Every time we come to the False Outer Point beach for sea weed, we enjoy a little dance with the resident raft of golden eye ducks. As I carry two empty buckets down the steep path to the beach, the ducks, who are feet from the gravel, swim away in tight formation.
By the time we reach the beach itself, the golden eye contingent moves first toward the tip of False Outer Point and then paddles together into Fritz Cove. While Aki sniffs and pees, I search for piles of loose seaweed along the waterline. Most of the time I have to walk to the end of the beach before finding what I am looking for. After filing the buckets, I start up the beach for the car. Just before starting up the hill, I pass the golden eye pod, as they return to their beachside feeding grounds.
Aki and I are using the whale boardwalk to cross wetlands in front of Downtown Juneau. Eagles used to roost on the barren spruce trees installed to serve as bird perches. In no time the ravens and crows chased the eagles off.
Now, the crows still fly off when my little dog and I approach. But the ravens, they act like we had been sent there to entertain them. They fly low in front of us and then, in twos or threes, land in one of to the barren trees. One might even drop on the boardwalk in front of to seduce Aki to chase it. My dog no longer takes the bait.
Today rain has kept most of the people off the boardwalk so the ravens pay us special attention. After one tries to induce Aki to chase her off the boardwalk, it joins two other ravens on a nearby barren tree to preen.
It was late winter when Aki and I first found the Mendenhall River swans. A family of four were feeding in the mouth of the River. After that we usually spotted the foursome while cross country skiing down the river. As the winter progressed we also saw true transient swans. They were jumpy compared to the resident foursome.
Last May, another Juneau hiker told me that the foursome spent the entire winter surviving in the winter river drainage In hopes of spotting them now, I lead Aki down the river, careful not to slip on melting beach ice. But we see no swans. We see no birds, no deer, only melting snow and falling rain.
Juneau hasn’t seen sunshine today. It won’t for at least the next week, The lovely and usual stretch of rich sunshine days ended yesterday afternoon. We’re back in the grey that is so common this time of year. There is a light snow falling but each flake dies before reaching the beach we are crossing.
Aki doesn’t object to the change of weather. She is happy even though no sunshine warms her. Aki is always drawn to the seduction smells on the beach. She does ignore a long strip of cable that was recently exposed by a storm tide. After 100 years of submersion under the beach sand, it is newly exposed. Soon the local dogs will mark it with pee. Aki will probably spray her own urine on the cable during our next visit to the beach.
Our sunny stretch of weather will end tomorrow. The air is still frozen but that won’t last long. Soon the frost making trail grass sparkle will melt away. That’s why Aki and I came here now when can have the crisp place to ourselves.
We leave the trail and cross a grassy plain to the river. A very high tide last night flattened much of the grass, making it easy for the short-legged Aki to cross with me. I expect to spot geese or ducks gathered in the river water but find no birds.
While returning to the trail, the little dog and I hear the sounds of shotgun blasts coming from downriver. Some hunters are driving off the birds. I may have to avoid visiting these wetlands until after the waterfowl season ends on the first day of next year.
Why are the tree lines so crisp, the dead grass glowing in the early morning sun? The images jump out at Aki and I as we climb the trail leading to Gastineau Meadows. We won’t be able to ask for an answer from other hikers. Strong, pulsating winds seem to be keeping them off the trail.
I find the answer by looking at the trailside alders. This late on a normal October morning, not one leaf should still be clinging to the alders. This morning trailside alders seem weighed down with leaves that have curled up tight. Are they hoping for a return of warmer weather? Or are they stalling long enough for the leaves to send their nutrients down to the tree roots?
Aki and I are having a beautiful, if strange visit to the Fish Creek Delta. Unblocked sun pounds down on wetlands exposed by a low tide. Three men wearing masks cast lures into a tiny section of the lake not covered with ice. If there were still fish there, they show no interest in what the men have to offer.
On a beach along Fritz Cove, two guys wearing high end hunting gear sit in nice folding chairs. A small scattering of duck decoys floats just offshore. The resident mallard ducks are too far away to be shot by these guys. With their retrievers, they wait for something shootable to fly close enough to kill.
I am wondering whether this is a closed hunting area when a small collection of Canada geese appears just north of us. After spotting Aki and I, they fly in a wide arch around us before heading toward the waters of Fritz Cove. Their route takes them close to target range for the two human hunters. One fires three shots at the geese, who manage to fly away to safety.
When we started up Basin Road, I re-examined my decision to bring Aki on this adventure. The first sun of the day had already reached the mountain ridges, driving a cold breeze down on the trail. The breeze will strengthen into an unpleasant wind as the sun climbs. It was a cold choice.
Trails a few miles away were still calm. We could stand on one in a sunny spot on and let the rising sun warm our faces. But there is one great reason for transiting into Juneau’s old gold country this morning. From the shaded trail we can watch the morning sunshine push darkness down the exposed flank of Mt Juneau. The resulting explosion of light makes the cold trek worth it.
It happened too fast. Last week Mendenhall Lake was open during our last visit. We watched two kayakers paddle just off shore, working their way around a shrinking iceberg. Ultra-thin, clear chunks of ice floated near the shore. In an hour they melted away. Today solid ice covers the surface of the lake.
The appearance of winter hasn’t driven birds away from the lake. In the top of a shoreside spruce tree, an adult bald eagle squawks at an approaching magpie as it tries to land in the same tree. There is a partially eaten wild animal nearby. The birds are fighting over who gets what’s left.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we rarely saw Stellar’s jays on Chicken Ridge. In 1995 crows dominated the neighborhood. They’d arrive in a noisy crowd each spring on one of the first warm days, taking positions in the neighborhood trees like an occupying force. Ten years later they relocated in another neighborhood, allowing a pair of ravens to move in.
I am happy to hang with the ravens, who entertained we humans by hiding flashy little garbage scraps in our yard. The ravens still spend much of their time in ours or our neighbors’ yards. But a pair of Stellar’s jays now fly in and out of our yard like bossy blue birds.