No bald eagles are roosting on the roof of the mine’s ventilator shaft. That’s the first thing I notice when Aki and I drop onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell Woods. The beach has that sinister feel that always comes when a thin veil of overcast replaces a prior day’s blue sky. This is reinforced by the absence of any birds on the beach. The woods were full of birdsong belted out by winter wrens, yellow warblers, dark-eyed juncos, and robins. On the beach not even a raven is around to croak us a warning.
The scent-oriented Aki doesn’t care about our silent greeting. It just means there is nothing to distract her from the beach’s seductive smells. The quiet time is about to end. As the poodle-mix dashes down the beach to investigate a chattering cloud of Bonaparte gulls materializes over our heads. The Bonaparte is my favor gull, perhaps because of its distinctive black hat that makes it easy to identify.
Just after the gulls appear an eagle screams and then flies away to its nest in the woods. Quiet returns. Nothing distracts me from the rich yellow-greens of the beachside balsam poplars or the smell of the sweet incense that gives them their name.
Aki showed indifference while I pulled on my bike gear and left the house this morning. I didn’t hear her howl when I rode out of the yard and down the steep hill into downtown Juneau. She seemed calm when I took a post-ride shower. But her patience and understanding ran out when I filled a mug with coffee. Okay little dog, we’re going.
I crack open a window to distract Aki and drive over to muskeg meadow. It should be empty of people. No one I know would spend a sunny afternoon hunting and pecking on the muskeg for ripe cloudberries. Only expats from tundra towns or Scandinavia seek them out.
At first Aki refuses to follow me off the gravel trail. She has learned to avoid the normally wet muskeg. But thanks to our recent drought the meadow is dry. She can spring over it in search of interesting smells. After plopping a cloudberry into the container, I look up and spot my little poodle-mix legs up on the muskeg. With the look on her face of an aficionado with a mouthful of perfect ice cream, she rubs her back on something that must smell like doggy heaven.
This is why I choose to ride my bike to Sheep Creek this morning rather than take you there in the car.
That morning, I had heard the scream of gulls before reaching the creek. They fought for position on gravel bars and places in the stream full of holding salmon. A dozen bald eagles held a meeting on the Gastineau Channel beach. Already dead salmon—the kind that dogs love to squirm in—were pilling up on the beach.
In mid-stream, a lone Bonaparte gull landed on a partially submerged rock. While she screeched from her rock, a dog salmon slapped her pulpit with its tail. The little gull flew off and dive-bombed an eagle as it ripped flesh off a dead salmon. Tiny but fierce bird. Kind of like Aki.
An up channel wind sweeps the Sheep Creek Delta. Normally this wind brings clear weather but today it only chills. In a slow motion race with the incoming tide, the little dog and I walk toward the navigation aid that shelters, as usual, a bald eagle. A small murder of crows tries to ignore our approach. They seem dispirited by the wind and grey weather. Probably they are just conserving their strength for a search of the delta when the tide recedes.
Out of synch with the chilly air and opaque sky, candles of yellow-green leafed-out poplars brighten the spruce forest covering the flanks of Sheep Mountain. While Aki tears across a sandy stretch of beach, I try to count the mountainside candles, thankful for their color.
This trail to the Wetlands wanders along a gentle contour line through spruce and hemlock trees to the beach. Aki and I have it to ourselves on grey but dry morning. Perhaps remembering all the birds and seals we have seen on the beach in the past, she pushes ahead, ignoring spats of white eagle spoor and down scattered on the understory plants. The big birds use the forest as a waiting place. Today, with the beach exposed by a minus tide, they must be there.
Keeping up with Aki’s breakneck pace I reach the beach in minutes and find nothing but a diminished river flowing to the sea. No shore birds hunt on the clam flats and no waterfowl pass us on the river. Even though it’s time for the chum salmon to move up river in their green and red spawning stripes, none break the water surface.
What was once a theatre has become a library so I concentrate on stories written on the rocks and beach grass. Above the high tide line a collection of rocks sport orange lichen and white eagle spoor. Nearby grass white/gray gull feathers and one of an immature bald eagle lay trapped in the tall beach grass. The faint tracks of a wandering snail mark flat beach rocks. God could use the tracks to communicate with His people but I can’t decipher the message, which will soon disappear under the incoming tide.
The last lesson lays in the a small “V” shaped cove where the line between wet and dry gravel marks last’s night’s high tide. In the trees above ravens begin a strange song that starts with a low croak and cascades up in a short series of harmonious notes. Then an eagle breaks from a beach side spruce. Looking beyond we spot the birds.
There are eagles, of course, and little waders. Two mature Bald Eagles perch on separate drift wood snags and look toward shaman Island. A gang of gulls feed near the river’s edge. To reach them we have to cross a large sand flat infested with clams. Some squirt water over the sand when we start walking toward the gulls. Getting closer I am pleased to discover they are Bonaparte’s. The petite black headed guys look toylike on this beach dominated by ravens and eagles. Aki must respect them too for she doesn’t chase the gulls even when they fly a low trajectory away from us down the beach.