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.
It’s below freezing. A light wind makes it feel colder. But for the first time in a week, the sun shines down unimpeded on the rain forest. While watching golden eye ducks splash after fish in Gastineau Channel I hear a strange cry. It is faint and very close. It is not a mimicking or sarcastic sound so I rule out ravens. It is far from a mallard’s maniacal cackle, the gull’s tattletale scream, or the eagle’s scolding screech.
I wonder, for a moment, whether a nearby great blue heron is singing the plaintiff song. Then I remember that herons squawk like barnyard chickens.
Looking down, I discover the source of the noise at my feet. Aki, squinting under the unfamiliar sun, is singing to herself.
It’s a blues song. The little dog dislikes walking along Gastineau Channel. I think she only agrees to join me out on the exposed gravel because she knows that we will soon be walking along the edge of a grass-covered dune where many people walk their dogs.
Looks like the party is over little dog. Aki and I just crossed Fish Creek , which now appears to be empty of salmon. No eagles roost in creek side trees. We can’t even spot the pair of squabbling ravens that usually patrol the creek’s gravel bars.
The kingfisher that guards the pond is still here. When it spots us, the little bird flies off to give the alarm. It is time, I think, for the land to go to rest for winter. Then two silver salmon, sides spawning-red, leap about the surface of the pond. An eagle screams. The party is still on.
The eagle doesn’t bother Aki. She stares at the water as if willing the salmon to jump again. When they don’t she trots around the pond to where the trail climbs onto a low dike. There, a great blue heron surprises both of us by flying out of a nearby tree and settling onto the limb of a spruce just twenty feet away.
Aki seems glued to the spot on the trail where she first spotted the heron. When I call her she looks in the big bird’s direction as if to say, are you crazy, that thing is ten times my size. I could tell her that the heron hunts small fish, not small dogs. But from past experience I know that she won’t move. I’ll have to carry her to the perceived safety of the woods.
Alders dominate this morning’s walk across the moraine. They line almost every trail we take. If left alone, the tough shrubs would colonize the trail gravel, leaving us nowhere to walk. Grumpy sounding Stellar’s jays jump around inside the trailside alders as if to get a better view of Aki in case she is about to break some law. I’d like to ignore these forest police but the alders provide little to divert my attention.
Aki loves these alder lanes because they offer the best chance of dog contacts. But I need a different view shed. Reluctantly, the little dog follows me down a lesser-used trail to the edge of a beaver pond that is rapidly transforming into a grassy wetland. Before the beavers built the pond dam, spruce and cottonwoods thrived in the flooded area. Now their dead-gray trunks rise from beds of reeds transforming into fall colors.
On the way back to the car, I spot a blueberry growing alone on a bush. That’s right little dog; we have to stop at the store on the way home. Aki’s other human needs domestic blue berries for a low-sugar pie. We pass a great blue heron sulking in the rain. When I stop the car to take a better look, the big bird stretches out its neck and uses its long wings to lift up and away across a field of grass already the color of straw.