Aki doesn’t realize that Chum salmon are trickling into Eagle River. They pooled up in nearby salt water until the tide changed from ebb to flood. Now they ride an income tide over the sand bars at the river’s mouth. To enter the river the salmon must swim pass a half-a-dozen seals.
Aki doesn’t see the seals, even when one 50 meters away snatches a salmon and splashes around the river surface until its powerful jaws crush the fish’s spine. Distracted by the seal-salmon scene, I don’t notice the little dog wade chest-deep into the river. While Aki sips away, two of the seals swirl toward her. They stop when they spot me and the black barrel of my camera lens.
An immature bald eagle watches Aki and the seals, perched on the skeleton of a spruce tree that vibrates in the river current. The eagle is close enough to the water for a seal to grab it with a quick lunge. The eagle wouldn’t have to worry about the seals if it moved further up the tree. But the tree limbs protect it from any assault from the air. An adult eagle watches all of us from the top of a riverside spruce tree. Maybe the mid-river bird has some history with the mature eagle.
When Aki leaves the river, the immature bird flies off and the seals return to their salmon hunt. We walk over to a line of dunes now covered with summer wildflowers. Five-foot high stalks of fireweed line our trail. Heavy-bodied bumble fees collect pollen feed from the magenta fireweed blossoms. One releases some golden-colored liquid that dribbles toward the ground. Do bees pee like poodles, little dog?
My hand reaches out for the little dog, but she is not there. My mind knows this but apparently, not my hand. Aki is cozy at home. I’m sitting on a folding chair on the deck of an old fishing boat. Two hooks baited with herring spin behind the boat as it moves through the north pass between Lincoln and Shelter Islands.
Two eagles watch from Shelter Island. A sea lion follows in case we hook a coho salmon. It would see that we would not be able to get the salmon into the boat. A few minutes ago, three Dahl porpoise weaved in and out of the water to our right. In a half-an-hour, a humpback whale will do the same.
Salmon will make several attempts to pull herring from our hooks. One will be hooked briefly. Neither the sea lion nor I will catch a fish.
I won’t lie. Aki and I are on a mission. I’ve brought her to this mountain meadow to search for berries. We are too early for picking so this might just be a reconnaissance run. In case it is not, I’m carrying the repurposed soy sauce jug that I use as a berry bucket.
The rain that soaked the muskeg last night has stop but cloud remnants still cling to mountainside sprue trees. Water drops grip the petals of bog cranberry and blueberry flowers. There’s promise of a harvest there, but it is more than a month off. In a tree above one of the berry patches, a Steller’s jay scolds the little dog and I, as if warning us off it’s berry bushes.
I had hoped to harvest cloud berries for pouring over morning oatmeal. But the few I find are still as hard as marbles. Too bad. Their smell and apple-pie taste remind me of visits to Sweden, were they are called hjortron, and the tundra near the town in Western Alaskan where I lived for ten years.
Aki and I are heading toward Crystal Lake on an overgrown trail. It ends at the beaver’s village. Just as we can view green-tinged light through the lakeside alders, something makes a loud splash. Keeping my stumbling to a minimum, I lead Aki to the shore, expecting to see the head of a beaver or otter and spot a common goldeneye hen swimming away from us, lake water beading up on her feathers.
It’s quiet in the rain forest. No woodpeckers hammer hemlocks, no thrush sing. That’s okay. Even in a summer when most of the engines of industrial tourism have been silenced by a virus, a quiet forest is often hard to find.
Aki’s nails beat a faint tattoo on the trail boards. When we pass a little cataract of moving water, the sound seems deafening. We return to quiet when we leave the boardwalk to walk on the soft forest floor. That’s why the sudden burst of eagle bickering is so jarring. While we approach the beach, one bald eagle chases another, driving its victim into a spruce tree. I can’t find either eagle after we emerge from the woods.
A single parent merganser family cruises off shore, making no noise. The resident crows and a flock of Bonaparte gulls remain silent until I walk in their direction. They take to the air, moan a bit, then fly noiselessly away. Later we see eagles sulking quietly on the beach.
The dogs are in and they have brought the eagles. “Chum” is the more polite name for dog salmon. Because they arrive in great numbers and aren’t as tasty as king or silver salmon, indigenous people of Northern Alaska dried chum salmon to feed their dog teams during the winter. Hence, the name. For some reason, rain forest people have also labeled chum salmon as dogs.
Ten bald eagles scan the beach for dead dog salmon. Twenty more have grouped up around a half-eaten salmon carcass. In ones or twos, the eagles perching in the trees leave their roosts to fly low over the beach cabal. These fly overs don’t dislodge the eagles on the beach or drive off the one crow brave enough to stand its ground near them.
It was much quieter on the glacier moraine where Aki and I spent the morning. Instead of watching bickering eagles we spied on a mallard hen and her chicks gliding through pond reeds. Lady Tress orchids provide white highlights to a predominately green landscape.
Rather than eagle screams, the spiraling songs of the hermit thrush provided a song track for our walk. One flew onto a tree limb near us and gave me a policeman’s measuring stare. I’d hate to think of what would happen if eagles were as tough as a thrush.
The last time that Aki and I stood on this Mendenhall Lake beach, a raven huddled at the base of a nearby alder, driven there by an angry arctic tern. This morning, neither raven nor tern are present. Last time, a cloud of terns hung over their nesting site. Today, we won’t see one of them.
We walk to Nugget Falls without seeing another dog or human. I wonder if the little dog is bored or as relieved as I.
On a normal summer day, I wouldn’t walk this trail. Most days last summer, hundreds of cruise ship passengers clogged it or posed for selfies in front of the falls. Other tourists paddled on the lake in oversized canoes. Today, only a piece of eagle down floats on the water.
On the way back to the car I spot a pair of nice folks blocking the trail. Their brand new, high-end raid gear marks them as out-of-towners. I could pass the guy while keeping six feet between us. But the woman stands in the middle of the trail, talking on her cell phone. I smile and wave my hand gently to the right, asking her to move far enough in that direction for me to safely pass. She looks startled, as if I had said something to her in Swedish. Her phone has transported her brain to the sun-soaked place where the other participant in the phone call stands. A second hand wave brings her back to Alaska and she moves aside to let me pass.
On an otherwise empty beach, Aki snuffles the sand. I watch her even though it means facing an up-channel breeze that throws rain in my face. Two eagles in a nearby tree also watch the little dog. They turn their heads away when I point my camera at them. They are waiting for something editable to wash ashore.
In a week or so, the eagles will be pulling flesh from salmon carcasses marooned on the beach by the ebbing tide. For now, they must watch and wait for lesser fare. At least three more eagles roost in the beachside trees. Just down the beach, a belted kingfisher watches the glory hole bay while perched on a glacier erratic.
The kingfisher won’t fly away unless I get really close. I don’t, choosing to watch it watching me through a curtain of rain. Inside the Treadwell Woods, I have a similar stare down with a pine siskin. It and the other song birds show no fear of Aki nor I, which surprises me given all the goof ball dogs that galumph through the woods. Then I realize that this is their harvest time.
Knowing that this year’s crop of dog salmon should already be heading up the Mendenhall River to spawn, I drive Aki out to a trail that leads to the river’s mouth. Usually we hear eagle and raven squabbles just after getting out of the car. This morning only robins and sparrows break the silence. The trail winds along a forested hillside, requiring the little dog and I to maneuver around and over exposed spruce roots. At first I worry that the Aki might reinjure her leg jumping over something. But she does fine.
The beach, when we reach it, is as quiet as the woods. No salmon fin in eddies. No ducks or geese gossip on the shore. Here and there beach rocks are decorated with yellow flower petals. We will find these little dots of yellow on over a kilometer stretch of beach. A belted kingfisher scolds us and then lands on a rock near the river. Then we hear the first eagle. It screams from inside a tangle of spruce limbs. Other eagles will call out as we progress down the beach. But will only see one of them.
On the drive back home, I stop at the hatchery where dog salmon wait to swim up a fish ladder to their death. Over a dozen bald eagles watch the salmon from perches in tree tops, pilings, and the top of the Juneau Empire building. Maybe made confident by their number, the eagles don’t seem bothered by our presence. Unlike their hard scrabble Mendenhall River cousins, these urban birds look large and in charge.
Clouds took the sun away yesterday. But they won’t deliver the rain until tomorrow. Without rain gear, Aki and I are searching a narrow muskeg meadow for berries. This is a scouting, not a harvesting mission. Although I manage to find a handful of ripe berries to feed the little dog.
Birds, as obvious as mosquitos, flit and fly through the surrounding bushes. A dark-eyed junko and two juvenile robins land on the trail itself. The fly off when we approach to nearby trees. Some of the birds must be eating blues berries. The trail boards are spotted with blue-covered scat.
The trail leads to a beach, which is as empty as the sky is gray. Something starts slapping the water. When the slapping stops, a harbor seal swims past. It must be herding silver salmon heading toward the mouth of their spawning stream. Later we will cross the stream and spot a swirl in the water caused by a salmon’s dorsal fin. At one salmon escape the hunting seals.