It wasn’t supposed to be sunny today, but it is. I’m on my friend’s boat heading toward the Auk Bay fuel dock. Aki is home, hopefully stretched out on a sun-warmed section of the floor. Painfully bright light bounces off Favorite Passage and a bank of quick-moving fog. It’s a beautiful monster that could cause the boat to crash onto the rocks if it doesn’t lift. It does. We gas up and head out to the place that has always provided us with salmon for the winter.
The pass is almost empty of other boats and, as we will soon find out, empty of silver salmon. There are whales—three humpbacks that cruise along the surface feeding on the small fry that usually attract salmon.
Taking advantage of calm seas, we pull up our gear and motor over to the eastern shore of Admiralty Island where we fall into a line of charter boats trolling for salmon. They are catching lots of pink salmon for their clients. We want to put up the more desirable silvers and drop our trolling lines deep in hopes of getting below the pinks. This works. When we run out of bait we have in the boat four silver-bright silvers that together weigh more than thirty pounds—a good start.
This is a first, I think as a bald eagle’s scat plops onto the car’s windshield. My hat has been touched in such a way by crows and gulls, but no eagle has before decorated my person or property with its elimination. For some reason, I feel honored rather than victimized by the eagle’s act. The little dog and I are returning from another North Douglas hike. The trail was empty of people and dogs. Almost no blue berries remain to be picked, few birds offered to pose for my camera. There was a robin that trotting along in front of us, employing the old wounded bird trick to lead us away from its young. A red huckleberry bush provided the only excitement. One of its branches was loaded with marble-sized berries that proved to be very sweet. But all of its neighbors were as barren as a salmon stream in winter.
Aki and I are on the Juneau waterfront, watching the Seven Seas Mariner pull up to one of the new cruise ship docks. It’s our third cruiser of the morning. Passengers from the earlier arrivals walk up and down the docks, like salmon looking for a place to spawn. But sex doesn’t appear to be on their minds. They are fixed on shopping. Most carry bags from the tea shirt shops. One has a bag full of handmade glacier silt soap.
The squawking complaints of a seagull gang draws my attention downward. But the white and gray birds are only forming and reforming a raft. I drift to memories of hand washing experiences. I picture the thick gobs of greasy glacial silt that I wipe off my bicycle chain during the bike’s weekly bath. Even dry, the glacier silt is an abrasive powder that forms an irritating cloud when lifted off the streets by passing tour buses. You could polish glass with it. What would it do to a maiden’s face?
On this, another soft day, the little dog and I are back in an old growth forest. The beavers have been busy while we hiked on other trails. They dammed every watercourse that drains the fen. Now water overflows onto the trail, cutting new channels through the gravel. Fen water covers the raised boardwalk that offers nice views of the Douglas Island ridge.
With wet paws and boots, Aki and I reach the beach. A receding tide will soon allow passage over the strip of gravel connecting Shaman to Douglas Island. I am tempted to walk over to Shaman and stand on it’s beach, knowing that an hour later our passage home would be blocked by backfilling water, that we’ve taken advantage of an opportunity only available during a minus tide. It’s the shadow of the feeling a mountain climber has at the summit when she realizes that few of the people living in the town below her will ever enjoy this view.
Since Aki’s fear of eagles would prevent her from voluntarily following me onto Shaman Island, I abandon the idea of a crossing and content myself with views of Lynn Canal slowing being revealed by dissipating fog.
The recent heavy rain has swollen Gold Creek. It charges under the Christopher Trail Bridge. Aki trots on the bridge behind me, seemly oblivious to the rushing stream. She had refused to cross it every other time we used the trail, even when the stream was silenced by ice. I want to search her soaked face for an explanation but she slips by me when we reach solid ground. She trots on, probably drawn forward by an interesting smell. She is a smart little dog, smart enough to let me lead on the overgrown sections of the trail so my pants, not her fur, soaks up the water that clung to the trailside plants.
This is the first time that Aki and I have seen Montana Creek since last winter. Then I skied. She dashed around in the snow. Today we both slog along in the rain, stopping every so often for me to pick berries. We here not for the berry picking, which is marginally productive, but for the calming stream. Its rushing sound blocks that of rifles being fired at the nearby gun range. It also seems to carry away the day’s stress.
I don’t worry about bears, even though we pass smashed plots of grass where one reclined and spots where bears have dug up roots. The berry crop here is not good enough to draw them away from the downstream gravel bars where they can easily snatch a just-arrived dog salmon from the creek. Soon the salmon will be flooding this part of the creek. An immature bald eagle just flew by us on a low altitude reconnaissance mission up river. Then I’ll find another place to pick.
Seconds ago, Aki dropped her orange Frisbee at my feet. Now she barks—her way of asking me to send the toy flying so she can chase it. I want to ignore her and continue picking blueberries. It’s past mid-summer and this is the first time I’ve had to put up berries for the winter.
When I pick up the Frisbee, Aki charges down the trail in the direction I have already thrown the thing five times. I wait until she is well on her way before tossing it another direction. Now I’ll have some time to pick while she searches for her precious.
Bears have already gone over this patch of bushes—cubs judging from the size of their scat. They high-graded: tromping over the lower lying fruit to tongue fat, sweet berries from the topmost branches. It would be very bad to startle the mother of the hungry cubs that wreaked all the damage. Thanks to Aki’s barking, there is no chance of that.
One of the big Princess cruise ships moves up Gastineau Channel while we drive over the bridge that connects Juneau to the island of Douglas. A gentle rain falls on the boat and those passengers who ventured on deck to watch the docking. Down channel, only a small oval of blue skies survives a complex of gray clouds that is delivering rain. Are the passengers excited by the challenging weather or crushed? Will they hike up Juneau’s European-narrow streets to the Basin Road trail system or sulk in the Franklin Street tee shirt shops? Aki and I won’t see any of them wandering the Treadwell mining ruins.
It stops raining before we have passed through the forested ruins and stepped onto a beach made of crushed mine tailing. A resident pair of ravens watch Aki and I from atop jagged-topped wharf pilings. The one with a white spot on its wing bows toward my little dog when she trots up to its piling. After Aki follows me over to the collapsed glory hole for a visit with the belted kingfisher, the two ravens fly off down the beach, turning their backs on a battle taking place near the southern tip of Douglas Island between blue sky and rain-charged clouds.
Aki is off lead on this riverside forest trail. I am not too worried. Dog salmon splash in the river but I’ve not heard the fwaap of a bear paw sending a fish and part of the river onto a gravel bar. I see bushes stripped of salmon berries but can’t detect the death stink of a bruin.
Near the edge of a tidal meadow jays, crows, ravens and eagles chit, caw, squawk, or scream. They sound cranky, like hungry people in a town with no restaurants. Aki and I skirt a fresh pile of bear scat and walk to Eagle River now filling with chum salmon that ride the incoming tide to their spawning streams.
Many of the salmon will take a sharp left turn in a tiny creek a quarter-a-mile upstream where early arrivals already mill. The lucky ones will end their one-way trip squirting out eggs or fertilizing milt into the waters of their home waters. Others will swim up dead end streams and die without procreating. The carrion birds now making such a racket along the river don’t care if the salmon die frustrated or satisfied. The just want the dying to begin.
The silver salmon are returning to their home rivers around Juneau. Time to put up some silvers for winter even though it is raining. This is bad news for Aki. But she doesn’t sulk when I leave the house burdened down with lunch, a thermos of tea, and heavyweight Scandinavian rain gear.
We leave Tee Harbor under heavy rain. The captain bounces the C Dory through the south Shelter Island tiderips toward the Point Retreat lighthouse. From there we cruise along the shore of Admiralty Island to grounds that usually offer good fishing. A humpback whale surfaces while we gear up our trolling leaders with herring. The whale, like the salmon, targets herring. Diving on them, the whale tosses its flukes skyward and disappears.
We boat a pink salmon, a rockfish, and a potbellied silver salmon. Because they don’t freeze well, we release the other pink salmon we hook. Between strikes a trio of orcas appears, seeking the same thing we do—salmon.