Aki is in Sitka. She and I flew here from Juneau yesterday. It was over 80 degrees when we left Juneau and 65 here. The little dog had two firsts today—tasting salmon berries and sniffing brown bear poop. On her home trails in Juneau, she has intimidated black bears. That won’t fly with these Sitka brown bears. Rather than standing tall and yelling, which works with black bears, the only way to survive a brown bear attack is to play dead.
Before the hike, I visited the Fortress of the Bears. Aki stayed in the car. The fortress founder has filled the scoured out mixing tanks of a defunct pulp mill with orphaned black and brown bears. Except for a clownish black bear, the critters in the fortress have retained their natural dignity. From a safe view point above the tanks, you can watch the bears feed and wrestle with driftwood logs. Ravens and eagles skulk in the trees that line the tank enclosures. I enjoy the views but was thankful not to share them with the little poodle-mix.
Aki and I have been avoiding Fish Creek since the first king salmon returned to spawn. The chance to catch one of a 15-pound salmon draws a crowd of combat fishermen to the Fish Creek Delta. The chance to gorge on salmon meat draws eagles and other carrion eaters. For that reason I wanted to sneak in a visit before the fishermen arrive.
I woke up early this morning and noticed that the tide had ebbed during the night. “Maybe” I told Aki, “ we can have the delta to ourselves this morning.” The trailhead parking lot was empty when we pulled up. Aki shot out of the car so she complete a survey of pee mail messages before we crossed over the Fish Creek bridge and moved down the trail. An adult bald eagle, the first of at least twenty would see, abandoned a scrap of food on a gravel bar and few down the creek.
Three or four king salmon broke the surface of the pond as we circled it. A beaver munched on wild flowers on the near shore. I tried to sneak by the beaver but tripped on a root. The noise panicked the big rodent into the water where it slapped its tail to warn the rest of the clan. Satisfied that I wasn’t a wolf or coyote, the beaver swan toward the little dog and I. It stopped a few meters offshore and closed its eyes. After a quick nap, it paddled away.
A spit covered with wild roses and blooming fireweed connects the Douglas Island with a forested island at the mouth of Fish Creek. I counted six eagles roosting in trees on the near edge of the island forest. Another eagle bounced up and down in the top of another spruce, having been chased there by a fierce crow. The diminutive warriors own the interior of the island where they are raising this year’s young. They begrudgingly allow the eagles to roost on the forest edge.
Aki stayed close while we circled the outside of the little island. With each step we seem to flush two or three eagles. Many had taken up roosts in the trees along the edge of the spit by the time the little dog and I completed our circumnavigation. A cloud of them flew out and over Fritz Cove as we headed back to the car.
Yesterday, rising trout in one of the troll woods’ lakes surprised me. A couple of the active fish appeared to have some shoulders, maybe enough body to fill a frying pan. Early this morning Aki I re-entered the woods. I carried a fishing pole. The little dog was armed only with her sharp noise and bravery too large for her 10-pound body. I tried to ignore a premonition that we would run into a bear.
Aki doddled behind as I quick walked toward the promising lake. Morning sunshine shone through translucent grass blades and made the little dog little squint. She was forty meters behind me when the bear appeared. Thankfully it was a boar, not a sow with cubs. It was, as seems to be the case in almost every Alaska bear story, the largest black bear male seen in some time.
Showing the considerate caution of its breed, the bear left the trail to shelter in a strip of alders that bordered the lake. I was about to trot back to retrieve the still ignorant poodle-mix when the bear started moving in her direction. If the boar continued it would soon find Aki blocking the way into the troll woods. I dropped the fishing pole and ran to grab my dog. The bear reversed direction and skulked to the very spot where I had dropped the fishing gear. Aki spotted the bear as it emerged onto the trail. She growled and barked, sending the bear rushing across the trail and into the woods.
On the theory that no bear would appreciate my performance, I sang an off key version of “Super Trooper” by ABBA on our return to the car. If Aki’s growling hadn’t been enough, my singing must have driven the bear deep into the Troll Woods.
It’s good to be back with the little dog, walking known trails with few dangers. Bears and mosquitoes are only things to worry about on this morning’s crossing of the Troll Woods. We do find a fresh pile of bear scat stained blue of a breakfast of blueberries. So Aki and I don’t walk through thickets of berry brush.
I lead Aki to the edge of a lake for a view of the glacier and practicably stumble on two mallard hens. Seconds ago they had been nestled in a grass verge. Aki watches them swim away but does not make a sound. I think about yesterday’s mallard mother that had remained erect and exposed on the edge of the beaver pond. The presence of a heron and eagle prevented her from swimming them out of our reach. We were her lesser evil.
It’s not all beer and skittles in the Troll Woods for me this morning. But the things diminishing my experience are more irritating than evil. We walk through one cloud of mosquitoes after another. As usual they ignore Aki so they can hover around my head. But thanks to my bug off shirt, they little pests can’t land on me or bite.
I wish I had a shirt to protect me from the fluffy willow seeds that drift down like snow in July. The smallest bits irritate our eyes. Larger chunks form a white skim on the lee sides of the lakes.
I wanted to make an undetectable approach to the beaver pond so I left the usual trail for a more casual one. Aki waited on the good trail for me to return to my senses. In minutes, after I have made enough noise to wake a sleeping dragon, I rejoin the little dog. Well that blew any chance of sneaking up on the heron.
Aki and I had startled a great blue heron when we first circled the beaver pond. It whooshed over our heads and flew to the other side of the pond, squawking like a barnyard goose. Given the winged hunter’s reluctance to leave, I hoped that it might return while we walked to the beach and back into the woods.
With a faint hope that the heron was hard of hearing, I lead my little poodle-mix to the main trail and find, not the expected heron but a mallard hen. She stands, still as a statue at the edge of the pond. Three of her chicks, partially hidden by grass, sleep while their mom stands watch.
Duck hunting season is closed or a hunter could easily orphan the mallard chicks. The hen isn’t worried about humans carrying guns. She doesn’t flinch when I move closer for a better view of her kids. But she twitches each time a nearby eagle screams. No one is going to cite an eagle or heron for hunting out of season. Had our earlier appearance at the pond saved the ducklings from the heron?
I just can’t help attributing human attributes to wild things. In the stare of a thrush I see defiance. A slouching marmot telegraphs nonchalance. This morning, on the way to the Rainforest trailhead, I tried to read the emotions of an adult bald eagle.
The big bird was perched in the top of a short spruce tree. I stopped the car just twenty feet away. The eagle looked to be contemplating the view up Lynn Canal or maybe just enjoying the feel of sunshine drying out his rain-dampened feathers. An audio version of Nina George’s “The Little Paris Book Store” was playing on the car stereo. As one of the actors described the meeting of the protagonist and his lover, the eagle turned and looked at us with its eyebrow raised, as if questioning my taste in books.
It’s early morning so there is only one car in the trailhead parking lot when we arrive. In an hour or two the eco tour vans will disgorge cruise ship passengers more interested in wild things than jewelry shopping on South Franklin Street. They are my favorite kind of visitors but I’m pleased not to have to share the trail with them today.
The leaves of understory plants in the forest are still weighed down with rain from a recent shower. They sparkle when struck by sun shafts. Above the trail a gray thrush mom tries to induce one of its chicks to fledge. In a nearby hemlock, a red-breasted sapsucker stops hammering the tree’s bark to give the little dog the stink eye.
Aki, do you have the feeling that every animal is mad at us today. We are in the car about to leave the Eagle River picnic area. A marmot eyeballs us from a few feet away. It sees the poodle in a yellow wrap sitting in the lap of a guy in a blue hoodie. The marmot, probably on guard duty to protect its clan, looks more bored than scared.
Aki growls at the big rodent through the window glass. Now the marmot looks put out. It reclines facing away from us as if to say. “You are death to me.” Minutes before we got similar treatment from a thrush. The songbird had just landed in an alder ten feet away and gave us the stink eye.
Looking back on our hike along the Eagle River, I can’t think of any reason why the wild residents would treat us with distain. Aki did bark at a raven, but it barely reacted. Otherwise we passed through woods and meadows without incident, feeding multiple mosquitoes but seeing little wildlife.
Maybe we can blame the Siberian husky that gave Aki a thorough look see as we approached on a path lined by lupines and Indian paintbrushes. It was a big dog, capable of putting wild things under pressure if so inclined. The little dog could be taking the blame for the husky’s carousing.