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.
A short waterfall connects Peterson Lake with salt water. That makes the lake a salt chuck. This morning Aki and I watched dog salmon power their way up the waterfall’s cascades and into the chuck. Two eagles and a handful of crows watched as well. One of the eagles had just feasted on a salmon not quite up to the climb.
Later we move to where a stream enters the lake. Soon the salmon we watched in the waterfall will swim across the lake and up the stream to their spawning grounds. It will be a one way trip. There will be more eagles and corvids there, as well as wading black bears. We take a casual trail that leads down the stream and hopefully away from the bears.
We drop down onto a tidal meadow covered with six-foot-high grass. Neither Aki nor I can see over the grass but are able to follow a faint path that ends at a bear’s sleeping area. I would have taken another path if I had known where it would lead. The bears have crushed flat a section of meadow grass large enough for a small office. An eagle feather lays on one edge of the bear bed.
I should be worried that the bears will come back or that we may startled one of them when we walk further into the meadow. But Aki doesn’t act like she does when she smells bears. A half-a-dozen electric-blue dragon flies, called “darning needles” fly around the bear bed. Wouldn’t it be cool, little dog, if one of the darning needles landed on the eagle feather? As Aki gives me her, “you have got to be kidding stare” a darning needle alights on the feather just long enough for me to take its picture.
The white-headed eagle sounds as frustrated as I feel. An immature bald eagle has just almost crashed into it. The the chestnut-colored eagle slips into a sulk. Twenty feet away, another immature eagle casually grooms its wing feathers. Aki ignores all the noise.
We are standing on the Fish Creek bridge, maybe thirty meters away from the avian drama. The stream, which is usually jammed with spawning salmon, looks empty. There must be fish somewhere. Minutes ago, one of the eagles dropped the severed head of a pink salmon on the trail just before we reached it.
We had planned on walking to the mouth of the stream. Then a stream of human fishermen passed us. Like the eagles, they are looking to catch some fish. Like the eagles, they are likely to end up frustrated.
I gather the little dog into the car and we head out to a berry picking spot that showed promise a few weeks ago. The place is bare, as if someone or something hoovered up all the blue berries, huckleberries and cloud berries. To make something out of the trip, we continue down the trail until it dumps us out on a beach. We have seen whales, sea lions, eagles, and seals from the beach. Once a northern harrier flew straight at me before dodging into the woods. Today, the sea and sky are empty.
The magenta blossoms of fireweed glow in the gloom of this rainy morning. Except for the eagles scattered around the gravel, Aki and I have the Sheep Creek delta to ourselves. I’m not counting the swallows perched together like judgmental gossipers on a driftwood tangle. I don’t include the crows crowding one of the eagles. I should acknowledge the greater yellowlegs sandpiper that moves across a shallow pond. That’s enough denial. This place is crowded with life.
This late in summer, the creek should be a turmoil of spawning chum salmon. Only one male powers upstream against the current. There may be others hidden in the muddy water. When the mountain rains let up, the stream will clear enough for a proper survey. I pray that the chums are just late in arriving. So do the eagles and the other animals that rely on them for food.
Aki and I pushed through heavy rain to this headland. I came for a chance to see whales or sea lions. The little dog is here out of loyalty. We are both soaked. Just off shore, the purse seiner Challenger is its net on a school of chum salmon.
The mechanical noise of the fishing boat makes it impossible to hear bird song or even eagle screams. It might have driven feeding humpback whales to divert to quieter waters. We won’t see whales or sea lions today. One harbor seal will cruise along the edge of the seine net as it closes on protentional prey.
The Challenger has a contract with the hatchery to recover chum salmon that started their lives in net pens and have spent the last two years in the North Pacific. Their eggs and milt will be used to start a new generation of chums. Because of adverse ocean conditions, fewer and fewer salmon are returning to the hatchery. For the same reason, the number of wild chums to reach their home streams is way down.
After watching the Challenger finish its set, now cold as well as wet, we head back into the forest as the power skiff of another seine boat begins to stretch out its net.
Aki doesn’t realize that Chum salmon are trickling into Eagle River. They pooled up in nearby salt water until the tide changed from ebb to flood. Now they ride an income tide over the sand bars at the river’s mouth. To enter the river the salmon must swim pass a half-a-dozen seals.
Aki doesn’t see the seals, even when one 50 meters away snatches a salmon and splashes around the river surface until its powerful jaws crush the fish’s spine. Distracted by the seal-salmon scene, I don’t notice the little dog wade chest-deep into the river. While Aki sips away, two of the seals swirl toward her. They stop when they spot me and the black barrel of my camera lens.
An immature bald eagle watches Aki and the seals, perched on the skeleton of a spruce tree that vibrates in the river current. The eagle is close enough to the water for a seal to grab it with a quick lunge. The eagle wouldn’t have to worry about the seals if it moved further up the tree. But the tree limbs protect it from any assault from the air. An adult eagle watches all of us from the top of a riverside spruce tree. Maybe the mid-river bird has some history with the mature eagle.
When Aki leaves the river, the immature bird flies off and the seals return to their salmon hunt. We walk over to a line of dunes now covered with summer wildflowers. Five-foot high stalks of fireweed line our trail. Heavy-bodied bumble fees collect pollen feed from the magenta fireweed blossoms. One releases some golden-colored liquid that dribbles toward the ground. Do bees pee like poodles, little dog?
My hand reaches out for the little dog, but she is not there. My mind knows this but apparently, not my hand. Aki is cozy at home. I’m sitting on a folding chair on the deck of an old fishing boat. Two hooks baited with herring spin behind the boat as it moves through the north pass between Lincoln and Shelter Islands.
Two eagles watch from Shelter Island. A sea lion follows in case we hook a coho salmon. It would see that we would not be able to get the salmon into the boat. A few minutes ago, three Dahl porpoise weaved in and out of the water to our right. In a half-an-hour, a humpback whale will do the same.
Salmon will make several attempts to pull herring from our hooks. One will be hooked briefly. Neither the sea lion nor I will catch a fish.
The dogs are in and they have brought the eagles. “Chum” is the more polite name for dog salmon. Because they arrive in great numbers and aren’t as tasty as king or silver salmon, indigenous people of Northern Alaska dried chum salmon to feed their dog teams during the winter. Hence, the name. For some reason, rain forest people have also labeled chum salmon as dogs.
Ten bald eagles scan the beach for dead dog salmon. Twenty more have grouped up around a half-eaten salmon carcass. In ones or twos, the eagles perching in the trees leave their roosts to fly low over the beach cabal. These fly overs don’t dislodge the eagles on the beach or drive off the one crow brave enough to stand its ground near them.
It was much quieter on the glacier moraine where Aki and I spent the morning. Instead of watching bickering eagles we spied on a mallard hen and her chicks gliding through pond reeds. Lady Tress orchids provide white highlights to a predominately green landscape.
Rather than eagle screams, the spiraling songs of the hermit thrush provided a song track for our walk. One flew onto a tree limb near us and gave me a policeman’s measuring stare. I’d hate to think of what would happen if eagles were as tough as a thrush.
On an otherwise empty beach, Aki snuffles the sand. I watch her even though it means facing an up-channel breeze that throws rain in my face. Two eagles in a nearby tree also watch the little dog. They turn their heads away when I point my camera at them. They are waiting for something editable to wash ashore.
In a week or so, the eagles will be pulling flesh from salmon carcasses marooned on the beach by the ebbing tide. For now, they must watch and wait for lesser fare. At least three more eagles roost in the beachside trees. Just down the beach, a belted kingfisher watches the glory hole bay while perched on a glacier erratic.
The kingfisher won’t fly away unless I get really close. I don’t, choosing to watch it watching me through a curtain of rain. Inside the Treadwell Woods, I have a similar stare down with a pine siskin. It and the other song birds show no fear of Aki nor I, which surprises me given all the goof ball dogs that galumph through the woods. Then I realize that this is their harvest time.