Aki won’t leave the car. For the first time ever at a trailhead, she doesn’t leap out the door the minute I open it. A light rain is falling but in the past even heavy downpours haven’t deterred her. As if trained in etiquette by an Irishman, she waits for me to ask her three timed before dropping onto the ground.
The little dog stays right on my heals as we cross the Fish Creek Bridge and head toward the pond. She looks back often, even when squatting to defecate. She has smelled a wild animal that might harm us. I know it is not a bear because, unwisely, she has no fear of them. I remember the wolf that hunted here during the salmon spawn. Maybe it is back. Aki calms down after we round the pond.
Even through the tide has covered over the wetlands, which would normally force all the eagles to roost in shoreline spruce trees, none of the big birds announces our approach with screams. We won’t see any eagles, ravens, or crows during the visit. The resident mallards are also gone. A pair of western grebes fish just offshore in Fritz Cove. Behind them a line of harlequin and golden eye ducks fly feet off of the water. Across the horizon, hundreds of migratory birds head south, too far away for me to identify them.
Aki perks up when we turn to head back to car, but stops often to make sure that I am not lagging behind. I feel like a child being escorted down a dangerous city street. We drive home through a downpour, which discourages me from exiting the car when we reach the house. Aki waits for me on the front porch even though the door is already open. She will wait there until I gather everything from the car and walk into the safety of our home.
We are deep in the troll woods, surrounded by moss-covered trees. Aki just froze in place, her twitching nose the only thing on her body that moves. She stares into the woods. But whatever she smells is too far away to see. There is a stream of spawning salmon in direction of her stare. There are probably bears as well.
I am not worried. We have seen no sign of bears—no scat or tracks. We have seen little of anything except bare trees and gray skies. On each of the small lakes we pass, we did see pairs of bufflehead and golden eye ducks. These are the winter guys are back from the outer coast. Their white feather patterns make them easy to spot on the lakes’ dark waters. No wonder they move to the opposite side of their lake when we near.
Aki ignores the murder of crows gathered on the Auk Nu beach. Rather than reacting to us, the crows play a bouncing game. For no apparent reason, one flies ninety degrees up then drops like a rock onto the beach. Next two birds bounce up and down. A third bird tries it. When an eagle swoops over them the crows fly in a low arc over the water and return to the beach. Are crows and ravens the only birds with spare time to kill?
The other birds we pass are either hunting, eating, or resting. Scoters and harlequin ducks dive on food in the bay. A sea lion rolls once on the surface and slips under the water to chase a fish. One bald eagle surveys the bay from a spruce roost after temporarily flushing the crows.
The little dog and I leave the beach for a forest trail that leads to Point Louisa. It takes us between lines of yellowing blueberry bushes to a spit where we can see the old village site. From this spot 100 years ago, we could have seen smoke climbing from the roofs hand-hewn long houses. Big canoes, dug out from single spruce or cedar logs would have littered the beach. A canoe full of Auk Tlingits chased a boat of British sailors back to Lt. Vancouver’s brig. A canoe from Wrangell carried John Muir here.
The canoes and long houses are gone. One totem pole survives to stand over a village site of dogwood, thimbleberry and fireweed gone to seed.
I am standing on a bridge over Steep Creek. Aki is in the car. Because a sow and her two cubs are fishing for salmon nearby, this is a dog-free zone. No bears enter my view shed but a red breasted merganser moves in spurts towards me. It swims with the desperation of an in bound salmon. Between each dash, the duck darts it head under the water. It must be targeting baby salmon from last year’s spawn.
Salmon drive the moraine’s economy. Bears and ducks would be elsewhere if not for the fish. Earlier today Aki and I found a silver salmon flopping alongside the Nugget Falls Trail. At first I worried that it had been carried here in the mouth of a bear that sulked nearby. Then we heard eagle scream. The fish, which must have weighed two kilos, was lifted from the lake by talons. An bird beak had already attacked the salmon’s gills and lower jaw.
While Aki cautiously sniffed the dying salmon, I wondered at the inherent cruelty of this beautiful moraine. The silver, now in flaming-red spawning colors, might have swam a thousand miles from the Gulf of Alaska to this lake. The whole time it ate every herring it could catch while hunted by fishermen, killer whales, seals, and sea lions. How many nets, hook, and jaws did it avoid only to die less than a kilometer away from its spawning ground? There was only one thing to do for we visitors to do—continue on to the falls so the eagle could harvest the meat.
Sunlight broken through the heavy overcast as we approached the falls. A rainbow appeared in the spray formed by cascading water slamming into the lake. If the falls hadn’t been swollen with rain from the storm, if the sun hadn’t appears at that moment, if Aki and I had not been detained by the dying salmon…
We are heading into the brown time that falls between fall color and snow. Aki, we have watched most of the leaves in this forest mature from spring buds to limp, drained things. The little dog, acting as if she didn’t hear me, slinks off to sniff a tree trunk. Poodle, I know it is ridiculous to mourn the leaves. She flashes me her “duh’ look.
Maybe because this has been such a good year for fall color, I am saddened by single leaves, now faded from red to pink, hanging from otherwise empty trees. If the time of snow and hard freezes holds off for a week or two more, we will have more color in the forest. Some of the low growing sorrels are still green while the leaves of their neighbors are mottled red and orange. But the wind has torn the yellow leaves off most of the cottonwoods and the alders are fading to brown.
Soon we will be reduced to earth tones except for the party colors of the harlequin ducks.
No rain falls on Aki as we leave the house. It will pound on her when we return. But we will stay dry while on the Sheep Creek Delta.
Less than a month ago the place was crazy loud. Eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls fought over the bodies of spawned out silver salmon. Newly arrived silvers splashed in the stream, digging spawning depressions in the gravel and muscling competitors out of the way. Aki would have liked all the commotion.
Things have calmed to winter quiet. I don’t see any eagles, but Aki still shelters near rocks while waiting for me. A mixed raft of mallards and green winged teals chase bait fish in a small tidal lake. Gulls rest next to the creek. Down channel, clouds mottled with darks and light let shafts of light escape to turn the water silver. These signs of instability give me hope for clearing weather until I turn towards Juneau, where clouds thick with rain have descended on the town.
Before leaving the creek. I walk a little upstream. The water is turbulent with run off from the recent storm. In an eddy, a water ouzel dives into the stream and emerges, not with a tiny fish, but with some weeds torn from the stream bottom.
A map on my weather app shows a pixilated mass of dark greens and grays about to envelop Juneau. The sun has just cleared the shoulder of Mt. Roberts. One our neighborhood ravens perched on top a neighbor’s roof sings up the sun. When the new sunlight hits the raven it joins its mate circling in the gray sky.
I grab Aki and head out to the car. Clouds already obscure the sun but sunset tones color Gastineau Channel. Even though it will mean getting caught by the oncoming wall of rain, I stop on the way to the trailhead. The little dog and I walk onto the Douglas Island Bridge, which offers an unobstructed view of the channel. At the far end, where the Gastineau opens onto Taku Inlet, yellow and peach colored light paints the clouds. In minutes the scene is reduced to gray.
We drive to the nearby Dan Moller Trail and walk through wet evergreens to open muskeg. The meadows have gone to rest for the winter. There are still splotches of sunset colors around the bases of mountain hemlock trees, where low bush blueberry bushes and sorrel plants shelter. The promised rain arrives to soak the little dog and make the sorrel leaves shine.