On the drive from town we saw the Chilkat Mountains for the first time in a week. We meant to walk around the Troll Woods but the northern break in the clouds encouraged me to change plans and head to Auk Bay. I wanted to get a better view of the mountains from Point Louisa.
Aki was happy with the change of plans. The Auk trail is a dog rich environment. She would see and smell more than six dogs on the trail. Only one would growl at her. From the trail I would search a crescent-shaped bay for the raft of harlequin ducks that usually winter there. I’d strain to see the black triangle dorsal fins of the little Dall porpoise that are often see there this time of year, chasing late returning salmon. There’d be no porpoise sign but a raft of harlequins would appear on the bay’s surface in quick succession of plops and the return to the water in a snappy group dive. We would stop often to check on the transition of the fireweed and dogwood plants from summer green to autumn reds.
After listening to the morning’s forecast for high winds and heavy rain, I gather Aki from a cozy corner of the living room and lead her to the car. Outside. the trees in our yard dance awkwardly in a twenty knot wind. Rain obscures the car’s windshield. We must rush to get in a walk before the bad weather hits.
I choose the Rainforest Trail this morning for the storm protection it offers. But we must be out of the forest before the wind becomes strong enough to snap the trailside hemlock trees. The forecast only called for forty-knot gusts, which shouldn’t have to power to down old growth trees. But the grey morning light has made me a little paranoid. Sometimes weather forecasts are proven wrong.
The forest seems to absorb the storm’s power, we walk down to the beach unbothered by wind but still soaked by the persistent rain. The water between the beach and Shaman Island is empty of birds. I assume that the resident ducks are still feeding in the open water sections of our rain forest archipelago. Then a man fires his shotgun twice, flushing an eagle and several gulls into the air. The eagle joins two other eagles circling the treetops of Shaman Island. Aki whines and crouches close to the soaked ground. We return to the woods, hoping that the gunner is blown off the beach by the storm.
We reached Sandy Beach this morning at low tide. A bedraggled eagle hunches on the roof of the mine ventilator shaft. When I look away, distracted by a silver salmon splashing off shore, the eagle flies down the beach and over a resting murder of crows. Since the eagle is heading in the direction of its nest, I assume it is just returning home, tired of roosting in the rain.
Four other eagles are bickering with crows when we reach the little bay formed by the collapse of subsea mining tunnels a hundred years ago. Dive-bombing crows forced one of the eagles off the beach and onto the top of a splintered piling.
Apparently menaced by a crow a fraction of its size, the eagle takes off. The crow, a much more agile flyer that the eagle, grabs at the eagle’s tail and wing feathers as the eagle makes for a spruce tree roost just over my head. I look around for Aki and find her tucked away safely in the woods.
Aki and I are at the end of the road, looking for low-bush cranberries. It’s a gray day, one that threatens rain. We walk along a narrow boardwalk between yellowing willows. Our steps flush a Stellar’s jay onto the trail. The top-knotted blue bird gives Aki a casual glance and flies away. The little dog trots down the trail like she never saw the jay.
We find cranberries in low numbers. Most are still unripe. We will have wait for the first frost to turn them. I stash my bucket to be picked up on the walk back to the car. We cross over a small stream where the wakes of unseen objects jangle reflections of the streamside foliage. Aki and I walk up and down the stream, trying without success to discern the things responsible for such pleasing disturbances. The day, which started as a search for the tangible, has turned into one for the solutions to submerged mysteries.
We work out way to the beach, listening to the calls of an eagle that we will never see. This frustrates me, as does the fact that the humpback whales that often feed off the beach don’t show themselves. As Aki gingerly works her way over beach cobbles, I almost step in a tide pool full of sea anemones with their translucent-green arms opened wide in welcome for their next victim. They are such lovely killing machines.
As a kid I was never dared to stick my finger in an anemone. When one of my braver friends did, the anemone collapsed around her finger. She was able to pull her digit out intact, smiling like she had performed a magic trick. But I don’t remember the anemones of my youth containing the shells and partially digested bodies of their victims like the ones in this Alaskan’ tide pool.
I didn’t know that they allowed dogs on board the ship? The question, coming from one of the thousands of cruise ship passengers trudging their way to Nugget Falls, stopped me in my tracks. Aki, who generally likes all people and most dogs, wagged tail as the women who posed the question rubbed her curls. It never occurred to her that we were locals. I looked around for a familiar face and found none. Aki and I had become strangers in our own land.
I led the little dog onto an alternative path to the falls and pondered how Occam’s razor convinced the friendly lady that we were fellow cruise ship travelers. I’m wearing a battered Alaska Marine Exchange hat, so authentic that the bill edge has been tattered into threads. A blue hoodie with the logo for Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson’s College covered my torso. On a rainy day, when my little dog is wearing a stylish wrap, I’d blame her. But, thanks to the warm afternoon sun, she only wears a harness.
Over thirteen thousand people poured off one of five mega cruise ships today. We thirty thousand locals still outnumber them. But almost every Juneauite is taking the sun on less crowded land. We’ve yielded one of our most beautiful places to the visitors. From the happy tones of their conversations, they seem to be appreciating it.
This is going to be a frustrating walk to the mouth of Fish Creek. Aki and I came with expectations of sunshine, eagles, and ocean-bright silver salmon. The weather folks promised the sunshine. We have good reason to expect eagles and silvers. Their presence should be a matter of course this time of year. We will end up having to make due with eagles and aging pinks.
Two adult bald eagles roost in a spruce overlooking the pond. The hump of a spawned out pink salmon male ripples the pond’s surface. With a little effort, one of the eagles could snag the salmon and fly it to a gravel bar for a feed. But they barely flinch when the salmon swims past their roosting tree.
Hoping that the eagles have already had their fill of silver salmon, I follow Aki down the trail to the creek mouth. We do spot a run of the creek full of frisky salmon. But we can’t investigate without disturbing two eagles perched on a driftwood branch. The mottled birds look dull in this morning’s grey light.
Low clouds obscure our view of the Chilkat Mountains and that of the glacier on the other side of Gastineau Channel. The sunshine currently bathing Admiralty Island should reach the glacier and Fish Creek in a couple of hours. Aki will be home by then, sunning herself on the back steps.
After the channel fog burns off this morning, I drive the little dog out to Mendenhall Lake. While she uses her nose to investigate I plan on searching for late blueberries. I’ll find less than a handful. This may be one of the last color-rich days we will have until the monsoon season begins. Then we will have to wait for winter to bring clarity.
The lake is swollen with rain and glacial melt water, covering the beach path we normally use. Instead we use the little path between camp ground and lake that the little dog prefers With the temperature holding at 60 degrees F. I find myself sitting often in the sun to enjoy the glacier reflection on the lake’s surface. I take a few pictures of it, aware that I have many similar shots on my computer. It still thrills to capture the image with a click.
Displays of fall color could divert me from glacier gazing. But most of the lake foliage is still summer green. Only where the Mendenhall River escapes from the lake do I find a cottonwood in fall yellow. It stands out like an unnecessary candle on this warm, bright day.