Aki trots down the narrow boardwalk, passing blueberry bushes in full bloom. For the first time in weeks, the sun muscles its way through the cloud cover. It enriches the pinks of the berry blossoms and warms the little dog’s tight, grey curls. A pair of red-breasted robins hop between bushes. Above them, a chestnut-backed chickadee, its clever toes clinging to a thin alder branch, leans back as if to be better enjoy the sun.
Bird song fills the air and I wonder why this place is so rich. It’s just a swampy yard with soil too poor to support spruce or hemlocks. The stubby Douglas pines are the only evergreen trees that can survive.
A flash of blue startles me out a sun-induced reverie—a sparrow-like bird with bright-yellow patches on its wings and back. It has vertical white and gray stripes on its chest and back that make it look like it is wearing a thrift store vest. I won’t be able to find a picture of it in any of my bird books. The handsome stranger, like the other songbirds along this trail are not shy. They flit and fly often but always seem to land in a spot where I can see them.
Crossing a slow creek lined with blooming skunk cabbage we make our way to the beach. Just before reaching it we pass beneath an eagle’s nest built high in a spruce. Only the white head of an adult eagle shows above the lip of the nest but we can hear the mewing of a chick.
There is little wind to riffle Stephen’s Passage when we reach the beach. I plop down onto a patch of dry gravel and let the little dog explore. A northern harrier flies off the water towards us a few feet off the ground. The nested eagle screams and the harrier swings away and moves south towards Outer Point.
Aki and I are walking along the north bank of Eagle River. A line of Canada geese cackle and slow walk to the river. We are not making the geese nervous. The little dog isn’t even in their line of sight and I am careful to keep a respectful distance from the birds. Something at the edge of the sand bars is stirring them. Through my telephonic lens I can just make out a mature bald eagle being chased by a Canada goose. The eagle climbs to hunting height and circles over a gathering of geese feeding on emerging grass. Several of this group cackle and fly, only to land a few meters out in the river.
More geese stir when a northern harrier flies over at a low attitude. Its flight path takes it over our head. But even after all this negative attention most of the Canada geese continue to feed along the river. Only when a circus of children, and them on the southern bank of the river, make their noisy way to Boy Scout Beach do the Canadians take to the air.
The kids swing over to a big tidal meadow and trigger another exodus—a big flight of snow geese that had been refueling on the meadow before continuing on to their nesting sites along the Bering Sea. The powerful fliers change from white line to a cloud as they move over Lynn Canal. It’s my first sighting of the legends even though I lived for years in Western Alaska less than 100 miles from their northern nests. Here in the rain forest elders tell children that hummingbirds migrate here burrowed in the feathers of snow geese. For the rest of the walk I will check each blossoming blue berry bush for hitchhikers.
After spending so much time recently at the glacier, today I opt for a more homey trip. Aki trots behind the tails of my skis as I move easily down a moraine trail. It’s raining, which makes the packed trail snow almost friction-free. Maybe that is why we get so close to the northern harrier before it flies off with a beak full of rabbit entrails. The grey bird loses most of them by the time it reaches a nearby tree roost.
I as pleased that Aki doesn’t bark or bother the big bird. The harrier isn’t pleased that I stop to take a few pictures. When it flies off, we head down the trail, passing over sections of the moraine that will soon be flooded by water backed up behind one of the beavers’ many dams. We probably won’t reach this deep into the troll woods until next winter.
The harrier is back when we returned, standing over a mostly-eaten hare. He is only a few feet from the trail. If not for the deep snow and heavy brush surrounding us, I’d lead Aki in a wide arc around the hunter and his prey. But there is nothing for it so I lead the little dog slowly toward the harrier. It flies off to a nearby tree, ready to finish his feast after we are gone.