This is going to be a frustrating walk to the mouth of Fish Creek. Aki and I came with expectations of sunshine, eagles, and ocean-bright silver salmon. The weather folks promised the sunshine. We have good reason to expect eagles and silvers. Their presence should be a matter of course this time of year. We will end up having to make due with eagles and aging pinks.
Two adult bald eagles roost in a spruce overlooking the pond. The hump of a spawned out pink salmon male ripples the pond’s surface. With a little effort, one of the eagles could snag the salmon and fly it to a gravel bar for a feed. But they barely flinch when the salmon swims past their roosting tree.
Hoping that the eagles have already had their fill of silver salmon, I follow Aki down the trail to the creek mouth. We do spot a run of the creek full of frisky salmon. But we can’t investigate without disturbing two eagles perched on a driftwood branch. The mottled birds look dull in this morning’s grey light.
Low clouds obscure our view of the Chilkat Mountains and that of the glacier on the other side of Gastineau Channel. The sunshine currently bathing Admiralty Island should reach the glacier and Fish Creek in a couple of hours. Aki will be home by then, sunning herself on the back steps.
After the channel fog burns off this morning, I drive the little dog out to Mendenhall Lake. While she uses her nose to investigate I plan on searching for late blueberries. I’ll find less than a handful. This may be one of the last color-rich days we will have until the monsoon season begins. Then we will have to wait for winter to bring clarity.
The lake is swollen with rain and glacial melt water, covering the beach path we normally use. Instead we use the little path between camp ground and lake that the little dog prefers With the temperature holding at 60 degrees F. I find myself sitting often in the sun to enjoy the glacier reflection on the lake’s surface. I take a few pictures of it, aware that I have many similar shots on my computer. It still thrills to capture the image with a click.
Displays of fall color could divert me from glacier gazing. But most of the lake foliage is still summer green. Only where the Mendenhall River escapes from the lake do I find a cottonwood in fall yellow. It stands out like an unnecessary candle on this warm, bright day.
The narrow channel that once flowed water into Crystal Lake is now just a muddy trough. Wide beaches have formed around the lake.
Aki shows no desire to cross the channel. We follow it until finding the culprit—a well maintained beaver dam. Fall rainstorms should raise the level of the channel until water can flow over the dam and into Crystal Lake. Until then we will have to put up with the beaver’s muddy mess.
Beavers and their dams are the greatest agents of change on the moraine. Water backs up behind the dams to flood and then kill forests. Eventually grass and reeds clog the lakes to create wet meadowlands. Our local land managers call the changed land “improved habitat.” I can’t argue. But, as once crystal lakes are dulled into meadows that can no longer reflect the surrounding mountains, I will let myself mourn just a little for the loss of beauty.
It was sunny yesterday morning but now it feels like it has been raining for weeks. Aki and I just have to get used to it again. A storm that started on the Russian Steppe traveled across the Gulf of Alaska to end our recent drought. We have been praying for rain. Now are prayers have been answered. There will many more rainstorms before the snow arrives.
The little dog drags me down Gold Street, past the Episcopal Church, and up Gastineau Avenue. We pass sunflowers with yellow petals drooping with rain. Copies of a missing cat poster decorate light poles along Gastineau Avenue. I wonder whether one of the neighborhood eagles carried the poor feline away.
An older homeless man walks in the middle of the avenue, shouldering a boom box that blares out a John Lee Hooker tune. The man shouts out the lyrics with the assurance of one who has earned the right to sing the blues. When he reaches the refrain, he smiles and says “hi” to Aki. The little poodle-mix wags her tail and gives the man a doggy smile. She never shies away from our city’s homeless.
Ravens seem to beg to be anthropomorphized. Aki and I happen upon a gang of the teenage-like birds gathered on a beach dotted with pink salmon carcasses. One of the purpley-black birds crouches over an eyeless salmon body, ripping flesh from the fish’s back with its massive beak. The other birds cackle criticism at the eating bird and then take off, making enough noise to scare nearby gulls into flight.
The ravens don’t bother a green winged teal or a brace of greater yellow legs that feed in a shallow pond. They ride rising wind currents up and over Fish Creek and then break off into head first dives like WWII fighter pilots descending on enemy bombers. When even this becomes too mundane, they dive bomb a bald eagle, driving it off its spruce tree roost. While the eagle had no stomach for a fight, a crow rises to the occasion and drives off the much larger ravens when they get too close to crow country.
The little dog and I walk up the stream, surprised more than once by the loud splashes made by male pink salmon as they fight each other for spawning space. We startle to flight a pair of great blue herons hunting the little fish that thrive on salmon flesh. Squawking like barnyard geese, they move to a nearby pond where another heron is already feeding.
Sometimes rain forest bald eagles seem as common as pigeons. A few weeks ago over 150 eagles gathered in trees and on the exposed wetlands across from the Juneau salmon hatchery. They were waiting for the next pulse of chum salmon to arrive. Aki and I see one or two bald eagles almost every time we hike in the summer. This morning, while still in the Treadwell Woods, we hear the screeching of the one that hangs out on the roof of the old mine ventilation shaft at Sandy Beach. A higher pitched call comes from a point deeper in the woods.
I lead the little poodle-mix toward the later sound. Soon we are at the base of a tall cottonwood tree. White eagle scat is spattered on the understory plants beneath the tree. One of those responsible for the mess sits alone in the nest of sticks its parents built in a crotch of cottonwood branches. It’s an eaglet that has grown out of its downy coat. Fuzzy black feathers cover its head. Soon it will fledge.
The eaglet gives us a fierce look and then turns until we can only see its back. Aki and I walk under the tree and then drop down through the woods and onto Sandy Beach. The two resident ravens watch us from atop splinted wharf pilings. Down the channel one of the eaglet’s parents balances on the roof ridge of the ventilation shaft. The other one must be hunting for junior.
Two Stellar’s jays, self-assigned guardians of this old growth forest, chitter evident disgust at Aki and I. When I stop one gives me the “move along there is nothing to see here” stare of a policeman. With its dark crest and sober body coloring, it reminds me of a London bobby.
The little dog and I need no more urging to head down the trail. Unexpected sunshine is powering its way through the forest canopy, backlighting to beauty humble plants like devil’s club and skunk cabbage. Eagle screams reach us from the nearby beach.
It takes me a few minutes to spot two bald eagles half-hidden in a beachside spruce tree. The tree rises above a small point of land that separates two bays. It provides the perfect roost for the two watchmen. Each eagle faces one of the bays. They seek, not to keep the peace, but to be the first to snatch up any food scraps that might wash up on their self-assigned beaches. If the local gulls show too much interest in something, one of the eagles will flush them to flight, then glide back over the spot looking for an easy meal.