The little dog and I rush out the door again, again wanting to see the Fish Creek delta while the morning light is still good. Okay, that was a human-centric statement. While I wanted to see the delta washed by the kind of light captured by Flemish painters, Aki would have preferred a sleep in. She’s joined up to make sure I don’t get into trouble. It’s still cold enough on the delta for me to need gloves. (Another human-centric statement). The grass not yet touched by the morning sun is covered with a fine frost. Crow caws and eagle screams let everything within a mile that Aki is back in town.
As I watch a solitary swallow thin out the mosquito population, I think about Annie Dillard and her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She dived deep in what her creek had to offer on each of her many visits. If she lived in our rain forest, what would she make of seeing only one swallow instead of the expected cloud of its kind diving and gliding after flying bugs. The scene might inspire her to get out her copy of Silent Sprintand return each morning in hope of seeing more swallows hunting over the meadow.
Trying on Ms. Dillard’s skin for size, I lead Aki along the creek, watching mallards in twos and threes fly over our heads and those of roosting eagles to the same meadow where I watched to swallow. Would she guess that the flooding tide forced the ducks into the air?
Crows seem to be every where, wading in shallow ponds, bathing in the fast moving creek, pecking their way through meadow grass. So are eagles. A brace of mature eagles keeps watch on each end of the causeway that links the mainland with a small, spruce-covered island. The island seems infested with noisy crows. We inadvertently flush an immature eagle from the edge of the island by walking under its roosting tree. It circles over our head and lands in a different roosting tree. Ms. Dillard might ask what is keeping all these eagles on the parameter of a crow-infested island.
Aki gives me her worried look, something she conveys by flexing her eyebrows. She doesn’t care about natural philosophy or biology or Annie Dillard. She was touched by the shadow of a predator. “Time,” the ten-pound-poodle-mix seems to say, “to go.”
Aki’s heading up Mount Roberts. So are three of her humans. It seems like every family in Juneau is climbing the mountain too. There are even a few tourists off the first cruise ship of year using the trail. Aki is in doggie heaven because many of the humans have brought their pups.
I should be happy to share the mountain with so many people. But I’ve become addicted to solitude and I am not getting it today. It’s too bad I’m preoccupied and grumpy. Otherwise I could fully appreciate the sunlight dappling the forest floor, shinning spotlights on emerging ferns. I’d probably get a kick out of the ravens flying low over our heads as they imitate the beep beep sound of an unlocking Subaru hatchback.
I left the house this morning without brushing my teeth. Aki looked puzzled but still joined me in the car. Most days at this hour she’d still be curled up and asleep. A feeling, not a phone call or Facebook tip drew me out the door. I just knew that something magical was happening where the woods of northern Douglas Island touched the sea.
We looked without success for whale spouts in Fritz Cove on the drive to the north end of Douglas Island. No orca dorsal fins broke the surface of Lynn Canal when we passed False Outer Point. If we were to find anything special it had to be hiding in the woods.
At this hour I was not surprised to find an empty parking lot at the Outer Point trailhead. Bird song, punctuated by raven squawks and the hammering of red-breasted sapsuckers provided the soundtrack for our walk. The beaver pond was gray with patches of sky blue as the rising sun weakened the persistent cloud cover.
When Aki followed me onto the beach, we spotted a greater yellowlegs sandpiper in the shallows. An adult bald eagle seemed to be contemplating life from its perch on an offshore rock. On other rocks harlequin ducks slept or stretched.
The mountains bordering Lynn Canal, beautified by late winter snow, emerged from cloud cover. All the things we experienced—the nesting bird songs, woodpecker tapping, the sandpiper (first of the year for me), the contemplative eagle, and whitened mountains—were enough to draw us from our beds. But the magic of the moment was provided by early morning solitude, unshattered by the works or words of man.
I’m leaning against a young tree, using its trunk to steady my camera. The tree is part of a spruce hedge that should prevent a nearby great blue heron from seeing me. Through a narrow opening in the hedge I watch the heron wade across a narrow stream. It moves with such stiff grace that my eye can’t catch actual movement.
Aki doesn’t whine or give any other clue of our presence. It won’t be her fault of the heron spots us. In my makeshift blind, I wait for the big bird to stab down into the water after a sand lance. Instead it slowly turns its head until it is looking directly at me. Busted.
After extracting myself from the hedge, I give the little poodle-mix a reassuring pet and lead us further out into the Fish Creek Delta. We cross an open spit from which we have a 360-degree view of the area. In the center of this natural compass a cold wind slams snow and rain at us. To the west, the sun is throwing cloud shadows on the green slopes of Admiralty Island. A wall of clouds obscures the glacier to the north and the Douglas Island ridge to the south. For a moment another cloud curtain raises to reveal Sheep Mountain in the East and then drops.
Two eagles, both hunched against a cold wind, cling to the roof of an old mine ventilation tower. The tower rises out of a beach of mine tailings that were crushed to sand over a hundred years ago. Rusting relics of the time when this was a mining town emerge from the sandy tailings, exposed by the ebb tide.
The eagles on the tower have the white head and tail feathers of mature birds. Fifty meters away, an eagle with the mottled brown and whites of an immature predator roosts far back in a tangle of alder branches. It watches one of the mature eagles, maybe a parent, fly out and over Gastineau Channel, circle and then dive toward the water. When the hunter returns with empty talons, its mate gives it a scolding that can be heard all the way from Downtown Juneau to the cabins at Lucky Me. I turn to see what effect the scolding has had on the immature bird and find that it has flown away.
The adult eagles settle into silence sulks allowing me to concentrate on the sound of Aki’s paws pounding on the sand and the songs of nesting birds. In spite of the lingering stretch of cold weather, the inhabitants of the Treadwell woods have committed to spring.
Pollen pods of alders lay empty on the forest floor. Sharp-edged leaves emerge from the dead-looking branches of cow parsnips. Drops of last night’s rain cling to the butter-yellow skunk cabbage flowers. Elderberry leaves slowly relax their grip on their clusters of incipient flowers.
I was in the kitchen, making coffee, thinking about using some sheltered beach for this morning’s walk when unexpected sunshine lit up Dan Moller Basin. The sun reflected intense light off the freshly fallen snow that flocked the basin’s spruce trees. I had to squint even though the basin is across the channel from our house and at least a kilometer away from our kitchen window.
Hey little dog, we’re heading to the mountains. Aki, who was stilled curled up on the bed, didn’t stirred. Thinking only of winter’s beauty and not the cold baggage that accompanies it, I dressed Aki in a light wrap and chose rain gear for myself. We drove to Eagle Crest, Juneau’s closed-for-the-season ski area. The temperature dropped as we gained altitude until it was just above freezing. Our car tires wobbled slightly on the snowy road.
Two inches of new snow covered the trailhead parking area. More was falling as we started down the trail. I wished that I had brought gloves. The little dog looked like she would rather be some place else. Neither of us was prepared for this late attempt by winter to reclaim the mountains.
By doddling behind and stopping each time I turned to check on her, Aki made her wishes clear. When I gave up and turned to join her she raised her tail to its happy position and dashed back toward the car. The snow stopped and sunshine began to leak through the cloud layer. In seconds the snow caught by the meadow’s trees melted. That covering the trail shrank, exposing bare gravel and puddles of melt water.
High winds rattled our house windows this morning. But Aki was still willing to head out for a walk. Last night she met me at the airport after a ten-day separation. I wondered, as I walked off he plane, whether she would be happy to see me. While we were gone, she spent every day with neighbors who took her on walks. Her nights were spent with family. She had it made. When I neared, the little poodle-mix raised her nose toward me, not in derision but to gather in my scent. It seemed to please her.
This morning we drive out to North Douglas Island and use the False Outer Point Trail to become reacquainted. At first Aki ignored me as she catalogued smells and cues left behind by other dogs. She caught up with me at the beaver pond, where we had watched a bevy of swans before I left for California. The swans were gone but two mallard drakes floated in the rain.
The rain slacked off but not the wind. We listened to the pulsing gusts bend the treetops, sounding like high surf along a California beach. The forest sheltered the beach and bays that border it from the wind. Hundreds of goldeneye ducks puttered over calm water. When I took a break from watching them, I spotted Aki, watching with patience concern—a loving parent ready to protect her sometimes-foolish charge.