of Alaska has some of the most extreme tides in the world. Often twenty feet separate the daily high and low tides. On a gently sloping shore, that translates into an expanse of exposed ocean floor.
I’m distracted and slowed by the endless, unique patterns and prints in the sand.
After crossing the beach dune, we chose a comfortable spot along the river to wait, watch, and listen. Before long, a sow and two playful spring cubs crest the dune to my left. The sow wades through the river in front of us, focused on the meadow sedges behind me. Her cubs lag behind. It’s hard to keep up when there are so many interesting things to investigate and play with. This is an experienced, confident mother. A new or more timid mom is unlikely to allow her cubs to be so far away from her protection, let alone patter on without checking to make sure they’re still following.
In the river, the cubs found a stick to play with, wrestled with each other, and threw water around. Watching them, I feel them living the very definition of carefree.
After the bears moved off over the river berm and into the sedge meadow, we relocated as well so we could continue to laugh at their antics.
As the bears rested, my guide Buck regaled me with a story of how these cubs played all over a washed-up tree this spring, producing some stunning photographs for his guests.
A Scripted Adventure
Thirty minutes later, I was watching these two cubs on that very same worn tree just as Buck had described. I’m starting to believe that if I say it, or write it down, or visualize it, it will happen. But every time, I’m amazed. And in awe. The sow grazed while the cubs played, pawed at each other through a hole in the driftwood, tussled, biting at one another and occasionally tried to get their mom in on the play. I was enthralled by this encounter, and time stood still.
The family eventually moved off, and a large boar lumbered across the meadow in the late daylight. He did not linger.
A Surprise Encounter
It was getting late, so we headed toward a small creek where we were to rendezvous with the skiff. On our way, we saw a wolf! He was loping purposefully through the slough aiming for the treeline. There’s a well-known wolf pack that lives here at Hallo Bay. We abruptly stopped, sat down in the grass, and fell silent. I focused on the treeline where the wolf had disappeared, hypervigilant for any movement, glassing rocks, and bushes. Is that a wolf? Is that a wolf? This is when my eyes will play tricks on me as I fervently search. I saw a head peek out, then disappear. Buck saw it, too. We stayed a while, ever hopeful, but didn’t see another animal.
Buck softly radioed the captain to change our pick-up plans. To get to the previously arranged location, we’d have to walk toward the area where the wolves were, and we didn’t want to disturb or displace them. We headed back the way we came. At high tide, we got picked up in the flooded slough near the main river channel. It was precarious trying to guess where the tall bank and high ground were with shallower water and where I might sink deeply into a rut.
The captain was concerned that we’d changed our plans. “Are you ok? Did someone get hurt?” he urgently asked. “No! It was the wolves, ” Buck passionately replied. I could see by the look on the captain’s face that he’d heard this story before. “You know it’s a bear watching trip?” the captain wryly retorted. Invigorated by a spectacular day, we reboarded the tugboat for dinner and drinks in the warm Alaska sun.
Day Two: More Wolves
The next morning we set out at higher tide and were able to land near the main river mouth. However, we couldn’t cross the side channels into the meadow because they were flooded. While waiting for the tide to recede and the slough to empty, I spent some time photographing flowers and driftwood along the beach.
Rob and Buck stood on the dune crest, telling stories where they could simultaneously watch the grassland and keep an eye on me. Rob gestured for my attention and silently motioned me back. A wolf had appeared in the distance. The wolves here are known to fish for salmon. I’m hoping that’s what this lone wolf is doing in the flooded plain.
A long, eerie howl pierces the silence and floats over the terrain. High up on Natal Rock (where the wolves den away from easy access by bears) at the back of the meadow, a white wolf is calling out to the one in front of us.
The wolf in the meadow pauses then moves toward the treeline, where she stops to return the call. She’s so far away that I see her throw her head back, open her mouth, and purse her lips before her cry reaches my ears. She’s a speck in my camera’s viewfinder, but I press the shutter anyway. Soon she disappears into the same treeline that swallowed our wolf yesterday.
Soon, there are three white faces up on Natal Rock. We surmise that our wolf has rejoined the pack up there. Wolves are curious, intelligent animals. The pack is watching us watching them.
This was how we spent the afternoon sitting along a riverside on a rare, sunny, mild, Alaskan August day observing and listening to these wolves as they did the same with us. There were no bears today, just bear prints, wolf prints, and the company of this family of wolves.
On our way back to the tugboat in the late afternoon, we detoured to hike Ninagiak Island. An eagle family, two adults and one young-of-year, greeted us. A winter wren hopped along the rocky arches at the coast.
We labored steeply up to the spine of the island and effortlessly slid down the other side. A puffin colony nests high up in the leeward rocks. There are bear trails and bear scat out on this remote island. The bears are known to swim out from the mainland to ravage these nests and feast on any eggs they can find.
There are river otter tracks on the beach, crabs with wolf faces on their shells, and all manner of driftwood art. There is something new and unusual everywhere I look. I wander the beach taking it all in. I don’t want to leave.
But a storm is brewing; winds forecast at 35-40 knots and seas at 17 feet, so we’re heading back to Kodiak a day early. There will be no going ashore in weather like that. And all the wildlife would be hunkered down anyway. The skiff returns to the island to retrieve us, and before long, the floatplane pulls up alongside the tugboat. I have to leave this Eden of my heart.
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