The weatherman promised clear skies and sunshine this morning. But grey clouds filled the skies over town as we headed for the car. I could just make out a streak of blue in the skies further up the channel. Aki didn’t complain when we headed north towards that clear horizon.
After driving 15 miles, we broke out of the clouds to where we could see sunshining on a mountain ridge on the western side of Lynn Canal. Snow from a recent storm now covers the top third of the ridge. A layer of clouds obscures the rest. In a few minutes we reach Amalga Harbor from where we can hike to the mouth of Peterson Creek.
This summer dog and silver salmon had to fight their way up a line of rapids in the creek to reach Peterson Lake. After crossing the lake, they moved into the upper creek to spawn. Today, I could find no sign of salmon or even trout. But a grey heron flew across the lake to check on us before flying over to the dock at Amalga Harbor. It left behind a pair of white swans to feed at the mouth of the tiny stream.
This is a confused day. We have to walk through ten feet of rain to reach the car. In a minute, the skies turn dry. A wall of sun-bright clouds illuminates Gastineau Channel, then returns to gray.
We drive out to Auke Bay and walk through a light rain squall to the beach. Aki gets excited each time we pass another dog. They dance around each other and then move off in different directions. But she is excited as I am to walk across the beach to the sea.
I should focus my camera on a covet of newly-arrived golden eye ducks feeding along the beach edge. But I only have eyes for gulls flying beneath a line of summer-bright storm clouds.
The shape of a healthy of Snake Lake dominates the public map of Tacoma Nature Center. But this summer’s drought has reduced the lake to mud. At the lake’s center, only a small pond remains. Dozens of turtles sleep there on drift wood logs. Several dash into the pond when we approach. Minutes later they pull themselves back onto the logs.
Leaves turning yellow, red or orange add a tiny bit of beauty to the day. But the lines of drying turtles provide the only drama. Then an old Japanese American man approaches the pond and stops to stare toward the edge of the pond. In a minute we realize that he is watching a great blue heron frozen at the edge of the pond.
The heron panics from the water, struggling to fly away. It twists and rolls until it has enough space to stretch its wings enough to lift him into the sky. In seconds he can glide over the tiny pond and into a tree covered by crisp, orange leaves.
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.