I should be heading back to Skagway. Another day of writing school will start soon and I haven’t had breakfast. I’d be back on the trail if not for the duck.
He and I have a little pocket cove to ourselves now that the eagle and tern have left. The duck keeps repeating a puzzling routine: roll headfirst into the water, pop up a minute later, check behind for predators by doing a 180 degree turn, return to his course.
The eagle is back and the duck just slipped away, trying to keep a rocky point between he and the eagle. Time too for me to go. Soon the helicopters and the other engines of industrial tourism will be firing up.
The rain, the absence of unnatural sounds, and the calming dominance of forest greens are needed this morning. The little dog and I are near worn out by our recent stint of warm and sunny weather. Like the just sprouted seeds in our garden, we needed a little water from the sky.
The flowering forest plants are ahead of schedule. Tiny green balls have already replaced the lantern-shaped flowers on blueberry bushes. Yellow water lily flowers unfold onto the surface of the beaver pond. The fallen petals of cloudberry flowers dot the muskeg meadow we must cross to reach the beach.
No one would call all these small beauties exciting. But I’m fine with that. We had out excitement quota filled for the day when I stopped for a moment at the boat ramp. The old troller boat that had been beached was now afloat just offshore. I wanted to photograph it against a background of the smuggler cove islands softened by low lying clouds. Twenty meters away two eagles fought over a scrap of fish. The winner carried it down the beach, leaving the loser to sulk.
Thinking about the disappointed eagle, I follow Aki onto the Outer Point Beach. A solitary eagle flies from Shaman Island to a beachside spruce. Otherwise, only gulls and gulls animate the grey scene. A puff of vapor forms above the surface of Stephen’s Passage. In seconds I can make out the black back of an exhaling humpback whale. Just behind the surfacing whale, another vapor plume appears.
The whale sightings provide more reassurance than drama. I’ve seen humpbacks breach near my kayak. But reassurance that there are whales is all I need on this gentle morning.
Aki is covered in mud again. It just took seconds for her to sneak past her human family and slip into a pond that is thick with decomposing plant matter. We aren’t worried. Soon we will reach a pocket beach where she will get a quick bath.
It’s Memorial Day in Alaska. For Aki’s family it’s a day to drop out of normal life and spend time with each other. What better way is there to honor the family’s deceased? While Aki chases her Frisbee, I remember my parents and grandparents and the other honored dead. If they retain the love they had for life after joining the dead, they would smile knowing that their living kin were enjoying life, human and wild, on a wild beach rather than standing before their headstones.
We spooked an immature bald eagle to flight when we reached the beach. The crows moved in after the eagle left, teasing mussel shells off exposed rocks. The ones they couldn’t crack with their beaks were carried into the air and then dropped on a flat rock, which served first as an anvil and then a table for the hungry birds.
Aki and I made it to the Fish Creek Delta early enough to catch the clarifying effect of early light. But this morning broke hazy. The air it offers is obscured by forest fire smoke or pollution carried here by the jet stream. It feels like end times rather than a fresh summer morning.
Robin, sparrow, and the other songbirds work hard to lift the mood. It could be worse. We could have to suffer the complaints of the nesting crows. Near the pond an eagle roosts in the top of a spruce, it’s head turned away from the sun.
The little dog and I press on, my spirited lifted by the strong display of wildflowers on the spit that separates the creek from Fritz Cove. Purple lupine stalks dominate but must still compete with older swatches of magenta shooting stars and yellow buttercups. A single chocolate lily opens In the middle of the established flowers.
A single kayaker slides into Fish Creek just as we reach the creek’s mouth. Normally, I would grumble to Aki that the man’s presence has driven away shorebirds and ducks. He couldn’t have this morning. We haven’t seen any waterfowl. Besides, the present of another human is proof that the apocalypse didn’t arrive while we were rounding Fish Creek Pond.
The way Aki is panting, you’d think we were crossing the Gobi Desert in high summer. The little dog and I are on a mountain meadow warmed by the sun to 67 degrees (f.)—what we call Tee Shirt weather. Aki can’t strip off her coat of fur so is overheating.
I turn to mutter something to her about the abundant of bog rosemary flowers on the meadow and find that the little dog has moved to a shady verge. She looks content, like she could stay there until nightfall.
A loyal little thing, the poodle-mix follows me across the open meadow, past pocket ponds dry due to lack of rain. I lead her off the meadow toward the lush corridor of trees and brush drained by upper Fish Creek. Just before we reach it, Aki slips into a mud-bottomed stream and lets herself sink in to her chest. She emerges with her lower half coated in a chocolate-colored mask. Once dried, the muck will be almost impossible to remove. Aki trots toward the creek, acting as happy with herself as someone just treated to a spa day.
We find a spot along the creek where I can wash Aki without concern that the current will carry her away. She doesn’t squirm when I lower her into an eddy of the chilling water. She looks a little disappointed when I lift her back to solid ground. But she won’t bolt into the shade or seek out another mud bath when we walk back to the car.
Aki is 90% asleep when I slip on her harness and take her out to the car. We need to be at the auto shop in ten minutes. For there we will take the scenic route home. Aki demonstrates some mixed feelings about the whole project. The little dog would rather be home eating breakfast or at least sleeping. Now she is skirting around gas pumps and tire racks in the rain. We walk toward the whale statue. Aki throws on the brakes when we pass the Juneau Hotel. Maybe she smells breakfast cooking. In a minute we are back in motion.
The whale statue plaza is deserted. On a mid-channel navigational marker, an eagle sits, its head turned toward a gang of gulls clouded over a school of salmon smolt. The big bird launches from the marker and glides toward the gulls with talons extended. In seconds the gulls drive away the eagle. One escorts the still hungry eagle back to its mid-channel perch.
While climbing up Main Street we spot two ravens in conversation. The smaller of the two birds is upbraiding the larger one, which is bent almost in half in supplication as the lecture ends. Ravens are the most human of birds.
Last night Aki capped the last of a string of sunny days mooching for food around a campfire. A bank of clouds climbed over the Chilkat Mountains and onto Lynn Canal while the little dog’s human family roasted hot dogs over an open fire while The clouds robbed us of a sunset and brought today’s rain.
This morning Aki and I explore the Sheep Creek delta. The sun worshipers who gathered on the delta last evening are gone. Only those with serious purpose are here. Two men clothed in thick gauged raingear mess about with a little gold dredge. Soon their machine will begin sifting through beach sand for gold washed down by the creek.
Closer to the stream, two great blue herons hunt the shallows for food. A crow dives on an adult bald eagle, trying to dislodge it from its spruce roost. The eagle, its beak pointed up at its tormentor, screams defiance.
We have to cross squishy ground to get a decent view of the herons. By the time I figure out that one is a juvenile, Aki has moved to a drier part of the beach from where she tries to plant the idea in my mind that “It is time to get out of the rain.”
I ignore the message and watch the juvenile heron fish. While the adult bird freezes in place to wait for opportunity, the young bird plunges it beak again and again into the water. Once it managed to lift of a stand of seaweed out of the water. The rest of the time it speared nothing. To make matters worse, it had to struggle to free its right leg from a tangle of rock weed.
Aki and I are in the Treadwell Woods. Rather than taking our usual course, which gets us quickly to the beach, I lead the little dog up a hill to the eagle’s nest. It had a chick and parent in it last time we visited the woods. It’s empty this morning.
Trying to be as patient as a heron, I stand beneath the nest tree, watching the wind sway it back and forth like a mother rocking a cradle. Is the sound of wind as comforting to a eagle embryo as the a mother’s heart beat is to human fetus?
When no eaglet pokes it head about the woven nest, I give into Aki’s silent plea and let her lead me down to the beach. The place is deserted except for one adult bald eagle. It sits on top of the old mine ventilation shaft, looking down Gastineau Channel. This must be one of the nest minders, now free to do what eagles do: scavenge, hunt, express opinions, and soar.
Eagles are flying over our heads, forced off the wetlands by an incoming tide. I ask Aki, “Little dog, where are the ducks? The poodle-mix looks at me like a person might look at someone searching for the nearest ice cream store in a burning city. Maybe she wonders why I care about dull ducks when the tidal meadow is magenta with shooting stars. She knows that they are my favorite flower, something I inherited from my dad.
My interest in waterfowl is more intellectual than esthetic. All winter the Fish Creek delta was infested with mallards. American widgeons and teals joined them in the spring. Fish ducks like golden eyes, buffleheads, and harlequins paddled offshore. Today it’s all gulls, eagles, and crows.
Our first eagle of the day was an immature bird that roosted near the opening of Fish Creek Pond until forced off by one if its elders. We see the young eagle a half and hour later being driven off an ocean side roost by an adult bird. The three other adult birds in the neighborhood scream what sounds like curses as the immature eagle flies off across Fritz Cove.
All the eagle action pushed duck thoughts out of my mind. So did our sighting of a red-breasted sapsucker that we inadvertently flushed from the path as we rounded the pond. But soon I thinking about ducks.
There is a place on the trail back to the car where a guy can sneak through a screen of spruce and spy on a little pond. A few weeks ago the pond was lousy with ducks. Today I found two mallards when I eased out of the trees—a hen and drake. They stood as close as lovers on a mound of bare dirt, a nesting pair. Mystery solved.