We have just turned our back on a great blue heron, leaving it standing tall among gulls on a gravel bar. The heron was looking toward the glacier, not the gulls or Aki, when we slipped around a rocky headland.
Now we are walking along a strip of gravel between a forested island and Fritz Cove. Inside the island crows and several bald eagles bicker and scream. Apparently having enough of the crow’s harassment, two of the eagles fly out of the trees and over our heads, startling ducks and gulls into flight. While the little dog and watch the eagles fly towards the Chilkat Mountains when we hear a sound like a rock plunking into the water.
Looking toward the sound, we spot a belted kingfisher shooting out of the water. It lands on an offshore rock just as another plunk sounds. This one is made by the first bird’s mate. The first guy flits onto another rock, drawing attention away from the other bird. It stands in profile with its huge beak pointing down the beach. Each time we move a few meters away from the second bird, the first one glides down the beach. When we are thirty meters from the second bird, the first guy circles over the water and reunites with its mate.
I wonder why the Creator burdened the diminutive kingfisher with such a massive beak that looks so like that of the heron. The spear-shaped beak is a well-balanced weapon on the large heron’s head. It forms a projectile the heron can shoot forward with its powerful neck muscles. The kingfisher must use his whole body as a spear, driving beak-first after fish swimming feet below the surface.
This walk is Aki’s choice. The past two mornings, the little dog had hung back when it was time to get into the car. Yesterday I promised her that today we would start from the house. Aki trots with purpose down and our street and straight through the intersection where we would have to turn left to the take the Perseverance Trail. She wants to go urban. No waterfalls or noisy creek today.
Sunshine slants across Downtown Juneau, backlighting the leaves of maple trees imported to remind transplanted Juneauites of crisp fall days back home. The sun, a rare visitor this time of the year, has drawn people out of their studio apartments. They sit on steps and sidewalks smoking cigarettes made with tobacco or the now legal marijuana.
Ravens patrol overhead, sending down condemning croaks when not happy with they see. One homeless guy croaks back, engaging a raven in a harsh duet. When an immature bald eagle flies near, the raven brakes off to chase the much bigger bird away.
Aki and I are thirty miles North of home, slipping between rain-soaked blueberry bushes. More deer than men have used the path. It leads to a chute that bottoms out on a rocky beach. Like the herder that she is, the little dog waits for me to move onto the beach before she joins me.
I don’t know what Aki wants out of this walk. She seems satisfied with the smells on offer so far. Me, I hope to see a whale or seal or sea lion. I’d like to watch a heron hunt the shallows or spot a swan cuddled up in beach grass.
As if it read my mind, a harbor seal steams toward us, throwing up a bow wake as it nears the beach. It slips under the water when only a few meters from the beach. We won’t see it again. Well little dog, at least we saw one animal on the list. I don’t think Aki even saw the seal. When it appeared, she was snuffling along the edge of an old campfire ring.
We move back into the woods and follow another informal trail to a small rocky shelf that overlooks a pocket bay. Aki whines while I try to find the source of splashing coming from the bay. Twenty or thirty tiny fish burst out of the water, which is swirling to the movement of unseen predators. The scene repeats five or six more times. I can just make out pieces of the predator rising above the water. I assume it’s a winter king salmon feasting on baitfish. At home, in the pictures of the hunt that I took are enlarged by the computer, the predator will look more snake than fish.
We return to the car on trail that takes us up and over a forested hill and onto a tidal meadow where I’ve seen heron hunt for frogs. Aki flushes one that was feeding feet from the trail. It is considerate enough to only fly thirty meters away. Check another one off the must-see list. The heron eventually flies to just above where a stream drains into a salt chuck. On the shore of the brackish little lake, a swan cuddles in the beach grass just inches away from a brace of mallards.
Yellowing grass lines both sides of this dike trail. At a place where high water has eroded the dike, I follow Aki down to the shore of Moose Lake, drawn by the reflections of cottonwood trees in the lake’s surface. It’s a gray day but we are between rain showers. No drops shatter the mirror. It reminds me of a recent comment to an earlier post—that symmetry is beauty.
The reflection creates the perfect parody of the thing reflected. It’s not a mocking parody. It enhances, rather than diminishes the appeal of the strip of yellowing trees lining the lakeshore. This morning the way the grays, greens and yellows complement each other ramps up the beauty.
Aki gives me her “let get a move on because I have dog butts to smell” look. Maybe its her’ “come back to Earth Major Tom,” glare. I get the two confused. Either way, her hard look lets me know that she is almost out of patience. There is not much she could do if I chose to stand and ruminate. But we are partners in this incursion into bear and beaver country so I return to the trail.
Aki and I are following the Rainforest Trail to the beach. Dull-brown leaves cover the path. Gray trunks of alder trees frame a wall of yellow berry bushes. It draws me like the first sunshine after a month of rain. Up close, the leaves look more brown than yellow and show the signs of a summer being attacked by insects. Late fall beauty can’t stand close scrutiny.
It isn’t raining when we walk onto the beach. Fog blocks our view of the mainland mountains. But across Lynn Canal, the Chilkat Mountains seem to be showing off their new snow blankets. They were hidden from us by cloud cover the last time we walked the beach. The time before that, they were embarrassingly bare thanks to a summer drought that melted their snow cover.
The beach and bay are empty of birds. I expected to spot at least one small raft of harlequin ducks or maybe some returning Barrow golden-eyes. Until stretching Aki’s patience to the limit, I scan the water to birds, seals, or whales. This time of year we have seen all three off this beach. But I end up settling for the mountains, newly white, cross the canal.
I am slipping and sliding through lakeside mud. Aki, no fool she, stays on a nice mossy path that parallels the beach. I could join her on the easier trail. But the views of mountains, waterfalls, and a glacier keep me on the beach.
The morning mist has melted away so nothing blocks my view of mountains McGinnis and Stroller White reflected on the lake’s surface. The lake also mirrors lines of cottonwood trees, each bearing a load of leaves fading from yellow to rust. The glacier slices between the mountains like a blue snake.
On our last visit to the lake, I was forced by high lake levels to use Aki’s forest path. Now, in spite of all the recent rain, those levels have dropped, revealing a wide strip of gravel for walking. It offers a variety of mud. Some of the yucky stuff is as greasy as lard. In other places the mud forms a thin patina over beach gravel. In one spot my boots making a sucking sound each time I take a step. Forced off her forest trail by a beaver pond, Aki joined me just before the sucking mud. She convinces me to carry her the mess.
We seem to have all the beauty to ourselves. No ducks or geese ripple the lake surface. No eagles, ravens, or even jays comment on our passage from lakeside tree roosts. There might be mountain goats on the high flanks of McGinnis or bears in woods. A deer could be peaking out from the Troll Woods. But only the sun shows itself just long enough to reverse for a few minutes, the cottonwoods’ autumn fade.
An immature eagle lands on a midstream gravel bar and eyes a chunk of something pink and fleshy. In seconds a raven joins him. The eagle takes possession of the goody with a talon and starts ripping off a bite sized piece. Raven uses a bowing little dance to get the eagle to share. When that doesn’t work, it squawks out a coarse protest song. The song goes on and on until the raven lifts off toward another source of food.
Aki was back in the car before the eagle landed. We are both soaked with rain that just stopped pounding the Sheep Creek Delta. The clouds now drift up against the flanks of Sheep Mountain to be shredded by tall spruce. I brought the dog here so I could search for heron. We found none. Aki tried to keep me from crossing exposed sections of the beach. She prefers to sniff along the grassy dune that separates the beach from the old ore house. There she can hide from eagles.
We walked to dune’s end where gold miners park their sluice boxes. The sluices sit in boats made of salvaged wrecks, foam blocks, and scrap wood. Soft delta sand is shoveled into the sluice box, which extracts the gold. The miners are driven to stand in cold water in the rain for hours by dreams of wealth or perhaps the simple desire to get something for nothing, like the eagle-bothering raven.
Like the miners, the eagles and other delta birds are always on the make. When not searching the riverbank and beach for carcass scraps, they make half-hearted passes over rafts of ducks, driving most into flight. Even the tiny swallows are always working an angle. This morning one gave me the stink eye for distracting it from harvesting beach grass seeds.