It started out like a raven day. Fog hid the channel-side mountains. The runout of a recent Mt. Roberts avalanche stuck out from the bottom line of fog like a tongue. More than a dozen ravens gabbled and garbled in the bare trees lining Sandy Beach. Some flirted. Most harassed each other. Three took station atop splinter-top wharf pilings, which have stood on the beach for 100 years, ready for ravens. No wonder these three act like they own the beach.
The white shoulders of Mt. Roberts muscles through the fog was I study the raven watchmen. Down channel, Sheep Mountain appears against a backdrop of blue sky and shattered clouds. The fog holds above the southern channel but the sun is about to bust through.
Aki and I leave the ravens and head toward the deep little cove formed by a 19th Century mine tunnel collapse. A lazy raft of mallards paddled on the cove when we reached it. I wonder if the ducks were as startled as me when a belted kingfisher slamed full speed into the water with a hollow “plunk”. As the sound fades, the kingfisher shot into the air with what looked like a small herring in its beak. Don’t even think about trying that Mr. Raven.
As Aki and I round Fish Creek Pond, a kingfisher scolds us, what Poet Wendall Berry describes as the sound of the bird closing its rusty hinge. Out of the corner of my eye I see a stiff twig still vibrating after the kingfisher launched from it. The bird with attitude hovers for a moment over the iced-over pond and flies off.
The little dog and I walk out onto the spit that parallels Fish Creek. We can hear the high, also hysterical cry of an unseen shorebird. From nearby woods comes an eagle scream. But all if can see is a small raft of bufflehead ducks and a handful of gulls. We will watch two eagles before the walk ends, but both will fly high and straight out of sight.
Down Stephens Passage Blue-grey snow clouds slowly close a sucker hole through which a sun had spotlighted a patch of the slope of Mt. Stoller White. I expect the clouds to close over us like fog but they hand over the passage. A sparse shower of snow gives us a taste of what is slouching our way.
I am about to tell Aki to drop in stealth mood. We are using a series of informal trails that crisscross the backbone of False Outer Point. The poodle-mix, whose short status lets her slip under and around blueberry bushes without making a sound, doesn’t need to be silenced. Together we move toward the point where gulls and a huge raft of surf scooters have gathered. In the forest canopy above a raven croaks out a warning of our presence.
Even though the sound of my rain parka scraping against devil’s club and blueberry branches set a belted kingfisher to flight, the scooters are still near the point when we break out of the trees. One of the orange-beaked birds swims away from the point, drawing the rest of the raft along behind him as if they were all attached with invisible cords. Together the scooters form an apostrophe. Then, like an American high school marching band, they morph into straight line.
Wanting to watch the birds from the beach, I drop into a steep gully with exposed spruce roots that offer enough handholds to allow me safe passage down. Aki watches me descend but does not follow. On the beach I realize that she can’t do much with handholds since she lacks hands to grip them. In a few minutes I’m back on the ridge, huffing and puffing from the climb back to the little dog.
An eagle screams and then flies over the scooters, flushing out into Lynn Canal. Five horned grebes, as grey as gulls in the flat light, watch them go.
We have just turned our back on a great blue heron, leaving it standing tall among gulls on a gravel bar. The heron was looking toward the glacier, not the gulls or Aki, when we slipped around a rocky headland.
Now we are walking along a strip of gravel between a forested island and Fritz Cove. Inside the island crows and several bald eagles bicker and scream. Apparently having enough of the crow’s harassment, two of the eagles fly out of the trees and over our heads, startling ducks and gulls into flight. While the little dog and watch the eagles fly towards the Chilkat Mountains when we hear a sound like a rock plunking into the water.
Looking toward the sound, we spot a belted kingfisher shooting out of the water. It lands on an offshore rock just as another plunk sounds. This one is made by the first bird’s mate. The first guy flits onto another rock, drawing attention away from the other bird. It stands in profile with its huge beak pointing down the beach. Each time we move a few meters away from the second bird, the first one glides down the beach. When we are thirty meters from the second bird, the first guy circles over the water and reunites with its mate.
I wonder why the Creator burdened the diminutive kingfisher with such a massive beak that looks so like that of the heron. The spear-shaped beak is a well-balanced weapon on the large heron’s head. It forms a projectile the heron can shoot forward with its powerful neck muscles. The kingfisher must use his whole body as a spear, driving beak-first after fish swimming feet below the surface.
Pink salmon have replaced the chum salmon that tussled in the shallow water beneath the Fish Creek Bridge the last time Aki and I walked over it. Male pinks, with the distorted backs that earned them the nickname “humpies,” charge each other in the stream rapids. Unlike last time, when ravens and watched the salmons struggle, only a flock of no nonsense gulls takes in the show. There is one eagle roosting in a tree above the stream. Soon it will fly off.
Expecting to find many eagles and herons on our walk to the stream mouth, I try to rush the little dog. She gives me her “I have important work to do” stare and slows to catalogue trailside scents. Each sniff adds to her encyclopedic knowledge. I’m as impatience as the belted kingfisher chattering over our heads.
Several schools of pink salmon wander around a pond connected to the stream. A few hurl themselves out of the water as if that will hurry up the spawning process. Maybe female pink salmon dig an acrobatic guy. No herons wade in the pond shallows. No eagles watch the show. Only gulls float on the pond, looking for scraps of already dead fish.
On a spit covered with fireweed stalks and meadow grass already succumbing to fall, gangs of sparrows search the ground for food. The little brown birds spring up like grasshoppers when we walk down the trail. No eagles wait for us at the stream mouth, just more gulls and one raven flying over the creek delta as if it were an eagle.
Aki ignores the chum salmon splashing beneath the Fish Creek bridge. She doesn’t even flinch when one of the ten-pound fish slaps the water with its tail. While one of the chums rolls on its side and uses it tail to dig out a depression in the creek bed to hold its eggs Aki keeps her nose just millimeters from the bridge deck. She doesn’t give up on the scent until we cross the bridge and start down toward the creek mouth.
The little dog and I have kept away from the creek since the king salmon arrived. A chance to catch one of the largest of salmons drew many fishermen to the creek to snag one of the big fish. The kings have died out or moved up the creek to spawn. This is the time of the less tasty chum salmon. Only two men fish the pond when we arrive. Fresh chum salmon leap from the water. Two great blue heron watch the action from pond-side spruce trees.
The heron surprise me by leaving the safety of their roosts and glide toward a nearby pond beach. Aki ignores the long-necked birds, like she ignored the chum salmon. Instead she stares at me watching the herons. She might be silently pleading me to give the dinosaur-like birds a wide berth and return to the bridge so she can again inhale the intriguing smells on the bridge. Rather than attack the little dog or me, the herons fly a few meters down the beach. We swing into the woods, round the pond, and walk down a trail lined with aging fireweed stalks.
Diminutive sparrows flitter about the trail margins. One tries to land in the top of a fireweed. When the stalk bends toward the ground, the sparrow finds a more secure roost on a stunted spruce. After landing the sparrow, as plump as a stuffed toy, glares at the little poodle-mix and I. It shows less fear of us than the long-beaked herons did.
We will see dozens of sparrows bursting from the grass like grasshoppers when we reach the stream mouth. We’ll see the heron twice more. Both of them will fly into the top of a spruce tree normally occupied by bald eagles. Then they will try fishing in shallow stream rapids until a belted kingfisher harasses them into flight, a bird as small as the sparrow and just as brave.
There is something unsettling about the golden eye hen, the only duck on this moraine lake. It hunts for food with the aggression of a belted kingfisher. Rather than slip into the lake in search of fish, the golden eye slams its head into the water, pulling its plump body after it.
I’m trying Aki’s patience with my attempts to catch a trout. Just as I am about to give in to her whining, a cut throat trout leaps out of the water with my lure lodged in its jaw. It is free of the lure a second later. I am not surprised since I use barbless hooks. Responding to all the splashing, the golden eye cruises towards the little dog and I.
I think of a friend who once hooked a gull while trolling for salmon. The seabird flew into the air and floated like a kite above the boat. With much effort my friend managed to pull in the gull and free it from his hook. I reel in my lure until the golden eye paddles away.