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.
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.