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.
Aki ignores the chum salmon splashing beneath the Fish Creek bridge. She doesn’t even flinch when one of the ten-pound fish slaps the water with its tail. While one of the chums rolls on its side and uses it tail to dig out a depression in the creek bed to hold its eggs Aki keeps her nose just millimeters from the bridge deck. She doesn’t give up on the scent until we cross the bridge and start down toward the creek mouth.
The little dog and I have kept away from the creek since the king salmon arrived. A chance to catch one of the largest of salmons drew many fishermen to the creek to snag one of the big fish. The kings have died out or moved up the creek to spawn. This is the time of the less tasty chum salmon. Only two men fish the pond when we arrive. Fresh chum salmon leap from the water. Two great blue heron watch the action from pond-side spruce trees.
The heron surprise me by leaving the safety of their roosts and glide toward a nearby pond beach. Aki ignores the long-necked birds, like she ignored the chum salmon. Instead she stares at me watching the herons. She might be silently pleading me to give the dinosaur-like birds a wide berth and return to the bridge so she can again inhale the intriguing smells on the bridge. Rather than attack the little dog or me, the herons fly a few meters down the beach. We swing into the woods, round the pond, and walk down a trail lined with aging fireweed stalks.
Diminutive sparrows flitter about the trail margins. One tries to land in the top of a fireweed. When the stalk bends toward the ground, the sparrow finds a more secure roost on a stunted spruce. After landing the sparrow, as plump as a stuffed toy, glares at the little poodle-mix and I. It shows less fear of us than the long-beaked herons did.
We will see dozens of sparrows bursting from the grass like grasshoppers when we reach the stream mouth. We’ll see the heron twice more. Both of them will fly into the top of a spruce tree normally occupied by bald eagles. Then they will try fishing in shallow stream rapids until a belted kingfisher harasses them into flight, a bird as small as the sparrow and just as brave.
I wanted to make an undetectable approach to the beaver pond so I left the usual trail for a more casual one. Aki waited on the good trail for me to return to my senses. In minutes, after I have made enough noise to wake a sleeping dragon, I rejoin the little dog. Well that blew any chance of sneaking up on the heron.
Aki and I had startled a great blue heron when we first circled the beaver pond. It whooshed over our heads and flew to the other side of the pond, squawking like a barnyard goose. Given the winged hunter’s reluctance to leave, I hoped that it might return while we walked to the beach and back into the woods.
With a faint hope that the heron was hard of hearing, I lead my little poodle-mix to the main trail and find, not the expected heron but a mallard hen. She stands, still as a statue at the edge of the pond. Three of her chicks, partially hidden by grass, sleep while their mom stands watch.
Duck hunting season is closed or a hunter could easily orphan the mallard chicks. The hen isn’t worried about humans carrying guns. She doesn’t flinch when I move closer for a better view of her kids. But she twitches each time a nearby eagle screams. No one is going to cite an eagle or heron for hunting out of season. Had our earlier appearance at the pond saved the ducklings from the heron?
Last night Aki capped the last of a string of sunny days mooching for food around a campfire. A bank of clouds climbed over the Chilkat Mountains and onto Lynn Canal while the little dog’s human family roasted hot dogs over an open fire while The clouds robbed us of a sunset and brought today’s rain.
This morning Aki and I explore the Sheep Creek delta. The sun worshipers who gathered on the delta last evening are gone. Only those with serious purpose are here. Two men clothed in thick gauged raingear mess about with a little gold dredge. Soon their machine will begin sifting through beach sand for gold washed down by the creek.
Closer to the stream, two great blue herons hunt the shallows for food. A crow dives on an adult bald eagle, trying to dislodge it from its spruce roost. The eagle, its beak pointed up at its tormentor, screams defiance.
We have to cross squishy ground to get a decent view of the herons. By the time I figure out that one is a juvenile, Aki has moved to a drier part of the beach from where she tries to plant the idea in my mind that “It is time to get out of the rain.”
I ignore the message and watch the juvenile heron fish. While the adult bird freezes in place to wait for opportunity, the young bird plunges it beak again and again into the water. Once it managed to lift of a stand of seaweed out of the water. The rest of the time it speared nothing. To make matters worse, it had to struggle to free its right leg from a tangle of rock weed.
Aki and were walking back to the car, powering into a strong wind when the heron flew low over our heads, croaked like a sick raven, and dropped onto the surface of a small pond. The heron was a surprise. I expected to see some eagles on the Fish Creek delta and we did. But we rarely see herons here.
I could see five bald eagles from the spot where I watched the heron. Aki acted like we were alone in the universe. Two eagles were hanging out on a nearby navigational aid tower. Another stood on a beach, ripping apart some morsel of food. The other two eagles crouched, head to head, on the bank of Fish Creek. They couldn’t see much in the creek. Our recent rainstorms had swollen it and turned its normally clear water mocha brown.
During the outbound portion of the walk, we had watched an adult bald eagle lift off from the wetlands and fly toward us. As it grew larger and larger I looked down to make sure Aki was safe. No fool, the poodle mix stood right next to my legs. Another eagle, roosted just above us in a spruce, screamed out a welcome just before the other eagle joined it.
A brace of crows, each less than an eighth the mass of the eagles, landed just above the eagles. They cawed and invaded the eagle’s personal space. They weren’t going to let two eagles roost on the edge of the forest where their murder is raising this year’s brood. In seconds the eagles departed. We left too before the crows focused their attention on us. We have both been dive bombed by crows during their nesting season.
Aki and I are cruising the Mendenhall campground, looking for the perfect spot to set up our family tents. We need a place with room for two tents that is within easy canoe carrying distance of the lake. From nearby comes the sound of preschool students heading in our direction. Aki, who thinks that little kids are really just puppies wearing funny clothes, tends to scare them with exuberant welcomes. To avoid that I lead the little dog down toward the lake and find a great blue heron fishing the shallows.
Either Aki can’t see the bird or she ignores it. Either way the heron doesn’t exhibit any signs of stress or concern. It lets me watch it stalk salmon smolt, moving slowly with its neck pulled back to form an “S.” When it freezes, it releases the tension in its neck to fire its head and long beak forward like a lance. It does this several times. The fish win their first battles with the heron. Finally the tall bird snatches a meal from the water, flipping up its beak to force its prey down that long neck.
After the preschoolers move on, Aki and I return to the campground road and follow it around the edge of a large pond. Mergansers, buffleheads, and mallards are paddling toward the far shore when an osprey cruises over their heads to land in the top of a nearby spruce. It’s been years since I have seen one of the fish eagles. I would have passed the pond long before the osprey appeared if not the for noisy toddlers.
I’m leaning against a young tree, using its trunk to steady my camera. The tree is part of a spruce hedge that should prevent a nearby great blue heron from seeing me. Through a narrow opening in the hedge I watch the heron wade across a narrow stream. It moves with such stiff grace that my eye can’t catch actual movement.
Aki doesn’t whine or give any other clue of our presence. It won’t be her fault of the heron spots us. In my makeshift blind, I wait for the big bird to stab down into the water after a sand lance. Instead it slowly turns its head until it is looking directly at me. Busted.
After extracting myself from the hedge, I give the little poodle-mix a reassuring pet and lead us further out into the Fish Creek Delta. We cross an open spit from which we have a 360-degree view of the area. In the center of this natural compass a cold wind slams snow and rain at us. To the west, the sun is throwing cloud shadows on the green slopes of Admiralty Island. A wall of clouds obscures the glacier to the north and the Douglas Island ridge to the south. For a moment another cloud curtain raises to reveal Sheep Mountain in the East and then drops.