It was sunny yesterday morning but now it feels like it has been raining for weeks. Aki and I just have to get used to it again. A storm that started on the Russian Steppe traveled across the Gulf of Alaska to end our recent drought. We have been praying for rain. Now are prayers have been answered. There will many more rainstorms before the snow arrives.
The little dog drags me down Gold Street, past the Episcopal Church, and up Gastineau Avenue. We pass sunflowers with yellow petals drooping with rain. Copies of a missing cat poster decorate light poles along Gastineau Avenue. I wonder whether one of the neighborhood eagles carried the poor feline away.
An older homeless man walks in the middle of the avenue, shouldering a boom box that blares out a John Lee Hooker tune. The man shouts out the lyrics with the assurance of one who has earned the right to sing the blues. When he reaches the refrain, he smiles and says “hi” to Aki. The little poodle-mix wags her tail and gives the man a doggy smile. She never shies away from our city’s homeless.
Sometimes rain forest bald eagles seem as common as pigeons. A few weeks ago over 150 eagles gathered in trees and on the exposed wetlands across from the Juneau salmon hatchery. They were waiting for the next pulse of chum salmon to arrive. Aki and I see one or two bald eagles almost every time we hike in the summer. This morning, while still in the Treadwell Woods, we hear the screeching of the one that hangs out on the roof of the old mine ventilation shaft at Sandy Beach. A higher pitched call comes from a point deeper in the woods.
I lead the little poodle-mix toward the later sound. Soon we are at the base of a tall cottonwood tree. White eagle scat is spattered on the understory plants beneath the tree. One of those responsible for the mess sits alone in the nest of sticks its parents built in a crotch of cottonwood branches. It’s an eaglet that has grown out of its downy coat. Fuzzy black feathers cover its head. Soon it will fledge.
The eaglet gives us a fierce look and then turns until we can only see its back. Aki and I walk under the tree and then drop down through the woods and onto Sandy Beach. The two resident ravens watch us from atop splinted wharf pilings. Down the channel one of the eaglet’s parents balances on the roof ridge of the ventilation shaft. The other one must be hunting for junior.
Two Stellar’s jays, self-assigned guardians of this old growth forest, chitter evident disgust at Aki and I. When I stop one gives me the “move along there is nothing to see here” stare of a policeman. With its dark crest and sober body coloring, it reminds me of a London bobby.
The little dog and I need no more urging to head down the trail. Unexpected sunshine is powering its way through the forest canopy, backlighting to beauty humble plants like devil’s club and skunk cabbage. Eagle screams reach us from the nearby beach.
It takes me a few minutes to spot two bald eagles half-hidden in a beachside spruce tree. The tree rises above a small point of land that separates two bays. It provides the perfect roost for the two watchmen. Each eagle faces one of the bays. They seek, not to keep the peace, but to be the first to snatch up any food scraps that might wash up on their self-assigned beaches. If the local gulls show too much interest in something, one of the eagles will flush them to flight, then glide back over the spot looking for an easy meal.
Aki is due for a bath today. Her other human and I never say the word out loud. The little dog only hears, “Someone is going to get a b-a-t-h this afternoon.” Even hearing the word spelled can send her under the bed. For her bath day walk, I always choose a trail she likes. I don’t have to worry whether she will get dirty on the hike because…
On this bath day morning, Aki is trotting along the edge of a grass-covered dune. We walk toward Douglas and Juneau under a blue sky. Behind us in Sheep Creek gulls feed heartily on deceased pink and dog salmon. The birds bicker and flash their wings at each other to protect their share of the hoard. Picked over salmon carcasses line our trail. Bird feathers, seaweed, and beach grass collect around some to form grotesque still lives.
A line of human fishermen stand knee deep on the edge of the beach. They cast and wait for a strike, as patience as the herons that usually fish along the beach. The fishermen are targeting silver salmon, still ocean bright. Once they enter freshwater, the salmon’s sides will darken. The jaws of the males will distort and hook to form tools for battling others for the right to spawn.
Aki and I drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier complex without realizing that there were four cruiseships in town. Many of their passengers were already heading toward the glacier. We had to pass a line of idling buses to reach the complex’s parking lot. Ant-like lines of passengers drained each bus. Many of these visitors started down the Nugget Falls Trail. The little dog and I followed.
Aki, who normally likes to socialize with strangers, seemed overwhelmed by the crowds. Soon we were able to slip off onto very informal trail that led to a lakeside walk. No one followed. We could hear voices when our trail brought us close to the main one. But the sound was no more disturbing than geese cackle. The little dog and I relaxed.
Lines of fog-like clouds stretched across the lake and climbed up forested hills. More substantial clouds blocked our view of the Mendenhall Towers but not the glacier. Thanks to our summer of drought and record high temperatures the river of ice looked anorexic. A few icebergs still lingered in the lake shallows, diminished to small ice sculptures. One looked like a thin dog begging for food.
Last night Aki was waiting for me when I walked off the MV Le Conte. She begged for attention while I lifted my bags off the ferry’s luggage cart and carried them to the car. With the luggage secured, I lifted up the little poodle-mix and promised that tomorrow we would go on one of usual adventures.
Aki didn’t need any encouragement this morning to follow me to the car. We drove out the North Douglas Highway to Outer Point Trail. A deer hunter’s truck was parked near the trailhead but we wouldn’t see him or anyone else on the trail. I could have postponed the walk until the sun burned through the marine layer. But I wanted to use the trail at first light even if that light was gray.
The Stellar’s jays were quiet when we walked through the forest. But we could hear the gulls way before we reached the beach. An eagle has just flushed them to flight. Another eagle waddled along the mouth of Peterson Creek, waiting for the day’s first pink salmon to ride the tide toward their spawning ground. A large school of pinks jumped and splashed near the creek mouth.
During the night the tide had ebbed to expose the causeway to Shaman Island. Gulls covered the path, breaking off in twos and threes when the little dog and I invaded their comfort zone. Fog filtered our view of the glacier but not the Chilkat Mountains. They were tall enough to catch the first rays of bright light after the sun climbed above the clouds.
The trail from Skater’ Cabin to Mendenhall Lake is flooded. Aki saunters to the edge of the water, sniffs and then hops straight onto the top of a two-foot high concrete barrier. In seconds she has walked onto a pocket beach. I don’t know what amazes me more—that she figured out the workaround on her own or that at 12 years of age, she can still manage such a vertical leap.
While the little dog conducts a nose survey of the beach, I try to enjoy the view of Mendenhall Glacier reflected in the calm waters of the lake. In winter light, the mountains surrounding the glacier would cut a crisp, jagged line across the blue sky. Today forest fire haze blurs their rocky details. The glacial ice manages to catch and refract light to reduce the dullness. It’s still a beautiful thing, but one robbed of drama.
Glacier melt water has swollen the lake so we are forced to use the informal paths made by animals in the lakeside forest. I coax Aki onto tiny beaches when we find them. One is occupied by a juvenile semipalmated plover. It takes no notice of Aki. The little dog returns the favor. I wonder why one of the normally nervous plovers is content to stretch and flex in the morning sun while we watch.
Leaving the plover, Aki and I cross a small beaver dam and reenter the forest. In minutes we are walking around a small pond. Dragonflies battle each other over the pond water. We spook a small flock of winter wrens and dark-eyed juncos. Instead of flying off to safety, the birds fly down the trail a few meters and stare at us from the trailside spruce. I can make no more sense of this behavior than I could that of the mellow plover. I have to accept my ignorance, like I have to accept the dulling effect of forest fire smoke blown here from the Yukon by prevailing winds.