Pink salmon have replaced the chum salmon that tussled in the shallow water beneath the Fish Creek Bridge the last time Aki and I walked over it. Male pinks, with the distorted backs that earned them the nickname “humpies,” charge each other in the stream rapids. Unlike last time, when ravens and watched the salmons struggle, only a flock of no nonsense gulls takes in the show. There is one eagle roosting in a tree above the stream. Soon it will fly off.
Expecting to find many eagles and herons on our walk to the stream mouth, I try to rush the little dog. She gives me her “I have important work to do” stare and slows to catalogue trailside scents. Each sniff adds to her encyclopedic knowledge. I’m as impatience as the belted kingfisher chattering over our heads.
Several schools of pink salmon wander around a pond connected to the stream. A few hurl themselves out of the water as if that will hurry up the spawning process. Maybe female pink salmon dig an acrobatic guy. No herons wade in the pond shallows. No eagles watch the show. Only gulls float on the pond, looking for scraps of already dead fish.
On a spit covered with fireweed stalks and meadow grass already succumbing to fall, gangs of sparrows search the ground for food. The little brown birds spring up like grasshoppers when we walk down the trail. No eagles wait for us at the stream mouth, just more gulls and one raven flying over the creek delta as if it were an eagle.
Aki and I drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier complex without realizing that there were four cruiseships in town. Many of their passengers were already heading toward the glacier. We had to pass a line of idling buses to reach the complex’s parking lot. Ant-like lines of passengers drained each bus. Many of these visitors started down the Nugget Falls Trail. The little dog and I followed.
Aki, who normally likes to socialize with strangers, seemed overwhelmed by the crowds. Soon we were able to slip off onto very informal trail that led to a lakeside walk. No one followed. We could hear voices when our trail brought us close to the main one. But the sound was no more disturbing than geese cackle. The little dog and I relaxed.
Lines of fog-like clouds stretched across the lake and climbed up forested hills. More substantial clouds blocked our view of the Mendenhall Towers but not the glacier. Thanks to our summer of drought and record high temperatures the river of ice looked anorexic. A few icebergs still lingered in the lake shallows, diminished to small ice sculptures. One looked like a thin dog begging for food.
The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage.
Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds.
We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore.
On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream.
Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot.
Opting for solitude over spectacle, I drive Aki out to the False Outer Point trailhead. It sunny and the temperature has climbed above 70 degrees F.—beach weather in the rain forest. Our favorite trails are already clogged with sun worshipers.
We approach the point on a crescent-shaped beach. It offers filtered views of the glacier and smooth gravel that seems perfect for sunbathing. I am the only human here, Aki the only dog. There are no bathing beauties or families roasting hot dogs over an open fire. Tiny sparrows hop in and out of the beachside grass but no eagles roost in nearby trees. Just offshore a solo gull does a touch and go on the surface of Fritz Cove. But no whales will surface for air as we walk around the point.
After watching hermit crabs skittering across the bottom of a tide pool, the little dog leads me into the forest. Red Huckleberry bushes line an informal trail up and over the headland. Aki finds a spot on the forest floor dappled by sun. If we stay in this spot much longer, she will collapse into a nap. It’s not a bad idea. I could join her on the mossy spot and listen to the sound of diminutive surf until we are both asleep.
The trail from Skater’ Cabin to Mendenhall Lake is flooded. Aki saunters to the edge of the water, sniffs and then hops straight onto the top of a two-foot high concrete barrier. In seconds she has walked onto a pocket beach. I don’t know what amazes me more—that she figured out the workaround on her own or that at 12 years of age, she can still manage such a vertical leap.
While the little dog conducts a nose survey of the beach, I try to enjoy the view of Mendenhall Glacier reflected in the calm waters of the lake. In winter light, the mountains surrounding the glacier would cut a crisp, jagged line across the blue sky. Today forest fire haze blurs their rocky details. The glacial ice manages to catch and refract light to reduce the dullness. It’s still a beautiful thing, but one robbed of drama.
Glacier melt water has swollen the lake so we are forced to use the informal paths made by animals in the lakeside forest. I coax Aki onto tiny beaches when we find them. One is occupied by a juvenile semipalmated plover. It takes no notice of Aki. The little dog returns the favor. I wonder why one of the normally nervous plovers is content to stretch and flex in the morning sun while we watch.
Leaving the plover, Aki and I cross a small beaver dam and reenter the forest. In minutes we are walking around a small pond. Dragonflies battle each other over the pond water. We spook a small flock of winter wrens and dark-eyed juncos. Instead of flying off to safety, the birds fly down the trail a few meters and stare at us from the trailside spruce. I can make no more sense of this behavior than I could that of the mellow plover. I have to accept my ignorance, like I have to accept the dulling effect of forest fire smoke blown here from the Yukon by prevailing winds.
There is something unsettling about the golden eye hen, the only duck on this moraine lake. It hunts for food with the aggression of a belted kingfisher. Rather than slip into the lake in search of fish, the golden eye slams its head into the water, pulling its plump body after it.
I’m trying Aki’s patience with my attempts to catch a trout. Just as I am about to give in to her whining, a cut throat trout leaps out of the water with my lure lodged in its jaw. It is free of the lure a second later. I am not surprised since I use barbless hooks. Responding to all the splashing, the golden eye cruises towards the little dog and I.
I think of a friend who once hooked a gull while trolling for salmon. The seabird flew into the air and floated like a kite above the boat. With much effort my friend managed to pull in the gull and free it from his hook. I reel in my lure until the golden eye paddles away.
Aki and I are walking along the edge of the Troll Woods. Mosquitoes buzz around us but can’t land if we keep moving. I pay for each photograph with a bug bite. Aki doesn’t seem to be bothered by the mossies.
When the little dog stops to sniff some pee mail I spot a line of tracks recently made in a muddy ditch. Stopping long enough to learn that a bear left them, I let a mosquito nip the back of my right thumb. It is a small price for priming my imagination with the image of a two hundred pound black bear waddling along in the mud. It could easily have chosen the firmer trail that the little dog and I are using to get back to the car.
Did the bear, which never has to worry about tracking mud onto a recently cleaned kitchen floor, chose to walk in the ditch just so it could feel mud oozing up between its paw pads? Given their size and power, it is hard to think of bears as more than scary eating machines. The one that just left here with muddy paws is also a bit of a hedonist.
Bears share other things in common with humans like the ability to have fun. Several springs ago, Aki and I watched a sow and her two cubs slide down a snow covered mountain meadow, climb back up and slide down again. The mom eventually stretched out on a rock in the sun while her kids continued to play in the snow.