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With the craziness of summer gone, quiet off-season beauty returns

  • Author: Joseph Robertia
  • Updated: October 30, 2016
  • Published October 30, 2016

There is a texture to early autumn mornings.

The cool, predawn air stimulates more than stings — as it will in another month — the exposed skin of my cheeks, the only part of my body exposed while sitting on a four-wheeler being pulled by my 14 sled dogs. Along the shore of Cook Inlet, the world is bathed in blue hues until the sun rises high enough for its first true rays to shine, igniting in a golden reflection on the water's surface while illuminating ever-regal Mount Redoubt.

Gone are the summer visitors. Just a few months earlier, dozens of makeshift fish camps cluttered the high-tide zone, hundreds of ropes and other fishing lines transected the shoreline, while closer to the river mouth, hopeful fishermen stood shoulder to shoulder and chest-deep in the water, dipping large hooped nets.

Joseph Robertia and his wife Colleen run some of their sled dogs along the shore of Cook Inlet — long after the dipnetters, setnetters and the thousands of other summer visitors have departed. (Joseph Robertia)

Mixed emotions

I couldn't go three yards without seeing someone in this same wet sand that now my dogs and I traverse at low tide for 20 miles, completely alone.

That's not entirely true. While I may not see other humans on my daybreak forays, I do see other creatures from time to time, some living, others not so fortunate. The clear, gelatinous bodies of dead jellyfish are the most common, and last year during the mysterious die-off of murres, I counted scores of the black-and-white bodies of these little seabirds. I have also come across deceased sea otters, seals, and even the bloated carcasses of a whale once.

The corpses stir mixed emotions. While sad for the loss of life, there is no denying the fascination of seeing, studying, even touching species that are so elusive and only briefly glimpsed when alive. The thick fur and calloused paws of an otter, or the deep, fleshy folds of the chin and throat of a humpback, I've never observed them in such detail any other time.

I'm not the only one intrigued by a novel sighting, as the living members of some of these species have demonstrated. I initially thought it was my imagination when I first noticed dolphins, and the seals watched me and my dogs with more than a passing curiosity. Dozens of times over the years, I have witnessed one of these marine mammals coming up for a breath of air, suddenly spotting us, and then immediately periscoping higher up out of the water for a better look. Some even swim in closer to shore, just yards from where water meets land, and they'll travel in tandem with my running dogs, seemingly mesmerized by the rhythmic movement of so many running legs.

We largely think of animals as being devoted to their base instincts — focused entirely on finding food, copulating with mates, escaping predators. So I find the experiences more endearing than odd — especially when an individual so clearly shows intrigue and analysis of something foreign and curious.

In these long periods behind my dog team, where my thoughts are my only company, I contemplate what lesson these creatures are teaching me about being human.

Henry David Thoreau might have been correct when he stated, "Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man."

Who’s who of animals

During September and October, the nearness of the full moon intensifies the extreme difference between the high and low tides. When the surf is out, the exposed sand reads like a who's who of which animals I've just missed.

I have seen a handful of coyotes foraging on salmon carcasses washed in with the flotsam, but not nearly as many as the tracks they leave behind when they hear the panting of my approaching dogs.

A few years ago, I saw my whole team perk up in an odd manner before I noticed we were traveling in fresh paw prints left behind by a large bear. Even when I don't see animals like the bruin, I still feel intertwined with them in some way by sharing the same stretch of shore.

Undeniably, summer is the season that draws the most people to the Kenai Peninsula, and to Alaska as a whole, and I understand the desire to put away salmon for the winter. But there is so much to this place, so much more to appreciate other times of the year.

The increased slant and tint of colors, the satisfaction of the burgeoning solitude, spotting species that feel safe enough to show themselves. These are all nuances of autumn that take awareness to notice, but once you begin to appreciate these seasonal subtleties, you too may fall in love with the texture of this time of year.

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof, where he and his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, operate Rogues Gallery Kennel. Joseph's first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, is due out in April.

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