Today, one of the last cruise ships of the season docked in Juneau. Busloads of its passengers have flooded the moraine in front of the Mendenhall Glacier. Drawn by the promise of unexpected, decent weather, Aki and I drive out to join them. Most of the tourists head toward Nugget Falls or Photo Point. The little dog and I divert onto the flat ground recently abandoned by nesting arctic terns. Here I can see that the yellowing willow and cottonwood leaves that at a distance look like candle flames are tired, dying things. Still far away, the glacier looks blue-white and pure. I know that up close you can see the silt that will eventually cloud the waters of Mendenhall Lake darken the uneven ice.
Unburden by local knowledge, the tourists return from Nugget Falls laughing and talking about the big ice river and overpowering waterfall. I look closer at the patterns of yellow and brown on the trailside willow leaves, find a subtle beauty that none of the tourists stop to photograph. The flash of stars that they saw from a distance has blinded them to it.
The rain is back. Aki is excited to be on this broad beach, chasing her orange Frisbee. Her other human and I watch from a picnic shelter as the little dog runs a random route through border grass, splashes across a little stream, and steps on her Frisbee before dashing down the beach. In minutes she circles near to it again before moving onto some unexplored gravel. She is only dog I know with an active fantasy life. Maybe she has too much time on her paws.
Since May, salmon have passed up Eagle River to spawn in its tributaries; bears have owned its shores, drawn by the fish and later berries; Aki and I have gone elsewhere on our walks.
I can’t hold out any longer so this morning we drive out the north road from rainy Juneau to the riverine forest where last night’s cloud cover is already giving way to blue sky and shafts of sunlight. We find no scat on the trail, no half-eaten salmon carcass placed like a warning by a just departed bear. On the tidal meadow, the skins and boney parts of dead silver salmon lay like clothes abandoned by a teenager on his bedroom floor. The eagles, ravens, and other scavengers have left nothing of the bodies to interest a bear. Aki and I drift into a vague mental space. As sunlight intensifies the modest displays of fall color, the little dog and I become separated. A diminutive herding dog, Aki normally stays close, as if to keep me from wandering into trouble. This morning, I have to whistle and call until she appears high up a grass-covered hill. She searches around from me in jerky motions and then dashes down at her top speed. I can’t blame her for getting lost on this familiar ground. Wasn’t I lost in peace and the yellow leaves when the sun hit my face for the first time in more than a week?
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.