It stops me dead in my tracks. Aki trots off to catch up with her doggie guest. As she disappears around the corner, I stare at the source of my distraction—a leafed-out blueberry bush. It’s almost January, you little fool. The lush, green plant doesn’t look out of place. At the bush’s base sorrel plants are yet to turn red. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s 40 degrees. Winter seems like a legend for old men to share with their grandkids.
In a week the little dog and I might be struggling down this same North Douglas trail through deep snow. Then the precocious blueberry plant will suffer like a Dickensian orphan. Now, its roots are drinking in the rain.
Aki and I have just left the forest for a graveled beach. It was easy walking in the woods. Last night’s snow never penetrated the forest’s canopy. There is little snow on the beach. Most of it has been wiped away by the last high tide. Above a thick line of seaweed that marks the tide line, snow still occupies the hollows between gravel, dead beach grass and abandoned mussel shells.
The water offshore is clam, as if weighed down by low clouds that seem to touch the water’s surface. A few meters away from us a dozen gulls work to ignore the little dog and I. Twenty meters out, an equal number of harlequin ducks hunt for fish. After diving, one of the ducks calls out with a cry that could have been made by excited toddler on the playground.
Aki gives me a hard look, like she might to discourage me from musing about birds and the sounds they make. She doesn’t want to hear me ponder out loud why crows croak, eagles scream, gulls keen, and harlequins cry out with childish joy.
The rain forest is darker than the last time Aki and I visited. Then leaves still held their fall color. This morning it’s all bare branches and fallen leaves quickly being reduced to mush. Only the bottom hugging sorel retain color. On the drive to the trailhead I spotted two lines of sand hill cranes heading toward the forest. Now, mixed in with the noise of a passing prop plane, I can just make out their ratching calls.
Weeks of heavy rain have swollen the beaver pond and flooded parts of the trail. The pond is empty of cranes or other birds. My eyes are drawn to the islands of golden-brown reflected in the pond water. Aki breaks ahead of me to circle around a submerged portion of the trail. I follow her to a beach that borders a small cove. Gulls and mallard ducks are the only things that disturb the flat-calm water.
There is something calming about an expanse of undisturbed water. If I had brought troubles or worry to this beach, they would soon be forgotten. We stroll down the beach, over a small headland, and onto another beach. Here harlequin and golden eye ducks work the water for food. The Chilkat Mountains, looking crisp with fresh snow, rise across Lynn Canal.
I left the house this morning without brushing my teeth. Aki looked puzzled but still joined me in the car. Most days at this hour she’d still be curled up and asleep. A feeling, not a phone call or Facebook tip drew me out the door. I just knew that something magical was happening where the woods of northern Douglas Island touched the sea.
We looked without success for whale spouts in Fritz Cove on the drive to the north end of Douglas Island. No orca dorsal fins broke the surface of Lynn Canal when we passed False Outer Point. If we were to find anything special it had to be hiding in the woods.
At this hour I was not surprised to find an empty parking lot at the Outer Point trailhead. Bird song, punctuated by raven squawks and the hammering of red-breasted sapsuckers provided the soundtrack for our walk. The beaver pond was gray with patches of sky blue as the rising sun weakened the persistent cloud cover.
When Aki followed me onto the beach, we spotted a greater yellowlegs sandpiper in the shallows. An adult bald eagle seemed to be contemplating life from its perch on an offshore rock. On other rocks harlequin ducks slept or stretched.
The mountains bordering Lynn Canal, beautified by late winter snow, emerged from cloud cover. All the things we experienced—the nesting bird songs, woodpecker tapping, the sandpiper (first of the year for me), the contemplative eagle, and whitened mountains—were enough to draw us from our beds. But the magic of the moment was provided by early morning solitude, unshattered by the works or words of man.
False Outer Point is empty today. No one casts out hooks bated with herring off the rocks. That is not surprising this early in the spring. May, not April, is usually the month for fishing King Salmon here. But this year, because of low salmon returns, no one will be allowed to fish for kings next month. The collapse of the king salmon run will hurt the eagles, killer whales, seals and sea lions that usually target the fat, oily king salmon each spring. It will disappoint human fishermen, especially those from the Tlingit and Pilipino communities who rely upon salmon to feed their families.
The little dog and I round the empty point, trying to ignore two eagles bickering above us in a shoreline spruce tree. A line of waterfowl, maybe scoters, fly up and down Lynn Canal. They change relative position constantly. In each photo I take of them, their bodies look like notes in a musical measure.
We leave the beach and climb up onto a headland and spot a small raft of harlequin ducks tucked into a small bay. A few of the parti-colored birds stand on the beach. I’ve never seen harlequins surrender the protection of the ocean. I wonder if the same threat that keeps the scoters in motion has beached the harlequins.
We hadn’t planned on hiking the False Outer Point Trail on this overcast day. But the parking lot for our targeted trail was jammed full of mini-vans. I drive on to the Outer Point trailhead, park, and follow Aki into the old growth forest. Only the blurry song of a varied thrush breaks the silence. As the little dog splashes through streams of water leaking from the beaver dam, I spot three white blobs floating on the far side of pond. A long, white neck rises from the water and I realize that they are trumpeter swans.
I’d like to linger and watch but Aki seems in a hurry to reach the beach. She wins out, as usual, and we both walk quickly to the beach. Only a handful of mallards drift off shore. Low clouds reduce the view of the Chilkat Mountains on the other side of Lynn Canal. Nothing too exciting. At least we saw the swans.
The trail takes us back into the woods and then onto another beach. Here we watch harlequin ducks ride a light swell. In better light we could have made out their bright party colors. I still enjoy watching them dive under the water and pop back up with food.
Aki doesn’t like to linger on the beach so we are soon back in the woods, taking the return trail to the car. The little dog doesn’t object when I turn onto a little-used path that ends up at the beaver pond. The swans are feeding near the beaver dam when we arrive.
There are six swans, not three in the bevy. One stands watch while the other five plunge their long necks under the water in search of food. They don’t seem to notice me squatted down on the beaver dam until another group of hikers arrives. I am not sure if the big birds would have reacted to them if one of the hikers hadn’t tried to do a poor impersonation of a swan honk. The guard swan stares at me until I move up the trail. It had already returned feeding by the time I turn back for one last look. I feel guilty for distracting them, even for a moment, from feeding. They still have a long way to fly before reaching their northern breeding grounds.
Aki and I have the Outer Point Trail to ourselves this morning. I’m a little surprised given that we are enjoying another warm, sunny day. I am more surprised by the appearance of a pair of mallards just a few feet away on the beaver pond. Lit up by the early morning sun, the drake looks like it was painted by Michelangelo. Even the hen looks stunning. Aki, why do I take mallards for granted?
I expect the mallards to take flight but they hold their ground. While the male watches us, the hen stretches and preens her feathers. Maybe they will nest on the pond after the ice melts and opens up the remote parts of the little water body. The jackhammer sound of a sapsucker draws us away from the mallards. The little woodpecker is as hard to spot as the mallards were not.
We work our way out to the beach and are surprised again by ducks. This time it’s harlequins. The little clowns jockey for position on the water, like they are settling in for another summer. I thought that they’d be on the outer coast by now.
Aki ignores all the ducks but is quick to react to the arrival of a dog on the beach. She and the new guy sniff and chase each other for a minute and then form a team to case the beach for smells. It takes the other dog’s owner a long time to convince him to rejoin her.
Aki’s new friend must have flushed the mallards from the beaver pond. We find them hunting for food on a sluggish stream deep in the forest. Again, they ignore the little dog and I. Rather than take offense, I am pleased at this exhibition of trust.