Sitka Spruce Syrup, Endless Rain, and a Dash of Blood

Friday, May 10

When I lived in Panama as a high schooler, I reveled in the hammering of rain along tin roofs, rumbling like an approaching train until the deafening downpour enveloped my host family’s house too. The rain there stopped traffic with its ferocity. The rain here is nothing like that. Some days it blows sideways, pulsing sheets slicing carried by gusty maritime winds. Some days, it’s a gentle drizzle or a steady misting. It can be steady and tempered or rhythmic and lashing, but it’s never the all-out, passionate, over-the-top cascade of tropical rain. And yet the sound of Alaskan rain on a canvas tent is just as soothing and lovely and hibernation-provoking as the sound of Panamanian rain on a tin roof. 

The rain crescendos, a symphony of a thousand-million drops beating against our Scateau. The canvas billows inwards at another gust of wind and I snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag, dreading the cheery twinkle of my alarm. 

There it is.

Toni and I grumble and groan and stretch inside our sleeping bags. Barley hops up and wags through his morning yoga routine. We cheer him on enthusiastically and he performs the finale, a rigorous roll on the carpet. We applaud and haul ourselves out of our bags and into the rain.

The oatmeal bar

The waves are the color of the dress that broke the internet. One moment they’re blue and black, the next gold and white. The sun has made an appearance just in time for us to get to work. Michael drops us off at the head of a bay and motors off towards the pickup point. Toni and I sigh as we look at the dense Devil’s Club ahead of us, slip on our cut-proof gloves that guard against most thorns. I can see on my topo map that we just have 100 meters of horizontal ground to cover, but it’s going to be steep. After a bit of deliberation over what satellite imagery suggests is the best line, we push into the wall of vegetation. 

The road hasn’t been used in years and has been tank-trapped – a Forest Service tactic to decommission roads that involves digging a trench that even a tank would have trouble navigating. Most of these tank traps have streams flowing through them. We glissade down loose gravel into slick streambeds and haul ourselves back up several times per mile. With a lack of traffic comes an explosion of young growth, and we can hardly see Barley through the vegetation. Soon I have spruce needles in my mouth, alder catkins in my ears, a cut across my cheek, and a three-foot stick wedged in my backpack. 

The start of spruce tip syrup: 50/50 brown sugar and spruce tips. That’s it.

There isn’t even a game trail maintained through the trees, so it’s unlikely we’ll find much here. Barley works diligently, his tail just visible through the branches. The scats are few and far between so Toni and I start to collect spruce tips; our plan is to make spruce tip syrup for gifts and cocktails. The extracurricular collecting keeps our spirits up as we shoulder our way through the forest. 

Barley makes a few spectacular finds through the underbrush. He points out scats that were completely invisible from above; the wolves must have tried to poop onto bushes and had their scats fall below the boughs. He chases rivers of scent through brush so dense that his bell echoes all around us. Once or twice when he alerts, I have to pull out my GPS and see where he is. 

Finally we emerge from the trees and clamber onto the boat. I pick sticks and needles out of my clothes the whole way home. Barley snores on my lap. 

Saturday, May 11

Last night we woke up around 1:30am to check for the northern lights. It was a bit hazy, but we still had an amazing show – some of the best I’ve ever seen, and Toni’s first. As always, an absolutely magical experience. I hope we get another show on a clearer night.

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Today we head to an island where we don’t expect to find consistent wolf presence. Michael tells us that trappers came up empty-handed last year, suggesting the island had been trapped out.

As we navigate through the over 5,000 islands of the Alexander Archipelago, Michael spots a whale spouting, closer than any we’ve seen so far. He slows the boat to an idle just as the whale’s back curves above the spangled waves, dragging by in slow-motion before carving its tail through the air and back into the depths. 

We take it as a good omen, and find two wolf scats on an island that isn’t supposed to have wolves. 

Barley is ready to help Toni load the boat on a rare sunny day.

Tuesday, May 14

The weather is terrible. 

Cold rain pulses in sheets over us as we pick our way up an old logging road. Even covered head-to-toe in rain gear, I am wet. My fingers are white and splotchy, but we’re keeping our spirits up. The locals say that the wolves like to travel the highlines across this island, traversing ridgelines cut for logging crews. So we climb through the rain. 

Looking back at the boat before we head up to bushwhack.

Barley finds a few scats here and there, but the driving rain keeps the odor tight to the ground. The wind scrapes over trees and pulls clouds – or is it fog? – over the ridgeline like a blanket over cold toes. As we reach the fog-cloud layer, the scats pick up just like the locals promised. We find a few in a row before I make a detour to check out a likely-looking muskeg. 

Picking my way across rocks that might as well be black ice, I slip. I manage to fling my hands between my face and the rocks just in time and barely scrape my chin, but my hands are cut deeply. My right middle finger might need a stitch or two, while my left palm is slashed across as if I’d made a blood oath. 

After we wiped off much of the blood, but before I got closed up.

At first, I scramble to my feet and try to shake it off. I am trembling a bit from adrenaline and pain and cold and sweat. Toni urges me to sit, but I insist upon rewarding Barley for a scat he found during my misadventure. Impossibly bright blood drips onto my camouflage boots, and I admit that I’m woozy. I plop down in the center of the road, clasping my hands together above my heart, trying to stem the flow.We wrap my finger with a band-aid and my palm with gauze and vet wrap. The bleeding is slowing and my adrenaline is fading. I won’t need that stitch or two, at least not badly enough for the multi-hour boat ride to a hospital. 

Now I just want to go home.

My hands are useless claws for the rest of the day, and I am frustrated by my inability to help unload the boat. While Michael and Toni handle the heavy lifting, I manage to get a fire started and hang our Rite in the Rain data sheets to dry. Fire makes everything better and after hot chocolate and a meal I am almost not crabby.

Wednesday, May 15

This road is lovely, easy traveling – too overgrown for a truck but wide enough for Toni and I to walk side by side. The clouds flow over the ridgelines in the distance like water over rocks and the air is thick with the scent of cedar. 

Barley has found two scats in the first half hour of searching, but they are widely spaced. Toni and I are taking our time, filling baggies with spruce tips. 

Barley posing at our lunch spot. Lovely, right?

Normally such a diligent worker, Barley’s focus has started to waver at times. When there are no scats to be found, he tugs at roots and pounces at buoys. I guess he’s gotten wise to the unproductive areas, though through pattern recognition or olfaction I cannot say. When cued he happily returns to work, but I’ve never seen him get off-task before. I suspect that nearly a month of continuous work with so few off days, plus a low-density search area, are to blame. Normally we work detection dogs for about 4 days a week. Barley is getting 3 or 4 days a week of physical rest, but between searcher efficiency tests and long boat rides and short searches, none of us have had many true rest days. 

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That’s not to say that he’s not working. He’s still carrying the team; many days he finds 100% of our haul, and his root-tugging interludes are brief. But like Toni and my spruce syrup endeavor, he has found ways to motivate himself when the environment isn’t providing. 

Barley catches a glimpse of the ocean through the trees. He perks up, prancing with his head and tail high. He’s bouncing along, tail waving, and I am about to tell him to get back to work. But I pause, grinning at his joy and optimism. The ocean is easily a half mile away down a steep slope, but the sight of it still brightens his mood. Look to dogs for joy, and let it be contagious. 

His head is canted to the left, eyes on the waves. I open my mouth, inhale, about to interrupt his daydream. 

His nose hooks hard to the right, drops, starts snuffling in so fast that his exhales are audible. His tail still waves, but everything else in his demeanor has changed: steps fast and efficient  as he crabs and brackets and weaves and circles, nose prehensile, eyes and ears disengaged. When he drops into a down at the wolf scat, I check my GPS. His first change of behavior was 40 meters back up the road. More impressive to me is that he went from daydreaming to sourcing odor instantaneously. 

Celebrating a brilliant find with King Barley.

I have seen Niffler perform the same switch before (once in a show of brilliance that I was lucky enough to video, Niffler went from cow-herding daydreams to bat-odor-sourcing mode with such fluidity that it had to be shared and I messaged the video to every Border Collie Person I knew). But this is the first time I’ve seen Barley prove that he, too, can recognize odor when his mind is elsewhere. 

Toni hard at work fixing Barley’s mess.

Wednesday, May 22

Today Toni and took our data sheets, GPS, and emails to a cafe for an hour to get some work done out of the basement. We left Barley in the canvas wall tent Scateau while we worked.

When we came back, he was waiting in the garage and there was a two-foot by two-foot L-shaped hole in the tent. Toni will spend days mending the hole, and Barley will only be left in the truck from now on.

Friday, May 24

The sea rolls. The boat glides up one wave, cuts across the next, shears sideways when broadsided on another. Every 3 or 5 waves, we slam down hard. We’ve got a strong westerly today and our biggest ocean crossing yet. I’m not quite nauseous, not quite seasick, but my stomach drops each time we leap off the crest of a wave. It is decidedly unpleasant, and Barley and I cling to each other. Michael explains that the wind and the tide are fighting, causing the waves to “stack up” and be even steeper than their height suggests.

As Michael guides us into Warren Cove, we make multiple approaches to the shore. He’s searching for a place that we can leap onto the shore without the boat running aground or blowing against the rocks. After a few feints, he finds a spot on the western edge of the cove. He asks that Toni and I are quick as we unload, so we get Barley dressed and shoulder our packs as he circles for a re-approach. 

Before the bow even touches the first kelp-coated boulder, Toni is on the bow. She leaps down and reaches up to help lower Barley. I grasp the load-bearing handle on his Ruffwear harness and lift him down to her. Barely keeping her balance, she lowers him. We are practiced at this maneuver, but the boat is bucking and the waves are spraying and the bladderwrack slides dangerously between our boots and the limpets. As soon as my hand is off of Barley’s harness, I swing myself down and give the boat a shove.

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We are balanced at the base of a 10 foot rock face that would be classified 5.2, perhaps 5.3, if it were a rock climb. I head up a seam, using all four limbs to stay attached to the greasy rock. Claws spread wide, Barley follows without hesitation. He picks his own line, aiming for features that suit his shorter stature and built-in crampons. Perhaps his years as a “crag dog,” tagging along to rock climbing trips in Moab and Boulder, are paying off.

Barley patiently awaiting rescue from his balance beam.

He’s faster than me and Toni. At the apex he dashes across a driftwood log and plants his front paws on the summit, hind legs stretched out and front paws secure but without a ledge to close the gap. He looks back at me, tail wagging. He’s stuck and he knows it, but he’s utterly unconcerned. Laughing, I help him hoist his rear end onto the peak. We plunge into the Devil’s club on the other side and start the search.

The search is abbreviated; we don’t want to risk conditions worsening and making pickup or our return to camp more dangerous. We work our way across the cove, finding no scats but placing a camera trap. Michael takes a few tries to find a new place to pick us up. Even if we wanted to return to the drop point, the tide has changed and it likely wouldn’t work. Over the radio, he directs us to a crease between two ridges of rock and lets us know to be quick about it. The waves surge up the channel, and we nervously eye the slick rocks. If we slipped, it would be a cold, wet, hard fall. Worse, we might get sucked under the boat with a receding wave. 

Toni scampers onto the boat first, timing her lunge perfectly with the waves. I direct Barley to a boulder in front of me where I think I can straddle a pair of rocks and lift him to her. A wave slaps up against my thighs and water pours into my boots as Barley takes one look at the situation and turns away. 

He seems to have assessed the terrain and decided what reached the goal safely: he scurries along a spine of rock that takes him nearly level with the boat. He leaps onto the boat without assistance. It’s as if he was listening to the radio chatter and knew exactly what was best.

I take all of this in while springing for the boat from the other side. I snatch the grab bar and one foot plunges into the ocean while the other finds the foot peg. Michael reverses off the rocks as I haul myself up. Now that the boat is back on the chop, Barley hesitates on the bow. He is nervous about navigating the narrow walkway to access the cabin. Calling him the bravest dog in the world and singing his praises, I grab the overhead rails and plant my feet along the rail. He wedges himself between the cabin and my shins, using my legs as a moving rail and we shuffle to safety together. It is seamless and exhilarating. Toni and I laugh breathlessly and dump our boots back on the boat, and decide that it’s a good thing next week is our boating safety course. 

That night, my journal is filled with tearful praise for Barley’s bravery and intuition. I do not take it for granted that he handles these challenges so gracefully. A reasonable dog would have balked at the boat boarding today, but Barley has never been a reasonable dog.

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Our spruce tip syrup is starting to take form!