Last Fall, when Aki and I took this trail to Boy Scout Beach, we spooked a bear. It had been digging chocolate lily roots in a tidal meadow. We saw two other root digging bears that day. None of them bothered the little dog or I. But the memory makes me cautious as we follow Eagle River to the sea.
We can hear the ocean long before we see it. Strong westerly winds have raised a surf that pounds onto Eagle Beach. Some of the waves move into the river to crash against a steep section of riverbank. Past wave erosion collapsed the prior bank, forcing crews to relocate the trail two times. Just down river living spruce trees, their roots undercut by wave action, have tumbled into the river.
The violent surf and strong wind forced the sea birds inland. A brace of bufflehead ducks plop into a little side slough as Aki and I walk along it. The ducks blast off the water when they spot us but only land thirty meters away. They must be tired of fighting the waves and wind.
A bald eagle cruises across the river to circle over my head. A little panicked, I look for the little dog and find her a few meters away. The eagle stops circling after I closed the distance to Aki. Three seals ride the river surf with their heads pointed toward the sea. They must be waiting for a last wave of salmon to arrive.
The little dog and I are not used to dramatic surf. Up close, it sounds like a hundred Nugget Falls after a week of heavy rain. We turn our backs to it and climb a sand berm then drop onto another tidal meadow. The berm blocks the wind and dampens the sound. As we make our way back to the car I try to catalogue all the sounds that moving water makes—the plop of a water drop, hum of water moving through a culvert; water gurgling, shushing, dripping. There is enough diversity for a D.J. with time and a good ear to make a symphonic mix-tape.
Aki must think I am crazy. All morning I’ve led her over, through, and around the Troll Woods looking for fish. She waited with patience as I made a few fruitless casts at each spot hoping to lure a fish to strike my hook. The little dog could have told me after the first three stops that the time for catching fish on the moraine is over for the year. Perhaps she is too polite.
Occluding fog reduced our view shed to fifty meters when we first arrived at the trailhead. Now the sun is burning through. The snowy peak of Mt. Stroller White suddenly appears. Dark, duck-like forms cruise in and out of the fog bank still floating over Moose Lake.
We move on until met by a trio of golden retrievers that show little interest in meeting Aki. She shrugs off the group rejection and follows me to a fog free Moraine Lake. Above the lake, a circle in the clouds forms frame around the upper half of Mt. McGinnis. By the time we circle around the little lake, the fog has returned, banishing the mountain.
The rain forest is darker than the last time Aki and I visited. Then leaves still held their fall color. This morning it’s all bare branches and fallen leaves quickly being reduced to mush. Only the bottom hugging sorel retain color. On the drive to the trailhead I spotted two lines of sand hill cranes heading toward the forest. Now, mixed in with the noise of a passing prop plane, I can just make out their ratching calls.
Weeks of heavy rain have swollen the beaver pond and flooded parts of the trail. The pond is empty of cranes or other birds. My eyes are drawn to the islands of golden-brown reflected in the pond water. Aki breaks ahead of me to circle around a submerged portion of the trail. I follow her to a beach that borders a small cove. Gulls and mallard ducks are the only things that disturb the flat-calm water.
There is something calming about an expanse of undisturbed water. If I had brought troubles or worry to this beach, they would soon be forgotten. We stroll down the beach, over a small headland, and onto another beach. Here harlequin and golden eye ducks work the water for food. The Chilkat Mountains, looking crisp with fresh snow, rise across Lynn Canal.
On a windless morning, Aki and I crested a small rise, which normally offers views of mountains and glaciers. Fog shrouded all these marquee things. It also framed a line of spruce trees and softened their reflection in the lake, without effort creating an impressionist scene.
We could hear the honking of Canada geese over the roar of an invisible Nugget Falls and the scolds of a hidden Stellar’s jay. Behind us, the sun burned a silver disk in the marine layer.
Aki led me onto a small trail that paralleled the lakeshore. I didn’t try to hurry the dog, letting her linger as long as she pleased over each piece of pee mail. I was happy for the delay. It might give the fog time to part.
The little poodle-mix almost dragged me through the woods and onto the road through the campground. When thickening clouds blocked out the sun, I stopped looking through openings in the forest for views of the glacier.
Aki spirits picked up each time we ran into another dog. She was trotting a few meters in front of me when we returned to the lake, which now reflected a blue strip of glacial ice. Soon we could see the mountains behind the glacier. Then the fog closed in again, returning us to a soft, white world.
Aki snuffles a patch of trailside grass. After watching her beaver away, I scan the Fish Creek Pond for bird life. Only the severed leaves of cottonwood trees float on the pond’s surface. Heavy raindrops plunk down on fallen leaves covering the trail. As the little poodle-mix finishes her investigation and seals the spot with urine, I try to ignore the chilling rainwater slowly working its way through the fabric of my expensive rain parka to soak the sweatshirt underneath.
My little dog trots down the trail, undeterred by the rain or the hypothermic temperatures. While I was soaking up sun in California and Washington State, Aki went out each day in the rain. It’s as if she has never stretched out in the sun.
While Aki squished down empty rainforest trails, I crunched over a gravel path, passing curated maples, ginko trees, and Henry Moore bronzes. While a North Pacific storm rolled over Aki and Juneau, I strolled along the Tacoma waterfront in crisp, dry weather. When I stepped on fallen leaves, they crunched underfoot.
The little dog and I push on to the mouth of Fish Creek. There gulls and mallards mutter to themselves and swim slowly away from the beach. The resident eagles are elsewhere. Maybe they have already joined the thousands of their kind that assemble north of Haines each November to feed on a late arriving run of chum salmon.
Aki and I are using an elevated boardwalk near the glacier visitor center. It has heavy wire sides designed to keep the local bears safe from the tourists. During bear season you have to pass through gates to enter the boardwalk. They have been removed for the season so I assumed that it is safe for the little dog and I to use the boardwalk as a shortcut to the car.
A yearling bear cub ambles under the boardwalk. Its mother walks closely behind. I grab Aki but there is no danger for either of us. The bears are old pros as at this. All summer tourists have watched them fish for salmon in a nearby creek or dig for chocolate lily roots in the meadow. It has become their habit to ignore the smelly creatures trapped behind the boardwalk fences, which form a people zoo.
Two days ago I watched another habituated bear gorging itself on my neighbor’s garbage. It has learned to identity people with food. That bear now knows that it can ignore our efforts to scare it away from garbage. As much as I enjoy watching a fat bear sauntering along a salmon stream, I’d give up any chance of seeing one again if it meant that bears would never lose their distrust of humans. But now many Juneau bear have.
It’s been three week since the last tour buses released their hordes onto the Mendenhall Lake trails. Aki and I are the only ones using the lake margin this morning, if you don’t count a pair of eagles and one very vocal raven. Last night’s rainstorm ended just before we arrived. The ground, leaves, and eagle feathers are still soaked.
There is no wind to ruffle the lake’s surface so it can’t mirror the glacier. Only the swirls of a school of silver salmon mess with the reflection until the head of a harbor seal appears about the surface. It must have followed the silvers up the river and into the lake. I wait near the salmon to see if the seal can snatch one until Aki begins to keen.
Even after days of heavy rain the lake level has dropped enough for us to beach walk around a peninsula where the arctic tern nest during the summer. The terns have long ago left for their 10,000-mile migration to South America. But the little dog and I still avoid walking over their nesting area, which still feels like holy ground. From the beach I can see scattered feathers, relics of an unfortunate bird who didn’t live long enough to make the long flight south.
A large iceberg has come to ground off the tip of the peninsula. Last winter Aki and I might have walked on its surface when it was still part of the glacier. These days I find myself taking many photographs of icebergs. I will not have an opportunity to do it in a few years after the glacier has completed its retreat from the lake.