I’m leaning against a young tree, using its trunk to steady my camera. The tree is part of a spruce hedge that should prevent a nearby great blue heron from seeing me. Through a narrow opening in the hedge I watch the heron wade across a narrow stream. It moves with such stiff grace that my eye can’t catch actual movement.
Aki doesn’t whine or give any other clue of our presence. It won’t be her fault of the heron spots us. In my makeshift blind, I wait for the big bird to stab down into the water after a sand lance. Instead it slowly turns its head until it is looking directly at me. Busted.
After extracting myself from the hedge, I give the little poodle-mix a reassuring pet and lead us further out into the Fish Creek Delta. We cross an open spit from which we have a 360-degree view of the area. In the center of this natural compass a cold wind slams snow and rain at us. To the west, the sun is throwing cloud shadows on the green slopes of Admiralty Island. A wall of clouds obscures the glacier to the north and the Douglas Island ridge to the south. For a moment another cloud curtain raises to reveal Sheep Mountain in the East and then drops.
Two eagles, both hunched against a cold wind, cling to the roof of an old mine ventilation tower. The tower rises out of a beach of mine tailings that were crushed to sand over a hundred years ago. Rusting relics of the time when this was a mining town emerge from the sandy tailings, exposed by the ebb tide.
The eagles on the tower have the white head and tail feathers of mature birds. Fifty meters away, an eagle with the mottled brown and whites of an immature predator roosts far back in a tangle of alder branches. It watches one of the mature eagles, maybe a parent, fly out and over Gastineau Channel, circle and then dive toward the water. When the hunter returns with empty talons, its mate gives it a scolding that can be heard all the way from Downtown Juneau to the cabins at Lucky Me. I turn to see what effect the scolding has had on the immature bird and find that it has flown away.
The adult eagles settle into silence sulks allowing me to concentrate on the sound of Aki’s paws pounding on the sand and the songs of nesting birds. In spite of the lingering stretch of cold weather, the inhabitants of the Treadwell woods have committed to spring.
Pollen pods of alders lay empty on the forest floor. Sharp-edged leaves emerge from the dead-looking branches of cow parsnips. Drops of last night’s rain cling to the butter-yellow skunk cabbage flowers. Elderberry leaves slowly relax their grip on their clusters of incipient flowers.
I was in the kitchen, making coffee, thinking about using some sheltered beach for this morning’s walk when unexpected sunshine lit up Dan Moller Basin. The sun reflected intense light off the freshly fallen snow that flocked the basin’s spruce trees. I had to squint even though the basin is across the channel from our house and at least a kilometer away from our kitchen window.
Hey little dog, we’re heading to the mountains. Aki, who was stilled curled up on the bed, didn’t stirred. Thinking only of winter’s beauty and not the cold baggage that accompanies it, I dressed Aki in a light wrap and chose rain gear for myself. We drove to Eagle Crest, Juneau’s closed-for-the-season ski area. The temperature dropped as we gained altitude until it was just above freezing. Our car tires wobbled slightly on the snowy road.
Two inches of new snow covered the trailhead parking area. More was falling as we started down the trail. I wished that I had brought gloves. The little dog looked like she would rather be some place else. Neither of us was prepared for this late attempt by winter to reclaim the mountains.
By doddling behind and stopping each time I turned to check on her, Aki made her wishes clear. When I gave up and turned to join her she raised her tail to its happy position and dashed back toward the car. The snow stopped and sunshine began to leak through the cloud layer. In seconds the snow caught by the meadow’s trees melted. That covering the trail shrank, exposing bare gravel and puddles of melt water.
High winds rattled our house windows this morning. But Aki was still willing to head out for a walk. Last night she met me at the airport after a ten-day separation. I wondered, as I walked off he plane, whether she would be happy to see me. While we were gone, she spent every day with neighbors who took her on walks. Her nights were spent with family. She had it made. When I neared, the little poodle-mix raised her nose toward me, not in derision but to gather in my scent. It seemed to please her.
This morning we drive out to North Douglas Island and use the False Outer Point Trail to become reacquainted. At first Aki ignored me as she catalogued smells and cues left behind by other dogs. She caught up with me at the beaver pond, where we had watched a bevy of swans before I left for California. The swans were gone but two mallard drakes floated in the rain.
The rain slacked off but not the wind. We listened to the pulsing gusts bend the treetops, sounding like high surf along a California beach. The forest sheltered the beach and bays that border it from the wind. Hundreds of goldeneye ducks puttered over calm water. When I took a break from watching them, I spotted Aki, watching with patience concern—a loving parent ready to protect her sometimes-foolish charge.
When we reach the border of the Treadwell Woods and Sandy Beach Aki leaps onto the sand and charges up to a brace of Bernese mountain dogs. The dogs and their masters are kind so I am not worried. Aki squeals and runs circles around the big dogs trying to entice them into a game of tag. They stand like stunned statutes rather than accept my little poodle-mix’s invitation.
Fifty meters away an adult bald eagle watches the show from atop the old mine ventilation shaft. A minus ebb tide has exposed much of the beach and emptied the little moat that usually isolates the ventilation shaft from the rest of the breach. I expect the eagle to fly off when the little dog and I approach. But it just looks down with apparent distain on its face. Its mate roosts nearby on a barnacle-covered anchor. Even though the anchored bird is more exposed than the one on the ventilation shaft, it shows even less interest in me.
After watching the eagles for a moment I look down, expecting to see Aki giving me a bored look. The little dog is twenty meters away standing near driftwood that would offer her a hiding place if things went bad with the eagles.
We walk parallel courses down the beach until forced to return to the woods by the little cove formed by the collapse of a mining tunnel. While watching a golden eye hen launching itself into a dive, Aki appears at my feet. She gives me one of her “you are not going to do something stupid” looks, like she thinks I am going to try to cross the deep cove. No trust, little dog, no trust.
After 17 dry days the rain has returned to Southeast Alaska. You can almost hear the forest sigh with relief. I am doing the same. The rain has washed away a thin layer of glacier silt that covered the downtown streets and sidewalks. The rain may have discouraged other hikers from using the Dredge Lakes trail system. Alone, Aki and I move up a trail that parallels the Mendenhall River. On a clear day the trail offer views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. This morning only a sliver of the river of ice appears above the river.
Thanks to the recent stint of dry weather, a tributary normally too deep for us to cross has been reduced to a trickle. I take advantage and lead the little dog up a side slough to a section of the river we can rarely reach. Today it’s a hang out for mallards and merganser ducks. As we approach they fly off the beach in twos or threes and land a short ways off in the river. Soon the whole raft follows them.
After circling a large beaver den, we cut back through the woods to Moose Lake. While Aki rolls and rubs her face in a soft patch of trail snow I hear a bird with a powerful voice call “ko-hoh.” We move on, after an unsuccessful attempt to locate the caller,and reach the lake. Ice still covers most it. Two trumpeter swans float in a small patch of open water, their long necks stained brown by the muskeg water in which they recently fed. Now they sleep with their black beaks tucked into their back feathers.
One of the swans wakes up when my foot slips on some gravel. It looks at the little dog and me, then resumes its nap. I assume that they have just finished a leg of their northward migration. Now they must rest and feed before resuming their flight to the summer breeding grounds.
Aki and I meet two humans and their three dogs on our walk back to the car. When I mention the swans, they tell me that two swans were feeding on the lake last week. I wonder if our swans are the same birds, still recovering from the long flight or a newly arrived pair.
I feel like Ulysses, Aki—Joyce’s Bloom, not Homer’s hero. The poodle-mix, who has never shown any interest in literature, ignores me. Two rambunctious Labrador retrievers, rather than the Cyclops force us to take a more circuitous route to the mouth of Fish Creek, sending us on an extended odyssey.
Our slow road takes us past a huge beaver dam and around a small, landlocked pond. Two bufflehead ducks and a tiny raft of mallards paddle nervously across the pond’s surface. One of the beavers pops up and crash dives when I look in its direction. Overhead two kingfishers battle for ownership of the pond. The victorious kingfisher roosts on a limb in the grove of dead spruce trees that surround the beaver’s den.
After circumnavigating the kingfisher’s pond, we take the proper path around Fish Creek pond and down to the creek mouth. Hundreds of mallards loaf on the beach and nearby waters. Near the little dog and I, a semipalmated plover darts from rock to rock and then takes flight. Since my attention is on the little plover, I miss an eagle’s attempt to snatch a mallard from the creek mouth. The predator only manages to flush the mallards into flight. In seconds the ducks form a tight cloud that twists and turns in the air over the creek like a school of mackerel. Seconds later, the mallards are back at the creek mouth listening to the eagle’s lament.