Last night I asked Aki politely, to let us sleep past the usual wake up time. That was a mistake as was my assembling the fishing rod before going to bed. She rose this morning before 6 am to pace up and down the wooden floors leading to our bedroom. Not able to sleep through the resulting tattoo I was soon up and out the door on the way to Fish Creek.
We drove from town to the trailhead through a settled rain —the kind that lasts all day. It’s what the Irish call a soft day. Comfortable in decent rain gear I don’t mind. We have the trail to ourselves. The weather doesn’t stop the animals of forest and stream from their jobs. When the creek noise abates over a clear deep reach we hear song birds and the complaints of eagles.
Walking down stream first we check the pond for early king salmon but see only the pens of thousands of juvenile fish that will soon be released to seek their fortune in the sea. Many will pass their ancestors returning to these natal waters. It’s an artificial deal, this salmon run, manufactured by the state to create a sport fishing opportunity. The king salmon, some reaching 10 or 15 kilos, arrive in early June then wander around the pond most of the summer dodging fishing lures. When the rains of August raise the creek level some will follow the wild chum and pink salmon up stream to battle for space on the spawning redds.
An earthen dike once separated the pond and stream. Now a 50 meter wide breach in the dike allows the waters to mix and fish to enter the pond from the stream. We stand on the dike near to breach under an eagle’s tree. The big brown and white bird breaks from its perch above us and flies directly away.
Across the pond several crows try to drive a different bald eagle from atop a waterside spruce tree. The crows take turns descending on the eagle in a noisy dive. Hunkering down, the eagle holds his ground for a few minutes then leaves for a quieter perch. I’ve included one blurry picture of the scene because the crow has managed to make itself look like an avenging angel.
Turning away from all this drama we move up stream where the sound of moving water and tern song and the green explosion of early summer offers me true peace. Aki, not really a seeker of peace, charges up and down the trail, her red wrap soaked with rain.
On the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferries always depart at inconvenient times. Today we left Juneau on the MV LeConte at 7 am. While that hour may seem reasonable, we still had to leave the house at 5:30 in order to get the car in the proper loading line. It’s sunny but cold making it bard to spend much time on the deck. I make an exception for the Eldridge Rock Lighthouse, so isolated in the middle of Lynn Canal. The little block house structure sit on the apex of a rock bare but for a small spruce, probably planted by a previous lighthouse keeper. Today it can hardly compete with the sunlit peaks of the Chilkat Range that rise skyward behind it.
It takes six and a half hours to make the trip from Juneau to Skagway, Alaska — all of it beautiful in the sun. I don’t bother looking for whales who are still in transit from Hawaii. We do see one lively Dall Porpoise streaking down the waterfront nears Haines.
From Skagway we drive up the steep road from sea level to the Canadian border, passing through several active avalanche areas with signs warning drivers not to stop, With heavy snow loads above the road and warming temperatures I feel like a gambler. Just past Canadian Custom we stop near the terminus of the Chilkoot Trail and ski on rolling trails through a lodgepole pine forest. Some times we drop onto flat pocket meadows which offer views of pure white peaks. Some have captured their own cloud, which rides low over their summits as if pulled down to guard against the harsh sun. Many of the pines lining the trail have big patches of red needles, usually a sign of victimization by bark beetles. Will this whole forest die in the coming years? In 1898 men hungry for gold slayed the trees’ ancestors by the thousands to keep them warm while waiting for Lake Bennett to break up. Then they journeyed down the Yukon River to the Klondike Gold Fields. They cut down many other pines to form the rafts they used for the trip. From the looks of the needles on these trees I wonder if the insects will destroy what the avarice gold seekers could not.
Near the end of our ski I spot strange tracks in the snow. They must have been made by a bird, perhaps a raven, who strolled through the soft snow, made a sharp turn and pressed his breast in the snow. So secured, he reached out gently with his winds and made a light scratch with each of the four or five feathers at the tips of his wings. Susan called it a raven’s snow angel. It just confuses me.
We walked this trail when sun on fresh snow brought the forest a gilded opulence. At times the wind roars through these woods to rip 100 year old spruce roots from the ground so they crash into the undergrowth. Today it offers a quiet solitude and passage protected from the mixed snow and rain we drove through to reach the trailhead.
As Aki sniffs for clues of animals past I look for old friends now standing bare of snow—trees with twisted trunks supporting branches curving like the arms of ballet dancers. Some look ready to move like Tolkien’s Treebeard. Others have given way to rot and wind. Overhead a moderate wind plays a simple song in the canopy.
We pass a small pond almost entirely covered by thin ice. Four Mallards explode off its open water when I switch on my camera. This is the third or fourth time four mallards have shot into the air at our approach. The other escapes took place along other trails but I still wonder if each time involved the same gang of ducks. With them gone, we tentatively explore edge of the pond ice. It is more opaque than that covering every pond in the moraine last week but no less beautiful. Somehow dime sized ice domes have formed on the pond ice surface. Each manages to sparkle in the gloaming.
Leaving the woods a half a mile from the car we start walking toward it on the North Douglas Highway. Up ahead two cars slow and then stop and I think they have spotted a deer. The occupants hop out with saws, not guns, looking for Christmas trees. It’s raining hard now. As the wind rises, they stand and compare the young growth along the forest edge as if they were shopping in a LA Christmas tree lot. God Blessed them as Alaskans. God bless everyone.
When visiting family in Central Montana I found that the best part of a sunset came after it dropped below the wheat stubbled field. Then, moving fast enough to keep ahead of the mosquitos I’d walk west on the ranch road as the sky bruised purple, red, apricot and yellow and wondered if the sun’s passage wounded the blue prairie sky.
Summer dusk in Montana dragged on long enough to discourage sleep. Not so in the Florida Keys where I just spent a week camping and bicycling. There the wise watch sunsets from their front porch or carry a flashlight. You can’t rely on a lingering dusk to help you find the trail home. I couldn’t rely on lessons learned on the prairie to measure sunsets in the Keys.
On the Keys the real beauty happens with the sun still a long necked beer bottle length above the Gulf of Mexico when an orange to apricot light colors the under sides of clouds but the sky still holds blue. Then pelicans, egrets and gulls reduced to black make small migrations across the sun. Just as it eases into the horizon the sun sends a reflection all the way to the beach. After that it drops quietly into the sea and night takes charge.
One evening, while waiting for a sunset I tried to draw pelicans and cormorants drying themselves in the last heat of the day. The ever moving pelicans made poor models but the cormorants would form an iron cross with their wings for minutes at a time and the herons and egrets could be counted on for short periods of stillness as they stalked prey in the water.
After catching and swallowing a bait fish one great egret turned as if to watch me draw. In minutes he hopped up to share the dock with me, showing me first one profile than the other. He then struck a series of 30 second poses, some with neck stretched to full length and others with it folded into an impossible curve. His Great Blue Heron cousins in Alaska wouldn’t so much as share a large inlet with me. I know there is something wrong with this hunting bird actions but they still marveled.
The next morning I watched the sunrise over the Atlantic. The sky colored to apricot a half an hour before the sun appeared and then started paling to white. This stirred the birds who flew in long thin wedges across the bay and then over my head. Pelicans flew with beaks stretched out and egrets held their long necks in a “s” form so they looked like paper airplanes in the soft morning light. All continued on over the roaring traffic on U.S. Route One and under fighter jets taking off from the naval air station.
Later we visited a butterfly garden in Key West where a bronze blue heron waded in a Koi pool. Single drops of water fell from the heron’s beak into the pool to send out predictable ripples that rolled over the surface. I found myself wondering why a person living in the land of real fish, heron and egret would create something that could only remind one of true natural beauty. Then minutes went by with me simply watching the ripples distort the orange, red and black of the Koi fish gathered in the heron’s shadow.