“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.
The kind woman with binoculars doesn’t object when Aki runs up to her and barks a hello. But when she reaches down to pet the little dog Aki is already back at my side. The lady returns her attention upward to watch downy woodpeckers hammer the trailside spruce. I ask for her morning bird count. “Four northern shovelers and a couple of plovers,” is her reply. She looks frail enough to be blow away by the strong off shore wind that reaches us even in this forested part of the trail to Boy Scout Beach. But she doesn’t complain; seems happy to share the woodpeckers with us.
The morning’s strong ebb tide has shrunk Eagle River and exposed sand bars between us and the now turbulent surface of Lynn Canal. Using my old camera as a telescope, I find a wealth of waterfowl and shore birds. Canada geese and ducks (golden eyes, buffleheads, mallards, scaulps, mergansers) fish wind-protected sections of the river for sea going salmon fry. Some geese have flattened themselves against the mud bar. Others wander the exposed flats. Is this what the African Serengeti is like little dog?
We arrive at the beach where wind gusts make Aki jumpy. Rather than stay for more punishment, we climb over a berm and drop down onto a meadow where a score of American robins hunt for food. I am surprised to see such a large flock of robins because our neighborhood birds are already building nests. These guys must be refueling for the next leg north.
Taking advantage of the ebbing tide, I lead Aki onto the expansive Eagle River flats. My little dog is reluctant to follow. If she could understand English, I’d tell her that there is still more than thirty minutes before low tide. We will have plenty of time to explore the flats before the flood cuts off retreat.
Eagle River formed the flats with gravel and silt carried from the terminus of the Herbert and Eagle glaciers. The silt sections are covered with tiny clamshells, pink and splayed open. I suspect that the Canada geese and other waterfowl that hunt the flats during low tide made meals of the clams. We walk over the shells toward Lynn Canal and the low, forested hills that separate salt water from the Chilkat Mountains. Last night’s fast moving storm flocked the hills with snow that sparkles in the morning sun.
Feeling it is time to retreat, I turn around and spot the blue ice of the Herbert Glacier winding between Ernest Gruening and McGinnis Mountains. The little dog and I head over to the river and approach a small squadron of Canada geese that had been flushed from the Boy Scout Beach meadow by hikers. The adaptable birds have made themselves as common as rats in many populated areas but I still love to see them fly with out stretched necks and the characteristic white patch wrapped around the bottom of their heads.
Before we can approach near enough to the geese for a good view, a happy, chatty couple follow their two bird dogs onto the flats. The geese explode into the air and cross the river. The couple might be new to town, maybe only in Juneau for the four-month legislative session. This might be their first chance to explore on a sunny day. We exchange greetings and Aki plays tag with their dogs. Then, they continue out onto the flats. Later I will wish that I had made sure that they knew about the tides. They might not have realized that in three hours the place where we had met would be underwater. They will probably figure it out before the path of their retreat is covered with water deep enough to spill over the tops of their shinny new rain boots.