First light is breaking after the storm as Aki and I enter an old growth forest. We won’t see another man or dog on the walk to the beach. The light reaches deep into the forest and makes translucent the green skunk cabbage leaves as they muscle up through the waters of the beaver pond.
Reaching the beach we discover that the minus three-foot ebb has exposed the causeway to Shaman Island. Eagles feed on land normally covered with ten to twenty feet of water. I usually have to coax Aki onto the causeway. But today she follows at my heals.
It’s a tough morning for ravens and eagles. The crows that roost on the island harass them. As we leave the causeway, a raven flies over us, crows pulling at its tail feathers. Other crows do the same to a deserting eagle. To the north storm clouds lift to reveal the glacier and Mendenhall Towers.
Aki and I have come too soon to the troll woods. It looks and feels like winter has just left. Many of the lakeside alders and cottonwoods stand with naked limbs against a dull-grey sky. But there is hope for spring in for the form of pussy willows and bursting alder buds. Even though little or no snow remains on Thunder Mountain, it is cold enough for me to hood up.
By straining I am able to spot one mallard on Crystal Lake. The shrill whistles of the vared thrush and once, a hawk’s complaint supply the only other evidence of animated life. Pushing deeper into the moraine, despite a government sign warning of recent bear activity, I lead the little dog to the edge of a beaver-flooded trail.
Aki, apparently knowing I will have to soon reverse course, the poodle-mix watches me doing a clumsy tightrope-walking maneuver along the trail’s edge. When I reach a patch of dry ground, my eye is pulled down to the flooded trail by the panicked movements of water bugs. They are heading toward islands of grass where the waves generated by raindrops can’t break the tension that keeps them afloat.
I could hear them bickering when we reached the Fish Creek Pond. At least two bald eagles were having words. Aki ignored the noise to concentrate on all the good scents left along side the trail. Neither of us paid much attention to the incense-smell of the balsam poplar leaves opening to the morning sun.
We eased up onto the dike that forms one edge of the pond and walked toward the creek. A mature bald eagle and an immature one perched close to each other on a bleached-out driftwood log. Another eagle stood waist deep in the creek, as it he decided it was great day for a bath.
The wet eagle must have been pulled under by a steelhead trout. Using its wings for lift, it managed to escape the creek waters and skip over to the shallows where it could stand. Raising its wings again, the big bird waddled onto a gravel bar. The scene had the feel of Sunday morning coming down. The two dry eagles watched with passivity of the hung over while the other one looked like it had no idea how it ended up in mid-stream.
Now the little dog and I move down to the creek mouth where two Canada geese alert the world of our presence. A flood tide has covered the wetlands and backed up the creek. As I focus my camera on the glacier, the geese explode off the water and fly a low flight path over Fritz Cove.
A matched mallard pair speeds across Moose Lake. Spooked by another dog walker, their flight is driven by a need to escape, not to reach a destination. When they near the opposite edge of the lake the ducks throw up their wings, hover for a second and then splash onto the lake’s surface.
The mallards move back toward the center of the lake and disappear into a reflection of Mt. McGinnis and the glacier. Being able to witness action like this by ducks that are common as pigeons in a park is something we take for granted. I am going to try not to do that in the future.
Thanks to our local beavers, the parameter of Moose Lake is shrinking. Someday it will be a meadow and ducks will have to find other water where they can fish and feed. That’s how nature works. Sometime in the too near future the glacier that now launches icebergs into Mendenhall Lake will retreat from the lake and become a hanging glacier. That’s on us who contribute to climate change.
After the glacier’s retreat arctic terns will no longer be able to rest on icebergs that come to ground near their nesting site. Cruise ship tourists will ride boats across the lake so they can scramble close enough to the glacier for a selfee. Locals will remember the time…
I am walking along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. It just stopped hailing. Now a gentle rain dimples the open sections of water between pans of rotting ice. Aki has disappeared into the woods. For the first time in awhile, I am worried about the little dog. Last week on a nearby trail, another dog walker watched his pup take a one-way trip into the woods. The wolf that killed his dog emerged carrying part of a freshly dead deer. Fish and game investigators reported that the wolf was only protecting its food and would not otherwise have harmed the dog.
When the little poodle-mix fails to answer my whistle call, I start wishing that I had kept her on a lead. Turning my back on the glacier, I head into the woods and find her casually walking toward me.
While spending most of my adult life in semi-wild areas of Alaska, I’ve had to weigh the ups and downs of living in place where bears and wolves might walk past your house in the dark. A recent trip to the Low Countries, where we cycled past swans and a great blue heron flew over the train taking up to the Brussels Airport, reminded me of how well wild animals are able to find their niche in human communities. I hope this is always the case, even it means increasing the risk of a walk in the local woods.
It’s a flat light day on the Fish Creek Delta. Aki’s other human and I are willing the little poodle-mix to drop into the crouch she assumes when making a bowel movement. That, we hope, will signal an end to her lower intestinal problems. When she finally does, I scoop up her product into a plastic bag and relax. She must be on the mend.
Thinking that we may have witnessed the most exciting movement of the day, I follow the trotting dog along the edge of the Fish Creek Pond and then onto the wetlands. A mating brace of common mergansers swims along the opposite shore of the pond, passing a clutch of mallards asleep on the point of land that separates the pond from Fish creek.
Nothing but windblown grass is moving on the wetlands, and that still the dead tan color of straw. But at the point we can spy on two American robins snatching and shaking blades of grass. Along the shore three sandpipers (greater yellowlegs?) march in the shallows. Down stream they go in a straight line, hunched over like the Marx Brothers. They turn and march back up stream. They turn back down stream and then burst into a flight that ends thirty meters away. Aki missed the whole show because she was being encouraged by her other human to pose for a selfie with the glacier.
A forty-knot wind plasters Aki’s fur to her skin. Long ago she had dropped down her stub of a tail to cover her privates. I walk behind her, bare hands stuck in my pockets, eyes scanning the Mendenhall River for participants in the spring migration.
Aki didn’t notice a small raft of bufflehead ducks drop onto the river where they now bob in wind driven waves. She doesn’t lift her head when we cross a field of dead-brown grass to the river’s edge. Just upstream a huge raft of mallards shelters in the lee of a bluff cut by the river current. The water glimmers like a shattered mirror left abandoned in the sun. But the grasslands seem dead, as if the strong wind has stripped it of color.
To get out of the wind, we drop down into the gully formed by a small stream and surprise a gang of six Canada geese that had the same idea. They circle in front of the glacier and land on the grass a hundred meters away where they huddle behind a small rise.
My little dog doesn’t complain or give me her “are you crazy” stare. She conducts her usual nasal patrol, covering the more intriguing scents with her own. In a sense, she may be tougher than the geese and other wild things that make their living on the wetlands. All the birds we spotted this morning had obtained shelter from the wind. She trots into it.