Yesterday, after an enormous high tide flooded all the low-lying sections of the wetlands, A man and his large-pawed dog walked across this normally dry slough while the 10 degree temperature was turning the tide water to ice. Crisp, detailed impressions of paw of boot bottom now mark the duo’s passage. Usually, such evidence of another’s use of newly formed ice would encourage me to following in his footsteps. But there is something sinister about the frozen tide waters.
When I work up courage for the crossing, I carefully place my left boot onto the ice. It gets no purchase on the impossibly slick ice. I follow Aki onto an informal trail in the snow that will lead us around the frozen slough and to the base of a spruce tree. An adult bald eagle lands on a top branch of the tree and looks at everything except at us.
The wind stiffens as we move down along the now-frozen Mendenhall River. Aki, wearing two of her warmest wraps, trots ahead of me. I turn back to the car to avoid a long slog into the wind. Now ploughing into a 20-knot breeze, the little poodle-mix keeps up a steady, sled dog trot. When a sudden gust stops me in my tracks, Aki flinches and jumps sideways, like she had been pinched. Then she drops into a sheltered gully and continues towards the warm car.
As Aki and I round Fish Creek Pond, a kingfisher scolds us, what Poet Wendall Berry describes as the sound of the bird closing its rusty hinge. Out of the corner of my eye I see a stiff twig still vibrating after the kingfisher launched from it. The bird with attitude hovers for a moment over the iced-over pond and flies off.
The little dog and I walk out onto the spit that parallels Fish Creek. We can hear the high, also hysterical cry of an unseen shorebird. From nearby woods comes an eagle scream. But all if can see is a small raft of bufflehead ducks and a handful of gulls. We will watch two eagles before the walk ends, but both will fly high and straight out of sight.
Down Stephens Passage Blue-grey snow clouds slowly close a sucker hole through which a sun had spotlighted a patch of the slope of Mt. Stoller White. I expect the clouds to close over us like fog but they hand over the passage. A sparse shower of snow gives us a taste of what is slouching our way.
Aki starts to whine after I sit on a driftwood stump. She raises the pitch of her plea as I rest my telephoto lens on the trunk of another driftwood log. Across the Mendenhall River, the great blue heron that I have been stalking turns its head to find out who is raising a ruckus. I take several pictures and abandon the perfect hide.
Aki, who had been shivering while she whined, leads me back to the trail. She goes into a tail-dropping cringe every time I turn to look at the heron. The blue-gray water of the river captures the reflection of the long-necked bird like it does the surrounding mountains. Just upriver from the heron, a female bufflehead duck swims across the reflected avalanche chutes of Blackerby Ridge.
Downriver, a bald eagle stands on the top of its own driftwood stump. It watches 100 Vancouver Canada geese fly by. Rather than climbing, the geese glide to land just out of our sight. . Imagining how the chestnut and black birds would standout against the newly snow-covered wetlands, I lead the little dog toward them. At the end of the trail, we spot the geese on a snow-free sandbar on the opposite ride of the river. They blend in. If they hadn’t been cackling, we would never have found them.
Aki and I are following Fish Creek to its mouth. The trail takes us along the spine of a spit. Two eagles watch us pass from roosts on the other side of the creek. A strong flood tide is quickly expanding the creek, covering the dead-grass meadow bordering it.
While Aki investigates the base of a cow parsnip stalk, I look seaward, hoping to see the Chilkat Mountains on the west side of Lynn Canal. I can make out Admiralty Island but clouds hide the Chilkats. In the foreground something that looks like a half-submerged drift log is moving around Fritz Cove at an impossible speed. With the help of my telephoto lens, I figure out that my log is actually a gang of adolescent Stellar sea lions.
What I took to be a blackened root is actually the fin of a reclining sea lion. His buddies swim around and under him, sometimes jamming their heads together only to explode away. Another eagle watches the sea lions with what could be a judgmental expression on its face.
Aki, why is this eagle sulking? When I look down at the little dog she appears to be sulking too. The eagle has jammed itself into the tangled branches of an alder tree. The dog stands at my few, squinting to keep rain drops out of her eyes. Aki and I have just left the Sheep Creek Delta where only the ducks seem to be enjoying the weather.
The beach was empty except for the resident gulls, mallards, and Barrow golden eye ducks. The gulls clustered together on a sand bar. The golden eyes paddled and fed just off shore. But to my surprise, the mallards waddled around the beach where they would be easy targets for eagles. They were today’s canaries in the coal mine, letting me know that there were no eagles around to carry my diminutive poodle away.
Aki is sharing the trail with a sled dog mix from a nearby village. They don’t interact much unless one of their humans offers a dog treat. We are walking down a crescent-shaped gravel beach on a dry if gray day. Gulls watch the dogs pass with “I couldn’t care less expressions. This is a typical gull reaction to Aki. But I am surprised to see that the rambunctious bigger dog merits the same casual treatment.
A large raft of goldeneye ducks turns their backs to the dogs and slowly works their way offshore. Nothing panics them to flight until an eagle flies over them. The big bird is a half a kilometer up where nothing can blocks the mountain wind. With quick wing adjustments it hovers over the goldeneyes for thirty seconds and then moves up the bay.
Just off of Point Louisa, a shrimp boat chugs up Lynn Canal. When it returns to port, its captain will sell his catch from the boat’s deck. He does a good business. People in this rainforest town are comfortable with buying seafood from the captain that caught it. They don’t need to have their shrimp wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap.
Following the dogs, we humans walk through an old growth forest to Point Louisa. Near the point, a bald eagle glides from a nearby spruce roost, brakes in mid-air by throwing back its wings, and drifts toward the water. It snatches a small fish with its talons and lifts skyward. A jealous gull chases the eagle back to its roost.
I almost turned around in the trailhead parking lot when I saw the a four-wheel drive pickup—the preferred rig of duck hunters. Just one gunshot from the truck’s owner could panic Aki into hiding. But the tide had already flooded over the wetlands, flushing ducks and geese out onto the salt water. Even if the truck driver were hunting, he’d have nothing to shoot at. I coxed the little dog out of the car and headed toward the Fish Creek Pond.
A diminutive bufflehead hen paddled near the edge of the pond, watched by a roosting bald eagle. More frightened of the little dog and I, the duck moved to the pond’s center. The dog yard sound of panicked Canada geese drew my attention away from the eagle and its prey.
We found the geese, a contingent of thirty, formed up on Fritz Cove. A large raft of mallards floated near the geese. I doubt if the geese even saw the poodle-mix or I. We were at least a half-a-kilometer away when something, an eagle or seal, stirred them to flight. The geese flew low over the cove water in a long line. They soon passed the airborne raft of mallards, that had gotten a head start on the geese.
The last we saw of the fleeing birds they were passing behind the island at the mouth of Fish Creek. I thought we might sight them when we reached the mouth. But when we arrived there, nothing stirred the waters of the creek or Gastineau Channel into which the creek flowed. We couldn’t search long for birds. The little dog and I had to hurry to make it around the tip of the island before the rising tide flooded over the trail.