On one of January’s last days it’s 37 degrees above zero. Persistent rainfall has eliminated snow from the forest floor except where it has been packed into ice by foot traffic. You see, this week Winter left Alaska to holiday below the 49th parallel. Subzero temperatures made worst by strong winds have people in the Lower 48 are penned down in their homes while we watch our ski trails melt in the rain.
Aki and I head out to the Fish Creek Delta looking for distractions from the weather. A mature bald eagle, feathers soaked by rain, has positioned itself above to pond. Last week the pond was capped by a solid layer of ice. The fractured flows that remain float up and down with the tides.
Aki is soon as soaked as the eagle. She shivers each time I stop to watch the eagle or a small raft of mallards that have moved up the creek with the tide. She doesn’t object when I turn back towards the car. Don’t worry little dog, snow is in the forecast and the temperatures should be in signal digits soon. Winter’s vacation is almost over.
It was late morning on Sandy Beach. The fog that had dampened noise and limited vision on the beach was breaking up. The eagle that usually hunkers on top of the old mine ventilation shaft was present but quiet. He squinted at the little dog and I as we made our way towards a pair of Beninese mountain dogs. I swear that the eagle stirred with interest as the three dogs met. Aki stretched out before the two hulking dogs, as if offering herself as a midday meal. The tails and ears of the mountain dogs shot up in interest. When they were hooked, Aki slipped out from under their noises and ran circles around them. Apparently disappointed, the eagle turned away.
Down channel another bald eagle flapped it way toward the old gold mining town of Lucky Me. Aki said goodbye to her new buddies and worked the high tide line for scents. I almost forgot about her as I approached two mallard ducks. The hen and drake were fast asleep with their beaks tucked into a nest of feathers on their backs. They slept through my clumsy approach and the sound of small waves breaking two feet away.
Nearby another mallard pair scurried across the surface of the collapsed glory hole, eyeing us nervously as they paddled away. Then a pair of golden eye ducks did the same. The sleeping pair did not awake. The ventilator shaft eagle must have been watching the ducks sleep. It could have easily turned one of them into a meal. Lucky ducks.
The empty parking for the False Outer Point Beach promises an empty trail. This doesn’t bother the normally social Aki. It pleases her owner, who enjoys each chance to explore a beautiful place in solitude. Tears are forming in the thick fog that had been preventing us from seeing more than a half-mile of channel water. Through one of them we can see Mt. McGinnis. Through another a slice of the Chilkat Mountains appears.
I’m thankful for the mountain views and the fact that it isn’t raining. It pleases me more that nothing has scared the resident raft of golden eye ducks away from the beach. Aki stays close to my side as we round the point where an eagle sulks in the bare branches of a spruce snag. Off shore a man in an open skiff drops a hook baited with a herring into the water. I silently wish him luck in his effort to catch a king salmon, remembering the taste of winter caught kings.
The ebbing tide must have left behind some tasteful carrion. A murder of crows, maybe 200 of them, tussles with the local gulls for the goodies. A bald eagle abandons the beach to them and flies over our heads and onto a spruce limb. From the top of a small boulder, ten feet away, raven lectures the little dog and I. He follows us down the beach, croaking out his speech. It isn’t welcomed.
The sun was shinning when we flew out of Portland. It has just set when we landed in Seattle. But it rained hard on the plane when we landed in Ketchikan. I felt sorry from the poor folks that had to direct the plane up to the terminal. I felt like I had been away from Aki and home for months, not weeks. The little dog greeted us at the Juneau Airport, making her other human and I feel like we were missed. I can’t wait to take her for a proper walk.
I feel like writing a letter to Aki. It’s been so long since we have walked on a rain forest trail. But I will be home tomorrow if the planes fly. This morning I walked on the Silver Falls Trail. It had been raining and gray for days here in Oregon but this morning the sun showed up along with blue sky breaks in the clouds. Ironically, the falls trail mostly kept me in the shade. Spray from the falls turned parts of the trail into a shallow stream. Droplets of spray collected like rain does on my glasses. But some rays found their way between spruce and fur trees to turn the atomized water into prisms.
I wonder what Aki would have made of these jellyfish. Hundreds if not thousands of them washed up on the Seaside Beach with the tide. I’ve seen the little dog nose the gelatinousness mass of an Alaskan jelly spread over the gravel of a North Douglas beach. But she never lingered to taste one like she would have a fallen French fry on Franklin Street.
Unlike their Alaskan relatives, almost all these Oregon jellyfish are a monochromatic grey-brown. From a distance they look like flat stones on a flat beach. There are gulls and crows patrolling the beach but none of them shows any interest in the jellyfish corpses.
It’s has stopped raining for a moment so I start my Tai Chi exercises, careful to watch the surf line for sneaker waves. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a gull watching me. Other gulls join it. I have the impression that they are looking for something to distract them on this dull, gray day. They are really waiting for me to move so they can sweep down on a ruined fish just beached by the retreating tide. When I do, a cloud of gulls descends on the beach to fight for the scraps.
This morning, before the start of writer’s school classes, I walked down Seaside’s 1stAvenue to the promenade. At the end of the avenue a man, bareheaded and wearing a heavy plaid shirt, slumped on a bench. He faced in the opposite direction from a gull perched on a nearby railing. They both looked like they were disgusted with each other.
After I used my phone to take a picture of them, the man rose and stared at me. I walked up to him and admitted that I had taken a picture of him and that I’d happily delete the photo is he wanted that. He didn’t. We chatted for a minute, him probably trying to figure out my deal, me thinking that he looked like an aged version of rocker David Crosby with his salt and pepper hair and walrus mustache.
A 20-knot wind swept up the beach. It explained why the man and bird faced away from each other. The man wanted to let his back take the cold impact of the wind. The bird, like all gulls would, was weather veining into it. The wind couldn’t explain the expression I saw in the man’s face. He was probably just focusing on the sound of heavy surf or maybe dreading what the dark clouds collecting over the ocean would bring us later in the day. But after spending a week at writer’s school, I couldn’t stop myself from mentally writing him a script—one where he revives a memory of loss or mistake.
This morning, after first coffee, I climbed to the hotel roof to watch the sunrise over the clear-cut forests that line the eastern horizon. As he has been each other time that I’ve visited the rooftop, the resident gull, a kittiwake I think, was already perched on the top of the hotel’s copula. He tolerated me for a minute and then flew toward the Tillamook Head. He left before I ask him about the condition of the Tillamook Head Trail.
The head is a huge headland that protrudes into the Pacific Ocean. It dominates the view looking south from Seaside Beach. From the hotel rooftop I traced a line of houses on Sunset Blvd that ends at the trailhead.
In the afternoon I will get a ride to the trailhead and then hike through a forest dominated by large spruce trees and hemlocks. It will look very much like an Alaska Rain Forest on a day in early spring. I will feel at home. I will look out at the ocean through a forest gap and see lines of waves lined up like an army intent on slamming into the head.
I am still in Seaside, an honorary member of a community of writers that gathers here every January. It’s a group generous with their time, attention and knowledge. But the level of energy that ran through us at the state of this residency is dropping.
To recharge, I take walks on the beach. But it lacks the magic of the North Douglas trails back home in Juneau. At first I assigned fault to the multistory structures that crowd the beach. But this is off-season, so they are empty shells reduced to silent silhouettes. Then I have to blame the other beach walkers, who migrated to the strip of sand just soaked by the retreating tide. Even when none of the walkers are close, their footprints and those left by previous beach users turn the beach into a much-used highway. It might be different if I could find an eagle or one could find me. Some of the writers have seen a bald eagle but I have had to make due with gulls and a gang of opportunistic crows.
Perhaps because of the insistent surf hammering Seaside Beach this afternoon, the air here is filled with water vapor. It occludes the view of Tillamook Head and even makes it possible to photograph the sun. While the ground fog back home in Juneau is animated—likely to crawl like a pre-toddler along Gastineau Channel or climb up the slope of Mt. Juneau—the Seaside vapor is lazy. It haunts the beach like a bored teenager.
The fog doesn’t interfere with the ability of the local dogs to enjoy their beach walks. I miss Aki when I see little dogs sniffing the beach grass or trotting with their owner near the surf line. One calls my attention to a line of beach grass that someone has transplanted below the high tide line. Is this art or a doomed effort to expand the range of the tough grass?