It was foolish of me to bring my old camera for on this walk. For a gray day like this, I need one with a better processor. I’d like to blame Aki for distracting me while I got ready for the walk. Perhaps it was all the clothes and gear I had to pull on to deal with rain and cold temperatures. Whatever the reason, I’m here with the little dog, photographing a wind-fallen tree at 1/8 of the second. Any faster and the photo would be too grainy.
In low light conditions, the old camera is usually only useful as a notebook—something to remind me of a scene. But it manages to capture the shattered trunk of a 100-foot tall spruce crushing the boardwalk trail. The downed tree is the largest piece of detritus littering the forest floor. To reach the beach we have to step around tree limbs, naked or still green with needles, pieces of bark, and gobs of old man’s beard. Last night’s wind storm pruned the forest.
Hoping to take home some shareable bird photographs, I point the old camera at a roosting eagle, gulls, golden eyes, and harlequins. The camera deconstructs the birds into course scenes, like a close up of an impressionist painting. At home, while looking at the photos on my laptop, I am at first disappointed. But after accepting their lack of clarity, I start to recognize the base elements of beauty they display. What appeared to my eye to be uniformly gray water has been broken down into pinks, purples, and greens. The birds look like that have been rapidly sketched in to capture the artist’s first impressions of their personalities.
As we wait for a human friend to pull on his winter boots, Aki and I watch several hundred Canada geese floating on Auk Lake. Most sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers. The guard birds cackle. It’s hunting season. The geese spend the daylight hours when hunting is allowed resting on this lake where hunting is prohibited. Shortly after sunset they will fly out to the wetlands to feed. The birds have adapted.
We leave the birds’ sanctuary and head out to a riverine forest gone to sleep until the spring. No bird or animal breaks the silence. We see only a single raven and it flies off when it hears us talking. We continue on in the direction of the raven’s flight and find twin hemlock trees loaded down with Christmas ornaments. A strong offshore wind whips about the little trees. The nearby ground is littered with fallen ornaments. Normally I dislike human attempts to embellish nature’s beauty. But today, when low clouds hide the mountains and nothing but ravens fly, I appreciate some little globes of color.
At beginning of this walk to Gastineau Meadows, a raven supervised me as I captured Aki’s scat in a plastic bag. From its post in a nearby spruce tree, it squawked with apparent disapproval when I dropped the bag on the ground and continued up the trail. I don’t think it trusted me to pick up the bag on the return trip to the car. It is one of those “at least it is not raining” days. The sunrise provided a little drama at daybreak but now gray skies seem to suck the color out of the rain forest.
A crust of snow covers the frozen meadow. It doesn’t deter the little poodle-mix from following me off the gravel trail and onto the muskeg. Someone with a fat tire bike has crushed his way across the south section of meadow. Worried that the thin snow covering is not enough to protect the fragile muskeg, I mutter curses to heap on the bike rider if he appears. But he is gone. After leaving the portion of the meadow marked by his tracks, we won’t see any other human tracks.
We follow the tiny tracks of a first-year fawn, hoping to find those left by its mother. But the little deer appears to have walked alone. Later we find the tracks of an adult deer moving in the direct we need to take to reach the trail to the car. A few yards later we see the tracks of a stalking wolf. I wonder if a single wolf could run down a deer impeded only by a thin crust of snow over frozen ground. Aki and I will find no sign of a kill.
The raven will still be in its post when I bend to pick up the poop bag that I had dropped at the beginning of this walk. It flies off only after I carry the smelling bag a few feet down the trail.
Today Aki will make an odyssey along a crescent shaped beach where she will see many strange things.
She will walk on an empty beach, passing a stream mouth full of bathing gulls. Other gulls will fly far over water to join them. A pair of mallard ducks will be tempted by the commotion but will paddle away when they discover there is no food.
The same pair of mallards will dance in a tight circle until the drake rides like a fuzzy chick on the hen’s back. Aki will wonder if they are mating as all but the head of the hen disappears under the weight of her dude.
Seas normally fractured in winter will remain calm, its surface like satin.
Western grebes will pass in threes, harlequins in groups of five. A harbor seal will creep with feet of two harlequins and then swim past them. He will pursue a raft of golden eye ducks until they reach water too shallow for a seal to swim.
The little dog will reach the car dry even though she passed through a light rain to get there.
I wonder if seals are the ravens of the ocean. Aki, who has never interacted with seals but has a grudging respect for ravens, is uncomfortable responding to my musing. It might be different if we were talking beavers or river otters. She has been lured out onto thin ice twice by their kind. Two otters called for her to join them on thin ice over this very Fish Creek Pond. She broke through pond ice twice near the glacier while answering the call of a young beaver.
My little dog may be wondering why I bring up harbor seals where we are walking along a fresh water stream. But then she cannot see one of them twirling and diving in Fish Creek. It must have followed the high tide surge up the creek seeking something to eat or just to alleviate boredom. More than once while kayaking I have turned in my seat to see a harbor seal a few feet from my rudder, looking at me with the saddest eyes in the world.
It snowed last night, which seems to have disturbed the gulls. Thirty or forty of the normally noisy birds float quietly along the newly whitened beach. Some stand on the snow mounds that have formed on offshore rocks. As usual, Aki ignores the big birds. But oddly, the birds appear to be ignoring me. They don’t flinch when the trail brings me within ten feet of them.
The snow won’t last, I tell the gulls. I am not lying. The temperature is already rising; snowmelt dropped on us when we walked in the forest. The gulls continue to ignore us so we move on to a portion of the bay favored by my favorite guys—the harlequin ducks.
Diving ducks, the harlequins aren’t bother by the new snow. They must be on top of a school of baitfish. More than once a parti-colored male chases off another duck and then dives under the water. Six of the ducks breaks off from the larger raft and work like a synchronized swim team. One duck diving is a beautiful thing. Six diving together, well, it’s six times better. One second there are six ducks swimming in formation. The next, just disturbed water. A few seconds later, the six are back.
On the way to the Treadwell Ruins trailhead, Aki and I stopped on the Juneau waterfront and watched sunlight break through the clouds. As if shinning through a lattice window, the sun formed sunrise colored squares onto Gastineau Channel. Near the navigational tower, a single seal swam through squares of yellow/red light. I told the little dog that that was more beauty than we are to expect on this early December day. But I was wrong.
On the sandy beach that borders the Treadwell Ruins, I try to correct my earlier statement. Aki, I think each kind of weather produces its own beauty. As she usually does when I try to share a profound idea, the little dog throws me her “are you kidding” look.
No, really. Take this scene, one with frost but no snow. Even without sun to sparkle the frost, this beach and the trees that crouch towards it are quite lovely.
Knowing this I am not convincing the little dog, I turn and look toward Juneau. Sunlight has managed to again pierce the clouds to swath the town and the mountain with the same name.
We move south until reaching the collapsed glory hole that marks the end of Sandy Beach. Frost feathers have turned the offshore rocks an icy grey. A raft of mallards slides from behind the rocks to provide just the right punch of color.