“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun Long before the white man and long before the wheel…”
Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy
As Aki and I moved up Basin Road and cross the old wooden road bridge, I feel like we are almost entering wilderness. Behind us, a string of old miner’s homes line the road that in a few minutes would take a hiker past 100-year-old churches to Downtown Juneau. Ahead is a gravel road lined by a deep creek valley on one side and a steep, tree covered slope on the other. Mount Juneau seems to be climbing out of the creek. Two strong streams flow down the mountain side to dump into Gold Creek.
You can barely hear the creek today. Only a raven’s croak breaks the true silence. Years ago, mining trucks hauled gold ore down this wide trail. You wouldn’t be able to hear the trucks over the sound of ore crushers that operating 24 hours a day. Later water blasters reduced the valley to gavel rubble to get the last hidden grains of ore to market. The signs of such attacks on nature are just hidden beneath layers of new growth.
We take a little footbridge across Gold Creek and start downstream on the old flume trail. A channel under the trail still carries water from Gold Creek to a small hydro plant on the edge of the old Native community. Aki throws on the brakes shortly are we head down the flume. Fifteen years ago, she smelled a bear walking up the trail. Even though she has chased many of them away while walking other trails, she froze when she smelled the Gold Creek bear. Each time we start the flume trail I hope she will have a change day and keep moving at me side. But each day, including this one, I have to carry her to the trail’s end. The little poodle still honors that powerful bear.
Aki and I are using the whale boardwalk to cross wetlands in front of Downtown Juneau. Eagles used to roost on the barren spruce trees installed to serve as bird perches. In no time the ravens and crows chased the eagles off.
Now, the crows still fly off when my little dog and I approach. But the ravens, they act like we had been sent there to entertain them. They fly low in front of us and then, in twos or threes, land in one of to the barren trees. One might even drop on the boardwalk in front of to seduce Aki to chase it. My dog no longer takes the bait.
Today rain has kept most of the people off the boardwalk so the ravens pay us special attention. After one tries to induce Aki to chase her off the boardwalk, it joins two other ravens on a nearby barren tree to preen.
Yesterday a nasty storm prevented me from giving Aki for a proper walk. Her other human followed her around our neighborhood. They were back in the house, soaking wet after ten minutes.Today, the rain held off for a few hours, enough time for a return to the woods.
Rain forests, like the one we entered this morning, seem to dry out just minutes after a storm ends. But drops of water will still cling to red or yellow leaves. Each drop sparkles as it shrinks. In a few hours, the forest loses its beauty unless the rain storm returns.
The beach is still dry when we reach it. Battens of clouds cover Fredrick Sound or hang over the mountain sides. No clouds cover Shaman Island but I can make out two bald eagles perched on the top of island spruce. Suddenly, a murder of crows heads toward the eagles, driving off one across the channel. The other eagle refuses to let the crows flush it away.
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.