We are on the moraine between storm pulses. The last one ripped away most of the fall color from the tall poplars. Their living skeletons line Moose Lake. The more protected willows still provide a yellow contrast to the dull color scheme created by last night’s high winds.
Newly born cascades of rainwater carve out channels in the Thunder Mountain avalanche chutes. Fog mist rises from evergreen forests like campfire smoke. Heavy rain has raised lake and river levels. Aki and I have to detour around large sections of flooded trails to get to the heart of the moraine. As a result we have the place to ourselves except for a bald eagle roosting in the bare branches of a poplar tree.
With all the watercourses running high, silver salmon can now reach their spawning grounds. From its vantage point the eagle can spot potential meals as they struggle to complete their long swim.
The storm caught us halfway through the walk. Delivered by an atmospheric stream from the South Pacific, it announced its arrival with a gusty wind. Heavy rain followed to confirm its presence. Aki, who was uncertain about the trip to begin with, turned back toward the car each time I looked in her direction.
There was little reason to continue. It was low tide and all the sea birds were 500 meters away. There was an eagle guarding the Fish Creek Pond. But it and the mallards flew off as soon as the first shotgun blast. Far on the other side of the wetlands, someone was hunting ducks.
We passed wild rose bushes still rich with fall color. But the rain dampened even their beauty. Dead fireweed stalks were pulled toward earth by their water soaked seed down. Only the winter wrens showed any joy. They bounced around the interior of an elderberry bush, singing in the rain.
There is still an hour before the tide crests at 18.7 feet. Already it has turned the Fish Creek delta into a lake. Whether to escape the shrinking beaches where they had been hunting for food, or because they just feel like it, a large murder of crows retreats to the forested island that we are attempting to circumnavigate. Aki ignores the verbal battle that erupts between the crows and a handful of eagles that already occupying the island’s canopy.
On the other side of the temporary lake, a bald eagle swoops over a raft of mallard ducks, flushing them to flight. Failing to snatch one for a meal, the eagle returns to its roost in an old growth spruce tree. One of the crows flies over to flush the eagle from its roost. I wonder if the crow’s squawking speech would translate, “How does that feel tough guy.” The eagle holds to its perch, sending up its own verbal abuse.
None of this ruckus disturbs a local song sparrow. The diminutive singer moves along side of us as we try to reach higher ground before the tide floods out the path back to the trailhead. Even though it could fit comfortably in my breast pocket, the sparrow shows no fear. It lands on an old piling just a few feet and stares us down like a sheriff about to tell two trouble makers to move along.
Aki and I are crossing another meadow. This one should be free of bears. The river that divides it is almost free of birds. One bald eagle roosts on a driftwood snag. Close by, a small raft of mallards hugs the shore. Noise from the nearby airport blocks out the song of sparrows sheltering in the grass. Aki is bored and looks at me often with an “it’s time to turn around” look. But I feel at home.
It’s the grass, which has the height of color of wheat at harvest time. Turn away from the glacier and the river and it could be late June on a Montana bench like the one homesteaded by my grandfather.
Thank you bear, I say while securing Aki to her leash. The black bear had been digging up chocolate lily roots when we approached. It spotted us when we were only 30 meters away and slipped into a nearby copse of spruce. Aki never saw it.
We are on the return leg of the Boy Scout Beach Trail. It was raining when we started toward the beach. Now we walk under full sun. A stiff westerly blows at our backs, stripping yellow leaves from the riverside poplars and pushing waves up Eagle River. The wind has a fall bite to it.
On our way downriver Aki dashed from grass clump to grass clump trying to find relief from the breeze. To make our return trip easier on the little dog I lead her over a beach berm and onto a protected meadow. We bailed on that route after walking through large patches of trampled grass and pot holed ground. Tall grass and the dried stalks of cow parsnip plants prevented me from seeing more than a few meters in any direction. A whole work gang of bears could be within claw reach and we would never know it until it was too late.
To avoid a nasty surprise for bear, dog and man, Aki and I left the meadow to take a trail through the woods where no bruin had reason to occupy. It was just after we walked out of the woods and onto a small meadow that the day’s second bear spotted us.
Earlier, while on the opposite side of Eagle River Aki and I watched a different bear foraging for roots. Reaching to a noise from upriver, the bear sat up and stared toward the disturbance. This got Aki’s attention and she let out with a quiet growl. Now we had the bear’s attention. It was time for our retreat across the river.
Aki is bored. She doddles along behind me on this mountain meadow trail. There’s not a dog in sight. When we first arrived, only the ghosts of Douglas pines could be discerned in the fog. Within minutes the fog started to lift. In minutes all the drama was gone. Okay, little dog, let’s try a rain forest trail.
We drop down to sea level and park in a trailhead parking lot. Fog still penetrated the rain forest and hung low over the beaver pond. It robbed us of any view of the Chilkat Mountains. I could just make out a section of Shaman Island and little of the coastline.
We heard an eagle call out to its mate when we walked onto the beach. After that it has been quiet. There are no gulls or scoters to break the silence. Thanks to the fog, no airplanes can drone overhead.
Without the competition of sight and sounds, my nose takes center stage. I breathe in the soft, salty smell of the sea and the sharp iodine tang of severed wrack. But I am still just a burgers and fries guy compared to the little nasal gourmet searching the trail for scents of her dog friends.
There is only one eagle on top of the mine tunnel ventilator shaft this morning. Its mate must be off feeding. Even though no wind stirs the air, white feathers stick out from the back of its head like untamed cowlicks. It stares down channel, maybe at the flock of gulls that just landed on the beach, or perhaps at the top of Sheep Mountain rimmed with light from the rising sun.
The eagle’s mate plops down on the shaft roof. Rather than exchanging the usual screeching welcomes, the two eagles face in opposite directions. A minute later only the original eagle remains on the shaft roof. The other flies toward the rising sun, flushing the gulls and a raft of scoters to flight.
I find myself slowing down as we near the end of the beach. Even though it is still blocked by the Sheep Mountain knob, the sun has already managed to paint a golden strip of light on the waters of Gastineau Channel. A tiny raft of mallards lingers in it, as it provides them warmth. Aki is already at the edge of the Treadwell woods, giving me her “time to go” look. As if to confirm her wisdom, the sun immediately slips behind heavy cloud cover the minute it clears the mountain. The golden light vanishes, leaving the ducks, dog and I in a world of gray.