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.
“Boom, boom, boom” and a hunter whistling in his dog interrupt the nattering complaints of Canada geese. Then, the smell of cordite arrives on a light breeze. Aki cringes and moves cautiously ahead, choosing the iciest path. Her little paws slip and then regain a purchase and she is on surer ground. I think about turning back but we are almost to the mouth of Fish Creek. I’ll just peak around the spit to see if the hunter is there. I end my search after spotting gulls strutting along one of the diminutive inlet that drains the wetlands.
The hunter must be working another part of the wetlands, one upwind from our position. Aki returns to her survey of dog sign. It’s 9:30 and the sun is brightening the snow on the Chilkats and Mt. McGinnis. No light will warm the little dog or sparkle the thick, trailside frost today. But we are used to enjoying the sun’s work from afar.
On our return to the car I stop to study a long, thin raft of Canada geese that has formed just off shore in Fritz Cove. Each has its beak tucked into its feathered body. It’s 19 degrees F. and they still chose water over the warmer land for their bed.
We hear a mother and two small boys as we approach the pond. Only a thin layer of ice covers it. The boys, both dressed in heavy winter gear toss rocks onto the ice to hear the sound of it breaking. I think of the admonition of a Tlingit elder I once knew in Ketchikan not to break the stillness of water by skipping stones on it. What would she say to these two boys? They slide down some hinge ice to reach the slanted pond beach. They could slip on the ice and slide into the pond if they edged any further forward. I think of the mother and child who drowned after breaking through ice on this very pond twenty years ago. The boys’ mom saves me using the story as a warning by calling them back from the edge.
It’s not terribly cold. The temperature hovers somewhere in the mid-twenties Fahrenheit. No breeze ruffles the surface of the Mendenhall River. But the little dog and I are not designed for the conditions. So we adapt. Aki wears a knitted sweater with front sleeves that reach almost to her paws. She’ll shiver if she stops but she never does. Me, I am wearing gloves, knit hat, and heavy parka. My trigger figure numbs if I take too many pictures before returning finger and hand to their glove.
I wouldn’t have given any of this a thought if not for the great blue heron. He stands, still as one of the queen’s guards, in an ice-free portion of the river. He’s puffed out his chest feathers to trap warm air leaving his body but that’s all he can do to adapt to the cold. Around him mallards and golden eye ducks paddle, sometimes diving down to catch lunch. In the air above the edge of the wetlands, an extended formation of Canada geese flies noisily away. No warm parkas for them. I wonder if their kin provided the down that is keeping me warm.
A naturalist could explain all the things given to the wetland birds to help them tough out the winter. She could also solve the mystery of salt-water ice. Last night at slack high tide, when the beach we walk on was covered by seawater, a skim of ice formed. As the river dropped during the ebb the ice skim draped itself over tuffs of beach grass and beach pebbles. Brittle freshwater ice would have cracked and split when left by the tide to bear its own weight. But this paper-thin sea ice lays like a lover over the bent grass until the next high tide.
The sun returned to Anchorage yesterday afternoon. Last night, as it softened towards sunset, low angled light transformed the normally nondescript Chugiak Mountains into Swiss Alps. The drama continues this morning as I ride from the university past University Lake. With no wind to whiff it, the lake forms a polished mirror for the rising sun.
When the sun breaks open a blue-sky day like this one, Alaskans tend to turn their faces to the light. Some have to resist using overblown adjectives to describe the resulting beauty. The bike path keeps me in wood shade during most of the ride toward Cook Inlet but, I am able to turn my face to the sun at the spot where Fish Creek flows under the Coastal Trail. Then, I scan the wetlands for the Sandhill Cranes that fed on these flats every day of last summer’s writing school. But only gulls cruise for food. Out on Cook Inlet, a powerful tug pulls a loaded barge to the Gulf of Alaska. It might be heading for the Bering Sea to deliver fishing skiffs, trucks, can goods or house building materials to Unalaska or Nome. I remember watching similar, if smaller barges slowly moving up the Kuskokwim River, wondering what lucky guy was getting the Hewescraft boat perched on top of a stack of orange or yellow freight containers. Maybe this Cook Inlet barge will deliver happiness to someone on St. Lawrence Island or Dillingham.
Two Canada geese are the only things moving on Saga Meadows. The larger bird started honking when I slipped on the gravel trail and hasn’t stopped. He walks to and fro, like an over trained Shakespearean actor, while the smaller birds feeds on the new meadow grass. They provide the most drama Aki and I have experienced on this Amalga Harbor visit.
The rain, really a soft purgatory of drizzle, pockmarked the water in front of the salt chuck cascade where I fished in vain for dolly varden char. It soaked into Aki’s gray curls while I searched for whales or Stellar sea lions from a place where Aki and I have seen both in the past. Giving up on drama, I concentrated on five harlequin ducks that fished around my whale-watching promontory. The little hens didn’t show much color but the drake’s feather show almost equals that of a wood duck.
Aki and I are walking along the north bank of Eagle River. A line of Canada geese cackle and slow walk to the river. We are not making the geese nervous. The little dog isn’t even in their line of sight and I am careful to keep a respectful distance from the birds. Something at the edge of the sand bars is stirring them. Through my telephonic lens I can just make out a mature bald eagle being chased by a Canada goose. The eagle climbs to hunting height and circles over a gathering of geese feeding on emerging grass. Several of this group cackle and fly, only to land a few meters out in the river.
More geese stir when a northern harrier flies over at a low attitude. Its flight path takes it over our head. But even after all this negative attention most of the Canada geese continue to feed along the river. Only when a circus of children, and them on the southern bank of the river, make their noisy way to Boy Scout Beach do the Canadians take to the air.
The kids swing over to a big tidal meadow and trigger another exodus—a big flight of snow geese that had been refueling on the meadow before continuing on to their nesting sites along the Bering Sea. The powerful fliers change from white line to a cloud as they move over Lynn Canal. It’s my first sighting of the legends even though I lived for years in Western Alaska less than 100 miles from their northern nests. Here in the rain forest elders tell children that hummingbirds migrate here burrowed in the feathers of snow geese. For the rest of the walk I will check each blossoming blue berry bush for hitchhikers.