This morning snow has made Juneau’s streets slick so the little dog and I are leaving the car parked. Instead of a trip out the road, we walk down to salt water and catalogue how many plants have been caught out by the storm. All the ones in our yard have gone to ground except the Sitka rose. The rugosa, developed in the Southeast Alaska town of the same name, still has some green leaves to catch the new snow.
Aki is a bit frantic in her sniffing, as if she fears the snow will wipe out the pee mail system before she has time to check it for messages. This slows our progress down to the channel. There the snow obscures our view of Douglas Island but not the bronze statue of a breaching humpback whale. It looks like is about to leap onto the Douglas Island Bridge.
Aki throws on the breaks when I try to lead her onto the new tidelands walkway. So I carry the little poodle, a pathetic bundle wrapped in a red sweater, under one arm and soldier on. Her strike ends after I set her back on ground on a sidewalk we have used before many times. Just below us, a bald eagle with the white head and tail of a mature bird seems to sulk as snow whitens the brown feathers on its back.
Aki and I have just reached a beach on the backside of Douglas Island. Across Stephens Passage, morning sunlight floods the beaches of Admiralty Island. We are still in shadow. A bald eagle flies over us and lands near its mate on a spruce tree. They greet each other in their complaining way. Just offshore a harbor seal works through a line of small surf. It’s round head slips above water once, twice, and then disappears. We won’t see it again.
A flew white clouds float above Admiralty but otherwise the sky is clear and blue. I scan the channel in hopes of spotting a whale but none spouts. Without sunlight to warm us, the little dog and I are starting to feel the cold. But, I can’t make myself leave the beach and the comforting sound of small surf hitting the rocks.
Frosted brush lines the trail back to the car. Unseen spiders have recently woven basket-shaped webs in the crotches of hemlock or willow twigs. The morning’s rising temperature is melting the frost that had settled on the net webbing during the night, leaving tiny drops of water to cling to the silk.
In half-an-hour, the sun will be high enough to reach the spider webs. It will make the little drops of water sparkle until they fall to the ground. But neither Aki nor I have the patience to wait.
After enjoying our first sunrise for what seems like months, I drive with Aki out to the one place without morning sun: the Mendenhall Glacier. The sun will have to rise above the shoulders of Thunder Mountain before it can warm the trail we walk on or make Nugget Falls sparkle. That won’t be much before eleven, when we will be back on Chicken Ridge.
Why then, Aki might ask, are we out here shivering in the twilight? If she did, I’d remind her that she is not shivering and there is light striking the glacier and the Mendenhall Towers that rise above it into blue sky. But we are both too distracted by eagles for conversation.
Attracted here by spawning sockeye salmon, five eagles bicker near the waters of Steep Creek. One with better luck or eyes tears away strips of flesh from a dead salmon. Behind the feeding bird, the calm waters of the lake reflect the glacier and Mt. McGinnis.
When the sun clears Thunder Mountain to bath everything in strong light, it will also bring a wind to riffle the ice-free portion of the lake, shattering the glacier’s mirror.
Corvids and eagles, mallards and gulls, that’s what dominate the skies above the Fish Creek Delta. For corvids, Aki and I spot the grumpy ones—those without the raven or crow’s sense of humor: Stellar jays and magpies.
Near the pond, four jays rip up chunks of the wet ground and flip them in the air. They make it seem like work, not fun although I can’t imagine what the blue and black birds get out of it. A mature bald eagle perches on a creekside driftwood log, its eyes unfocused. The wind ruffles it rain-damp feathers. Weeks ago salmon thrashed the waters in front of the eagle. Today only rain runoff animates the stream.
Another eagle turns away from us as we approach the spruce tree in which it rests. Two long tailed magpies, black and white, land on the trail ahead of it. Seeing Aki, they fly onto alder branches six feet above the trail. One is shy, but the other magpie lets me approach close enough to recognize the cruelty of its beak.
It’s Aki’s bath day. She doesn’t know this yet, which may be why she dashes around the wetlands without a care. Because of its muddy track, this is one of the little dog’s bath day trails. The smart little dog may tumble to this pattern some day. But today is not that day.
The morning fog has already lifted from the surface of the Mendenhall River and will soon burn away to open up some nice glacier views. Sunlight, finding holes in the dissipating marine layer spotlights parts of the wetlands but leaves others in shadow. The effect of on the flat plane of grass cut by the sparkling river is strong and beautiful. I’m reminded of a June sunrise over the wheat country of Montana.
Two eagles fly off as we move down river, but one holds its ground. It keeps to its roost on the highest section of a driftwood root wad. It will stay there, barely showing any interest in us as we walk past it. Aki returns the compliment. The eagle is still there when we make the return trip.
The staid bird triggers a memory of another eagle on the same root wad that behaved in same way. It too turned its head to the glacier, rather than watch us pass. Then, as now, I couldn’t decide if I should be honored by the apparent show of trust or diminished by the big bird’s distain.
Aki follows me on a trail that passes under a line of occupied eagle roosts. A large swath of the Mendenhall River bank is exposed by low tide, which has set the table for the big birds. The bald eagles are jumpy, made more so by a trio of ravens that worry them, acting like police in a homeless camp. One eagle looks down at Aki, screams out as if the presence of my little dog is the last straw, and throws itself into the air. Perhaps it is more accurate to write that the big bird threw itself down into the air, kicking away from its perch with talons and tensioning its wings until each tip curls look like witches’ hands.
On the southern end of Gastineau Channel, our local harbor seals treat low tide as leisure time. They are hauled out on a temporary bar formed by the receding tide. The seals will get back to work on the flood tide, which will carry a new pulse of silver salmon toward their home hatchery. They will rest again on the bar when it reappears with the next low tide.
Rain hammers the car’s roof and challenges our windshield wipers. Aki still squeals and hops around the car’s interior, like her death is imminent if not released immediately. When I open the door, she leaps over me and hits the ground, nose ready to search for irresistible smells. I splash to the wooden bridge over Fish Creek, which is running high thanks to the storm. Standing waves form over pools that once sheltered spawning salmon. Now the carcasses of those salmon and pieces of the other organic debris of summer are being flushed downstream or carried to the forest floor to act as fertilizer for hundred-year-old trees.
Aki crosses the bridge, empties her bowels, and stops. She flinches each time a particularly heavy drop hits her exposed face. Her body language tells all. The little dog clearly does not want to follow me on the trail that leads to the creek delta. We walk back to the car and drive over to a rain forest trailhead.
Even in the protecting woods, Aki shows little joy. But she copes like a dog trying to find some pleasure in a bad situation. The canopy shelters her from the worst of the rain and she manages to skirt most of the flooded sections of trail. At the beach, again exposed, she looks a little pathetic. But I want to linger for a few minutes to watch two rafts of newly returned surf scoters. The storm must have blown them off the exposed waters of the outer coast where they summer.
When we break back into the woods and head toward the car, the little dog shoots ahead. I wonder again, whether I should leave her behind on stormy days. Then I remember the sad song she sings when I walk out the door without her.