I watch with envy a large pod of killer whales working the reefs protecting North Pass. Several large males have already entered the pass. The adult females and juveniles tear up the water on the Favorite Passage side of the reefs. With an empty freezer at home, I hope that they leave me some salmon to harvest. When a female slams her tail onto the water one of the other passages in this whale-watching boat giggles and tells her friend the orcas are playing.
I am not inclined to point out the orca’s bloody purpose, which is to kill and consume every silver salmon in the pass. There is an open bar on the boat and the remains of a good meal litter a large table on the lower deck.
We have already seen a humpback whale breach three times—leap straight out of the water and crash back like a fallen tree. I envied that whale as well and would like, my fellow passenger, to come up with some warm and fuzzy explanation for whale behavior. But these these whales are all business. Now is their time to build for the salmon-less winter.
With the tide out, the eagles should be out on the exposed ground feasting on spawned-out salmon and other bits of free food. Instead, twenty or thirty of the big birds are roosting in a small spruce-covered island that the trail circumnavigates. I think about turning back to spare Aki’s nerves. But unlike the other day, she doesn’t seem bothered by the eagles. Maybe she is having a change day.
As if to confirmed that they are more scared of a poodle than she is of them, two eagles launch over our heads and fly to wetlands before circling around the back of the island. Every ten steps or so, eagles fly over our heads. Once I counted nine of them in flight.
There are more eagles on the tidelands. Most perch on driftwood stumps from where they can watch ducks and gulls searching for food. One mature eagle sits on an offshore rock, watching the Mendenhall Glacier emerge from the morning fog.
This morning fog hides the sun and blocks the view sheds of the Fish Creek Delta. Cruise ship fog horns mix with the panic honks of unseen Canada geese. Aki is nervous. The high-pitched screams of eagles hidden in nearby spruce trees put her on guard.
The sun breaks through the marine layer and starts to deconstruct fog covering Fritz Cove and the surrounding mountains. That touching forested hills seems to tear itself apart on the old growth trees. Ocean fog moves up and down the bay like a hunting animal.
While focusing my camera on a patch of fog flowing up and over a clutch of spruce, I spot two male deer on the foreground. One stands guard while the other one lies on meadow grass. The trailside grass prevents Aki from seeing the two deer. She will never know they were so close. Both deer are grazing in the meadow when we leave their view shed.
Grey clouds dominate North Douglas Island this morning but some shafts of light manage to reach the glacier. This promises a sunny day ahead. But I don’t mind the low contrast lighting, which increases the chances for solitude. For the nose-dominated Aki there is little difference between blue or gray skies. She rarely looks above the horizon.
Two ravens spar like fighter pilots above the beach. One drops onto a rock near Shaman Island. When it curls its wings back for landing, the finger-like wingtip feathers curl back like an eagles. For a moment I believe that the raven has transformed into one of the big predators. Then it croaks, spoiling the illusion.
Down the beach, a mature bald eagle eyes us from its spruce tree perch. I walk out onto the beach for a better view of it while Aki waits on the trail. The sound of a surfacing humpback whale surprises me. When I turn to look, it is throwing up its flukes for a shallow dive.
While Aki and I wait for the whale to surface again, a walker approaches on the trail. He waits with us for the whale. He is old, but not stooped. With one hand he touches his beard. The other seems to grip an invisible cigarette. We talk of fishing the river that Aki and I visited yesterday. He points out the eagles strutting along nearby Peterson Creek. We agree that they are there for the returning salmon. The whale surfaces again but only long enough to toss its tail up for another dive.
Aki has temporarily abandoned me for my fishing partner. She stayed with him when I drifted downriver to try another spot. When we hike with another human the little dog trots back and forth between people, urging us to close ranks. This morning I expect her to show up after I have made a few casts. When she doesn’t, I remember the pile of brown bear (grizzly) scat that I had to step over to reach this spot. We are in prime bear country. They are also here to fish for silver salmon.
Aki has bluffed down several black bears in the past but the larger brown bears can’t be bluffed. I quickly reel in my line and start back to where I last saw the little dog. She is not there. Neither is my fishing partner. I look at the swift water undercutting the bank where they stood when I last saw them and start back down river. They could have easily passed me. I wouldn’t have heard them over the roaring river.
Aki appears at my heels, tail wagging. Should we head downriver or up? The little dog points her nose up river. I follow her to a barely discernable side trail now being used by my fishing partner to regain the main trail.
Alders dominate this morning’s walk across the moraine. They line almost every trail we take. If left alone, the tough shrubs would colonize the trail gravel, leaving us nowhere to walk. Grumpy sounding Stellar’s jays jump around inside the trailside alders as if to get a better view of Aki in case she is about to break some law. I’d like to ignore these forest police but the alders provide little to divert my attention.
Aki loves these alder lanes because they offer the best chance of dog contacts. But I need a different view shed. Reluctantly, the little dog follows me down a lesser-used trail to the edge of a beaver pond that is rapidly transforming into a grassy wetland. Before the beavers built the pond dam, spruce and cottonwoods thrived in the flooded area. Now their dead-gray trunks rise from beds of reeds transforming into fall colors.
On the way back to the car, I spot a blueberry growing alone on a bush. That’s right little dog; we have to stop at the store on the way home. Aki’s other human needs domestic blue berries for a low-sugar pie. We pass a great blue heron sulking in the rain. When I stop the car to take a better look, the big bird stretches out its neck and uses its long wings to lift up and away across a field of grass already the color of straw.
Aki sniffs at something washed up on Sandy Beach by last night’s tide. Every high tide leaves a rope of rockweed along the length of the beach. I’m walking down this line of seaweed, taking an inventory of gull and eagle feathers, bits of crab shell, and sometimes whole salmon bodies. Thankfully no plastic objects or bags peak out from under clumps of the rockweed.
The last storm tide that ripped down Gastineau Channel sucked away from the beach several inches of the finely pounded gold ore that we call “sand.” This exposed rusted machinery and fragments of ceramic bowls too thick to be fashionable today. What was once garbage we now considered relics of a time before the collapse of the Treadwell mine tunnels in 1917.
We pass the partially restored tower that once ventilated the mine tunnels that ran beneath the channel. The usual pair of bald eagles roost on the tower’s metal roof, apparently obvious to the approach of the inbound Norwegian Jewell. The mega cruise ship spews up two thick ropes of pollution from its stacks as it motors towards Juneau.