Aki and I are using an elevated boardwalk near the glacier visitor center. It has heavy wire sides designed to keep the local bears safe from the tourists. During bear season you have to pass through gates to enter the boardwalk. They have been removed for the season so I assumed that it is safe for the little dog and I to use the boardwalk as a shortcut to the car.
A yearling bear cub ambles under the boardwalk. Its mother walks closely behind. I grab Aki but there is no danger for either of us. The bears are old pros as at this. All summer tourists have watched them fish for salmon in a nearby creek or dig for chocolate lily roots in the meadow. It has become their habit to ignore the smelly creatures trapped behind the boardwalk fences, which form a people zoo.
Two days ago I watched another habituated bear gorging itself on my neighbor’s garbage. It has learned to identity people with food. That bear now knows that it can ignore our efforts to scare it away from garbage. As much as I enjoy watching a fat bear sauntering along a salmon stream, I’d give up any chance of seeing one again if it meant that bears would never lose their distrust of humans. But now many Juneau bear have.
It’s been three week since the last tour buses released their hordes onto the Mendenhall Lake trails. Aki and I are the only ones using the lake margin this morning, if you don’t count a pair of eagles and one very vocal raven. Last night’s rainstorm ended just before we arrived. The ground, leaves, and eagle feathers are still soaked.
There is no wind to ruffle the lake’s surface so it can’t mirror the glacier. Only the swirls of a school of silver salmon mess with the reflection until the head of a harbor seal appears about the surface. It must have followed the silvers up the river and into the lake. I wait near the salmon to see if the seal can snatch one until Aki begins to keen.
Even after days of heavy rain the lake level has dropped enough for us to beach walk around a peninsula where the arctic tern nest during the summer. The terns have long ago left for their 10,000-mile migration to South America. But the little dog and I still avoid walking over their nesting area, which still feels like holy ground. From the beach I can see scattered feathers, relics of an unfortunate bird who didn’t live long enough to make the long flight south.
A large iceberg has come to ground off the tip of the peninsula. Last winter Aki and I might have walked on its surface when it was still part of the glacier. These days I find myself taking many photographs of icebergs. I will not have an opportunity to do it in a few years after the glacier has completed its retreat from the lake.
It’s trash-pick-up day. A black bear ambles toward our wheelie bin. Because I am standing near the bin it looks like the bear is strolling up to me. It’s a yearling, taught last summer by its mother how to pry open the bins so he can pull out plastic bags full of food waste. He ignores me when I tell him to go away, just keeps sauntering toward the bin. When I drop my voice and raise my hands he changes direction and grabs a neighbor’s bin.
The bear holds the bin with its from legs, like it is hugging a child, and pries open the locked lid with its teeth. Now nothing I can do will stop him from ripping open garbage bags and supping on out neighbors’ discards. Now totally habituated to man, the bear is doomed. Soon a police officer or fish and game official will have to shoot it.
Bringing frustration with me, I drive Aki out to North Douglas. Last night a storm from the Gulf of Alaska muscled through the Inside Passage and slammed into town. It brought heavy rain and a wind strong enough to strip leaves from trees and raise waves on the waters of Fritz Cove. We find shelter on a trail to old growth woods. I brace for a resumption of the wind when we reach the beach but there is not even a breeze to bend the beach grass. Off shore several rafts of harlequin ducks compete for access to a bait ball. They are still wild, still know enough to keep their distance from the little dog and I.
Yesterday, Aki and I watched hundreds of mallard ducks feeding in Fritz Cove. On this rainy morning I can only find gulls. Most huddle together in twos and threes on the beach as raindrops bounce off their feathers. Aki sniffs a quick survey of the ground and gives me a nervous look. No eagles sulk in the rain. No mean spirited shiba inu stares at her from the forest’s edge so I continue down the beach.
Still-yellow wild rose bushes, mountain ashes, and cottonwood trees glow like muted lights in the gray gloom. The next windstorm should strip the trees and bushes bare. After that we will have to look for beauty in bark patterns and tangled branches until it snows.
A matched brace of mallards swims out from a weathered piling. They swim slowly away from each other and come back together, tracing the shape of a heart on the water’s surface. A hundred meters away, a large raft of golden eye ducks float on Gastineau Channel. But there are no other mallards within sight. Without looking at the little dog I ask, Aki, do you think these two are on a honeymoon? She is already in the woods, sheltering from the rain.
We have just turned our back on a great blue heron, leaving it standing tall among gulls on a gravel bar. The heron was looking toward the glacier, not the gulls or Aki, when we slipped around a rocky headland.
Now we are walking along a strip of gravel between a forested island and Fritz Cove. Inside the island crows and several bald eagles bicker and scream. Apparently having enough of the crow’s harassment, two of the eagles fly out of the trees and over our heads, startling ducks and gulls into flight. While the little dog and watch the eagles fly towards the Chilkat Mountains when we hear a sound like a rock plunking into the water.
Looking toward the sound, we spot a belted kingfisher shooting out of the water. It lands on an offshore rock just as another plunk sounds. This one is made by the first bird’s mate. The first guy flits onto another rock, drawing attention away from the other bird. It stands in profile with its huge beak pointing down the beach. Each time we move a few meters away from the second bird, the first one glides down the beach. When we are thirty meters from the second bird, the first guy circles over the water and reunites with its mate.
I wonder why the Creator burdened the diminutive kingfisher with such a massive beak that looks so like that of the heron. The spear-shaped beak is a well-balanced weapon on the large heron’s head. It forms a projectile the heron can shoot forward with its powerful neck muscles. The kingfisher must use his whole body as a spear, driving beak-first after fish swimming feet below the surface.
This walk is Aki’s choice. The past two mornings, the little dog had hung back when it was time to get into the car. Yesterday I promised her that today we would start from the house. Aki trots with purpose down and our street and straight through the intersection where we would have to turn left to the take the Perseverance Trail. She wants to go urban. No waterfalls or noisy creek today.
Sunshine slants across Downtown Juneau, backlighting the leaves of maple trees imported to remind transplanted Juneauites of crisp fall days back home. The sun, a rare visitor this time of the year, has drawn people out of their studio apartments. They sit on steps and sidewalks smoking cigarettes made with tobacco or the now legal marijuana.
Ravens patrol overhead, sending down condemning croaks when not happy with they see. One homeless guy croaks back, engaging a raven in a harsh duet. When an immature bald eagle flies near, the raven brakes off to chase the much bigger bird away.
Aki and I are thirty miles North of home, slipping between rain-soaked blueberry bushes. More deer than men have used the path. It leads to a chute that bottoms out on a rocky beach. Like the herder that she is, the little dog waits for me to move onto the beach before she joins me.
I don’t know what Aki wants out of this walk. She seems satisfied with the smells on offer so far. Me, I hope to see a whale or seal or sea lion. I’d like to watch a heron hunt the shallows or spot a swan cuddled up in beach grass.
As if it read my mind, a harbor seal steams toward us, throwing up a bow wake as it nears the beach. It slips under the water when only a few meters from the beach. We won’t see it again. Well little dog, at least we saw one animal on the list. I don’t think Aki even saw the seal. When it appeared, she was snuffling along the edge of an old campfire ring.
We move back into the woods and follow another informal trail to a small rocky shelf that overlooks a pocket bay. Aki whines while I try to find the source of splashing coming from the bay. Twenty or thirty tiny fish burst out of the water, which is swirling to the movement of unseen predators. The scene repeats five or six more times. I can just make out pieces of the predator rising above the water. I assume it’s a winter king salmon feasting on baitfish. At home, in the pictures of the hunt that I took are enlarged by the computer, the predator will look more snake than fish.
We return to the car on trail that takes us up and over a forested hill and onto a tidal meadow where I’ve seen heron hunt for frogs. Aki flushes one that was feeding feet from the trail. It is considerate enough to only fly thirty meters away. Check another one off the must-see list. The heron eventually flies to just above where a stream drains into a salt chuck. On the shore of the brackish little lake, a swan cuddles in the beach grass just inches away from a brace of mallards.