Pink salmon have replaced the chum salmon that tussled in the shallow water beneath the Fish Creek Bridge the last time Aki and I walked over it. Male pinks, with the distorted backs that earned them the nickname “humpies,” charge each other in the stream rapids. Unlike last time, when ravens and watched the salmons struggle, only a flock of no nonsense gulls takes in the show. There is one eagle roosting in a tree above the stream. Soon it will fly off.
Expecting to find many eagles and herons on our walk to the stream mouth, I try to rush the little dog. She gives me her “I have important work to do” stare and slows to catalogue trailside scents. Each sniff adds to her encyclopedic knowledge. I’m as impatience as the belted kingfisher chattering over our heads.
Several schools of pink salmon wander around a pond connected to the stream. A few hurl themselves out of the water as if that will hurry up the spawning process. Maybe female pink salmon dig an acrobatic guy. No herons wade in the pond shallows. No eagles watch the show. Only gulls float on the pond, looking for scraps of already dead fish.
On a spit covered with fireweed stalks and meadow grass already succumbing to fall, gangs of sparrows search the ground for food. The little brown birds spring up like grasshoppers when we walk down the trail. No eagles wait for us at the stream mouth, just more gulls and one raven flying over the creek delta as if it were an eagle.
Last night Aki was waiting for me when I walked off the MV Le Conte. She begged for attention while I lifted my bags off the ferry’s luggage cart and carried them to the car. With the luggage secured, I lifted up the little poodle-mix and promised that tomorrow we would go on one of usual adventures.
Aki didn’t need any encouragement this morning to follow me to the car. We drove out the North Douglas Highway to Outer Point Trail. A deer hunter’s truck was parked near the trailhead but we wouldn’t see him or anyone else on the trail. I could have postponed the walk until the sun burned through the marine layer. But I wanted to use the trail at first light even if that light was gray.
The Stellar’s jays were quiet when we walked through the forest. But we could hear the gulls way before we reached the beach. An eagle has just flushed them to flight. Another eagle waddled along the mouth of Peterson Creek, waiting for the day’s first pink salmon to ride the tide toward their spawning ground. A large school of pinks jumped and splashed near the creek mouth.
During the night the tide had ebbed to expose the causeway to Shaman Island. Gulls covered the path, breaking off in twos and threes when the little dog and I invaded their comfort zone. Fog filtered our view of the glacier but not the Chilkat Mountains. They were tall enough to catch the first rays of bright light after the sun climbed above the clouds.
The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage.
Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds.
We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore.
On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream.
Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot.
As Aki and I took the switchback trail that drops into the Treadwell Woods, something brushed by me and leaped in Aki’s direction. The little poodle-mix knew what was coming. She wasn’t surprised when a large bird dog puppy, all legs and grin, dropped into a crouch in front of her. The two yipped and circled each other until the bird dog, easily four times Aki’s weight, got a little too exuberant. Aki snapped out a reproach and the puppy dropped her head down in submission. It amazes me how Aki gets away with bossing around bigger dogs.
After the puppy’s owner dragged his dog away on a lead, we wandered among the ruins of old Treadwell and dropped onto Sandy Beach. I was not surprised to see two bald eagles roosting on the roof of the old ventilation tower. The waters of Gastineau channel had cut the tower off from the beach. From their island tower the eagles watched a murder of crows that had taken up station of the tops of old wharf pilings or beach rocks. After Aki and I entered the scene two of the crows descended on a fresh salmon carcass to feed.
The eagles just watched the crows tearing into in fish they probably desired. Did the feisty, but much smaller birds intimidate them like my 10-pound poodle-mix intimated the puppy? Or were the eagles just worried about the man who was pointing a suspiciously gun-like object at them?
Shouldering my camera, I moved down the beach to let the crows and eagles work things out for themselves. After a gap of fifty meters had opened up I watched all the crows take to the air. Only one eagle roosted on the roof of the ventilation shaft.
Wanting a better view of the beaver pond, I walk out onto board walkway that crosses a small bay. Aki dinks around on the gravel trail while I stray. She has no need for an unfiltered view of reedy water. A meter or two away a juvenile mallard is curled up on a tiny island. She doesn’t stir when even after I walk a few more steps on the boardwalk. I feel pretty stealthy. Later, when I look at a picture of the duck on my computer I’ll learn that the little duck’ was staring me down.
Leaving behind the duck to soak in the sun, Aki and I walk toward through the old growth forest to the beach. On our way we pass an acrobatic pair of young sapsuckers. I would not have seen them if they hadn’t started squealing. One flits onto a branch a sun-bleached snag, hammers away at it, then summersaults its way through the air in a large circle. In seconds the other young woodpecker copies its buddy.
Gulls loiter on the beach when we reach it. They scatter into flight when an adult bald eagle does a fly over. After the eagle lands in a beach side spruce the gulls flutter back to their places and mutter among themselves. Aki encourages me back into the forest where we run into a young sapsucker. This one revealed its presence by pounding its beak into a middle-aged spruce. No goof off he. After seeing all these juveniles and no adults I wonder why the mature birds have left this portion of the rain forest to the kids.
Nothing goes to waste in the rainforest little dog, not even your poop. Aki, who watches me daily gather her bowel movements into a plastic bag and then deposit it a bear-proof garbage can, might argue. Without my intervention, her poop could fertilize the forest.
In the next few weeks birds and bears will eat the forest’s still ripening berries. They will scatter the indigestible seeds around the forest wrapped in their scat. Overripe berries will drop to the ground to provide more nutrients for their mother plant. Spent leaves will soon follow. Everything, even fallen old growth trees support forest life after their deaths.
The trail Aki and I take this morning leads past the decaying trunks of fallen giants. Hundreds of hemlock or spruce sprigs grown on these nursery logs. In a hundred years, two or three of these babies will grow toward the sky until their tops form part of the forest canopy.
The path we take to the Mendenhall Wetlands is lined with blooming fireweed stalks, some six feet tall. Almost a month ago magenta colored followers only circled the lower parts of each stalk. After blooming, the lower flowers went to seed. Just above them, a new set of blooms opened. The upward progress continued until now all but the top five inches of the stalks have bloomed. When the topmost flower bud opens it will mark the end of our Alaskan summer.
A gray quilt of clouds hangs over the wetlands when Aki and I emerge from a tunnel of willows. Fireweeds grow here as well, forming thick magenta patches on a grassy plain. Drab-colored sparrows watch us while perched in dried cow parsnip stalks. Shafts of sunlight break through the cloud canopy to brighten the yellowing grass and the surface of the Mendenhall River. It just reaches a bald eagle keeping lookout on a driftwood log.
The storm light promises downpours, rainbows, or clear blue skies. Then the cloud coalesce and we are again dominated by gray. I look for waterfowl or more eagles and only find sparrows. The bigger birds have already been flushed away by groups of Labradors and other waterdogs stretching their legs on the wetlands.