Aki hesitates at the grass line, her yellow coat not quite blending with the color of last fall’s straw. Around her sharp-edged green shoots of new growth muscle through the dead growth. The little dog wants to walk south down the beach toward where miners have anchored their thrown together gold dredges. The trail is rich in dog scent.
I turn my back on the poodle-mix and walk out onto the gravel and sand lands now exposed by an ebb tide. The sun is yet to make over the shoulder of Sheep Mountain. Blue sky shows through holes in the cloud cover. It’s too early to know whether the day will be blue or gray. After stopping to study the reflection of clouds in a tidal lake, I look for Aki and find her at my feet.
A small raft of ducks fidget at the opposite end of the lake, circling around what looks like a thin and tall piece of driftwood. As the sky lightens I see that what I thought was driftwood is really a great blue heron. The little dog and I swing in a wide arc around the lake until I can make out the grey-blue of the birds chest feathers and the long, pointed beak so useful in plucking small fish from the shallows. I think the heron might be my favorite bird for it’s movie star good looks and it’s graceful walk. This bird looks as peaceful as a sleeping child until it shoots downward with its killing beak to snatch a salmon smolt.
It’s a flat light day on the Fish Creek Delta. Aki’s other human and I are willing the little poodle-mix to drop into the crouch she assumes when making a bowel movement. That, we hope, will signal an end to her lower intestinal problems. When she finally does, I scoop up her product into a plastic bag and relax. She must be on the mend.
Thinking that we may have witnessed the most exciting movement of the day, I follow the trotting dog along the edge of the Fish Creek Pond and then onto the wetlands. A mating brace of common mergansers swims along the opposite shore of the pond, passing a clutch of mallards asleep on the point of land that separates the pond from Fish creek.
Nothing but windblown grass is moving on the wetlands, and that still the dead tan color of straw. But at the point we can spy on two American robins snatching and shaking blades of grass. Along the shore three sandpipers (greater yellowlegs?) march in the shallows. Down stream they go in a straight line, hunched over like the Marx Brothers. They turn and march back up stream. They turn back down stream and then burst into a flight that ends thirty meters away. Aki missed the whole show because she was being encouraged by her other human to pose for a selfie with the glacier.
I hear the eagle’s scream the moment we start down the Treadwell Ruins trail. Aki is too pre-occupied with her scent survey to bother with eagles. With her front legs spread wider than usual, the little dog shuffles down the trail keeping her nose just millimeters about the ground. We can make little progress until she finds the mother lode of the scent she follows. I am worried that we will miss seeing the eagle. Aki does one of her signature handstands, raising her entire rear end into the air as she rains pee down on top of another dog’s scent trail, then drops into a quick-step trot. The eagle screams again.
It had been raining but that has stopped. A low layer of clouds hangs over the channel when we reach Sandy Beach. Little can be seen of the mountains across Gastineau Channel. In the foreground, the old mine tunnel ventilation shaft pokes up through the waters of the channel. A mature bald eagle occupies each corner of the ventilation shaft’s roof. I try to read their body language to determine whether they are friend, foe, or sufferers in a dysfunctional marriage. I’m guessing it’s the latter.
Each eagle has its back turned to the other. The one facing me looks like it just tasted a sour lemon. If either attempted to expand the distance between them, it would fall into the channel. I’ve heard that eagles mate for life. These two look like they could use couples counseling.
The writer’s retreat at the Shrine ends this morning. I’ll be back home with Aki soon. But first I must try to see the whale. While I was looking at geese along the Eagle River, one of the other writers on this beach was startled by a surfacing killer whale. First she heard the whale’s exhale, a burst of water forced at high pressure through the orca’s blowhole. She turned in time to see the whale’s black dorsal fin glisten in the sun and then disappear beneath the waters of Lynn Canal.
I am walking the same stretch of beach where my friend saw the whale. Earlier this morning on this beach I watched two juvenile Stellar sea lions porpoise through the water, flushing three golden eye ducks to flight. There are no sea lions now and I wonder if the whale ate one of them. Last night I stood here and watched the sun set behind the Chilkat Mountains. But now, I see only a clutch of mallards fishing offshore.
I tell myself that the important thing is that the whale was here, not whether or not I see it. Then I remember the other times I’ve seen killer whales. There were the times pods swam by as I paddled a kayak off of Marmion or Portland Islands. Off of Marmion an adult female orca swam to within 10 meters. Another time Aki and I watched a pod of them chasing king salmon just north of here. It doesn’t resolve my desire for another whale sighting. But it justifies my belief that if not today, then sometimes in the future, there will be more whales.
Aki wouldn’t like this. It’s seven in the morning. The temperature drops a degree each mile I ride my bike out Glacier Highway. Now it hovers at 27 degrees F. The temperature didn’t stop the Hermit Thrush from singing its spring song when I mounted my bicycle at the Shrine of St. Theresa. The cold might have silenced the eagles because I can’t hear their territorial scream as I head out the road. But the Stellar’s jays are warm enough to scold me as I ride over the Peterson Creek Bridge.
The sun lights up Shelter Island and the snow-white Chilkat Mountains that line the other side of Lynn Canal. But I ride in pre-dawn grey until Eagle River where the sun shines on the gang of Canada geese in a mid-stream gravel bar. The birds cackle away as if plotting mischief.
I push on another half-mile and then drop into the picnic area where a smaller group of geese hunt and peck near the picnic tables. If my presence bothers them, they don’t show it. Pleased for not being their cat among the pigeons, I ride to a trailhead where a man on a mountain bike greets me. After we exchange hellos, he rides down the trail toward the plotting Canada geese. In seconds they explode off the meadow and fly low over my head, flushed by a cat on a cycle.
A forty-knot wind plasters Aki’s fur to her skin. Long ago she had dropped down her stub of a tail to cover her privates. I walk behind her, bare hands stuck in my pockets, eyes scanning the Mendenhall River for participants in the spring migration.
Aki didn’t notice a small raft of bufflehead ducks drop onto the river where they now bob in wind driven waves. She doesn’t lift her head when we cross a field of dead-brown grass to the river’s edge. Just upstream a huge raft of mallards shelters in the lee of a bluff cut by the river current. The water glimmers like a shattered mirror left abandoned in the sun. But the grasslands seem dead, as if the strong wind has stripped it of color.
To get out of the wind, we drop down into the gully formed by a small stream and surprise a gang of six Canada geese that had the same idea. They circle in front of the glacier and land on the grass a hundred meters away where they huddle behind a small rise.
My little dog doesn’t complain or give me her “are you crazy” stare. She conducts her usual nasal patrol, covering the more intriguing scents with her own. In a sense, she may be tougher than the geese and other wild things that make their living on the wetlands. All the birds we spotted this morning had obtained shelter from the wind. She trots into it.
Aki and the Gastineau ravens are ignoring each other. The little dog had the runs last night but seems over it now. Still, she seems a little grumpy. Maybe the ravens are cutting her some slack. A block to the south, where alders partially obscure the cement walls of the old ore crushing plant, more ravens circle in the blue sky. A bald eagle screams out a complaint but doesn’t show itself. The north wind blows the little dog and I past the birds and down onto South Franklin Street.
Here, the tourist shops, bars, Filipino Hall, and the homeless shelter block the wind. Aki follows a pee trail that leads her past the Red Dog Saloon, the Lucky Lady Bar, and the ancient Alaska Hotel. Early day drinkers are no doubt sheltering in each of these establishments. Now facing into the wind, Aki powers past a distillery, tattoo shop, and the Franklin Street Barbers. She shows impatience with I stop to photograph a bronze brown bear statute. In minutes, thanks to her insistence, we are home.
Normally Aki refuses to follow me onto Gastineau, giving me her “are you crazy, I am just a little dog with short legs and tiny feet who will just flounder out there” look. But it is still morning and the sun has not had time to soften the frozen surface of the snow. We are free to roam.
On the far edge of the meadow, where we can enjoy an unfiltered view of Mt. Juneau, Aki goes on alert. I can’t find anything among the stubby Douglas pines to merit her attention. Twice more during our walk across the meadow, the little poodle-mix will bark and stare into the woods. Twice more I will fail to spot anything worth barking at. I will hear a hawk whistle, see two bald eagles circle over our heads, and trace the track of a black bear made yesterday afternoon in softening snow.
Aki and I are back, drawn to the Mendenhall Lake for another chance to ski. Not wanting to press our luck with the lake ice, I lead the little dog on to the ski trail that meanders around a campground. The place is empty of other people and dogs. That might be explained by the fact that we are here on a weekday or because the classic ski trail is as slick as a luge run.
The little dog dashes after her other human who moves much faster than me on her skate skis. Aki’s strong herding instincts kicks in and she runs full out between her two humans as we do a circuit of the trail. When an opportunity to move onto the lake appears we leave the campground and slide into the freedom offered by the snow-covered beach.
I am standing on skis in the middle of the ice-covered Mendenhall Lake. Aki is several hundred meters away, trailing her other human as she skate skis toward the glacier. In a minute or so the little dog will break back and sprint to me. But for now I am alone, warm under the spring sun in a place so quiet I can hear my pulse beating a tattoo.
Even in a small town like ours that has no industry but tourism moments of silent solitude are rare. They usually occur when bad weather keeps everyone else inside, or when the little dog and I are deep in the woods. Today, perhaps thanks to the concern of others about the safety of the ice, I am alone. It’s wise to keep off the ice after long sunny days and early-spring temperatures have weakened it. I didn’t walk onto the ice during yesterday’s walk with Aki due to worry about ice thickness. But it froze hard last night and the tracks of skiers laid down yesterday tempted me to give it a try.