Aki is due for a bath today. Her other human and I never say the word out loud. The little dog only hears, “Someone is going to get a b-a-t-h this afternoon.” Even hearing the word spelled can send her under the bed. For her bath day walk, I always choose a trail she likes. I don’t have to worry whether she will get dirty on the hike because…
On this bath day morning, Aki is trotting along the edge of a grass-covered dune. We walk toward Douglas and Juneau under a blue sky. Behind us in Sheep Creek gulls feed heartily on deceased pink and dog salmon. The birds bicker and flash their wings at each other to protect their share of the hoard. Picked over salmon carcasses line our trail. Bird feathers, seaweed, and beach grass collect around some to form grotesque still lives.
A line of human fishermen stand knee deep on the edge of the beach. They cast and wait for a strike, as patience as the herons that usually fish along the beach. The fishermen are targeting silver salmon, still ocean bright. Once they enter freshwater, the salmon’s sides will darken. The jaws of the males will distort and hook to form tools for battling others for the right to spawn.
Pink salmon have replaced the chum salmon that tussled in the shallow water beneath the Fish Creek Bridge the last time Aki and I walked over it. Male pinks, with the distorted backs that earned them the nickname “humpies,” charge each other in the stream rapids. Unlike last time, when ravens and watched the salmons struggle, only a flock of no nonsense gulls takes in the show. There is one eagle roosting in a tree above the stream. Soon it will fly off.
Expecting to find many eagles and herons on our walk to the stream mouth, I try to rush the little dog. She gives me her “I have important work to do” stare and slows to catalogue trailside scents. Each sniff adds to her encyclopedic knowledge. I’m as impatience as the belted kingfisher chattering over our heads.
Several schools of pink salmon wander around a pond connected to the stream. A few hurl themselves out of the water as if that will hurry up the spawning process. Maybe female pink salmon dig an acrobatic guy. No herons wade in the pond shallows. No eagles watch the show. Only gulls float on the pond, looking for scraps of already dead fish.
On a spit covered with fireweed stalks and meadow grass already succumbing to fall, gangs of sparrows search the ground for food. The little brown birds spring up like grasshoppers when we walk down the trail. No eagles wait for us at the stream mouth, just more gulls and one raven flying over the creek delta as if it were an eagle.
Last night Aki was waiting for me when I walked off the MV Le Conte. She begged for attention while I lifted my bags off the ferry’s luggage cart and carried them to the car. With the luggage secured, I lifted up the little poodle-mix and promised that tomorrow we would go on one of usual adventures.
Aki didn’t need any encouragement this morning to follow me to the car. We drove out the North Douglas Highway to Outer Point Trail. A deer hunter’s truck was parked near the trailhead but we wouldn’t see him or anyone else on the trail. I could have postponed the walk until the sun burned through the marine layer. But I wanted to use the trail at first light even if that light was gray.
The Stellar’s jays were quiet when we walked through the forest. But we could hear the gulls way before we reached the beach. An eagle has just flushed them to flight. Another eagle waddled along the mouth of Peterson Creek, waiting for the day’s first pink salmon to ride the tide toward their spawning ground. A large school of pinks jumped and splashed near the creek mouth.
During the night the tide had ebbed to expose the causeway to Shaman Island. Gulls covered the path, breaking off in twos and threes when the little dog and I invaded their comfort zone. Fog filtered our view of the glacier but not the Chilkat Mountains. They were tall enough to catch the first rays of bright light after the sun climbed above the clouds.
The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage.
Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds.
We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore.
On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream.
Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot.
As Aki and I took the switchback trail that drops into the Treadwell Woods, something brushed by me and leaped in Aki’s direction. The little poodle-mix knew what was coming. She wasn’t surprised when a large bird dog puppy, all legs and grin, dropped into a crouch in front of her. The two yipped and circled each other until the bird dog, easily four times Aki’s weight, got a little too exuberant. Aki snapped out a reproach and the puppy dropped her head down in submission. It amazes me how Aki gets away with bossing around bigger dogs.
After the puppy’s owner dragged his dog away on a lead, we wandered among the ruins of old Treadwell and dropped onto Sandy Beach. I was not surprised to see two bald eagles roosting on the roof of the old ventilation tower. The waters of Gastineau channel had cut the tower off from the beach. From their island tower the eagles watched a murder of crows that had taken up station of the tops of old wharf pilings or beach rocks. After Aki and I entered the scene two of the crows descended on a fresh salmon carcass to feed.
The eagles just watched the crows tearing into in fish they probably desired. Did the feisty, but much smaller birds intimidate them like my 10-pound poodle-mix intimated the puppy? Or were the eagles just worried about the man who was pointing a suspiciously gun-like object at them?
Shouldering my camera, I moved down the beach to let the crows and eagles work things out for themselves. After a gap of fifty meters had opened up I watched all the crows take to the air. Only one eagle roosted on the roof of the ventilation shaft.
Aki ignores the chum salmon splashing beneath the Fish Creek bridge. She doesn’t even flinch when one of the ten-pound fish slaps the water with its tail. While one of the chums rolls on its side and uses it tail to dig out a depression in the creek bed to hold its eggs Aki keeps her nose just millimeters from the bridge deck. She doesn’t give up on the scent until we cross the bridge and start down toward the creek mouth.
The little dog and I have kept away from the creek since the king salmon arrived. A chance to catch one of the largest of salmons drew many fishermen to the creek to snag one of the big fish. The kings have died out or moved up the creek to spawn. This is the time of the less tasty chum salmon. Only two men fish the pond when we arrive. Fresh chum salmon leap from the water. Two great blue heron watch the action from pond-side spruce trees.
The heron surprise me by leaving the safety of their roosts and glide toward a nearby pond beach. Aki ignores the long-necked birds, like she ignored the chum salmon. Instead she stares at me watching the herons. She might be silently pleading me to give the dinosaur-like birds a wide berth and return to the bridge so she can again inhale the intriguing smells on the bridge. Rather than attack the little dog or me, the herons fly a few meters down the beach. We swing into the woods, round the pond, and walk down a trail lined with aging fireweed stalks.
Diminutive sparrows flitter about the trail margins. One tries to land in the top of a fireweed. When the stalk bends toward the ground, the sparrow finds a more secure roost on a stunted spruce. After landing the sparrow, as plump as a stuffed toy, glares at the little poodle-mix and I. It shows less fear of us than the long-beaked herons did.
We will see dozens of sparrows bursting from the grass like grasshoppers when we reach the stream mouth. We’ll see the heron twice more. Both of them will fly into the top of a spruce tree normally occupied by bald eagles. Then they will try fishing in shallow stream rapids until a belted kingfisher harasses them into flight, a bird as small as the sparrow and just as brave.
Three miles north of the Douglas Island Bridge a regiment of bald eagles waits. They will wait until the tide crests and then ebbs. Then they will search the exposed flats for salmon alive or dead. From the top of a grass-covered bank I watch the eagles preen, argue, or sleep while Aki wanders around sniffing and leaving scents for other dogs to sniff. She must becoming deaf to eagle screams.
Later, we will hike down a rain forest trail to the beach, seeing evidence of a dying summer along the way. Fruit will still pull at the branches of berry bushes but many of the surrounding leaves will be fading to fall colors. The leaves of other plants will bare wounds from months of insect attacks.
We will take a beach trail lined with stalks of dead-brown cow parsnip. I will look, without success, for splashes of color among the beach grass. Gulls will sleep on offshore rocks. They, like the eagles will be waiting for the big salmon die off.