Even though she was born in Missouri of mix parentage, Aki looks like a French Poodle. I am tempted to wish her “Happy Bastille Day.” But we are out on the glacial moraine under gray, rain-filled clouds. She demands, not a parade, but for her humans to send her Frisbee spinning down the trail. While chasing the flying disk she growls like a wolf chasing down prey. She is no one’s poodle.
While the little dog is content with chasing her Frisbee, I am looking to pick enough blue berries for next Saturday’s pancakes. We recently used up last summer’s berries. Domestic blue berries for the store don’t work. They are overpowered by the sourdough pancake batter.
Water from the Mendenhall River is all but covering the trail and we have to press up against a hedge of alders in order to skirt a flooded out section. Aki dashes through the detour and waits for her two humans, Frisbee in her mouth. Later she will wait for us to pick a pint of blues and then walk back to the car in the rain.
The sun gives and it takes beauty this morning on Gastineau Meadows. It backlights the plain Jane alder leaves, making they sparkle it costume jewelry. It creates patterns of shadows and light on already mottled alder bark and makes the bones of dead pine trees glow. But under the sun’s harsh glare, south facing mountains on the other side of Gastineau Channel lose definition. Only Mt. Juneau holds it beauty in the morning light.
Last winter I had to cajole Aki into crossing through an area of the meadow frequented by coyotes. Today she trots over the trails of her wild cousins, more interested in a spot of dog urine than their whereabouts. I again marvel at the capacity of the little dog to forget the unpleasant details of her recent past.
Aki remembers the important things like the approaches to our favorite trailheads and the scent signature of dog friends. She can never forget her feeding schedule or the sound of cheese being sliced on a cutting board. But thankfully, the warning ghosts of her past never appear to trouble her.
Any dog trainer watching Aki and I this morning would be shaking her head in disgust. Rather than exerting dominance over the little poodle-mix, I let her set the pace. A dog whisperer of kind words rather than commands I even yield to her choice of direction. When I put up a fuss, she lets me drag her across Gastineau Avenue so I can take a picture of today’s collection of cruise ships. Otherwise I follower her zigzagging pee trail.
Yielding responsibility to the ten-pound dog frees up my mind for wandering. I’m daydreaming about the cats that use to live in the nearby ruins of the old stamp mill when two deer does spring out from behind a screen of salmon berry bushes and hop down Gastineau like kangaroos. They sprong past a low-income apartment complex and up the hillside.
Aki, so intent on cataloguing scent, never sees the deer. She leads me down to the docks and then up Lower Franklin Street past the Red Dog Saloon, Pilipino Hall, and the homeless shelter. She drags me away from a young man rapping out a poem. We climb up toward Chicken Ridge and into Capital School Park. A bronze chair in the park commemorates the forced internment of the high school valedictorian just before graduation just because his grandparents came to Alaska from Japan. Rain beads up on the bronze chair and a small string of origami cranes formed, out of necessity in the rain forest, with waterproof materials. Aki waits for me photograph them.
The understory plants in the rain forest are showing their age. Gone are the clean green days of early summer when berry bush had unblemished, sharp-edged leaves. Insects and disease have scarred many of the leaves and killed others.
Plants growing on the beach verge also look battered. While some lupines still display a few blossoms, seedpods have replaced most of their flowers. I find a beauty in the destruction. I find sadness in fireweed flowers because when they finish blooming it will be fall. I want to start a philosophical discussion about these ironies with Aki, but the little dog has moved down the trail to a spot where another dog has recently peed.
We both miss spotting an immature bald eagle feeding on the beach not ten feet away. The big bird pulls into the air and flies along a line of beach grass until it reaches the safety of the water. With its mottled feathers and neck stretched out in flight, it looks as ragged as the plants.
There are many reasons why we don’t visit Fish Creek this time of year. All of them are linked to salmon. In a normal year, hundreds of king salmon would be splashing in the creek’s pond. These draw crowds of fishermen trying to snag the big fish with weighted hooks. Chum and pink salmon should be holding in the creek, ready to move upstream to their spawning grounds. They bring the attention of bears. But today, perhaps because of the disappointing salmon returns, there are no cars or bear scat in the trailhead parking. These absences, plus the fact that the low-gas-warning icon lit up five miles ago cause me to pull into in the empty lot.
Two ravens guard the footbridge over Fish Creek, hopping slowly down the railing as Aki and I start across the bridge. I look down at a gravel bar for the expected dog-salmon carcasses and find none. The ravens must be here to attack a garbage bag that hangs partway out of a waste bin. Above the ravens, an eagle screams.
A king salmon, already robbed of its silver color by time in fresh water, rises on the pond surface, drawing the attention of an airborne eagle. Nearer to us, two other eagles perch on pond-side spruce trees. The one with the chestnut and dun feathers of an immature bird appears to take interest in Aki. I think about putting the little poodle-mix on her lead but in a minute we will be back in the trees where she will presumably be safe from eagles.
A minute later, while we walk down a forested path, the immature eagle flies low over our heads and lands clumsily thirty feet up a nearby spruce. We watch each other for a while and then I follow Aki away from the pond toward the creek’s mouth. This eagle will follow us to the mouth and back to the pond—with the purposeful casualness of a spy, not the focused intensity of a mugger. After the third eagle flyby I clip Aki’s leash to her collar as the immature eagle settles onto another spruce branch.
Over morning coffee I promised Aki that she would not be left behind today. She exhaled loudly and dropped into a nap. After breakfast she hid under the bed, watching me sling my camera over my shoulder. Only after I call for her did she join me at the front door.
We drove out to a wetlands access point by the airport, driving under light standards on the Egan Expressway that appeared weighed down by bald eagles. Six of the big predators perched upright on one of the standards. One of the birds had its wings spread out to dry. Another leaped into the air and then dove toward Twin Lakes, which had recently been planted with immature king salmon. It didn’t have anything in its talons when it climbed back to its light standard.
There was not as much drama on the wetlands when we arrived at the trailhead. No waterfowl floated on the Mendenhall River. A family of crows made what sounded like rude comments when Aki and walked past them. Sweeter voiced sparrows, Savannah and Lincoln, seem to be everywhere, feeding on the seeds of the maturing wetland grasses. When planes weren’t taking off or landing at the nearby airport, I listened to sparrow songs.
Down river I made out an adult bald eagle perched on the top of the root system of a driftwood log. It watched a retriever swimming into the river to receive a tossed ball. The dog’s owner was closing on the eagle as the dog pulled onto the beach to return the ball to it’s human. How many more ball tosses will the eagle tolerate but it flies off to a quieter stretch of the wetlands? The eagle answered my question by flying across the river to where no dogs could reach it.
Aki looked concerned, even desperate. It got worse after she watched me carry my fishing gear to the front door. If she could have understood, I would have reminded her how much she hates bouncing up and down the back side of Admiralty Island in a 24 foot Sea Dory. While walking out the door, I reminded myself that in a short time the little dog will be chasing her Frisbee down a North Douglas Island beach. After I left, her other human took her on an outing after I left for the boat.
After leaving the harbor the captain and I bounce up Favorite Passage on chop formed by wind blowing in the opposite direction of the ebbing tide. It’s worse when we round the top end of Shelter Island and enter North Pass. I can barely see a pod of humpback whales bubble feeding near Hand Troller’s Cove. Ten whales splash and release bubbles to trap krill and herrings in a net of bubbles. Then they burst up through the resulting ball of bait with open mouths.