Category Archives: Bald Eagle

A Little Quiet Time

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Aki shows more enthusiasm for this adventure than I feel as we leave the trailhead. Snow is turning to rain as the little dog and I head into the Treadwell woods. Aki minces down the trail, each step pushing through soaked snow to a thin layer of water beneath. Glad I am wearing waterproof boots, I slosh along behind her.

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The poodle-mix dashes toward a urine-yellow Rorschach design in the snow left by the dog of an early morning walker. Similar splotches mark the way to the beach. We slog past roofless ruins and twisted rails of the mining car tracks, all made almost beautiful by mantles of fresh snow. White on rust makes a pleasing combination.

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From its perch atop the old ventilation tower, our resident eagle watches us leave the woods and move onto the snow-covered beach. His puffed up chest feathers make me think of Buck Mulligan descending Joyce’s Dublin tower. Aki cares little for literary references so I don’t mention it to her.

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When a golden lab approaches, Aki waits in silence rather than barking her usual welcome. You are learning some caution little dog. The meeting goes well and she acts more like her old self when we meet a black-husky-mix. Maybe you are learning to discern rather than to trust that all dogs are potential friends.

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After the husky-mix follows its people into the woods, Aki and I have the beach to ourselves. The two ravens that usually greet us have flown. No belted kingfisher chits at us from an overhanging branch. No wind hurries away the loose pans of ice that float around the ruined wharf pilings. If I turn around I could see trucks being loaded at the barge dock across Gastineau Channel and the blocky shapes of the Juneau skyline. But ahead to the south there is only the white-covered beach dotted with broken pilings, Gastineau Channel, and glaciated mountains partially obscured by mist. We move south until we run out of beach.

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Holding Something in Reserve

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Aki leaps out of the car and starts inventorying nearby scents. I follow as she dashes past the Mendenhall Wetlands sign and onto a path bordered on both sides by alder thickets. This morning’s fine snow has turned to drizzle but that doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm for a walk. I look forward to a lengthy exploration of the grasslands drained by Gastineau Channel because the tide has left the maze of back channels dry.

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My plan is to walk as far as a mid-channel navigation aid. Two bald eagles occupy the aid. Another one flies above them screeching out a challenge. I walk on to the wetlands toward the nav. aid but no little dog follows at my heels. Aki hangs back by the alder thicket, giving me her “are you crazy” stare. I snap a few pictures and follow her back to the car.

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When I stop at another trailhead, one without eagles, she shows little excitement for another walk. Aki follows me slowly down the trail and perks up when, after a few minutes, we return to the car. The poodle-mix is scheduled this afternoon for another cross-country ski on Mendenhall Lake. She rests on the drive home, as if saving energy for this afternoon’s adventure.

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Past and Present Drama

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To escape the wind hammering Downtown Juneau, I drive the little dog to the Mendenhall Peninsula beach access trail. She starts squealing and bouncing around when we are more than a mile away from the parking area. The trail leads us through an old growth spruce forest with a canopy thick enough to keep out all but a dusting of snow. We follow the boot prints of a previously hiker, each one an island of red-brown duff in a sea of white.

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We usually pass under several eagles on this trail that make themselves known with screeching complaints. Today I can only hear mallards chuckling in nearby wetlands. Aki’s excitement fades when we reach the forest edge. She hangs back as I walk along the beach and under a line of spruce trees that are often used by bald eagles. The presence of eagles or the sound of birdshot booming from hunter’s shotguns make the little dog nervous. There are no eagles today and hunting season is over. But she sulks along behind as if sensing the ghosts of both.

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Like Aki, I remember the eagles we’ve seen on this beach, the gunshots from a skiff emerging from the fog in December, and a gang of otters that crunched through the tough skulls of Irish lords (sculpins) on the beach in spring. I tend to remember past dramas on days that lack any.

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After we turn back toward the car, Aki perks up and takes the lead. She starts monitoring smells and urine spots as the sun breaks through the marine layer to provide me a little drama.

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Reflections

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Intense winter light spotlights seven mallard ducks fleeing over a flooded tidal meadow. Behind and a little above, a white-headed bald eagle wings after them. Unable to gain on the ducks, the eagle snaps off a turn and flies into a nearby spruce tree. The ducks swing into a curving U-turn and fly past the perched eagle. I watched the scene while sitting on a driftwood log with ice cleats in a gloved hand. Aki, whose nose always directs her away from visual drama, is twenty feet away with her back turned to the eagle/duck show.

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It’s a day for reflections, physical and mental. A 17-foot high tide has swollen Eagle River, lifting small ice pans from the beach and creating a mirror for the mountains carved by the Herbert and Eagle Glaciers. I reflect, once again, on how a mountain’s reflection is always more intense than the mountain itself. I know it would take little, maybe a half hour of searching the Internet, to find an explanation for this phemomina. But would that knowledge enhance or diminish the thrill I get when comparing beauty with its reflection?

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Aki, whose nose if much more powerful than her eyes, has little interest in things reflected in river water. She didn’t join me when I tramped through devil’s club plots and around windfallen trees for an unobstructed view of reflected mountains. But I didn’t have to worry about her bolting. I knew that, like a dotting mother, she would wait for her foolish charge to return, standing on a perfectly good trail along the river that would eventually delivered us into sunlight.

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Necessary Work

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The cottonwood trees bordering Gastineau Avenue are filling with ravens. Somewhere nearby a bald eagle screams out its territorial warning. Down the hill, fifteen mature bald eagles have settled in trees above Lower Franklin Street. They lurk beneath the tram that in summer carries cruise ship tourists up Mt. Roberts. I look down at Taku Smokeries to see if they are processing black cod. But no tender boats line the dock to off load their catch. The last time so many ravens and eagles assembled above South Franklin when the Taku plant was closed, they had been drawn by the body of a deceased homeless man that the police reported, “had been left unattended for an extended time in the woods.” I pray for different explanation for the scavenger’s gathering and try to remember the words of a poem I wrote in response to the homeless man’s death.

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Necessary Work

Stiff as corpses, large birds hover over fresh kills,

gliding in circles that draw a crowd of kind.

Locals call them turkeys to fool the tourists

who want to believe that the sun always warms

 

evergreen grass along the California coast,

that death is exiled to just north, south, east, west

of this place so close to heaven

that the undertaker is bored.

 

Home in Alaska, hunting reduces the need for trope,

and most families eat around bullet holes in their meat.

Eagles, ravens and crows tidy the dead. Without judgment,

I’ve watched them do this necessary work in the heavy rain.

 

Last winter, eagles hovered over Gastineau Avenue, screamed

at each other and the stubborn ravens. I took their pictures

then dropped down rickety steps to a Franklin Street coffee stand.

I bragged about seeing the eagle glut until the police

 

reported the Gastineau Avenue discovery

of the corpse of a homeless man, once a villager

now a mystery to his family, with no friends,

found in the area where I saw the cloud of eagles.

 

He lived unattended in the woods, died alone,

was waked by carrion eaters too innocent

to mourn. I’ll try to remember him as someone’s son,

not a once fleshy body now carrion reduced to bones.

(“Necessary Work” by Dan Branch, The Penwood Review, volume 21, number 2, fall 2017)

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Vacationing Winter

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Winter left this meadow in a hurry, little dog. Aki is sniffing one of the shrinking blocks of pond ice marooned on the meadow by the tide. Her paws sink into the softening meadow. Maybe our favorite season is down south visiting a sick friend.

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It is 47 degrees F., which is ridiculously warm for mid-January. There is a breeze but it seems to warm rather than chill. To add to the argument for an early spring, a plover works now-soft mud along the edge of Fish Creek.

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A great crowd of mallard ducks mingles with gulls at the creek’s mouth. We heard them cackling out alarms on our approach. When they see us a hundred of the mallards slip further out into Fritz Cove. But most explode from the creek, each doing a great impression of Chicken Little. I want to tell them to chill, to talk among themselves as we complete our circuit. Once airborne, the ducks all circle in front of the Mendenhall Glacier and wing deeper into the cove. The gulls don’t budge.

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Helped by Snow

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Aki sniffs tentatively near the bell of an old growth spruce tree. It is one of a small island of mature trees in a hilly second growth forest. For some reason the loggers who had clear cut the forest 60 or 70 years ago let this clutch of spruce live. The last time we visited the grove the little dog found the body of a newly dead bald eagle. The forest seemed full of complaining eagles that day, driven from the nearby landfill by cracker shells. This morning, we only hear ravens calling out to each other as fine snow falls through the canopy.

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The snow simplified finding the grove by painting the faint access trail white so it stuck out against the greens and browns of the forest floor. We followed the thick white line as it twisted around standing spruce and wind-fallen hemlock. It guided us through gaps in downed logs, under a canted hemlock tree serving as a nursery for the next generation of trees, and down to the eagle grove.

2            It was summer when Aki and I found the dead eagle. Broad, thorny leaves of devil club plants hid the trail. We were forced to climb over dozens of wind fallen trees and carefully slip through devil’s club thickets. There was once a decent trail from the grove back to the trailhead but much of it had been washed away during a fall storm or blocked by downed trees. I felt like a shipwreck survivor when the little dog and I finally managed to find the trailhead. Today, the magic white line painted by the snow helps us skirt all the obstacles.

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A raven near the trailhead stops crocking to watch me retrieve the plastic bag I had use at the start of the trip to contain Aki’s poop. It calls out to his fellow forest guardians and then flies along with us back to the car.

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