The tide is out so the table is set for the scavengers of the Fish Creek Delta. Aki and I startle a bald eagle into flight when we break out of the woods. It flies towards us and then makes a panicked turn toward the safety of a spruce tree. I wonder if Aki took heart in this show of vulnerability from a bird that normally would make him seek shelter.
Cotton-ball fog hangs over the spruce-covered islands and obscures our view of glaciers and mountains. Hundreds of mallards fish, head buried in water, just off the beach. Three red-breasted mergansers plow the waters a hundred feet further out. None of the ducks take any notice of the little dog and I until the curving trail brings us too close. Even then they only fly out to a nearby sand bar.
The mallards make a lot of noise as they relocate. Aki appears to take no notice. I once had a terrier that loved to flush ducks off a beach. I am thankful that the poodle-mix is so reserved around waterfowl.\
The ducks stir a large flock of shore birds (semipamated plovers?) into flight but soon they return to feeding. The delta gulls seem immune to panic. But one flies over to a pair of its kind to see if they have found something to fight over. It glides with the grace of a well-bred princess and then crashes into the water. On a windy day it would have dropped, helicopter-like, onto the water. Today it lands like a student failing his first flight test.
Standing at our living room window, I spent some time this morning cataloguing the Alaska words for the action of rain. It can drizzle, fall, shower, obscure, soak, pour, spit, depress, rinse, wash away, flood, and sluice. That’s the word for this morning’s stormy offering—sluice. Even though the rain was sluicing down on Chicken Ridge, I wrapped Aki and myself in rain gear and drove out to North Douglas Island. The microclimate there often offers drier days.
Rain obscured our view of the road. But it did not discourage several bald eagles from circling a roadside beach. A hunter must have dumped a deer carcass there. This has become a thanksgiving tradition for scavengers like eagles, crows and ravens.
I drove on to the trailhead but planned on looking for the deer carcass on the way home. While a strong wind played through the forest canopy, Aki and I walked to the beach. We had the Rainforest Trail to ourselves. It seems emptier than usual. We didn’t even hear the sound of gull bickering as we left the forest. Only a small raft of fish ducks worked the offshore waters.
On the way home I stopped where we had earlier spotted the eagles. While Aki waited in the car, I found the expected deer carcass surrounded by eagles and ravens. Most of the birds flew off. One raven and an eagle stood their ground. They faced each other over the carcass and then took to the air. As I started back to the car, the birds settled back on the beach to continue their battle over the deer remains.
On this rainy morning, Aki and I are going old school. Rather than drive to some remote trailhead, we will start an exploration of Downtown Juneau from the house. On the way we will visit some sculptures and watch ravens fool around. There will be an eagle, only one, but it will sulk on a light standard with it’s back to us. Aki will refresh her pee mail trap line. Her stubborn streak will appear and she will throw on the brakes to keep us from exploring new paths. We will pass a great bronze whale and life-sized bear made from the same material, each glistening with rain. When we return home, I will need extra time to dry the little dog with a towel.
Recently I watched a reporter ask people in a grocery store, “If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would you choose?” As if they were deciding which of their children to put up for adoption, they hemmed and hawed before answering. One man said he would give up his sight. A few opted to sacrifice their sense of taste. Most, however, said they would give up their ability to hear. I’d hate to be unable to hear, especially on this gray day in the mountains when wind music and bird song provide most of the drama.
Aki and I have just dropped off a frozen muskeg meadow that was a study in low contrast colors. The red color of four bog cranberries sang out for my attention. I popped the plumpest one in my mouth, enjoying its powerful tartness until Aki have me a hard look. Last summer she developed a taste for sweet blueberries. Knowing her taste preferences, I didn’t offer her a cranberry.
We enter a hemlock forest where the sounds of a stream break the silence. The pitch and tone of the stream changes as the trail moves us closer to it. The monotony of forest green would soon grow boring if we couldn’t hear the hard-working watercourse.
I wonder if the little dog knows about what is about to happen. We are transiting the glacier moraine, rounding a still unfrozen lake. Water from melting snow drips from shoreline trees onto the lake’s surface. Wet snow was falling when we started this walk. It has been replaced by light rain, which speeds up the snowmelt. The early November assertion of winter is about to end. Fall is not finished with us.
Aki tries to rub her face on the trail snow but finds it is still too thin. Undeterred, she trots on to a place where fresh beaver tracks cross the trail. They seem to soften as we look at them.
The snow disappears from the trail when we enter the troll woods. Aki has to skirt the muddy stretches. I am thankful for the volunteers that have bridges the worst parts with assemblages of scrap lumber.
On the drive back home, I want to tell Aki to look up at Mt. Juneau where snow, rain falls on the mountains flanks. But she has curled herself on the car seat, dozing as her curls begin to dry.
Aki and I are using the Outer Point Trail to reach Shaman Island beach. If we could see it through the clouds, the sun would just be clearing the Douglas Island ridge. Without the snow, it would be dark and even depressive in the woods. It’s amazing how much light fresh snow brings. It highlights the lines of bare-limbed understory plants. The few remaining leaves glow under layers of white flakes. The red famine berries wear crowns of snow.
It’s times like this that I wish Aki could speak. I’d love to know whether she sees snow as anything other than a fun running surface. It doesn’t appear to inhibit her ability to read scent signs. I have to wait often for the little dog to catalogue each new smell and cover it with her own.
Gull screams and shotgun booms reach us while still in the woods. Aki drops closer to the ground each time she hears a blast. But no hunter hunkers in front of his decoys when we break out of the forest. A small raft of bufflehead and harlequin ducks is just pulling away from the beach. Gulls form a line along the beach. Most fly a few feet into the surf when we approach. But a gang of three hold position on a snow covered rock, either wise or foolish enough to trust us.
As if to pin a lie on weatherman, nature brought us clear, cool skies this morning rather than the promised rain. At first light Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands. I’m hoping that it still retains the two inches of snow that fell on it yesterday. But this is early days for winter. The temperature is already above freezing when reach the wetlands. We take the trail along the river even though it is already slick with thawing mud. Aki finds cleaner footing on the grassy fringe.
At first light the still-surfaced river captures crisp reflections of the glacier underlined by trees flocked with snow. But the rising sun frees a breeze that riffles the water. The slight wind doesn’t wake a huge raft of Canada geese that doze, heads tucked into their back feathers, near the opposite side of the river. Among the sleeping flock, four white-fronted geese slip quietly toward shore. These arctic birds will soon resume their southerly migration.
When the heads of two harbor seals appear near the Canadians, the geese move casually towards the beach. I don’t see the seals make a move, but they or maybe a passing eagle flush the geese into flight.
Other than checking frequently to make sure she is near, I haven’t paid much attention to Aki. The little dog, who loves snow, doesn’t seem to mind until I head back toward the muddy trail. Then she gives me one of her “what an idiot” looks, hesitates, and then fast-trots towards her foolish master.