Aki’s heading up Mount Roberts. So are three of her humans. It seems like every family in Juneau is climbing the mountain too. There are even a few tourists off the first cruise ship of year using the trail. Aki is in doggie heaven because many of the humans have brought their pups.
I should be happy to share the mountain with so many people. But I’ve become addicted to solitude and I am not getting it today. It’s too bad I’m preoccupied and grumpy. Otherwise I could fully appreciate the sunlight dappling the forest floor, shinning spotlights on emerging ferns. I’d probably get a kick out of the ravens flying low over our heads as they imitate the beep beep sound of an unlocking Subaru hatchback.
Canada geese have made themselves as common as pigeons in the USA and even Europe. But I still love to hear their nervous honking calls and watch their plump bodies strutting over a gravel bar. This morning a small gang of the geese feeds down near the mouth of Eagle River. Their designated guard goose issues more and more desperate warnings as the little dog and I approach them.
An extreme ebb tide has drained much of the water from the river. It would take us no more than minutes to reach the geese across the exposed riverbed. They would be airborne and gone in half that time. Aki, who weighs less than the guard goose, studiously ignores the noisy birds. I take a few photographs and swing with Aki into the riverside woods.
Thanks to strong sunshine it had been warm on the riverbank. Here, where trees block the sun, I start wishing for a heavier coat. We can hear robins and their cousins thrushes, except when their songs are blocked out by the honking warning of the gravel bar geese.
Aki and I sit, back to back on a lichen-covered rock. Her eyelids droop as her body warms in the strong sunshine. I keep my eyes open and scan Favorite Channel for whale spouts or the dog-like head of a sea lion. Only the reflections of clouds show in the flat-calm surface of the channel.
I should be disappointed. From this rock on a previous spring day the little dog and I watched two humpback whales end their long migration from Hawaii. Another time a gang of sea lions swam around the rock close enough to make Aki nervous. On every other visit we have seen at least seen ducks or seals. Once I counted 13 bald eagles roosting in the surrounding trees. Today only one eagle appears but is gone in seconds.
A solitary crow warms itself on a nearby point. I follow his and Aki’s examples and relax in the sunshine. It fills me with a sense of peace and contentment as if I’ve just finished a good meal with friends. The little dog looks like I feel.
I left the house this morning without brushing my teeth. Aki looked puzzled but still joined me in the car. Most days at this hour she’d still be curled up and asleep. A feeling, not a phone call or Facebook tip drew me out the door. I just knew that something magical was happening where the woods of northern Douglas Island touched the sea.
We looked without success for whale spouts in Fritz Cove on the drive to the north end of Douglas Island. No orca dorsal fins broke the surface of Lynn Canal when we passed False Outer Point. If we were to find anything special it had to be hiding in the woods.
At this hour I was not surprised to find an empty parking lot at the Outer Point trailhead. Bird song, punctuated by raven squawks and the hammering of red-breasted sapsuckers provided the soundtrack for our walk. The beaver pond was gray with patches of sky blue as the rising sun weakened the persistent cloud cover.
When Aki followed me onto the beach, we spotted a greater yellowlegs sandpiper in the shallows. An adult bald eagle seemed to be contemplating life from its perch on an offshore rock. On other rocks harlequin ducks slept or stretched.
The mountains bordering Lynn Canal, beautified by late winter snow, emerged from cloud cover. All the things we experienced—the nesting bird songs, woodpecker tapping, the sandpiper (first of the year for me), the contemplative eagle, and whitened mountains—were enough to draw us from our beds. But the magic of the moment was provided by early morning solitude, unshattered by the works or words of man.
Wanting to sneak in at least one more trip to the glacier before the cruise ship hordes inundate its trails, I drive Aki out to the Mendenhall Visitor Center parking lot. The water level in the lake has dropped enough to allow the little dog and I to walk along the shore to Nugget Falls. But we soon find that the Forest Service has blocked off the beach to protect nesting sites of the income arctic terns. Aki, whose little paws were already muddy with beach clay, is happy to reverse our way back to the regular trail.
The ice river meanders out of a layer of low clouds that hides the Mendenhall Towers but not Mt. McGinnis or Mt. Stroller White. Alder trees on the mountains’ slopes, bare except for their swollen, white buds, could be a convention of ghosts. One bald eagle circles a forest meadow on the far side of the lake. Otherwise the sky below the clouds is empty of obvious life.
At the beginning of the hike a constant breeze made the lake surface look like dun colored corduroy. It dies out by the time we reach the falls, allowing the lake to form a mirror for the mountains, falls and glacier.
I’m leaning against a young tree, using its trunk to steady my camera. The tree is part of a spruce hedge that should prevent a nearby great blue heron from seeing me. Through a narrow opening in the hedge I watch the heron wade across a narrow stream. It moves with such stiff grace that my eye can’t catch actual movement.
Aki doesn’t whine or give any other clue of our presence. It won’t be her fault of the heron spots us. In my makeshift blind, I wait for the big bird to stab down into the water after a sand lance. Instead it slowly turns its head until it is looking directly at me. Busted.
After extracting myself from the hedge, I give the little poodle-mix a reassuring pet and lead us further out into the Fish Creek Delta. We cross an open spit from which we have a 360-degree view of the area. In the center of this natural compass a cold wind slams snow and rain at us. To the west, the sun is throwing cloud shadows on the green slopes of Admiralty Island. A wall of clouds obscures the glacier to the north and the Douglas Island ridge to the south. For a moment another cloud curtain raises to reveal Sheep Mountain in the East and then drops.
Two eagles, both hunched against a cold wind, cling to the roof of an old mine ventilation tower. The tower rises out of a beach of mine tailings that were crushed to sand over a hundred years ago. Rusting relics of the time when this was a mining town emerge from the sandy tailings, exposed by the ebb tide.
The eagles on the tower have the white head and tail feathers of mature birds. Fifty meters away, an eagle with the mottled brown and whites of an immature predator roosts far back in a tangle of alder branches. It watches one of the mature eagles, maybe a parent, fly out and over Gastineau Channel, circle and then dive toward the water. When the hunter returns with empty talons, its mate gives it a scolding that can be heard all the way from Downtown Juneau to the cabins at Lucky Me. I turn to see what effect the scolding has had on the immature bird and find that it has flown away.
The adult eagles settle into silence sulks allowing me to concentrate on the sound of Aki’s paws pounding on the sand and the songs of nesting birds. In spite of the lingering stretch of cold weather, the inhabitants of the Treadwell woods have committed to spring.
Pollen pods of alders lay empty on the forest floor. Sharp-edged leaves emerge from the dead-looking branches of cow parsnips. Drops of last night’s rain cling to the butter-yellow skunk cabbage flowers. Elderberry leaves slowly relax their grip on their clusters of incipient flowers.
False Outer Point is empty today. No one casts out hooks bated with herring off the rocks. That is not surprising this early in the spring. May, not April, is usually the month for fishing King Salmon here. But this year, because of low salmon returns, no one will be allowed to fish for kings next month. The collapse of the king salmon run will hurt the eagles, killer whales, seals and sea lions that usually target the fat, oily king salmon each spring. It will disappoint human fishermen, especially those from the Tlingit and Pilipino communities who rely upon salmon to feed their families.
The little dog and I round the empty point, trying to ignore two eagles bickering above us in a shoreline spruce tree. A line of waterfowl, maybe scoters, fly up and down Lynn Canal. They change relative position constantly. In each photo I take of them, their bodies look like notes in a musical measure.
We leave the beach and climb up onto a headland and spot a small raft of harlequin ducks tucked into a small bay. A few of the parti-colored birds stand on the beach. I’ve never seen harlequins surrender the protection of the ocean. I wonder if the same threat that keeps the scoters in motion has beached the harlequins.
Rain pockmarks the surface of Mendenhall Lake and softens the handful of icebergs that migrated away from the glacier after the lake thawed. Across the lake kittiwakes reoccupy their traditional nesting sites. They don’t seem bothered by the persistent precipitation.
I like the rain for the way it leaves sparkling bags of water on the willow catkins and makes the forest moss sparkle. It also might be responsible for the welcomed absence of other trail users. We have the lakeshore and moraine to ourselves. We also enjoy an absence of human-made noise. Planes can’t fly thanks to the low cloud ceiling. The roar of the supercharged Nugget Falls masks the other intrusive sounds. I can only hear the pat, pat, pat of rain on my rain parka and the sharp cries of the nesting kittiwakes.
For the past few weeks robins have been a regular feature of our walks. Before today, they just trotted along in front of us as if to lead the little dog and I away from their young. But they didn’t sing. The robins infesting the forest near Fish Creek Pond this morning have switched into nesting mode—singing territorial songs and escaping into a surrounding tree when we approach. Black-capped chickadees harmonize with the robins as they move nervously through the forest canopy.
Aki ignores the noisy birds. One of her other humans has brought along a Frisbee for the little dog to chase. While she is busy with her toy, I sneak off the trail to look at ducks gathered on a swampy meadow. At least one hundred mallards crowd on a series of tiny lakes. A northern pintail and several American widgeons wander among the mallards. Every minute two or three more ducks join the crowd.
The wind, which has being growing in strength since we left the car, can’t reach the ducks in their inland preserve. Nothing blocks it from whipping down the glacier, across Gastineau Channel, and over the Fish Creek Delta. Only crows use this open space. They toss themselves into the air, pop around like kites, and drop back onto the beach.