Aki and I are driving North, chasing the sun. That’s not quite right. We are looking for an end run around fog. When we left downtown, it blocked any view across Gastineau Channel. It seemed like the mountains had all been taken away for cleaning. Maybe we could find some relief out the road.
Twenty miles from home the fog grew worse. I had to slow down due to reduced visibility. When we passed the Shrine of St. Therese and parted for a moment, revealing the white peak of Lion Mountain. We drove on to the Eagle River flats, which normally offer views of the Chilkat Mountains and Admiralty Island. A wall of white rose up out of Lynn Canal so we couldn’t even see the edge of the flats.
The sun eventually burned through the clouds, not enough to reveal itself or any blue sky, but enough to brighten the canal water. Aki and walked along the flats, spying on a resting eagle and some nonplussed mallard ducks. One hundred meters out, a hundred gulls gathered together on barely exposed sand bar. The eagle, which had been ignoring the ducks, flew low over the gulls’ resort, flushing them into the air. Minutes later, the gulls resettled on the bar.
The fog closed over the sun so we headed home. I stopped when it reappeared above a muskeg meadow and lit up the feathers of a raven. The raven croaked, as if bothered by the sudden spotlight, and flew into some nearby woods.
Winter is holding its beachhead on the moraine. Aki and I are walking on a snow-covered glacial trail when an eagle lifts off the ground and lands in a nearby cottonwood tree. I search the ground for what drew the eagle. All I find is fresh blood on the snow.
A low layer of clouds hid the mountains when we first arrived. Now the sun is trying to burn it off. I can just barely make out the shoulder of Mt. McGinnis rising above the Troll Woods. Then the peak appears underlined with a thin strip of grey cloud. The air brightens when patches of blue appear in the eastern sky. It is reflected in a small beaver pond that almost touches the tree where the eagle waits for us to leave.
We move on to visit the beaver village. There thin ice barely covers the pond. Aki holds back at the edge of village. I wonder why. She normally loves to explore near beaver dens and always smiles when she rolls in their scat. I turn around after reaching the hole the beavers use to slip in and out of the pond. There is Aki, giving me her “Are You Crazy!!!” look. We seen no tracks of bears or wolves so I have no idea what has the little dog on edge.
I’m again walking into the breeze on Sandy Beach. The wind tosses rain into my face and onto my parka. I want to ask Aki why I always make this mistake. But the little dog is thirty meters away, trotting along the forest’s edge where the wind can’t reach her.
Next time, I promise myself, I will walk through the Treadwell Woods to Glory Hole Bay and then home with the wind at my back. I wipe rain from my glasses so I can see down Gastineau Channel. Just past Glory Hole Bay, two bald eagles ride upward in the wind. Flexing their wings, the eagles then drop like stones. One dives on something in the channel. The other eagle turns its wings into a parachute and drifts onto the top of an old wharf piling. They are masters of their six-foot wings.
A bald eagle flies over our car as I steer it into our driveway. Look at that, little dog, we spent hours walking over semi-wild lands and saw nothing but pine siskins. If we had stayed home, we could have seen that eagle being covered with snowflakes as it sulked on our neighbor’s roof. Aki, hoping to find some abandoned food morsel on the kitchen floor, urges me to stop second guessing myself and let her into the house.
We have just returned from a visit to the glacial moraine. An inch of squeaky snow covered our trail. Quarter-sized flakes drifted down as we walked out to Nugget Falls. We could just make out the glacier and Mt. McGinnis through the falling snow.
I usually look forward to deciphering tracks made by animals in snow. But those left light night were already buried with newly fallen stuff. Near the lakeshore, we found fresh tracks that could have been left by a small black bear. Maybe someone is late to hibernate.
Aki and I enjoyed our first snowy walk of the year. Even during a storm, the white stuff brightens the day. But the appearance of the sun could have added a crispness to the scene. This morning, while preparing to drive out to the moraine, the sun did muscle out from behind snow clouds to light up the waters of Gastineau Channel. It happened as an ocean tug pulled the weekly freight barge from Seattle toward its moorings. I wondered what dreamed for goodies rode on the barge.
The heavy rain that is flooding this moraine trail and soaking my pants doesn’t seem to be slowing down the pine siskins. Thirty of the small birds just settled onto an alder. They bounced when they landed on the alder branches then begin attacking something with their small but powerful beaks. They must be after the alder’s tightly wrapped leaf buds.
A bald eagle, its feathers rumpled by the rain, watches the siskins from its perch in a nearby cottonwood tree. Then it turns back toward the river. A few branches away, a long-tailed magpie watches the watcher. Maybe the magpie is hoping that the eagle will lead it to a deer carcass or some other source of food.
The little dog and I walk on. I want to circle Moose Lake and be back in the car before Aki starts to shiver. A few weeks ago some swans rested on the lake before continuing their southern migration. This morning I can only three bufflehead ducks. The black and white head of the male duck makes it the easiest to spot.
We spook two mallards to flight just before leaving the lake. The two drakes had been sheltering from the rain in a tangle of shore side alders. When they took off they filled the air with drops of the rain that had accumulated on their feathers.
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.
I am about to tell Aki to drop in stealth mood. We are using a series of informal trails that crisscross the backbone of False Outer Point. The poodle-mix, whose short status lets her slip under and around blueberry bushes without making a sound, doesn’t need to be silenced. Together we move toward the point where gulls and a huge raft of surf scooters have gathered. In the forest canopy above a raven croaks out a warning of our presence.
Even though the sound of my rain parka scraping against devil’s club and blueberry branches set a belted kingfisher to flight, the scooters are still near the point when we break out of the trees. One of the orange-beaked birds swims away from the point, drawing the rest of the raft along behind him as if they were all attached with invisible cords. Together the scooters form an apostrophe. Then, like an American high school marching band, they morph into straight line.
Wanting to watch the birds from the beach, I drop into a steep gully with exposed spruce roots that offer enough handholds to allow me safe passage down. Aki watches me descend but does not follow. On the beach I realize that she can’t do much with handholds since she lacks hands to grip them. In a few minutes I’m back on the ridge, huffing and puffing from the climb back to the little dog.
An eagle screams and then flies over the scooters, flushing out into Lynn Canal. Five horned grebes, as grey as gulls in the flat light, watch them go.