The sun gives and it takes beauty this morning on Gastineau Meadows. It backlights the plain Jane alder leaves, making they sparkle it costume jewelry. It creates patterns of shadows and light on already mottled alder bark and makes the bones of dead pine trees glow. But under the sun’s harsh glare, south facing mountains on the other side of Gastineau Channel lose definition. Only Mt. Juneau holds it beauty in the morning light.
Last winter I had to cajole Aki into crossing through an area of the meadow frequented by coyotes. Today she trots over the trails of her wild cousins, more interested in a spot of dog urine than their whereabouts. I again marvel at the capacity of the little dog to forget the unpleasant details of her recent past.
Aki remembers the important things like the approaches to our favorite trailheads and the scent signature of dog friends. She can never forget her feeding schedule or the sound of cheese being sliced on a cutting board. But thankfully, the warning ghosts of her past never appear to trouble her.
Just as Aki and I move out of the alder thicket and onto the beach, a common loon sings. I haven’t heard that melancholic call for years. The loon, with it’s ring of white vertical neck stripes, hurries on the water toward another loon. I think one of the birds called again but can’t be sure because of the arrival of two teenage girls. Weighed down by backpacks and looking at the screens of their phones, the young women’s conversation, a typical adolescent combination of judgmental slur and insecurity, obscures that of the reuniting loons. Aki agrees to wait until the back packers reenter the forest where the old growth trees will absorb their noise.
While waiting, I watch the original loon and two others swim in formation and then dive on fish. All are adult birds. None sing but I welcome the silence. After giving the backpackers some space, I lead my little dog into the forest and then climb a headland covered with bog forest of alder and mountain hemlock. It leads to another beach where, from the sounds, I believe that scooters hover just off shore, large dogs bark and play, and young boys scream out their joy of being alive in the woods.
Aki and I hike to the edge of this new beach and watch two border collies swim in the bay while a coven of small boys runs about on the gravel. Someone is chopping wood for the campfire that sends a large plume of gray smoke skyward. Aki doesn’t argue with my decision to turn back.
After re-crossing the headland we leave the trail and drop down onto a pocket beach. Magically, no noise beyond the headland reaches us. The beach fronts on a small channel. At one end of the channel, eagles dry their wings while perched at the top of evergreens. Another eagle flies toward them from the other end of the channel, then executes a wide turn and returns to its perch. One of the eagles it was heading for starts to screech. Aki and I leave.
“Oh,” is all I said. But it was enough to spook a great blue heron to flight. The bird and I surprised each other. It was wading in a small pond. I had just climbed onto a dike that bordered its fishing waters. For a few seconds I could see the surprisingly large swell of its belly before the heron’s big wings lifted it into the air. In several more seconds, the bird was more than halfway across the meadow.
Three eagles that had been bickering over someone in the meadow grass also took to air. But a robin froze like a statute at the top of a young spruce. Later a swallow, after bouncing it chest five or six times on the pond surface, gazed at me from a perch on the thinnest branch of a bare alder tree.
This morning only small birds posed for us. But shooting stars and lupines made up for it.
The Sheep Creek delta seems empty this morning. No gulls or ducks or even crows wade in the creek waters. No heron stalks small fry in the shallows. A clutch of gulls float in Gastineau Channel under the eye of the adult bald eagle perched in the superstructure of navigation aid no. 2. If it weren’t for a large raft of scoters on the channel waters it would be stone quiet.
I imagine that our other local waterfowl are feeding on their summer grounds on the outside coast. Later, when the creek fills up with spawning pink salmon, clouds of screaming gulls will make it difficult for Aki to hear my summing whistle. But today, she has no such excuse. I’m in the no man’s land between the splash zone grass and the channel. The little dog stands in the grass, using her mental powers to call me back. She wants us to walk down the beach at the edge of a grass-covered dune, which is rich in dog smells.
This drama repeats itself on every visit to the creek so I keep walking, knowing that she will eventually trot out to me. When she does, we walk toward the nav aid to check out the eagle. It ignores us, only leaving its perch to sweep out over the channel to fish.
Aki’s been a good sport about what she considers a silly detour so after a few minutes we walk over the grassy dune where she can scent and pee to her heart’s content. At the end of the dune the nav aid eagle is now perched in an alder tree. Maybe, for the big raptor, we are the morning’s entertainment.
Aki and I have come too soon to the troll woods. It looks and feels like winter has just left. Many of the lakeside alders and cottonwoods stand with naked limbs against a dull-grey sky. But there is hope for spring in for the form of pussy willows and bursting alder buds. Even though little or no snow remains on Thunder Mountain, it is cold enough for me to hood up.
By straining I am able to spot one mallard on Crystal Lake. The shrill whistles of the vared thrush and once, a hawk’s complaint supply the only other evidence of animated life. Pushing deeper into the moraine, despite a government sign warning of recent bear activity, I lead the little dog to the edge of a beaver-flooded trail.
Aki, apparently knowing I will have to soon reverse course, the poodle-mix watches me doing a clumsy tightrope-walking maneuver along the trail’s edge. When I reach a patch of dry ground, my eye is pulled down to the flooded trail by the panicked movements of water bugs. They are heading toward islands of grass where the waves generated by raindrops can’t break the tension that keeps them afloat.
Aki and the Gastineau ravens are ignoring each other. The little dog had the runs last night but seems over it now. Still, she seems a little grumpy. Maybe the ravens are cutting her some slack. A block to the south, where alders partially obscure the cement walls of the old ore crushing plant, more ravens circle in the blue sky. A bald eagle screams out a complaint but doesn’t show itself. The north wind blows the little dog and I past the birds and down onto South Franklin Street.
Here, the tourist shops, bars, Filipino Hall, and the homeless shelter block the wind. Aki follows a pee trail that leads her past the Red Dog Saloon, the Lucky Lady Bar, and the ancient Alaska Hotel. Early day drinkers are no doubt sheltering in each of these establishments. Now facing into the wind, Aki powers past a distillery, tattoo shop, and the Franklin Street Barbers. She shows impatience with I stop to photograph a bronze brown bear statute. In minutes, thanks to her insistence, we are home.
Aki and I start the Ides of March on the Douglas Island Bridge. Normally she drags her paws on to the bridge. But today she tries to bully me into letting her walk across it. A murder of loud-mouthed crows watches our battle of wills. I know I shouldn’t care what these dudes think about the little dog or me. But I am still bothered by the attention. Aki eventually backs down and we return to the car. It’s time to check out Peterson Creek.
At first glance the creek looks to be ice-free. Over a foot of golden brown water runs between the creek banks, reflecting the mottled bark of the creek side alders. But ice stills covers the creek bed, providing a white background for the golden water. It’s still a winter scene but spring can’t be far away.
We cross over the creek and walk down to a beach bordering Stephens Passage and climb a small rocky headland. Aki gives me her “This is so boring” look. I will accommodate her but first I want to study something that looks like an animal’s backbone trapped in rock. It could be fossil, evidence of life from a time long past.