I’m in a stare down with a raven that has just stopped searching a mound of dirty snow for food. It turned its head to focus an eye on me. I’m on my way to pick up an order of garlic eggplant from a Chinese restaurant. Even though I am hungry from skiing and the heavily spiced eggplant will melt in my mouth, I stop to return the raven’s stare.
If he had grabbed me with a stare while I was on my way out of the restaurant, I’d assume that he was lobbying for one of my fortune cookies. But my hands are empty. He looks like he’s seen many Alaska winters. Perhaps he is a wise one, gathering information about humans to pass on to newly hatched chicks. This raven is only one of many birds that have recently locked eyes with me. I am yet to come with an acceptable explanation for any of my near-bird experiences.
I wish I’d seen this or any raven while Aki and I skied this morning along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. But the conditions were wrong for bird watching. A glacial wind was scouring the lake ice of snow. It blew away the swan family we had visited on recent visits. Even the kittiwakes that made such a racket while gathering on the river waters were absent. Smart birds, like ravens, were hunting for scraps on wind-sheltered sections of the wetlands or mooching for snacks in parking lots.
It’s Sunday morning. Almost all the town’s churches are closed thanks to a government order prohibiting public gatherings. That order hasn’t prevented the Sunday Morning Church of Powder and Shot from holding service.
The church’s congregants sit behind shooting benches, each at least six feet way from their neighbors. There’s is not a church for music lovers or those who look for inspiration from a well delivered homily. They have no prayer or song books, just high-powered rifles, which they point at paper targets. As Aki’s other human and I step into our cross-country skis, the congregants fill the air with, for them, the joyful noise of rifle fire.
I pray for the riflemen to stop shooting long enough for us to put a half-a-kilometer between the gun range and Aki. But the firing continues. The little dog gallops alongside her humans as we ski down a series of small slopes to Montana Creek. A narrow bridge crossing the creek bares a pretty heavy snow load. Meter-deep mounds of snow cover rocks and the tangle of trees that have fallen onto the creek.
We start the steady climb required to reach the end of the trail. The sound of rifle fire mixes with that of the fast-moving creek. We won’t hear the song birds choir until the gunfire ends.
Two of our cross country venues ran out of snow this weekend. Their groomers loaded up their machines and hauled them to summer storage. That’s why Aki’s other human and I brought our skis and the little dog to Mendenhall Lake. This might be one of the last times we will be able to ski this spring. Last night’s snow evened out many of the ruts made by skiers during the recent thaw. But the ice is thin. Cautious skiers might avoid the lake today and use the trail set on the campground road system.
We are tentative at first, at least Aki’s humans are. The little dog speeds onto the lake and rolls like spring bear in the snow. I drop into the kick-slide-kick rhythm of the classical skier, passing the little dog, heading toward the glacier. The lake ice doesn’t crack under me. Water doesn’t bubble up to fill my tracks. But the tips of my old ski poles sink a few centimeters when I plant them in the ice. On our last lake ski, my tips bounced off hard ice.
We push on anyway. The skiing is too good to stop. But halfway we do stop after we notice that we are alone on the lake. Turning our backs to the glacier, we head to the shore. Snow clouds darken the skies above Thunder Mountain. The sun looks like huge moon. Everything is black or white. Aki’s blue sweater and the purple jacket of her other human provide the only color.
Aki follows us off the lake. We ski along the edge to the river where we stumble on three swans. One has the gray feathers of a yearling. The other two must be its parents. They feed on aquatic plants in the river, not bothering to paddle away from us. Yesterday, a heron did a similar thing when Aki and I rounded False Outer Point. We must be doing something right.
Exposed to a strong north wind, I am sitting on a rock shiny with rain, contemplating waves as they collide with False Outer Point. Aki isn’t in the mood to be philosophical about waves or the weather. She wants to finish rounding the point. When the little dog whines in protest, I look over in time to catch her “you are such an idiot” stare. In seconds we are heading for the wind-protected side of the point.
Aki got her way in part because neither of us were not designed to sit exposed for long to the winter wind. But I would have agreed to move even if I had been enjoying a Midsummer breeze. She is a persistent whiner.
The storm has forced most flying things to cover. One goldeneye duck works the heavy surf live. A handful of gulls struggle to hover over a bait ball. Their presence is not as surprising as the great blue heron strolling among exposed tide pools.
Preoccupied with waves and wind, I didn’t see the heron until we were only a few meters from it. When my foot slipped on a wet rock, the long-necked predator jerked itself into the air and landed six meters further down the beach. After giving us a long stare, the heron resumed searching for snails and sculpins. The little dog and I continued toward the point. The heron kept pace, flying off only after it reached a barren tumble of bare rocks. I wanted to stop and wonder about the heron’s behavior. Had it concluded after a measured stare that we were no threat, maybe even worthy to share the rock beach with it? More likely, the hunting opportunities just too good to pass up.
It started out like a raven day. Fog hid the channel-side mountains. The runout of a recent Mt. Roberts avalanche stuck out from the bottom line of fog like a tongue. More than a dozen ravens gabbled and garbled in the bare trees lining Sandy Beach. Some flirted. Most harassed each other. Three took station atop splinter-top wharf pilings, which have stood on the beach for 100 years, ready for ravens. No wonder these three act like they own the beach.
The white shoulders of Mt. Roberts muscles through the fog was I study the raven watchmen. Down channel, Sheep Mountain appears against a backdrop of blue sky and shattered clouds. The fog holds above the southern channel but the sun is about to bust through.
Aki and I leave the ravens and head toward the deep little cove formed by a 19th Century mine tunnel collapse. A lazy raft of mallards paddled on the cove when we reached it. I wonder if the ducks were as startled as me when a belted kingfisher slamed full speed into the water with a hollow “plunk”. As the sound fades, the kingfisher shot into the air with what looked like a small herring in its beak. Don’t even think about trying that Mr. Raven.
It’s a day for corvids. I’m talking about the birds, not the virus. Three Stellar’s blue jays watch the little dog and I pass under their spruce tree roast, looking as unaffected by our passage as a Buckingham Castle guard. Without so much as a scolding from the diminutive corvids, we continue down the trail to salt water.
The usual mallard gang hunts for food in the Fritz Cove shallows. One hen bursts off the water and flies over to a nearby kettle pond. She stands in shallow water that reflects her beauty back to her. The fit mallard looks sleek with not one feather out of place. While I wonder what flushed her from the salt water, the rest of the mallards from her raft panic into flight. Looking up I see the cause—a bald eagle that just landed in the top of a nearby spruce.
Aki, not a fan of eagles, is happy when we move down the trail to the mouth of the stream. There, a murder of crows fidgets from one bank to the other and back. Some find purpose when they spot a solitary raven skulking on the branch of a driftwood tree that has become stuck in the middle of the creek.
I expect a noisy squabble. The crows raise their young in a nearby forest. They consider ravens trespassers. But only a few of the crows land on the raven’s driftwood hang out. Even these seem more curious than outraged.
I wanted be out on the wetlands at first light. It makes the best shadows, deepens the colors of frost-covered grass. But the little dog needed her breakfast and me my morning coffee. It’s still early in the day when we arrive. Skims of ice soften the reflections off the river. Frost feathers decorate stubs of grass and the still frozen trail mud.
We are the first to stumble onto a flock of nibbling Canada geese. Apparently wanting nothing to do with the large, noisy birds, Aki ignores them. The geese try to ignore us. Unfortunately, they have staked out the trail as part of their feeding ground. The geese fly off in twos and threes when I try to sidle around them.
I had hoped to see the owls again. Two short-eared owls hunted the wetlands the last time we walked along this part of the Mendenhall River. If not them, we might see more swans. But there are only ducks and the now nattering geese. One eagle does a high Passover but sees nothing worth diving on.
The trail deteriorates as we walk, softening under the rising sun. We drop off the meadow to walk along the river beach. The ebb tide has reduced the river to narrow stream, but it is wide enough to reflect the glacier and the sawtooth peaks that frame it. The beauty of it should be enough to satisfy. But Aki is short-sighted and I am disappointed not to see the owls.
As I try to measure ice loss on the glacier, the Alaska Airlines jet from Seattle photobombs our view of it like bald eagles have done before. Anyone that deplanes from the jet will have to go home and stay there for the next two weeks.
Feeling the need for another coffee at our own quarantine zone, I try to rush Aki toward the car. She passes me when I stop to watch a flock of pine siskins party among the limbs of an alder tree. One of the tiny birds settles on the nearest limb and studies me, tilting his head to get a clearer view. I think of Annie Dillard’s famous soul gaze with a weasel. Ms. Dillard saw the wild one’s eye as a doorway. For me the siskin’s eye is a mirror, reflecting the sunlight bouncing off the river.
It is quiet in the forest. We can’t even hear the sound of wind whipping up waives on nearby Lynn Canal. That’s why the smack of a bark fragment hitting the beaver pond ice grabs my attention. After a second fragment joins the first one, I notice a faint tapping sound. It’s too weak to be made by the aggressive red breasted sapsucker. Looking up I spot the percussionist—a downy woodpecker. He is still tapping his way up the spruce tree as Aki and I round the pond and head toward the beach.
We hear a sharp crack—just one—as we leave the pond. I want to wait to see if the deer will reveal itself. Aki will have none of it. She has scents to check and pee messages to leave. We cross a small muskeg meadow before reaching the beach. It is dotted with tall pine snags with twisted branches that reach toward heaven like desperate saints. Fast moving crossbills appear and disappear on the higher branches. We are closer to the beach now so the sounds of surf mingle with the crossbill’s kip-kip calls.
After a short swing along the beach, the trail crosses a headland recently hammered by a fierce wind. It downed or tipped over more than a half-dozen trees. Most were middle-aged hemlocks. One was a giant spruce. It didn’t snap off at the base or collapse onto the forest floor. It still reclines against another spruce with most of its roots exposed to the air.
Wind and surf have forced off most of the ducks and all the gulls and scoters. Only the tiny harlequin and bufflehead remain in the cove, bobbing up and down on incoming waves. A murder of nervous crows overflies the ducks, lands for a few sections on a rocky ledge, and then returns to the air.
No formal trail crosses this meadow. Mountains surround it on all sides. Fast moving fog reveals and then as quickly obscures them. Normally, morning sunshine destroys meadow fog. These gray tendrils thicken as we work our away across the meadow.
Aki wouldn’t have picked this place for our daily adventure. It offers no chances for dog encounters or even pee mail to read. Over a foot of snow still covers the ground. It softened during yesterday’s heat and was crusted over by last night’s hard freeze. The crust supports Aki’s slight weight. I only break through every fourth or fifth step. Thanks to the conditions, we have the meadow to ourselves if you don’t count the gang of blue jays bickering nearby. I am confident that it will stay that way. If we have to isolate ourselves from neighbors, we might as well find a place of beauty for our quarantine.
I stop when we reach a small meadow within the meadow that has I few trees to block our view of the mountains. The fog has thickened enough to obscure the ridge to the west. But only one long tendril interferes with our view of a mountain bowl to the south. I take a quick photo of it before the tendril expands.
The snow crust seems to soften as I start moving toward the south. In a half-hour I will post holing into deep, wet snow. Even though there is no danger of her breaking through the crust, Aki is more than happy with my decision to backtrack our way off the meadow.
Aki and I are out on Mendenhall Lake. The temperature is above freezing and it is raining. I’ve stopped after crossing over two long linear cracks in the snow-covered ice. I’ve stopped to avoid skiing over an area covered with blue-green blotches. They will be puddles soon if the rain keeps up. Time to turn back to shore.
The little dog doesn’t mind retreating as long it doesn’t require returning to the car. She trots along behind until we almost reach the shore when she rushes off the ice. The skiing is better on the lake ice than shore so I don’t join Aki. She keeps to the snow-covered ground. Her hearing is superior to mine. Maybe she can hear the ice settling.
Our paths converge where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. The trail is still hard and fast from last night’s hard freeze. I’m so preoccupied with staying upright that I don’t notice six swans in the river until we are only ten or fifteen meters away from them. The big birds look as surprised as I feel.
I take off my skis so I won’t startle the swans more by falling. At first, they relax. While one keeps watch the others go back to sleep. As I take swan portraits, a large human family walks out of the woods downriver from us. They have a large dog that entertains the family’s preschoolers by splashing in and out of the river.
Even though they are several hundred meters from the family, the swans start paddling up river to increase the distance, moving nearer to us in the process. Aki and the swans ignore each other. But I feel like I might be placing the birds under stress. The little dog and I move on, leaving at least this part of the river to the swans.