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.
A misery of wet snow fell on the little dog and I when we walked from our house to the car. As I drove Aki looked uncertain. The wipers worked to clear the windshield of the stuff. At least no wind rocked the car as we headed out to the northern end of Douglas Island. There we hoped to find protection from the mucky weather in an old growth forest.
At the trailhead, Aki sniffed spots on the parking area as I pulled on ice cleats. Without them I’d fall on the icy trail. The warm, wet weather was already softening the trail ice. By next week, the cleats might be stored away until next winter. Except for eagle screams and raven complaints the rain forest was silent. Nothing slowed our progress to the beach where we found hundreds of surf scoters formed into tightly packed rafts.
One of the scoter rafts formed into a line and cruised past two crows on an offshore rock. One of the crows stood erect as a preacher. Few of the scoters turned their orange beaks toward the crows. But a lone harlequin dock approached with its head tilted as if to better hear the sermon.
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.