A single set of canine tracks cross Fish Creek. They are the kind of tracks a wolf would make while trotting. Aki and I have just left the car. She is cataloging the smells left by previous visitors. I am trying to figure out where the wolf trotted off the creek and into the woods.
Reluctantly, the little dog follows me to the pond. Each time I stop to check on her, she freezes, as if she is stalking prey. If I move in her direction, she breaks back to the car. I tell her that she is safer walking next to me if a wolf or eagle shows interest in her. She is not reassured. Maybe she fears for my safety.
Aki springs ahead once we reach the pond then freezes when an eagle starts scolding its mate. She still follows me onto an open spit where I spot another eagle flying down the beach. The big bird circles once and plunges, talons first, into the water. Half submerged, it dog paddles twice with its wings while it attempts to snatch something from under the water with its beak. In a second it is airborne again.
The scolding eagle flies over to harass the now-wet bird. When it sees that the diving bird carries nothing in its talons or beak, the noisy one flies back to its perch in the top of a spruce tree. The wet bird lands on an offshore rock.
Nearby a large raft of mallards hunts the shallows for food. Three other ducks sleep standing up on a small rise. When the tide returns they will lose their little refuge and all the birds will have to work harder for their food.
Aki streaks ahead of me on the way back to the car. But she stops when before the bridge across Fish Creek. When I catch up with the poodle, I take another look at the wolf tracks. Ten feet further up stream, is a line of tracks that the wolf left when it returned to the other side of the creek. These tracks were not there when we started our walk. Was the wolf tucked into the creek-side brush at the start of our hike, watching me puzzling about its tracks?
Aki is having a Goldilocks’ moment. The snow on this trail is just right—not deep, not crusty. Just the stuff for rolling in. Last night’s high tide trimmed the edge of Aki’s snow pack. I can walk on frozen sand while the little dog runs full bore in the snow.
We have sun but feel little of its warmth because of the wind. It blows at a steady clip from the south. A small clutch of mallards hug the north face of a gravel island where the wind can’t chill them. One drake, with its metallic-green head works to separate a mussel from its purple shell.
A thin skim of sea ice lays broken over sea grass stubble. It crunches under Aki’s paws after she leaves the snow and follows me over an icy covered stretch of beach. She’d rather be back in her little snow belt. But as my self-appointed protector, she places my safety first. I, who spend most of the time scanning for hovering eagles that could carry her off, see our relationship as one based on mutual assistance.
We have been here before. Me, wandering onto questionable ice; Aki waiting at the ice edge waiting for me to come to my senses. Her lack of trust once would have bothered me. But after seeing a new crack in the pond I smile and turn back to join her. The little poodle-mix has a sled dog’s distrust of ice. She also has a lead dog’s loyalty. She would have followed me across the beaver pond ice if I had continued.
After our retreat, we head down an ice covered trail to the Outer Point Beach. Thanks to my industrial grade ice cleats, I can walk without slipping. Aki must take more care. But she has a sled dog’s skill at changing gait and speed to keep from falling.
Two harbor seals watch us walk onto the beach. An eagle flies across the mouth of Peterson Creek. After I raise my camera the big predator makes a course correction and returns to its roosting tree. The seals disappear. I can almost hear a nearby raft of golden eye ducks breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Because there is no wind and the temperature has stayed above zero, I brought Aki back to the Fish Creek Delta. Ice still covers the trail so the little dog and I slip and slip on the trail to the pond. The ice layer on the pond is healing after the last thaw. A layer so thin it is transparent already covers all recently opened water.
My right index finger burns when I depress the camera shutter button. I wish the sun could hurry its climb up the backside of the ridge that blocks it light. The little dog and I could use a source of heat.
We will eventually walk in sunlight but it won’t provide much warmth. We will hear several bald eagles but only see one as it flies between a gap in the trees. I will wonder at having the luck to look up at that moment in time to see the eagle. Then I will question whether I wasted my luck on such a far away view of the predator.
On one of January’s last days it’s 37 degrees above zero. Persistent rainfall has eliminated snow from the forest floor except where it has been packed into ice by foot traffic. You see, this week Winter left Alaska to holiday below the 49th parallel. Subzero temperatures made worst by strong winds have people in the Lower 48 are penned down in their homes while we watch our ski trails melt in the rain.
Aki and I head out to the Fish Creek Delta looking for distractions from the weather. A mature bald eagle, feathers soaked by rain, has positioned itself above to pond. Last week the pond was capped by a solid layer of ice. The fractured flows that remain float up and down with the tides.
Aki is soon as soaked as the eagle. She shivers each time I stop to watch the eagle or a small raft of mallards that have moved up the creek with the tide. She doesn’t object when I turn back towards the car. Don’t worry little dog, snow is in the forecast and the temperatures should be in signal digits soon. Winter’s vacation is almost over.
It was late morning on Sandy Beach. The fog that had dampened noise and limited vision on the beach was breaking up. The eagle that usually hunkers on top of the old mine ventilation shaft was present but quiet. He squinted at the little dog and I as we made our way towards a pair of Beninese mountain dogs. I swear that the eagle stirred with interest as the three dogs met. Aki stretched out before the two hulking dogs, as if offering herself as a midday meal. The tails and ears of the mountain dogs shot up in interest. When they were hooked, Aki slipped out from under their noises and ran circles around them. Apparently disappointed, the eagle turned away.
Down channel another bald eagle flapped it way toward the old gold mining town of Lucky Me. Aki said goodbye to her new buddies and worked the high tide line for scents. I almost forgot about her as I approached two mallard ducks. The hen and drake were fast asleep with their beaks tucked into a nest of feathers on their backs. They slept through my clumsy approach and the sound of small waves breaking two feet away.
Nearby another mallard pair scurried across the surface of the collapsed glory hole, eyeing us nervously as they paddled away. Then a pair of golden eye ducks did the same. The sleeping pair did not awake. The ventilator shaft eagle must have been watching the ducks sleep. It could have easily turned one of them into a meal. Lucky ducks.
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.