As if sleeping off the effects of yesterday’s party of sun and wind, the rainforest indulges in a few hours of gray calm. This doesn’t discourage Aki from squeaking as I pull into the Sheep Creek trailhead. Only the bickering of eagles breaks the silence until the weekly AML barge chugs up channel toward the creek mouth. Two tour buses, a charter fishing boat and a Ford Expedition top the stacks of metal shipping containers that weigh down the barge. The barge’s wake stirs a great blue heron to flight.
Down channel, the day’s third cruise ship rounds Marmion Island, trailed by a plume of its pollution. A herd of venue buses are already queued up near the old steamship dock, ready to carry the ship’s passengers to the glacier or one of the whale watching boats.
“Oh,” is all I said. But it was enough to spook a great blue heron to flight. The bird and I surprised each other. It was wading in a small pond. I had just climbed onto a dike that bordered its fishing waters. For a few seconds I could see the surprisingly large swell of its belly before the heron’s big wings lifted it into the air. In several more seconds, the bird was more than halfway across the meadow.
Three eagles that had been bickering over someone in the meadow grass also took to air. But a robin froze like a statute at the top of a young spruce. Later a swallow, after bouncing it chest five or six times on the pond surface, gazed at me from a perch on the thinnest branch of a bare alder tree.
This morning only small birds posed for us. But shooting stars and lupines made up for it.
We are enjoying the confluence of raindrops and sunshine that can form between storms. The twenty-four hours of rain just ended glistened the new understory growth and hung fat drops on the tips of blueberry leafs. Even though this is a weekend morning, no one else is using the Rain Forest trail. Aki doesn’t sulk. There are enough left over smells to keep her occupied as we drop through the old growth forest to the beach.
Other than the pale pink blueberry blooms, only the butter-yellow skunk cabbage flowers challenge the forest’s green monopoly. Shafts of sunlight spot light both kinds of flowers and shine through leaves and lattices of old man beard lichen. The air is full of the songs of working birds but the vared thrush’s shrill whistles and the jack-hammer sound of woodpeckers make it hard to hear the sweeter tunes.
Sun shafts bring out streaks of intense color on the beach after we leave the forest. A great blue heron grooms itself on an exposed rock at the water’s edge. When it stops to face Lynn Canal, it looks like a messy-haired preacher about to deliver a Sunday sermon to the congregation of gulls and ducks that has formed in the nearby waters.
Aki hesitates at the grass line, her yellow coat not quite blending with the color of last fall’s straw. Around her sharp-edged green shoots of new growth muscle through the dead growth. The little dog wants to walk south down the beach toward where miners have anchored their thrown together gold dredges. The trail is rich in dog scent.
I turn my back on the poodle-mix and walk out onto the gravel and sand lands now exposed by an ebb tide. The sun is yet to make over the shoulder of Sheep Mountain. Blue sky shows through holes in the cloud cover. It’s too early to know whether the day will be blue or gray. After stopping to study the reflection of clouds in a tidal lake, I look for Aki and find her at my feet.
A small raft of ducks fidget at the opposite end of the lake, circling around what looks like a thin and tall piece of driftwood. As the sky lightens I see that what I thought was driftwood is really a great blue heron. The little dog and I swing in a wide arc around the lake until I can make out the grey-blue of the birds chest feathers and the long, pointed beak so useful in plucking small fish from the shallows. I think the heron might be my favorite bird for it’s movie star good looks and it’s graceful walk. This bird looks as peaceful as a sleeping child until it shoots downward with its killing beak to snatch a salmon smolt.
Aki slips on the icy trail that hugs an oxbow curve of the Mendenhall River. The little dog barely notices her misstep. She is too interested in the scents left behind on this heavy-use dog-walking trail. The dogs that scented the trail have all gone. If not for the shouts of men tending the salmon smolt pens and the airplane noise, we might have some solitude.
I am drawn to this trail on calm, sunny days when, as now, the river is at flood tide. Hungry seals might pop up at any time. Ducks could land any second. I look and find the great blue heron along the river shore. At first it stands tall and then curls back it’s long neck into a heat-conserving crouch. Backlit by the morning sun, it is only a black silhouette on the snowy beach.
Last night’s hard freeze has preserved the prints of boots and paws left during yesterday’s thaw. Aki is light enough to trot across the crust without breaking through. But for me, it’s “crunch, crunch, crunch” or slip, slip, slip. The tide forces the river into low spots on the trail. We would be blocked by one if it not for a homespun bridge fashioned from driftwood. I use it to make a successful crossing but Aki stays put. I have to re-cross, pick up the little poodle-mix, and carry her across.
We drop down to the river’s edge so I can enjoy views of the glacier and mountains reflected in the water. Aki is not impressed. We must be beyond the prime dog use area. After I carry her back across the little driftwood bridge, she dashes back the way we came.
Aki darts back and forth and then down a trail that crosses the glacial moraine—a target rich environment for dog scents. This time of year it should be covered with snow. The Mendenhall River should be silent under a layer of ice. But it’s 40 degrees F. and has been well above freezing for several days. Heavy rain has washed away the snow.
The little dog and I walk along the edge of Moose Lake, which is still iced over. A thinner skim of ice covers the flooded sections of the old river trail. On a sunny day like this, I have the right to expect to see the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in the surface of the ice-free river. The river is ice-free but turbulence from the recent rain has clouded the water with silt. I snap a few photos knowing that they will all end up in the digital trash bin. A heron flies past with its long legs held straight out. I snap away knowing that the bird is too far away for a detailed picture.
I have to face the sun to return to the car. It warms my face and enriches the view by crisscrossing the band of riverside willows with back shadow lines. Beauty and comfort are here to enjoy. All I have to do is stop whining about the absence of winter.
The little dog and I are pulling into the Fish Creek trailhead parking lot. And as if nature thought we deserved an early Solstice gift, it is not raining. Aki, you just never know what climate change will bring us. The pastel pinks of sunrise color mist rising off the pond. As if to gild the scene, a heron flaps through the mist to land on a pond-side spruce.
The weather guys forecast heavy rain for tomorrow, which makes this break in the storms that must sweeter. But it is not all beer and skittles for the little dog. A shotgun booms across Gastineau Channel making Aki cringe and look back to make sure I know what I am doing. The gunshot drives a gang of Canada geese into a noisy flight. I wonder if they are giving warning or hurling curses down upon the hunter.
It’s a day for finding bones. I almost step on a slim seal bone and later spot the large leg bone of a moose. Eagle feathers littler the beach grass. All these things were deposited here by a powerful flood tide.
It is also a day for crows. The Juneau murder must have roosted in the small forest that at the end of the Fish Creek spit. They spill out over the water of Fritz Cove, their black bodies looking like music notes inked onto the mottled sky.