Aki goes on alert—head up, front feet planted in the sand, tail straight as a mast—and stares at the fluttering wing of a bull kelp strand that had been snagged on a splintered piling. I could tell her that the long strip of stranded seaweed poses no threat. But until she has made her brave charge at the perceived enemy, she won’t believe me.
Up Sandy Beach, a raven cocks its head in wonder or dismay as it watches my little poodle mix act out a scene from Don Quixote. A bitter sounding bald eagle, perched in a beachside spruce might be offering its own commentary on Aki’s actions.
After the raven flies from beach sand to the top of its own piling, we push on toward the small but deep bay formed when one of the Treadwell mines collapsed. A recent high tide has stripped away the sand covering the body of an old pickup truck. It could have been abandoned after the tunnel collapse in 1916. It might have been buried and then revealed by tidal action many, many times. But I’ve never seen it before. The bed box of the pickup contains a rusted tool and shards of a heavy ceramic bowl that might have held oatmeal eaten by one of the miners on the morning of the tunnel collapse. I could slip one of the shards out of the box and into my pocket. Would that be a relic rescue or interference with nature’s efforts to cleanse?
As if sleeping off the effects of yesterday’s party of sun and wind, the rainforest indulges in a few hours of gray calm. This doesn’t discourage Aki from squeaking as I pull into the Sheep Creek trailhead. Only the bickering of eagles breaks the silence until the weekly AML barge chugs up channel toward the creek mouth. Two tour buses, a charter fishing boat and a Ford Expedition top the stacks of metal shipping containers that weigh down the barge. The barge’s wake stirs a great blue heron to flight.
Down channel, the day’s third cruise ship rounds Marmion Island, trailed by a plume of its pollution. A herd of venue buses are already queued up near the old steamship dock, ready to carry the ship’s passengers to the glacier or one of the whale watching boats.
Aki turns back, giving me her “aren’t you coming” look. Her other human and a friend walk along side the little dog. Through my camera’s lens I see the trio moving between a grass-covered dune and a line of small surf slapping Boy Scout Beach. Beyond them lays a choppy Lynn Canal, Admiralty Island, and the white-capped peaks of the Chilkat Range. If Aki could fly, she’d be over Glacier Bay in a half-an-hour.
It’s too early for the wild flags (iris) to be in full bloom, but on the way to the beach we stumbled on two of them in flower. Magenta patches on the tidal meadow mark where the shooting stars thrive. Everywhere there are the blue or purple flowers of lupines and beach peas. If not for the cooling wind, we’d be in high summer.
I love the walk to this beach for the wild flowers and the frequent sightings of Canada geese it offers. Just before the beach, you can turn, look up the Eagle River, and spot a turquoise wedge of the Herbert Glacier dividing snowy peaks.
I hurry to join Aki and her humans just in time to watch a trio of crows force a raven to land near the surf line. The raven works on something with its beak as we approach and then flies over the water and back to where it must have found the treat. We push on to a spot with a little wind break where we eat a picnic and watch a trio of Canada geese fly by followed in minutes by an immature bald eagle.
Later we will see a score of geese fly low overhead in a formation that could be a from measure of sheet music from Ode to Joy. Probably not. If the sound made by the geese is any indication, the notes would be from the Three Stooges theme song.
Last night Aki and her other human waited for me to deplane at the Juneau Airport. When a puppy, she would have squealed and squirmed when I walked out of the TSA waiting area. Now she just lets me lift her into my arms. This morning we walk through a rain forest that would be quiet if not for the songs of thrush and wren. Hard, green berries hang from the blue berry brush and the white buds of crabapple flowers swell with rainwater. It’s good to be home.
As Aki puzzles over newly deposited scent, I sneak onto a beach that borders the forest. In close there is only a robin trying to lead us away from its nest with moves designed to give a predator false hope of an easy meal. From a spruce tree behind us an eagle screams. Otherwise the skies are as empty as the little bay. Far off shore a kayaker has come to rest on the flat-calm water. I wish we could trade places with him. Sun shines on a valley on Admiralty Island, giving me reason to hope for at least a partial suspension of the rain.
We are about to break back into the woods when three eagles drop from perches on Shaman Island and dive toward the same spot in Lynn Canal. When one looks ready to snatch some food from the water, the other two eagles dive on it. In seconds all three birds are flying at each other like fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. The eagle that we heard earlier does a flyby at a safe distance and settles onto a spruce branch of the island to watch the show, which now has shifted from a dogfight into a loosely scripted ballet. Ravens, with their cleaver efforts to harvest man’s excesses, I understand. But eagles, I just don’t get.
I’m biking across a cement bridge across Idaho’s Snake River. To my right, at eye level, a red tail hawk flies a parallel path over the river. Back home in Juneau Aki might be watching an eagle do the same thing as she travels by car across the Douglas Island Bridge. Would the little dog believe as I do, if only for a second, that she was soaring with a raptor?
Upriver thick, grey clouds block my view of Asotin Washington where my uncle once worked as a sheriff. For the first time in many years, I will have to run from a summer rainstorm in the Snake River valley. While visiting relatives here in the past, I’ve always had to get in my bike rides before the summer heat made it impossible to exercise. On this trip I will postpone at least one ride until the temperature rises above 60. Yesterday I watched three white pelicans swim downriver and learned that they are new to the valley. More evidence of climate change.
Gatineau Meadow provides great awards for anyone willing to put in the modest effort required to reach it from sea level. We have snow shoed and cross country skied across it, read tracks in its snow and watched deer emerging onto its muskeg from the surrounding spruce forest. Unless low cloud cover hides them you can view our highest mountains from the meadow. Today, long after the winter snow melt, I am looking for summer flowers.
Aki isn’t a flower fan. But while I shuffle from bog rosemary to Alaska violet, the little dog can leisurely check her pee mail. I usually have to coax her past the coyote trail. Today she scoots past it as if her wild cousins have moved south for better hunting.
This morning, some of the meadow’s flowers offer more than beauty. A dramatic scene is unfolding in the yellow cup of a large-leafed avens blossom. Two legs of a tiny spider grip a flower pedal, tensed to pull the spider into the flower where a fly is trapped in a forest of long stamens. Aki’s patience is limited so I move on before the kill and look at a carnivorous sundew plant. I hate to hear her whine.
Even though we have full sun, warm temperatures and are alone on the Fish Creek Delta, Aki and I are not having a good time. Ten minutes ago the little dog found a roasted chicken thigh along the trail. I had to literally carry her off to keep her from eating it. Now she sulks in a pocket meadow, refusing to follow me into the woods even though an eagle watches her from a nearby spruce tree. I back track and carry her to safety.
Last week the hatchery released this year’s school of king salmon fry into the creek pond. The ones that haven’t figured out how to reach salt water dimple the pond’s surface. Their presence explains that of the eagles in the surrounding trees.
One eagle settles onto a spruce branch above the crow’s roosting area. In seconds an adult crow is flying at the eagle’s head. The eagle ducks down but doesn’t fly off until the crow has dive-bombed it a half-a-dozen more times. The victorious crow then lands on the eagle’s now empty perch.
Aki and I have seen crows drive off eagles many times, but not what came next. The displaced eagle dive-bombed the crow until it flew off. Aki, wanting to return to the chicken thigh, wouldn’t let me stick around to see if the crow would return together with a murder of its friends.
I am focusing my camera on a water drop when the drumming starts. Soon the sound of a chant travels across the waters of Stephen Passage. Several white-hulled seine boats and a traditional Tlingit canoe close on each other. Someone yells out a welcome. The semi-annual Celebration is starting.
Every other year, the Juneau’s Tlingit people welcome people from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations to town for traditional dancing and visiting. Most of the dancers will arrive by plane or the state-run ferry. But some will paddle from their village in a traditional canoe, passing feeding humpback whales and hunting orcas.
Most of the canoes are carved from a single red cedar or spruce log and have room for a score of paddlers. Aki and I just witnessed that arrival of one from Hoonah, Ketchikan, Kake or Angoon. We aren’t the only present for the welcoming ceremony. On the edge of the beach, an eagle watches the paddlers approach the waiting seine boats.
For the past four days, while Aki enjoyed a rare stretch of sunny weather with her other human in Juneau, I attended the North Words Symposium in Skagway. Each day fellow writers and I enjoyed workshops and listened to panel discussions in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. Outside the hall thousands of cruise ship tourists crowded the boardwalks of the old gold rush town. Behind carefully preserved false fronted buildings sellers of jewelry, art, draft beer, and popcorn waited for customers. Women dressed like 19thcentury prostitutes dangled a leg from the second story windows of a music hall to entice tourists to attend the 2 p.m. performance of a gold rush drama.
The symposium organizers didn’t provide us with showgirls or faux prostitutes. But they did provide a faculty of talented writers, including Pico Iyer. Pico offered insights and advice in a manner that showed respect for the attendees and fellow faculty members, knowledge of his craft, wisdom, and inchoate gentleness.
Before the concluding banquet, we pulled up chairs in a circle around Pico in a northern garden just warming toward summer. His face was dappled by sunlight filtered through the leaves and flowers of a lilac tree. He talked about his time spent with the Dali Lama. We learned that every October the Dali Lama travels around Japan with Pico, shaking the hands of truck drivers as well as dignitaries.
This morning, back home with Aki in rainy Juneau, I wondered why Pico’s description of the Dali Lama among the truck drivers grabbed pride of place in my memory of the symposium. I had heard more powerful stories about his life and travels. I had learned much from other facility members and fellow participants. But my strongest memory is of a smiling, bespectacled monk by the door of a gas station convenience store pressing the flesh of a line of confused working men. It seems an apt metaphor for Pico’s presence at the symposium, offering without judgment, a recognition of our human value.