Sunshine seems precious this time of year. Thanks to the mountains that rim Juneau like canyon walls, we are lucky to have more than four hours of sun even on cloudless days. This is such a day so Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands where the sun arrives at daybreak and doesn’t leave until near the official time for sunset.
Aki is extra happy this morning, in part because she got a dog treat when a human friend and I stopped at a drive through stand for coffee. She is excited to have another dog along for the walk. She looks forward to feeling sun on her fur for the first time in weeks.
The trail forms a rough parallel with the Lower Mendenhall River, which is covered with a fragile skim of ice. We won’t see any of the resident mallards until reaching a section kept ice-free by current. The water on that section will provide a stunning reflection of a wall of mountains pierced through by the glacier. I will try to ignore the fact that the river is fed with melt water from the shrinking river of ice.
We will see one bald eagle resting on the roots of a driftwood tree. It will glance at us for a moment and then turn its face into the sun.
The tide is out so the table is set for the scavengers of the Fish Creek Delta. Aki and I startle a bald eagle into flight when we break out of the woods. It flies towards us and then makes a panicked turn toward the safety of a spruce tree. I wonder if Aki took heart in this show of vulnerability from a bird that normally would make him seek shelter.
Cotton-ball fog hangs over the spruce-covered islands and obscures our view of glaciers and mountains. Hundreds of mallards fish, head buried in water, just off the beach. Three red-breasted mergansers plow the waters a hundred feet further out. None of the ducks take any notice of the little dog and I until the curving trail brings us too close. Even then they only fly out to a nearby sand bar.
The mallards make a lot of noise as they relocate. Aki appears to take no notice. I once had a terrier that loved to flush ducks off a beach. I am thankful that the poodle-mix is so reserved around waterfowl.\
The ducks stir a large flock of shore birds (semipamated plovers?) into flight but soon they return to feeding. The delta gulls seem immune to panic. But one flies over to a pair of its kind to see if they have found something to fight over. It glides with the grace of a well-bred princess and then crashes into the water. On a windy day it would have dropped, helicopter-like, onto the water. Today it lands like a student failing his first flight test.
Standing at our living room window, I spent some time this morning cataloguing the Alaska words for the action of rain. It can drizzle, fall, shower, obscure, soak, pour, spit, depress, rinse, wash away, flood, and sluice. That’s the word for this morning’s stormy offering—sluice. Even though the rain was sluicing down on Chicken Ridge, I wrapped Aki and myself in rain gear and drove out to North Douglas Island. The microclimate there often offers drier days.
Rain obscured our view of the road. But it did not discourage several bald eagles from circling a roadside beach. A hunter must have dumped a deer carcass there. This has become a thanksgiving tradition for scavengers like eagles, crows and ravens.
I drove on to the trailhead but planned on looking for the deer carcass on the way home. While a strong wind played through the forest canopy, Aki and I walked to the beach. We had the Rainforest Trail to ourselves. It seems emptier than usual. We didn’t even hear the sound of gull bickering as we left the forest. Only a small raft of fish ducks worked the offshore waters.
On the way home I stopped where we had earlier spotted the eagles. While Aki waited in the car, I found the expected deer carcass surrounded by eagles and ravens. Most of the birds flew off. One raven and an eagle stood their ground. They faced each other over the carcass and then took to the air. As I started back to the car, the birds settled back on the beach to continue their battle over the deer remains.
On this rainy morning, Aki and I are going old school. Rather than drive to some remote trailhead, we will start an exploration of Downtown Juneau from the house. On the way we will visit some sculptures and watch ravens fool around. There will be an eagle, only one, but it will sulk on a light standard with it’s back to us. Aki will refresh her pee mail trap line. Her stubborn streak will appear and she will throw on the brakes to keep us from exploring new paths. We will pass a great bronze whale and life-sized bear made from the same material, each glistening with rain. When we return home, I will need extra time to dry the little dog with a towel.
I’m in a Hawaiian bike and fishing shop. It’s too hot for biking and too windy for fishing. But all I want to do is exchange the set of bike tires I bought earlier for a better size. The ones I want to exchange for cost a bit more than the ones I had purchased here an hour ago. The owner says something in Hawaiian and waves away the difference with the back of his hand. It’s a gesture that dismisses the matter and directs me to the door.
On the way back to the place Aki’s other human and I are staying, I wonder how the little poodle-mix is doing back home. She has already taken her morning walk in the rain when the temperature was close to freezing. She would have enjoyed the brief time we spent on this trip in Anchorage between flights because there was sun and new snow. But there were also eagles roosting in trees along the Cook Inlet trail I walked while waiting for my flight to Honolulu.
She would be having a great time here in Hawaii scooting over the beach sand as long as the scooting were done before the heat of the day. She’d be here for the sand and interesting food scraps and, I hope for a chance to spend more time with her humans if she didn’t hate to fly.
Aki won’t leave the car. For the first time ever at a trailhead, she doesn’t leap out the door the minute I open it. A light rain is falling but in the past even heavy downpours haven’t deterred her. As if trained in etiquette by an Irishman, she waits for me to ask her three timed before dropping onto the ground.
The little dog stays right on my heals as we cross the Fish Creek Bridge and head toward the pond. She looks back often, even when squatting to defecate. She has smelled a wild animal that might harm us. I know it is not a bear because, unwisely, she has no fear of them. I remember the wolf that hunted here during the salmon spawn. Maybe it is back. Aki calms down after we round the pond.
Even through the tide has covered over the wetlands, which would normally force all the eagles to roost in shoreline spruce trees, none of the big birds announces our approach with screams. We won’t see any eagles, ravens, or crows during the visit. The resident mallards are also gone. A pair of western grebes fish just offshore in Fritz Cove. Behind them a line of harlequin and golden eye ducks fly feet off of the water. Across the horizon, hundreds of migratory birds head south, too far away for me to identify them.
Aki perks up when we turn to head back to car, but stops often to make sure that I am not lagging behind. I feel like a child being escorted down a dangerous city street. We drive home through a downpour, which discourages me from exiting the car when we reach the house. Aki waits for me on the front porch even though the door is already open. She will wait there until I gather everything from the car and walk into the safety of our home.
Aki ignores the murder of crows gathered on the Auk Nu beach. Rather than reacting to us, the crows play a bouncing game. For no apparent reason, one flies ninety degrees up then drops like a rock onto the beach. Next two birds bounce up and down. A third bird tries it. When an eagle swoops over them the crows fly in a low arc over the water and return to the beach. Are crows and ravens the only birds with spare time to kill?
The other birds we pass are either hunting, eating, or resting. Scoters and harlequin ducks dive on food in the bay. A sea lion rolls once on the surface and slips under the water to chase a fish. One bald eagle surveys the bay from a spruce roost after temporarily flushing the crows.
The little dog and I leave the beach for a forest trail that leads to Point Louisa. It takes us between lines of yellowing blueberry bushes to a spit where we can see the old village site. From this spot 100 years ago, we could have seen smoke climbing from the roofs hand-hewn long houses. Big canoes, dug out from single spruce or cedar logs would have littered the beach. A canoe full of Auk Tlingits chased a boat of British sailors back to Lt. Vancouver’s brig. A canoe from Wrangell carried John Muir here.
The canoes and long houses are gone. One totem pole survives to stand over a village site of dogwood, thimbleberry and fireweed gone to seed.