He would be up early, drinking rich expresso at the cabin window as a strengthening sunshine sparkled the frosted meadow grass and the usual hometown deer worked his latest attempt at kale.
He would turn on the radio and listen to morning’s new complaints about followed politics and the latest baseball scores. He would be bored but he would be free to putter and push for change.
He’s up but there is no bear to search for, no sun melting a satisfied frost, no desire to do anything than monitor the fire, the smoke that thickens and soaks the morning air like a sarcastic joke as it has for the last week.
The kale still grows as if it cannot feel the gray heat. He passed it while carrying survival things to his car, an older Toyota almost filled with stuff he can’t abandon or burn, like fresh ground coffee. He now drinks instant.
Will the fancy cut street houses catch first, or will the abandon old growth forests burn? A northerly gust rips across the meadow, driving away smoke, turning the air crisp and clear, letting the sun pierce and reveal.
The survival road clears. He starts to return his coffee maker from the car, plans on re-furnishing the cabin with needed gear. Then the thick smoke returns, a nearby forest fire renders the air almost impossible to breath so he repacks the car and waits.
It is hard this morning to find a parking place near the Sheep Creek delta. The tiny parking lot is full. Both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks. We find a place to put our car on the southern side of the creek. The guys who parked the trucks are fishing for silver salmon on the Gastineau Channel shore. They are only outnumbered by gulls.
The last time we visited the delta, eagles greatly outnumbered humans. Only two guys tried their luck at fishing. Dozens of eagles ripped flesh from spawned out salmon. This morning there is only one eagle perched above thousands of gulls. The birds wade in the stream or hover on the exposed gravel, all waiting for pink salmon to die.
One gull screams at a small female pink salmon as the fish rolls on the beach. After minutes of flopping, it goes still, letting the gull start its feast. Newly arrived pink salmon power their way up the stream. Some males with grotesque humps, try to shove each other off the spawning ground. The gulls keep watching. They will watch until the spawning is done and the dying begins.
Offshore, a bald eagle stands with his lowered, as if in prayer. I know this is done in response to a heavy shower that soaking the eagle, Aki and I. But seeing it makes me wonder whether animals have a spiritual component in their lives.
Eagles are too practical for religion. They are always looking for their next meal. But Aki, who never has to worry about food, has the time to reflect on the meaning of life.
Further down the beach, a belted king fisher lands on a rounded rock. Feisty little dudes like him could benefit from a broader perspective. They could be mother nature’s cops. The rain seems to have taken the starch out of this kingfisher. Rather than buzz off the competition, it lowers its head and watches a clutch of gulls snatch baitfish from nearby water.
Aki ignores the pink salmon swirling around Fish Creek. So do three great blue heron. The long-necked birds stand like statues in shallow water as salmon boil past them. They must be targeting smaller fry.
A year or two ago we had to restrain Aki while walking along a salmon stream. Otherwise she would charge into the water, tail wagging, to try to play with the big fish. This year, she just ignores them. This is a relief for me. Now I can relax and watch all the birds drawn to the creek by the salmon or meadow grass bent over by rip seeds.
Usually the shore side trees are full of bald eagles. But only one watches us from a nearby spruce today. They might be over at the hatchery, where the first silver salmon of the year are cueing up at the bottom of the fish ladder.
After watching a stalking heron, I turn toward the meadow and watch a small flock of sparrows land on the leads of dried plant stalks to harvest seeds. One tried to land on a cow parsnip stalk while flying at top speed. The stalk whips it around like sock toy before throwing it back into the air.
We would have passed the beaver pond without seeing the mallard hen if she hadn’t been flapping her wings. The lady was tucked deep in the reeds, invisible to old eyes like Aki’s and mine if she hadn’t moved. We had already seen a lot of wing flapping this morning.
On the drive to the trailhead we stopped at Three Mile to count eagles. More than a half-a-dozen crowded around a small pool in the creek. Most stood in the steam, flapping their wings in the water like song birds do in a bird bath. Other eagles powered down their wings for lift as they climbed from wetlands crowded by the incoming tide.
As we moved down the beach a juvenile varied thrush flit off the trail to land on top of some driftwood roots. If it was its cousin the American robin, I’d suspect that it was trying to draw us away for its young. But that is not the thrush’s way. Sometimes they are just stupid-brave.
Most folks would never call deer does brave. But the one we passed this morning held its ground as it stared at the little dog and I. It must have been enjoying something tasty when we disturbed its meal. I hope it shows more discretion than valor when doe hunting season starts.
Rain can bring beauty as well as misery. Today it brings beauty with just a littler misery for the little dog and I. We are walking with another dog and her human along the Mendenhall River. Whips of fog curve around wooded islands and lay like a soft blanket over the grasslands.
Two great blue herons fly over our heads, cross the river, and land in a red bed on the other side. In seconds they are hunting the water for fish. Downstream two eagles are hunched on top of a tangle of driftwood roots. They look at each other, as companions, not competitors.
Later we spot a solitary eagle standing a top of a broken piling. It stares at the hillside until we come along. Then it looks at me, evaluating the way I shed water in the rain. Rain drops bead and bounce on its feathers. My rain coat stopped keeping me dry an hour ago.
A few days ago, I spoke to a photographer who was waiting for a bear. He stood on a walkway that crossed a sockeye spawning steam. The photographer assured me that he had the patience to wait for hours for a bear, even though it was raining. I doubted if his patience would pay off because no salmon were fighting their way up stream. Without them, there was nothing to draw in a bear. I looked down the stream, which wandered through a meadow to Mendenhall Lake. On an August day during a normal salmon year, they would be birds and bears. Today, nothing.
Before I left him to his vigil, the photographer told me that the dog salmon have finally arrived at Sheep Creek. “Bears never fish there, but there are always eagles.” This morning Aki and I confirmed that he was right.
Decaying salmon bodies littered Sheep Creek Delta. Others, listless after spawning, let the water carry them back towards Gastineau Channel. Freshly arrived dog salmon muscled each other for spawning space in the creek. More than a dozen bald eagles sulked or fed on the creek’s gravel bars. Crows and gulls hung around the feeders, waiting for a chance to finish what the big birds started.
Bothered by the loud gull screams, Aki refused to approach the creek. I retreated and then followed her to a quieter section of the delta. Even here, we weren’t free of drama. After fighting over a scrap of salmon, two adult bald eagles left the stream. One chased the other. The one being chased flew low over the beach grass and right at the little dog and I. It passed within three meters of us before gaining enough altitude to clear the beach side cottonwoods.
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.
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.
Wind and rain rattled the car on the drive out to the Brotherhood Bridge trailhead. It will do the same on the way home. But for this brief moment, Aki can feel the sun warm her fur. She and I are enjoying being in the eye of a mini-hurricane. While she half-squints her eyes against the sudden brightness, I snap pictures of a field of blooming fireweed.
Mendenhall Glacier peaks over the line of cottonwood trees that border the field. We take a trail that winds through the field, passing signs asking hikers to “be kind and wear masks.” Most of the people we pass are so kind. I move away from the one mask-less man.
A half-a-kilometer up the trail Aki throws on the breaks as the sun disappears behind a thick blanket of clouds. She stands tough until I turn back toward the car. Fat rain drops are striking us as we reach it. Maybe the poodle-mix has a future as a weather forecaster.
Not wanting to rush home. I stop the car at the fish hatchery and watch a bald eagle struggle to hold onto to its spruce top roost. Other eagles watch the show from the top of the Juneau Empire Building. While Aki waits, dry inside the car, I stroll around, head up in spite of the rain, watching eagles hover in place above the beach. Most rely only on their wing and tail feathers for control. One has to drop down his talons like a jet on final approach, just to hold his own in the wind.