Fall’s first frost. A gusty breeze steering giant clouds in and out of shifting blue holes. Yellowing cottonwood leaves fluttering like rain. A vibrant morning that finds critters either scrambling to head south or fettering about getting ready to stay through the winter.
Walking through the crispy forest, I aim my microphone at pair of red squirrels chasing each other on and off and under a cluster of trees, chittering and chattering all the while. Mid-chase, a flock of sandhill cranes passes over head in a wavering, raucous, fluid skein.
And perched on a high branch between the scurrying squirrels and fleeing cranes is a single raven offering a calm commentary on the neighborhood frenzy.
End of the day, low August light. The sea, satin-smooth. Deep quiet: no boats, no planes. Microphones in place.
Enter whales. Lots of them, a group of ten tight to the mainland shore. Half a dozen in the middle of the passage. Twelve more near the island. High sharp whistles of marbled murrelets filling the quiet between the explosive blows.
Everything aligned, a great recording in the making and then this: one whale in the mid-passage group lets loose a single tone impossibly clear, pure, huge. It bounces between mainland mountain and island hill again and again, ringing on and on like one of those Tibetan meditation bowls the size of a volcano. And then another trumpet blast, a note so exquisite it might make Louis Armstrong lay down his trumpet and never play again. And then another tone, a bit deeper this time, and then, a minute later, another. Each time the echo.
Our boat and its cargo of friends felt tiny suspended in all that sound. It was long after the bellowing behemoth and its companions slipped into the next inlet that anyone spoke and then only in whispers, smiles saying all there was to say.
At low water, salmon school up at stream mouths, waiting for high tide to make the one-way push into the freshwaters of their birth and death. They leap, splosh, ripple, and swirl in an undulating curtain of wet motion.
Meanwhile, up in the trees and along the river banks, the hungry talk about the coming feast: the eagles with their yodeling cackle, the ravens with their somersaulting kalumps, crows with their insistent barks, gulls with their sharp clucks, bears with their patient pacing.
Last week, I drifted by just such a stream mouth, headphones clamped tight to my ears, joyously stunned by the chaotic parade of sounds.
Give it a listen. All the wet sounding stuff is made by the fish, a pulsing swirl of pink, chum, and sockeye salmon. The big gushing sounds in the distance are tree-sized breaths of humpbacks lumbering just off shore. The various clammering birds you’ll have to sort through for yourself.
Enjoy (and do yourself a huge favor and beg, steal, or borrow a pair of decent headphones).
Last week I parked my boat in front of several gazillion tons of cracking, cascading, craggy ice spitting and popping and plunging bergs into the sea.
Not your everyday sights and sounds.
But, a mere 10,000 years ago, the sounds of groaning glacial ice (mixed with bellowing mammoths) stretched from Puget Sound to Manhattan Island. While the glacier in front of my vessel was just a tiny shard of its continental ancestor, it was big and rowdy enough to make a guy and his boat feel really, really small.
As you might imagine, it’s chilly hanging out alongside a gazillion tons of ice. A spectacular place to visit, but not a place to stay and raise a family. Yet that is just what a couple thousand black-legged kittiwakes are doing.
In nests clinging to cracks and bumps on an ice-side cliff, young kittiwakes hatch into a world of tumbling bergs and biting winds. Their parents, apparently unconcerned about getting conked by plummeting ice, feed at the glacier’s face on the shrimp stunned and stirred by the falling chunks.
Their sharp and steady voices create a startling and warm addition to the exploding cliff of ice.
Peanut butter and jelly for quick lunches, bars for quicker wee morning snacks, tents and tarps, recorders and microphones, binocs and cameras, coffee and cream, extra hat and dry socks, spare paddle and worn life vest, books that there is never time to read – it all starts jumbled on the porch, barely unpacked from the last trip. It gets re-tucked into totes and stuffed back into bags, hauled in a garden cart down the worn trail to the truck, slid from truck bed to creosote dock to waiting boat. Heading out for two days or ten, doesn’t matter, the pile of gear is always too much and sometimes it feels all we do is move it around, schlepping it down and up slick beaches, heaving it in and out of the boat.
So sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes Nels (my recording partner) and I leave the stuff on the porch, sleep in our own beds, wake up early and chase sounds in the front yard. It was just such a morning, a few weeks back. I’d tramped into the spruce forest dim, Nels stayed in the bright creek-side meadow, and, couple hours later, we met back at the porch, me talking about the short whistle of a Pacific-sloped flycatcher and Nels recounting the tight chatter of a belted kingfisher when conversation was cut by a low and smooth rising call. Nels, quicker on the draw, hit the record button and swung the mic down river toward the unseen wolf.
Kitchen window at our backs, daffodils at our feet, we stayed still listening for a long minute after the last howl faded beneath the chorus of birds. We carried our equipment and grins into the house, brewed and stirred up a second breakfast and plopped on the couch, grateful to live in a place where the front porch can dish out the wildest, most delicious sounds ever to tickle the human ear.