Why are the tree lines so crisp, the dead grass glowing in the early morning sun? The images jump out at Aki and I as we climb the trail leading to Gastineau Meadows. We won’t be able to ask for an answer from other hikers. Strong, pulsating winds seem to be keeping them off the trail.
I find the answer by looking at the trailside alders. This late on a normal October morning, not one leaf should still be clinging to the alders. This morning trailside alders seem weighed down with leaves that have curled up tight. Are they hoping for a return of warmer weather? Or are they stalling long enough for the leaves to send their nutrients down to the tree roots?
Only a few humans share the ocean boardwalk with Aki and I this morning. I wonder if that is why the place is full of confident ravens and crows. They take position on fence and lamp posts as we walk onto the boardwalk. In a few seconds we are about to passing pass three perched ravens. Each has its back turned to us as we approach.
The ravens take off and fly a few meters ahead of us as we approach. They do this again and again and again as we walk toward Egan Drive.
Aki ignores the birds unless one flies low over her head. Then she snarls out a protest as they land on a nearby fence rail. After that she acts like they don’t exist. Decades ago, when I lived in a tundra house surrounded by a dog team, I watched a pair of ravens steal dog food from the bowl of one of my lead dogs. One raven flew low over the dog’s bowl. When the dog went after it, the other raven snatched some kibble from the dog’s bowl. When the dog leaped after that raven, the other one filled up on the dog’s food.
Yesterday afternoon, our plane could barely land on the Juneau Airstrip. Clouds from a heavy fall storm almost force us to fly on to Anchorage. But we bounced and slowed on the runway and were soon deplaning at the airport. Forty-five minutes later we left the airport while calming down the nerves in our nostrils after being tested for Covid. Then we started a mandatory quarantine.
This morning, while the town was enjoying a brief brake between heavy rain storms, Aki and I took the car out to a remote trail where we could walk without risking any contact with other humans. As it turned out, we would have lots of contact with wild birds. The dog and I fell into the old ways—watching out for each other.
Most of the action took place along a little creek, where it crossed it’s tidal meadow. More than a dozen bald eagles huddled together along the creek bank, eating salmon scraps. Ducks and gulls hung about them, ready to grab anything that floated away from the eagles.
Suddenly, a pair of belted kingfishers dashed over the eagle’s hangout, chanting intimidations before diving for food in the creek. A raven drove off one of eagles. Two merganser ducks sulked off. The other eagles fled. When the kingfishers flew to another section of the stream, Aki and spotted a black-billed magpie, acting like it had just driven off the other pesky birds.
Back in the rain forest, two thousand miles away, Aki and her dog buddy Cedar are probably cuddled in a corner of Cedar’s house. A storm soaked them both during their morning walk, but it won’t prevent them from dozing. Down here, while I follow a trail offering views of Puget Sound, I can’t help thinking about the little poodle-mix. We will meet up tomorrow afternoon in Juneau.
She will panic with excitement at the Juneau Airport when we meet. She’ll wait impatiently for my wife and I to submit to mandatory Covid tests and then grab our suitcases. Aki will lean against me as we get a ride back to the house. She’ll follow us as we unpack while a pot of tea brews in the kitchen. Then, as happens each time we reunite with her in the house, she will slink in her little cage and hide.
Normally, Aki and I can work things out during our next daily hike. But tomorrow Aki’s humans will be quarantined for at least a week. I pray that we can find another way to make up with the tiny, if also powerful little dog.
The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
It is hard this morning to find a parking place near the Sheep Creek delta. The tiny parking lot is full. Both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks. We find a place to put our car on the southern side of the creek. The guys who parked the trucks are fishing for silver salmon on the Gastineau Channel shore. They are only outnumbered by gulls.
The last time we visited the delta, eagles greatly outnumbered humans. Only two guys tried their luck at fishing. Dozens of eagles ripped flesh from spawned out salmon. This morning there is only one eagle perched above thousands of gulls. The birds wade in the stream or hover on the exposed gravel, all waiting for pink salmon to die.
One gull screams at a small female pink salmon as the fish rolls on the beach. After minutes of flopping, it goes still, letting the gull start its feast. Newly arrived pink salmon power their way up the stream. Some males with grotesque humps, try to shove each other off the spawning ground. The gulls keep watching. They will watch until the spawning is done and the dying begins.
This morning, the weather offered little promise for good photographs or even a decent walk. Wind whipped raindrops around the yard as the little dog and I headed to the car. We drove out to the old Tlingit village site where an old growth forest offered some protection from the storm.
It was almost cozy in the woods but inclement on the spit we had to pass over to reach Point Louisa. Three guys in heavy weather gear fished for silver salmon on the spit. Just off shore several harbor seals had more success harvesting salmon.
At the end of the spit we ducked into a sparce forest before reaching the point. On the other side of the woods we watched a trio of harlequin ducks sped across the water, heading toward Favorite Passage. A minute later they reversed course and returned to Auk Bay.
A loud croak made me look away from the ducks to where two Stellar sea lions seemed to be cuddling in the small waves. Another sea lion shot its head out of the water with a salmon in its jaws. It flung its head back and forth, trying to break the fish’s spine. Several gulls soon arrived to pick up the scraps flying from the sea lion’s mouth. They know that sea mammals are messy eaters.
Offshore, a bald eagle stands with his lowered, as if in prayer. I know this is done in response to a heavy shower that soaking the eagle, Aki and I. But seeing it makes me wonder whether animals have a spiritual component in their lives.
Eagles are too practical for religion. They are always looking for their next meal. But Aki, who never has to worry about food, has the time to reflect on the meaning of life.
Further down the beach, a belted king fisher lands on a rounded rock. Feisty little dudes like him could benefit from a broader perspective. They could be mother nature’s cops. The rain seems to have taken the starch out of this kingfisher. Rather than buzz off the competition, it lowers its head and watches a clutch of gulls snatch baitfish from nearby water.
While Aki pees, I study a collection of rubber boots. Once children wore them for splashing through puddles or crossing shallow streams. Now leaky with rot, they’ve been turned them into flower planters and set in a line on the top of a fence rail. As the little dog drags me toward the next good smell, I wonder if the parents of the booted children couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the used up footwear. Do the purple flowers poking out of the tops of camouflage wellingtons remind them of a four-year-old’s laughter.
Excited by the unexpected appearance of the sun, Aki and I walk to the shore of Gastineau Channel, were the sculpture of a breaching humpback whale points to the blue sky. Two women with masks circling their necks talk while sitting in chairs six feet apart. A salmon seiner motors past them as it heads down channel to Taku Inlet.
We use the sea walk to reach the mouth of Gold Creek, passing a small gathering of homeless men. The men face the sun. No masks circle their necks or hang from one of their ears. But they laugh with the joy of children splashing through puddles or adults whose faces are almost always wet with rain.
Aki shepherded her other human and I off the main moraine trail and onto a faint one leading into the Troll Woods. It’s a good choice for this flat-gray day. Without invasive sunshine reaching into the woods, it feels like the place has lifted far away and taken us with it.
With its ground cushioned by thick moss, which also decorate the trees, we could be on another planet. Only when the trail brings us to a lake shore, can we find mountain landmarks that let us know we are still in an earthly rain forest.
It is a very quiet place. The moss sees to that. When we see ducks, they are moving quietly across the water. The resident beavers sleep in their dens. No thrush or jay sings or squawks. You can almost hear the sounds of your own thoughts.