The empty parking for the False Outer Point Beach promises an empty trail. This doesn’t bother the normally social Aki. It pleases her owner, who enjoys each chance to explore a beautiful place in solitude. Tears are forming in the thick fog that had been preventing us from seeing more than a half-mile of channel water. Through one of them we can see Mt. McGinnis. Through another a slice of the Chilkat Mountains appears.
I’m thankful for the mountain views and the fact that it isn’t raining. It pleases me more that nothing has scared the resident raft of golden eye ducks away from the beach. Aki stays close to my side as we round the point where an eagle sulks in the bare branches of a spruce snag. Off shore a man in an open skiff drops a hook baited with a herring into the water. I silently wish him luck in his effort to catch a king salmon, remembering the taste of winter caught kings.
The ebbing tide must have left behind some tasteful carrion. A murder of crows, maybe 200 of them, tussles with the local gulls for the goodies. A bald eagle abandons the beach to them and flies over our heads and onto a spruce limb. From the top of a small boulder, ten feet away, raven lectures the little dog and I. He follows us down the beach, croaking out his speech. It isn’t welcomed.
I am standing on a bridge over Steep Creek. Aki is in the car. Because a sow and her two cubs are fishing for salmon nearby, this is a dog-free zone. No bears enter my view shed but a red breasted merganser moves in spurts towards me. It swims with the desperation of an in bound salmon. Between each dash, the duck darts it head under the water. It must be targeting baby salmon from last year’s spawn.
Salmon drive the moraine’s economy. Bears and ducks would be elsewhere if not for the fish. Earlier today Aki and I found a silver salmon flopping alongside the Nugget Falls Trail. At first I worried that it had been carried here in the mouth of a bear that sulked nearby. Then we heard eagle scream. The fish, which must have weighed two kilos, was lifted from the lake by talons. An bird beak had already attacked the salmon’s gills and lower jaw.
While Aki cautiously sniffed the dying salmon, I wondered at the inherent cruelty of this beautiful moraine. The silver, now in flaming-red spawning colors, might have swam a thousand miles from the Gulf of Alaska to this lake. The whole time it ate every herring it could catch while hunted by fishermen, killer whales, seals, and sea lions. How many nets, hook, and jaws did it avoid only to die less than a kilometer away from its spawning ground? There was only one thing to do for we visitors to do—continue on to the falls so the eagle could harvest the meat.
Sunlight broken through the heavy overcast as we approached the falls. A rainbow appeared in the spray formed by cascading water slamming into the lake. If the falls hadn’t been swollen with rain from the storm, if the sun hadn’t appears at that moment, if Aki and I had not been detained by the dying salmon…
We are on the moraine between storm pulses. The last one ripped away most of the fall color from the tall poplars. Their living skeletons line Moose Lake. The more protected willows still provide a yellow contrast to the dull color scheme created by last night’s high winds.
Newly born cascades of rainwater carve out channels in the Thunder Mountain avalanche chutes. Fog mist rises from evergreen forests like campfire smoke. Heavy rain has raised lake and river levels. Aki and I have to detour around large sections of flooded trails to get to the heart of the moraine. As a result we have the place to ourselves except for a bald eagle roosting in the bare branches of a poplar tree.
With all the watercourses running high, silver salmon can now reach their spawning grounds. From its vantage point the eagle can spot potential meals as they struggle to complete their long swim.
Aki just growled at another bear. We are on a pocket beach miles away from the meadows we visited yesterday where we watched two back bears digging up chocolate lily bulbs. There were signs that many other bears had been grubbing there. Wanting to keep some space between the meadow bears and ourselves, I chose this quiet beach as today’s destination.
Today’s bear grazes on a late crop of beach grass. It would like to resume his feast but has temporarily abandoned it to keep an eye on us. We backtrack off the beach and take a trail that arcs around the bear. This path eventually leads to the meadows where we spotted the bears yesterday. The pocket beach bear might have walked over from the chocolate lily meadows to get a little variety in his diet.
The bears had a tough time this summer. Most of the salmon runs were small. The Silver salmon showed up in strength but they arrived late. The berry bushes had low yields. To get through the winter the bears need to plump up on roots, grasses, and whatever the sea sends their way. The last thing they need is a little poodle trying to chase them away from food.
Aki disappeared this morning. While I read and drank my morning coffee, she melted into some cubbyhole. Her other human and I suspect that she was reacting to last night’s bath. I worried that she wouldn’t want to join me on this morning’s walk. But she just appeared at the back door as I pulled on my boots.
We drove out to the Fish Creek trailhead where the riotous salmon spawn is over. Most of the eagles were gone. Two locals, both mature birds, sunned themselves in the tops of spruce trees. A raft of nervous mallards moved slowly off as we approached. Sparrows, feeding in preparation for their southward migration sang a pretty song in their tiny voices.
With most of the eagles gone, Aki was relaxed. I hoped that she had already forgotten the unfortunately incident that took place last night in the upstairs’ bathroom sink. I almost forgot about the little dog when I spotted a water dipper bobbing on a rock in the pond. It sent out concentric ripples that confused the pond’s reflection of a bird on a pedestal and the surround forest.
Some swirling in the lake waters during my last visit encouraged me to take along a fishing rod on this visit to the Troll Woods. We are close to the glacier, walking on moraine recently colonized by fast growing poplars, willows, and alders. It must ten degree colder here than at home in Downtown Juneau. The little dog and I are underdressed.
Gray mist crawls over the lake surface, which is yet to feel the morning light. I make a few half-hearted casts but stop when I notice that Aki is shivering. I can see the promise of warmth in the sunlight that brings out the fall color in the shoreline cottonwoods and makes Mt. McGinnis stand out against the blue morning sky.
Silver salmon splash and roll in the smallest lake on the moraine. They are waiting for the next storm to raise the water level of their spawning stream so they can get on with their deadly mating rituals. At least one salmon has paid a stiff price for waiting. We found it’s severed head on the trail. Last night a bear ate the fish’s body.
Fortunately for the salmon, rain is forecasted for next Thursday. We will miss the sun but are willing to walk in the rain—a small price for living in a rain forest drained by salmon streams.
This morning Aki is at home with her other human. I’m out the road, twenty-some miles from home at writer’s camp. At least that what I am calling it. Ten other writers share the same cabin. When not eating, walking, or talking we write.
I wake early, down a cup of instant coffee, and leave the cabin. The beach in front of the cabin is still in dusky shadow but across Favorite Channel, the Chilkats are warming with Mediterranean light. In a half-an-hour I might be able to warm myself in sunlight but view across the channel will be too soft to impress. Birds that are just silhouettes bounce through the splash zone. Close in to the beach, a sea lion rumbles up for a breath and then splashes back into the water. Across the channel, the mountains are losing their buttery color.
Because there might be bears there, I have been waiting to return to the Eagle River until Aki is otherwise occupied. Now is my chance so I drive from the writer’s camp cabin to trailhead and find the river diminished by drought and a very low tide. Side streams that might otherwise be filled with spawning salmon are dry. I have to step carefully around and over desiccated chunks of salmon and great piles of bear scat. There are fresh brown bear tracks but I will not see a bear today. They may already be heading upriver to the salmon spawning grounds. Soon we can return to this spot, one of Aki’s favorites.