Hartney Creek, by Buck Meloy

The stench of death reaches us way up here even though we cannot see Hartney Creek down below, through the thick rain forest, perhaps a mile away. It is revolting, nagging at the nose and threatening to send the stomach into spasms. Yet even as my body urges me away from the source of this terrible reek, it draws the bears and birds and other critters whose very lives depend on it, are nourished by it, thrive on it.

Fleeing higher and further from this putrid decay, through the ancient forest, I know that I, too, am as much a part of this cycle of life and death as are those who are drawn to it. The bears gorging themselves on rotting, spawned-out salmon carcasses at this very moment are me, in another time and place. Last night I dined on salmon myself, and tonight will see me slicing venison for sustenance. The Eskimo relishes muktuk, the Norwegian lutefisk, the Swede gravlox.

Further up the crude trail, finally away from the fetid air of the corpse-littered creek banks, the rich and varied odors of the forest flush my head clear of the convoluted thoughts that the stench had wrought. No longer repulsed, my soul plunges forward with my feet across the thick carpet of moss that blankets everything here, over the fallen, rotting timber, through the clumps of brush and devil's club, around rocks and stumps and crevasses, past the autumn fungi that dine and thrive on the fallen matter of the forest floor.

This hike was Danny's idea, our objective being the high and treeless ridge on the Heney Range that would give us a grand view: the woods through which we had come; Orca Inlet and many of the islands and fiords of eastern Prince William Sound; and, in the opposite direction, the wondrous and spectacular 55-mile wide delta of the Copper River, with its bars, islands, grass banks, coastal surf -- its uncountable snaking channels, many glaciers, and backdrop of raw and wild ice-capped mountains that are among the largest and most inaccesable in the world.

"Look at this!" I shouted to Danny, who was nearly out of sight ahead of me. He trotted quickly back to view my discovery.

"Angel wing mushrooms. See, they are all white, gills leading to where a stem would be if they had one, but the cap is attached directly to rotting wood instead. Their flavor is mild, but good, and the only fungus you could possibly confuse them with is the oyster mushroom, which tastes even better!"

His keen interest in the natural world notwithstanding, Danny had never taken an interest in fungi: "Uh huh", he said. "You eat some and let me know when your lips start tingling."

There had been logging here once, perhaps a hundred years ago. Little evidence of it remained apart from the occasional stump with a springboard notch still visible in it. Large Sitka spruce again dominated the terrain, providing the shade that kept smaller plants from taking over on the forest floor, and providing the moist coolness that nurtured the thick, mossy greenness and the fungi and other small plants that thrived in it.

Further along, the trees were even bigger, dying only of old age as they had since the beginning. We came to a creek, its clear water flowing rapidly over its shallow and rocky bottom. Danny produced two garbage bags, with which he covered his boots and lower legs. I took off my shoes and rolled up my jeans, and we waded across through the shallow and chilly water. The trail became little more than a faint worn line snaking through the mossy woods. Occasional mounds of shit gave awesome testament to the varied diets of the brown and black bears who made greater use of this trail than did humans.

"You can tell which is predator and which is predated by its turds", said Danny, as we stared at an impressive mound of berry-stained and seed-filled excrement, mixed with a lttle hair. "The predator's turd is tapered, a result of a mostly protein diet. A rounded turd suggests life lower down on the food chain."

"I thought turds were tapered so their assholes wouldn't slam shut", I quipped, thinking of the thunderous slam that could happen to a big brownie.

We came to the first of a series of clearings, each one further up the steady grade we were climbing. "How in the hell can a slope be so wet?" I enquired as I sank into mushy bog plants practically to my ankle. "It's been sunny and dry for ages, this is a high spot with no rim or other dam around it to keep water from running off, yet it's so soggy I can hardly walk on it. And do the trees and bushes not grow on it because its so wet, or what?"

Danny had learned that one can tell how the water moves near the surface in such places by the patterns of the larger vegetation around it. "If the water doesn't move, the trees can't take hold. These plants keep it too alkaline, or something."

Despite the lateness of the season, there were still acres of blueberries and low-growing bunchberries that hadn't been raked clean by the bears. I enjoyed their tart-sweet goodness almost non-stop as we continued to work our way up. The bear turds up here were mostly the purple color of the blueberries interspersed with gelatinous heaps that indicated heavy ingestion of pink salmon carcasses down below. These bears apparently enjoyed a balanced diet virtually every day. And a good hike.

The terrain steepened sharply, and the vegetation thickened. Now there was no visible trail at all -- only occasional hacked blazes on trees and some pieces of bright orange surveyor's tape tied to branches, left there by whoever had decided where the future trail would go. At this greater altitude, we were in a different microclimate. Devil's club and salmonberry bushes had taken over in the crevasses, clefts, and clearings that now abounded on the steep slopes, between mostly large spruce trees. Avoiding their spiny trunks, we pushed through the devil's club bowers as we came to them, straining to gain adequate footholds. I didn't want to go sliding here.

Bulling out of the brush, we found ourselves at the base of an enormous spruce, the largest I had ever seen in Southcentral Alaska. "Wow! Good genetics", was the first thing Danny managed to say. Growing from the edge of a crevass near the base of a tall cliff, it was obviously favored by the water, light, and nutrients that are conducive to spruceness as well. Danny spread his arms out against its trunk; it would have taken half a dozen Dannys to completely ring it.

"That thing is over 30 feet around" I blurted. Danny was way ahead of me: "Then it's at least 10 feet in diameter, right? And that's a radius of 5 feet. If there are ten annual rings to the inch, it's at least 6 centuries old!"

"And if there are 20 rings to the inch, which seems more likely, it's a lot older than that".

Danny then recounted reading about some early loggers in Washington who had encountered a tree whose age they wondered about, so they cut it down so they could count the rings. Then he asked me if I had seen the Farside cartoon of the 2 loggers having lunch on a stump, surrounded by other stumps. One said to the other, "I just love working in the woods!"

A cloistered hollow between its roots at the base of the tree provided fine shelter for some mammal. Its accumulated turds carpeted the space. "Probably marten", said Danny already launching himself further into the undergrowth.

I attempted to follow him, but found the going quite difficult. Since I already knew that I would not be scaling the switchbacking route obove the treeline to the ridge, I decided to go no further. "I'll meet you back at the last meadow when you get down. I'll be sleeping in the sun", I shouted to him.

"Okay. I won't be long", came his muffled reply.

Making my way slowly down, it occurred to me that now even Danny's pepperspray was not available as defense against any bear that I might encounter. On the other hand, I felt comfortable with the knowledge that most bears would rather avoid me more than I wished to avoid them. And I was now retracing a route that we had thoroughly stunk up with our nasty human scent when we came up. As Danny later put it, "Bears are noted for their exceptionally keen noses, deer for their ears, eagles for their sharp eyes, and we humans for our mouths."

After Danny had rejoined me and we were nearing Hartney Creek once again, I was forced to wonder how it is that our smell is such a turn-off for bears, but that rotting salmon turns them on. The sharp-eyed eagles and squalling gulls likewise do not question its bouquet.

At a point where a fallen tree provided a window on the gravel bars and meandering course of the creek below, I spotted 4 coyotes, one working on a fish that was still flopping. Even though they must have been nearly a mile away, they spotted me also. Only the one who didn't want to leave his fresh meal didn't start edging off into the cover of brush, though he eyed me nervously the whole time I stood there.

As we once again neared the dirt road and its bridge over the creek, we heard yet another animal sound, this one distinctly of children playing. Unaware how little actually stood between them and their becoming part of the food chain, they played and shouted contentedly. In truth, the bears would avoid this area, with its human presence, preferring to forage in the more peaceful and better smelling upper reaches of the spawning grounds.

On the road, we found a group of Filipino cannery workers who had parked at the bridge and were picnicking. We walked over to see if any late-returning coho salmon had yet arrived to spawn here. The lady staring down from the bridge next to me remarked on the many pink salmon carcasses littering the shallow edges of the creek: "Not good. Too many fish dead."

I don't know whether she understood my explanation of the life cycle of the salmon. If so, she was probably as surprised by it as I was by the fact that she earned her living dismembering salmon, yet knew so little about them.

Below the bridge, where the salt water of Orca Inlet rose up and mingled with the fresh of the creek, her husband rinsed the clams he had just dug from the muddy estuary that drew its nourishment from the salmon as well.

©Copyright 1996 Buck Meloy

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