I was drawn here by the meadow’s promise of a little solitude. Cars clogged the parking areas for the trails I would have preferred on this Father’s Day. But this meadow has few summer visitors.
With silence broken only by robin song, Aki and I fall into our usually routine. She sniffs and pees, updating her message system with a plain-faced concentration. I stroll past the low growing wild flowers, stopping occasionally to enjoy the way water droplets cling to colorful blossoms.
Each flower displays the complexity and beauty of great paintings. But I am the only human in attendance at this outdoor art museum. There are art critics here, insects that show their appreciation for a flower’s form or color by landing on it. The flowers getting the best reviews will soon reproduce.
Aki goes on alert—head up, front feet planted in the sand, tail straight as a mast—and stares at the fluttering wing of a bull kelp strand that had been snagged on a splintered piling. I could tell her that the long strip of stranded seaweed poses no threat. But until she has made her brave charge at the perceived enemy, she won’t believe me.
Up Sandy Beach, a raven cocks its head in wonder or dismay as it watches my little poodle mix act out a scene from Don Quixote. A bitter sounding bald eagle, perched in a beachside spruce might be offering its own commentary on Aki’s actions.
After the raven flies from beach sand to the top of its own piling, we push on toward the small but deep bay formed when one of the Treadwell mines collapsed. A recent high tide has stripped away the sand covering the body of an old pickup truck. It could have been abandoned after the tunnel collapse in 1916. It might have been buried and then revealed by tidal action many, many times. But I’ve never seen it before. The bed box of the pickup contains a rusted tool and shards of a heavy ceramic bowl that might have held oatmeal eaten by one of the miners on the morning of the tunnel collapse. I could slip one of the shards out of the box and into my pocket. Would that be a relic rescue or interference with nature’s efforts to cleanse?
Gatineau Meadow provides great awards for anyone willing to put in the modest effort required to reach it from sea level. We have snow shoed and cross country skied across it, read tracks in its snow and watched deer emerging onto its muskeg from the surrounding spruce forest. Unless low cloud cover hides them you can view our highest mountains from the meadow. Today, long after the winter snow melt, I am looking for summer flowers.
Aki isn’t a flower fan. But while I shuffle from bog rosemary to Alaska violet, the little dog can leisurely check her pee mail. I usually have to coax her past the coyote trail. Today she scoots past it as if her wild cousins have moved south for better hunting.
This morning, some of the meadow’s flowers offer more than beauty. A dramatic scene is unfolding in the yellow cup of a large-leafed avens blossom. Two legs of a tiny spider grip a flower pedal, tensed to pull the spider into the flower where a fly is trapped in a forest of long stamens. Aki’s patience is limited so I move on before the kill and look at a carnivorous sundew plant. I hate to hear her whine.
Even though we have full sun, warm temperatures and are alone on the Fish Creek Delta, Aki and I are not having a good time. Ten minutes ago the little dog found a roasted chicken thigh along the trail. I had to literally carry her off to keep her from eating it. Now she sulks in a pocket meadow, refusing to follow me into the woods even though an eagle watches her from a nearby spruce tree. I back track and carry her to safety.
Last week the hatchery released this year’s school of king salmon fry into the creek pond. The ones that haven’t figured out how to reach salt water dimple the pond’s surface. Their presence explains that of the eagles in the surrounding trees.
One eagle settles onto a spruce branch above the crow’s roosting area. In seconds an adult crow is flying at the eagle’s head. The eagle ducks down but doesn’t fly off until the crow has dive-bombed it a half-a-dozen more times. The victorious crow then lands on the eagle’s now empty perch.
Aki and I have seen crows drive off eagles many times, but not what came next. The displaced eagle dive-bombed the crow until it flew off. Aki, wanting to return to the chicken thigh, wouldn’t let me stick around to see if the crow would return together with a murder of its friends.
Just as Aki and I move out of the alder thicket and onto the beach, a common loon sings. I haven’t heard that melancholic call for years. The loon, with it’s ring of white vertical neck stripes, hurries on the water toward another loon. I think one of the birds called again but can’t be sure because of the arrival of two teenage girls. Weighed down by backpacks and looking at the screens of their phones, the young women’s conversation, a typical adolescent combination of judgmental slur and insecurity, obscures that of the reuniting loons. Aki agrees to wait until the back packers reenter the forest where the old growth trees will absorb their noise.
While waiting, I watch the original loon and two others swim in formation and then dive on fish. All are adult birds. None sing but I welcome the silence. After giving the backpackers some space, I lead my little dog into the forest and then climb a headland covered with bog forest of alder and mountain hemlock. It leads to another beach where, from the sounds, I believe that scooters hover just off shore, large dogs bark and play, and young boys scream out their joy of being alive in the woods.
Aki and I hike to the edge of this new beach and watch two border collies swim in the bay while a coven of small boys runs about on the gravel. Someone is chopping wood for the campfire that sends a large plume of gray smoke skyward. Aki doesn’t argue with my decision to turn back.
After re-crossing the headland we leave the trail and drop down onto a pocket beach. Magically, no noise beyond the headland reaches us. The beach fronts on a small channel. At one end of the channel, eagles dry their wings while perched at the top of evergreens. Another eagle flies toward them from the other end of the channel, then executes a wide turn and returns to its perch. One of the eagles it was heading for starts to screech. Aki and I leave.
I didn’t expect much from this quick walk on Sandy Beach. But at least three bald eagles were screaming at each other when we reached the beach. One had fallen into the old glory hole. It took only seconds for it to struggle up onto a rock occupied by another eagle that screeched apparent disapproval at the soggy bird.
The tall dorsal fin of a male killer whale rose above the gray waters of Gastineau Channel. A female whale surfaced next, sending up a plume of exhalant. Next to the female swam a young whale. They and the rest of the orca pod moved slowly up channel towards Juneau, hunting king salmon on their way to the hatchery.
In a half and hour someone in one of Juneau’s mini-high rise office buildings might look up from their desk and see the pod of whales swim past. Even though it is not uncommon in May for killer whales to chase salmon up the channel, the office worker will probably shout down the hall to let other people know that the whales are back. They will snap a few photos with their phones and resume their workstations.
When Aki and I head out into wind driven rain I am greatly tempted to walk her around the block and return to our warm, dry home. But then I think, there might be whales.
For the first day this week Aki has to squint when looking down the trail. As strong morning sun burns fog off the channel, we climb the gentle trail up to Gastineau Meadows. Aki likes the lower portion of the trail but always drags her paws when we near a side trail made last winter by coyotes. Today it is no different. Since the little poodle seems to love all dogs, I wonder why she is averse to meeting one of her wild cousins.
I hunt the meadow for wild blooms but only find the curling yellow flowers of the skunk cabbage and tiny magenta colored buds of Labrador tea. If they survived the winter, the meat eating sundew plants haven’t emerged.
When I leave the dry trail for explorations on the boggy muskeg Aki doesn’t follow. Instead she stands stiff as a soldier with head cocked to one side as if seeing me at a different angle will help her understand my strange behavior.