Author Archives: Dan Branch

Flat, Gray Day

This summer, I’ve heard woodpeckers pound against the tops of spruce trees but never saw one until this morning. It happened as Aki and I were returning from the shore of Fish Creek. The dense collection of scents was keeping Aki happy. But I was disappointed in the absence of birds, deer, or fish.

No eagles sulked in the tops of the forest trees lining the north shore of the creek. Later, I’d spot one along the edge of a bay. No salmon splashed or knocked about in the creek. I couldn’t sense anything in the water until I heard a merganser splashing and squawking on the creek. Somewhere upriver, it’s mate was carrying their chicks on its back as it moved into a wall of tall grass.

            The little dog and I turned our backs on the poorly performed play and headed downstream. Suddenly, a woodpecker flew low over my head and landed a few feet away on the lower trunk of an alder. Finally, a beautiful thing to photograph on this flat, gray day. Aki spotted the bird just as I did and charged it. The woodpecker flew off.

            The rest of the morning was spent looking at the reflections of glacier and mountains in Fritz Cove or telling myself that I was lucky to take the walk when purple, yellow, or yellow wildflowers lined both sides of the trail. Sometimes I would stop and close my eyes, trying to count the number of eagles, just born, that were screeching about the day.

Sweet, If Lazy Day

The sunshine is back, at least for a couple of days. We pass many people hiking or biking on the town trails. But only one van is parked near the Crystal Lake trail head when we arrive. It should be a great day to wander across the glacial wastes.

            Aki stops often as we head toward the lake. I don’t mind. It’s warm enough to make a standing in the sun a gentle and welcome gift. I know the wind is about to rise. But it is flat clam when we reach the lake. The reflection of the oddly shaped Thunder Mountain covers the lake’s surface. We would be able to enjoy a perfect double image of the mountain if not for one merganser duck that quacks and splashed back and forth across the lake.          

Mostly Heard, Not Seen

It’s June, a month for lots of bird action on Mendenhall River wetlands, at least in an ordinary year. It’s also the season for wild flowers. Wide swaths of shooting stars form magenta islands on the sea of green grass that borders the river. Buttercups and purple lupine flowers look like they are competing with each other for growth space.

            The birds are more to be heard than seen on this sunny day. The subtle tsit-tsit-tsit song of Savannah sparrows surround Aki and I as we cross the grassland. I begin to doubt whether we see any birds and then spot one of the Savannahs frozen in place on the top of an otherwise bare tree chunk. It gives the little dog and I a hard look as we pass buy.

            At the end of walk, as we move along a wire fence, I spot another bird frozen in place. It’s a silent American robin standing at attention on the fence. It looks like a guardsman at a British army post. Until now, the only robins we have seen this year landed just ahead of us on the trail, then flew off just as we reached it. Seconds later it land a little up the trail to lead us away from its nest.  This robin looked like he’d pull out a gun if we tried to get too close.

Have They Hatched Yet?

The eagle is perched on the top of an old mining tower. 100 years ago, a similar tower delivered fresh air in to undersea mine tunnels. Then the mine flooded out. I wonder if eagles rested on a mining tower before the flood.

            It’s low tide now so the tower is standing high and dry on the exposed beach. Maybe that’ why the eagle takes flight as I approached. He would be safer at high tide when only someone in a boat could reach the tower. More likely, the eagle has been called back to his’ partner’s nest.

            After leaving the beach, I follow Aki up a steep trail. At the top, you can look up at an eagle’s nest built in the crotch of a burley cottonwood tree. There, tucked in like a grandmother, the eagle stares at us from deep inside his nest.

Keeping Undercover

It’s June, a month for lots of bird action on Mendenhall River wetlands, at least in an ordinary year. It’s also the season for wild flowers. Wide swaths of shooting stars form magenta islands on the sea of green grass that borders the river. Buttercups and purple lupine flowers look like they are competing with each other for growth space.

            The birds are more to be heard than seen on this sunny day. The subtle tsit-tsit-tsit song of Savannah sparrows surround Aki and I as we cross the grassland. I begin to doubt whether we see any birds and then spot one of the Savannahs frozen in place on the top of an otherwise bare tree chunk. It gives the little dog and I a hard look as we pass buy.

            At the end of walk, as we move along a wire fence, I spot another bird frozen in place. It’s a silent American robin standing at attention on the fence. It looks like a guardsman at a British army post. Until now, the only robins we have seen this year landed just ahead of us on the trail, then flew off just as we reached it. Seconds later it land a little up the trail to lead us away from its nest.  This robin looked like he’d pull out a gun if we tried to get too close.

Dan Branch

June 10, 2021

Slowed down by beauty, I take more than the usual time to complete the Eagle River loop trail. At first Aki doesn’t complain. She is spending more time sniffing and peeing than I use up enjoying the views. Then she gets serious.

            We are walking through an old growth forest to the river. Shafts of sunlight blast beauty out of devil’s club brush and shattered trees. Yellow wild flowers reach for sunlight, In a few minutes the sun will move on. They will become almost invisible. I will not be able  to resistfollowing the sun shafts to their next lovely chunk of growth. Aki will already be there.

Looking for Sparkles

In a few hours the sky will clear, letting the sunshine light up the Douglas Mountain Range. The sun will also replace the subtitle colors of Gastineau Meadow with richer tones. I’ve taken many pictures to record that beauty. But I’m out here before the storm ends, being soaked by a soft rain, because sometimes raindrops can deliver more sparkle than sunshine.

Hammering Dahl Porpoise

I thought long and hard this morning about skipping my daily walk with Aki. She probably wouldn’t mind. The older poodle spent most of the time since breakfast curled up under her humans’ bed. But she finally let me dress her in a warm jacket and then wait at the door as I pulled on my boots.

            We drove out to Auk Bay where the trail runs through a thick, old growth forest. That can protect us from most of the rain pounding the town. It did. But I dashed out of the forest for the beach after spotting a small clan of Dahl porpoise in Auk Bay. Normally, the guys disclose little when they feed in the bay. This morning, some of them fly out of the water and then crash back. The noise of their jumps drives a small school of salmon down the beach to a small bay. As they do whenever being chased, the salmon form a tight ball just off shore. In seconds the porpoise slam into the ball and snatch fish with their bills. Seconds later, they disappear deeper into the bay.

Gentle Beauty

We’ve stirred bears here on the moraine this time of year. We’ve seen swans eating while floating on the surface of Moose Lake. We’ve watched ducks feed there as well. But today is for listening, not seeing things that produce beauty.

Hidden by thick leaves of cottonwood trees, small birds are filling the air with music. That’s all we need to enjoy this mostly dry walk around lakes and through new forests. Toward the end of the hike, the rains starts to fall. I wouldn’t have even noticed if the drops weren’t creating expanding circles when they hit the surface of the lake.

Osprey

Several days of heavy rain have raised the local creek and lake waters to near flood stage. Parts of the trail that Aki and I are using will be flooded. But she can swim and I am wearing good quality Wellington-style boots. Thanks to the messy trail we’ll have the forest, beaches, and meadows to ourself. No one else wants to deal with the swampy trail.

            First we have to cross twenty feet of trail, now covered with 10 inches of water. No big deal for the little dog, more of a challenge for her human charge. But soon we reach a mostly dry trail that circles the beaver pond. I look for beavers, ducks, and song birds and find only silence.  

            We reach the beach, where usually this time of year we spot eagles, gulls, and a small flock of harlequin ducks. Today I can only find a beach raven and one gull that sits on a tiny rock island, just offshore. Then, what I first think is an immature bald arcs above us then moves over the little bay. From time to time, it pulls itself to a stop 80 feet over the water, hovers, then resumes its cruise. At least twice, the bird dived onto a fish in the water. Once it passed close enough for me to see his solid white belly and a black marking strip on its head. It’s an osprey, a rare hunter in the southeast rainforest.

            We watch the osprey dive into the water several times and then fly away over Outer Point. I remember an osprey that nested near the Aniak River when my wife and I lived in the Alaska Bush. One day, the village priest talked me into taking him silver salmon fishing on the Aniak. Father Andy hoped to catch a silver large enough to win the annual salmon derby. He needed the prize money to pay for some church repairs. A bald eagle dived toward my boat, trying to escape an upset osprey. The eagle pulled up before hitting me or the priest. The osprey snatched my baseball cap, then dropped it into the river. After recovering my hat, I steered the boat upriver from the osprey’s nest. Father and I both caught silver salmon, but none nearly as big as the wining fish. That was caught by the town’s evangelical minster.