Today we test Aki’s patience. The moraine blueberries are finally ripe. Aki’s other human and I intend to bring some home.
Last year the bears harvested our favorite patch before we reached it. We had to step around bear scat to pick what was left. Today, we see no evidence of bears but lots of berries.
Aki moves back and forth between her humans. We try to teach her how to pull berries off low lying bushes. Instead of learning, she boops our legs with her nose until we give her a palmful of harvested berries.
The dogs are in and they have brought the eagles. “Chum” is the more polite name for dog salmon. Because they arrive in great numbers and aren’t as tasty as king or silver salmon, indigenous people of Northern Alaska dried chum salmon to feed their dog teams during the winter. Hence, the name. For some reason, rain forest people have also labeled chum salmon as dogs.
Ten bald eagles scan the beach for dead dog salmon. Twenty more have grouped up around a half-eaten salmon carcass. In ones or twos, the eagles perching in the trees leave their roosts to fly low over the beach cabal. These fly overs don’t dislodge the eagles on the beach or drive off the one crow brave enough to stand its ground near them.
It was much quieter on the glacier moraine where Aki and I spent the morning. Instead of watching bickering eagles we spied on a mallard hen and her chicks gliding through pond reeds. Lady Tress orchids provide white highlights to a predominately green landscape.
Rather than eagle screams, the spiraling songs of the hermit thrush provided a song track for our walk. One flew onto a tree limb near us and gave me a policeman’s measuring stare. I’d hate to think of what would happen if eagles were as tough as a thrush.
The last time that Aki and I stood on this Mendenhall Lake beach, a raven huddled at the base of a nearby alder, driven there by an angry arctic tern. This morning, neither raven nor tern are present. Last time, a cloud of terns hung over their nesting site. Today, we won’t see one of them.
We walk to Nugget Falls without seeing another dog or human. I wonder if the little dog is bored or as relieved as I.
On a normal summer day, I wouldn’t walk this trail. Most days last summer, hundreds of cruise ship passengers clogged it or posed for selfies in front of the falls. Other tourists paddled on the lake in oversized canoes. Today, only a piece of eagle down floats on the water.
On the way back to the car I spot a pair of nice folks blocking the trail. Their brand new, high-end raid gear marks them as out-of-towners. I could pass the guy while keeping six feet between us. But the woman stands in the middle of the trail, talking on her cell phone. I smile and wave my hand gently to the right, asking her to move far enough in that direction for me to safely pass. She looks startled, as if I had said something to her in Swedish. Her phone has transported her brain to the sun-soaked place where the other participant in the phone call stands. A second hand wave brings her back to Alaska and she moves aside to let me pass.
If that baby raven would quiet down we might be able to hear the sparrows and robins. Recently fledged from its nest in the Troll Woods, the raven sits in a cottonwood tree, demanding that his parents bring him food. The parents roost in another cottonwood tree, acting like they don’t know their child.
On the other side of the moraine, another raven prince squawks for service from its parents. Soon, hunger will force the newly launched to get their own food. I and the raven parents can’t wait for that day.
Except for the ravens and a bear sow and cub, the moraine seems empty. After leaving the trailhead parking lot, the little dog and I haven’t seen another human or dog. People must be spending this holiday weekend elsewhere—maybe at home or the beach.
On our return to the car, we approach a human family—mom, dad, two toddlers. The trail’s wide here so we can easily maintain two meter social distance. The little family forms a line with their towhead daughter in front. The kids and mom wave like the Queen on Coronation Day. The dad brings up the rear. Instead of a hand, he waves a tiny American flag. That, little day, is what a parade looks like in the time of Covid 19.
We pass a yearling bear on our way to the glacier. Grazing on meadow grass, it gives off a contemplative vibe, like a pastured Jersey cow. It’s brown like a grizzly, but lacks the shoulder hump of one. I suspect it is a cinnamon black bear. Being able to view the bear at a safe distance is cool. But this trip is about arctic terns.
While I get out her leash, Aki trots along the Mendenhall Lake shore. I need to get her on lead but the terns distract me. They hover over the lake, whipping their wings back and forth like a hummingbird and then dive into the glacier-silted water. Few catch anything. Those that do fly with it over to their nest.
By jogging, I catch my little delinquent and snap on the leash. Now tethered, she stops every few feet to sniff and pee. Does she know that I am in a hurry to reach the Picture Point overlook for a better view of the terns? I try not to fume and remind myself that the little dog needs to take it easy or she won’t recover from her muscle strain.
We take it very easy on the trail to Nugget Falls, stopping once to watch a tiny tern divebomb a raven. The raven, easily ten times larger than the tern, is hiding in a clump of willows. I suspect that the raven had been caught robbing the tern’s test. When the tern flies back to her eggs, the raven cruises over to a cottonwood tree and harasses a large bald eagle to flight. Attitude is clearly more important than size on the glacial moraine.
Today, we need to rely on reflection for beauty. The flat light lacks the strength to brighten colors on the moraine. But the lake water sharpens the lines of that it reflects. A breath of wind could take that away. I hurry the little dog down the trail to where I can photograph the glacier in the calm waters of Moose Lake.
Even though the trail offers a rich pee mail exchange, Aki doesn’t try to slow me down. I blame the birds singing concealed in the dense trailside foliage. I waste previous minutes trying to spot them. Then there was a robin that had managed to pluck a dragonfly out of the air.
The wind punishes me for doodling. Just as we arrive at the before reflection spot, a breeze ripples the surface, cutting up the glacier’s reflection into thousands of little pieces.
Aki and I are racing through the Troll Woods, pursued by mosquitos. Six or eight of the pests buzz around the little dog’s face each time she stops to sniff or pee. She shows no sign of being bit. I wish I could say the same. I have a rosary of bites across my forehead. It’s not surprising, then, that we have the woods almost to ourselves.
The place is full of birds. Robins dare Aki to chase her. She is no mood for the game today. Song birds belt out their nesting tunes in the canopy. Most are hidden in the leaves. But a winter wren settles on an exposed branch and belts out its signature song.
We leave the gravel paths and follow trails in the mossy floor that were pioneered by beavers. They are night workers so none appear outside their log-covered dens. But evidence of their presence is everywhere. Sticks stripped of their bark float in the lakes. Similarly denuded cottonwood tree trucks lie on the forest floor. We even find a wood pile of foot-long logs that were cut up by the beaver’s sharp front teeth, not a saw. I wonder if the beavers are preparing wood for a mid-summer bon fire.
No reading person could ignore the sign—a black silhouette of a bear walking across a square of yellow cardboard. Black block letters warn that we are entering bear country. Aki takes no notice. I also try to ignore the warning. We saw no bear sign on the beach. High water levels on the lake forced us off the beach and onto a trail that led into the Mendenhall Campground, a place with signs and federal officers to enforce the rules.
The little dog and I walk down the road that links all the campsites, stopping to watch a mallard hen and her chicks splash around a small pond lined with flowering British tobacco plants. All winter dogs have left pee mail messages along the road. Aki does her best to catch up. She runs free until we reach a bulletin board with another bear warning sign and a poster demanding that all dogs be kept on a six foot long leash. “It’s the Law.”
The normally law abiding Aki submits the leash. It does little to limit her actions. She has the ability to turn herself into a 50 pound rock when she wants to stop and sniff. I can’t shift her once she has exercised this superpower.
It’s only eight in the morning but already the sun has defused the glacier’s beauty. I still race out to the mouth of Fish Creek, hurrying past a brace of mergansers on the pond and a heron feeding at the edge of a meadow. There is still a chance that I will catch the reflection of the glacier and surrounding peaks in the still waters of Fritz Cove before the wind starts working against the tide.
Aki tries to slow me down. She hangs back to investigate every smell. When I can no longer see her, I stop and wait, investigating the small things that I would otherwise rush past: backlit lupine, the head of a crow moving above the blades of newly green grass, a mosquito perched on a still-intact globe of dandelion seeds.
Crows announce my progress to the mouth with harsh calls. Across the creek, one of the resident bald eagles calls back. A slight breeze tosses about Aki’s fur when we reach the creek mouth. The little dog wades into the brackish water and sips. Behind her, a rising wind turns the glacier’s reflection into an Impressionist painting.
The last time Aki and I circled Moose Lake, yellows and browns dominated. This morning, all is green. The new leaves display a crayon box worth of green colors. The trail is perfumed by balm of Gilead (cottonwood) sap.
We take a back trail through the troll woods and stop at a break in the trees to admire the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in the lake. It would be perfect if not for the expanding rings made by feeding trout.
Before the trees colonized the moraine, a person tired of owning a 1930’s era sedan abandoned it here. Alders started to pioneer the moraine gravel. Their fallen leaves mulched into soil. Over the years it became rich enough to support the growth of cottonwood trees and spruce. The whole time the old sedan had rusted until now it is only an outline of its original self. But there is enough of its bulbous fender left to provide Aki shelter from the rain.