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.
Summer is powering ahead in the rain forest. Necklaces of white sorel flowers decorate the bells of forest spruce trees. Maidenhair ferns, already unfurled, wave in the lightest wind. Midway up a large spruce a woodpecker chips off chunks of bark which clatter through the tree’s branches to the ground. The sound encourages Aki to move on toward a muskeg meadow.
Cloudberry plants on the meadow are already setting berries. In between them heather-like lingon berry flowers bloom. All the meadow flowers and grasses glisten with newly fallen rain.
Aki sniffs her way to the beach, now exposed by a negative low tide. A gathering of eagles announces us. The little dog wants to sneak back into the woods. But the causeway to Shaman Island is exposed so I carry Aki onto it. On a sunny day you can see the glacier and the Douglas Island Ridge from here. But Payne’s gray clouds block all that this morning.
In order to return to the forest trail we have to walk under a spruce tree occupied by two very young bald eagles. A mature eagle roosts above them like a watchful parent. The young ones, recent from their nest, look at us with their pale-green eyes. They are so large and fierce looking, I can’t convince myself that they hatched a few months ago. Like the flowers, the eagles can’t afford to waste a day of summer.
Yesterday I rode an Alaskan ferry home from Skagway. Aki greeted me at the door. She looked a little sad, like she spent the whole of my absence in an unlit cell. Even though I knew she had enjoyed herself when I was away, I gave her cuddle and promised that after we both slept we would go on an adventure. This morning we are heading for the Troll Woods.
Bird song brightens what otherwise would be a gray day. It helps me to ignore the rain that dimples Moose Lake and slowly soaks into my sweatshirt hood. The rain softens the air but not Aki’s interest in a patch of nagoon berry plants. In August, when ripe fruit weighs down the plants, a berry picker will approach the patch with a combination of greed and fear that a bear or other berry picker will chase them off the patch. He or she won’t know what Aki does—that at least one dog had marked the patch with its pee.
On the path to Crystal Lake, in one of the more remote sections of the woods, we pass shy maiden flowers. Gently I lift one of the white, star-shaped blooms for a proper look. The flower offers less beauty than a shoot star, not as much drama as a lupine stalk, but has no reason to hide its face.
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.
Aki is 90% asleep when I slip on her harness and take her out to the car. We need to be at the auto shop in ten minutes. For there we will take the scenic route home. Aki demonstrates some mixed feelings about the whole project. The little dog would rather be home eating breakfast or at least sleeping. Now she is skirting around gas pumps and tire racks in the rain. We walk toward the whale statue. Aki throws on the brakes when we pass the Juneau Hotel. Maybe she smells breakfast cooking. In a minute we are back in motion.
The whale statue plaza is deserted. On a mid-channel navigational marker, an eagle sits, its head turned toward a gang of gulls clouded over a school of salmon smolt. The big bird launches from the marker and glides toward the gulls with talons extended. In seconds the gulls drive away the eagle. One escorts the still hungry eagle back to its mid-channel perch.
While climbing up Main Street we spot two ravens in conversation. The smaller of the two birds is upbraiding the larger one, which is bent almost in half in supplication as the lecture ends. Ravens are the most human of birds.
Last night Aki capped the last of a string of sunny days mooching for food around a campfire. A bank of clouds climbed over the Chilkat Mountains and onto Lynn Canal while the little dog’s human family roasted hot dogs over an open fire while The clouds robbed us of a sunset and brought today’s rain.
This morning Aki and I explore the Sheep Creek delta. The sun worshipers who gathered on the delta last evening are gone. Only those with serious purpose are here. Two men clothed in thick gauged raingear mess about with a little gold dredge. Soon their machine will begin sifting through beach sand for gold washed down by the creek.
Closer to the stream, two great blue herons hunt the shallows for food. A crow dives on an adult bald eagle, trying to dislodge it from its spruce roost. The eagle, its beak pointed up at its tormentor, screams defiance.
We have to cross squishy ground to get a decent view of the herons. By the time I figure out that one is a juvenile, Aki has moved to a drier part of the beach from where she tries to plant the idea in my mind that “It is time to get out of the rain.”
I ignore the message and watch the juvenile heron fish. While the adult bird freezes in place to wait for opportunity, the young bird plunges it beak again and again into the water. Once it managed to lift of a stand of seaweed out of the water. The rest of the time it speared nothing. To make matters worse, it had to struggle to free its right leg from a tangle of rock weed.