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.
Aki has the sense to shelter behind a driftwood windbreak. Wanting to photograph a group of exhausted looking waterfowl, I let the wind chill me and shake my camera as I point it at the birds. One stands on one leg. The rest have flattened themselves against a mid-channel gravel bar. All, even the standing one, have tucked their beaks into their back feathers. The birds don’t flinch when a dog barrels down the beach on the opposite shore of the river.
The photos I take will be too blurry for me to identify the tired birds. I know that they are not part of the Canada goose gang that winters in the rain forest. They are nattering just upriver from the sleeping geese. I see a slash of white on one bird. Maybe they are brants. Rest while you can travelers. The flood tide will flush you off the gravelbar in a few hours.
The local Canadians huddle fifty meters away. Their watchman honks out an alarm when another dog bursts out of the opposite shore woods and gall lumps toward the river. The locals form a single file line behind the watchman and trot away from the dog.
Two other Canada geese linger on their own in the middle of a different gravel bar. When spooked by a pair of hikers, the geese flee. I expect them to join their cousins. But they spiral up until high above the river, then fly up river to a quieter place.
I wanted be out on the wetlands at first light. It makes the best shadows, deepens the colors of frost-covered grass. But the little dog needed her breakfast and me my morning coffee. It’s still early in the day when we arrive. Skims of ice soften the reflections off the river. Frost feathers decorate stubs of grass and the still frozen trail mud.
We are the first to stumble onto a flock of nibbling Canada geese. Apparently wanting nothing to do with the large, noisy birds, Aki ignores them. The geese try to ignore us. Unfortunately, they have staked out the trail as part of their feeding ground. The geese fly off in twos and threes when I try to sidle around them.
I had hoped to see the owls again. Two short-eared owls hunted the wetlands the last time we walked along this part of the Mendenhall River. If not them, we might see more swans. But there are only ducks and the now nattering geese. One eagle does a high Passover but sees nothing worth diving on.
The trail deteriorates as we walk, softening under the rising sun. We drop off the meadow to walk along the river beach. The ebb tide has reduced the river to narrow stream, but it is wide enough to reflect the glacier and the sawtooth peaks that frame it. The beauty of it should be enough to satisfy. But Aki is short-sighted and I am disappointed not to see the owls.
As I try to measure ice loss on the glacier, the Alaska Airlines jet from Seattle photobombs our view of it like bald eagles have done before. Anyone that deplanes from the jet will have to go home and stay there for the next two weeks.
Feeling the need for another coffee at our own quarantine zone, I try to rush Aki toward the car. She passes me when I stop to watch a flock of pine siskins party among the limbs of an alder tree. One of the tiny birds settles on the nearest limb and studies me, tilting his head to get a clearer view. I think of Annie Dillard’s famous soul gaze with a weasel. Ms. Dillard saw the wild one’s eye as a doorway. For me the siskin’s eye is a mirror, reflecting the sunlight bouncing off the river.
Even though they are as common as lice in in urban and suburban centers, the presence of Canadian geese always excites me. Maybe it’s because here they hunt for their food rather than nibble golf course grass. This morning, one of our local flocks follows the flood tide up the Eagle Beach bar. The sun shines over my shoulder and onto the chestnut sides of the geese. I can almost make out the feather details.
Aki and I are crunching along a snow-covered portion of the beach. It is calm but the north wind is already whipping down Lynn Canal, raising a building surf. When it reaches this beach it will feel more like winter than early spring.
The sunlight that strikes the geese is also brightening the white sides of the Chilkat Range. It seems like months since I’ve last seen these mountains that form the western edge of Lynn Canal.
On the way from the car we spotted a large flock of gulls tucked together as tight as puppies on a sand bar. When the tide must flooded their sandy nest the gulls formed a sudden avian cloud above the surf line, startling a cabal of crows into the air. The now black and white cloud pulses above the canal, some birds settling on the water, only to explode back into the air. When the tide retreats off the beach, they settle back into their puppy pile.
This day after the winter’s solstice, Aki and are exploring a new trail across the wetlands. Expecting more hours of gray, we are surprised by sun. It makes us squint like troglodytes. The wetland grass looks trampled, crushed down by now melted snow. Dead-brown stocks of cow parsnip and driftwood are the only vertical things on the wetlands.
The flocks of sparrows have disappeared. We can hear the resident gang of Canada geese on the other side of Fritz Cove. Later something will flush them skyward. They will fly over our heads and to touch down near where the spruce forest touches the meadow’s edge.
We reach the river and follow it towards its mouth. A single merganser duck fishes the river. Only the airplanes on approach for landing break the silence. Turning around to watch one glide over the wetlands, I am surprised to see Mt. McGinnis emerging from dissipating cloud cover. It is over-bright in the morning sun, like it is trying out for a role as a minor winter god.
Sorry little dog. I really misjudged the tide. Aki is not impressed with my apology. But then, she is not impressed by our predicament. We are caught on the downriver side of a rocky point now poking out into the Mendenhall River. The path around the outcropping was open when we walked around it a half-an-hour ago. I figured we would have enough time to slip down to a big sand bar downriver and be back before the tide flooded over our path home. But there were just many distractions to slow us down.
There were the two seals riding the flood tide upriver, eye balling us as they floated by. I had to stop and muse about some pink clam shells that decorated the sand bar. Aki needed extra time checking out a scent she found in the beach border grass. Then there were the noisy Canada geese. They stirred and fussed on a shrinking sand island. I burned up time waiting for the tide to force them into flight. When it did, the geese flew away rather than toward us. Now the little dog and I have no choice but to scramble up a little ravine that bottoms out on the shrinking beach on which we stand. Like the geese, we will soon have no choice but to rise above the tide.
The ravine would have been impassible last summer when the thorny leaves of devil’s club plants blocked the path. With a little care I am able to slip between the bare devil’s club stalks and climb up to a short, but steep section of the river bluff. After lifting Aki over the little cliff, I start to climb a series of exposed spruce roots to the top. Halfway up, the geese fly over our now drowned beach honking hysterically. Disappointed by not being able to photograph their passage, I follow Aki back to the car.
I almost turned around in the trailhead parking lot when I saw the a four-wheel drive pickup—the preferred rig of duck hunters. Just one gunshot from the truck’s owner could panic Aki into hiding. But the tide had already flooded over the wetlands, flushing ducks and geese out onto the salt water. Even if the truck driver were hunting, he’d have nothing to shoot at. I coxed the little dog out of the car and headed toward the Fish Creek Pond.
A diminutive bufflehead hen paddled near the edge of the pond, watched by a roosting bald eagle. More frightened of the little dog and I, the duck moved to the pond’s center. The dog yard sound of panicked Canada geese drew my attention away from the eagle and its prey.
We found the geese, a contingent of thirty, formed up on Fritz Cove. A large raft of mallards floated near the geese. I doubt if the geese even saw the poodle-mix or I. We were at least a half-a-kilometer away when something, an eagle or seal, stirred them to flight. The geese flew low over the cove water in a long line. They soon passed the airborne raft of mallards, that had gotten a head start on the geese.
The last we saw of the fleeing birds they were passing behind the island at the mouth of Fish Creek. I thought we might sight them when we reached the mouth. But when we arrived there, nothing stirred the waters of the creek or Gastineau Channel into which the creek flowed. We couldn’t search long for birds. The little dog and I had to hurry to make it around the tip of the island before the rising tide flooded over the trail.
The forest would have me believe that the windstorm is over—the one that last night sent shingles and large plastic chairs flying past our house. It whirled through the car’s roof rack as we drove out to the Outer Point Trailhead. Then it disappeared when we entered the old growth. But it reappeared with a chilling presence each time the trail took us through unprotected spots, like the beaver pond and pocket muskeg meadows.
Only gulls stir the water when we reach the beach, which is in the wind shadow of the forest. Six Canada geese and a hundred mallard ducks huddle near the beach. Even though the little dog are100 meters away, the geese leave the protection of the beach and move in formation out onto the little bay. They don’t change course when an eagle flies over their heads. The eagle panics the mallards into the air. All but three fly across the bay. The outliers plop down on the water near the geese. What have these ducks seen to cause them to seek the company of another species when eagles threaten?
On the drive home I spot a couple of deer on to the road verge. Two years ago, on a wet October day, a young deer ran into our car near this spot. I crossed over into the oncoming traffic lane to avoid a collision, but the deer still smacked into the right front fender. I stopped to check after the deer but it was already deep in the forest. This time I stop well before reaching the deer, feeling as teachable as the three geese loving ducks.
Aki and I are returning from Boy Scout Beach on a trail marked every half-mile or so with fresh bear scat. To warn the bear of our approach, I pull out my fancy phone and ask it to play Pachelbel’s Canon. With its repeats, the canon is a snake chasing its tail. But it is a gentle snake that doesn’t clash with the bird song or the music of Eagle River.
Before the canon can repeat once, we come upon bear scat laid onto the trail like lines of calligraphy. Did the neighborhood bear form a kanji character with its waste product? Emptying its bowels on the trail rather than in the surrounding woods was probably an attempt to claim territory or to warn noisy humans of its presence. Did this bear go the extra step of forming the character for good fortune, peace, or courage? Or is this scat just the random product of a bear’s alimentary canal?
This morning I couldn’t understand the message of songbirds, eagles, or the Canada geese that flew low over our heads when we approached the beach. What sounded like a robin’s love song to its mate was probably a warning for other birds to stay away. Geese honks, which rang in the air like warnings to flee, might have been taunts. The hangdog reaction of an eagle to the screams of a nest mate made me think that the eagle was being scolded.
I had the impression that the birds expected me to be non-fluent in bird language. They weren’t honking at me. But in the magical realist world hinted at by the kanji-like bear poop, I have to wonder if it is trying to say something to Aki and me.
It rained last night for the first time in at least a week. It will rain again and soon. Good day to visit with the ducks. Aki and I head out to wetlands drained by the Mendenhall River. We pass two bald eagles perched on the superstructure for one of the airport approach lights. After a third eagle flies over them, the roosting pair lean in toward each other, as if to gossip or show each other affection. Heads almost touching, the eagles watch the early morning jet to Anchorage.
To be honest, I here for the blue birds, not eagles or waterfowl. Many Juneauites have seen mountain bluebirds perched on snags above one of the wetlands meadows. The little dog and I leave the main trail to better scan the meadow for little guys. We won’t spot one of the rare songbirds but will make our first yearly sightings of northern shovelers and lesser scaups.
We’ll have ample opportunities to watch green wing teals and American Widgeons patrolling the mud flats for food. At one point two Canada geese will fly over our heads, giving away their position by their persistent honking.
There will be other eagles and a greater yellowlegs shorebird. But the big surprise, sprung on the little dog and I while crossing the most likely part of the meadow for spotting bluebirds, will be a flight of migrating snow geese that rise out of meadow grass and head down the Mendenhall River.