Aki and I are paying a visit to the harlequins and the other ducks that winter at the old Auk Village site. It snowed last night and will snow again before the sun sets. An 18 foot high tide covers the beach and erodes the snow blanket covering the grass lands between the forest and the beach. Our duck friends take advantage of the tide to hunt close the snow for food. Offshore two western grebes fish deeper waters. Filtered sunlight strikes the harlequins, placing the clownish ducks on the center stage of this snowy circus.
Wind drives Aki and I into the woods. Using the Rain Forest Trail, the little dog and I enjoy the protection of an old growth forest. In addition to defeating the wind, the forest, with its thick canopy, has kept snow from accumulating on the trail. Snowy patches of the forest floor mark where wind-fallen trees have opened up holes in the canopy.
We can hear the sound of small but steady surf when we approach the beach. It doesn’t bother the harlequin ducks. The males seem too intent on breeding to take much notice of us. But something has stirred the golden eyes to flight.
It was foolish of me to bring my old camera for on this walk. For a gray day like this, I need one with a better processor. I’d like to blame Aki for distracting me while I got ready for the walk. Perhaps it was all the clothes and gear I had to pull on to deal with rain and cold temperatures. Whatever the reason, I’m here with the little dog, photographing a wind-fallen tree at 1/8 of the second. Any faster and the photo would be too grainy.
In low light conditions, the old camera is usually only useful as a notebook—something to remind me of a scene. But it manages to capture the shattered trunk of a 100-foot tall spruce crushing the boardwalk trail. The downed tree is the largest piece of detritus littering the forest floor. To reach the beach we have to step around tree limbs, naked or still green with needles, pieces of bark, and gobs of old man’s beard. Last night’s wind storm pruned the forest.
Hoping to take home some shareable bird photographs, I point the old camera at a roosting eagle, gulls, golden eyes, and harlequins. The camera deconstructs the birds into course scenes, like a close up of an impressionist painting. At home, while looking at the photos on my laptop, I am at first disappointed. But after accepting their lack of clarity, I start to recognize the base elements of beauty they display. What appeared to my eye to be uniformly gray water has been broken down into pinks, purples, and greens. The birds look like that have been rapidly sketched in to capture the artist’s first impressions of their personalities.
Today Aki will make an odyssey along a crescent shaped beach where she will see many strange things.
She will walk on an empty beach, passing a stream mouth full of bathing gulls. Other gulls will fly far over water to join them. A pair of mallard ducks will be tempted by the commotion but will paddle away when they discover there is no food.
The same pair of mallards will dance in a tight circle until the drake rides like a fuzzy chick on the hen’s back. Aki will wonder if they are mating as all but the head of the hen disappears under the weight of her dude.
Seas normally fractured in winter will remain calm, its surface like satin.
Western grebes will pass in threes, harlequins in groups of five. A harbor seal will creep with feet of two harlequins and then swim past them. He will pursue a raft of golden eye ducks until they reach water too shallow for a seal to swim.
The little dog will reach the car dry even though she passed through a light rain to get there.
It snowed last night, which seems to have disturbed the gulls. Thirty or forty of the normally noisy birds float quietly along the newly whitened beach. Some stand on the snow mounds that have formed on offshore rocks. As usual, Aki ignores the big birds. But oddly, the birds appear to be ignoring me. They don’t flinch when the trail brings me within ten feet of them.
The snow won’t last, I tell the gulls. I am not lying. The temperature is already rising; snowmelt dropped on us when we walked in the forest. The gulls continue to ignore us so we move on to a portion of the bay favored by my favorite guys—the harlequin ducks.
Diving ducks, the harlequins aren’t bother by the new snow. They must be on top of a school of baitfish. More than once a parti-colored male chases off another duck and then dives under the water. Six of the ducks breaks off from the larger raft and work like a synchronized swim team. One duck diving is a beautiful thing. Six diving together, well, it’s six times better. One second there are six ducks swimming in formation. The next, just disturbed water. A few seconds later, the six are back.
Aki won’t leave the car. For the first time ever at a trailhead, she doesn’t leap out the door the minute I open it. A light rain is falling but in the past even heavy downpours haven’t deterred her. As if trained in etiquette by an Irishman, she waits for me to ask her three timed before dropping onto the ground.
The little dog stays right on my heals as we cross the Fish Creek Bridge and head toward the pond. She looks back often, even when squatting to defecate. She has smelled a wild animal that might harm us. I know it is not a bear because, unwisely, she has no fear of them. I remember the wolf that hunted here during the salmon spawn. Maybe it is back. Aki calms down after we round the pond.
Even through the tide has covered over the wetlands, which would normally force all the eagles to roost in shoreline spruce trees, none of the big birds announces our approach with screams. We won’t see any eagles, ravens, or crows during the visit. The resident mallards are also gone. A pair of western grebes fish just offshore in Fritz Cove. Behind them a line of harlequin and golden eye ducks fly feet off of the water. Across the horizon, hundreds of migratory birds head south, too far away for me to identify them.
Aki perks up when we turn to head back to car, but stops often to make sure that I am not lagging behind. I feel like a child being escorted down a dangerous city street. We drive home through a downpour, which discourages me from exiting the car when we reach the house. Aki waits for me on the front porch even though the door is already open. She will wait there until I gather everything from the car and walk into the safety of our home.
Aki ignores the murder of crows gathered on the Auk Nu beach. Rather than reacting to us, the crows play a bouncing game. For no apparent reason, one flies ninety degrees up then drops like a rock onto the beach. Next two birds bounce up and down. A third bird tries it. When an eagle swoops over them the crows fly in a low arc over the water and return to the beach. Are crows and ravens the only birds with spare time to kill?
The other birds we pass are either hunting, eating, or resting. Scoters and harlequin ducks dive on food in the bay. A sea lion rolls once on the surface and slips under the water to chase a fish. One bald eagle surveys the bay from a spruce roost after temporarily flushing the crows.
The little dog and I leave the beach for a forest trail that leads to Point Louisa. It takes us between lines of yellowing blueberry bushes to a spit where we can see the old village site. From this spot 100 years ago, we could have seen smoke climbing from the roofs hand-hewn long houses. Big canoes, dug out from single spruce or cedar logs would have littered the beach. A canoe full of Auk Tlingits chased a boat of British sailors back to Lt. Vancouver’s brig. A canoe from Wrangell carried John Muir here.
The canoes and long houses are gone. One totem pole survives to stand over a village site of dogwood, thimbleberry and fireweed gone to seed.