Schandelmeier: Take in the sights and sounds of nature

John Schandelmeier

What does one see when taking a walk on the beach? It depends on where one walks, of course. What might be found along the ocean in Hawaii will be quite different than our Alaska shores.

Beyond the obvious -- the mud, rocks, gulls and garbage -- there is much to catch our interest. We tend to see things based on our profession or specific interests. A fisherman will see old corks, pieces of line and potential fishing spots. A birder will marvel at the variety of bird life. All of us will see much and miss more. If someone asks, "What did you see?", be sure your answer isn't "Not much."

Western Alaska beaches are quite varied. However, the place I am about to take you is, at first glance, a place of little interest or diversity. The intertidal shores of Kvichak Bay seem to be one endless gray stretch of mud, unappealing and lifeless. Bordering grasses mimic the undulating waves that restlessly gnaw at their roots.

I slog from my skiff and drop the anchor as far from the water as the line will allow. The gray goo underfoot sucks at my boots in a seeming attempt to make me one with it. As I glance down, I see squiggly tracks traced in the mud. A worm has been here since the tide retreated. I follow the tracks a couple of feet and dig down an inch or so at their end point. A long, white worm as big around as pencil lead dives deeper as I poke and prod. I have no marine book, so cannot identify him.

A rush of wings passes by my head. A flock of 30 black oystercatchers swoop to land and run madly ahead of me, picking at the ground. They must like the worms. The birds bring me to a halt, and I suddenly become aware of the panoply of sound. How could I have missed it? Easy. We only pay attention to the unfamiliar. We miss the obvious that is with us day to day. Mew gulls, herring gulls, Arctic and Aleutian terns are in the air around me. I stand for 20 minutes without moving. Sandhill cranes, a flock of white-winged scoters and a pair of pintails cruise by. Just off the beach, a seal turns for a quick look, his nose and eyes just clearing the water.

I strain to listen and separate the sounds. Tundra swans are calling inland and I can hear the peeping of red-necked phalaropes. Savannah sparrows add their buzzing song to the din, so many that they become background noise. A single golden-crowned sparrow sings from one of the few willows along the shore.

I continue through the tidal zone toward solid beach. I cross an unidentifiable line of tracks. Caribou? Farther along is a herring-bone track; someone has driven their skiff in too shallow, leaving prop tracks. At the grass line is a single bear track winding north along the bank. I follow, paying attention, trying to integrate myself in his thoughts. I find where the bear pees; "he" is obviously a sow. A half-mile of very close attention to the tracks leads me to believe she is not alone. There is no second set of tracks but occasionally the right side foot turns toward the inland grass as if my bear is watching or looking that way.

Another 400 yards and my tracking is rewarded; a single set of tiny bear tracks, barely discernible, punctuates the black mud on the very edge of a beach-side pond. The cub has been staying on the grass! I am pleasantly elated.

With my discovery comes the realization I have done just the thing I cautioned against. Despite my best intentions, my attention was diverted to a single objective. I have missed everything else on the beach. Attention has become an intentional discriminator, gearing me to notice only what seems relevant right now.

Now, the tide is coming back in and I must rush to the skiff. Whatever I've missed must wait for another day. Go to an Alaska beach -- pay attention. 

John Schandelmeier