In past years, before the spread of Covid, this morning I’d be packing for my annual trip to Skagway for the North Words Conference. In the day after packing, I’d ride an Alaska State Ferry from Juneau north to the old gold rush town. If rain pounded the ferry deck, I’d hunker down in the ship cafeteria and sip coffee. Many times, I’d share a table there with a friend or two, or work on some writing. Since she hated boat rides, Aki the dog would be home in Juneau.
Hoping that most of the flames from the Covid pandemic will be out by then, the North Words folks have postponed this year’s conference until Labor Day Weekend. I’ll probably go if I can. A good friend and I need to drink a toast in front of the Onion Bar for another friend and North Words writer who died last Winter.
To spur thoughts of other things, I take down to the Sheep Creek Delta, now almost totally exposed at low tide. After parking, we skirt a small gang of dog walkers happily chatting with each other near the trailhead. I am always a little jealous of hikers so willing to turn their backs on the natural beauty surrounding them to enjoy each other’s company. Aki starts to head over to the group then turns to follow me onto the exposed beach.
Normally the place is full of ducks and eagles. But this is early summer when many waterfowl move out to the coast to nest and get fat harvesting food. I only spot crows and ravens on the beach. Just offshore, a bald eagle is perched on a navigation warning light. It doesn’t fly off as I walk to the edge of the exposed beach, close enough to photograph him with the mountain crest of Douglas Island in the background.
Sunshine warmed our car when we left home for the mountains. The air conditioning unit kicked in for the first time this year. Both of Aki’s people were in the car. We planned on climbing the ski hill to an upper meadows that might still hold snow. Aki the dog loves to roll in the unexpected stuff. When we arrived, we found the ski area still buried with thick, heavy snow, enough to allow people to ski. Wishing to avoid a heavy slog up the snow-buried mountains, we turned around.
On the way back we parked next to a connection of lower mountain meadows. We started to cross a snowfree one. The sun that had been lighting up the meadow disappeared behind a wall of clouds, making the temperature drop a bit. The colors of meadow and pine trees dropped as well. Wanting to salvage something from the visit, her other human and I lead Aki in a hunt for cranberries. In a few seconds we found a small scattering of them on a circle of red moss.
Early last Summer, tiny cranberry plants set flowers on the moist surface of the meadow. Tiny insects fertilized the flowers so the plants could produce dark, red berries. Birds ate some that fall. But most just laid on the muskeg meadow until covered with snow. This week, melting snow exposed the tart little berries, which we picked until we had enough to take home for a powerful little dessert.
Aki and I had to drive through a rain storm to reach the Fish Creek Delta. It was early morning. I had to wake the little dog when I was ready to leave the house. If we waited too late, the trail would be flooded by the incoming tide.
Hidden bald eagles chattered at us when we moved down the creek. But we didn’t see one until we reached the north end of a little spruce island where you can see Mendenhall Glacier. There, a very wet bald eagle was hunched on an off shore rock, holding its wings stretched out to dry. Later we spotted a different eagle with dry, rather than wet wings. We also saw two heron that didn’t drip water as they snatched tiny fish while standing on the creek edge.
So, the first eagle must have miss-timed its attempt to snatch something with its extended talons and crashed into the ocean. Maybe it clamped onto the back of a king salmon that just arrived to spawn in the Fish Creek Pond. We have seen at least one king pull an eagle into the water. If that happened to this soaked guy, he might now wish that he had let his targeted king salmon swim by.
Tonight the rain returns. Today we can still use the sun to enjoy Mendenhall Lake. Clouds will deaden the sky this evening and heavy rain will keep many folks indoors. That’s why I was surprised at how few people have taken to the glacier trail this morning. The sun still shines, making recently freed glacier ice sparkle.
We wanted to take a moraine trail to where it drops you onto a beach on Mendenhall Lake. But several signs said that no dog, not even a poodle who has used her 10 pound body to chase away grumpy bears, could walk the trail we wanted to take.
Instead we strolled over to a saddle to take another look at this year’s artic terns. They rose off the beach in large clouds when we approached on the last visit. Today we could only spot one or two at a time. Some were collecting food for their nesters. Most kept a close by watch on the new born babes.
It’s late morning when Aki and enter the Dredge Lake Forest. Sun lights up the tops of the surrounding trees but keeps our trail in shade. Because the grass stalks are young and soft, Aki grazes on them as we work our way into the troll woods.
On gray days, when rain water soaks the woods, I use the quickest path to pass through them. But today, cottonwoods are sending out yellow-green leaves that fill the air with a rich perfume. In a few days, the leaves will expand and thicken. They will turn a dark green. They will not long smell like perfume. But today, while the sun still rises, the temperature reaches 60 degrees, and the forest is full of singing birds, the little dog and I try to get lost on a little used forest trail.
Sometimes rain forest rain keeps you trapped in your house. That’s when Aki refuses to leave our yard. This morning, I wondered how she would react to walking out of the house. Would she whine or happily walk over to the lawn to pee? This morning she peed.
After she relieved herself, we drove over to the Treadwell Woods, hoping that the forest trees would provide some protection from the soaking rain. This morning, it didn’t. But Aki took the increased hammering with patience. I tried to let emerging pink salmonberry flowers distract me. Rain gathering on their petals pulled down the flowers and made them sparkle. I quickly snapped a few pictures in case the raising wind would soon shake away the water drops weighing down the flowers.
I hadn’t expected arctic terns this summer. Then Aki and I drove out to Mendenhall Lake. Until the Alaska weather rose to speed up the Mendenhall Glacier’s melt rate, the terns had little trouble feeding and raising their families. But now they get flooded out.
They are tough dudes too. I once watch a tern chase an adult bald eagle across the face of the glacier while pulling at the eagle’s tail feathers. Terns are also beautiful, with crisp lines and bright orange and black trim. You have to keep your distance from them when canoeing on any water. They dive toward the heads of humans who paddle too close.
For the past several summers, glacier melt has roared into the lake and raised the height of the lake water, flooding parts of the human trail and completely covering over the tern nests. It seems to get worse every year. Last summer I just assumed that the terns would never return. But on this damp May day, I am pleasantly surprised by the number of terns that that have once again flown 9000 miles from South America to hatch their eggs on the edge of Mendenhall Lake.
Two bald eagles were occupying a cottonwood tree when Aki and I reached the end of Sheep Creek Beach. I was surprised to see the pair. Breeding pairs are now taking turns protecting their nest. A week or two ago, I watched an eagle dive bomb a raven trying to snatch an egg from the eagle’s nest. Raven must have left at least one egg there when it flew off. One of the eagle parents was tucked in the nest, over its eggs a week later when I passed by again.
The nesting eagle flashed me a fierce sign. Was it warning that she would rip out my eyes if I tried to climb up her nest tree? The pair of eagles that Aki and I watched this morning were sending out their bored “you don’t deserve our attention” look. Maybe that’s why they let me walk within a few hundred feet before returning their attention to a nearby pen of young salmon that will soon be released into the sea.
I had little reason to walk the beach at Mendenhall Lake. The lake ice has melted as did the shoreline snow. Already shorebirds are preparing nests near the glacier’s edge. But there was still a chance to spot the swans. I had already photographed a trumpeter swan feeding on Auk Lake. May there would be more on the Mendenhall Lake.
It seemed odd that the Auk Lake swan was alone. When not feeding or grooming, it would let out a sad sounding “ko hoh.” I never heard a response. There were four swans when I passed by the lake last week. Today there is only one.
The other three swans were not at Mendenhall Lake when I looked for them later in the morning. But it was flat-ass calm. The lake perfectly reflected the surrounding mountains but not the glacier ice. Another puzzle to go with the presence on Auk Lake of the sole swimming swan.
Aki seems content to stay home this morning. She must know that it is raining. Unless we have a little luck, we are both going to get soaked on any walk. Normally, I’d drive us over to a heavy forest where the trees would give us a little protection from the storm. But I have a feeling that migrating birds might be taking a feeding stop at Fish Creek. We have a chance to see birds that will spend the summer up north.
If Aki could speak English, I’d try to convince her that we need to visit Fish Creek. That won’t be necessary. The little poodle could throw on the brakes when we reached the trail. But she won’t. Even at 14 years of age, she still feels responsible for keeping me safe in the rain.
We didn’t see any people on the trail but there were plenty of traveling birds. A handful of green wing teal ducks ignored us as we neared them. They were too busy hammering food from a shallow pond. Soon, they will move further north. A gang of five lesser yellow legs hunk and peck food nearby. They chose to ignore us as well.