There is little drama on the Fish Creek delta today. We are in between ducks and salmon. Even the tide is middling. In an hour the flood will cover this trail like it has already covered the food-rich wetlands. Then it will retreat and things should get more interesting. As the Tlingit elders tell their grandchildren, when the tide is out, the table is set.
The tide is widening channel of Fish Creek where a great blue heron hunts and pecks for salmon smolt trying to reach salt water. Several crows land near the heron, watching it out of boredom or in hopes of snatching some leftovers. In a minute they are gone. The crows didn’t distract the heron. Nor did a bald eagle that flew a meter above the heron’s head.
My attention level is somewhere between the heron and the crows. I planned to remain near the heron long enough to watch it spear a salmon smolt. Then an eagle flew down the creek and clouds that have been covering the top half of the glacier lifted. I leave the heron to head down stream to Fritz Cove where one might better see the glacier, spot a seal lion or maybe even a killer whale.
A year ago today a mega cruise ship was plugging its way up Favorite Channel. The on-board naturalist would have used the public address system, the same one used to announce the opening of the casino, to direct passengers’ attention to Shelter Island where two humpback whales had just surfaced. I would have grumbled to Aki that the whale watching boats couldn’t be far away.
If we didn’t move from this rocky headland, we would have seen four or five go-fast-boats circle around the whales as more on-board naturalists clicked the microphones on their PA systems. I would have remembered the time, on an early spring day, before the first cruise ship of the year, when two newly-arrived humpback whales surfaced less than fifty meters from here. The little dog and I were the only ones to see them.
This morning, the channel is empty of cruise ships and whale watching boats. No one follows the whales as they swim from Pearl Harbor to Shelter Island. This will be the first summer in decades without cruise ships or whale watching boats. No helicopters loaded with cruise ship passengers will buzz overhead on their way to the Juneau Ice Field. The city’s economy is going to take a hit. But the whales won’t mind.
A porcupine the size of a small pig waddles through trailside alders. The top of its tail and a large patch of its rear are bare. Before being attacked by a dog or the other predator sharp-tipped quills covered the bald spots. What ever attacked the porcupine is still trying to rid its muzzle of quills.
Aki starts to wander toward the porcupine, nose to the ground. In a few seconds she will spot movement and dash over to the Alaskan hedgehog. Seconds after that I’ll be pulling quills from her face. Sacrificing a chance for a great photo, I drop the camera and grab the dog. Together we watch the porcupine force itself into a blue berry thicket. The color of its quills is an exact match to the branches of the still-bare blue berry bushes, so it appears to disappear.
We are on a mountain meadow. Snow still covers much of the trail. That’s why I brought the little dog here. It’s one of our rites of spring that requires a warm day after a cold night that sets up the snow for walking. When we reach the snow, the poodle-mix does a few donuts and then rubs her face in the white stuff. She shakes her face, sending wet snow flying. Some of it ends up on my pants, which is a small price to pay. As my pants dry, I enjoy the meadow ponds capture the surrounding snow-covered mountains.
Last week this beach was jammed with people and dogs. Kids splashed in the small surf. Today we pretty much have the place to ourselves. Two adults sleep on towels. Two gulls complain about our presence. Twelve golden eye ducks fish just off the beach.
Sunlight slips in and out of the clouds, intensifying the yellow-green color of cottonwood leaves, making the water around the golden eyes sparkle. It brightens the yellow of dandelion flowers lining the beach.
The little dog and I have reached the junction in Treadwell Woods where we always turn left. It’s marked by the tall cottonwood with an eagle’s nest. The other trail leads to Lucky Me. No eaglet calls for food. No adult looks accusingly over the lip of the nest at the poodle mix. A corona of backlit cottonwood leaves circles of the nest. Too bad there isn’t a white-headed adult to wear the green crown.
I’ve never been able to coax Aki away to take the right fork at this junction until today. Today, she is more than happy to follow a dog friend and its human right to take the road less traveled. It’s a trail dappled by leaf shadows that leads to a beach of pulverized ore from the Ready Bullion mine. The mine closed more than 100 years ago, leaving behind the beach, buildings, mine carts, bricks and crockery. Rusting wheels and rails emerge like mammoth tusks from the shifting ore sand.
All of the bird action is taking place at the waterline. Two sandpipers—a greater yellow legs and a grey tailed tattler—feed in the shallows until driven off by the wake of a Seattle-bound barge. An adult bald eagle munches on a crab carcass and then flies over to a small stream to bathe. Just offshore a raft of surf scoters descends on of school of bait fish.
Bird song has dropped in the Troll Woods. The wrens are still going to town. But I haven’t heard a thrush’s blurry whistle since we left the car. Our sunny streak is continuing so I feel like singing, even if the birds had gone silent.
Aki and I circle several small lakes, seeing no one. Since the Covid crisis, I tend to choose the lesser used trails. The little loyal little dog doesn’t object, even though it means she rarely can do a meet and greet with another dog. She still stops often to check out interesting scents. I had to wait a minute for her to finish checking out a smell near the beavers’ lodge.
Usually sunny weather brings the wind to riffle the Troll Woods lakes. But today, only the faintest breeze flows through the woods. Each lake is a crystal mirror reflecting mountains and glaciers.
Clusters of emerging water lily leaves look like whales breaching on the surface of the beaver pond. Some leaves have already flattened out on the water to gather the summer’s energy. Strong morning light makes the others translucent.
The tail slap of a nervous beaver sounds on the other side of the pond. Above the pond, a male woodpecker hops erratically up and down an overhanging alder tree. It’s a red-breasted sapsucker, not the three-toed woodpecker I was expecting. Last summer the three-toed raised a brood of chicks in a nearby spruce snag. I saw the male feeding near where the sapsucker is staring at me. Each season has its winners and losers.
We’ve been enjoying an early stretch of sunny, warm weather, which has drawn campers to beaches, like the one that Aki and I will soon reach on the trail. When a family of campers approaches, I grab Aki and retreat a few meters off the trail. In a few minutes the little dog and I reach their campsite and find an eagle and raven checking it out for scraps.
These campers had totally extinguished their fire before leaving. Two days ago, sixteen acres of forest and grass-covered dunes burned near Boy Scout Beach, a place Aki and I like to visit. We have seen bears digging up the meadow grass there to harvest chocolate lily roots. The place was crowded with Canada geese the last time we walked over the dunes. Now the geese and bears will have to find somewhere else to feed.
The forest light seems particularly pure this morning. It confuses my old digital camera and sometimes, even my eyes. It turns strands of spider webs into strings of prisms. Light and birdsong are the only things keeping us in the woods. Normally, Aki and I would have reached the beach by now, where we might see arriving humpback whales or orcas chasing incoming king salmon.
The tips of fragile ferns have already unfurled, marking the end of spring. While Aki reads her pee mail, I check the blue berry bushes for blossoms. We and the bears will have to look elsewhere for our berries this year.
When we finally reach the beach, it seems empty except for kids carry white plastic buckets. With rubber boots on their feet, they splash through the shallows, bent over, looking for shells or memories.
This is our third attempt in a month to reach Norton Lake. Water backing up from a beaver dam flooding the trail forced me to give up on the first two attempts. It has dropped enough to allow me to reach the lake with damp, but not soaked boots. Aki and I splash along the edge of the water until reaching an old beaver dam. I walk across the top of the dam until reaching a deer trail that leads to the lake.
Aki didn’t walk onto the dam until I was most of the way across it. When I look back, she gives me her, “Are you sure this is how you want to end your life?” look. I search the pond waters for crocodiles and the nearby woods for bears. Seeing none, I push on. Aki dashes across the dam to join me on the other side. Then, she gives me her “I hope this is worth it” glare.
Few dogs have passed this way so at first Aki has little use for her nose. Then she finds beaver scent and appears to go into a trance as she rolls in it. That must have made the dam crossing worth it for the little poodle-mix. I expected a chance to view more northbound waterfowl or even a young beaver looking for a mate. But we only see a bufflehead drake and a small gang of tense looking mallards.
It’s a clam day so lake provides a nice mirror for the glacier and Mt. McGinnis. Little birds sing and make quick sorties onto the ground for seeds or gravel but don’t stay long enough for me to make an identification. Then, an alder flycatcher bops unto the limb of a dead snag lets itself be photographed. I manage to take two photos—one when it is frozen on the snag, and the other with its wings flashed out in a turn.
When the bear and her two cubs wander out of heavy brush, I’m pulling off my sweatshirt. The plop-like sound of the hoodie releasing its hold on my head causes momma bear to look across the stream that separates Aki and I from her and hers. As I fumble through switching the telephoto for my wide angle lens, the bear family slips back into the brush. I manage to spot mom moving between two large spruce and the teddy bear face of one of the cubs poking out from a tangle of alders.
If Aki tumbled to the bears’ presence, she didn’t let me know. We start down a trail the troll woods away from the bear family. I didn’t want to enter the woods on this blue-sky day. It would have been better to circle around Crystal, Moose or Moraine Lake, watching transient ducks, like blue wing teals, paddle across the reflections of the glacier or one its mountain consorts.
The bear’s was the only family we would see on the moraine. That was my plan. We had to avoid the beaches because it is Sea Week. Today’s minus 4.4 foot low tide will drawn every family with grade school children to our beach trails. For the past 49 years the kids would have ridden school buses to the beaches exposed by big spring tides to celebrate Sea Week. Naturalists pointed out cool things found in tide pools and helped them understand the power of the tides. This year, thanks to the virus, parents must take on the naturalists’ role, like they have to be their kids teachers after the schools closed, like mother bear does for her cubs.