The weatherman promised clear skies and sunshine this morning. But grey clouds filled the skies over town as we headed for the car. I could just make out a streak of blue in the skies further up the channel. Aki didn’t complain when we headed north towards that clear horizon.
After driving 15 miles, we broke out of the clouds to where we could see sunshining on a mountain ridge on the western side of Lynn Canal. Snow from a recent storm now covers the top third of the ridge. A layer of clouds obscures the rest. In a few minutes we reach Amalga Harbor from where we can hike to the mouth of Peterson Creek.
This summer dog and silver salmon had to fight their way up a line of rapids in the creek to reach Peterson Lake. After crossing the lake, they moved into the upper creek to spawn. Today, I could find no sign of salmon or even trout. But a grey heron flew across the lake to check on us before flying over to the dock at Amalga Harbor. It left behind a pair of white swans to feed at the mouth of the tiny stream.
Careful government experts, men and woman who reveal information about sun and rain, expected me to wait until three in the afternoon before going for a walk. After three in the afternoon, the sky would clear. I’d walk with Aki along the Sheep Creep delta. The skies might cloud back up for in a few hours. Then the rain would return for another week.
But today, the skies lacked patience. At nine in the morning, the clouds melted away. Crisp sun flooded Gastineau channel. The beach trails were soon bare. We expect clouds but found sections of the beach still covered with scatterings of fish bones.
We took a long, circular route around the delta, coming near to gulls nests, and ducks. Twice, a hundred gulls exploded into the air, flew in a circle around us, and returned to the delta. For a few seconds, over whelming light transformed the gulls into transformed gods.
The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
Yesterday morning we were mugged by a bear. It’s was the pleasant, perhaps too casual bruin that we caught a few days before shaking apples out of our tree. Yesterday, it toppled over our wheelie bin and cheery-picked our garbage. Then he strolled away, swaying from side to side as he headed towards the next garbage bin.
After sampling our garbage, the bear walked right past our neighbor’s bin. Later I learned that she fills it on the morning of trash day with kitty litter. After the bear walked on, she dropped in the real garbage.
This morning the bear has moved on to a neighborhood this is having its scheduled garbage day. We are left to skirt piles of bear poo and pick up scraps that it left behind. I can’t get too mad at the culprit. Since the local berry crop failed and few salmon made it to the downtown spawning stream, they are forced to search our garbage for the sustenance they will need to hibernate through the winter.
It is hard this morning to find a parking place near the Sheep Creek delta. The tiny parking lot is full. Both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks. We find a place to put our car on the southern side of the creek. The guys who parked the trucks are fishing for silver salmon on the Gastineau Channel shore. They are only outnumbered by gulls.
The last time we visited the delta, eagles greatly outnumbered humans. Only two guys tried their luck at fishing. Dozens of eagles ripped flesh from spawned out salmon. This morning there is only one eagle perched above thousands of gulls. The birds wade in the stream or hover on the exposed gravel, all waiting for pink salmon to die.
One gull screams at a small female pink salmon as the fish rolls on the beach. After minutes of flopping, it goes still, letting the gull start its feast. Newly arrived pink salmon power their way up the stream. Some males with grotesque humps, try to shove each other off the spawning ground. The gulls keep watching. They will watch until the spawning is done and the dying begins.
Aki ignores the pink salmon swirling around Fish Creek. So do three great blue heron. The long-necked birds stand like statues in shallow water as salmon boil past them. They must be targeting smaller fry.
A year or two ago we had to restrain Aki while walking along a salmon stream. Otherwise she would charge into the water, tail wagging, to try to play with the big fish. This year, she just ignores them. This is a relief for me. Now I can relax and watch all the birds drawn to the creek by the salmon or meadow grass bent over by rip seeds.
Usually the shore side trees are full of bald eagles. But only one watches us from a nearby spruce today. They might be over at the hatchery, where the first silver salmon of the year are cueing up at the bottom of the fish ladder.
After watching a stalking heron, I turn toward the meadow and watch a small flock of sparrows land on the leads of dried plant stalks to harvest seeds. One tried to land on a cow parsnip stalk while flying at top speed. The stalk whips it around like sock toy before throwing it back into the air.
Aki is still sleeping as I leave the house. She must be worn out from yesterday’s berry picking adventure. It’s been a long time since she has run that far. I am off to chase silver salmon on the back side of Admiralty Island.
Thin lines of blue sky slice through the grey cloud cover as we leave the harbor. It’s calm, so no waves ripple the reflections in the harbor water. No other boats leave with us. In a half-an-hour our boat is slamming into waves. Just ahead we will face a nasty tide rip if we try to reach Admiralty.
Since the fast moving silver salmon seldom pause on their way to their spawning grounds, we won’t know if pounding our way to the back side of Admiralty will gain us a chance to catch one of them. Instead we change course and head to the eastern shore of Douglas Island.
Within minutes of sinking our baited hooks, my friend lands an ocean-bright silver. We will boat two more before we head back to the harbor. At least one eagle will fly low over the boat while we fish and more will watch while perched in shoreside spruce. But we will see no whales, orca or humpbacks.
A few days ago, I spoke to a photographer who was waiting for a bear. He stood on a walkway that crossed a sockeye spawning steam. The photographer assured me that he had the patience to wait for hours for a bear, even though it was raining. I doubted if his patience would pay off because no salmon were fighting their way up stream. Without them, there was nothing to draw in a bear. I looked down the stream, which wandered through a meadow to Mendenhall Lake. On an August day during a normal salmon year, they would be birds and bears. Today, nothing.
Before I left him to his vigil, the photographer told me that the dog salmon have finally arrived at Sheep Creek. “Bears never fish there, but there are always eagles.” This morning Aki and I confirmed that he was right.
Decaying salmon bodies littered Sheep Creek Delta. Others, listless after spawning, let the water carry them back towards Gastineau Channel. Freshly arrived dog salmon muscled each other for spawning space in the creek. More than a dozen bald eagles sulked or fed on the creek’s gravel bars. Crows and gulls hung around the feeders, waiting for a chance to finish what the big birds started.
Bothered by the loud gull screams, Aki refused to approach the creek. I retreated and then followed her to a quieter section of the delta. Even here, we weren’t free of drama. After fighting over a scrap of salmon, two adult bald eagles left the stream. One chased the other. The one being chased flew low over the beach grass and right at the little dog and I. It passed within three meters of us before gaining enough altitude to clear the beach side cottonwoods.
Aki is excited to walk with an old friend this morning. She doesn’t mind that he is wearing a pandemic mask. Not understanding the need for social distancing, the little dog tries to keep us close together as we walk through the rain forest to the sea. Her two charges talk loudly through their masks, catching each other up with happenings since our last walk. When we stop for a moment, the little dog can hear the sound of swollen streams and rain drops bouncing off of devil’s club leaves.
An eagle flies close overhead when we reach the beach. It cruises over to a little bay, circles and then drops with claws extended. After rising skyward with empty talons, it sets down on a rocky point, scattering a dozen gulls that had been lingering there. Eagles in groups of threes fly out to Shaman Island. Others find perches on recently exposed rocks. A raft of ducks fly between us and the island, over the head of two hunting seals. The salmon must be back.
I knew, before we arrived at the beach, that the tide was out. But the expansiveness of exposed beach surprised me. We can walk all the way to Shaman Island by crossing a land bridge underwater during a normal low tide.
Because of eagles, Aki fears the land bridge. The big birds lurk in the trees on Shaman Island or rip chunks of flesh away from spawned out salmon when we cross during a normal summer. But no salmon carcasses litter the tidelands. No live salmon schooled up at the mouth of Peterson Creek.
A handful of gulls watch the little dog and I reach Shaman Island. They don’t need the salmon, being able to survive on the scraps of food exposed by the ebb. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot three harlequin ducks start off the from beach. Most of their brethren are fishing outside waters this time of year. I hope all is well the trio, who won’t have to worry about hunting eagles on this flat-gray day.