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.
Canada geese have made themselves as common as pigeons in the USA and even Europe. But I still love to hear their nervous honking calls and watch their plump bodies strutting over a gravel bar. This morning a small gang of the geese feeds down near the mouth of Eagle River. Their designated guard goose issues more and more desperate warnings as the little dog and I approach them.
An extreme ebb tide has drained much of the water from the river. It would take us no more than minutes to reach the geese across the exposed riverbed. They would be airborne and gone in half that time. Aki, who weighs less than the guard goose, studiously ignores the noisy birds. I take a few photographs and swing with Aki into the riverside woods.
Thanks to strong sunshine it had been warm on the riverbank. Here, where trees block the sun, I start wishing for a heavier coat. We can hear robins and their cousins thrushes, except when their songs are blocked out by the honking warning of the gravel bar geese.