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.
Aki and I are the only ones on this normally popular beach. While she wolfs down something dropped yesterday by a child, I wait for the reappearance of a marbled murrelet. The pudgy little bird just plopped below the water. As ripples from the bird’s dive spread, a knot of herring explode onto the surface. Something has scared the little fish out of the water. I suspect the murrelet but the herring continue to panic out of the water even after the bird pops up. I look without success, for the wake of an unseen object, the fin of a hunting Dolly Varden.
The rainfall intensified while I watched the flying fish and Aki ate. It drives us down beach and into the protection of an old growth forest. The time for thimble berries has past but I manage to find a few handfuls of red huckleberries. Aki has to make do with the smells left by passing dogs.
At the forest edge we can spy on a clutch of gulls grooming themselves on some waterside rocks, Off shore a harbor seal cruises back and forth near the birds. It affects the studied indifference of a hunter and is careful not to make eye contact with its prey. If the birds are aware of the hungry seal, they don’t seem scared.
Aki and I are on a hunt for an eagle’s nest. Last week a friend reported seeing two eaglets in it. I want to do the same. Aki, whose eyes are starting to cloud with age, is along for the chance to visit with other dogs. We are on a popular dog-walking trail near the airport.
The trail could be an icon for the successful human-wild animal interaction. It wraps around the outside of the airport, offering views of a tarmac runway, floatplane lake, glacier, eagle’s nest, water treatment plant, Mendenhall River, Willie’s boat yard, and many mountains.
Within a few minutes I spot an eagle in the top of a spruce tree. It looks tired enough to be on break from nest-watching duty. White puffs of eagle down decorate surrounding twigs. I can’t spot a nest. Aki looks bored so we leave the main trail and take one that curves along the river’s edge. A harbor seal, head just out of the water, cruises over to investigate and then slips into the river.
We pass between drying stalks of cow parsnip and fireweed spears that have gone to seed. Fireweed down fills the air like light snow will next December. Ahead fourteen Canada geese stand in mid-river on a submerged gravel bar. They make no noise until a flock of two hundred other geese fly across the wetlands to join them. Now the air is full of geese chatter. At first I take the noise to be warnings of danger or assertions of territorial rights. But as it goes on and the geese swim over to the original fourteen birds, their cackles sound more like party noise.
The solitary eagle is still in its treetop eerie when we return to the main trail. In minutes we find a cottonwood with a “This is an eagle’s nest tree, don’t mess with it” sign. I look up and see the nest but no eaglets. Fledged but not forgotten by the tired eagle in the nearby tree.
Sunshine enriches this visit to an old growth forest. It backlights the translucent flesh of plant leaves and throws strong shadows off hunting dragonflies.
But I wonder if Aki cares. Sunlight reflecting off the beaver pond forces her to squint and, I think, sometimes to sneeze. As long as her little nose works, she doesn’t care if the sun shines.
The little dog and I walk along through the forest to a small bay. Soon the bay will fill up with waterfowl making their annual trip south. They will be joined by harlequin docks fat with baitfish from the stormy outer coast. Local mallards will share the bay with them and a few resident eagles. Today a few crows croak from a rocky island in the bay. Gulls, full from feeding during the ebb tide, putter around the same island or rest on the Shaman Island spit. I hear but do not see an eagle. Its high-pitched scream sounds like a piglet’s squeal.