We are running late. It’s already noon so we should expect to find people having lunch on the Eagle Landing Beach. The almost full trailhead parking lot almost assure of running into someone on the trail. But we are the first dogs or humans to reach the beach where a brace of merganser ducks sunbathes.
The ducks must be stunned by the sun because they don’t stir even after we break out of the woods. The female is the first to notice the little dog and I. Without rising to her feet, she wakes up her mate with a squawk. The drake, with his chest nestled into the beach gravel and his head raised to the sun, still won’t move. Only when the hen stomps off toward the water does he rise.
It’s a treat to walk on a beach untracked since last night’s high tide. We only find the tracks of the mergansers and one deer. Aki and I make parallel tracks on the beach before returning to the woods. The trail leads across a little headland to another pocket beach. Just offshore a land otter fishes. He quickly disappears, perhaps into another forested headland. We cross that one two, finding not a land otter but plenty of evidence of its presence. Empty sea urchin shells litter the mossy floor. Near one such a shell pile, I discover a folding pad, the kind that cross country skiers sit on during coffee breaks. Seeing it detritus, I carry away the pad. At home, I find a ring of bite marks left by the otter that carrying into its keep.
Aki and I are staying away from the glacial moraine until this cold snap ends. Thanks to Juneau’s myriad of micro climates, we have lots of options, including the trails on North Douglas Island. I pull the car into the parking lot for the closest North Douglas trail—Fish Creek. It’s 17 degrees F. Only a light breeze ruffles Aki’s curls as she sniffs around for friendly scents.
Ice now covers the creek except for the riffles. Fast water freezes last. The temperature must drop far below 17 degrees for it to ice over. We move down to the pond but can’t use the normal trail to pass around it. The last flood tide covered the trail with brackish water, which is now slippery ice. Inch-thick sheets of pan ice lay on the pond bank. It crunches and cracks as it is lifted by a new flood tide.
The wind picks up as we leave the pond and head toward the creek mouth. Aki sticks close to my heels. She ignores the large raft of mallards that swim with heads down just offshore. I try to imagine dunking my head in the same water and the pain it would bring. A plump, shore bird stands on a rock just offshore, looking as relaxed as it would on a summer day.
As the wind numbs my face, I lose interest in slipping and sliding down the creek mouth. I turn back, followed by a now energized poodle-mix. We work our way back to the trailhead. When we cross the creek bridge, I expect to see the ice breaking up under pressure from the incoming tide. It still holds firm. Fifty meters up stream three river otters slink onto the ice. One by one they dive into the ice-free rapids. We are such cold weather wimps, little dog.
Aki waits in the woods as I scramble over some rocks to the outfall of a salt chuck. At extreme high tide, salt water flows over the outfall and into the small lake that it drains. That’s why it’s called a salt chuck. Steel head trout and three different types of salmon climb the outfall rocks on their way to the spawning grounds. This morning here might be some fall run steel head moving into the lake.
Turning, I scan the lake and spot a heron on the far shore. From here it could be a piece of driftwood. But my camera lens confirms it to be a great blue heron. While I spy on the heron with the camera, a river otter pokes it head into the frame. It acts as surprised as I feel, rising high into the air and then crash diving beneath the lake’s surface. By now Aki is standing by my side. The little dog starts barking and wagging her tail.
The otter returns, this time with a friend for back up. Now two otters swirl nearby in the lake, occasionally lifting their heads high above the large. They make a chuffing sound. Aki responds with more barking. In the past, when trying to coax Aki into the water, otters had made a chirping sound. Today’s chuffing seems designed to intimidate rather than seduce.
Otters are at home on land as well as in water. As they slowly close the distance between themselves and Aki, I snatch up the little poodle-mix and carry her away. She may have meant her barks to be inviting. The otters were acting as if she was challenging them to a fight. Since they outweighed the little dog by at least two to one, it would be a fight that the poodle could not win.
This morning, I stopped at the North Douglas Boat Ramp to take a picture of a commercial fishing boat. The boat was designed to catch salmon by trolling a collection of baited hooks through the water. Now it squats on beach usually used for launching kayaks, useless but looking as pretty as a picture.
Three land otters swam past the troller and climbed onto the end of the boat ramp float. Like hungry burglars, they gorge themselves on chunks of flesh discarded by the person who cleaned his catch on the little processing table. Good thing I didn’t let Aki out of the car. The last time we came across this gang of otters, they tried to seduce her into the water.
As the otters savored their quick meal, an adult bald eagle approached from the north. Rather than using the usual circling technique, this sneaky eagle cruised low over the water. The otters spotted me and dived into the water. When they looked up again, the eagle was right above them. Apparently startled, the otters panic dived as the eagle arcs toward them.
A land otter can weigh anywhere between 11 and 30 pounds. They are way too heavy for the eagle to lift, even from dry land. The aquatic otters were never in any real danger. After the hungry eagle returned to its roost, the otters cruised along the shore, heads above water, looking for more trouble.
Aki and I head up Fish Creek. It’s the wrong choice for at least two reasons. The old growth spruce forest shades the trail. Ninety percent of Juneau’s other trails are sun flushed today. They also offer easier walking on packed paths. The little dog can trot over the top of the crusty snow that borders the path. Since I’d break through the crust, I must use my ice cleats to stay upright on the trail.
We could avoid the slick conditions and have a chance to walk in the sunshine if we dropped onto the frozen creek. But only tracks of the water-happy river otters dimple its surface. The forest deer stay off the creek. As I slog along, I wonder whether the sound of water running under ice intimidated the deer. It certainly discourages me from following the otter tracks.
Few dogs use the trail so nothing distracts Aki from her primary task—to keep me from doing something stupid. She does not follow me onto the creek ice to check out some eagle tracks. She gives me her “Are you kidding me” look when I glance back at her. She shifts into her “you finally figured it out” glare when I rejoin her on the trail. Chastened, I follow her back to the car.
I wonder if seals are the ravens of the ocean. Aki, who has never interacted with seals but has a grudging respect for ravens, is uncomfortable responding to my musing. It might be different if we were talking beavers or river otters. She has been lured out onto thin ice twice by their kind. Two otters called for her to join them on thin ice over this very Fish Creek Pond. She broke through pond ice twice near the glacier while answering the call of a young beaver.
My little dog may be wondering why I bring up harbor seals where we are walking along a fresh water stream. But then she cannot see one of them twirling and diving in Fish Creek. It must have followed the high tide surge up the creek seeking something to eat or just to alleviate boredom. More than once while kayaking I have turned in my seat to see a harbor seal a few feet from my rudder, looking at me with the saddest eyes in the world.
To escape the wind hammering Downtown Juneau, I drive the little dog to the Mendenhall Peninsula beach access trail. She starts squealing and bouncing around when we are more than a mile away from the parking area. The trail leads us through an old growth spruce forest with a canopy thick enough to keep out all but a dusting of snow. We follow the boot prints of a previously hiker, each one an island of red-brown duff in a sea of white.
We usually pass under several eagles on this trail that make themselves known with screeching complaints. Today I can only hear mallards chuckling in nearby wetlands. Aki’s excitement fades when we reach the forest edge. She hangs back as I walk along the beach and under a line of spruce trees that are often used by bald eagles. The presence of eagles or the sound of birdshot booming from hunter’s shotguns make the little dog nervous. There are no eagles today and hunting season is over. But she sulks along behind as if sensing the ghosts of both.
Like Aki, I remember the eagles we’ve seen on this beach, the gunshots from a skiff emerging from the fog in December, and a gang of otters that crunched through the tough skulls of Irish lords (sculpins) on the beach in spring. I tend to remember past dramas on days that lack any.
After we turn back toward the car, Aki perks up and takes the lead. She starts monitoring smells and urine spots as the sun breaks through the marine layer to provide me a little drama.
I would call this sea mammal rock if I wasn’t inadvertently sitting on the remains of a river otter’s meal. From the amount of scat and empty shells, it must be a favorite meal spot for the big weasels.
On prior visits Aki and I have looked down on harbor seals raising their curious heads into the air and watched a raucous pod of stellar sea lions swim around us on a high tide. Today two humpback whales feed just a quarter-mile away.
One of the whales is two-thirds the size of the other and I wonder if they are related. They are all business. We see no showy breaches or even an iconic flash of a tail framed against the sky. They just feed like they would at the end of a fast. Have they just returned from Hawaii, where humpbacks are so busy procreating they don’t eat? Or are they part of the minority that stays all year in Alaska waters?
Concentrating on the whales, I don’t notice that my little dog has begun shivering. Stiffly, I rise up, poke my head over the rock edge like a curious otter, and lead Aki back into the woods.
(Note, this photo was taken another day at another place)
Aki and I walk under a canopy of cottonwood branches too bare of leaves to block the rain. When there is a break in the noise of children playing tag, I hear raindrops plopping into a drainage pond. It’s great that the kids, all weighed down in slickers and rubber knee boots, take such joy from playing in the rain. But, their presence adds tension to the walk. If she can, Aki will chase and bark at them in the same way she does with other dogs. Kids often take this the wrong way.
We manage to skirt the knot of kids and walk over to the deep-water remains of the collapsed glory hole. Six mallards float together like a raft on the other side of the hole and then burst into the air. A land otter abandons his stealth mode to watch the ducks land on the beach. A sea duck leaves the same beach and floats onto the waters of the glory hole. I stop and watch, no longer hearing the sound of kids, not noticing that the rain has stopped. I’m waiting for the otter to strike. I wait a long time during which the sea duck dives down and returns to the surface several times. During one dive, when he is under for more than a minute, I think he is lunch until I spot the otter, fifty feet away, still eying the mallards. The duck dips under again and doesn’t come up. The head of seal does, scoping the glory hole waters like a submarine periscope until spotting Aki and I.
Walking away, I feel the clam and peace that had been settling over me since I first spotted the otter. The worry stress from a possible Aki-kid encounter is gone and so, I suspect, are the agitations of this pre-Christmas day
Today, winter solstice should be the northern new year’s eve. We all look forward to the lengthening of days that starts tomorrow. In Aki’s human home holiday lights keep the darkness at bay. Floors and clothes have been cleaned in preparation for the New Year. Here, on the Fish Creek delta, an 18.8 foot high tide washes the marshes clean and floods over the trail. In Gastineau Channel, a salmon gill-netter takes advantage of the high water to motor across the bar to downtown Juneau.
On our last visit an otter coxed Aki out onto the ice and I felt fortunate to get the little dog back in one piece. Today, only small chunks of ice float on the flooded pond so I relax and let Aki wander. While she sniffs a nearby alder, I spot the bright purple interior of a recently harvested sea urchin—the leavings of an otter’s new year’s meal. Like a whale’s plume or even a steaming pile of bear scat, the broken purple shells remind me who will share the rain forest with us during the next year. I am humble by the thought, humbled by these scattered shells, but also happy to have such interesting neighbors.