Monthly Archives: February 2020

Wet Eagles and Slumping Ducks

I’ve never before seen the Auk Bay birds relax. The many dogs walking their humans on along the beach or using a parallel trail through the bordering old growth woods keep them on guard. Even when we are the first visitors of the day, the harlequin ducks will panic off the beach when they hear my footfalls. Those same harlequins stun me today by ignoring our appearance. 

            Seven of the party-colored ducks form a line on the beach, facing a noisy raft of goldeneye ducks that chatter and paddle just off shore. The harlequins slump with indifference. It takes the overflight of a bald eagle to flush the harlequins into the water. When a screen of alders blocks my duck views, I follow Aki told the old Auk village site. 

            In a few minutes we emerge from the trees and find a soaking-wet bald eagle squatting on the snow-covered beach. Later I will search where it landed for spot of blood or scrapes of meat and only find talon tracks and marks made by wing feathers dragged across the snow. I’ve seen sled dogs roll themselves dry in the snow after breaking through thin ice. Was that why the eagle landed on such an exposed section of beach? Did it dive unsuccessfully on one of the harlequins, dunking it self in the process?

            While Aki sniffs something on the trail, the eagle spots me and labors into the air. Like a heavily loaded airplane, it climbs into the air and then drops back onto the snow. On the following bounce it climbs upward as a shower of snow flies off its talons. By powering it meter long wings up and down, it finally breaks free. 

All About the Snow

Sometimes it’s all about the snow. Aki and I are back on the Eagle River Trail. Yes, it is still snowing. No, there are other dogs or people around. A dog and its human tracked the trail earlier this morning. Now we are alone. 

            The trail offers no views of glaciers or even mountains. One eagle does a fly over before disappearing into the clouds. Then we slip back beneath the forest canopy.  When I stop to catch my breath, I hear small song birds chirps, made maybe pine siskins. But they don’t show themselves. 

            Aki keeps station near the tails of my skis, relying on me to pack the trail for her. Irregular clumps of snow decorate all four of her legs. But I know that I will reach my physical limit well before she reaches her’s. 

Why Bother?

At the end of yesterday’s ski, Aki was weighed down with snow balls. They clung to her curly leg fur. Wanting to protect her from a similar debacle, I chose a well-trodden trail for today’s walk. The trail crosses the Mendenhall River wetlands. On clear days you can see a glacier and the mountains that it sculpted. Today snow clouds have reduced the view to the near wetlands. 

            A few minutes into the walk. Aki starts wandering through deep snow along the trail. She plunges her face and again in the white stuff. Snow covers her face and clings to her legs when she returns to the trail. Why do I bother little dog?  

Weighed Down with Snow

Aki, you are a mess. Gumball sized clumps of snow hang from all four of her legs. A couple of more cling to her chest. We are three quarters through a looping trail through a riverine forest. If I don’t do something, she is going to carry her snowy burden for at least another half-an-hour. I could pull off the snow balls but know that she would rather bite them off herself. Besides, she would assemble a similar collect in a few minutes of trotting behind the tails of my skis. 

I could carry her the rest of the way to the car, holding my ski poles in one hand and the dog with the other. But I know from experience that she would squirm until I released her. As if to distract me, Aki buries her head in the soft snow, retrieves it, and shakes, making flakes fly in all directions. 

A mile back, we cruised along Eagle River. Falling snow softened the reflections in the water of beached logs and forested hills across the river. I searched for seals, gulls, eagles, and ravens. They all seemed swallowed by the snow. 

Now I’m skiing under the canopy of an old growth forest. Little snow makes it to the trail so it is easy going for dog and man. I expect Aki to take advantage of the firm trail to dash ahead. Instead she stays in may wake, keeping pace as we use a bridge to cross a salmon spawning stream and ski across a couple pocket meadows to the car. 

New Snow

I took my time this morning on the Outer Point Trail. Aki was a good sport about it. Usually we rush through the forest to the beach. But this morning, with its flat light and graceful snowfall, was one best spent admiring the woods. 

            A recent rain had washed the forest bare. Snow started falling last night. Thin lines of white cover the tops of exposed limbs and leaning tree trunks.  The lines emphasized the gaunt beauty of standing dead pine trees. 

            Snow coated exposed rocks when we reached the beach. Waves raised by a rising wind curled toward the land. I heard over the sound of the waves, a group of school kids playing on Shaman Island. They had ten minutes to get back to the mainland before the incoming time buries the now exposed causeway.   

            I returned to the car before finding out whether the kids made it across the spit with dry feet. After lunch, Aki and I headed out the road and walked over a small hill to a little bay. Ours were the first prints on the trail so I expected to find some ducks huddled on the beach when we reached it. We did, but they panicked into flight when we broke out of the woods. Aki refused to leave the trees while I walked to the waterline. 

            A loon floated on the bay, diving occasionally on bait fish. Then a seal popped up. It swam toward the beach, peering at me like a myopic senior with too much time on her hands.  The loon gave the seal a look and returned to his fishing. The seal switched its attention from me to the loon. It started circling the plump bird. When both disappeared beneath the water. I expected to see feathers float up to the surface. But the loon reappeared in good shape. Then the seal surfaced looking for another distraction. 

Dining Room Sounds

Last night a skim of ice formed on top of the pond water. Then the tide ebbs, dropping the paper-thin ice onto the Fish Creek trail. It shatters under Aki’s paws as she walks toward the creek mouth. The ice tinkles as it shatters, like a windblown crystal chandelier. The dining room sound is out of place on the icy trail. More expected is the eagle complaints and the shower of fat snowflakes soaking into Aki’s fur. 

            I don’t expect much drama today. It’s low tide so we would have to cross a wide stretch of empty wetland to reach the waters of Fritz Cove. That’s where the ducks hang out and at least two bald eagles. Snow clouds obscure the glacier and surrounding mountains as we near the creek mouth. But, as we turn back to the trailhead, the clouds thin. Weak sunlight strikes the mountains, giving them a pearlescent glow. Then the clouds return. 

Almost Blown Away

This is not going as planned. Aki and I are still in the woods, walking toward Point Louisa. A forty-knot wind is roaring through big spruce and hemlock trees, making them vibrate. The wind agitates Aki, making her jump each time it pins back her ears. It is worse when we leave the woods. 

            Coming off the glacier, the wind rips across the spit, stopping Aki in her tracks. I have to carry her to the little spruce grove at the end of the spit. Instead of resting in the lee of the spruce, the little dog racing over to an exposed clump of beach grass and sniffs. While she checks the Point Louisa pee mail, I lean into the wind to close on the point where a small raft of scouters is weather veining into the wind. 

Scouring Light

It froze hard last night. The skies cleared enough to expose the moon slipping in and out of cloud cover like a sneak thief. Aki and I breakfasted early and headed out to visit Sheep Creek. I made of point of checking the avalanche warning sign as we left the Juneau outskirts. It warned that the road would be closed this afternoon while a helicopter dropped explosive charges onto the Mt. Robert’s snow pack. Unless the dropper screws up, the snow he dislodges with his charges won’t reach the road. But it has happened.

            The little dog and I will be home before the first charge is dropped. But I still feel nervous driving through the two-mile-long avalanche zone. The car manages to skid to a stop in the trailhead parking lot. It’s pretty icy, little dog. Aki does a better job than I maneuvering across the slick parking lot and down a short trail to beach. Last night’s tide swept the creek delta clear of snow and ice, eliminating any chance of a nasty fall. 

A nearby eagle screams out a warning, sounding like an over vigilant homeowner warning off trespassers.  It’s the only bird sound we will hear this morning. I can’t see the eagle or the usual ravens, gulls, or ducks that make their living along Sheep Creek. The place seems scoured clean of birds by the strong morning light. I want to rush out to the ponds formed near the shore of Gastineau Channel by current and tide. If we hurry, we can enjoy the reflection of Sheep Mountain in the ponds before the wind arrives to fracture it. 

Aki hangs back at the snow edge, using her mental powers to force me to arc back so we can walk along a line of sand dunes towards the old ore house. But I can be as stubborn as the little dog. When I am halfway to the first pond, Aki breaks into a trot to join me. But, by making me turn back often to check on her, she slowed my progress. The wind is just ruffling the first pond when we reach it.  The mountain reflection in another pond is ruined by surface ice. Neither ice nor wind bothers the third pond, which holds a clear reverse image of Mt Jumbo and the Douglas Mountain Ridge. 

Rainy Day Gifts

During my recent visit to Talkeetna, Alaska for a writer’s workshop, KTNA, the local public radio station was kind enough to record me reading of “Dirty Work,” an essay that first appeared in Gravel, a literary journal of the University of Arkansas. Here is the link to the radio website if you would like to listen to the reading. https://ktna.org/2020/02/susitna-writers-voice-2-2-2020-dirty-work-by-daniel-branch/

Aki and I returned home wet from this morning’s walk. She sleeps curled up near one of our radiators. Before we left, the sound of rain drops hitting our kitchen window discouraged her for leaving the house. Eventually she agreed to join me in the car. Seeking a sheltered hike, we drove out to North Douglas and stopped in the Rainforest Trail parking lot. But first we had driven past a pod of sleeping Stellar sea lions. 

            Most of the pod huddled around one of their brothers who floated on his side with a pectoral fin in the air. These had their eyes closed. One sea lion swam in front of his sleeping brothers, eye wide open. He must have been the one that croaked out a warning. The pod didn’t panic and dive. They just slept on. That’s how we left then as we drove on to the trailhead. 

            The trail provided us with a lesson on the value of old growth forests in winter. Snow still covered the trail and ground where it cut through alders and blueberry bushes. There was less snow after we entered a newish hemlock and spruce forest. The ground was bare under the big old growth trees. We looked for the deer that seek out such areas of old growth in winter. Saw none. 

The rain was flooding beaver creek, pushing muskeg brown water over the top of white ice. The ice seemed to be lit from behind like a stain glass window. Water running over the ice glowed with the ice light. In the rain-drab forest, the creek scene was a miracle of bright colors, as pleasant a surprise as the sleeping sea lions.   

Happy Dogs Fly

I’m dropping off a mountain meadow. It and the access trail are weighed down with snow. Aki is nowhere to be seen. We just passed a collection of five dogs. Maybe she is still playing with them. I should whistle for the little poodle. If dusk had already descended or this were eagle country, I’d be worried. But the sun still shines, the dogs we just met were mellow, and the sky is clear of raptors. 

            Today’s warmer temperatures have softened the meadow snow. This will keep Aki on the packed trail, which scars the meadow snow like a knife cut. As I start to reverse directions to look for the pooch, she comes rocketing around the corner and slides to a stop at my feet. She is having a good time. 

I’m dropping off a mountain meadow. It and the access trail are weighed down with snow. Aki is nowhere to be seen. We just passed a collection of five dogs. Maybe she is still playing with them. I should whistle for the little poodle. If dusk had already descended or this were eagle country, I’d be worried. But the sun still shines, the dogs we just met  were mellow, and the sky is clear of raptors. 

            Today’s warmer temperatures have softened the meadow snow. This will keep Aki on the packed trail, which scars the meadow snow like a knife cut. As I start to reverse directions to look for the pooch, she comes rocketing around the corner and slides to a stop at my feet. She is having a good time. 

            When we reached the meadow afternoon sun shone on Sheep, Roberts, and the other mountains on the North side of Gastineau Channel. Then the sun dropped behind the Douglas Island ridge, leaving the north side mountains in a dusk-like funk. Mt. Juneau, which was also lit up by the sun, has disappeared behind aggressive clouds. Aki doesn’t seem to mind this return to the gray. She charges down the trail, ready for her next meet and greet with neighborhood dogs.