I didn’t expect to find tourists today on the cruise ship docks. The next ship won’t show up until late April. But I am surprised not to see at least one homeless person sheltering in the doorway of one of the closed tee shirt shops. The police must be enforcing the ordinance that banishes them from the tourist areas.
The little dog and I walk up the docks, keeping Gastineau Channel and the Douglas Island ridge on our right across. Ahead, Mt. Juneau just broke is out of the clouds that sugared it with snow. The channel is empty except for on salmon troller motoring toward Taku Inlet. I silently wish the captain luck in his search for winter king salmon. He will need it. Tonight rain will turn into sleet then snow.
Morning clouds hide the Mendenhall Towers and the top of Mt. Stroller White. They do lift enough to offer a filtered view of Mt. McGinnis. From the pocket beach of gravel where Aki and I stand, Mendenhall Lake looks like a solid, gray-colored mirror. I am tempted to test the mirror’s strength. If it could hold my weight, I could stroll across reflections of McGinnis and the blue glacial ice to Nugget Falls.
Something hidden swirls the lake’s surface, rippling the glacier’s reflection. Ten meters off shore the head of a harbor seal breaks water. After snatching a quick look at us it is submerges. When the seal next comes up for a breath, it will be fifty meters away. There must still be some salmon working their way across the lake to their spawning stream.
The seal’s presence is as unexpected as the lack of rain. We must be in between Pacific storms. Hoping to complete our walk before the skies let loose, I join Aki on a trail through the woods, leaving the seal to hunt for salmon. We pass two braces of bufflehead ducks on a kettle pond that quickly put as much water as they can between them and us. I wonder if they are reacting to our presence or the sound of rapidly fired rifles from the nearby gun range.
When the shooting stops an eagle screams in the way they do when another eagle invades their personal space. I expect it to fly off when it spots us, but the eagle keeps its talons wrapped around branches in the top of a young spruce tree. For the rest of the walk we will hear it scream every few minutes, as if calling out to a missing child or wandering lover.
Winter teased us with a few days of snow and cold. Now, like the fickle lover, it has left the rain forest for America’s East Coast. It’s mid-November and we are facing a week’s worth of wet storms. Aki and I suit up and head out to the Sheep Creek Delta.
Just a month ago we had to dodge eagles, step over salmon carcasses, but could tiptoe up to herons. The birds were there to feast on the wealth of wild food brought by the salmon spawn. Now all that has been washed into Gastineau Channel by rain and big autumn tides. This morning, only mallards and gulls remain.
The incoming tide shrinks the beach, creating isolated islands of gravel where the birds rest. The gulls squeal and the mallards cackle but otherwise they seem very comfortable in each other’s presence. It’s like they have formed a seasonal family for company until the salmon return.
Aki snuffles a patch of trailside grass. After watching her beaver away, I scan the Fish Creek Pond for bird life. Only the severed leaves of cottonwood trees float on the pond’s surface. Heavy raindrops plunk down on fallen leaves covering the trail. As the little poodle-mix finishes her investigation and seals the spot with urine, I try to ignore the chilling rainwater slowly working its way through the fabric of my expensive rain parka to soak the sweatshirt underneath.
My little dog trots down the trail, undeterred by the rain or the hypothermic temperatures. While I was soaking up sun in California and Washington State, Aki went out each day in the rain. It’s as if she has never stretched out in the sun.
While Aki squished down empty rainforest trails, I crunched over a gravel path, passing curated maples, ginko trees, and Henry Moore bronzes. While a North Pacific storm rolled over Aki and Juneau, I strolled along the Tacoma waterfront in crisp, dry weather. When I stepped on fallen leaves, they crunched underfoot.
The little dog and I push on to the mouth of Fish Creek. There gulls and mallards mutter to themselves and swim slowly away from the beach. The resident eagles are elsewhere. Maybe they have already joined the thousands of their kind that assemble north of Haines each November to feed on a late arriving run of chum salmon.
It’s been three week since the last tour buses released their hordes onto the Mendenhall Lake trails. Aki and I are the only ones using the lake margin this morning, if you don’t count a pair of eagles and one very vocal raven. Last night’s rainstorm ended just before we arrived. The ground, leaves, and eagle feathers are still soaked.
There is no wind to ruffle the lake’s surface so it can’t mirror the glacier. Only the swirls of a school of silver salmon mess with the reflection until the head of a harbor seal appears about the surface. It must have followed the silvers up the river and into the lake. I wait near the salmon to see if the seal can snatch one until Aki begins to keen.
Even after days of heavy rain the lake level has dropped enough for us to beach walk around a peninsula where the arctic tern nest during the summer. The terns have long ago left for their 10,000-mile migration to South America. But the little dog and I still avoid walking over their nesting area, which still feels like holy ground. From the beach I can see scattered feathers, relics of an unfortunate bird who didn’t live long enough to make the long flight south.
A large iceberg has come to ground off the tip of the peninsula. Last winter Aki and I might have walked on its surface when it was still part of the glacier. These days I find myself taking many photographs of icebergs. I will not have an opportunity to do it in a few years after the glacier has completed its retreat from the lake.
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.