Our sunny stretch of weather will end tomorrow. The air is still frozen but that won’t last long. Soon the frost making trail grass sparkle will melt away. That’s why Aki and I came here now when can have the crisp place to ourselves.
We leave the trail and cross a grassy plain to the river. A very high tide last night flattened much of the grass, making it easy for the short-legged Aki to cross with me. I expect to spot geese or ducks gathered in the river water but find no birds.
While returning to the trail, the little dog and I hear the sounds of shotgun blasts coming from downriver. Some hunters are driving off the birds. I may have to avoid visiting these wetlands until after the waterfowl season ends on the first day of next year.
Why are the tree lines so crisp, the dead grass glowing in the early morning sun? The images jump out at Aki and I as we climb the trail leading to Gastineau Meadows. We won’t be able to ask for an answer from other hikers. Strong, pulsating winds seem to be keeping them off the trail.
I find the answer by looking at the trailside alders. This late on a normal October morning, not one leaf should still be clinging to the alders. This morning trailside alders seem weighed down with leaves that have curled up tight. Are they hoping for a return of warmer weather? Or are they stalling long enough for the leaves to send their nutrients down to the tree roots?
Aki and I are having a beautiful, if strange visit to the Fish Creek Delta. Unblocked sun pounds down on wetlands exposed by a low tide. Three men wearing masks cast lures into a tiny section of the lake not covered with ice. If there were still fish there, they show no interest in what the men have to offer.
On a beach along Fritz Cove, two guys wearing high end hunting gear sit in nice folding chairs. A small scattering of duck decoys floats just offshore. The resident mallard ducks are too far away to be shot by these guys. With their retrievers, they wait for something shootable to fly close enough to kill.
I am wondering whether this is a closed hunting area when a small collection of Canada geese appears just north of us. After spotting Aki and I, they fly in a wide arch around us before heading toward the waters of Fritz Cove. Their route takes them close to target range for the two human hunters. One fires three shots at the geese, who manage to fly away to safety.
When we started up Basin Road, I re-examined my decision to bring Aki on this adventure. The first sun of the day had already reached the mountain ridges, driving a cold breeze down on the trail. The breeze will strengthen into an unpleasant wind as the sun climbs. It was a cold choice.
Trails a few miles away were still calm. We could stand on one in a sunny spot on and let the rising sun warm our faces. But there is one great reason for transiting into Juneau’s old gold country this morning. From the shaded trail we can watch the morning sunshine push darkness down the exposed flank of Mt Juneau. The resulting explosion of light makes the cold trek worth it.
It happened too fast. Last week Mendenhall Lake was open during our last visit. We watched two kayakers paddle just off shore, working their way around a shrinking iceberg. Ultra-thin, clear chunks of ice floated near the shore. In an hour they melted away. Today solid ice covers the surface of the lake.
The appearance of winter hasn’t driven birds away from the lake. In the top of a shoreside spruce tree, an adult bald eagle squawks at an approaching magpie as it tries to land in the same tree. There is a partially eaten wild animal nearby. The birds are fighting over who gets what’s left.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we rarely saw Stellar’s jays on Chicken Ridge. In 1995 crows dominated the neighborhood. They’d arrive in a noisy crowd each spring on one of the first warm days, taking positions in the neighborhood trees like an occupying force. Ten years later they relocated in another neighborhood, allowing a pair of ravens to move in.
I am happy to hang with the ravens, who entertained we humans by hiding flashy little garbage scraps in our yard. The ravens still spend much of their time in ours or our neighbors’ yards. But a pair of Stellar’s jays now fly in and out of our yard like bossy blue birds.
We’ve walked through predawn grey skies to reach Crystal Lake. Alder trees still loaded with green leaves lined the path. We are too near the glacier for the sun to reach it before 9:30 AM. As if she understands, Aki slows both of us down by stopping often to smell and mark spots with urine. Then at 9:30 she makes a dash down the trail when sunlight starts to flood over the outskirts of the lake.
On this rare sunny October day, the first rays to reach the lake should create a lovely orange and yellow pattern at the top end of the lake. But for odd, even unpredictable reasons, neither the cottonwoods nor the alders have bothered to turn their green leaves yellow or orange.
The cottonwoods now stand naked above piles of fading green. Most of the lakeside alders still display green leaves. After sun arrived, the alders begin to release their greenery, letting so each leaf flutters down to the ground.
The weatherman promised clear skies and sunshine this morning. But grey clouds filled the skies over town as we headed for the car. I could just make out a streak of blue in the skies further up the channel. Aki didn’t complain when we headed north towards that clear horizon.
After driving 15 miles, we broke out of the clouds to where we could see sunshining on a mountain ridge on the western side of Lynn Canal. Snow from a recent storm now covers the top third of the ridge. A layer of clouds obscures the rest. In a few minutes we reach Amalga Harbor from where we can hike to the mouth of Peterson Creek.
This summer dog and silver salmon had to fight their way up a line of rapids in the creek to reach Peterson Lake. After crossing the lake, they moved into the upper creek to spawn. Today, I could find no sign of salmon or even trout. But a grey heron flew across the lake to check on us before flying over to the dock at Amalga Harbor. It left behind a pair of white swans to feed at the mouth of the tiny stream.
Only a few humans share the ocean boardwalk with Aki and I this morning. I wonder if that is why the place is full of confident ravens and crows. They take position on fence and lamp posts as we walk onto the boardwalk. In a few seconds we are about to passing pass three perched ravens. Each has its back turned to us as we approach.
The ravens take off and fly a few meters ahead of us as we approach. They do this again and again and again as we walk toward Egan Drive.
Aki ignores the birds unless one flies low over her head. Then she snarls out a protest as they land on a nearby fence rail. After that she acts like they don’t exist. Decades ago, when I lived in a tundra house surrounded by a dog team, I watched a pair of ravens steal dog food from the bowl of one of my lead dogs. One raven flew low over the dog’s bowl. When the dog went after it, the other raven snatched some kibble from the dog’s bowl. When the dog leaped after that raven, the other one filled up on the dog’s food.
If it wasn’t necessary, we wouldn’t have come to this beach this morning. An incoming tide has already flooded over the trail we use to walk around False Outer Point. Soon it will cover almost all of the beach gravel.
Normally, we would never visit a beach during a flooding tide. But this is October. Yesterday we planted onion cloves in the garden. But they won’t survive the winter unless they are soon covered with a couple of inches of harvested sea weed.
It takes an hour to fill two buckets with sea weed. But it is worth the time and effort. Soon the garlic bed at home with be protected by this sea weed, just a few days before the arrival of the first snow.