Monthly Archives: January 2018

Adaptable Ducks

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This week the temperature has been going up and down like an elevator. It was 9 degrees F. when the sun broke over Gastineau Channel. An hour later, Aki and I are walking the Outer Point Trail. Recent rain has washed the trail free of ice. No rain falls from the cold clouds this morning. It’s 12 degrees and the wind can’t reach us in the forest. Aki trots along like it’s a summer day.

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No ducks or gulls bob on the waters of the first bay we reach. Waves produced by a north wind pound into the ice that covers shallow portions of the bay. Between Shaman Island and the beach a small gathering of gulls is forming on a rock just now exposed by the ebbing tide.

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The trail takes us back into the woods and then onto a second beach. Just offshore a raft of Barrow golden eye ducks undulates in the waves. They might be the same ducks we saw last week in front of the old Auk Village site. These fish ducks seem nonplussed by the cold and wind that pushes them along the beach. With only a layer of feathers between them and sub-freezing temperatures, how can they thrive and dive in frigid water little dog asks the man wearing insulated overalls, heavy parka, and beaver hat of the dog wrapped in her own heavy cloak.

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Hope on Ice

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Aki has to be very patient today. She is leading one our human friends and me down the icy beach that borders Mendenhall Lake. Snow as fine as confectioners’ sugar collects in the little dog’s curls and obscures the lake ice. With her strong, sharp nails, Aki could trot comfortably down the beach. But her humans have been reduced to duck walking by the ice. Our grippers offer little help.

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Snow clouds cover most of the glacier and almost all the surrounding mountains. But Mt. McGinnis stands separate from the clouds. I want to ask our human friend if he knows why the snow can’t defeat McGinnis but he leads the conversation into a discussion about victims and violence. He has just finished Sherman Alexie’s memoir about his mother. I am reading that honest book about love surviving violence. It could be one of those conversations that leave everyone feeling helpless. But we remember stories of victims overcoming violence, people speaking out against it, young people insisting on change. Aki, who had been keeping her tail at half-mast lets it rise to its “happy dog.”

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Aki Gives In

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I am ignoring Aki’s agenda for this morning’s walk. She stands and stares at me from a strip of grass that borders the Sheep Creek beach. It is obvious to her that we should follow the worn dog-walking path down channel toward Juneau.

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Wanting to take advantage of the ebb, I keep walking away from her over exposed tidelands. Since no eagles skulk in the beachside spruce trees, I can safely stretch the invisible rubber band that connects me to the little dog until it pulls her onto the tidelands.

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Fifty meters out I turn around. Aki, who has halved the distance between us, freezes. I keep walking, wishing the wind wasn’t driving down the wind chill. The next time I turn around, Aki is right behind me. Then, she sneaks ahead to conduct a nasal survey of the exposed ground.

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A small raft of mergansers splash in Gastineau Channel. But the local murder of crows dominates the tidelands. At first they flit around. When neither Aki nor I chase them, they return to their search for food and fun.

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Mountain Fog

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Aki and I start up the service road that leads to Gastineau meadows as the fog that had recently engulfed the Douglas Island ridge retreats back to Gastineau Channel. Two people and their dog pass us on their way back to the trailhead. The man, smelling a little of old liquor and sweat, warns me about an icy trail ahead. He and the woman look like they just woke from sleeping rough. Their leashed dog almost pulls the woman off her feet. After they slide on down the hill a chocolate Labrador retriever climbs out of the fog to join us. Later we will meet the lab’s owner, ending his search for the missing lab.

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We are still too deep into winter to expect sunshine on the meadow. But, now that the fog is gone, sunrays do reach the forested hills that border it. Sheep Mountain and Mts. Juneau and Roberts are painfully bright from the sunlight hammering their fresh coats of snow. The sun has reduced the fog to a glowing white snake over Gastineau Channel.

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I hurry up the icy trail to get a photograph of Mt. Juneau underlined by a strip of fog. Aki and the chocolate lab lead the way. Together they catalogue scents left by animals that passed through during the night. The lab gives off a reassuring sense of confidence that my little poodle mix can never master. Aki can project a bossy demeanor, but she always assumes a submissive posture when meeting strange dogs.

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At the highest vista spot on the trail, we stop to watch the fog swallowing up the view. I expect this move will be fatal for the fog, making it easier for the sun to burn it away. But the sun has already slipped behind the Douglas Mountain ridge.

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As we descend the trail, the fog obscures more and more of the mountains. By the time we meet the owner of the chocolate lab near the service road, only the top of Sheep Mountain glows above the fog, looking like the stern of an ice-struck liner about to slip into the sea.

Slavic Birds

1The Russian Orthodox Church is celebrating Christmas today. In the Yup’ik country of Western Alaska, believers called it Slavic. To celebrate Slavic in Russian Orthodox villages along the Kuskokwim River, everyone processes behind a Christmas star from home to home. They crowd into each house to sing and receive small presents like socks, gloves, or candy. In larger villages it might take several nights to complete the circuit. Peace comes easy during Slavic.

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Aki has never seen anyone celebrate Slavic but this afternoon we both watched an eagle and raven negotiate peace in the presence of a Christmas tree. The tree, lit by blue and gold lights, stood on a floating fish-cutting barge in the middle of Amalga Harbor. Fifty meters away a raven and bald eagle perched on a boat ramp railing. Even nearer was the tide soaked carcass of a deer. At least three more eagles and a half dozen ravens watch from nearby trees.

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All the evidence suggests that the carcass, not the decorated tree, drew these two competitors together. When we first arrived, a knot of ravens and eagles were bickering over the dead deer. All but one raven took to the air. The Christmas eagle moved over to the boat ramp railing, refusing to move even after the raven flew toward it. After the raven took up station a few feet away from the eagle, both birds held their ground. A few minutes later, the eagle and raven turned their backs on the carcass to gaze on the tree as if posing for a Christmas card.

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Blink of Beauty

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Aki slips on slick ice, her right rear paw sliding sideways, and then recovers. I follow behind her, taking care to avoid falling. I could not have made two steps down the trail without my ice grippers. As I was pulling the ice cheaters onto my boots the sun broke through the marine layer to hit the Mendenhall Glacier and Mt. McGinnis like a spotlight.

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I want to rush down the trail and past a wall of alders that blocks my view of the sunny scene. Aki slips again. Seeing her misstep reminds me to slow down. I do and still make it through the alder screen in time to catch the show.

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The first sunlight I’ve seen in days enhances the vivid robin’s egg blue of the glacial ice and makes the remaining fall color on the flanks of Mt. McGinnis pop. Reflections of both in the ice-free portions of Mendenhall Lake are more intense than the scene reflected.

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Aki and I slip and slide out to Nugget Falls. It’s a boring trip for the poodle-mix since no other dog walkers are willing to try the trail. Over our shoulders a blue wound forms in the gray cloud cover. I want to reach Nugget Falls before the wound heals and shuts out the sun.

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While I am photographing the shrinking image of Mt. McGinnis reflected in open water, the patch of blue disappears. Low clouds obscure the mountains and all but a thin strip of blue glacial ice. After carrying Aki up a slick slope of ice, I turn back to the car. I should be disappointed by the loss of sun and the beauty it brought. But it could never last, not with a series of storms heading our way from the Pacific. Without the beauty to distract me, I can concentrate on safely traveling over the treacherous trail.

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Water on Ice

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If not for the ice there would be no drama and little beauty to be seen on this rainy day walk. Yesterday’s 20-foot high tide broke up the five-inch thick ice sheet covering the Fish Creek Pond and carried pans of it up the creek where it now forms a temporary dam. More ice pans ended up on the meadow. Several large pieces came to rest athwart the trail.

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Aki is happy that we have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. The little dog is always shy when wearing her “Elvis Presley in Scotland wrap”—a pink and gray fleece number with an argyle pattern and a large collar that curls up toward her ears. I’d share a picture of it but she refuses to pose for portraits today. The Elvis wrap keeps her warm, even when wet, so she wears it.

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Before arriving at the pond, we stopped to watch a raft of scoters drift over the waters of Fritz Cove. In the foreground a red-breasted merganser bobbed to the surface with a sand lance wriggling to escape the bird’s beak. Disheveled with head feathers all ahoo, it still looks more at home than some little dog I know.

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On the Margins

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Rain-slick ice covers the trail into the Treadwell Ruins. Thin strips of grass form margins on both side of the ice. Aki and I watch an older hiker maneuver down one of the grass verges, using a walking stick to keep from falling. The little dog and I follow, she sniffing, me dancing around islands of ice or dog poop. It’s the only way to add excitement to this gray, wet visit to the ruins.

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I manage to descend through Treadwell to the ice-free beach and spot a bald eagle perched on an old mine ventilation shaft. The eagle ignores us, which is not surprising as 100 meters of seawater separate us from the bird.

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After we move down beach a raven lands on a short piling 10 meters ahead. Turning its back on the little dog and I, it looks as relaxed as a drinker on his favorite bar stool. When we’ve halved the distance, close enough to make out the patterns of purple and black feathers on the bird’s back, an Australian shepherd dog dashes past us and chases the raven off its perch. The raven calmly lands on a 3-meter high piling. Another raven occupies the top of a similar piling a few meters away. The shepherd circles one of the occupied pilings. Neither raven move even when the shepherd dog rises up on its hind legs and reaches up the piling with its front paws. In seconds they could both be perched high in a beachside alder, away from the pesky dog. But that would end the excitement.

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Winter, Please Come Home

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A little sulky, Aki was slow to meet me at the front door this morning. We both squinted against the rain while walking to the car. She was keen enough at the trailhead. But now she starts up every trail that would lead back to the car. The little poodle-mix wants our winter back. Two days ago it rode the jet stream down to the east coast of America where only school children in hope of a snow day welcomed it. Winter’s gray cousin, autumn, has back fill the hole with rain and wind.

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We walk through a thin stretch of old growth spruce forest between Auk Bay and the main road out of town. The woods offer filtered views of the bay through which I watch the resident raft of harlequin ducks dive in unison on bait fish. A larger raft of Barrow goldeneyes works nearby waters. Ducks don’t need sunlight or snow to feed.

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Down beach a line of gulls work the surf line and the rolls of seaweed formed by the last flood tide. Once in the air, the gulls are the most graceful things on the beach. But they must lumber through their takeoffs and almost always splash their landings.

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Hunting Seal

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Four gulls relax on their own floating island—a cork of dense snow that was carried from the beach by last night’s flood tide. You might say they look smug. Snow islands populate much of the bay. Some host gulls. Groups of others provide a harbor for a group of jumpy mallards.

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The ducks explode off the water, fly back and forth along the beach and return to their spot before the water has had a chance to calm. Aki didn’t scare them. It’s a seal quietly swimming between the snow islands. In minutes the seal surfaces near the three gulls’ island, using an oblique angle to shorten the distance between itself and the possible prey. When the gulls stir, the seal slips beneath the surface until the birds calm down.

 

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