Tlingit elders teach that when the tide is out, the table is set. This morning, the tide is clearing the table as Aki and I walk toward the mouth of Fish Creek. From the sounds being made by eagles, crows, and gulls, last call is too early. Across Fritz Cove, a noisy cloud of white forms over Mendenhall River as displaced gulls and kittiwakes rise from an inundated sand bar. The cloud rises, falls, swoops, and settles on a still dry section of the wetlands.
Rain falls through sunshine. In the American South, they would say that the devil must be beating his wife this morning. A rainbow appears in the skies above Admiralty Island. The wetland bird noise drops. Perhaps they accept the bow as a manifestation of the tide’s promise to withdraw from the wetlands after the crest.
The rainbow has no affect on the crows and eagles. Inside the spruced island near the creek mouth, they bicker like kids on the playground. Bald eagles glide in and out of the forest, some to fish over the cove, others to perch on a mid-channel navigation aid.
Two eagles, one wet, the other dry, sulk on the point separating fish creek from its pond. A minute earlier, one had crashed, talons first, into the pond water, struggled with something that appeared to pull it underwater. The then wet eagle released its prey and used its wings to lift out of the water for a short flight to the beach. Somewhere in pond, a sore backed king salmon drops into deeper water. .
Aki could be riding on my bike as I climb from Tee Harbor to the mouth of Eagle River. But she doesn’t like sitting in the bike basket. So, she is not here to see the cinnamon-colored bear that was asleep next to the bike path when I rode by. Startled, it bolted awake and crashed into the woods. Minutes later I pass a yearly cub chopping on dandelions. It has been a week for seeing animals from the seat of my bicycle. There was the harbor seal that chased dolly varden near the hatchery. Then I spotted two black tail does that continued to graze on grass as I rode past. On the way I stopped at the Arboretum where a blooming cherry tree frames a view of the Shrine.
It’s hard not to feel derided by the ravens and crows infesting the spruce forest that edges the Mendenhall River. The mere presence of Aki and me seems to put them in a foul mood. I experience emotions not felt since visiting a neighbor bar when in college. (Image me in school sweatshirt and jeans walking past a table of shipyard workers in machine-oil-stained overalls). The corvid choir takes me further back to the time of high school dances with their rigid hieratical order. The other birds along the river reinforce my feelings.A sole, immature bald eagle was exiled on our side of the river when Aki and I first broke out of the forest. Across the way, on a bar exposed by a minus four low tide, the big men and women on campus—a gang of mature bald eagles—reigned. Gulls, crows and ravens kept a respectful distance.
We learned the crows’ true social status when a single gull drove them off the bar, across the river, and into the trees where they now hurl insults at my little dog and me. As is the case of the high school dance status, in the bird world size does not guarantee dominance.
I’ve seen a sole arctic tern drive off a mature bald eagle and a raven do the same. I’ve watched a crow harass a raven into leaving a tasty morsel of food. Today, the Mendenhall River crows, having been embarrassed by a diminutive gull, are putting us in our low place.
Aki and I are time traveling. The mountain meadow where we started this walk is nearing high summer. Bog rosemary plants have formed magenta islands on the muskeg. The early bloomers have already gone to seed. We heard the banshee-like call of a red tail hawk after a mail plane flew over the meadow. Slipping off the meadow and its handicap accessible trail, we follow an old plank trail to the Fish Creek crossing. This involves only a short travel in time.
A craftsman made the trail of hand-split spruce, setting each board in a graceful step pattern. If he used metal nails to secure the plank steps, I can’t find them. But each step holds firm when I descend with Aki to a modern bridge across the creek. From there we follow the Treadwell ditch trail toward Mt. Jumbo and spring.
Along the ditch, blue berry bushes are just setting blossoms. Some of the ferns slowly relax their tight spiral heads to spread their lacy leaves to the sun. Using imagination, I travel back 100 years to the time when Chinese laborers built this ten-mile long flume to carry water for the Treadwell gold mills. It’s quiet enough to hear their ghosts cursing in Mandarin as their phantom whipsaws rip through trailside spruce.
Statistics about human/killer whale interactions will tell you that none of the big porpoises have ever attacked a human. But you still worry that you might be first. Maybe it’s the name or the times you’ve watched one grab 1000 pounds of sea lion and toss it back to it’s children to finish off. I try not to think about that when Aki’s other human and I launch our canoe onto the waters of Tee Harbor where a killer whale has just surfaces a half a kilometer away.
Aki whines and paces around the canoe. Her humans paddle and scan the water for another whale sighting. But only a pair of marble murrlets show on the surface. From the mouth of the harbor I spot the killer whale. It is miles away on the other side of Favorite Passage. But water sparkling on its back makes it easy to spot.
Aki plants all four paws in the Basin Road pavement, drops her head, and gives me her “I am not going another step in that direction” look. A dog that she likes trots ahead toward the Gold Creek valley but my little guy refuses to follow. She must smell recent sign left by a black bear. Seeing her point, I lead her back down the road with a plan to walk through Downtown Juneau.
It’s early morning, too early for today’s tourists to have moved beyond the trap lines of South Franklin Street and into our tiny residential zone where primroses, tulips, and magenta bleeding hearts will provide targets for their cell phone cameras. We pass the odd office worker trotting with purpose toward the capital or another worksite. The MV Amsterdam, one of the older generation cruise ships is tied up to the new Panamax dock, belching blue smoke into our air. But it is not enough to obscure the clear sky between us and the Douglas Island mountain ridge.
Just minutes from the car, Aki and I are already soaked. Without interference from the wind, steady rain falls straight onto the glacial moraine. The Irish guide that once drove me around the Dingle Peninsula would call this a soft day, as if sunshine cuts like a knife. The description was accurate in one way: that day’s wet grayness softened away the visual contrasts that could have given the Irish farmland pop.
Today’s rains falls from clouds low enough to hide surrounding mountains and the glacier. Later we will see a slice of mountains and ice as the clouds lift. But, when we pass it on our way onto the moraine, the Mendenhall River appears to come out of a cloud. Raindrops bead up on blueberry and poplar leaves as well as in the border of segments of horsetail shoots. But the robins still sing, the kingfisher scolds, beavers tail slap lake water, and the little dog manages to enjoy herself.
Like a magician tracing a ley line, Aki confidently trots a straight path through wetland grass too tall for her to see over. An eagle does a fly over and two others perch. One of these occupies a stump in the middle of Lemon Creek. The other rests on a light standard that arcs over two lanes of traffic on Egan Expressway. Without knowing it, Aki is heading in the right direction—toward one of the odd little islands that seem to float on a tidal grass sea.
Fall and spring, foliage on the islands’ balsam poplars work like gold leaf on an icon to draw the eye. Spruce, alders, and elderberry bush squeeze onto the islands with the poplars. They all send roots into a mix of glacial silt and gravel carried there by the creek. Savannah sparrows nest in the grass bordering the islands. One of those diminutive birds flies to the top of an elderberry bush to watch us pass. I wonder what the tiny thing would do if we came near its nest. The severe look it flashes me as I pass within a few feet could not form on the face of a timid beast.
A raven plays with Aki on a beach made from Treadwell mine tailings. The beach was empty when we started the walk. Then the raven and a buddy flew over and landed on the beach in our path. One of them roosts on a piling but the other one flies a few feet ahead of my little dog, lands, and takes off again. In seconds the big bird lands on another piling and watches Aki wag her tail in anticipation.Down the beach two bald eagles scan the scene from a top a metal-roofed tower that once provided air to miners working the Ready Bullion tunnels. One spots food on the beach and glides down to investigate. It crashes chest deep into the water and splashes about until waddling onto an island of dry beach.
Overhead an immature bald eagle circles the scene, maybe planning in crowding in on the wet eagle’s find. But the one still on the mine tower flies up in a challenge and drives off the young one. It manages a more graceful return to its perch.
Aki and I shelter from a nasty rainstorm in an old growth forest. Earlier storms toppled a score of middle-aged hemlocks within our view shed. But the forest can’t protect our car from the guy stealing one of its fog light assemblies. The thief, probably a heroin addict, might be able to covert it into a fix. But it will cost me much more in cash and bother.
Happy in our ignorance, the little dog and I cross a pocket meadow decorated with cloudberry blossoms. If the summer dries out and brings enough sun, we will be back in July to harvest the succulent berries that are already forming in the heart of the dying blossoms. Cloudberries are fixtures of the tundra. Before last year, we never harvested many of them. Our summers were never hot enough for their ripening. Now global warming has given us a gift that I’d gladly turn down if the glaciers would stop retreating.