It is almost impossible to rise with the sun during the northern summer. At this time of the morning last winter Aki and I would have been hiking in the dark. Still, during most of our visit we will have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. A nice bird watcher arrived just before us but didn’t go beyond the pond.
On the drive to the trailhead, I thought about deer and when a doe walked in front of the car. After we stopped, it crossed to the west side of the road and tried to find cover behind a sparse blueberry bush. Another deer appeared to be waiting for us at the trailhead parking area. Acting like it was still undiscovered, it tiptoed off the trail and into a forest tangle.
Things have calmed down on the delta since our last visit. The resident eagles have reached accommodation with the crows, which no longer try to drive the bigger predators from their roosts. Freed up from defense work, the crows have spread out to feed on the tidal meadow. One crow lands on a rock in the middle of tiny pond, apparently to enjoy its reflection in the pond’s surface. It doesn’t seem to notice a sandpiper that wades past.
The marine layer that darkened our skies for weeks is breaking into clouds that reflect in the waters of Fritz Cove. An adult bald eagle flew out over the cove, dove on a fish and pulled up—wings wet and talons empty. Now it squats at the top of a spruce tree with its wings spread out to dry, a sour look on its face.
Aki and were walking back to the car, powering into a strong wind when the heron flew low over our heads, croaked like a sick raven, and dropped onto the surface of a small pond. The heron was a surprise. I expected to see some eagles on the Fish Creek delta and we did. But we rarely see herons here.
I could see five bald eagles from the spot where I watched the heron. Aki acted like we were alone in the universe. Two eagles were hanging out on a nearby navigational aid tower. Another stood on a beach, ripping apart some morsel of food. The other two eagles crouched, head to head, on the bank of Fish Creek. They couldn’t see much in the creek. Our recent rainstorms had swollen it and turned its normally clear water mocha brown.
During the outbound portion of the walk, we had watched an adult bald eagle lift off from the wetlands and fly toward us. As it grew larger and larger I looked down to make sure Aki was safe. No fool, the poodle mix stood right next to my legs. Another eagle, roosted just above us in a spruce, screamed out a welcome just before the other eagle joined it.
A brace of crows, each less than an eighth the mass of the eagles, landed just above the eagles. They cawed and invaded the eagle’s personal space. They weren’t going to let two eagles roost on the edge of the forest where their murder is raising this year’s brood. In seconds the eagles departed. We left too before the crows focused their attention on us. We have both been dive bombed by crows during their nesting season.
One of Aki’s other humans and I paddle toward the glacier into a rain bearing head wind. Kittiwakes from the nearby rookery watch us from a small iceberg. They don’t stir as we pass. Members of their clan mew and keen before diving on sockeye salmon smolt in the lake waters. I worry that we will face worse conditions when we round a point of a rocky hill that has been partially blocking the wind. I am glad that Aki is home snug and warm.
It may be the lovely month of May but today is a wicked-wet day. It’s the only day I have to sneak in a kayak trip to the glacier. Soon an eco tourist company will be hauling cruise ship tourists across Mendenhall Lake in faux Chippewa canoes and lead them into the shrinking ice cave. I want to enjoy it when empty.
Pulling past the point we get an unblocked view of the glacier descending out of rain clouds. A rocky hill rises to our left, colored by low growing plants fertilized by kittiwake guano. It seems to take hours to paddle the mile to the glacier in the now unrestrained wind. An empty tourist canoe sits on the beach where we haul out the kayak. Who, I wonder, would pay big money to ride here in an open canoe today? Must be a group of hardy Australians.
Listening for ANZAC accents, we walkover a landscape as barren as the moon’s surface. At first appearance, the trail seems to be well graveled. But I find myself slipping on portions that are really hard glacial ice covered with a thin layer of mud or pebbles. We pass torn chunks of trees just released from hundreds of years of icy imprisonment by the glacier’s retreat. The only bird sound we hear is from the keening kittiwakes. No songbirds could earn a living in such a sterile place.
The glacier seems to be collapsing into itself like an overripe pumpkin. Mocha brown water rushes from beneath the ice. I worry that the mystic blue ice that formed the glacial cave will now be fragile, and opaque. But in spite of our recent heat wave and the subsequent days of rain, the cave retains its basic shape and color. Rainwater streams from cracks in the overhead ice and some of the old entrances have collapsed. It is still a suitable venue for a religious ceremony or at least a brief prayer for our challenged world.
In the center of Treadwell Woods, a single salmon berry flower bounces gently up and down. It is moved, not by wind, but by the heavy raindrops falling through the forest canopy. This far away from the beach, the magenta-colored flower is the only thing challenging the trees’ monopoly of grays and browns.
As Aki moves ahead, excited by a pee mail message left by an earlier canine visitor, I stay with the flower, remembering a visit made years ago to my carving class by a Haida elder. Her eyes promised the delivery of an exciting message. It is summer. I just saw my first salmon berry blossom.
The little dog and I move through the woods and drop onto Sandy Beach. It is empty except for a bald eagle. The big bird perches on top of the old ventilator tower, its feathers soaked and askew. Wind driven rain sweeps down the beach, making me wince and Aki shiver. It feels more like early winter than summer. But salmon berry blossoms provide color along the beach’s edge. Summer can’t be denied.
This morning, I stopped at the North Douglas Boat Ramp to take a picture of a commercial fishing boat. The boat was designed to catch salmon by trolling a collection of baited hooks through the water. Now it squats on beach usually used for launching kayaks, useless but looking as pretty as a picture.
Three land otters swam past the troller and climbed onto the end of the boat ramp float. Like hungry burglars, they gorge themselves on chunks of flesh discarded by the person who cleaned his catch on the little processing table. Good thing I didn’t let Aki out of the car. The last time we came across this gang of otters, they tried to seduce her into the water.
As the otters savored their quick meal, an adult bald eagle approached from the north. Rather than using the usual circling technique, this sneaky eagle cruised low over the water. The otters spotted me and dived into the water. When they looked up again, the eagle was right above them. Apparently startled, the otters panic dived as the eagle arcs toward them.
A land otter can weigh anywhere between 11 and 30 pounds. They are way too heavy for the eagle to lift, even from dry land. The aquatic otters were never in any real danger. After the hungry eagle returned to its roost, the otters cruised along the shore, heads above water, looking for more trouble.
It’s as hard to ignore the screaming yellow skunk cabbage blossoms as it is to look away from the mountains that surround Gastineau Meadows. I am making a conscious attempt to find beauty on a much smaller scale. This, as any delay in our walk usually does, seems to perturb Aki. She refuses to join me in my search of the wet meadow.
As the little dog keeps her paws dry, I pry back dead blades of grass and find tight buds of cranberry leaves and swelling pollen pods at the tip of Labrador Tea stalks. A scattering of last summer’s cranberries dot mossy patches. In those places reduced to mud by dogs and hikers, the insect eating sundew plants spread their tentacles like tiny sea anemones.
The poodle-mix and I are startled by the sudden appearance of three songbirds. Two of them drive a third one to the ground where it rolls onto its back. All I can make out of their tussle is a confusion of brown and white feathers and a blade of grass clamped in the beak of the downed bird. Before I can raise my camera they are airborne. From the branch of a dead pine tree one of the birds, with the dark head of a junco, gives the little dog and I a nasty stare and is gone.
Canada geese have made themselves as common as pigeons in the USA and even Europe. But I still love to hear their nervous honking calls and watch their plump bodies strutting over a gravel bar. This morning a small gang of the geese feeds down near the mouth of Eagle River. Their designated guard goose issues more and more desperate warnings as the little dog and I approach them.
An extreme ebb tide has drained much of the water from the river. It would take us no more than minutes to reach the geese across the exposed riverbed. They would be airborne and gone in half that time. Aki, who weighs less than the guard goose, studiously ignores the noisy birds. I take a few photographs and swing with Aki into the riverside woods.
Thanks to strong sunshine it had been warm on the riverbank. Here, where trees block the sun, I start wishing for a heavier coat. We can hear robins and their cousins thrushes, except when their songs are blocked out by the honking warning of the gravel bar geese.