Aki and I are on the Outer Point Trail slipping through to the beach before the trail repair work for the day begins. A local nonprofit is trying to fix portions of the trail washed out by water flowing under a beaver dam. The affected path turned into an ice skating rink last winter and is now a muddy mess.
The trail crew cannibalized some of the trailside spruce to make barriers to contain gravel and planks for new bridges. Sawdust from their work clings to Aki’s leg fur. The little dog seems puzzled by the trail work. Something just doesn’t smell right. But it doesn’t take much encouragement for her to trot with me toward the beach.
We pass through a muskeg meadow before reaching the beach. Like they have been scattered like chicken feed, the white blossoms of cloudberry plants form random patterns on the spongy ground. Called “hjortron” in Sweden and “salmon berry” by the Yupik people of Western Alaska, the harvest of cloudberries is an important cultural activity in the Nordic world. They draw Swedish families to mountain meadows to preserve liters of the tangy-sweet fruit so they can taste summer in the heart of winter. Extended families of Yupik people use riverboats to reach traditional berry patches where elders teach the children the important of wild foods. Here in the rain forest years can go by without cloudberry plants setting any fruit. We target the more reliable blueberry crop.
This summer, after enough time has past for the cloudberries to turn soft and ripe, Aki and I might sneak back to this meadow and gather a bowl or two of the salmon-colored fruit. I will lick their juice from my fingers and remember picking in a tundra berry patch on a sunny day when the wind kept the mosquitoes away and cranes flew overhead.
No bald eagles are roosting on the roof of the mine’s ventilator shaft. That’s the first thing I notice when Aki and I drop onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell Woods. The beach has that sinister feel that always comes when a thin veil of overcast replaces a prior day’s blue sky. This is reinforced by the absence of any birds on the beach. The woods were full of birdsong belted out by winter wrens, yellow warblers, dark-eyed juncos, and robins. On the beach not even a raven is around to croak us a warning.
The scent-oriented Aki doesn’t care about our silent greeting. It just means there is nothing to distract her from the beach’s seductive smells. The quiet time is about to end. As the poodle-mix dashes down the beach to investigate a chattering cloud of Bonaparte gulls materializes over our heads. The Bonaparte is my favor gull, perhaps because of its distinctive black hat that makes it easy to identify.
Just after the gulls appear an eagle screams and then flies away to its nest in the woods. Quiet returns. Nothing distracts me from the rich yellow-greens of the beachside balsam poplars or the smell of the sweet incense that gives them their name.
It is almost impossible to rise with the sun during the northern summer. At this time of the morning last winter Aki and I would have been hiking in the dark. Still, during most of our visit we will have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. A nice bird watcher arrived just before us but didn’t go beyond the pond.
On the drive to the trailhead, I thought about deer and when a doe walked in front of the car. After we stopped, it crossed to the west side of the road and tried to find cover behind a sparse blueberry bush. Another deer appeared to be waiting for us at the trailhead parking area. Acting like it was still undiscovered, it tiptoed off the trail and into a forest tangle.
Things have calmed down on the delta since our last visit. The resident eagles have reached accommodation with the crows, which no longer try to drive the bigger predators from their roosts. Freed up from defense work, the crows have spread out to feed on the tidal meadow. One crow lands on a rock in the middle of tiny pond, apparently to enjoy its reflection in the pond’s surface. It doesn’t seem to notice a sandpiper that wades past.
The marine layer that darkened our skies for weeks is breaking into clouds that reflect in the waters of Fritz Cove. An adult bald eagle flew out over the cove, dove on a fish and pulled up—wings wet and talons empty. Now it squats at the top of a spruce tree with its wings spread out to dry, a sour look on its face.
Aki couldn’t have picked a worse tip to go on a walk about. We are exposed on an open section of the Mendenhall Wetlands. The 10-pound poodle-mix is 40 meters away, sniffing a pee mail message. A bald eagle on its way toward the glacier makes a sudden course correction and begins to circle over the little dog, which must look like a plump, gray rabbit from the air. Aki freezes when I demand her to come to me. There is no time to outwait the little brat so I run toward her. The eagle breaks off and veers north toward the glacier.
Aki, who never saw the eagle, trots close to my side a little confused as we move down along the Mendenhall River towards Fritz Cove. The tide was out on our last visit to the wetlands, exposing food-rich mud flats to hundreds of teals, northern shovelers, mallards, and shorebirds. Today, with the tide at the flood, we only spot a bored-looking raft of mallards sleeping near the riverbank.
I expect that we will have to rely on the glacier, surrounding mountains, and the intense yellow-green colors of unleafing cottonwood trees for drama. Then an arctic tern flies overhead. It’s amazing to think that the tern’s frail-looking wings carried it all the way from Antarctica and will have to carry it back at the end of our summer.
While Aki sulks with impatience at my feet, I watch the tern disappear over the river. Then I spot two sparrow-like birds perched near each other on the roots of a driftwood log. They look like female Lapland longspurs in breeding plumage. If they breed this year it will be on the northern tundra, not along this river. They must be resting up before resuming their flight north.
Beavers. Aki and I are on the lookout for the buck-toothed rodents on this walk across the moraine. We walk along the Mendenhall River, which is dropping after a recent run of high water. It was raining earlier, which might explain why we have the place to ourselves.
Even though there is a large beaver house just upriver from our position, we have no chance of seeing one of them swimming across the water. We have to go deeper into the moraine—to the rarely visited Norton Lake. In years past, the little dog and I have been able to watch beavers tail slap the lake water and then swim towards us to check out the poodle wearing clothes.
The beavers have made it difficult to reach Norton Lake. You have to skirt a flooded portion of the trail and then tightrope walk along the top of one of their dams. After Aki and I walk maneuver our way through this obstacle course, I search the remains of beaver killed trees that rise like grave markers from the surface of the pond, looking for the arrow-head shaped beaver snout cutting a “v” across the water.
There will no beavers sighted this day, a pair of mallard drakes floating without apparent purpose across the surface of the lake.
Fog wraps around Chicken Ridge when the little dog and I climb into the car. It thickens as we drop down to the channel. If the fog could burn off in a half and hour this would be a great morning for a tidewater walk. Rather than rely on the gloom doing a quick disappearance act, I steer the car across the Douglas Bridge and drive into the mountains.
I just make out the tops of the Douglas Island ridge as the car climbs up Fish Creek Road. Aki starts squeaking when we crest a small hill and near the parking lot for a trail that crosses three meadows. But the meadows’ stunted pines are as vague as ghosts in a grey cloud. Letting Aki know that we will stop soon, I push on to the road’s end where the fog is melting away like ferry vapor.
We climb the service road to a mountain shoulder. Below us fog still obscures the three meadows trail. By the time we reach the shoulder, the grey is gone. If I could have seen the future, I would have taken the meadows trail. But then, I wouldn’t have smelled or seen or heard the high country coming to life.
Melting snow has charged the mountain streams until they overflow their banks. Nesting robins twill loudly, as if to be overheard about the shushing streams. The shrill piping of a mountain marmot startles the little dog and me. I look for the large guinea pig that gave the alarm but it has already dived in a hidey-hole. The air fills with the smell of sweet resin each time we pass near a pine tree.
Somewhere on the mountain bears are breakfasting on roots but we see none. Peak views and the tall, yellow blossoms of skunk cabbage provide all the visual drama until we stumble on our first true wildflower of the year: a mountain marigold. All of its white petals lay flat except one. It uncurls as we watch. The sun will soon make short work of the dewdrops clinging to its petals. For the marigold’s sake, I pray that true summer has arrived. There is no turning back for the flower now.
Aki trots down the narrow boardwalk, passing blueberry bushes in full bloom. For the first time in weeks, the sun muscles its way through the cloud cover. It enriches the pinks of the berry blossoms and warms the little dog’s tight, grey curls. A pair of red-breasted robins hop between bushes. Above them, a chestnut-backed chickadee, its clever toes clinging to a thin alder branch, leans back as if to be better enjoy the sun.
Bird song fills the air and I wonder why this place is so rich. It’s just a swampy yard with soil too poor to support spruce or hemlocks. The stubby Douglas pines are the only evergreen trees that can survive.
A flash of blue startles me out a sun-induced reverie—a sparrow-like bird with bright-yellow patches on its wings and back. It has vertical white and gray stripes on its chest and back that make it look like it is wearing a thrift store vest. I won’t be able to find a picture of it in any of my bird books. The handsome stranger, like the other songbirds along this trail are not shy. They flit and fly often but always seem to land in a spot where I can see them.
Crossing a slow creek lined with blooming skunk cabbage we make our way to the beach. Just before reaching it we pass beneath an eagle’s nest built high in a spruce. Only the white head of an adult eagle shows above the lip of the nest but we can hear the mewing of a chick.
There is little wind to riffle Stephen’s Passage when we reach the beach. I plop down onto a patch of dry gravel and let the little dog explore. A northern harrier flies off the water towards us a few feet off the ground. The nested eagle screams and the harrier swings away and moves south towards Outer Point.