Like ravens, gulls, and eagles, you can hear middle school boys in the woods long before you see them. A coven of them spreads out from a fire ring. All but the one sitting by a weak fire are soon out bouncing around the old growth, shouting at each other as the last of the crows and gulls abandon the nearby beach. The boys in the woods all wear bright colored rain gear and, to be honest, smiles.
Aki and I came early to this forest for a quiet, if wet walk through forest and bird song to the beach. I also hoped to bird watch. On our last visit I spotted a small raft of northern shoveler ducks swimming past a stalking heron and godwit. When we break out of the woods today a formation of goldeneye ducks flies away in a panic, leaving the near in waters empty.
I think of the Tlingit elder that once taught me how to make an octopus bag. She also taught my five-year-old daughter the raven and canoe dances. She told the young dancers to keep a respectful silence on our beaches and in our woods. “Don’t even skip rocks,” she said. Even that shows disrespect to wild things.
From under the Egan Highway bridge over Lemon Creek, Aki and I watch more than 30 bald eagles occupy an island in the creek. I know they landed there to sulk after having just been chased away from the dump. But because one eagle has situated itself on a piece of driftwood above the others, I image her a preacher and the rest, the congregation.
Bald Eagles should be seen soaring all rugged mountain ridges, not hunkered together between city dump and high-speed highway. But, as the locals know, city dumps and streambeds littered with dead salmon are the best places to see the carrion eaters.
The eagle preacher lowers her beak as the more restless members of her congregation fly to trees on the other side of the creek. Others follow and the church reforms on a meadow dotted with the cement bases of WWII era radio antennas.
Aki and head cross back under the bridge and walk onto the wetlands, now dominated by ravens. In the distance, an immature bald eagle rests on a driftwood root-wad perch, holding its wings out to dry. A mature eagle with white head and tail feathers shares the same root wad. Now I imagine a counseling session that breaks up when the little dog and I approach.
Aki loves this mountain meadow trail for the dog encounters it usually offers. I’m drawn here for the impressive views of Mountains Juneau, Jumbo, and Gastineau. Due to a lack of dogs and too thick a cloud cover, we both have to find alternative things of interest. For my little dog it is smells that seem to hang over the trail like ghosts. She also enjoys making half-hearted charges after robins trying to draw us away from their nests. Me, I have to find drama in the small things.
Labrador tea plants already display their little magenta lanterns. From disturbed ground insect eating sundews emerge to spread their sticky traps. On the larger meadow ponds water bug scoot across the surface until a light wind raises tiny swells that challenge their precarious control of the water tension that keeps them afloat. A thick shaft of sunlight breaks through to illuminate yellow-green poplar growth and the rufus-colored chest of a hummingbird. The tiny thing hovers in front of me for seconds, soars until it is higher than the highest spruce, then dives toward the road where Aki trots. Even after such as masterly flight, I can’t believe that the tiny thing made the long flight to Alaska. Maybe the hummingbird, like some of the old timers teach, rode up from Mexico snuggled in the feathered body of a goose.
Years ago, when living in Ketchikan, I asked two Tlingit elders the names of some trees that smelled in Spring like church incense. “Balm of Gilead trees,” they answered. The memory seems fresh as new growth as Aki and I walk through the Treadwell ruins, now dominated by balsam poplar incense and the songs of American robins. Any residual sadness a person brought to this forest would surely ebb away before reaching the site of the mine collapse. I wonder if someone in the Ketchikan Tlingit community gave the poplars that descriptive name after hearing the old Balm of Gilead spiritual:
When I look up, it’s all grey and cloud. But here on the ground sunlight makes the most out of the new growth colors. Aki and I squint against it. We hear an eagle claim ownership of a beachside spruce before we spot it. Aki hangs back near some rocks as I walk past the eagle and toward the partially exposed causeway to Shaman Island. Black crows and white/gray gulls patrol the tidelands and I wonder why they evolved into such easy-to-spot colors. A godwit, a rare visitor with a chestnut cloak almost disappears against dun colored rocks. Same with the blue-grey heron. When I get home from the walk I discover that the two camo birds pose together in one of my photographs. I was trying to capture the great blue heron when photobombed by the godwit.
I would call this sea mammal rock if I wasn’t inadvertently sitting on the remains of a river otter’s meal. From the amount of scat and empty shells, it must be a favorite meal spot for the big weasels.
On prior visits Aki and I have looked down on harbor seals raising their curious heads into the air and watched a raucous pod of stellar sea lions swim around us on a high tide. Today two humpback whales feed just a quarter-mile away.
One of the whales is two-thirds the size of the other and I wonder if they are related. They are all business. We see no showy breaches or even an iconic flash of a tail framed against the sky. They just feed like they would at the end of a fast. Have they just returned from Hawaii, where humpbacks are so busy procreating they don’t eat? Or are they part of the minority that stays all year in Alaska waters?
Concentrating on the whales, I don’t notice that my little dog has begun shivering. Stiffly, I rise up, poke my head over the rock edge like a curious otter, and lead Aki back into the woods.
For the third day in a row, I’ve been scolded by a belted kingfisher. It happened today when Aki and walked to the edge of the collapsed glory hole near Treadwell. There, gnarled pilings, the ruins of the old loading quays, poke up through sand manufactured almost 100 years ago by stamp mills. The sound of the mill’s great weights pulverizing gold ore would have blocked out off other sound on this beach. If they operated today, I wouldn’t have been able to hear the kingfisher’s angry lecture. He yelled at the little dog and I from an overhanging branch. After freezing up in place it dived into the glory hole to seize a sliver-bright herring in its spear-shaped beak.
While the kingfisher ate, Aki and returned to the woods mixed-hardwood forest were the sweeter songs of robin, wren, and thrush blocked out the sound of boat wakes hitting Sandy Beach. Wandering through such a saccharine cloud, I felt like a minor character in a Disney cartoon, where birds keep up their spirits by whistling while they work. I understand the purpose of the territorial kingfisher’s ugly squawk but why does the robin sing such an appealing tune?
Yesterday’s warmth triggered a release of sap that now coats the balsam poplars’ new growth. It also must have released incense trapped in the sap because the air along the Perseverance Trail smells like church. When the sun finally pushes through the morning cloud layer, the yellow-green poplar leaves seem to absorb it until they glow. These leaves will spend the summer coated in an drab green and then, while dying, give the Gold Creek valley it’s only fall glory by turning rich yellow.
Above the new growth I look for mountain goats but only find two. One disappears. The other, its fur poofing out like a well trimmed French poodle, lingers. Just down the trail, I watched a bald eagle cruise low over the flank of Mt. Juneau where I spotted two goats last week. It could have been hunting for kids or afterbirth. The goats aren’t due to birth their young until late May but I wonder if, like everything else this year, they are ahead of schedule.
I forgot how this trail to the mouth of Mendenhall River affects Aki. It seems to rob her of confidence, even on a sunny spring day when no shotgun blasts compete with the complaints of eagles, ravens, and ducks. She stations herself at my heels and gives me her, “It is time to turn back” stare every time I look in her direction.
I start to lose confidence in my ability to photograph wild things when my camera refuses to focus on bald eagles as they dive on fish in the river. I do fine when the big, white-headed birds pose between fishing expeditions. But all but one of the bird-in-action pics look shaky. In the discarded ones I can still make out the way the eagle’s wings twist and bend as it positions itself over it prey.
Across the river, another human is flushing ducks and ravens toward us. He watches some drama at the tip of a disappearing spit. I see a great splash off the spit, but not what caused it. Now as frustrated as the little dog, I head back into the forest, clicking one last picture of the glacier reflected in the river for which it is named.
An up channel wind sweeps the Sheep Creek Delta. Normally this wind brings clear weather but today it only chills. In a slow motion race with the incoming tide, the little dog and I walk toward the navigation aid that shelters, as usual, a bald eagle. A small murder of crows tries to ignore our approach. They seem dispirited by the wind and grey weather. Probably they are just conserving their strength for a search of the delta when the tide recedes.
Out of synch with the chilly air and opaque sky, candles of yellow-green leafed-out poplars brighten the spruce forest covering the flanks of Sheep Mountain. While Aki tears across a sandy stretch of beach, I try to count the mountainside candles, thankful for their color.