It’s 4:30 A.M. Aki is asleep in her kennel thirty miles away. I wonder what this hoary marmot would make of her. The oversized Guinea pig seems more interested in me than frightened. We sit on opposite sides of a narrow spit. I’m watching early morning sunlight clarifying Shelter Island. Minutes ago, while I spied on two harbor seals as they stalked a common merganser, the island was a dark mass interfering with my view of the Chilkat Mountains. Now every one of its trees has a distinct shape.
This would be the quietest time of day. It might be if not for the crows. To protect their nests, a patrol of them are diving on a roosted eagle. They squawk and the interloper screams. They do this over and over again.
If I was this close to a marmot in the high mountains it would pierce the air with a warning whistle. She must have has grown used to the presence of people. Besides, her young are asleep and safe in their rock pile of a nest. Marmot doesn’t sound the alarm even when an eagle flies towards us on a low trajectory. She just dives into her nest, leaving me to watch the big bird return to its roost.
In a few hours, after the sun has cleared the ridge behind me, It will be warm enough to doddle and dream on the spit. But its just ten degrees above freezing now. I try to tough it out in hopes of seeing the orcas. Yesterday, while I drank my first coffee of the day, a small pod swam past. A cow and calf surfaced not far from where the merganser just scooted away from a seal.
I’d settle for a humpback whale, even one reduced by distance to a plume of exhaled spray. But nothing breaks blue’s monopoly on Favorite Passage. Time for another coffee.
Aki and I are on the Outer Point Trail slipping through to the beach before the trail repair work for the day begins. A local nonprofit is trying to fix portions of the trail washed out by water flowing under a beaver dam. The affected path turned into an ice skating rink last winter and is now a muddy mess.
The trail crew cannibalized some of the trailside spruce to make barriers to contain gravel and planks for new bridges. Sawdust from their work clings to Aki’s leg fur. The little dog seems puzzled by the trail work. Something just doesn’t smell right. But it doesn’t take much encouragement for her to trot with me toward the beach.
We pass through a muskeg meadow before reaching the beach. Like they have been scattered like chicken feed, the white blossoms of cloudberry plants form random patterns on the spongy ground. Called “hjortron” in Sweden and “salmon berry” by the Yupik people of Western Alaska, the harvest of cloudberries is an important cultural activity in the Nordic world. They draw Swedish families to mountain meadows to preserve liters of the tangy-sweet fruit so they can taste summer in the heart of winter. Extended families of Yupik people use riverboats to reach traditional berry patches where elders teach the children the important of wild foods. Here in the rain forest years can go by without cloudberry plants setting any fruit. We target the more reliable blueberry crop.
This summer, after enough time has past for the cloudberries to turn soft and ripe, Aki and I might sneak back to this meadow and gather a bowl or two of the salmon-colored fruit. I will lick their juice from my fingers and remember picking in a tundra berry patch on a sunny day when the wind kept the mosquitoes away and cranes flew overhead.
Aki had to wait in the car while I dropped someone off at the hospital. There is not enough time this morning for a proper walk so I drive to the parking lot for our local radio station with plans to walk on the wetlands drained by Salmon Creek.
The roar of in bound traffic on Juneau’s only expressway masks the creek sounds. But the song of a persistent yellow warbler cuts through the urban noise. In a month, maybe two, there will be a dozen eagles on the wetlands, competing with gulls for scrapes of dying salmon. Fish ducks will waddle or float down the creek. People with heavy fishing rods will work the creek mouth for incoming salmon. But today, only the warbler and a scattering of board-acting crows show themselves.
The little dog and I move on to the fish hatchery beach where in June men and women will line the beach, tossing weighted hooks into the channel waters to snag chum salmon. The Salmon Creek gulls followed us to the beach, taking up temporary roosts on the top of traffic signs and hand rails. We see our first bald eagle of the morning sitting on top of a metal piling that secures a large fishing platform. The bird holds it ground as the little dog and I approach. The eagle, having watched throngs of fishermen crowd each summer, seems to know it has little to fear from one man and his 10-pound poodle.
In the water near the salmon holding pens a half-a-dozen harbor seals raise their heads so that their eyes clear the surface. Another seal floats on its back, apparently asleep. Those awake watch a hatchery worker toss handfuls of fish food into the salmon smolt holding pens. Do they expect the next handful to be tossed in their direction?
No bald eagles are roosting on the roof of the mine’s ventilator shaft. That’s the first thing I notice when Aki and I drop onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell Woods. The beach has that sinister feel that always comes when a thin veil of overcast replaces a prior day’s blue sky. This is reinforced by the absence of any birds on the beach. The woods were full of birdsong belted out by winter wrens, yellow warblers, dark-eyed juncos, and robins. On the beach not even a raven is around to croak us a warning.
The scent-oriented Aki doesn’t care about our silent greeting. It just means there is nothing to distract her from the beach’s seductive smells. The quiet time is about to end. As the poodle-mix dashes down the beach to investigate a chattering cloud of Bonaparte gulls materializes over our heads. The Bonaparte is my favor gull, perhaps because of its distinctive black hat that makes it easy to identify.
Just after the gulls appear an eagle screams and then flies away to its nest in the woods. Quiet returns. Nothing distracts me from the rich yellow-greens of the beachside balsam poplars or the smell of the sweet incense that gives them their name.
It is almost impossible to rise with the sun during the northern summer. At this time of the morning last winter Aki and I would have been hiking in the dark. Still, during most of our visit we will have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. A nice bird watcher arrived just before us but didn’t go beyond the pond.
On the drive to the trailhead, I thought about deer and when a doe walked in front of the car. After we stopped, it crossed to the west side of the road and tried to find cover behind a sparse blueberry bush. Another deer appeared to be waiting for us at the trailhead parking area. Acting like it was still undiscovered, it tiptoed off the trail and into a forest tangle.
Things have calmed down on the delta since our last visit. The resident eagles have reached accommodation with the crows, which no longer try to drive the bigger predators from their roosts. Freed up from defense work, the crows have spread out to feed on the tidal meadow. One crow lands on a rock in the middle of tiny pond, apparently to enjoy its reflection in the pond’s surface. It doesn’t seem to notice a sandpiper that wades past.
The marine layer that darkened our skies for weeks is breaking into clouds that reflect in the waters of Fritz Cove. An adult bald eagle flew out over the cove, dove on a fish and pulled up—wings wet and talons empty. Now it squats at the top of a spruce tree with its wings spread out to dry, a sour look on its face.
Aki couldn’t have picked a worse tip to go on a walk about. We are exposed on an open section of the Mendenhall Wetlands. The 10-pound poodle-mix is 40 meters away, sniffing a pee mail message. A bald eagle on its way toward the glacier makes a sudden course correction and begins to circle over the little dog, which must look like a plump, gray rabbit from the air. Aki freezes when I demand her to come to me. There is no time to outwait the little brat so I run toward her. The eagle breaks off and veers north toward the glacier.
Aki, who never saw the eagle, trots close to my side a little confused as we move down along the Mendenhall River towards Fritz Cove. The tide was out on our last visit to the wetlands, exposing food-rich mud flats to hundreds of teals, northern shovelers, mallards, and shorebirds. Today, with the tide at the flood, we only spot a bored-looking raft of mallards sleeping near the riverbank.
I expect that we will have to rely on the glacier, surrounding mountains, and the intense yellow-green colors of unleafing cottonwood trees for drama. Then an arctic tern flies overhead. It’s amazing to think that the tern’s frail-looking wings carried it all the way from Antarctica and will have to carry it back at the end of our summer.
While Aki sulks with impatience at my feet, I watch the tern disappear over the river. Then I spot two sparrow-like birds perched near each other on the roots of a driftwood log. They look like female Lapland longspurs in breeding plumage. If they breed this year it will be on the northern tundra, not along this river. They must be resting up before resuming their flight north.
Beavers. Aki and I are on the lookout for the buck-toothed rodents on this walk across the moraine. We walk along the Mendenhall River, which is dropping after a recent run of high water. It was raining earlier, which might explain why we have the place to ourselves.
Even though there is a large beaver house just upriver from our position, we have no chance of seeing one of them swimming across the water. We have to go deeper into the moraine—to the rarely visited Norton Lake. In years past, the little dog and I have been able to watch beavers tail slap the lake water and then swim towards us to check out the poodle wearing clothes.
The beavers have made it difficult to reach Norton Lake. You have to skirt a flooded portion of the trail and then tightrope walk along the top of one of their dams. After Aki and I walk maneuver our way through this obstacle course, I search the remains of beaver killed trees that rise like grave markers from the surface of the pond, looking for the arrow-head shaped beaver snout cutting a “v” across the water.
There will no beavers sighted this day, a pair of mallard drakes floating without apparent purpose across the surface of the lake.