Thursday, October 3, 2013

Peterson Bay Field Station

Recently I  opened up my email to find an invite to head across Kachemak Bay to the Peterson Bay Field Station for a workday.  Checking my calendar, I discovered my calendar was free for that 24 hour slot.  I talked my son into going with me and we were in on a mellow adventure.

A high tide means the whole harbor rises, sometimes 20-30 feet.
Most trips across the bay start at the Homer Harbor.  We were scheduled to take the Discovery on a Saturday afternoon, which was heading over to pick up the last school group of the year that had been at Peterson Bay since Thursday.  The first thing we noticed as we hauled our gear down to the boat is that it wasn't very far down!  Normally the walkway you see in the picture has a steep grade and one has to be careful, but the incline was slight which was a weird feeling!  The tide was somewhere around +22 feet, so imagine what the walkway would look like at, say, a -5 foot tide!

The Discovery seemed like overkill to take 8 of us over to Peterson Bay, but when we got there I discovered that the boat would be quite full on the way back with what looked like 6th graders and all their gear for 3 days.  When we arrived at the "dock" I discovered an interesting system in place.  Peterson Bay has a floating dock that is far enough out to allow boats to come in at lower tides.  In order to get from the floating dock to shore, there is a pulley system attached to a wooden platform that allows people to load their gear, get on, and pull themselves to shore.  Once their gear is offloaded they can pull the platform back to the floating dock or they can leave it in near shore.

The students are pulling themselves and their gear to the floating dock and waiting boat.
When we arrived one load of kids were waiting on the dock while the second group was in the process of pulling themselves over.  We put our things off to one side as they loaded themselves and their gear on the Discovery, then we lined up to pull ourselves to shore.

The Discovery leaving the floating dock at Peterson Bay
Upon arriving at the stairs to the field station, we hauled out the gangplank that allowed us to walk over to the steps and we proceeded to haul our gear and food up the stairs to the main building.

This is a little blurry but I wanted to show what the entrance to Peterson Bay looks like on a high tide!
The area is overgrown with devil's club (nasty, spiny plants), blueberry plants, alders, trees and brush so most of the areas you can walk in right by the field station are boardwalks and wooden pathways.  Right up the stairs to the right was a gigantic firepit.  My son's Boy Scout troop comes over to Peterson Bay every April and shovels off all the platforms and walkways and does other work.  There's usually 3 feet or more of snow, so my son was really excited to see Peterson Bay without any snow!  His troop spent a lot of time around the firepit as they were outside all day working in the snow in April so it was a vital spot for congregating.

Giant firepit

There is a large main building that was originally going to be someone's home back in the 1980's, but when one of the couple died, the other sold the building and land very cheaply to the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies as a field station. 

View of the main building from the bathrooms area with yurt off to the left.
The other building is a bathrooms (2 composting toilets, 2 showers), workshop and storage shed.  Besides that there are 4 yurts, with a new one going up soon, with outhouses by each.

Inside the main lodge
Inside the main lodge there is a small kitchen, a mudroom, this main room for dining and upstairs, a classroom and two sleeping quarters for staff.  There is electricity (VERY expensive!) and running, potable water.

View of the two buildings at Peterson Bay Field Station, from the top of the Eagle Aerie yurt
There were 8 of us on this work weekend:  myself and my son, a couple from Pennsylvania who are traveling physical therapists who have been in Homer since May, the director of the CACS and her teenage son, his friend, and her 6-year-old daughter.  We had 2 main tasks we hoped to complete:  haul lumber for 2 yurt platforms from near the water up to where the platforms would be built, and take down one yurt that was on a rotting platform and demolish the platform.

After our arrival we all chose a yurt to sleep in, changed into work clothes, got a briefing on what lumber went where, and began to haul.  I'm in reasonably good shape, and while this wasn't an extremely difficult task, it had its share of challenges.  There were 6 of us doing most of the hauling.  There was one pile of wood below the main lodge that needed to be carried down some stairs, across a walkway, up some stairs, around the building, down some stairs, across some rough wood planks and up a slippery, narrow, muddy path.  The other pile was just above the lodge, so just needed to be hauled across a wooden walkway and up the muddy path.  Denver and I worked on that pile while the teenage boys worked both piles and the young couple worked the lower pile. 

There were about 10 different types of wood, from 4x4's to 2x4x10, 2x6x12, 2x8x16, some treated, some hemlock or fir, some all get the idea.  The lumber was being taken to 2 different spots, and we had to know how much of each type of lumber to put in each spot (split equally), and had to pile the same type of lumber together so the folks who built the yurt platforms, steps and railings could access what they needed without digging through the pile.  Added to the challenge is that the ground we needed to stack the wood on was uneven so our piles often fell over.

The narrow trails meant we sometimes had to wait for someone else to walk by before we could go, but that was the least of our challenges.  I, for one, appreciated the breaks!  It rained a bit off and on and was cool, but we were working hard so shed the layers bit by bit.

Three hours later of steady, mostly nonstop work, we'd moved all of the hundreds of pieces of lumber to their staging areas.  My shoulder bones were sore from when we'd carried the wood on our shoulders and my elbows ached from when we carried the lumber in a straight-arm hang.  But there was a sense of accomplishment and we'd worked together well to get the job done about as efficiently as we could have.  We covered up the wood with tarps and headed into the lodge for dinner, just beating the oncoming darkness.

After eating a delicious dinner of tacos with homegrown fixings and playing Whale Monopoly with the 6-year-old (who, by the way, talked nonstop the entire time we were there), we decided that nighttime tidepooling sounded like more fun than a bonfire.  We hoped to find some luminescent algae or luminescent jellyfish.

Everyone got their warm clothes on, muck boots, headlamps and rendezvoused at the firepit.  From there we headed down the stairs (the ones that you saw pictured, covered with water) and to the left, taking the high ground around to Otter Rock, which had just been peeping out of the water at high tide but which we would easily walk to at low tide.  A long 15 or 20 minute walk got us around the muddy low spots over to the beach by Otter Rock.  It felt like one of those trust falls you do to promote teamwork and trust.  I couldn't see much of anything except a small circle of light from my dim headlamp and the other people's headlamps, bobbing ahead of or behind me.  I could barely see the ground yet somehow I followed the trail, avoided the mud, stepped over logs and didn't slip and fall on the slippery rocks on the beach.

Tidepooling at night was interesting.  Of course there's the issue of slippery, wet rocks and walking over them.  Plus you can pretty much only see what your headlamp is focused on.  Like Denver said, it's almost better because your attention is not distracted by other things.  I practiced good tidepooling etiquette:  only lift up rocks the size of my head or smaller that I can lift, hold and put back down gently right where they were.  We found all sorts of the usual tidepooling goodies:  crabs, starfish, worms, chitons, barnacles, sea urchins, limpets and nudibranches.  We didn't find any luminescents, but then we didn't wave our hand in the water or toss rocks in the water in order to find them either (too cold!).

The walk back was more comfortable than the walk there, though it was very dark and I couldn't see much.  I had a general idea of where I was going and figured I could find my way back if I got separated from everyone else.  I had all my warm clothes on, 4 layers on top and 2 on the bottom, hat, neckwarmer, and gloves, and I was just about warm enough.  The 6-year-old's hand were really cold from poking around in the wet stuff and I wouldn't have minded some hotties for my hands either.

Sunday we ate breakfast and started working on yurt dismantling.  I'm going to do a separate blog post for that one.  We got that down in 2 hours, hacked away at the rotten platform for an hour, ate lunch, packed, cleaned up and then got ready to go. 

The wind had been building all day and we would be taking a small boat back.  The atmosphere was very different heading out--sunshine rather than rain and windy rather than calm.  We did everything the opposite:  loaded up the floating platform, hauled ourselves back to the dock and then loaded the boat up and away we went.  They are working on building a permanent dock (seen mid-picture--on the right, by the trees) so that the pulley system doesn't need to be used and so people can come and go at lower tides.  But it certainly added a bit of flavor to the experience.

The boat ride back was exciting, with large rollers covered with choppy waves.  We were packed on the little boat, but made good time and soon were back in the calm harbor.  Coming back in after being across the bay is a bit like moving from one world to another--stepping through a time warp.  It is always a little jarring and reminds me why there is such a mystique to "going across the bay." 

It was a good trip--I appreciated the free ride and food in exchange for my work and finally got to see Peterson Bay.  It is a hub of activity in the summer with many groups going over for tidepooling and other educational activities.  My only regret was not having time to go hiking on the field station trails (they needed those hiked with a GPS to make more accurate maps but we didn't get to it).  But if I leave something undone I have an excuse to go back!

Bittersweet moment on the boat ride back:  seeing the first termination dust (early snow!) of the season on the Kenai Mountains.  I love fall but it is also a little bit of a sad time knowing our sunshine is going away!

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