An immature eagle lands on a midstream gravel bar and eyes a chunk of something pink and fleshy. In seconds a raven joins him. The eagle takes possession of the goody with a talon and starts ripping off a bite sized piece. Raven uses a bowing little dance to get the eagle to share. When that doesn’t work, it squawks out a coarse protest song. The song goes on and on until the raven lifts off toward another source of food.
Aki was back in the car before the eagle landed. We are both soaked with rain that just stopped pounding the Sheep Creek Delta. The clouds now drift up against the flanks of Sheep Mountain to be shredded by tall spruce. I brought the dog here so I could search for heron. We found none. Aki tried to keep me from crossing exposed sections of the beach. She prefers to sniff along the grassy dune that separates the beach from the old ore house. There she can hide from eagles.
We walked to dune’s end where gold miners park their sluice boxes. The sluices sit in boats made of salvaged wrecks, foam blocks, and scrap wood. Soft delta sand is shoveled into the sluice box, which extracts the gold. The miners are driven to stand in cold water in the rain for hours by dreams of wealth or perhaps the simple desire to get something for nothing, like the eagle-bothering raven.
Like the miners, the eagles and other delta birds are always on the make. When not searching the riverbank and beach for carcass scraps, they make half-hearted passes over rafts of ducks, driving most into flight. Even the tiny swallows are always working an angle. This morning one gave me the stink eye for distracting it from harvesting beach grass seeds.
Three ravens watch as we enter a section of second growth woods drained by a salmon stream. One glides just over my head and lands on a spruce bough. The raven is now watching a dozen silver salmon, sides long faded to the color of ash, fight for spawning rights in the stream. Two men wearing the cast-off winter gear of the homeless look to be trying to grab the fish with their bare hands. Nailed to a tree just above their heads is a “No Sport Fishing” sign. The little dog and I walk on almost secure in the knowledge that the men are no match for the frisky fish.
The trail crosses several branches of the salmon stream and then takes us onto a meadow with grass transitioning from summer green to fallow brown. We pass a patch flattened by a sleeping bear. It probably had better luck catching one of the spawning salmon than the two homeless guys.
Aki tenses when we hear two shots coming from the nearby landfill. A dozen eagles circle above us before settling in their usual day roosts on the forested hill that rises above the meadow. The meadow pushes up against low-income housing developments and one of our major highways. A kilometer away, men at a high security prison are just finishing breakfast. That doesn’t stop us from enjoying the solitude that comes of only having to share the large meadow with eagles and ravens and bears.
Raindrops dimple the surface of glacial stream. Some hit an expanding bull’s eye formed by a salmon’s leap. The rain glistens spruce needles and yellow cottonwood leaves. It soaks into the feathers of two bald eagles that watch the salmon’s antics from their usual perches. A week ago, busloads of noisy tourists would have been taking selfies with one of the eagles in the background. This morning only a silver-haired Juneauite pays the birds any attention.
When one of the eagles flies out and over Mendenhall Lake, the Juneau resident turns to share a memory of an October day where there were salmon in the pond and bears on the trail. This could be such a day.
The little dog and I say our goodbyes and take a roundabout way to Nugget Falls. It seems like every tree and bush along the way is in full fall color. Water drips off yellowing willow leaves into cups made of pink and red blueberry leaves. Above, tall cottonwoods seem to tear apart low-lying clouds. It is easier to capture such beauty with a camera when it rains than when it shines.
Aki gives me a cynical stare, as if she disapproves of the flowery descriptors running through my brain like a tickertape. Give me a break little dog. It’s been a noisy summer.
It’s mid-morning on the Sheep Creek Delta. The ebb tide has sucked the delta almost dry. The creek, charged by recent rain, makes its noisy way to Gastineau Channel. Aki, why are all these eagles here? The little dog ignores my question and the eagles. Most of the big birds are creek side. One stands in the water trying to wrangle something onto a gravel bar.
The streams gallomps and I look for the source of the sound, expecting to see a late arriving salmon splashing back into the creek. No fish ghosts along the stream bottom. The spawn is gone. So, for a few seconds, is my little dog. With a dozen eagles within a few hundred yards of me, this raises concern. I spot the poodle-mix fifty meters away, sniffing a clump of beach grass. No eagle stirs to flight. I’m back with the little guy before one does.
We inadvertently flush a water dipper. It flies low and lands across the stream. Something in the stream must be keeping it and the eagles here. For the dipper it could be insects or small fish. The eagles prefer salmon. It doesn’t matter if they are dead or alive. Maybe these eagles filled up on salmon carcasses that wash up on the delta. Or maybe they have been hammering invisible salmon.
No salmon swirl the surface of Fish Creek Pond or leap from it into the air. No scavengers bicker over salmon scraps on the pond beach. The time for that passed when last week’s high water swept the remaining pink salmon back into the sea. Last week three eagles, the little dog and I watched a dozen mergansers plop onto the lake. This morning only one of the redheaded duck works the pond. It looks to be a day of ones.
We will see several eagles, but all but one will be roosting alone. One gull will squawk and glide alone over the exposed tidal flats. I will watch a single dark eyed junco bounce on a thin elderberry branch. Toward the end of the walk we will spy on a dipper dancing in the pond shallows. Then we will watch the merganser abandon its monopoly on the pond.
Like merganser and the other loners, Aki and I don’t mind having the place to our selves—a land gone to rest after the salmon spawn. Gone, for now, are the clouds of eagles, crows, ducks, and gulls. Here, until the winter ducks return, is a place dominated by peace and the persistent wind.
This morning a porcupine watched the little dog and I leave for a hike. This American version of a hedgehog had tucked itself away among the limbs of our apple tree. I probably should have used a water hose to drive it away. But the little guy looked so peaceful, almost saint-like. Besides, at the moment it wasn’t breaking branches or eating twigs. Porky would leave on its own time, before Aki and I returned from today’s adventure.
We drove out the North Douglas Highway to Fish Creek. No salmon fought for spawning space beneath the walking bridge. None could hold their own against the rain-swollen creek current. The high water had flushed the gravel bars clean of decaying fish. There was nothing to attract eagles or ravens. When we moved toward the pond I could hear an eagle scream but saw only clouds reflected in the surface waters.
A strong tide flooded the creek side meadow, creating a temporary reflecting pond that captured clouds trying to block out the run above the Douglas Island ridge. Two eagles sulked in creek-side trees. One turned its head, as if to ignore us. The other dropped low over the inundated meadow and flew off toward the glacier.
Fisherman have displaced heron on the Sheep Creek Delta. A line of humans with fishing poles lines Gastineau Channel. A cloud of gulls surrounds the successful ones that are already cleaning their catch. Scattered across the delta, eagles watch the action like judgmental policemen.
Silver salmon are powering their way against the creek current, driven toward their spawning ground. Aki wants nothing to do with the fish or the fishermen. She dashes down the beach toward a golden retriever. The golden breaks off from playing catch with its owner to run circles around our little poodle-mix. Aki leans into each turn, like a Formula One racer, throwing up sand in her wake.
For a second or two, sunshine breaks through the cloud cover that has darkened Juneau skies for a week. When it disappears, I lookdown the channel, to where the southern tip of Douglas Island pushes into Taku Inlet. The forest there is almost painfully bright as sunshine sparkles on the needles of rain-soaked trees.