This water ouzel and I are having a moment like Annie Dillard describes in “Living with Weasels.” The plump little bird stares at me. I, through the camera viewfinder, stare at it. When Dillard locked eyes with a weasel, they were both “stunned into silence.” It was like two lovers, or deadly enemies, meeting unexpectedly on an overgrown path. The weasel dived for cover when one of them blinked.
My soul gaze with the water ouzel didn’t break the rhythm of its bobbing in and out of the pond water. I doubt if I had known of the stare down if not for the evidence provided by the camera while it recharged for the next photograph. While Aki, who showed no interest in the ouzel, sniffs for sign of yesterday’s dog traffic, I wonder how much more I might see if I wasn’t distracted by my camera. Minutes later the camera battery dies, allowing me to answer the question.
Under full sun, Aki and I walk down a rain-rinsed trail to the mouth of Fish Creek. The sounds of bickering crows, an out-of-sorts eagle, cautious mallards, displaced Canada geese, and the 9:20 jet from Anchorage coasting to landing in front of the glacier—all seem too sharp, too clear. On the now exposed tidelands, too brilliant light spotlights the hundreds of gulls that hunt and peck for food. Even the green channel marker hams it up.
Aki and I scramble up a pile of glacier erratic boulders that form the headland between two small bays. At first it seems like the climb was a waste of time. Low clouds soften the outline of Shelter Island and completely block my view of the more dramatic Chilkat Mountains. A handful of gulls and one merganser duck float offshore.
The little dog alerts when a Stellar sea lion splashes just below us. We hear barking. Instead of dogs it’s six more sea lions swimming up the little bay toward our lookout. They swim back and forth beneath our roost. Aki eases to the steep edge of the point and barks a couple of times. The sea lion gang members all head in our direction and stop long enough to life the top quarter of their bodies out of the water. My little dog gives out one more bark and quietly returns to my side. In another minute they are all gone, all but the merganser and the handful of gulls.
Last night’s storm must have raced ahead of the one sure to follow this afternoon. Aki and I welcome the resulting sun break. We walk once again on the compact Sheep Creek delta alone except for the birds. The mature bald eagle has taken up his customary perch on the number 2 channel marker. Common mallards float in the creek eddies or in the channel waters just off shore. Crows complain and bicker while the sentinel for a raft of surf scoters lets go with one of the breed’s signature “Three Stooges” trills. Little lakes that in summer are full of salmon reflect the sun-brightened slopes of Sheep Mountain.
Aki, a little poodle-mix that has flirted with otters and run off bears, looks a little bored. Just another day in paradise, little dog.
Hoping to find some snow for her to run on, I drive Aki into the mountains. Ice is already melting off the meadow ponds and most of the muskeg is already bare. In the rain we search for snow. When we spot a small patch, Aki dashes to it and slips into a slide. She plays like she is trying to jam a month of winter play into a few minutes.
Several few days ago, a dog walker died on the trail Aki and I take to the beach. Another hiker found the body but couldn’t approach because the man’s German shepherd protected his body. The news story didn’t report the exact location, just that a woman found the body on the trail near the tree line. I don’t need to know anything else about the death other than it took place on a beach that he probably loved as much as I.
He might have died in the sun but today the beach is wet, windy, and chilling. Gulls watch, without much apparent interest, a raft of mergansers, golden eyes, and mallard floating just offshore. The head of every duck is jammed into the water so I figure they are on top of a big ball of feed. Aki scampers close the tree line and takes the first trail offered that leads away into the old growth. Is she cold or wanting to escape a place where her sensitive nose can still catch the scent of death?
I didn’t expect much from this walk on the Auk Beach except a clean trail surface. During the drive through Juneau on rainy streets under flat gray skies, I mentally rejected other trails because the little dog was sure to muddy up her just-bathed body on them. The clouds break as I park the car at the trailhead. Rain still falls but we are squinting into bright sunlight. It backlights the small raft of harlequin ducks that we see here on every visit.
Down the beach a single Pacific loon hunts bait fish. I expect a rainbow at this “devil beating his wife” moment of rain and sun but none appears. Instead a cloud of eagles forms over bait balls just off shore. The big birds drive off the immature birds and then dive with talons extended toward the water. Aki, who once evaded a diving eagle on this same beach, ignores the big birds. I am not worried. The eagles are too intent on fish to even notice a little poodle-mix nosing something washed up by last night’s tide.
Aki makes a half-hearted attempt to slide her face along a thin patch of snow. We have to accept it little dog. It’s early spring on the moraine. The trail is still frozen but soon will soften into sticky mud. Without snow, sunshine, or summer growth to give the moraine sparkle, he is like a movie star at home with a cold. Not something you want to see until he smiles out a flash of beauty that helps your ignore his red and dripping nose, pallid skin, and disheveled comfort clothes.
Ice holds all the moraine’s beauty today—the turquoise-blue glacier and the crystal-clear ice formed around fallen blades of grass and river rocks. An insistent-green clump of grass forces it way through a shrinking ice lens. Skunk cabbages will blossom soon.
If we hadn’t lingered over breakfast, if the onshore flow had held off a few more hours, if the globe isn’t warming, we could enjoy the return of winter longer. But it is already raining on this mountain meadow. But, Aki finds enough snow to slide in as she chases after her Frisbee. Rain has yet to wash away the tracks of a coyote that crossed ours more than a half-dozen times. We can still make out sign of a squirrel’s quick dash from tree cover and tracks of snowshoe hares. One of the hares crossed the trail just before we arrived so we know it survived the coyote.
It’s 12:30 in the afternoon but no sun reaches the little dog or I in Gold Creek valley. We stood in eye squinting light just minutes ago. The sun just dropped before a spruce-lined ridge, backlighting a dozen of the tall trees so they glow like Greek gods. While Aki divines meaning in signs left by other dogs, I think of Orfeo. Aki missed out on the local performance of that opera by Monteverdi. The gods portrayed cast down favors and torment like today’s sun distributes light on the south-facing side of Mount Juneau.
It’s good to see the mountains’ white silhouette against today’s blue sky. The sun doesn’t reach us on the moraine where we walk on barely-frozen ground. Across the ice-covered lake, it slams into the snowy peaks and dull-white glacial ice. Aki cares only for her beloved orange Frisbee. She chases it again and again down the beach. At a stream draining a big beaver dam the little dog drops her sand-covered toy into the water. For a moment she watches it float downstream where it might disappear under the lake ice. She has lost other Frisbees this way. But today she snatches it and carries it to my feet with a silent demand to renew the game of catch and release.