The understory plants in the rain forest are showing their age. Gone are the clean green days of early summer when berry bush had unblemished, sharp-edged leaves. Insects and disease have scarred many of the leaves and killed others.
Plants growing on the beach verge also look battered. While some lupines still display a few blossoms, seedpods have replaced most of their flowers. I find a beauty in the destruction. I find sadness in fireweed flowers because when they finish blooming it will be fall. I want to start a philosophical discussion about these ironies with Aki, but the little dog has moved down the trail to a spot where another dog has recently peed.
We both miss spotting an immature bald eagle feeding on the beach not ten feet away. The big bird pulls into the air and flies along a line of beach grass until it reaches the safety of the water. With its mottled feathers and neck stretched out in flight, it looks as ragged as the plants.
I am focusing my camera on a water drop when the drumming starts. Soon the sound of a chant travels across the waters of Stephen Passage. Several white-hulled seine boats and a traditional Tlingit canoe close on each other. Someone yells out a welcome. The semi-annual Celebration is starting.
Every other year, the Juneau’s Tlingit people welcome people from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations to town for traditional dancing and visiting. Most of the dancers will arrive by plane or the state-run ferry. But some will paddle from their village in a traditional canoe, passing feeding humpback whales and hunting orcas.
Most of the canoes are carved from a single red cedar or spruce log and have room for a score of paddlers. Aki and I just witnessed that arrival of one from Hoonah, Ketchikan, Kake or Angoon. We aren’t the only present for the welcoming ceremony. On the edge of the beach, an eagle watches the paddlers approach the waiting seine boats.
Three harlequin ducks shared a near shore rock, each bending over as if to preach to the rest of their raft as they floated in the water. No bird attended to the sermon of a crow standing alone on another rock. Then, as if conducting an ordered evacuation, the three ducks dove one after the other into the water. Without the little dog or I knowing it, two bald eagles had been watching the harlequin performance from high in the spruce tree behind us.
After screeching out a critique, the eagles flew over our heads and glided over the ducks. If the eagles were planning on diving on the ducks, they soon gave up on the idea. Instead they started what appeared to be a game of tag. One eagle closed on the other. When a collision seemed imminent, the two birds sailed apart. They continued the dance over the ducks for a minute and then flew off in different directions.
The raft of harlequins, which had moved close to the rocky shore, spread out and returned to their fishing.
I didn’t expect much from this quick walk on Sandy Beach. But at least three bald eagles were screaming at each other when we reached the beach. One had fallen into the old glory hole. It took only seconds for it to struggle up onto a rock occupied by another eagle that screeched apparent disapproval at the soggy bird.
The tall dorsal fin of a male killer whale rose above the gray waters of Gastineau Channel. A female whale surfaced next, sending up a plume of exhalant. Next to the female swam a young whale. They and the rest of the orca pod moved slowly up channel towards Juneau, hunting king salmon on their way to the hatchery.
In a half and hour someone in one of Juneau’s mini-high rise office buildings might look up from their desk and see the pod of whales swim past. Even though it is not uncommon in May for killer whales to chase salmon up the channel, the office worker will probably shout down the hall to let other people know that the whales are back. They will snap a few photos with their phones and resume their workstations.
When Aki and I head out into wind driven rain I am greatly tempted to walk her around the block and return to our warm, dry home. But then I think, there might be whales.
The writer’s retreat at the Shrine ends this morning. I’ll be back home with Aki soon. But first I must try to see the whale. While I was looking at geese along the Eagle River, one of the other writers on this beach was startled by a surfacing killer whale. First she heard the whale’s exhale, a burst of water forced at high pressure through the orca’s blowhole. She turned in time to see the whale’s black dorsal fin glisten in the sun and then disappear beneath the waters of Lynn Canal.
I am walking the same stretch of beach where my friend saw the whale. Earlier this morning on this beach I watched two juvenile Stellar sea lions porpoise through the water, flushing three golden eye ducks to flight. There are no sea lions now and I wonder if the whale ate one of them. Last night I stood here and watched the sun set behind the Chilkat Mountains. But now, I see only a clutch of mallards fishing offshore.
I tell myself that the important thing is that the whale was here, not whether or not I see it. Then I remember the other times I’ve seen killer whales. There were the times pods swam by as I paddled a kayak off of Marmion or Portland Islands. Off of Marmion an adult female orca swam to within 10 meters. Another time Aki and I watched a pod of them chasing king salmon just north of here. It doesn’t resolve my desire for another whale sighting. But it justifies my belief that if not today, then sometimes in the future, there will be more whales.
I am tired—a bit worn from trying to bust through to this beach on a little remembered, underused trail through thick brush. Aki is fine. She was small enough to slip along her own trail under the wet bushes. For me, the view we now share was worth the effort.
We are on the backside of Douglas Island, just south of Outer Point. The tail end of the latest storm surge fights with rising high pressure and appears to be losing. Blue holes grow in the grey marine layer and we can see the mountain ridge on Admiralty Island. Aki watches a brace of juvenile sea lions swim just offshore. Since they move in a direct line northward, I assume they are chasing late arriving silver salmon. Later I will watch a male killer whale hunt silvers in Fritz Cove. But, now I’m happy to watch the clownish sea lions pulse up and drop down on their swim up channel.
A wide beam of sunlight moves across the channel and onto the beach near where we stand and then dies out. Before it did, the light beam sparkled the ruffled sea and brought out the oranges in the exposed seaweed. I feel my tiredness and frustration fade like the sunlight, am content with the return of gray.