Aki ignores the pink salmon swirling around Fish Creek. So do three great blue heron. The long-necked birds stand like statues in shallow water as salmon boil past them. They must be targeting smaller fry.
A year or two ago we had to restrain Aki while walking along a salmon stream. Otherwise she would charge into the water, tail wagging, to try to play with the big fish. This year, she just ignores them. This is a relief for me. Now I can relax and watch all the birds drawn to the creek by the salmon or meadow grass bent over by rip seeds.
Usually the shore side trees are full of bald eagles. But only one watches us from a nearby spruce today. They might be over at the hatchery, where the first silver salmon of the year are cueing up at the bottom of the fish ladder.
After watching a stalking heron, I turn toward the meadow and watch a small flock of sparrows land on the leads of dried plant stalks to harvest seeds. One tried to land on a cow parsnip stalk while flying at top speed. The stalk whips it around like sock toy before throwing it back into the air.
Rain can bring beauty as well as misery. Today it brings beauty with just a littler misery for the little dog and I. We are walking with another dog and her human along the Mendenhall River. Whips of fog curve around wooded islands and lay like a soft blanket over the grasslands.
Two great blue herons fly over our heads, cross the river, and land in a red bed on the other side. In seconds they are hunting the water for fish. Downstream two eagles are hunched on top of a tangle of driftwood roots. They look at each other, as companions, not competitors.
Later we spot a solitary eagle standing a top of a broken piling. It stares at the hillside until we come along. Then it looks at me, evaluating the way I shed water in the rain. Rain drops bead and bounce on its feathers. My rain coat stopped keeping me dry an hour ago.
It’s raining. Aki sits shivering in the lap of her other human as we paddle a kayak toward the glacier. The rain will stop soon, but that is not why the little dog shivers. She is excited or maybe nervous about being out on the water. Laying in the lap of her other human is one her favorite things to do. Having the whole family together is her second favorite. And we are heading for an adventure.
Wind blowing down the glacier raises small, white-capped waves as we move onto the main part of the lake. The kayak handles it well. If she could understand, I would tell her that we will soon slide into a side slough and get out to explore on foot. Heavy rainfall has raised the lake levels so we have no trouble crossing the bar that that protects the mouth of the slough.
A great blue heron watches us cross the bar and then lifts itself into the air. Looking more like a flying dinosaur than a bird, it glides a hundred meters down slough and returns to fishing. We land on an exposed sand bar and survey the blue berry crop.
The skies break open as we paddle back to our camp. Streaks of sunshine light up the mountains and highlight sections of the glacier. During a after dinner stroll, we stop to watch a beaver patrolling the parameter of a small pond.
There is little drama on the Fish Creek delta today. We are in between ducks and salmon. Even the tide is middling. In an hour the flood will cover this trail like it has already covered the food-rich wetlands. Then it will retreat and things should get more interesting. As the Tlingit elders tell their grandchildren, when the tide is out, the table is set.
The tide is widening channel of Fish Creek where a great blue heron hunts and pecks for salmon smolt trying to reach salt water. Several crows land near the heron, watching it out of boredom or in hopes of snatching some leftovers. In a minute they are gone. The crows didn’t distract the heron. Nor did a bald eagle that flew a meter above the heron’s head.
My attention level is somewhere between the heron and the crows. I planned to remain near the heron long enough to watch it spear a salmon smolt. Then an eagle flew down the creek and clouds that have been covering the top half of the glacier lifted. I leave the heron to head down stream to Fritz Cove where one might better see the glacier, spot a seal lion or maybe even a killer whale.
I am wearing my winter coat, which makes me out of sync with the place where Aki and I walk. The crows and eagles are gathering nesting material. They know it is spring. So do the robins and their cousin thrush staking out territory with their sweet, sweet songs. Already the mallards have formed a nesting colony above the high tide line.
Aki reluctantly follows me onto tidelands exposed by the ebbing tide. We can hear eagles bickering while they watch us from their spruce top nest. At water’s edge, plovers and other waders walk stiffly on sticky mud. I almost step on a sea anemone. Exposed to the air, it has to keep its green tendril tucked up tight. In a hour, as the flooding tide washes over it, the anemone will release its tendrils. They will flutter like a tart’s skirt, seducing small fish to their deaths.
A large raft of feeding mallards panic into light when a bald eagle flies near and lands. The ducks dither in the air for a few seconds and then return to the ground to feed a few meters from the predator.
Exposed to a strong north wind, I am sitting on a rock shiny with rain, contemplating waves as they collide with False Outer Point. Aki isn’t in the mood to be philosophical about waves or the weather. She wants to finish rounding the point. When the little dog whines in protest, I look over in time to catch her “you are such an idiot” stare. In seconds we are heading for the wind-protected side of the point.
Aki got her way in part because neither of us were not designed to sit exposed for long to the winter wind. But I would have agreed to move even if I had been enjoying a Midsummer breeze. She is a persistent whiner.
The storm has forced most flying things to cover. One goldeneye duck works the heavy surf live. A handful of gulls struggle to hover over a bait ball. Their presence is not as surprising as the great blue heron strolling among exposed tide pools.
Preoccupied with waves and wind, I didn’t see the heron until we were only a few meters from it. When my foot slipped on a wet rock, the long-necked predator jerked itself into the air and landed six meters further down the beach. After giving us a long stare, the heron resumed searching for snails and sculpins. The little dog and I continued toward the point. The heron kept pace, flying off only after it reached a barren tumble of bare rocks. I wanted to stop and wonder about the heron’s behavior. Had it concluded after a measured stare that we were no threat, maybe even worthy to share the rock beach with it? More likely, the hunting opportunities just too good to pass up.
Aki starts to whine after I sit on a driftwood stump. She raises the pitch of her plea as I rest my telephoto lens on the trunk of another driftwood log. Across the Mendenhall River, the great blue heron that I have been stalking turns its head to find out who is raising a ruckus. I take several pictures and abandon the perfect hide.
Aki, who had been shivering while she whined, leads me back to the trail. She goes into a tail-dropping cringe every time I turn to look at the heron. The blue-gray water of the river captures the reflection of the long-necked bird like it does the surrounding mountains. Just upriver from the heron, a female bufflehead duck swims across the reflected avalanche chutes of Blackerby Ridge.
Downriver, a bald eagle stands on the top of its own driftwood stump. It watches 100 Vancouver Canada geese fly by. Rather than climbing, the geese glide to land just out of our sight. . Imagining how the chestnut and black birds would standout against the newly snow-covered wetlands, I lead the little dog toward them. At the end of the trail, we spot the geese on a snow-free sandbar on the opposite ride of the river. They blend in. If they hadn’t been cackling, we would never have found them.
We have just turned our back on a great blue heron, leaving it standing tall among gulls on a gravel bar. The heron was looking toward the glacier, not the gulls or Aki, when we slipped around a rocky headland.
Now we are walking along a strip of gravel between a forested island and Fritz Cove. Inside the island crows and several bald eagles bicker and scream. Apparently having enough of the crow’s harassment, two of the eagles fly out of the trees and over our heads, startling ducks and gulls into flight. While the little dog and watch the eagles fly towards the Chilkat Mountains when we hear a sound like a rock plunking into the water.
Looking toward the sound, we spot a belted kingfisher shooting out of the water. It lands on an offshore rock just as another plunk sounds. This one is made by the first bird’s mate. The first guy flits onto another rock, drawing attention away from the other bird. It stands in profile with its huge beak pointing down the beach. Each time we move a few meters away from the second bird, the first one glides down the beach. When we are thirty meters from the second bird, the first guy circles over the water and reunites with its mate.
I wonder why the Creator burdened the diminutive kingfisher with such a massive beak that looks so like that of the heron. The spear-shaped beak is a well-balanced weapon on the large heron’s head. It forms a projectile the heron can shoot forward with its powerful neck muscles. The kingfisher must use his whole body as a spear, driving beak-first after fish swimming feet below the surface.
Aki and I are thirty miles North of home, slipping between rain-soaked blueberry bushes. More deer than men have used the path. It leads to a chute that bottoms out on a rocky beach. Like the herder that she is, the little dog waits for me to move onto the beach before she joins me.
I don’t know what Aki wants out of this walk. She seems satisfied with the smells on offer so far. Me, I hope to see a whale or seal or sea lion. I’d like to watch a heron hunt the shallows or spot a swan cuddled up in beach grass.
As if it read my mind, a harbor seal steams toward us, throwing up a bow wake as it nears the beach. It slips under the water when only a few meters from the beach. We won’t see it again. Well little dog, at least we saw one animal on the list. I don’t think Aki even saw the seal. When it appeared, she was snuffling along the edge of an old campfire ring.
We move back into the woods and follow another informal trail to a small rocky shelf that overlooks a pocket bay. Aki whines while I try to find the source of splashing coming from the bay. Twenty or thirty tiny fish burst out of the water, which is swirling to the movement of unseen predators. The scene repeats five or six more times. I can just make out pieces of the predator rising above the water. I assume it’s a winter king salmon feasting on baitfish. At home, in the pictures of the hunt that I took are enlarged by the computer, the predator will look more snake than fish.
We return to the car on trail that takes us up and over a forested hill and onto a tidal meadow where I’ve seen heron hunt for frogs. Aki flushes one that was feeding feet from the trail. It is considerate enough to only fly thirty meters away. Check another one off the must-see list. The heron eventually flies to just above where a stream drains into a salt chuck. On the shore of the brackish little lake, a swan cuddles in the beach grass just inches away from a brace of mallards.
It froze hard last night. Early this morning frost covered the wetlands. Aki and I missed the show while we waited for the fog to burn off. Now only pockets of frost meadow remain. The sun has already reduced the frost to dew on most of the wetlands. As it thaws, the trail mud turns greasy.
Patches of fog still cling to the surrounding hills. Otherwise we have blue skies. The little dog and I squint when the trail makes us face the sun. Maybe this is why she throws on the brakes when we reach a trail that would take us back to the car. Maybe the almost 13 year-old is feeling her age.
After Aki sends her brief strike we walk along the Mendenhall River. I had been scanning the river for herons without success. We’ve yet to see any water birds or land birds. A gang of waterdogs approaches from downriver and I wonder if they are responsible for the bird apocalypse.
Looking for another source of beauty, I lead the little dog down onto the beach and find my self five meters from a heron. It looks as awkward and I feel. It is airborne before Aki even realizes it was there.