• Patsy Clark Urschel

Sea Birds in the Snow

The boat was gently rocking in the pre-dawn current when the long-promised snow started to fall. Bill could tell you how frustrated I’ve been at the promise of snow forecasts that never seem to materialize, but I'm sort of getting the hang of the mercurial nature of weather here. I will admit, though: I’m a little weird about snow.

Growing up in Minnesota, snow was the most magical thing in my kid orbit because of what I could do with it. We constructed extraordinary snowbank forts, made possible by the wake of obliging snowplows. They were more like tunnels, hollowed out of banked snow up and down the driveway and along the street. Once the plow came by, the tops of these tunnels would reach at least 7-8 feet. Our construction efforts felt powerful, a rare sense of agency for a deeply sensitive and anxious mini-human. The creeps might hold sway on the school playground, but snow forts at my house were on protected land. We’d spend hours outside building our chain of tunnels, our hard work rendering the sub-freezing temperatures immaterial. Snow has always given me the chance to see the world less cynically. It has always been an invitation to build something out of nothing.

By 7 am, I’ve donned all my layers to pay an early call to a friend in town. This is often the only time we can visit and I love starting my day with the kind of belly laughs her wry and warped sense of humor evoke. As I leave the boat and scan the mouth of the narrows, the only thing that pierces through the heavily falling snow is the flashing red light on the buoy marker. It’s utterly silent outside and only one set of footprints in the snow proceed mine on the dock. The Harbormaster office is coming to life and beyond their always dimmed lights, I see the town lights twinkling in the dark. The Petersburg Borough committed to leaving the Christmas lights up to lend some badly needed cheer to a pandemic weary town but the snow is dimming their shine this morning.

After the snowplow but before sun up


Snow was falling,

so much like stars

filling the dark trees

that one could easily imagine

its reason for being was nothing more

than prettiness

Mary Oliver


As early as it is, the sea birds are already gliding silently in the harbor waters. Right outside our slip in Petersburg, there are so many species, it’s hard to keep track. Aside from the common and Mew gulls, most numerous are the Surf and White Wing Scoters and the Oldsquaws in their jaunty winter plumage. They seem impervious to the falling snow and the sea surface temps that hover around 40 degrees. After all, they come purposely to winter here before heading to freshwater to breed in the spring. Some struggle with flight, but man, they can really propel themselves along the surface of the water like nobody’s business, relying on the rotary movement of their wings and their madly pedaling webbed feet. When the current is strong in the Wrangell narrows, they float with it, accepting the free ride. They are vigorous divers, ever vigilant for their next winter meal. The water in the harbor is clear enough for me to see that they dive quite deeply before emerging a distance away. I’ll be snatching a glance outside, off the aft deck, see nothing on the surface and then pop, pop, pop! Several bob to the surface as if their fishing were coordinated or the standup meeting that was called a moment before was abruptly adjourned.

Aside from hiking, we stay on the boat most days and time begins to blur a bit. I spend a fair bit of this time retreating within, either thinking things through or daydreaming. Typically, my mind is a pretty busy place (and not always the good kind of busy, if you know what I mean). Alaska is a brilliant fit for me because in its vastness and raw beauty, it tends to blunt the harsh narrator that squats in my head, rent-free. I think a lot of us exist with less than generous internal messaging, which is heartbreaking because the world can be savage enough without our own distortions piling on. You can bet the sea birds have better things to do than emotionally cannibalize themselves. Through this last year I have been giving less and less airtime to that overbearing narrator and more time to observing with less judgment.

Of course, we know what the sea birds are doing underwater: seeking sustenance. Same with the brown bear patrolling the brackish water for salmon, or the bald eagle scooping up a rodent. They've got to dive in to get what they need. We all have a preferred way of of sustaining our being and mine is retreating below the surface. When it’s time to emerge and go out into the world, I too will pop up above the water line to see what’s happening out there, feeling better for the nurturing immersion. This back and forth defines the rhythm of my days; stillness, then activity, rinse and repeat.

Abandoned boat "resting" at low tide off Kupreanof Island

Wilderness allows me to to happily straddle gazing inwardly while striving outwardly. The more chaotic and reactive parts of me take a back seat when I’m in the woods and I think a lot of people feel this way or REI would have stayed a small hometown store. As many hikers know, it’s difficult to stay neurotic in the presence of so much beauty and immediacy. Even schlepping to the post office brings us through the gorgeous and ever-evolving muskeg, a surprisingly rejuvenating two miles of gnarled trees, moss, and deer sign. The trails are never crowded but we always encounter neighbors, both familiar and not.

Bella on the Hungry Point Trail, waiting for slow humans

About 10 days ago, before the first real snow hit, we lowered the dinghy to do some exploring on Kupreanof, the island directly across the narrows from Petersburg’s Mitkof island. It’s a short four-minute ride to the public dock. We can tie up and be on the trails in minutes. Kupreanof is small, about 50 by 20 miles and has well under 700 souls as residents. It’s a roadless community by ordinance and maintains a subsistence vibe. Of the handful of trails on the island, one of them meanders through an old cemetery where most of the graves are dated from the early 20th century. The gravestones are covered in moss, but there are recent tributes left here and there for the gone and apparently not forgotten.

Kupreanof Island

Kupreanof cemetery

We made another trip to the island after the first batch of snow hit and it was transporting. The woods were dense, but the trails were easy to follow, even in fresh snow. The light right after snowfall lent an other-worldly quality to the woods, casting a bluish tinge to the more open muskeg and a beautiful monochrome in the sheltered woods. Bella tore around in the snow, reveling in the strangeness of having her sense of smell temporarily muted. The quiet, other than the crunch of snow underfoot, was absolute.


I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, til the summer comes again.” --Lewis Carol, “Through the Looking Glass”


The following Sunday, after yet more snow, we made our way to the Raven Trail here on Mitkof Island. The trailhead sits about 1.5 miles from the boat and then slowly winds up to an observation area. The trail ends at the Raven’s Roost Cabin, a more or less 2000 foot elevation. Once you pass the observation point, the trail narrows and snakes up steeply, particularly the last mile, where at one point we scrambled up a steep section with the aid of a knotted climbing rope left secured to a tree. There was a fair bit of ice in shady spots, but for the most part it was steady effort along steep switchbacks.

Trail love: Someone left molded snow hearts along the trail

I am not famous for cheerfully navigating long, steep inclines, but I was almost perky with anticipation climbing that last mile and I'm not entirely sure why. I had expected an astounding vista view of the mountains across the water after all that elevation, but I hadn't expected the jaw-dropping beauty of the summit itself. It was somewhat surreal to look up from the heads-down focus required to scramble up the last bit and finally enter the meadow at the trail’s crest. The snow was largely untouched and deep, with a small trench of a footpath left by the hikers before us. I've never been a downhill skier, so the elevation and fresh powder were a novel experience for me. We left our snowshoes back on the boat that day, but we could have used them in the summit area (and Bella could have used stilts). The photos I took couldn’t fully convey the quiet, the sparkling snow, and the euphoric feeling of effort and subsequent reward.

Once we reached the top, Bella almost disappeared in the deep trenches that made our path, and her paws had had enough cold and snow. We were losing our sun anyway, so it was time to head down. Once we arrived back at the boat, Bella made a few half-hearted attempts to play but then collapsed on the couch. It’s always the case that she manages about 50% more miles than we do because she’s tearing around like a crazed canine. My app tells me we hiked a total of 8.6 miles, but Bella outdid us and then some. We had to carry her below that night because her feet were so tender. She may require dog booties in the future, but with that steep terrain, I think she needed all the sensation in her paws intact to navigate it safely. Bella, in addition to the sea birds, is actually a rather good role model for me these days. She meets each moment with beginner’s mind, a ready participant in whatever comes her way. She’s curious, engaged, and meets new people with genuine equanimity if not outright enthusiasm. She finds ways to clearly communicate what she wants and she doesn’t appear to have a neurotic bone in her body. We two-legged types could learn a thing or two.

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