Even though we have full sun, warm temperatures and are alone on the Fish Creek Delta, Aki and I are not having a good time. Ten minutes ago the little dog found a roasted chicken thigh along the trail. I had to literally carry her off to keep her from eating it. Now she sulks in a pocket meadow, refusing to follow me into the woods even though an eagle watches her from a nearby spruce tree. I back track and carry her to safety.
Last week the hatchery released this year’s school of king salmon fry into the creek pond. The ones that haven’t figured out how to reach salt water dimple the pond’s surface. Their presence explains that of the eagles in the surrounding trees.
One eagle settles onto a spruce branch above the crow’s roosting area. In seconds an adult crow is flying at the eagle’s head. The eagle ducks down but doesn’t fly off until the crow has dive-bombed it a half-a-dozen more times. The victorious crow then lands on the eagle’s now empty perch.
Aki and I have seen crows drive off eagles many times, but not what came next. The displaced eagle dive-bombed the crow until it flew off. Aki, wanting to return to the chicken thigh, wouldn’t let me stick around to see if the crow would return together with a murder of its friends.
The Sheep Creek delta seems empty this morning. No gulls or ducks or even crows wade in the creek waters. No heron stalks small fry in the shallows. A clutch of gulls float in Gastineau Channel under the eye of the adult bald eagle perched in the superstructure of navigation aid no. 2. If it weren’t for a large raft of scoters on the channel waters it would be stone quiet.
I imagine that our other local waterfowl are feeding on their summer grounds on the outside coast. Later, when the creek fills up with spawning pink salmon, clouds of screaming gulls will make it difficult for Aki to hear my summing whistle. But today, she has no such excuse. I’m in the no man’s land between the splash zone grass and the channel. The little dog stands in the grass, using her mental powers to call me back. She wants us to walk down the beach at the edge of a grass-covered dune, which is rich in dog smells.
This drama repeats itself on every visit to the creek so I keep walking, knowing that she will eventually trot out to me. When she does, we walk toward the nav aid to check out the eagle. It ignores us, only leaving its perch to sweep out over the channel to fish.
Aki’s been a good sport about what she considers a silly detour so after a few minutes we walk over the grassy dune where she can scent and pee to her heart’s content. At the end of the dune the nav aid eagle is now perched in an alder tree. Maybe, for the big raptor, we are the morning’s entertainment.
An adult bald eagle, white head feathers damp with rain, perches on a pond-side spruce tree. It appears to study two new additions to the pond—large net pens full of fingerling king salmon. A net covers the pens, placed there to protect the natal fish from eagles and the resident river otters.
It’s low tide so the other resident eagles are out on the exposed tidelands scrabbling for scraps. That’s the higher percentage move for predators on this rain-soaked day. But if the eagle that Aki and I are watching manages to overcome the pens’ protective net, it would be in an avian fiddler’s green.
We won’t see much else of interest during this visit to the Fish Creek delta. A couple of dog walkers driving a herd of large bred canines will have already flushed out the birds. As we walk toward the creek mouth, a yellow lab will break away from its owner and splash over the creek and wetlands to play with Aki. But these dog antics will have no effect on the newly arrived tree swallows, that will arc over and around the little dog and I as they hunt for mosquitoes.
Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. Look at that sunrise, little dog. Know any sailors we should warn? Aki gives me her “don’t mess with me” stare and curls back up into a comfortable sleeping position. Down channel the water glows with an angry glare. I sip coffee and watch the fierce light fade to grey as clouds descend to block the sun.
Hours later and we are walking the beach in front of the old Auk village. Even through it is just past noon, the sky is already yellowing like it does at sunset. A long strip of light reaches across Favorite Channel from the Chilkat Mountains to our feet. A rising wind raises small waves that slap the beach. As if the light could provide them heat, a small raft of harlequin ducks paddles into the thin strip of sunlight.
We walk out to Pt. Louisa, the site of at least one killing shipwreck and watch a fishing boat move without difficulty towards the Auk Bay harbor. So much for the “red sky at morning” warning.
I wonder if the boat carries home red king crab. Harvest of the once abundant crustaceans has been banned until this winter due to a population drop. But Fish and Game just opened up a season for them. Now fishermen who pulled their boats at the end of September’s silver salmon season are rethinking that decision. They ask around in bars or the vegetable section at Foodland if anyone has a boat they can use to go after crab on days when the sun doesn’t color the morning clouds red and the Taku winds don’t send water sprits dancing across Gastineau Channel.
Aki and I are walking on a trail just a few miles from yesterday’s snowy paradise. This place received rain while the moraine was blessed with more snow. But it has beauty and even a little drama to offer. There’s the sound of eagle complaints from raptors perched on riverside spruce. Three other eagles fly in tight circles over the river. I suspect some late arriving silver salmon are drawing the crowd. It could be a deer carcass. We followed the recent tracks of one to the confluence of Montana Creek and the river.
All the eagle activity makes Aki nervous. She stands, almost touching my leg, and squints down river. She calms down when we return to the forest where snowmelt drops rain on both of us. Aki is as excited today, as she would be on a sunny summer Sunday. The little dog uses her nose to discover smells buried under the snow. I have to wait often for her to catalogue the best ones. Gray skies or blue, pee smells the same to her.
We are squandering petro this morning driving out the road. But it’s blowing 40 in Downtown and the forest drained by the Eagle River has 8 inches of skiable snow. If she could speak, Aki would tell me to ignore the expense and punch it. The little dog loves to run on snow. Since the road is icy I ignore Aki’s excited stance and drive slow.
It’s hard to hold anyone’s attention with a description of cross-country skiing. But that is what makes it so great for the skier. You slide the right ski forward and bring it back while shooting forward the left. That’s it. But, when the conditions are good, like this morning, you’re heart beat sets the rhythm, dropping you into a meditative state. For the first half hour the little dog dashes ahead of me and charges back. Out and back she goes until I find her trotting behind me. I suspect that in these quiet times she mediates on her next meal.
When the trail takes us along the river, now swollen by a 16-foot high tide, I look for the heads of seals taking advantage of the flood to hunt for late arriving salmon. But we won’t see seals, ducks, or even gulls during the ski.
Later, while I listening to a podcast of Everton fans arguing about who should be the next team coach, I drive up to a Sitka black tail deer running alongside the road. I stop. The deer leaps the guardrail and crosses the road in front of the car. Without thinking to turn off the podcast, I lower the window. The deer stops and turns to stare at us. I half expect her to utter “Don’t let them hire Allardyce.”
After enjoying our first sunrise for what seems like months, I drive with Aki out to the one place without morning sun: the Mendenhall Glacier. The sun will have to rise above the shoulders of Thunder Mountain before it can warm the trail we walk on or make Nugget Falls sparkle. That won’t be much before eleven, when we will be back on Chicken Ridge.
Why then, Aki might ask, are we out here shivering in the twilight? If she did, I’d remind her that she is not shivering and there is light striking the glacier and the Mendenhall Towers that rise above it into blue sky. But we are both too distracted by eagles for conversation.
Attracted here by spawning sockeye salmon, five eagles bicker near the waters of Steep Creek. One with better luck or eyes tears away strips of flesh from a dead salmon. Behind the feeding bird, the calm waters of the lake reflect the glacier and Mt. McGinnis.
When the sun clears Thunder Mountain to bath everything in strong light, it will also bring a wind to riffle the ice-free portion of the lake, shattering the glacier’s mirror.