Category Archives: Nature

A Good Day to Shout the Blues

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. 

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Neighborhood Bay Boys

      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. 

The Eaglet

        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. 

The Watchmen

        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. 

Grotesques

Aki is due for a bath today. Her other human and I never say the word out loud. The little dog only hears, “Someone is going to get a b-a-t-h this afternoon.” Even hearing the word spelled can send her under the bed. For her bath day walk, I always choose a trail she likes. I don’t have to worry whether she will get dirty on the hike because… 

        On this bath day morning, Aki is trotting along the edge of a grass-covered dune. We walk toward Douglas and Juneau under a blue sky. Behind us in Sheep Creek gulls feed heartily on deceased pink and dog salmon. The birds bicker and flash their wings at each other to protect their share of the hoard. Picked over salmon carcasses line our trail. Bird feathers, seaweed, and beach grass collect around some to form grotesque still lives.

        A line of human fishermen stand knee deep on the edge of the beach. They cast and wait for a strike, as patience as the herons that usually fish along the beach. The fishermen are targeting silver salmon, still ocean bright. Once they enter freshwater, the salmon’s sides will darken. The jaws of the males will distort and hook to form tools for battling others for the right to spawn.

Little Birds Show

Pink salmon have replaced the chum salmon that tussled in the shallow water beneath the Fish Creek Bridge the last time Aki and I walked over it. Male pinks, with the distorted backs that earned them the nickname “humpies,” charge each other in the stream rapids. Unlike last time, when ravens and watched the salmons struggle, only a flock of no nonsense gulls takes in the show. There is one eagle roosting in a tree above the stream. Soon it will fly off. 

        Expecting to find many eagles and herons on our walk to the stream mouth, I try to rush the little dog. She gives me her “I have important work to do” stare and slows to catalogue trailside scents. Each sniff adds to her encyclopedic knowledge. I’m as impatience as the belted kingfisher chattering over our heads. 

          Several schools of pink salmon wander around a pond connected to the stream. A few hurl themselves out of the water as if that will hurry up the spawning process. Maybe female pink salmon dig an acrobatic guy. No herons wade in the pond shallows. No eagles watch the show. Only gulls float on the pond, looking for scraps of already dead fish. 

        On a spit covered with fireweed stalks and meadow grass already succumbing to fall, gangs of sparrows search the ground for food. The little brown birds spring up like grasshoppers when we walk down the trail. No eagles wait for us at the stream mouth, just more gulls and one raven flying over the creek delta as if it were an eagle. 

Skirting the Crowds

Aki and I drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier complex without realizing that there were four cruiseships in town. Many of their passengers were already heading toward the glacier. We had to pass a line of idling buses to reach the complex’s parking lot. Ant-like lines of passengers drained each bus. Many of these visitors started down the Nugget Falls Trail. The little dog and I followed. 

     Aki, who normally likes to socialize with strangers, seemed overwhelmed by the crowds. Soon we were able to slip off onto very informal trail that led to a lakeside walk. No one followed. We could hear voices when our trail brought us close to the main one. But the sound was no more disturbing than geese cackle. The little dog and I relaxed.

       Lines of fog-like clouds stretched across the lake and climbed up forested hills. More substantial clouds blocked our view of the Mendenhall Towers but not the glacier. Thanks to our summer of drought and record high temperatures the river of ice looked anorexic. A few icebergs still lingered in the lake shallows, diminished to small ice sculptures. One looked like a thin dog begging for food.