Mudflat Belugas

A column I wrote when I worked for The Anchorage Times — over 20 years ago… 

head young paper image red backgroundI take back all the disparaging things I’ve said about the mudflats of the Knik Arm. The whales of August have changed my mind.

 With backpack full of baby, accompanied by two dogs, my wife, and two lanky preteens, I jogged along a dirt road leading to the mouth of Peters Creek. The ocean tide was not quite brimming the beach line, and gulls feasted on dead salmon where the creek poured into the Knik. A light salt breeze rumpled the marshy reeds as we hiked in rubber boots, well away from the dangerous mudflats. It seemed a shame that the kids couldn’t get closer, but the brown, milky color of the seawater wasn’t too inviting anyway.

At 8:30 p.m., after reaching a gnarled finger of land curling into the Knik Arm, I reined in kids and dogs, and we backtracked along the water’s edge. Suddenly I strained to identify dark streaks undulating on the ocean surface, moving in our same direction. The streaks were too large to be seals or schools of salmon, and they multiplied on the troubled ocean surface as we squinted into a glare on the horizon.

We were seeing a pod of belugas—our first whale sighting in Alaska! Scores of whales swam lazily, parallel the coastline under a droning airplane, whose pilot swooped low for a better view.

My one-year-old giggled and jiggled as I jogged down a trail back to the mouth of Peters Creek. Belugas sometimes feed on salmon at an estuary, and I hoped to watch the spectacle if they paused for supper.

My eldest son and the dogs ran with me, but, in my excitement I forgot to tell my wife where I was headed in such a hurry. She and my middle son caught up with us just in time to gape at a beluga feeding frenzy just 20 feet from our rubber boots. We stood spellbound on the creek’s bank observing as many as 50 white and gray giants diving and resurfacing, dining on schools of silver salmon (Coho).

The belugas’ polished backs rose rhythmically a foot or two out of the water, then smoothly arched into the depths of the channel, grabbing mouthfuls of Coho that were fighting their way upstream in Peters Creek.

Sea World couldn’t hold a candle to this wild spectacle. I suggested to the boys that they take a Jacques Cousteau-type swim with these mammals, but they just grinned and moved farther from the slippery bank.

We watched the show for nearly 40 minutes, until, gradually the herd swam away from the mouth of the creek and us. The tide had swamped our trail, and we spent an hour bush-whacking to the car, marveling at one of our first Alaska memories.

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