Yesterday afternoon, our plane could barely land on the Juneau Airstrip. Clouds from a heavy fall storm almost force us to fly on to Anchorage. But we bounced and slowed on the runway and were soon deplaning at the airport. Forty-five minutes later we left the airport while calming down the nerves in our nostrils after being tested for Covid. Then we entered a mandatory quarantine.
This morning, while the town was enjoying a brief brake between heavy rain storms, Aki and I took the car out to a remote trail where we could walk without risking any contact from other humans. As it turned out, we would have lots of contact with wild birds. The dog and I fell into the old ways—watching out for each other.
Most of the action took place along a little creek, where it crossed it’s tidal meadow. More than a dozen bald eagles huddled together along the creek bank, eating salmon scraps. Ducks and gulls hung about them, ready to grab anything that floated away from the eagles.
Suddenly, a pair of belted kingfishers dashed over the eagle’s hangout, chanting intimidations before diving for food in the creek. A raven drove off one of eagles. Two merganser ducks sulked off. The other eagles fledge. When the kingfishers flew to another section of the stream, Aki and spotted a black-billed magpie, acting like it had just driven off the other pesky birds.
Back in the rain forest, two thousand miles away, Aki and her dog buddy Cedar are probably cuddled in a corner of Cedar’s house. A storm soaked them both during their morning walk, but it won’t prevent them from dozing. Down here, while I follow a trail offering views of Puget Sound, I can’t help thinking about the little poodle-mix. We will meet up tomorrow afternoon in Juneau.
She will panic with excitement at the Juneau Airport when we meet. She’ll wait impatiently for my wife and I to submit to mandatory Covid tests and then grab our suitcases. Aki will lean against me as we get a ride back to the house. She’ll follow us as we unpack while a pot of tea brews in the kitchen. Then, as happens each time we reunite with her in the house, she will slink in her little cage and hide.
Normally, Aki and I can work things out during our next daily hike. But tomorrow Aki’s humans will be quarantined for at least a week. I pray that we can find another way to make up with the tiny, if also powerful little dog.
In Alaska, like the rest of the United States, Labor Day signifies an end to summer. Before the pandemic closed our border with Canada, we often spent the Labor Day Weekend riding the ferry to Skagway and then camping in the Yukon Territory. It was a time for enjoying the fall colors of poplar leaves and drinking morning coffee next to a campfire as the northern sun warmed your face.
I am warming my face in the sun on this Labor Day while Aki and I stand in the center of Gastineau Meadow. Meadow ferns and the leaves of miners’ cabbage are already fading from green to yellow. In another month the leaves will become dry brown crusts being reduced to mud by autumn rains.
Tomorrow the rain will return and low clouds will cover the surrounding mountains in a grey gauze. The weather man prefects more of the same for the next week. Today is one for creating sustaining memories of crisp autumn leaves and sun-warmed skin.
The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
While Aki dashes off to investigate a pee mail message, I stop to study what looks like a red rose growing at the end of a willow branch. The rose is formed by willow leaves, not flower pedals, changing from green to an autumn red.
Last spring, after the winter snow melted but before willow buds burst, a female willow gall midge laid an egg at the tip of the willow branch. A wormy little grub emerged from the egg and burrowed into a willow bug and started feasting on the new green bud. Rather than unfurling,, leaves from the bud morphed into the shape of a rose flower.
Shafts of sun break through cloud cover to brighten the reds in the willow rosette and the rosette growing at the tips of the surrounding willow branches. I feel like we are in a rose garden, not standing at the edge of a willow-lined pond that was formed when beavers dammed a small stream.
By turning around, I could see a reflection of a glacier in Mendenhall Lake. I could watch a merganser sunning itself on an offshore rock. I could study Nugget Falls or take in the flight of a kingfisher. Those are natural things. Their presence doesn’t surprise anyone. So I can’t turn my back on these red, red willow rosettes.
Yesterday morning we were mugged by a bear. It’s was the pleasant, perhaps too casual bruin that we caught a few days before shaking apples out of our tree. Yesterday, it toppled over our wheelie bin and cheery-picked our garbage. Then he strolled away, swaying from side to side as he headed towards the next garbage bin.
After sampling our garbage, the bear walked right past our neighbor’s bin. Later I learned that she fills it on the morning of trash day with kitty litter. After the bear walked on, she dropped in the real garbage.
This morning the bear has moved on to a neighborhood this is having its scheduled garbage day. We are left to skirt piles of bear poo and pick up scraps that it left behind. I can’t get too mad at the culprit. Since the local berry crop failed and few salmon made it to the downtown spawning stream, they are forced to search our garbage for the sustenance they will need to hibernate through the winter.
It is hard this morning to find a parking place near the Sheep Creek delta. The tiny parking lot is full. Both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks. We find a place to put our car on the southern side of the creek. The guys who parked the trucks are fishing for silver salmon on the Gastineau Channel shore. They are only outnumbered by gulls.
The last time we visited the delta, eagles greatly outnumbered humans. Only two guys tried their luck at fishing. Dozens of eagles ripped flesh from spawned out salmon. This morning there is only one eagle perched above thousands of gulls. The birds wade in the stream or hover on the exposed gravel, all waiting for pink salmon to die.
One gull screams at a small female pink salmon as the fish rolls on the beach. After minutes of flopping, it goes still, letting the gull start its feast. Newly arrived pink salmon power their way up the stream. Some males with grotesque humps, try to shove each other off the spawning ground. The gulls keep watching. They will watch until the spawning is done and the dying begins.
This morning, the weather offered little promise for good photographs or even a decent walk. Wind whipped raindrops around the yard as the little dog and I headed to the car. We drove out to the old Tlingit village site where an old growth forest offered some protection from the storm.
It was almost cozy in the woods but inclement on the spit we had to pass over to reach Point Louisa. Three guys in heavy weather gear fished for silver salmon on the spit. Just off shore several harbor seals had more success harvesting salmon.
At the end of the spit we ducked into a sparce forest before reaching the point. On the other side of the woods we watched a trio of harlequin ducks sped across the water, heading toward Favorite Passage. A minute later they reversed course and returned to Auk Bay.
A loud croak made me look away from the ducks to where two Stellar sea lions seemed to be cuddling in the small waves. Another sea lion shot its head out of the water with a salmon in its jaws. It flung its head back and forth, trying to break the fish’s spine. Several gulls soon arrived to pick up the scraps flying from the sea lion’s mouth. They know that sea mammals are messy eaters.
We are enjoying the end of a high energy storm. Just an hour ago it was hammering the Treadwell Woods with rain. Some of it hangs on the leaves of cottonwood trees or drips onto the trail. When Aki and I leave the woods, the wind flings scattered drops of it into our faces.
A merlin, one of our tiniest birds of prey, clings to the roof of the old mine shaft ventilator. As I try to wipe rain drops off my camera lens, the merlin flees down the beach and lands on the top of a ruined wharf piling.
When I raise my camera to photograph the merlin, a plastic poop bag flies out of my pocket and flutters down the beach. If I take my picture of the bird, the bag may fly out into the channel. If the seconds that it takes to grab the bag, the bird moves. I search without success for the merlin and then take pictures of other ruined pilings on the off chance that the bird is perched on top of one.
Sunshine breaks through the clouds hanging over the east end of Gastineau Channel. I give up my search for the merlin and walk towards the drama. When we get home and I check through the photos, I find one of the merlin staring at me from atop a piling.
Offshore, a bald eagle stands with his lowered, as if in prayer. I know this is done in response to a heavy shower that soaking the eagle, Aki and I. But seeing it makes me wonder whether animals have a spiritual component in their lives.
Eagles are too practical for religion. They are always looking for their next meal. But Aki, who never has to worry about food, has the time to reflect on the meaning of life.
Further down the beach, a belted king fisher lands on a rounded rock. Feisty little dudes like him could benefit from a broader perspective. They could be mother nature’s cops. The rain seems to have taken the starch out of this kingfisher. Rather than buzz off the competition, it lowers its head and watches a clutch of gulls snatch baitfish from nearby water.