I am not as disappointed with today’s rain as this miserable looking bald eagle. It has perched itself on a rise of gravel just feet from the edge of Lynn Canal. its hunched posture and rain soaked feathers make it look miserable. Worse, the eagle is going through the transition into adulthood so splotches of white feathers pock its chestnut chest like acne on a teenager’s face. Behind it, Canada geese, mallards, and gulls, unfazed by the weather, patrol the water offshore for food.
Only the lower flanks of the Chilkat Mountains show beneath the marine layer. Perhaps the eagle misses his mountain view. The water birds look as comfortable as tourists on a hot Rivera beach. They don’t need fancy raincoats or even hats. The eagle’s mood might be enhanced by a little something from Patagonia.
We have just walked down Eagle River and across exposed tidal flats to the canal, passing a drake Bufflehead duck and two hens. The drake did a barrel roll while the ladies watched. The little dog and I have seen ducks plop forward in a dive or plunge their heads straight into the water until their feet and tail feathers are sticking straight into the air. We have never seen one roll over and over while in the water. Is this an innovation spawned by love?
I wish that those Canada geese would shut up. Aki doesn’t react to my rude comment as she moves down the Boy Scout Beach Trail. The geese, a clutch of at least twenty, occupy a frosty hillside on the other side Eagle River. Most search for food. Several stand guard on the hilltop. They all contribute to the general den, sounding like barking dogs.
The sun just managed to clear the mountain ridge to the south. Perhaps the geese are cheering it on. Maybe they are gossiping or giving unnecessary warnings about Aki’s presence.
Wrens add to the din, as do two red-breasted sapsuckers hammering an alder with their beaks. The little dog and I leave the woodpeckers behind and use a shaded trail to reach a tidal meadow. No matter how far we walk, we can never escape the dog yard sound of the geese.
More Canada geese float on river eddies or rest on exposed gravel bars. They start barking the minute we reach the meadow. The resident flock of Canada geese have spread themselves out on both sides of the river.
We won’t be free of geese chatter until we walk down Boy Scout Beach, swing back across the meadow, and return to the shaded trail. All the river birds will go silent when we leave the meadow. We will walk in silence, broken only by the roar of the river running over emerging rocks, until we are almost to the car. Men, not birds, will shatter the solitude, sharing their hunting stories.
As we wait for a human friend to pull on his winter boots, Aki and I watch several hundred Canada geese floating on Auk Lake. Most sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers. The guard birds cackle. It’s hunting season. The geese spend the daylight hours when hunting is allowed resting on this lake where hunting is prohibited. Shortly after sunset they will fly out to the wetlands to feed. The birds have adapted.
We leave the birds’ sanctuary and head out to a riverine forest gone to sleep until the spring. No bird or animal breaks the silence. We see only a single raven and it flies off when it hears us talking. We continue on in the direction of the raven’s flight and find twin hemlock trees loaded down with Christmas ornaments. A strong offshore wind whips about the little trees. The nearby ground is littered with fallen ornaments. Normally I dislike human attempts to embellish nature’s beauty. But today, when low clouds hide the mountains and nothing but ravens fly, I appreciate some little globes of color.
As if to pin a lie on weatherman, nature brought us clear, cool skies this morning rather than the promised rain. At first light Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands. I’m hoping that it still retains the two inches of snow that fell on it yesterday. But this is early days for winter. The temperature is already above freezing when reach the wetlands. We take the trail along the river even though it is already slick with thawing mud. Aki finds cleaner footing on the grassy fringe.
At first light the still-surfaced river captures crisp reflections of the glacier underlined by trees flocked with snow. But the rising sun frees a breeze that riffles the water. The slight wind doesn’t wake a huge raft of Canada geese that doze, heads tucked into their back feathers, near the opposite side of the river. Among the sleeping flock, four white-fronted geese slip quietly toward shore. These arctic birds will soon resume their southerly migration.
When the heads of two harbor seals appear near the Canadians, the geese move casually towards the beach. I don’t see the seals make a move, but they or maybe a passing eagle flush the geese into flight.
Other than checking frequently to make sure she is near, I haven’t paid much attention to Aki. The little dog, who loves snow, doesn’t seem to mind until I head back toward the muddy trail. Then she gives me one of her “what an idiot” looks, hesitates, and then fast-trots towards her foolish master.
The forest should be greening up. Normally by early May green shoots of bracken, with tips curled like the head of a violin, would be forcing their way through last year’s dead growth. But today only the ever-present tree moss shows green.
The tidal meadow, when the little dog and I reach it, looks as dead as November. But the presence of nattering Canada geese confirm the onset of Spring. Those not chuckling graze on new shoots of meadow grass. In less accessible meadows black bears are filling their winter-empty stomachs with shoots of similar grass.
While Aki sniffs at a seemingly random spot on the trail, I lean down to inspect wolf scat that is chock full of tan colored fur. I’ve seen similar colored fur on our Sitka black tail deer. Winter’s winners and losers, little dog, now fueling this spring’s new growth.
Aki wouldn’t like this. It’s seven in the morning. The temperature drops a degree each mile I ride my bike out Glacier Highway. Now it hovers at 27 degrees F. The temperature didn’t stop the Hermit Thrush from singing its spring song when I mounted my bicycle at the Shrine of St. Theresa. The cold might have silenced the eagles because I can’t hear their territorial scream as I head out the road. But the Stellar’s jays are warm enough to scold me as I ride over the Peterson Creek Bridge.
The sun lights up Shelter Island and the snow-white Chilkat Mountains that line the other side of Lynn Canal. But I ride in pre-dawn grey until Eagle River where the sun shines on the gang of Canada geese in a mid-stream gravel bar. The birds cackle away as if plotting mischief.
I push on another half-mile and then drop into the picnic area where a smaller group of geese hunt and peck near the picnic tables. If my presence bothers them, they don’t show it. Pleased for not being their cat among the pigeons, I ride to a trailhead where a man on a mountain bike greets me. After we exchange hellos, he rides down the trail toward the plotting Canada geese. In seconds they explode off the meadow and fly low over my head, flushed by a cat on a cycle.
A forty-knot wind plasters Aki’s fur to her skin. Long ago she had dropped down her stub of a tail to cover her privates. I walk behind her, bare hands stuck in my pockets, eyes scanning the Mendenhall River for participants in the spring migration.
Aki didn’t notice a small raft of bufflehead ducks drop onto the river where they now bob in wind driven waves. She doesn’t lift her head when we cross a field of dead-brown grass to the river’s edge. Just upstream a huge raft of mallards shelters in the lee of a bluff cut by the river current. The water glimmers like a shattered mirror left abandoned in the sun. But the grasslands seem dead, as if the strong wind has stripped it of color.
To get out of the wind, we drop down into the gully formed by a small stream and surprise a gang of six Canada geese that had the same idea. They circle in front of the glacier and land on the grass a hundred meters away where they huddle behind a small rise.
My little dog doesn’t complain or give me her “are you crazy” stare. She conducts her usual nasal patrol, covering the more intriguing scents with her own. In a sense, she may be tougher than the geese and other wild things that make their living on the wetlands. All the birds we spotted this morning had obtained shelter from the wind. She trots into it.