Aki is giving me her “Don’t Expect Me to Follow You!!!” look. She intends to finish the Rain Forest Trail loop and be home in time to mooch cheese from her other human. I want to walk down a beach still wet from the retreating tide. We will see more eagles than dogs, little dog, but I’m feeling selfish.
The dawn broke clear and the sun is still low enough in the sky to bathe the ocean in intense light. Bald eagles come and go from their spruce roosts, making sorties over Lynn Canal. Most return with empty talons. Each time an eagle returns to its roost, at least one crow drops onto a nearby limb to harass it. None of the eagles show the least interest in Aki.
The poodle-mix follows closely behind me when we approach False Outer Point. A scattering of crows leave the beachside forest and land on rocks recently revealed by the ebbing tide. One of the black, crow-sized birds has an orange beak. It’s an oyster catcher. I haven’t seen one this year. Even though it is as noticeable on its sun-soaked beach rock as a flashing traffic barrier, the oyster catcher freezes in place as if camouflaged.
Nothing startles the oyster catcher into flight, not a salmon leaping just offshore, the growl of a Steller seal lion, the shadow of a cruising eagle, or two belted kingfishers engaged in aerial combat.
We rain forest dwellers take special care with our roofs. Under a good metal roof, you can fall asleep to the sounds of rain drops. Wearing good rain gear allows you to enjoy the sound of heavy rain drumming on broad-leafed plants, like devil’s club and skunk cabbage. This morning the rain is beating a comforting tattoo on the plants that lines the Rainforest Trail.
Aki is taking more than her usual amount of time reading her pee mail. Maybe she is worried that the rain will wash the messages away. I don’t mind. I use the extra time to watch water drops fattening at the end of buttercups and huckleberry blossoms.
We pass two young women on our way to the beach. One is wearing shorts and sandals, the other light canvas shoes. Rain has soaked their bare heads and limbs. One bends down to pet Aki. The other clutches beach greens in her hands. You can tell that both were born in the rain.
This morning started being about the rain and ended up being about eagles. Rain beat a tattoo on the house roof as I pulled on my parka. Reminding her that the weather is never as bad as it appears from inside a snug house, I secured a wrap on the poodle-mix and led her to the car. We drove out the North Douglas Island Road. The rain stopped by the time we arrived at the trailhead. What did I tell you, little dog?
We crossed over a stream that will host spawning silver salmon in July. Oversized skunk cabbage plants lined both sides if it. Aki stops to sniff at a print made when a large canine planted one of its paws in the muddy bank and lept in or over the narrow stream. She keeps at my heals after that.
After passing many flowering cloudberry plants, we reach the beach in time to watch a line of seven bald eagles flying down Stephen’s Passage to Admiralty Island. The first eagle hovers and then dives toward the water. The rest continue south. I go back and forth between watching the diving eagle and keeping track of the rest of them until I misplace them all.
Aki, who is not comfortable around eagles or wolves, hangs back at the forest’s edge until the last eagle disappears. She leads me off the beach and up to a muskeg meadow where three of the eagles fly over low our heads. One clasps a small fish in its talons. It heads into the woods, maybe to deliver the fish to its nest-minding mate.
There is little drama on the Fish Creek delta today. We are in between ducks and salmon. Even the tide is middling. In an hour the flood will cover this trail like it has already covered the food-rich wetlands. Then it will retreat and things should get more interesting. As the Tlingit elders tell their grandchildren, when the tide is out, the table is set.
The tide is widening channel of Fish Creek where a great blue heron hunts and pecks for salmon smolt trying to reach salt water. Several crows land near the heron, watching it out of boredom or in hopes of snatching some leftovers. In a minute they are gone. The crows didn’t distract the heron. Nor did a bald eagle that flew a meter above the heron’s head.
My attention level is somewhere between the heron and the crows. I planned to remain near the heron long enough to watch it spear a salmon smolt. Then an eagle flew down the creek and clouds that have been covering the top half of the glacier lifted. I leave the heron to head down stream to Fritz Cove where one might better see the glacier, spot a seal lion or maybe even a killer whale.
The little dog and I have reached the junction in Treadwell Woods where we always turn left. It’s marked by the tall cottonwood with an eagle’s nest. The other trail leads to Lucky Me. No eaglet calls for food. No adult looks accusingly over the lip of the nest at the poodle mix. A corona of backlit cottonwood leaves circles of the nest. Too bad there isn’t a white-headed adult to wear the green crown.
I’ve never been able to coax Aki away to take the right fork at this junction until today. Today, she is more than happy to follow a dog friend and its human right to take the road less traveled. It’s a trail dappled by leaf shadows that leads to a beach of pulverized ore from the Ready Bullion mine. The mine closed more than 100 years ago, leaving behind the beach, buildings, mine carts, bricks and crockery. Rusting wheels and rails emerge like mammoth tusks from the shifting ore sand.
All of the bird action is taking place at the waterline. Two sandpipers—a greater yellow legs and a grey tailed tattler—feed in the shallows until driven off by the wake of a Seattle-bound barge. An adult bald eagle munches on a crab carcass and then flies over to a small stream to bathe. Just offshore a raft of surf scoters descends on of school of bait fish.
The forest light seems particularly pure this morning. It confuses my old digital camera and sometimes, even my eyes. It turns strands of spider webs into strings of prisms. Light and birdsong are the only things keeping us in the woods. Normally, Aki and I would have reached the beach by now, where we might see arriving humpback whales or orcas chasing incoming king salmon.
The tips of fragile ferns have already unfurled, marking the end of spring. While Aki reads her pee mail, I check the blue berry bushes for blossoms. We and the bears will have to look elsewhere for our berries this year.
When we finally reach the beach, it seems empty except for kids carry white plastic buckets. With rubber boots on their feet, they splash through the shallows, bent over, looking for shells or memories.
An adult bald eagle circles over the meadow where Aki and I stand. I check to make sure that the little dog is too close to me to be eagle bait and then turn to watch the eagle. Low angle sunshine lights up the eagle’s white head and enriches the chestnut tones of its wing feathers. Taking advantage of its two-meter wingspan, it lets the wind carry it higher over our heads.
When the eagle’s mate calls out from a nearby spruce top, it glides toward a nearby one, hovers for a second over its apex, and lands, talons first on a thin branch. The tree top sways with the eagle’s sudden weight, rocking the big bird back and forth until it settles. Once stable, the eagle watches a yellow legs sandpiper quick stepping across the shallows of a small pond.
Earlier in the walk we watched two guys from the hatchery installing net pens for holding king salmon smolt. While the we watch the eagle watch the sandpiper, we can hear the sound of salmon smolt being pumped from a tanker truck into the pens. After four months in the pens, the smolt will be released. They will make their way down stream to the ocean.
Adult king salmon, released from the pens over four years ago, will pass the smolt as they swim upstream to the pond. The big salmon, some weighing more than ten kilos, will wander around the pond, trying to find a way to satisfy their instinctual urge to spawn. A few might follow silver salmon upstream to their spawning gravel. Most will be caught by fishermen or bears.
Several hundred Canada geese are chowing down along Eagle River. The biggest concentration is on a large tidal meadow. I have to take care not to step on their scat as Aki and I skirt the meadow.
A smaller group of poke around for food on mud flats now exposed at low tide. Mallards waddle around them until an eagle flies over, flushing the ducks to flight. The geese ignore the eagle as they jab their beaks into the mud. What are they eating, little dog? Aki never heard my question. She’s turned a sand bar into her own race track, running circles around its parameter for the sheer joy of it.
Near the river mouth, wave erosion has destroyed part of the trail and halved the size of a small copse of spruce trees. Because they root in glacial silt and sand, the spruce trees have smooth, straight roots. Tlingit weavers have come all the way from Ketchikan to harvest the roots, which they use to strengthen strands of their weaving wool. I wonder where they will find replacement roots when erosion finally wipes away this little forest.
After walking on the beach, I lead Aki across a grass-covered dune and stumble upon the esophagus of a Canada goose. The thick-sided, opaque tube is crammed with small, pink-colored shells. Other shells and a crab claw have spilled out of one end of the esophagus. This not the scene of the crime, which would be marked by a scattering of bones and feathers. I suspect that a raven or eagle was attacked by another scavenger bird while carrying the esophagus in its talons. The prize fell onto dune while the birds continued to scrap. They flew away, allowing slugs to finish what remains.
I am wearing my winter coat, which makes me out of sync with the place where Aki and I walk. The crows and eagles are gathering nesting material. They know it is spring. So do the robins and their cousin thrush staking out territory with their sweet, sweet songs. Already the mallards have formed a nesting colony above the high tide line.
Aki reluctantly follows me onto tidelands exposed by the ebbing tide. We can hear eagles bickering while they watch us from their spruce top nest. At water’s edge, plovers and other waders walk stiffly on sticky mud. I almost step on a sea anemone. Exposed to the air, it has to keep its green tendril tucked up tight. In a hour, as the flooding tide washes over it, the anemone will release its tendrils. They will flutter like a tart’s skirt, seducing small fish to their deaths.
A large raft of feeding mallards panic into light when a bald eagle flies near and lands. The ducks dither in the air for a few seconds and then return to the ground to feed a few meters from the predator.
This morning we have wind-driven rain and a sky full of swarming scavengers. Just a few meters above the tree tops ravens and eagles juke away from and dive on each other. The ravens are making all the noise. Hampered by my rain-spotted glasses I first assume that a raven gang is trying to drive one eagle away from the forest and the river beach it fronts. After wiping the glasses down with a handkerchief, I can see more than one eagle.
In less than a month, king salmon will rest in nearby river eddies before making their final push to the spawning grounds. Pink, chum, and silver salmons will follow. For most of the summer, the nutrient-rich carcasses of spawned out salmon will drift up onto the beach. Ravens and eagles tough enough to establish nests along the beach will have more than enough food for their chicks.
Eagles are doing most of the nest building. One eagle tries to keep a clump of old man’s beard lichen in its beak as it barrel rolls to escape two ravens. A third eagles takes advantage of the distraction to carry a cottonwood twig to its nest site. The members of the two bird clans are having a free-for-all fight over nest building materials.