The mature bald eagle stands at the water’s edge, holding his white tail stiff while pointing his snowy head toward the sea. He knows that I’m here and flies off as I take his picture. But he only circles a short ways and lands a hundred feet down the beach. Is he waiting for the incoming tide to bring him a salmon carcass for lunch or does he find this shore a place of comfort?
If eagles share a human’s need for comfort, the big bird no doubt needs some after last’s night’s heavy rain. I do after listening to heavy rain pounding for hours on Chicken Ridge. That’s why Aki and I move on to a forested trail that leads to the sea—normally a place of protection and peace.
In the woods we splash through small lakes. They formed on the trail during the deluge, which overburdened the forest’s natural drains. It’s worse where the ruins of a beaver dam have backed up a normally tiny stream. Heavy water drops fall off the forest canopy and drop on the little dog and me. I brace for worse and walk out of the woods onto the beach. Today, the sloping gravel strip between woods and sea is at peace. No rain falls. No wind blows. No waves pound. We can see all the way to Admiralty Island and hear eagle screams, ravens chortle. Aki searches through heavy ropes of severed rock weed while I plot the shortest, driest path through the wet woods.
We are at one of Aki’s favorite beaches to work, not play. I want to harvest the lines of severed bladder weed (a form of seaweed) before they are carried away by an impending storm. For me this gathering of this wrack is a contemplative, rather than boring task. I lift a handful of the fresh-sea smelling stuff off the gravel, remove eagle feathers, salmon bones and other things wrapped in it by the tide, and drop it into a five gallon plastic bucket.
My mind wanders as Aki’s feet take her up and down the beach. Like a well-mannered child raised to trust, the little dog entertains herself rather than press me to produce some excitement.
When five buckets are filled, Aki and climb a headland and drop onto the backside of False Outer Point. Three eagles fly out over our heads just as a raft of surf scoters tighten into a raft just off shore. I hear the chuffing exhales of sea lions but can’t spot them breaking the grey surface of the water. A thin cloud of eagles and gulls forms a quarter mile offshore as they do when a sea lion breaks the surface with a salmon in its mouth. The birds hope to fatten for winter on the scraps left by the always-messing eater. It’s as much a sign of fall as my five buckets full of wrack.
Aki and I stand on the Sheep Creek delta looking down channel where the great blue herons usually fish. Today a line of men has taken their place, each man uses spin tackle to fish for silver salmon. I’m struck with how much better equipped for this weather herons are than men, who must wrap themselves head to toe in miracle fibers.
We walk down a long arc of gravel between the ocean and Fish Creek, near deafened by gull complaints. Hundred of the pump birds scream at each other. A fisherman, head and face covered by a black balaclava, body encased in camouflage, drags a silver-bright silver salmon through their midst. He stomps his Extra Tuff boots across the creek, scattering gulls and spawning pink salmon.
The smell of death from rotting salmon is faint when we leave the car. It grows as new we near the Fish Creek Pond where dead pink salmon carcasses float in the water and dot the trail. I watch Aki to make sure she does not roll in one but she is only interested in the scents left behind by other dogs.
I look out for bears attracted to so much feed, but relax when I notice an absence of bite marks on the dead fish. These ghosts were deposited by the tide, not bears. With Fish Creek full of spawning silvers, kings, and pinks the big carnivores don’t have to settle for these bags of softening meat.
The charnel house has attracted a gang of scavenger birds: gulls, crows, ravens, and eagles. Ravens surround two eagles that have pulled a pink salmon from the creek. One of the eagles flies off along with all but two of the ravens that remain to bracket the remaining eagle like cops waiting for backup. They ignore a small gathering of American widgeons that rest on the opposite side of the stream.
Suddenly, I find the death odor intolerable, not because it is so unpleasant but because it masks the rich smells of this ocean-side wetland: salt and iodine, the musk of fading grasses and deep-red rosehips, and rain about to wash everything clean.
Here Juneau, take some sunshine on this September Sunday. Use it to dry out summer things that must be stored before the autumn monsoons or enrich a walk in the woods. American football fans may squander the golden rays watching the first games of the new season. Aki and I head for a familiar mountain meadow. The little dog ignores the yellow deer cabbage and the blood red blue berry leaves, concentrating on smells I cannot discern. Dogs can’t see colors the way we do. So man and dog are going with our strengths.
It’s not even mid-September and the moraine tree leaves have already reached the rich yellow of high fall. We face an October-style week of rain with no hope of sun breaks. This isn’t cause for despair or yearning. Lack of sun on a moist Southeast day, with it soft air and tendrils of clouds tearing themselves on old growth trees, reduces expectations but promotes peace in one willing to walk in the rain. It helps to have the company of a little dog willing to splash after you down flooded trails. A fall colored Frisbee bouncing against her chest.
Aki walks ahead on the forest boardwalk like she has done many times before. Always in the moment, the little dog seemed unaffected by my nine-day absence. I can’t say the same about myself. The forest silence reminds me in a perverse way of the road noise that filled my day on a recently completed bicycle tour in the Pacific Northwest. Log and wood chip trucks downshifted in my ear as I pedaled up steep grades that took me away from the Columbia River or shallow bays of the Pacific Ocean. Huge recreational vehicles, homes on wheels that towed cars and (ironically) hauled braces of bicycles, produced a more refined roar as they eased by on descents that bottomed out in towns dominated by tourism, a pulp mill, or oyster processing plant.
Aki and I see no fish on our walk, only gulls and crows that remain along Peterson Creek to pick over the bones of spawned out salmon. Our fish will come back next summer. Most of the runs that swam the Columbia, killed off by the Grand Coulee and its brother dams and climate change, will not.
We see no bear or deer this rainforest stroll. I spotted deer and elk on my bike ride along the Columbia, but on city streets and farmer’s fields. They have adapted. I hope our wild things won’t have to do the same.