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.
Crows. Today is all about this murder of crows that follow us down the beach. They exploded in the air when we moved out the forest and then settled just fifty feet down the trail we have to follow. The corvid leapfrog game continued until the trail took us back into the woods. If they weren’t crows, I would wonder if they were leading us away from their nests. But, crows are fully capable of doing complex things just for the laughs.
For the second time a northern harrier flew close over my head after crossing the Eagle River. The first time, when the river was full of spawned out silver salmon, the sleekly built owl flew toward me, allowing plenty of opportunity to watch its approach. Today, I caught it out of the corner of my eye and just managed to take one photograph as it climbed to hunting height. Both times I was amazed at the far-forward position of the bird’s wing.
Minutes after the harrier drifted behind a big cottonwood tree, a tight formation of Canada geese flew over my little dog and I. In an explosion of noise the geese broke formation. Seconds later a bald eagle climbed back up to its hunting height.
I’ve seen peregrine falcons knock pigeons out of the sky over Downtown Juneau but never even heard of an eagle hunting like that. In spite of their size, the raptors seem most comfortable using their fierce beak and talons to tear meat from carcasses. They aren’t brave. I once saw a tiny arctic tern chase an eagle away from the tern’s nesting colony by pulling at its tail feathers. But, it is famine time for the big birds, when they have to get creative to eat. As I write this, an eagle flies circles over Chicken Ridge and I wonder if tonight, some neighbor will be missing their cat.
There are some things a gray-haired person should not do on a spring morning. Reading Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees,” with its reminder that lost years will not come again, is one of them. While I read the poem gentle rain washed a winter’s accumulation of dust from Chicken Ridge and irrigated the budding lilacs.
Out of on the moraine with the little dog, I did another unwise thing—locked eyes with a Steller jay. Rather than fly to high branch to scold us, the jay settled on a low spruce branch and turned sideways so its eye could bore in on my face. The hard, black marble of the eye reflected no kindness, just scrutiny. Feeling measured and found lacking, I let Aki lead me to the little cashew shaped lake where the glacier seems to rise about a strip of forest. Two mallards and a bufflehead family move slowly down lake from us. But one of the bufflehead young, still in tan and chestnut swung past us. Aki didn’t abuse this trust by charging into the lake. I locked eyes with the young duck and saw defiance, not fear, realized what a poor judge I am of the facial expressions of birds.
A rock fall draws our attention. The little dog sniffs and stares. I follow her gaze and spot two mountain goats just above us on the flank of Mt. Juneau. I’d seen at least six other goats on this hike along Gold Creek. All were too far above us to be more than moving white dots. These two are close enough to watch, to appreciate a little of their personalities. The one following moved slowly, carefully lifting it’s front legs over deadfalls and rocks. It was hard to imagine this goat gracefully transiting a rock face like I’d seen them do often.
Along the creek, it looks like early summer. Tiny yellow violets are flowering. Elderberry plants, willows, and balsam poplars show fresh green growth. The later smell like the balsam incense for which they are named. Even the conservative devil club plants are leafing out. Yet the goats climb away from all this lush new growth.