Aki is giving me her “Don’t Expect Me to Follow You!!!” look. She intends to finish the Rain Forest Trail loop and be home in time to mooch cheese from her other human. I want to walk down a beach still wet from the retreating tide. We will see more eagles than dogs, little dog, but I’m feeling selfish.
The dawn broke clear and the sun is still low enough in the sky to bathe the ocean in intense light. Bald eagles come and go from their spruce roosts, making sorties over Lynn Canal. Most return with empty talons. Each time an eagle returns to its roost, at least one crow drops onto a nearby limb to harass it. None of the eagles show the least interest in Aki.
The poodle-mix follows closely behind me when we approach False Outer Point. A scattering of crows leave the beachside forest and land on rocks recently revealed by the ebbing tide. One of the black, crow-sized birds has an orange beak. It’s an oyster catcher. I haven’t seen one this year. Even though it is as noticeable on its sun-soaked beach rock as a flashing traffic barrier, the oyster catcher freezes in place as if camouflaged.
Nothing startles the oyster catcher into flight, not a salmon leaping just offshore, the growl of a Steller seal lion, the shadow of a cruising eagle, or two belted kingfishers engaged in aerial combat.
It’s a day for corvids. I’m talking about the birds, not the virus. Three Stellar’s blue jays watch the little dog and I pass under their spruce tree roast, looking as unaffected by our passage as a Buckingham Castle guard. Without so much as a scolding from the diminutive corvids, we continue down the trail to salt water.
The usual mallard gang hunts for food in the Fritz Cove shallows. One hen bursts off the water and flies over to a nearby kettle pond. She stands in shallow water that reflects her beauty back to her. The fit mallard looks sleek with not one feather out of place. While I wonder what flushed her from the salt water, the rest of the mallards from her raft panic into flight. Looking up I see the cause—a bald eagle that just landed in the top of a nearby spruce.
Aki, not a fan of eagles, is happy when we move down the trail to the mouth of the stream. There, a murder of crows fidgets from one bank to the other and back. Some find purpose when they spot a solitary raven skulking on the branch of a driftwood tree that has become stuck in the middle of the creek.
I expect a noisy squabble. The crows raise their young in a nearby forest. They consider ravens trespassers. But only a few of the crows land on the raven’s driftwood hang out. Even these seem more curious than outraged.
It is quiet in the forest. We can’t even hear the sound of wind whipping up waives on nearby Lynn Canal. That’s why the smack of a bark fragment hitting the beaver pond ice grabs my attention. After a second fragment joins the first one, I notice a faint tapping sound. It’s too weak to be made by the aggressive red breasted sapsucker. Looking up I spot the percussionist—a downy woodpecker. He is still tapping his way up the spruce tree as Aki and I round the pond and head toward the beach.
We hear a sharp crack—just one—as we leave the pond. I want to wait to see if the deer will reveal itself. Aki will have none of it. She has scents to check and pee messages to leave. We cross a small muskeg meadow before reaching the beach. It is dotted with tall pine snags with twisted branches that reach toward heaven like desperate saints. Fast moving crossbills appear and disappear on the higher branches. We are closer to the beach now so the sounds of surf mingle with the crossbill’s kip-kip calls.
After a short swing along the beach, the trail crosses a headland recently hammered by a fierce wind. It downed or tipped over more than a half-dozen trees. Most were middle-aged hemlocks. One was a giant spruce. It didn’t snap off at the base or collapse onto the forest floor. It still reclines against another spruce with most of its roots exposed to the air.
Wind and surf have forced off most of the ducks and all the gulls and scoters. Only the tiny harlequin and bufflehead remain in the cove, bobbing up and down on incoming waves. A murder of nervous crows overflies the ducks, lands for a few sections on a rocky ledge, and then returns to the air.
The north wind gives, the south wind takes, and the east wind opens the door to both, little dog. Aki doesn’t care which way the wind is blowing today, as long it is mild. She is enjoying the spring-like feel of the warmer air, and the smell of meadow grass just free from its overburden of snow. We are walking along Fish Creek, trying to reach a patch of sun lit meadow before it disappears.
I know that winter is not done with us yet. That’s not a bad thing. I enjoy skiing and snow shoeing under winter-blue skies. Aki likes to follow behind as long as she can stop from time to time and plunge her face into the snow. But spring brings nearer the smells, sights, and excitement of summer. It brings the salmon and all the birds and bears that feed on them.
We reach the patch of sunny meadow just in time to watch it darken into gray. But for a couple of seconds the sun warmed our faces. The murder of crows that raise their young in nearby woods each summer have arrived. Some squawk in the forest. Others crowd gulls on the wetlands hunting for food. In the creek, a half-dozen American widgeons mingle with the resident mallards.
The appearance of the widgeons and crows could signal the onset of spring. Neither are normally seen along the creek in winter. But the wind is blowing from the southeast and could veer north. Then the crows and widgeons might have to shiver through more weeks of winter before true spring.
It rained hard last night, a real soaker that energized Gold Creek to a dangerous level. Aki and I waited all morning for the storm to stop or at least slow down. When it began to tail back, we headed out to Fish Creek and found it overflowing it banks and carving out new channels through the old growth forest. But the rain had stopped.
Three eagles circled above the creek but I could not figure out what they were hunting. Until we reached the creek mouth, the only other evidence of life would be a three-toed woodpecker prospecting for bugs in the bark of an alder.
Just last week the creek and the estuary that it floods into were empty of bird life. This morning giant rafts of mallards search for food there. The boys are back for the winter. I hope that most of them will survive hunting season. An eagle makes a low pass over the raft, flushing a dozen ducks to flight, then returns with empty talons to the top of a spruce tree.
A hundred-bird murder of crows occupy the beach. They rise as a thin, black cloud and fly toward another eagle, harassing it until to takes shelter in a tall cottonwood tree. Then the crows fly across the face of Mendenhall Glacier just as the sun arcs a rainbow across their path. Remember your Bible, little dog. God filled the sky above Noah’s grounded ark as a sign that he would never again flood the world with rain. The rainbow fades just then, and the first drops of another storm start soaking into the poodle-mix’s fur.
We reached Sandy Beach this morning at low tide. A bedraggled eagle hunches on the roof of the mine ventilator shaft. When I look away, distracted by a silver salmon splashing off shore, the eagle flies down the beach and over a resting murder of crows. Since the eagle is heading in the direction of its nest, I assume it is just returning home, tired of roosting in the rain.
Four other eagles are bickering with crows when we reach the little bay formed by the collapse of subsea mining tunnels a hundred years ago. Dive-bombing crows forced one of the eagles off the beach and onto the top of a splintered piling.
Apparently menaced by a crow a fraction of its size, the eagle takes off. The crow, a much more agile flyer that the eagle, grabs at the eagle’s tail and wing feathers as the eagle makes for a spruce tree roost just over my head. I look around for Aki and find her tucked away safely in the woods.
Ravens seem to beg to be anthropomorphized. Aki and I happen upon a gang of the teenage-like birds gathered on a beach dotted with pink salmon carcasses. One of the purpley-black birds crouches over an eyeless salmon body, ripping flesh from the fish’s back with its massive beak. The other birds cackle criticism at the eating bird and then take off, making enough noise to scare nearby gulls into flight.
The ravens don’t bother a green winged teal or a brace of greater yellow legs that feed in a shallow pond. They ride rising wind currents up and over Fish Creek and then break off into head first dives like WWII fighter pilots descending on enemy bombers. When even this becomes too mundane, they dive bomb a bald eagle, driving it off its spruce tree roost. While the eagle had no stomach for a fight, a crow rises to the occasion and drives off the much larger ravens when they get too close to crow country.
The little dog and I walk up the stream, surprised more than once by the loud splashes made by male pink salmon as they fight each other for spawning space. We startle to flight a pair of great blue herons hunting the little fish that thrive on salmon flesh. Squawking like barnyard geese, they move to a nearby pond where another heron is already feeding.
As Aki and I took the switchback trail that drops into the Treadwell Woods, something brushed by me and leaped in Aki’s direction. The little poodle-mix knew what was coming. She wasn’t surprised when a large bird dog puppy, all legs and grin, dropped into a crouch in front of her. The two yipped and circled each other until the bird dog, easily four times Aki’s weight, got a little too exuberant. Aki snapped out a reproach and the puppy dropped her head down in submission. It amazes me how Aki gets away with bossing around bigger dogs.
After the puppy’s owner dragged his dog away on a lead, we wandered among the ruins of old Treadwell and dropped onto Sandy Beach. I was not surprised to see two bald eagles roosting on the roof of the old ventilation tower. The waters of Gastineau channel had cut the tower off from the beach. From their island tower the eagles watched a murder of crows that had taken up station of the tops of old wharf pilings or beach rocks. After Aki and I entered the scene two of the crows descended on a fresh salmon carcass to feed.
The eagles just watched the crows tearing into in fish they probably desired. Did the feisty, but much smaller birds intimidate them like my 10-pound poodle-mix intimated the puppy? Or were the eagles just worried about the man who was pointing a suspiciously gun-like object at them?
Shouldering my camera, I moved down the beach to let the crows and eagles work things out for themselves. After a gap of fifty meters had opened up I watched all the crows take to the air. Only one eagle roosted on the roof of the ventilation shaft.
The rain, the absence of unnatural sounds, and the calming dominance of forest greens are needed this morning. The little dog and I are near worn out by our recent stint of warm and sunny weather. Like the just sprouted seeds in our garden, we needed a little water from the sky.
The flowering forest plants are ahead of schedule. Tiny green balls have already replaced the lantern-shaped flowers on blueberry bushes. Yellow water lily flowers unfold onto the surface of the beaver pond. The fallen petals of cloudberry flowers dot the muskeg meadow we must cross to reach the beach.
No one would call all these small beauties exciting. But I’m fine with that. We had out excitement quota filled for the day when I stopped for a moment at the boat ramp. The old troller boat that had been beached was now afloat just offshore. I wanted to photograph it against a background of the smuggler cove islands softened by low lying clouds. Twenty meters away two eagles fought over a scrap of fish. The winner carried it down the beach, leaving the loser to sulk.
Thinking about the disappointed eagle, I follow Aki onto the Outer Point Beach. A solitary eagle flies from Shaman Island to a beachside spruce. Otherwise, only gulls and gulls animate the grey scene. A puff of vapor forms above the surface of Stephen’s Passage. In seconds I can make out the black back of an exhaling humpback whale. Just behind the surfacing whale, another vapor plume appears.
The whale sightings provide more reassurance than drama. I’ve seen humpbacks breach near my kayak. But reassurance that there are whales is all I need on this gentle morning.
Aki is covered in mud again. It just took seconds for her to sneak past her human family and slip into a pond that is thick with decomposing plant matter. We aren’t worried. Soon we will reach a pocket beach where she will get a quick bath.
It’s Memorial Day in Alaska. For Aki’s family it’s a day to drop out of normal life and spend time with each other. What better way is there to honor the family’s deceased? While Aki chases her Frisbee, I remember my parents and grandparents and the other honored dead. If they retain the love they had for life after joining the dead, they would smile knowing that their living kin were enjoying life, human and wild, on a wild beach rather than standing before their headstones.
We spooked an immature bald eagle to flight when we reached the beach. The crows moved in after the eagle left, teasing mussel shells off exposed rocks. The ones they couldn’t crack with their beaks were carried into the air and then dropped on a flat rock, which served first as an anvil and then a table for the hungry birds.