When the wind blows this morning, it feels like it is below zero F. It is blowing as Aki and I explored the Sheep Creek Delta. The sand has frozen to the consistency of a hardwood floor. Crystallized sea foam marks the latest high tide line on the beach. Salt water that normally retreats back into Gastineau Channel as the tide ebbs has formed a frozen lake on the exposed beach.
We hear an eagle scream and watch another flush three mallards from mouth of the creek. The eagle that screamed soars out from a beachside spruce and makes a half-hearted attempt to do the same. I’ve seen eagles snatch herring, small salmons, and even a steelhead trout from the water. But I never watched one fly off with a duck.
Once, on the Innoko River of Western Alaska, a raven crashed into a young duck. Before it could finish off his prey, he tried to grab another chick. They both escaped.
It was sunny that day on the Innoko like it was when I finished off my morning coffee. The sun was just being swallowed up by a cloudbank when we started this walk. A small patch of sunrise yellow still colors the horizon but soon that will be gone. In a few hours we will have snow.
Like a logger descending a spar tree the temperature has been slowing moving downward since early morning. If Aki and I had taken this walk last evening, the little dog would have splashed through the trailside puddles. We could have driven to the trailhead without concern about black ice on the road. This morning, I could feel the car float over newly formed ice.
The trail mud is firming up but it is still wet enough to cause Aki to detour around it. We are heading toward the Fish Creel delta just after the crest of a 17-foot high tide. When we left the car, water still blocked part of the trail. But it will have exposed a narrow path by the time we reach the tip of the small island that marks the mouth of Fish Creek.
We will see eagles and a handful of ducks. But the sunlit mountains will grab my attention. At one o’clock in the afternoon, they will be made impossibly white by end-of-day sunlight. Their silhouettes will cut a rugged line in the azure sky. Calm water at their base will double the scene.
All this sun washed beauty will quickly give way to dusk but not before the mountains and encroaching clouds reflect the pink colors of sunset.
As a single crow lands on an offshore rock, I look for the rest of the murder. Crows never travel alone. Neither our approach nor the small waves slapping it’s rock perch bothers the bird. I turn away to watch an eagle land in the top of a spruce. When I look back there are two crows in the rock.
In seconds, five more land on the crow’s small island. The original guy doesn’t yield any ground as its brothers and sisters point their talons at the rock, throw back their wings, and alight next to him. Another one lands, bringing the total to seven crows on the rock.
Another twenty crows do a flyby. They draw off birds from the rock until only the original crow remains. Then he flies around a headland and out of sight. Down the beach we find the murder feeding in the splash zone. Aki sniffs a diminutive snowman with a mussel shell bow tie, and cow parsnip arms. Tiny chunks of beach shale form its eyes and mouth.
Rain is falling, dimpling Auk Lake and melting the remains of last week’s snowfall. Mt. McGinnis stands above the lake against a featureless sky. These rain doesn’t bother Aki or I. The little dog is excited to be out of the car and free to sniff and pee. While I’d prefer sunshine on snow, the soft grayness of the scene offers a calm alternative to the noisy world of man.
Just before leaving the lake, I spot a common merganser paddling away from the little dog and I. He moves fast enough to raise a wake. Calm on top, frenzy underneath. We drive out the road and take the Breadline Bluffs trail. The path crosses a small stream with snow-covered banks and then rises to a small muskeg meadow. In minutes we follow it into an old growth spruce forest.
The noise of airplanes and road noise ceases. After an eagle calls out to its mate from a nearby tree, the only sound we will hear will be that made by a small surf collapsing into the base of the bluffs.
There is almost always an eagle in that cottonwood this time of year. Aki takes notice of my mumbling. The big birds always make her nervous. The eagle, marked with the white head and tail of an adult, watches us out of the corner of its eye. She is even wetter than my little dog.
From its cottonwood perch, the eagle can see the toe of Mendenhall Glacier poking out from a fog that hides the rest of the river of ice. Ghosts of mist float over Nugget Falls and the spruce covered hills that encroach on the east side of Mendenhall Lake. The resulting beauty helps me ignore the plink and plunk of raindrops hitting the hood of my rain parka.
The eagle can’t pull on a gore-tex coat when the weather worsens. It must endure and hope to scavenge some food to fuel its inter furnace. Is it dreaming of summer when salmon swim past its cottonwood tree on their way to spawn then become eagle and bear food? Or just does it just curse the rain and pray for a chance to dry out in the sun.
Aki wants to leave the Treadwell ruins for the beach even through a forty-mile-an-hour wind is whipping rain over the sand. I follow the little dog into the maelstrom. One of us knows what to expect.
We usually walk north down the beach to the little bay that formed more than 100 years ago when an undersea mine tunnel collapsed. On a calmer day we could expect to see a pair of eagles sulking on top of the old ventilation shaft. Two ravens are usually here looking for mischief. Today there is only a diminished raft of mallards huddling in the lee of a small point. Later we will see the ravens roosting on a pickup truck in the Foodland parking lot. They, will be staring at the Domino’s Pizza store, as if waiting for the cooks to finish the large meat lover’s special they ordered.
While I try to count the ducks, Aki sprints across the beach to take shelter in the border grass. In seconds she is standing at the start of a trail that leads back into the woods. I follow my poodle-mix into the forest. Steel rails that were once used by horse drawn carts to pull ore from the mine now twist and turn along the mossy ground. Some seem to erupt from the trunks of the spruce trees.
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.