Aki hesitates at the grass line, her yellow coat not quite blending with the color of last fall’s straw. Around her sharp-edged green shoots of new growth muscle through the dead growth. The little dog wants to walk south down the beach toward where miners have anchored their thrown together gold dredges. The trail is rich in dog scent.
I turn my back on the poodle-mix and walk out onto the gravel and sand lands now exposed by an ebb tide. The sun is yet to make over the shoulder of Sheep Mountain. Blue sky shows through holes in the cloud cover. It’s too early to know whether the day will be blue or gray. After stopping to study the reflection of clouds in a tidal lake, I look for Aki and find her at my feet.
A small raft of ducks fidget at the opposite end of the lake, circling around what looks like a thin and tall piece of driftwood. As the sky lightens I see that what I thought was driftwood is really a great blue heron. The little dog and I swing in a wide arc around the lake until I can make out the grey-blue of the birds chest feathers and the long, pointed beak so useful in plucking small fish from the shallows. I think the heron might be my favorite bird for it’s movie star good looks and it’s graceful walk. This bird looks as peaceful as a sleeping child until it shoots downward with its killing beak to snatch a salmon smolt.
It’s a flat light day on the Fish Creek Delta. Aki’s other human and I are willing the little poodle-mix to drop into the crouch she assumes when making a bowel movement. That, we hope, will signal an end to her lower intestinal problems. When she finally does, I scoop up her product into a plastic bag and relax. She must be on the mend.
Thinking that we may have witnessed the most exciting movement of the day, I follow the trotting dog along the edge of the Fish Creek Pond and then onto the wetlands. A mating brace of common mergansers swims along the opposite shore of the pond, passing a clutch of mallards asleep on the point of land that separates the pond from Fish creek.
Nothing but windblown grass is moving on the wetlands, and that still the dead tan color of straw. But at the point we can spy on two American robins snatching and shaking blades of grass. Along the shore three sandpipers (greater yellowlegs?) march in the shallows. Down stream they go in a straight line, hunched over like the Marx Brothers. They turn and march back up stream. They turn back down stream and then burst into a flight that ends thirty meters away. Aki missed the whole show because she was being encouraged by her other human to pose for a selfie with the glacier.
I hear the eagle’s scream the moment we start down the Treadwell Ruins trail. Aki is too pre-occupied with her scent survey to bother with eagles. With her front legs spread wider than usual, the little dog shuffles down the trail keeping her nose just millimeters about the ground. We can make little progress until she finds the mother lode of the scent she follows. I am worried that we will miss seeing the eagle. Aki does one of her signature handstands, raising her entire rear end into the air as she rains pee down on top of another dog’s scent trail, then drops into a quick-step trot. The eagle screams again.
It had been raining but that has stopped. A low layer of clouds hangs over the channel when we reach Sandy Beach. Little can be seen of the mountains across Gastineau Channel. In the foreground, the old mine tunnel ventilation shaft pokes up through the waters of the channel. A mature bald eagle occupies each corner of the ventilation shaft’s roof. I try to read their body language to determine whether they are friend, foe, or sufferers in a dysfunctional marriage. I’m guessing it’s the latter.
Each eagle has its back turned to the other. The one facing me looks like it just tasted a sour lemon. If either attempted to expand the distance between them, it would fall into the channel. I’ve heard that eagles mate for life. These two look like they could use couples counseling.
A forty-knot wind plasters Aki’s fur to her skin. Long ago she had dropped down her stub of a tail to cover her privates. I walk behind her, bare hands stuck in my pockets, eyes scanning the Mendenhall River for participants in the spring migration.
Aki didn’t notice a small raft of bufflehead ducks drop onto the river where they now bob in wind driven waves. She doesn’t lift her head when we cross a field of dead-brown grass to the river’s edge. Just upstream a huge raft of mallards shelters in the lee of a bluff cut by the river current. The water glimmers like a shattered mirror left abandoned in the sun. But the grasslands seem dead, as if the strong wind has stripped it of color.
To get out of the wind, we drop down into the gully formed by a small stream and surprise a gang of six Canada geese that had the same idea. They circle in front of the glacier and land on the grass a hundred meters away where they huddle behind a small rise.
My little dog doesn’t complain or give me her “are you crazy” stare. She conducts her usual nasal patrol, covering the more intriguing scents with her own. In a sense, she may be tougher than the geese and other wild things that make their living on the wetlands. All the birds we spotted this morning had obtained shelter from the wind. She trots into it.
Aki and the Gastineau ravens are ignoring each other. The little dog had the runs last night but seems over it now. Still, she seems a little grumpy. Maybe the ravens are cutting her some slack. A block to the south, where alders partially obscure the cement walls of the old ore crushing plant, more ravens circle in the blue sky. A bald eagle screams out a complaint but doesn’t show itself. The north wind blows the little dog and I past the birds and down onto South Franklin Street.
Here, the tourist shops, bars, Filipino Hall, and the homeless shelter block the wind. Aki follows a pee trail that leads her past the Red Dog Saloon, the Lucky Lady Bar, and the ancient Alaska Hotel. Early day drinkers are no doubt sheltering in each of these establishments. Now facing into the wind, Aki powers past a distillery, tattoo shop, and the Franklin Street Barbers. She shows impatience with I stop to photograph a bronze brown bear statute. In minutes, thanks to her insistence, we are home.
Aki and I are back, drawn to the Mendenhall Lake for another chance to ski. Not wanting to press our luck with the lake ice, I lead the little dog on to the ski trail that meanders around a campground. The place is empty of other people and dogs. That might be explained by the fact that we are here on a weekday or because the classic ski trail is as slick as a luge run.
The little dog dashes after her other human who moves much faster than me on her skate skis. Aki’s strong herding instincts kicks in and she runs full out between her two humans as we do a circuit of the trail. When an opportunity to move onto the lake appears we leave the campground and slide into the freedom offered by the snow-covered beach.
Aki rooted out a treasure and she won’t give it up. We are near Skater’s Cabin after having started a walk along the edge of Mendenhall Lake. My little dog keeps herself between her prize and me. I manage to approach close enough to see that it is the heel of an old baguette. How it came to be buried in inches of snow is a mystery.
I walk on, pondering another mystery—why no one else is here. Morning sun shines on the still frozen lake and the glacier. No clouds obscure the Mendenhall Towers or Mt. McGinnis. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees. In an hour or two the snow will soften enough to make walking on it a struggle. But now it is still firm thanks to last night’s freeze.
Having forgotten Aki and her lump of French bread, I turn around and spot the little poodle-mix on the other side of inlet I just crossed. She is just crunching down the last of the bread. She squints in my direction and then tears across the inlet. In seconds she is at my feet. A second more and she is trotting ahead, looking for adventure or another treat.