The outdoor thermometer on Chicken Ridge promised a mild day for this time of year. If not for a brief snow shower that fell while I gathered things for today’s walk, winter would have seemed a long way off. Aki and I headed out to the wetlands to cruise for ducks or eagles. We only saw ravens.
The temperature during the walk never dropped below freezing but the wind chill made Aki shiver and me wish I had brought a heavier coat. At the beginning of the walk, we watched an airborne raven try to drive its brother off a scrap of food. After that it was all windblown grass and muddy trails. Well, that is not entirely true.
On the side of a large driftwood log, I found a little moss and lichen garden. Red lichen flowered among moss with leaves like tiny blades of grass. I would have never found this magic garden if not for the wind, which forced Aki and I behind the big log to warm up.
There is almost always an eagle in that cottonwood this time of year. Aki takes notice of my mumbling. The big birds always make her nervous. The eagle, marked with the white head and tail of an adult, watches us out of the corner of its eye. She is even wetter than my little dog.
From its cottonwood perch, the eagle can see the toe of Mendenhall Glacier poking out from a fog that hides the rest of the river of ice. Ghosts of mist float over Nugget Falls and the spruce covered hills that encroach on the east side of Mendenhall Lake. The resulting beauty helps me ignore the plink and plunk of raindrops hitting the hood of my rain parka.
The eagle can’t pull on a gore-tex coat when the weather worsens. It must endure and hope to scavenge some food to fuel its inter furnace. Is it dreaming of summer when salmon swim past its cottonwood tree on their way to spawn then become eagle and bear food? Or just does it just curse the rain and pray for a chance to dry out in the sun.
Aki wants to leave the Treadwell ruins for the beach even through a forty-mile-an-hour wind is whipping rain over the sand. I follow the little dog into the maelstrom. One of us knows what to expect.
We usually walk north down the beach to the little bay that formed more than 100 years ago when an undersea mine tunnel collapsed. On a calmer day we could expect to see a pair of eagles sulking on top of the old ventilation shaft. Two ravens are usually here looking for mischief. Today there is only a diminished raft of mallards huddling in the lee of a small point. Later we will see the ravens roosting on a pickup truck in the Foodland parking lot. They, will be staring at the Domino’s Pizza store, as if waiting for the cooks to finish the large meat lover’s special they ordered.
While I try to count the ducks, Aki sprints across the beach to take shelter in the border grass. In seconds she is standing at the start of a trail that leads back into the woods. I follow my poodle-mix into the forest. Steel rails that were once used by horse drawn carts to pull ore from the mine now twist and turn along the mossy ground. Some seem to erupt from the trunks of the spruce trees.
It was foolish of me to bring my old camera for on this walk. For a gray day like this, I need one with a better processor. I’d like to blame Aki for distracting me while I got ready for the walk. Perhaps it was all the clothes and gear I had to pull on to deal with rain and cold temperatures. Whatever the reason, I’m here with the little dog, photographing a wind-fallen tree at 1/8 of the second. Any faster and the photo would be too grainy.
In low light conditions, the old camera is usually only useful as a notebook—something to remind me of a scene. But it manages to capture the shattered trunk of a 100-foot tall spruce crushing the boardwalk trail. The downed tree is the largest piece of detritus littering the forest floor. To reach the beach we have to step around tree limbs, naked or still green with needles, pieces of bark, and gobs of old man’s beard. Last night’s wind storm pruned the forest.
Hoping to take home some shareable bird photographs, I point the old camera at a roosting eagle, gulls, golden eyes, and harlequins. The camera deconstructs the birds into course scenes, like a close up of an impressionist painting. At home, while looking at the photos on my laptop, I am at first disappointed. But after accepting their lack of clarity, I start to recognize the base elements of beauty they display. What appeared to my eye to be uniformly gray water has been broken down into pinks, purples, and greens. The birds look like that have been rapidly sketched in to capture the artist’s first impressions of their personalities.
As we wait for a human friend to pull on his winter boots, Aki and I watch several hundred Canada geese floating on Auk Lake. Most sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers. The guard birds cackle. It’s hunting season. The geese spend the daylight hours when hunting is allowed resting on this lake where hunting is prohibited. Shortly after sunset they will fly out to the wetlands to feed. The birds have adapted.
We leave the birds’ sanctuary and head out to a riverine forest gone to sleep until the spring. No bird or animal breaks the silence. We see only a single raven and it flies off when it hears us talking. We continue on in the direction of the raven’s flight and find twin hemlock trees loaded down with Christmas ornaments. A strong offshore wind whips about the little trees. The nearby ground is littered with fallen ornaments. Normally I dislike human attempts to embellish nature’s beauty. But today, when low clouds hide the mountains and nothing but ravens fly, I appreciate some little globes of color.
At beginning of this walk to Gastineau Meadows, a raven supervised me as I captured Aki’s scat in a plastic bag. From its post in a nearby spruce tree, it squawked with apparent disapproval when I dropped the bag on the ground and continued up the trail. I don’t think it trusted me to pick up the bag on the return trip to the car. It is one of those “at least it is not raining” days. The sunrise provided a little drama at daybreak but now gray skies seem to suck the color out of the rain forest.
A crust of snow covers the frozen meadow. It doesn’t deter the little poodle-mix from following me off the gravel trail and onto the muskeg. Someone with a fat tire bike has crushed his way across the south section of meadow. Worried that the thin snow covering is not enough to protect the fragile muskeg, I mutter curses to heap on the bike rider if he appears. But he is gone. After leaving the portion of the meadow marked by his tracks, we won’t see any other human tracks.
We follow the tiny tracks of a first-year fawn, hoping to find those left by its mother. But the little deer appears to have walked alone. Later we find the tracks of an adult deer moving in the direct we need to take to reach the trail to the car. A few yards later we see the tracks of a stalking wolf. I wonder if a single wolf could run down a deer impeded only by a thin crust of snow over frozen ground. Aki and I will find no sign of a kill.
The raven will still be in its post when I bend to pick up the poop bag that I had dropped at the beginning of this walk. It flies off only after I carry the smelling bag a few feet down the trail.
Today Aki will make an odyssey along a crescent shaped beach where she will see many strange things.
She will walk on an empty beach, passing a stream mouth full of bathing gulls. Other gulls will fly far over water to join them. A pair of mallard ducks will be tempted by the commotion but will paddle away when they discover there is no food.
The same pair of mallards will dance in a tight circle until the drake rides like a fuzzy chick on the hen’s back. Aki will wonder if they are mating as all but the head of the hen disappears under the weight of her dude.
Seas normally fractured in winter will remain calm, its surface like satin.
Western grebes will pass in threes, harlequins in groups of five. A harbor seal will creep with feet of two harlequins and then swim past them. He will pursue a raft of golden eye ducks until they reach water too shallow for a seal to swim.
The little dog will reach the car dry even though she passed through a light rain to get there.