The mallards are still here, settled in along the banks of Fish Creek. But the widgeons that we watched last week are gone. I can’t find one, nor can I spot a green wing teal. Those transients must have moved north. Other migrants has arrived.
A pair of American robins try to decoy us down the trail. It is too early in the spring for their rich nesting songs. Today we will only hear discordant birds songs: crow grumbles, the harsh threats of Stellar’s jays, and screams of frustration from touchy eagles.
Two half-foot slabs of pond ice still lay athwart the trail. They won’t last long in this warmish weather. Only a thin skim of ice covers the pond. All of it will be carried away by this afternoon’s eighteen-foot high tide.
Other than the mallards, the creek is empty of waterfowl. A small scattering of golden eye ducks dabble in Fritz Cove. We can’t spot a raven. On a tiny island in the creek’s mouth a murder of bored-acting crows ignore us and the incoming tide.
Sunshine tempted the little dog and out the door early this morning. No wind stirred the neighborhood spruce trees so we headed over to Sheep Creek. I hoped to enjoy reflections of the Douglas Island ridge in the still waters of Gastineau Channel.
Thanks to the near presence of the Juneau Icefield, sunny days are often windy days. Not this morning. The resident mallard drakes can admire their reflection in the tidal ponds scattered around the Sheep Creek delta. Aki can walk without wind flattening her fur. I can enjoy the reflections.
Just offshore gulls crowd onto a shrinking gravel bar. I measure the progress of the tidal flood by the number of gulls forced to flight. The remaining gulls lift off in a group, moaning and complaining about the thoughtless tide, forgetting that soon they will feast and fight over food that it will leave behind.
A cloud of fussing gulls flies over two seals that splash and swim around each other. One of the seals appears to climb up on the back of the other. Is this a frolic or something more serious? Are the voyeuristic gulls invading the privacy of the seals while they try to mate? It’s way too early in the year for seal sex in normal times. But we rarely, if ever, have 60 degree F. temperatures on a mid-March day. Is climate change changing everything?
Aki splashes along a trail of covered by ice and a thin layer of water. Before I left for my weekend trip to Anchorage it offered skiable snow. Now I have to struggle to stay upright on my cross-country skis. I follow the little dog, thinking that we should turn around. Each time I do, the glimmer of water on Mendenhall Lake draws me forward.
The water covering the still frozen lake reflect a gray ski, clouds, mountains, the glacier, and surrounding trees. The captured reflections are outlined by the glow from the underlying ice. To eye them is to see into Alice’s looking glass.
After almost falling a few times, I follow Aki into the relatively snow free woods and onto the edge of the lake. Here a border of windblown snow offers a skiable surface. The little dog walks behind me on my ski tracks. I still have to take care to avoid skiing over the tops of emerging rocks.
The temperature has reached 54 degrees F. I unzip my parka and remove my hats and gloves. The snow, already reduced by a recent deluge of rain, can’t survive long in these conditions. Is winter dying, little dog? She offers no opinion.
Aki is having weekend off while I visit Alaska’s one big city. I am slipping and sliding along Anchorage streets, trying reach the Coastal Trail without falling on my bum. It’s hard to concentrate because I keep thinking about the cloud of Bohemian waxwings I just saw. They descended from the branches of a dormant birch to drink water trapped in an icy pothole. Beautiful things in a homely place.
This morning only one bald eagle roosts on top of the old Treadwell mine ventilation shaft. Small waves slap at the base of the shaft. Rain soaks into the eagle’s feathers. It focuses one eye on the little dog and I and forces its eyebrow into a shallow “u.” I’ve seen a similar look on policemen and teachers about to scold a troublesome student.
Aki trots over to the beach’s grassy verge, apparently unaware of the eagle’s mood. A few yards away, a rusted piece of ore car railing emerges from the sand. Further down the beach, the tide has exposed a hundred-year-old engine block. In between chunks of shattered pottery and bricks lay on the beach. Maybe the eagle is upset with the men that left all this junk behind when the mines closed after World War I.
We walk on down the beach into the wind and exposed to the rain. When Aki and I reach the little bay formed by collapsing mine tunnels, we move into woods that have grown over the mining town of Treadwell. Steel cables, car springs and ore cart railings emerge from the flesh of spruce trees. The trees, not the things manufactured by men, are the aggressors. This is not right. The trees aren’t attacking, just tiding up the mess left by the men who moiled for gold. (“Moiled for gold” borrowed from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service).
Suddenly, Aki has a shadow. It’s the last thing I expected on this grey morning. We are approaching the old Auk Village site on a beach exposed by the retreating tide, trying to get a walk in before it rains. The shafts of sunlight piercing the marine layer are a surprise.
We’ve seen this kind of storm light before. Sometimes it appears as rain clouds breaks up. I suspect that today its presence confirms the weatherman’s prediction of rain. In minutes the light disappears and is replaced by a cooling wind. The strong breeze blows us past the village site and out to Point Louisa.
We’ve seen eagles, seals, and tight clusters of ducks at the point. Today’s wind has blown away the usual rafts of scoters and golden eye ducks. Crows bounce up one at time into the air, as if playing a game with obscure rules. Four of the crows take shelter behind a nearby boulder. Aki disappears behind her own sheltering rock, as smart as a crow.
On this grey day at Fish Creek, yellow is the dominant color. Last week, when sun hammered down on the snow-covered meadow, white fought with blue for chromatic first place. Tides and rain have washed away the snow. Grey clouds hide the indigo sky. The straw-yellow of last fall’s grass can draw the eye.
Yellow’s time will be short. Already green shoots push up through the bases of the winter-killed grass. Spring arrivals, like American Widgeon ducks and plovers work the shallows of Fritz Cove along with resident mallards.
A half-a-dozen eagles sulk in nearby spruce trees. We have not seen more than one or two at time all winter. The sound of the eagles bickering makes Aki nervous. But she still follows me out to the mouth of Fish Creek where a large raft of widgeons feed. They seem jumpy. Six or eight of the plump ducks panic into flight and fly close by us on their way up stream. Aki is honoring her no-contact-with-waterfowl policy so I know we aren’t making the birds nervous.
We pass another collection of widgeons on the way back to the car. The entire raft bursts into flight, twists around above Fritz Cove, plops onto the shallows and charges onto the beach. I can’t spot the head of a seal offshore. But what else could have driven the sea birds on to the beach?
Aki is suffering for a series of my bad choices. We are deep in the moraine. Twelve hours of rain have already softened the trail snow. The little dog and I have been slogging through it for an hour. Now she must mince onto a flooded portion of the trail.
My first mistake was to pick this trail. I left my snowshoes in the car, which was my second screw up. The third was not to turn around before we had to cross this section of trail covered with four inches of near-freezing water. I reach down and pick up the little poodle-mix and carry her over the flood. The ice beneath the water holds our weight. She is shivering when I drop her onto a patch of firmer snow. I make my good decision of the day and lead Aki back to the car.
Tempted by another dog’s scent, Aki stopped to investigate it. Finding the spot worthy of marking, the little dog lifted her rear into the air and peed—a trademarked poodle move. Just before I could catch up with her on my cross-country skis, Aki charged down the lake after her other human—the one using the faster skate skis. They were the only creatures between the Mendenhall Glacier and me.
The poodle-mix looked even tinier than the ten-pound dog she is against the glacial background. Slowed by the soft, wet snow, she struggled like Dickens’ Tiny Tim. We still had two miles of snow to cross before returning to the car. She should have slow down to save her strength. But the growing gap between her other human and I spurred her herding instinct.
I tried to pick up my pace but was slowed by the softening snow. Ahead, Aki snaked back and forth across the trail, trying to find the firmest footing. Water began filling her paw prints almost as soon as she made them. She wasn’t winded when we finally caught up with her skate-skiing human. Not bad for a 12 and a half year old dog.
A misery of wet snow fell on the little dog and I when we walked from our house to the car. As I drove Aki looked uncertain. The wipers worked to clear the windshield of the stuff. At least no wind rocked the car as we headed out to the northern end of Douglas Island. There we hoped to find protection from the mucky weather in an old growth forest.
At the trailhead, Aki sniffed spots on the parking area as I pulled on ice cleats. Without them I’d fall on the icy trail. The warm, wet weather was already softening the trail ice. By next week, the cleats might be stored away until next winter. Except for eagle screams and raven complaints the rain forest was silent. Nothing slowed our progress to the beach where we found hundreds of surf scoters formed into tightly packed rafts.
One of the scoter rafts formed into a line and cruised past two crows on an offshore rock. One of the crows stood erect as a preacher. Few of the scoters turned their orange beaks toward the crows. But a lone harlequin dock approached with its head tilted as if to better hear the sermon.