Another South Beach Adventure

  • A few weeks ago we took the bike to the cinder river and rode for miles along the deserted coast. On that trip we turned back at Cape Menshikof because we were worried about the tide going out (leaving the boat dry and us stranded) so we turned around at The Cape. Yesterday when Dirk came a knocking with a hankering to visit the south beach, we decided it might be a good time to extend the trip and see what lay beyond The Cape. We raced around, packed some food, water, radios (battery later turned out to be dead, stupid) and extra cloths. We loaded the bike in the boat and headed to South Beach with Dirk and his friends in another boat behind us.

    We moored the skiff in the same lagoon we used last time and put a lot of thought into the tides, timing and all that so the boat would be floating when we returned. I thought I had it all figured out. Since we had already explored the first few miles of beach to the Cape, we blazed by that stretch in a hurry to get to the Cape and see what was beyond. On the way we saw Dirk and crew walking, having moored their boat further down the beach. We got the Cape in 30 minutes or so and slowly traversed the boulder field at the bottom of the bluff. It’s kind of amazing what the bikes can do. On the other side of the Cape, separated from Pilot Point by a mountain, we felt all alone. We were on a stretch of beach that was even more remote and unvisited than the previous stretch. Amazing! There was less of a high tide line on that side for some reason though so we picked up a few glass fishing floats but nothing like the previous trip. It was the solitude we reviled in this time, not the beach finds. Since the Alaska Peninsula narrows as it heads toward Russia, the mountains get closer to the beach the further west you travel. We can see Mount Aniakchak from our cabin but we felt really close to it yesterday. The volcano was formed in 1645 BC and has exploded more than 20 times since. Once blowing the entire top off, creating the caldera we see today. Prior to the 1931 eruption the caldera was lush and verdant, like the garden of Eden according to the Jesuit “Glacier Priest”, Father Bernard Hubbard, who was the only Westerner to visit both before and after the 1931 eruption. After the eruption most signs of eden that was there were erased under hundreds of feet of ash and volcanic debris, some of which reached villages 40 miles away.

    Anyway, I digress. We were close the the mountain, closer than I had ever been. We eventually reached the Cinder River, the very same place my mother commercial fished in the 1970s (I posted a picture of here on this page a week or so ago). It’s a place I had always wanted to see. There are actually two river that flow into a huge lagoon that then empties into the Bering Sea via a narrow passage. When we arrived, the tide was racing out and 10 or more grey whales were feeding in the shallow mouth. A sand spit jutted out into the sea and was getting longer with each inch the tide receded. We headed out to the tip and were so close to the whales we could have thrown a stone amongst them. It was spectacular watching their backs and fins/flippers (?) arcing gracefully out of the water as they gorged themselves on whatever minuscule creatures lived in the sand there.

    After exploring the immediate area, we turned around and headed back. Something caught my eye in the sand. I turned around and my mind faltered as the realization of what I saw kicked in. A walrus skull with two massive ivory tusks laying in the sand, gently lapped by the outgoing tide. If you recall, I found a single tusk on our previous trip. Up until that point, that was the best thing I had ever found. This one, though took the cake by a mile. I imagine some people will understand how it felt and others might not. I was in total shock, and I don’t say that very often. I just stood there staring, saying, “oh my god.” Which I suppose makes it an almost religious experience, lexically if not spiritually. The chances of finding something like this are just so slim, I suppose it’s the shier odds that, in part, make it so special. I have walked literally thousands of miles of Alaskan beach in my life and have never been somewhere at the precise moment when something like this is revealed in the sand or washes up. I have no doubt there are countless others buried in the sand, some for all time, some will be exposed and found, other reburied. The cosmic lottery that results in a find is too much to grasp. It’s better just to say “thank you” and to never forget the experience as long as you live.

    I love walrus ivory for many reasons, the least of which are that it’s created by nature as a tool for an animal, it lasts for essentially forever in the environment even long after the animal is dead, and to us white folks, it has no monetary value because found ivory cannot be legally sold or bought. We get to enjoy it purely on it’s own terms and for the experience of finding it. I get to think about the walrus, which may have weighed up to 4,400 lbs., when it was alive, eating clams offshore, using these same tusks to dig them up. It may have also used them to fight for mating rights or territory. It may have lived hundreds of years ago, when the world was a very different place. If it was around before 1741, it may have known an Alaska before Westerns had ever set foot here. There weren’t many native people in this area so it may have known a world free of people entirely. I might be its first interaction with a human. What an honor.

    I could go on and on about the walrus but I will spare you the tangential drivel. We headed back to the boat, confident it would be floating. On the way we passed Dirk and crew walking back to their boat after their adventures. They were jealous of my find in a way that made me think they might overpower me and take it. We made hast to avoid that outcome. We came over a rise and saw their boat pounding broadside on the surf in the waves. Either the tide had gone out further than they thought or their tiny anchor had drug. When the tide goes out here, it goes out fast and their boat was nearly dry. We had minutes to save it. Without time to put my waders on, I took my pants of and waded into the surf to start pushing. We were able to get it off the beach and into deep water again. We reset their anchor further out then headed back to our boat with new earnestness. Was our’s still floating? No, it was not. Furthermore, it wasn’t just dry, it was DAMN dry. Meaning the water wasn’t even close. We were marooned on the sand flats. We made one attempt to drag the 4000 lb boat with the bike but to no avail, obviously. John Peterson flew over us in his Supercub, saw our predicament and landed to offer help. Dirk and crew then came by and I flagged them down. Their group was large enough (and they had boat rollers) that we thought it was worth a shot trying to get it into the water. We did and it worked, but very slowly. At one point we thought the water might be going out at about the same rate we were advancing toward it. We caught up with it and the boat slid into the sea. It took about 1 hour and everyone worked hard and fast to help us. Set netters know how to do ridiculously hard manual labor things like this. Thanks so much to all of them! We would have had to sleep in the boat until the tide came back in at 3am, then motored home in the dark. My bed felt so good last night!

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