Aki, why do you want to stay in the woods? It’s not a fair question to ask the little dog. The woods and the campground road just beyond them are rich with dog smells. She can almost make out the scent left by one of her dog buddies, maybe Cedar. Aki doesn’t care if the lakeshore trail offers wonderful, if misty, mountain views. Besides, it has started to rain. The woods will provide her some shelter from the wet.
The poodle-mix might also be deterred by the crunch of ice that follows each of my steps along the snow-covered shore. A two-inch thick sheet of ice is buried beneath snow. An irregular surface of beach rocks stretch beneath the ice. I fracture the ice with every step.
I crunch my way around and between a set of small islands. Aki has planted herself at the forest edge. Only when I disappear around a point of land does the little dog trot after me. We repeat this pattern all the way to the place where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. Then we re-entered the forest and walk on an icy road through the campground and back to the car. Now a happy Aki is free to catalogue the passage of other dogs that recently left their mark on the snow.
It’s 4:30 A.M. Aki is asleep in her kennel thirty miles away. I wonder what this hoary marmot would make of her. The oversized Guinea pig seems more interested in me than frightened. We sit on opposite sides of a narrow spit. I’m watching early morning sunlight clarifying Shelter Island. Minutes ago, while I spied on two harbor seals as they stalked a common merganser, the island was a dark mass interfering with my view of the Chilkat Mountains. Now every one of its trees has a distinct shape.
This would be the quietest time of day. It might be if not for the crows. To protect their nests, a patrol of them are diving on a roosted eagle. They squawk and the interloper screams. They do this over and over again.
If I was this close to a marmot in the high mountains it would pierce the air with a warning whistle. She must have has grown used to the presence of people. Besides, her young are asleep and safe in their rock pile of a nest. Marmot doesn’t sound the alarm even when an eagle flies towards us on a low trajectory. She just dives into her nest, leaving me to watch the big bird return to its roost.
In a few hours, after the sun has cleared the ridge behind me, It will be warm enough to doddle and dream on the spit. But its just ten degrees above freezing now. I try to tough it out in hopes of seeing the orcas. Yesterday, while I drank my first coffee of the day, a small pod swam past. A cow and calf surfaced not far from where the merganser just scooted away from a seal.
I’d settle for a humpback whale, even one reduced by distance to a plume of exhaled spray. But nothing breaks blue’s monopoly on Favorite Passage. Time for another coffee.
Aki wasn’t pouting yesterday when her humans returned from a whale watch trip. She expressed excitement, not consternation as we opened the front door. As promised, I took her on a proper walk through the troll woods. Wind rattled the yellowing cottonwood leaves, ripping a few from their home tree. But no breeze rippled the waters of Moraine Lake to spoil the reflection of Mt. McGinnis.
This afternoon we head out to the end of the road as a small craft advisory kept fishing boats off the water. The little dog has three humans today to herd. She gets us safely across a muskeg meadow and then down onto a breach. It’s high tide. Water almost covers the beach gravel. Aki trots along the bordering beach grass, avoiding surf surging over the gravel. After her humans sit on the beach, Aki settles by my side, enjoying the way the sun warms her tight, gray curls.
Aki’s back on the water. This morning she and her humans boarded a small landing craft to visit an island lighthouse. We bounce up Favorite Channel and into the deep-water fjord called “Lynn Canal. Having just having finished reading a book about John Muir’s visit to these waters in the 1800’s, I try to imagine the bearded naturalist helping to paddle a cedar canoe up the canal and into the Chilkat River. His neck must have been sore by the end of each day since he must have spent hours staring up at the steep mountains left behind when the glaciers retreated north.
Muir made the trip in October, a time of storms and rain. It’s sunny and warm today. When she is not hunting the boat deck for snacks, Aki climbs up into someone’s lap where sunlight coming through a window could warm her curly fur.
A small pod of killer whales hunt off Point Bridget as we pass. One of their young flings itself out of the water and then knifes back through it, splashing its parent. All the humans on the boat go out on the deck to watch. Aki wanders around our feet, waiting for someone to come to his or her senses and pay attention to her rather than some big wet whale.
Aki has to wade in chest deep water to reach the beach of the lighthouse island. Everyone but the little dog carries picnic stuff and other supplies up the lighthouse, which sits on top of a low volcanic plug. After lunch the humans split up. Some explore the lighthouse building. Others relaxed in the sun. I went onto the beach to watch a group of quarrelsome oystercatchers and swimming seals. Aki ran back and forth checking up on every one of us.
I watch with envy a large pod of killer whales working the reefs protecting North Pass. Several large males have already entered the pass. The adult females and juveniles tear up the water on the Favorite Passage side of the reefs. With an empty freezer at home, I hope that they leave me some salmon to harvest. When a female slams her tail onto the water one of the other passages in this whale-watching boat giggles and tells her friend the orcas are playing.
I am not inclined to point out the orca’s bloody purpose, which is to kill and consume every silver salmon in the pass. There is an open bar on the boat and the remains of a good meal litter a large table on the lower deck.
We have already seen a humpback whale breach three times—leap straight out of the water and crash back like a fallen tree. I envied that whale as well and would like, my fellow passenger, to come up with some warm and fuzzy explanation for whale behavior. But these these whales are all business. Now is their time to build for the salmon-less winter.
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.