Yesterday I rode an Alaskan ferry home from Skagway. Aki greeted me at the door. She looked a little sad, like she spent the whole of my absence in an unlit cell. Even though I knew she had enjoyed herself when I was away, I gave her cuddle and promised that after we both slept we would go on an adventure. This morning we are heading for the Troll Woods.
Bird song brightens what otherwise would be a gray day. It helps me to ignore the rain that dimples Moose Lake and slowly soaks into my sweatshirt hood. The rain softens the air but not Aki’s interest in a patch of nagoon berry plants. In August, when ripe fruit weighs down the plants, a berry picker will approach the patch with a combination of greed and fear that a bear or other berry picker will chase them off the patch. He or she won’t know what Aki does—that at least one dog had marked the patch with its pee.
On the path to Crystal Lake, in one of the more remote sections of the woods, we pass shy maiden flowers. Gently I lift one of the white, star-shaped blooms for a proper look. The flower offers less beauty than a shoot star, not as much drama as a lupine stalk, but has no reason to hide its face.
Last night Aki capped the last of a string of sunny days mooching for food around a campfire. A bank of clouds climbed over the Chilkat Mountains and onto Lynn Canal while the little dog’s human family roasted hot dogs over an open fire while The clouds robbed us of a sunset and brought today’s rain.
This morning Aki and I explore the Sheep Creek delta. The sun worshipers who gathered on the delta last evening are gone. Only those with serious purpose are here. Two men clothed in thick gauged raingear mess about with a little gold dredge. Soon their machine will begin sifting through beach sand for gold washed down by the creek.
Closer to the stream, two great blue herons hunt the shallows for food. A crow dives on an adult bald eagle, trying to dislodge it from its spruce roost. The eagle, its beak pointed up at its tormentor, screams defiance.
We have to cross squishy ground to get a decent view of the herons. By the time I figure out that one is a juvenile, Aki has moved to a drier part of the beach from where she tries to plant the idea in my mind that “It is time to get out of the rain.”
I ignore the message and watch the juvenile heron fish. While the adult bird freezes in place to wait for opportunity, the young bird plunges it beak again and again into the water. Once it managed to lift of a stand of seaweed out of the water. The rest of the time it speared nothing. To make matters worse, it had to struggle to free its right leg from a tangle of rock weed.
Aki and I are in the Treadwell Woods. Rather than taking our usual course, which gets us quickly to the beach, I lead the little dog up a hill to the eagle’s nest. It had a chick and parent in it last time we visited the woods. It’s empty this morning.
Trying to be as patient as a heron, I stand beneath the nest tree, watching the wind sway it back and forth like a mother rocking a cradle. Is the sound of wind as comforting to a eagle embryo as the a mother’s heart beat is to human fetus?
When no eaglet pokes it head about the woven nest, I give into Aki’s silent plea and let her lead me down to the beach. The place is deserted except for one adult bald eagle. It sits on top of the old mine ventilation shaft, looking down Gastineau Channel. This must be one of the nest minders, now free to do what eagles do: scavenge, hunt, express opinions, and soar.
Eagles are flying over our heads, forced off the wetlands by an incoming tide. I ask Aki, “Little dog, where are the ducks? The poodle-mix looks at me like a person might look at someone searching for the nearest ice cream store in a burning city. Maybe she wonders why I care about dull ducks when the tidal meadow is magenta with shooting stars. She knows that they are my favorite flower, something I inherited from my dad.
My interest in waterfowl is more intellectual than esthetic. All winter the Fish Creek delta was infested with mallards. American widgeons and teals joined them in the spring. Fish ducks like golden eyes, buffleheads, and harlequins paddled offshore. Today it’s all gulls, eagles, and crows.
Our first eagle of the day was an immature bird that roosted near the opening of Fish Creek Pond until forced off by one if its elders. We see the young eagle a half and hour later being driven off an ocean side roost by an adult bird. The three other adult birds in the neighborhood scream what sounds like curses as the immature eagle flies off across Fritz Cove.
All the eagle action pushed duck thoughts out of my mind. So did our sighting of a red-breasted sapsucker that we inadvertently flushed from the path as we rounded the pond. But soon I thinking about ducks.
There is a place on the trail back to the car where a guy can sneak through a screen of spruce and spy on a little pond. A few weeks ago the pond was lousy with ducks. Today I found two mallards when I eased out of the trees—a hen and drake. They stood as close as lovers on a mound of bare dirt, a nesting pair. Mystery solved.
Fog wraps around Chicken Ridge when the little dog and I climb into the car. It thickens as we drop down to the channel. If the fog could burn off in a half and hour this would be a great morning for a tidewater walk. Rather than rely on the gloom doing a quick disappearance act, I steer the car across the Douglas Bridge and drive into the mountains.
I just make out the tops of the Douglas Island ridge as the car climbs up Fish Creek Road. Aki starts squeaking when we crest a small hill and near the parking lot for a trail that crosses three meadows. But the meadows’ stunted pines are as vague as ghosts in a grey cloud. Letting Aki know that we will stop soon, I push on to the road’s end where the fog is melting away like ferry vapor.
We climb the service road to a mountain shoulder. Below us fog still obscures the three meadows trail. By the time we reach the shoulder, the grey is gone. If I could have seen the future, I would have taken the meadows trail. But then, I wouldn’t have smelled or seen or heard the high country coming to life.
Melting snow has charged the mountain streams until they overflow their banks. Nesting robins twill loudly, as if to be overheard about the shushing streams. The shrill piping of a mountain marmot startles the little dog and me. I look for the large guinea pig that gave the alarm but it has already dived in a hidey-hole. The air fills with the smell of sweet resin each time we pass near a pine tree.
Somewhere on the mountain bears are breakfasting on roots but we see none. Peak views and the tall, yellow blossoms of skunk cabbage provide all the visual drama until we stumble on our first true wildflower of the year: a mountain marigold. All of its white petals lay flat except one. It uncurls as we watch. The sun will soon make short work of the dewdrops clinging to its petals. For the marigold’s sake, I pray that true summer has arrived. There is no turning back for the flower now.
Aki trots down the narrow boardwalk, passing blueberry bushes in full bloom. For the first time in weeks, the sun muscles its way through the cloud cover. It enriches the pinks of the berry blossoms and warms the little dog’s tight, grey curls. A pair of red-breasted robins hop between bushes. Above them, a chestnut-backed chickadee, its clever toes clinging to a thin alder branch, leans back as if to be better enjoy the sun.
Bird song fills the air and I wonder why this place is so rich. It’s just a swampy yard with soil too poor to support spruce or hemlocks. The stubby Douglas pines are the only evergreen trees that can survive.
A flash of blue startles me out a sun-induced reverie—a sparrow-like bird with bright-yellow patches on its wings and back. It has vertical white and gray stripes on its chest and back that make it look like it is wearing a thrift store vest. I won’t be able to find a picture of it in any of my bird books. The handsome stranger, like the other songbirds along this trail are not shy. They flit and fly often but always seem to land in a spot where I can see them.
Crossing a slow creek lined with blooming skunk cabbage we make our way to the beach. Just before reaching it we pass beneath an eagle’s nest built high in a spruce. Only the white head of an adult eagle shows above the lip of the nest but we can hear the mewing of a chick.
There is little wind to riffle Stephen’s Passage when we reach the beach. I plop down onto a patch of dry gravel and let the little dog explore. A northern harrier flies off the water towards us a few feet off the ground. The nested eagle screams and the harrier swings away and moves south towards Outer Point.
Aki and I are back in the Troll Woods after a long absence. It’s good to be in the peaceful place. This time of year the little dog doesn’t have to worry about eagles. We might run into a wandering black bear but that doesn’t trouble a dog with a heart way too big for her 10-pound body.
Thick, yellow-green moss covers the forest floor and the trunks and branches of the trees, turning them into sculptures that could have been designed by Gaudi. It would be silent if not for the nesting songs of invisible birds and the muffled roar of Nugget Falls.
There is beaver sign everywhere: cottonwood limbs stripped of their bark, trails formed by the beavers skidding wood into their ponds, small dams slowing the flow of every watercourse. We run into a member of the beaver patrol. Late every afternoon she caps a pipe that runs underneath the beaver’s main dam. Otherwise the sound of moving water would energize the beavers into building a bigger dam behind the one pierced by the pipe. Every morning she uncaps the pipe, allowing the pond’s water level to drop. Otherwise the trail we use to access to the woods would be flooded.