Last night’s storm broke its back on the spine of Douglas Island and the mainland mountains. Its heavy rain has swollen Fish Creek and turned the water the color of molasses. Salmon too weak from spawning have already been swept back into Fritz Cove. Those still waiting their turn to bred are hunkered down in eddies or behind drift wood barriers.
Aki doddles behind until we reach Fish Creek where four eagles and kingfisher watch us approach from spruce tree roosts. One, an immature eagle, has cruciformed its wings so they can dry. The little dog hesitates and then moves close to me. No one dives on her as we round the pond and head out to the creek mouth.
A big ebb tide has lowered the creek’s level and exposed a wide swath of wetlands. But the dozen or so eagles that we can spot are either feeding along side the stream or watching us from spruce roosts. Aki relaxes on a part of the trail almost enclosed by tall fireweed and wild rose shafts. I stop where that stretch ends and count six eagles watching us from trailside trees. Aki doesn’t follow me out onto the exposed meadow.
I figure that the eagles must have sated themselves on dead salmon and other goodies exposed by the ebb tide. They won’t be interested in my ten-pound poodle. But Aki doesn’t share my confidence so I have to carry her until we reach a more protected stretch of trail.
While we circumnavigate a small island covered with tall spruce, I lose count of the number of eagles, mature and immature, that fly over out heads and out over the wetlands. White puffs of eagle down drift onto the trail in their wake.
I am out in the North Pass, competing with Stellar Sea Lions for silver salmon. Aki is out berry picking with her other human. Three hundred meters away, a humpback whale throws its tail up in the air and dives.
We will only boat on silver today. The sea lions will be much more successful. One surfaces with a silver trapped in its mouth. The sea lion snaps its head back and forth as a small flock of gulls dive on it in an attempt to snatch away bites of the fish. They know the sea lion is a messy eater.
This is a harvest trip. True we have time to watch the North Pass humpback whales feed. But thanks to a fifteen-knot wind that is cross grain to the incoming tide, we will bounce on close-set waves all day. We’d be elsewhere if not fishing for silver salmon. Again, Aki is safe and comfortable at home. As we did last week, the captain and I have used downriggers to sink baited herring into the pass waters. Unlike last week, there are other boats bouncing with us. No one is waving a net around preparing to boat a silver. We see someone boat a pink salmon but until the captain netted a eight-pound fish that I had hooked, we will see no silver salmon pulled from the water.
It rained all last night. This morning only a light shower dimples Crystal Lake. But soon the real drama will begin. A storm is moving over Sitka. It is scheduled to drop four inches of rain on the Troll Woods and raise the lake’s level. Tomorrow the trails may be muddy and in places flooded. But now Aki and I should have no problem exploring the woods.
I lead the little dog off the main trail and onto one of the beavers’ logging roads. We follow it to a little lake we seldom are able to visit. For the last few years the access trail has been flooded by water backed up behind the beaver dams. Now it is dry.
Less than a mile away, a string of tourist buses unloads in front of the glacier visitor center. People crowd the bear-watching platform searching for inbound sockeye salmon and the bears that feed on them. A few miles in the other direction, planes and helicopters take off and land. When the wind drops we can hear airplane and bus noise. But the wind is rising in anticipation of the storm, letting me pretend we are thirty miles deep in wilderness.
The ravens waited for Aki. Two of the large black birds strutted down the Fish Creek Bridge as if fat-rich bodies of dead dog salmon weren’t stretched out for them on a gravel bar beneath the bridge. They were sated and bored and looking to do some mischief. My little dog was a handy patsy. When they didn’t make way for us on the bridge, Aki growled and dashed forward. The ravens flited a little further down the bridge and waited for her to catch up. Just before she did, the ravens lifted themselves onto the bridge rails.
Game ended, the little poodle-mix trotted off the bridge and headed toward Fish Creek Pond. Two bald eagles eyed our approach. Incoming pink salmon splashed on the pond’s surface. One let itself be caught by a grade schooler on the opposite shore of the pond.
We’d see at least a half-a-dozen eagles on our walk to the creek’s mouth. All have been drawn here by the pink and chum salmon now filing up the creek. All around Juneau, chum salmon are spawning in their home streams. Each stream draws of collection of bald eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls waiting for the dying to begin.
Aki didn’t come with on this fishing trip. It’s for the best. She’d been bored after she investigated the boat for crumbs. The boat’s rhythmic pounding as it rounded Shelter Island would have sent her searching the cutty cabin for a place to hide. She wouldn’t have been calmed until the banging stopped, even after I assured her that the waves would drop at the changing of the tide. Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed home with the little dog.
I was thrilled and frightened by a humpback whale that surfaced less than fifty meters in front of us as the boat headed for the fishing grounds. The captain and I both felt relief after he made a course correction letting the whale slide by twenty meters to port. Now I am a little bored and feeling put upon by the rough motion of the boat beating into sharp-edged swells. The captain and I sank our herring-baited hooks an hour ago. At the edge of our vision, a pod of humpbacks bubble feed. But to move nearer to them would take us away from the fish we seek.
Right now the Juneau Costco store is opening its doors. If home and not being hammered by waves on Lynn Canal, I could buy two immaculate red salmon fillets nestling under plastic wrap in a foam tray. The tray would cost less than the gas used to reach the fishing grounds. But if I substituted that salmon for the one I hope to catch this morning I could not have watched the peaks of the Chilkat Range climb out of low lying clouds. There’d be no more whale encounters if I only fished at Costco, no more chances to see a bear work the tidelands for found food.
The tip of my trolling pole dips down and then pops us as a fish pulls my line from the downrigger clip. I grab the pole and reel in slack until I can feel hooked salmon struggling to escape. When it breaks the water and I know it is a silver. My fishing partner reels in his line and cranks up the downrigger cables so they can’t interfere with the boating of the fish. With the net, he moves in front of me as I gently reel in my line. Three times the silver will undo my efforts when it swims away after being brought close to the boat. It will be too tired to resist the net the fourth time. Then I will remember that it is this ballet of salmon and friend that I would miss most of all if I only fished at stores.
The Gastineau Channel eagles and seals are assembled for a banquet. Thirty seals lounge on a disappearing sand bar. An even greater number of eagles huddle together on a barge tied up near the salmon hatchery. Their dish for supper—homeward bound chum salmon—wait in line to climb the hatchery fish ladder. Soon the seals will be herding salmon into a tight group that will make harvesting easier. But I can’t figure how the eagles will cash in on the chum bonanza. Except for those fish killed by seals or fisherman and not eaten, the salmon will all end up in the hatchery pens. There they will be electrocuted and their eggs or milt will be removed. The milt will fertilize eggs to create the next generation of salmon.