Last night’s storm broke its back on the spine of Douglas Island and the mainland mountains. Its heavy rain has swollen Fish Creek and turned the water the color of molasses. Salmon too weak from spawning have already been swept back into Fritz Cove. Those still waiting their turn to bred are hunkered down in eddies or behind drift wood barriers.
Aki doddles behind until we reach Fish Creek where four eagles and kingfisher watch us approach from spruce tree roosts. One, an immature eagle, has cruciformed its wings so they can dry. The little dog hesitates and then moves close to me. No one dives on her as we round the pond and head out to the creek mouth.
A big ebb tide has lowered the creek’s level and exposed a wide swath of wetlands. But the dozen or so eagles that we can spot are either feeding along side the stream or watching us from spruce roosts. Aki relaxes on a part of the trail almost enclosed by tall fireweed and wild rose shafts. I stop where that stretch ends and count six eagles watching us from trailside trees. Aki doesn’t follow me out onto the exposed meadow.
I figure that the eagles must have sated themselves on dead salmon and other goodies exposed by the ebb tide. They won’t be interested in my ten-pound poodle. But Aki doesn’t share my confidence so I have to carry her until we reach a more protected stretch of trail.
While we circumnavigate a small island covered with tall spruce, I lose count of the number of eagles, mature and immature, that fly over out heads and out over the wetlands. White puffs of eagle down drift onto the trail in their wake.
It’s mid-August and most of the trees in the Treadwell ruins retain their leaves. But the beautiful collapse of fall is not far off. Aki’s tiny paws slip on the wet, fallen foliage of cottonwood trees. Once lush leaves of cow parsnips droop as their green color drains down into their plant’ roots. Late summer monkey flowers and white ones of the thistles provide a little color for the forest.
Aki and I leave the forest for Sandy Beach where the usual two mature bald eagles roost on the ridge cap of a mine ventilator shaft. The tide is out so we can walk right up to the brick tower. Aki waits near the edge of the grass. When the eagles turn to stare I stop, take a few photos, and turn back toward the little dog. I don’t want to force the eagles off their perch.
An immature eagle flies over the two senior birds and then lands down the beach. One of the mature birds flies towards it, perhaps to bully the younger bird away from what ever treat enticed it to ground. In seconds both birds are in the air, flying in different directions.
The forest is silent except for the plunking of raindrops hitting skunk cabbage leaves. No thrush sings it’s claiming song of love. No flock of chickadees chit their hunting chant. Even the normally bossy Steller’s jay is keeping its beak shut.
I picked this trail for the protection it offers from the rain. The not silence and solitude are a bonus. The trail also grants us access to the beach where there will always be an eagle. We hear its scolding screech first then spot it. The eagle sits on a small rock in the flooded tidal zone where it had been enjoying some me-time before we broke out of the woods.
Beyond the eagle’s perch, fog partially obscures our view of Admiralty Island. I look without success for the fog-like exhale flumes of humpback whales and return to the eagle. From behind Shaman Island comes the huffing sound of surfacing sea lions. While I wait for them to round the island into view, I realize that the sounds could have come from the forest, not the sea. Bear sows huff out warnings to their cubs. I’ve heard a nearby brown bear mother huff as her cub approached me on a Misty Fjord beach. But the huffs this morning, which sound like moist air being expelled through a tube, couldn’t have been made by a land mammal, no matter how large.
Aki and I emerge from a tunnel of alders to access the wetlands. Overhead a bushel basket of clouds mute the sun. Mist clings to Aki’s grey curls and soaks into my cotton sweatshirt. The clouds also mute the magenta of fireweed blooms and the normally intense yellows of dying beach grass. It’s a soft, subtle day.
Sparrows flit through the trailside grass, stopping in dead stalks of cow parsnip where they can watch our passage. Across the Mendenhall River two bald eagles break from their spruce tree roosts. One swings so low over the river that its left wing tip slips into the water. It rights itself and slams its talons beneath the surface twice but comes up empty. I wonder how many more times its will have to sink its talons before snatching away a meal.
The little dog and I push on down river to where the trail ends at the edge of a backwater slough. Just across the slough two other bald eagles perch on the root wads of driftwood logs. Rain soaks into their ruffled feathers, giving them an “I just woke up” look. But their eyes are clear and hard as jewel stones. They are ready to race for the first food revealed by the outgoing tide.
The ravens waited for Aki. Two of the large black birds strutted down the Fish Creek Bridge as if fat-rich bodies of dead dog salmon weren’t stretched out for them on a gravel bar beneath the bridge. They were sated and bored and looking to do some mischief. My little dog was a handy patsy. When they didn’t make way for us on the bridge, Aki growled and dashed forward. The ravens flited a little further down the bridge and waited for her to catch up. Just before she did, the ravens lifted themselves onto the bridge rails.
Game ended, the little poodle-mix trotted off the bridge and headed toward Fish Creek Pond. Two bald eagles eyed our approach. Incoming pink salmon splashed on the pond’s surface. One let itself be caught by a grade schooler on the opposite shore of the pond.
We’d see at least a half-a-dozen eagles on our walk to the creek’s mouth. All have been drawn here by the pink and chum salmon now filing up the creek. All around Juneau, chum salmon are spawning in their home streams. Each stream draws of collection of bald eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls waiting for the dying to begin.
The rain stopped early this morning and the wind has shaken the beach grass dry. As I slow walk down the Outer Point Beach, watching two eagles do an aerial dance with steps known only to them, I realize that I have never just sat and watched the sea from here. Without giving Aki warning, I plop down on a beach log.
A strong breeze tears through the canopy of the forest that borders the beach. But the trees prevent it from reaching the little dog or me. The wind rips leaves from the beach-side alders, carries them over our heads, then releases them to float down onto the water. Microbursts of wind slam into the surface of the bay driving tiny by intense waves out in concentric circles. Out in a Lynn Canal a boat idles, waiting for a whale to surface.
The rain starts up, falling in thick drops that form grey circles on the beach pebbles when they hit home. I am still inclined to doddle but Aki is not. She stands thirty meters away where the trail through the woods begins, showing me her “are you crazy” look. Perhaps I am, little dog, to let you bully me away from all this turbulent beauty.
Aki didn’t come with on this fishing trip. It’s for the best. She’d been bored after she investigated the boat for crumbs. The boat’s rhythmic pounding as it rounded Shelter Island would have sent her searching the cutty cabin for a place to hide. She wouldn’t have been calmed until the banging stopped, even after I assured her that the waves would drop at the changing of the tide. Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed home with the little dog.
I was thrilled and frightened by a humpback whale that surfaced less than fifty meters in front of us as the boat headed for the fishing grounds. The captain and I both felt relief after he made a course correction letting the whale slide by twenty meters to port. Now I am a little bored and feeling put upon by the rough motion of the boat beating into sharp-edged swells. The captain and I sank our herring-baited hooks an hour ago. At the edge of our vision, a pod of humpbacks bubble feed. But to move nearer to them would take us away from the fish we seek.
Right now the Juneau Costco store is opening its doors. If home and not being hammered by waves on Lynn Canal, I could buy two immaculate red salmon fillets nestling under plastic wrap in a foam tray. The tray would cost less than the gas used to reach the fishing grounds. But if I substituted that salmon for the one I hope to catch this morning I could not have watched the peaks of the Chilkat Range climb out of low lying clouds. There’d be no more whale encounters if I only fished at Costco, no more chances to see a bear work the tidelands for found food.
The tip of my trolling pole dips down and then pops us as a fish pulls my line from the downrigger clip. I grab the pole and reel in slack until I can feel hooked salmon struggling to escape. When it breaks the water and I know it is a silver. My fishing partner reels in his line and cranks up the downrigger cables so they can’t interfere with the boating of the fish. With the net, he moves in front of me as I gently reel in my line. Three times the silver will undo my efforts when it swims away after being brought close to the boat. It will be too tired to resist the net the fourth time. Then I will remember that it is this ballet of salmon and friend that I would miss most of all if I only fished at stores.