Thank you bear, I say while securing Aki to her leash. The black bear had been digging up chocolate lily roots when we approached. It spotted us when we were only 30 meters away and slipped into a nearby copse of spruce. Aki never saw it.
We are on the return leg of the Boy Scout Beach Trail. It was raining when we started toward the beach. Now we walk under full sun. A stiff westerly blows at our backs, stripping yellow leaves from the riverside poplars and pushing waves up Eagle River. The wind has a fall bite to it.
On our way downriver Aki dashed from grass clump to grass clump trying to find relief from the breeze. To make our return trip easier on the little dog I lead her over a beach berm and onto a protected meadow. We bailed on that route after walking through large patches of trampled grass and pot holed ground. Tall grass and the dried stalks of cow parsnip plants prevented me from seeing more than a few meters in any direction. A whole work gang of bears could be within claw reach and we would never know it until it was too late.
To avoid a nasty surprise for bear, dog and man, Aki and I left the meadow to take a trail through the woods where no bruin had reason to occupy. It was just after we walked out of the woods and onto a small meadow that the day’s second bear spotted us.
Earlier, while on the opposite side of Eagle River Aki and I watched a different bear foraging for roots. Reaching to a noise from upriver, the bear sat up and stared toward the disturbance. This got Aki’s attention and she let out with a quiet growl. Now we had the bear’s attention. It was time for our retreat across the river.
Aki is bored. She doddles along behind me on this mountain meadow trail. There’s not a dog in sight. When we first arrived, only the ghosts of Douglas pines could be discerned in the fog. Within minutes the fog started to lift. In minutes all the drama was gone. Okay, little dog, let’s try a rain forest trail.
We drop down to sea level and park in a trailhead parking lot. Fog still penetrated the rain forest and hung low over the beaver pond. It robbed us of any view of the Chilkat Mountains. I could just make out a section of Shaman Island and little of the coastline.
We heard an eagle call out to its mate when we walked onto the beach. After that it has been quiet. There are no gulls or scoters to break the silence. Thanks to the fog, no airplanes can drone overhead.
Without the competition of sight and sounds, my nose takes center stage. I breathe in the soft, salty smell of the sea and the sharp iodine tang of severed wrack. But I am still just a burgers and fries guy compared to the little nasal gourmet searching the trail for scents of her dog friends.
There is only one eagle on top of the mine tunnel ventilator shaft this morning. Its mate must be off feeding. Even though no wind stirs the air, white feathers stick out from the back of its head like untamed cowlicks. It stares down channel, maybe at the flock of gulls that just landed on the beach, or perhaps at the top of Sheep Mountain rimmed with light from the rising sun.
The eagle’s mate plops down on the shaft roof. Rather than exchanging the usual screeching welcomes, the two eagles face in opposite directions. A minute later only the original eagle remains on the shaft roof. The other flies toward the rising sun, flushing the gulls and a raft of scoters to flight.
I find myself slowing down as we near the end of the beach. Even though it is still blocked by the Sheep Mountain knob, the sun has already managed to paint a golden strip of light on the waters of Gastineau Channel. A tiny raft of mallards lingers in it, as it provides them warmth. Aki is already at the edge of the Treadwell woods, giving me her “time to go” look. As if to confirm her wisdom, the sun immediately slips behind heavy cloud cover the minute it clears the mountain. The golden light vanishes, leaving the ducks, dog and I in a world of gray.
Aki disappeared this morning. While I read and drank my morning coffee, she melted into some cubbyhole. Her other human and I suspect that she was reacting to last night’s bath. I worried that she wouldn’t want to join me on this morning’s walk. But she just appeared at the back door as I pulled on my boots.
We drove out to the Fish Creek trailhead where the riotous salmon spawn is over. Most of the eagles were gone. Two locals, both mature birds, sunned themselves in the tops of spruce trees. A raft of nervous mallards moved slowly off as we approached. Sparrows, feeding in preparation for their southward migration sang a pretty song in their tiny voices.
With most of the eagles gone, Aki was relaxed. I hoped that she had already forgotten the unfortunately incident that took place last night in the upstairs’ bathroom sink. I almost forgot about the little dog when I spotted a water dipper bobbing on a rock in the pond. It sent out concentric ripples that confused the pond’s reflection of a bird on a pedestal and the surround forest.
Judging by the bird activity near the North Douglas Boat Ramp, there is a lot of food lying around here. One eagle sits alone near the water line. At least three more call abuse upon it from nearby spruce trees. A murder of crows struts near the boat ramp until flushed by a patrol of the larger ravens. After one of the ravens swoops her, Aki keeps to the brush line.
One of the wonders of living in raven country is being able to hear the whoosh their wings make during flight. But you have to be close. This morning, Aki wishes to never hear the sound again.
A raven could knock the wind out of my poodle-mix if it cared to. With me around, there would be no point in such a display of malice. The raven would be chased off before it could do more than gloat. Besides, ravens like to tease dogs. They would rather pluck a bit of fur from Aki’s back than flatten her.
Fog is easier to see on a beach but you can discern its presence inside a thick forest. Aki and I have no problem detecting the way it thickens the air in the Treadwell forest. She pays it little attention. Fog doesn’t diminish the rich smells she searches for in the forest.
The little dog is slow to follow me from the forest down a grassy trail to Sandy Beach. As I wait for her to catch up I spot the resident pair of eagles on top of the old mine ventilation shaft. They appear to be gossiping, although with their profiles softened by fog it is hard to tell. More than one person has noticed how eagle pairs interact like long-suffering human couples who keep together for the sake of the kids. One is almost always scolding the other. The one receiving the dressing down will bow and shrink like a penitent. This pair looks like a couple of drinkers leaning toward each other over their Alaskan beers.
Aki finally pushes through the splash-zone grass to join me on the beach and spots a canine friend waiting for her. Even though they are both over ten human years old, they chase each other over the sand like puppies. Now the eagles have something to gossip about.
The birds are back little dog. Looking up from a scent spot that has occupied her attention for the last minute, Aki gives me a “Dah” look. She might think I am referring to the adult bald eagle that had been feeding a few feet away when we reached the Shaman Island beach. The big bird flew off to a glacier erratic on the other side of Peterson Creek and landed. From that vantage point and safe from poodles, it waits for us to leave so it can return to its feast.
No Aki, I am not referring to that eagle or the other one roosting nearby. Look there. I point toward the island where a small raft of harlequin ducks are performing the synchronized swimming routine their kind performs when feeding. All summer the harlequins have been hanging out on the outer coast with red-breasted mergansers and the other fish ducks. The little bay has been lonely in their absence. It’s good to have them back. Closer to the beach, a smaller raft of widgeons have their heads in the water feeding. These guys must be heading south.
We passed other signs of fall along the forest trail that we used to get to this beach. The leaves of wild crabapple trees and blueberry bushes were in high autumn colors. Some of the devil’s club and skunk cabbage were yellowing. And the downy woodpeckers that seem to only appear at the change of seasons, were hammering away at old growth spruce and hemlock trees.