An immature eagle lands on a midstream gravel bar and eyes a chunk of something pink and fleshy. In seconds a raven joins him. The eagle takes possession of the goody with a talon and starts ripping off a bite sized piece. Raven uses a bowing little dance to get the eagle to share. When that doesn’t work, it squawks out a coarse protest song. The song goes on and on until the raven lifts off toward another source of food.
Aki was back in the car before the eagle landed. We are both soaked with rain that just stopped pounding the Sheep Creek Delta. The clouds now drift up against the flanks of Sheep Mountain to be shredded by tall spruce. I brought the dog here so I could search for heron. We found none. Aki tried to keep me from crossing exposed sections of the beach. She prefers to sniff along the grassy dune that separates the beach from the old ore house. There she can hide from eagles.
We walked to dune’s end where gold miners park their sluice boxes. The sluices sit in boats made of salvaged wrecks, foam blocks, and scrap wood. Soft delta sand is shoveled into the sluice box, which extracts the gold. The miners are driven to stand in cold water in the rain for hours by dreams of wealth or perhaps the simple desire to get something for nothing, like the eagle-bothering raven.
Like the miners, the eagles and other delta birds are always on the make. When not searching the riverbank and beach for carcass scraps, they make half-hearted passes over rafts of ducks, driving most into flight. Even the tiny swallows are always working an angle. This morning one gave me the stink eye for distracting it from harvesting beach grass seeds.
It froze hard last night. Early this morning frost covered the wetlands. Aki and I missed the show while we waited for the fog to burn off. Now only pockets of frost meadow remain. The sun has already reduced the frost to dew on most of the wetlands. As it thaws, the trail mud turns greasy.
Patches of fog still cling to the surrounding hills. Otherwise we have blue skies. The little dog and I squint when the trail makes us face the sun. Maybe this is why she throws on the brakes when we reach a trail that would take us back to the car. Maybe the almost 13 year-old is feeling her age.
After Aki sends her brief strike we walk along the Mendenhall River. I had been scanning the river for herons without success. We’ve yet to see any water birds or land birds. A gang of waterdogs approaches from downriver and I wonder if they are responsible for the bird apocalypse.
Looking for another source of beauty, I lead the little dog down onto the beach and find my self five meters from a heron. It looks as awkward and I feel. It is airborne before Aki even realizes it was there.
Three ravens watch as we enter a section of second growth woods drained by a salmon stream. One glides just over my head and lands on a spruce bough. The raven is now watching a dozen silver salmon, sides long faded to the color of ash, fight for spawning rights in the stream. Two men wearing the cast-off winter gear of the homeless look to be trying to grab the fish with their bare hands. Nailed to a tree just above their heads is a “No Sport Fishing” sign. The little dog and I walk on almost secure in the knowledge that the men are no match for the frisky fish.
The trail crosses several branches of the salmon stream and then takes us onto a meadow with grass transitioning from summer green to fallow brown. We pass a patch flattened by a sleeping bear. It probably had better luck catching one of the spawning salmon than the two homeless guys.
Aki tenses when we hear two shots coming from the nearby landfill. A dozen eagles circle above us before settling in their usual day roosts on the forested hill that rises above the meadow. The meadow pushes up against low-income housing developments and one of our major highways. A kilometer away, men at a high security prison are just finishing breakfast. That doesn’t stop us from enjoying the solitude that comes of only having to share the large meadow with eagles and ravens and bears.
Gastineau Avenue cuts a gash across the side of Mt. Roberts. It once provided access to the A.J. Mine tunnels. Feral cats moved into the tunnels after the mine closed in 1944, living on scraps from the fish plant on the docks. The cats are long dead from Parvo Virus and the fish plant has been replaced by cruise ship facilities.
Even though it offers good views of downtown and the channel. Gastineau has a run down, skid road feel. There are some well-kept craftsmen-style houses and other nice buildings along the avenue. But the empty lots and a burned-out building invite people to camp out on the street in tired cars. None of this matters to Aki. The little dog loves it. She doubles the time needed to walk its length by stopping every few feet to sniff.
When Taku Smokeries is closed for the season and the cruise ships are down in the tropics for the winter, ravens like to patrol the avenue. Aki and I heard one croaking as we climbed past the Baranof Hotel parking lot this morning. We found the bird in a narrow alley, hanging out with two homeless guys and a dozen pigeons. The men had tucked themselves under a sheltering overhang to keep out of the rain. Raven, its feathers confused and wet, stood singing to them in the rain.
The forest would have me believe that the windstorm is over—the one that last night sent shingles and large plastic chairs flying past our house. It whirled through the car’s roof rack as we drove out to the Outer Point Trailhead. Then it disappeared when we entered the old growth. But it reappeared with a chilling presence each time the trail took us through unprotected spots, like the beaver pond and pocket muskeg meadows.
Only gulls stir the water when we reach the beach, which is in the wind shadow of the forest. Six Canada geese and a hundred mallard ducks huddle near the beach. Even though the little dog are100 meters away, the geese leave the protection of the beach and move in formation out onto the little bay. They don’t change course when an eagle flies over their heads. The eagle panics the mallards into the air. All but three fly across the bay. The outliers plop down on the water near the geese. What have these ducks seen to cause them to seek the company of another species when eagles threaten?
On the drive home I spot a couple of deer on to the road verge. Two years ago, on a wet October day, a young deer ran into our car near this spot. I crossed over into the oncoming traffic lane to avoid a collision, but the deer still smacked into the right front fender. I stopped to check after the deer but it was already deep in the forest. This time I stop well before reaching the deer, feeling as teachable as the three geese loving ducks.
Another rainstorm is hammering the Treadwell Woods. Heavy drops patter on the fallen cottonwood foliage and drip down the drooping remains of devil’s club leaves. It is still better here than out on Sandy Beach where a stiff wind would drive the rain into our faces. That’s a little too much liquid sunshine for me.
As rain soaks into Aki’s grey curls, I wonder who came up with the term, “liquid sunshine.” Did they see rain as the anti-sunshine? They’d have a valid argument. Sunshine warms and dries. Rain just makes you cold and wet. But, like sunshine, it can make the yellowing woods sparkle.
Aki and I are walking along the verge of a highway that curves around Fritz Cove. I didn’t notice any cars have passing since we started. But one or two might have slipped by while we watched the seal. It hovered just off shore, not far from a scattering of deer bones on the beach. The seal gave us a long, sad stare, like a high school actress emoting loneliness in drama class.
It slips under the water, barely disturbing the surface. When it returns, it holds a deer bone in its mouth. Now it looks like a dog, wanting to play a game of fetch. When we move down the road, the seal disappears again. If we had stuck around, we might have been able to watch it snake onto the beach and grab another bone.
In a nearby spruce tree, a bald eagle screeches out a warning. It gives us a stern look that reminds me of the one saved by policemen for vagrants weighed down with burglary tools. When two other eagles return the screech, I take my hands from my pockets and affect an interest in something on the opposite side of the cove. A beam of sun has just powered through the cloud cover to light up the tips of spruce on an island, frosting the fall green trees with a thin layer of summer.
Thunder Mountain still hides the sun when we approach Crystal Lake. Aki, who moved out in front a few minutes ago, turns her head to watch me peering through the lake mist. I can just make out a stand of yellowing cottonwood trees that line a marshy shore. On the lake a herd of canvasback ducks could be conferring over a map of their southern migration route and I wouldn’t be able to see them.
Feeling Aki’s impatience, I follow her toward the beaver village at the opposite end of the lake. The sun catches us just before we reach the village, it’s reflection in the water looking like a narrow spotlight being eased above the mountain’s silhouette. The sudden blast of sunlight destroys the lake mist and deepens the fall colors. It makes Mt. Stroller White stand out against the blue sky.
I want to take a trail through the Troll Woods pioneered by tree cutting beavers. It winds around three small lakes before returning its users to Crystal Lake. Aki, who loves beaver scent, is already trotting down it. I hesitate, thinking about the Forest Service sign posted at the trailhead. It warns walkers to beware of the local bears, who have a recent history of hostile interactions with dogs.
I table my concerns and follow the little dog. The trail she selected leads away from salmon streams and into an area that would offer little to a hungry bear.
It rained hard last night, a real soaker that energized Gold Creek to a dangerous level. Aki and I waited all morning for the storm to stop or at least slow down. When it began to tail back, we headed out to Fish Creek and found it overflowing it banks and carving out new channels through the old growth forest. But the rain had stopped.
Three eagles circled above the creek but I could not figure out what they were hunting. Until we reached the creek mouth, the only other evidence of life would be a three-toed woodpecker prospecting for bugs in the bark of an alder.
Just last week the creek and the estuary that it floods into were empty of bird life. This morning giant rafts of mallards search for food there. The boys are back for the winter. I hope that most of them will survive hunting season. An eagle makes a low pass over the raft, flushing a dozen ducks to flight, then returns with empty talons to the top of a spruce tree.
A hundred-bird murder of crows occupy the beach. They rise as a thin, black cloud and fly toward another eagle, harassing it until to takes shelter in a tall cottonwood tree. Then the crows fly across the face of Mendenhall Glacier just as the sun arcs a rainbow across their path. Remember your Bible, little dog. God filled the sky above Noah’s grounded ark as a sign that he would never again flood the world with rain. The rainbow fades just then, and the first drops of another storm start soaking into the poodle-mix’s fur.
Raindrops dimple the surface of glacial stream. Some hit an expanding bull’s eye formed by a salmon’s leap. The rain glistens spruce needles and yellow cottonwood leaves. It soaks into the feathers of two bald eagles that watch the salmon’s antics from their usual perches. A week ago, busloads of noisy tourists would have been taking selfies with one of the eagles in the background. This morning only a silver-haired Juneauite pays the birds any attention.
When one of the eagles flies out and over Mendenhall Lake, the Juneau resident turns to share a memory of an October day where there were salmon in the pond and bears on the trail. This could be such a day.
The little dog and I say our goodbyes and take a roundabout way to Nugget Falls. It seems like every tree and bush along the way is in full fall color. Water drips off yellowing willow leaves into cups made of pink and red blueberry leaves. Above, tall cottonwoods seem to tear apart low-lying clouds. It is easier to capture such beauty with a camera when it rains than when it shines.
Aki gives me a cynical stare, as if she disapproves of the flowery descriptors running through my brain like a tickertape. Give me a break little dog. It’s been a noisy summer.