Thinking that the recent run of warm weather will continue this morning, I dressed for spring, not winter. Now I wish I’d checked with Shamus, our electronic weather icon, before driving out to Fish Creek. Shamus was probably wearing his heavy coat, muffler, and watch cap. I could use his heavy coat. Aki could probably use her winter wrap but she doesn’t complain. So, I don’t.
Much has happened on the Fish Creek delta since our last visit. The six-inch-thick pond ice covering shattered and islands of it rode a big tide high up onto the meadow. Already new ice replaces it. There’s new snow two, maybe four inches or so, covering the trail. Aki bounds over it like a deer, ears flopping, eyes looking for a drift deep enough for a face plant. We hear an eagle but see nothing on the land but ermine and dog walker tracks.
We have sun, at least the islands and mountains on the other side of Fritz Cove and the channel have it. They stand whiten by new, sunlit snow. But the little dog and I walk in a dusk that will last until night. Hundreds of ducks, mallards mostly, and scoters work the stream mouth. The scoters flew off minutes ago but the ducks stay as if they know it is too cold for the dog or I to swim into their territory.
We were going to take a wooded trail but the glacier chose today to wear its bluest cloak. Lets just sneak down to the lake, take a few shots of the thing, and slip onto the East Glacier Trail. Aki, who considers either path equally rich in dog sign, trots along without complaint.
Tendrils of fog form on the ice to draw me closer and closer to the glacial until we are practically at the falls. When the fog dissipated we turn towards our first choice.
Snain, a nasty combination of snow and rain, thickened as we complete the backtrack to the East Glacier trail head but Aki still darts onto the trail. Crusty snow and ice make travel for me difficult and I miss the views we had near the lake. But for what the forest lacks in drama, it makes up for with quiet and solitude. We cross beneath the Slide Creek Falls, which each summer resists attempts from sockeye salmon to leap into upstream spawning waters. Black bears chomp down salmon discouraged by the falls.
Tne forest is littered with glacial erratics: large granite rocks dropped by the retreating glacier. Most have thick moss capes. Today all are covered with snow. If I had spent my childhood within easy bicycle reach of this forest, I would have spent my free time wandering and building forts with what it offered.
My camera battery ran out of juice. But it doesn’t matter much on this flat-light day when almost all the usual users of the sheep creek delta are elsewhere. The sun just tried to burn the clouds off of Mt. Roberts but gave up after I used the last of my battery power photographing its effort.
Now I stand, camera battery in my armpit, enjoying an impressionist’s reflection of Roberts in a tidal pond. A rising wind threatens to render the image too abstract for the camera. Aki stands by my side, sniffing the wind for promising smells. Nearby the creek makes it brief transit to Gastineau Channel where mergansers wait for it to deliver food. Just before the wind ruins the reflection, I slip the battery back into the camera, raise it to my eye and read in the viewfinder, “low battery.” The creek mumbles calm sounding words in a language I can’t understand. I listen to the moving waters, image a pre-symphony crowd full of cautious optimism as the house lights dim.
The storm wind whipping across the surface of this storybook-sized pond makes me think of Kenneth Grahame’s Water Rat in Wind in the Willows. I can see Ratty, in a slicker and storm hat fashioned from alder leaves, sailing his skunk cabbage boat across the pond’s riled surface. “Aki,” he might call out, “There is simply nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing, than messing about in boats.”
My little poodle-mix is a herder, not a water dog. The only reason she willingly boards our canoe is to avoid being left on the beach. If she and the water rat shared a common tongue, Aki would shout out, “Then you have never tried sniffing pee.” Having checked out all the messages left by prior canine visitors, she gives me her “let’s move it” stare, which shatters my illusion.
It’s good that I followed her lead. The fifty-mile-an-hour gusts that ripple the protected pond surface rip through the forest canopy. We have just pasted a half-score of hemlocks tumbled by similar storms.
Hundreds of crows huddle near the shoreline when we break out of the woods. Some hop about while others fly back and forth along the beach. Maybe the wind has them nervous. Or maybe, they are just messing about.
As the second Pacific storm in as many days shakes the car, I drive Aki out to the old Auk Village site. It offers a trail through old growth large enough to protect us from wind-driven rain. Ducks—Barrow goldeneyes and harlequins—fish waters just off the crescent-shaped beach. We spot no eagles or ravens but herring gulls fill the air. They seem to ride the strengthening currents for recreation, not for advantage. Graceful in flight, they plunk onto the water when they land, wings half folded, as if they misjudged their approach. Many of the gulls land on the beach and gather where a fresh water stream erodes the beach gravel. Some flutter in the stream, splashing the water like children in a municipal pool. Others look for bits of food dislodged it or the small surf pushed onshore by the storm.
A week ago, the police found the body of a young man about 500 feet up this slide chute. It was close to the makeshift camp where he had spent the early winter and just a ten-minute walk from Downtown Juneau. According the police, the body showed signs of being unattended in the woods. It’s that statement that has me taking pictures of ravens during this walk down Gastineau Avenue.
I think about the cloud of ravens, eagles and crows that Aki I watched during last week’s Gastineau Avenue walk. I remember the collection of similar birds drawn to a wolf-killed deer on the glacial moraine. I look away from a nearby raven’s stare.
The flooding tide just displaced this murder of crows from an offshore bar. They regrouped on a lumpish rock thirty feet from where Aki and I emerge from the woods. My dog ignores the crows, as she tends to do with corvids except for our neighborhood ravens, which act like her teasing cousins. One by one the crows launch into the air. A small one keeps a look out while the rest line up like jets waiting to take off at the Seattle airport. I wonder if this organized nonchalance is designed to hide fear.
The ducks and scoters are definitely jumpy. There were two rafts of mallards when we arrived but one group panicked into a short flight to join up with the other. Now they hang close to shore while one of their number cackles in way that would suggest insanity in a human. The party colored harlequin ducks are quick to dive until driven to flight by the appearance of a bald eagle overhead. This sets some mergansers off and into the air.
The eagle pulls back its talons and skulks back to its spruce roost. I want to hang around and watch micro bursts of wind push small waves through the ducks’ formations but Aki whines. She has a point. It’s blowing hard, a wind that propels raindrops like missiles. I followed her into the woods where the storm hums through the canopy and we have to climb over a hemlock tree downed by the last windstorm.
It was colder yesterday but my body doesn’t believe it. I’ve dressed Aki in her felted coat, one that helps her retain most of her warmth. The water bottle I left in the car last night is frozen solid. But still we drive out to the Fish Creek Pond to watch the sunrise.
An incoming tide floods up Fish Creek, carrying wisps of fog that will soon congeal to obscure the other side of the stream. The tide-borne fog has already thickened over Gastineau Channel and Fritz Cove, hiding the glacier. Pieces of the surrounding mountains peek through, looking like puzzle pieces tossed onto a grey tablecloth.
My camera punishes me when I remove a mitten so I can take a picture. Each depression of the shutter trigger delivers an ice burn. It feels like the transient sting of candle being snuffed between thumb and finger. For the thousandth time I wonder at Aki’s bare paws. The icy trail doesn’t seem to sting them while she waits for me to turn off the camera and get back to business. The cold is her ally.
Aki and I move down the Boy Scout Beach trail with an old friend. The thing that brings the most beauty to this trail makes it treacherous. Seepage from a steep hillside builds up complex frozen cascades over trailside rock faces also coats the trail with a glacial-slick layer. With the help of ice grippers we manage to negotiate all but the last ice covered section of the ice. While the humans test the start of this ice barrier, Aki scrambles up and over it. Realizing that it would take climbing crampons to gain a safe purchase on the ice, we turn back. The little dog doesn’t complain when we give up.
After returning to the car we drive to the Eagle Beach picnic area from where we can see Boy Scout Beach across the river. We startle to flight a collection of Canada geese but they fly less than 50 meters and drop onto an offshore sandbar. A flooding tide swells the river, allowing a seal easy passage. Sunshine glistens off its head and reduces the snow covered meadow, blue sky, and spruce forest to colors you could find in a Crayon box.
Trying to focus a camera is probably the worse thing to do when a dozen bald eagles are flying over your head. Bur here I am, pointing it skyward. There are ravens too, more athletic than the eagles, more aggressive. Holding Aki’s leash and a full poop bag in one hand, I move the camera in the general direction of the birds and click like mad. If I drop the camera now, I could watch their dives and in the case of the ravens, barrel rolls. I might figure out why they spend so much energy during this time of near-famine. Could it be sport—an avian rodeo?
The little dog and I push on into the wind and climb from seawater to Chicken Ridge. A block from home we stumble on a small flock of European Starlings harvesting in our neighbor’s yard. Sunlight angling up Main Street enriches their chestnut feathers and brightens the males’ reds and violets. Here, the camera proves a better tool for accessing beauty and personality.