This morning only one bald eagle roosts on top of the old Treadwell mine ventilation shaft. Small waves slap at the base of the shaft. Rain soaks into the eagle’s feathers. It focuses one eye on the little dog and I and forces its eyebrow into a shallow “u.” I’ve seen a similar look on policemen and teachers about to scold a troublesome student.
Aki trots over to the beach’s grassy verge, apparently unaware of the eagle’s mood. A few yards away, a rusted piece of ore car railing emerges from the sand. Further down the beach, the tide has exposed a hundred-year-old engine block. In between chunks of shattered pottery and bricks lay on the beach. Maybe the eagle is upset with the men that left all this junk behind when the mines closed after World War I.
We walk on down the beach into the wind and exposed to the rain. When Aki and I reach the little bay formed by collapsing mine tunnels, we move into woods that have grown over the mining town of Treadwell. Steel cables, car springs and ore cart railings emerge from the flesh of spruce trees. The trees, not the things manufactured by men, are the aggressors. This is not right. The trees aren’t attacking, just tiding up the mess left by the men who moiled for gold. (“Moiled for gold” borrowed from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service).
On one of January’s last days it’s 37 degrees above zero. Persistent rainfall has eliminated snow from the forest floor except where it has been packed into ice by foot traffic. You see, this week Winter left Alaska to holiday below the 49th parallel. Subzero temperatures made worst by strong winds have people in the Lower 48 are penned down in their homes while we watch our ski trails melt in the rain.
Aki and I head out to the Fish Creek Delta looking for distractions from the weather. A mature bald eagle, feathers soaked by rain, has positioned itself above to pond. Last week the pond was capped by a solid layer of ice. The fractured flows that remain float up and down with the tides.
Aki is soon as soaked as the eagle. She shivers each time I stop to watch the eagle or a small raft of mallards that have moved up the creek with the tide. She doesn’t object when I turn back towards the car. Don’t worry little dog, snow is in the forecast and the temperatures should be in signal digits soon. Winter’s vacation is almost over.
There is almost always an eagle in that cottonwood this time of year. Aki takes notice of my mumbling. The big birds always make her nervous. The eagle, marked with the white head and tail of an adult, watches us out of the corner of its eye. She is even wetter than my little dog.
From its cottonwood perch, the eagle can see the toe of Mendenhall Glacier poking out from a fog that hides the rest of the river of ice. Ghosts of mist float over Nugget Falls and the spruce covered hills that encroach on the east side of Mendenhall Lake. The resulting beauty helps me ignore the plink and plunk of raindrops hitting the hood of my rain parka.
The eagle can’t pull on a gore-tex coat when the weather worsens. It must endure and hope to scavenge some food to fuel its inter furnace. Is it dreaming of summer when salmon swim past its cottonwood tree on their way to spawn then become eagle and bear food? Or just does it just curse the rain and pray for a chance to dry out in the sun.
Standing at our living room window, I spent some time this morning cataloguing the Alaska words for the action of rain. It can drizzle, fall, shower, obscure, soak, pour, spit, depress, rinse, wash away, flood, and sluice. That’s the word for this morning’s stormy offering—sluice. Even though the rain was sluicing down on Chicken Ridge, I wrapped Aki and myself in rain gear and drove out to North Douglas Island. The microclimate there often offers drier days.
Rain obscured our view of the road. But it did not discourage several bald eagles from circling a roadside beach. A hunter must have dumped a deer carcass there. This has become a thanksgiving tradition for scavengers like eagles, crows and ravens.
I drove on to the trailhead but planned on looking for the deer carcass on the way home. While a strong wind played through the forest canopy, Aki and I walked to the beach. We had the Rainforest Trail to ourselves. It seems emptier than usual. We didn’t even hear the sound of gull bickering as we left the forest. Only a small raft of fish ducks worked the offshore waters.
On the way home I stopped where we had earlier spotted the eagles. While Aki waited in the car, I found the expected deer carcass surrounded by eagles and ravens. Most of the birds flew off. One raven and an eagle stood their ground. They faced each other over the carcass and then took to the air. As I started back to the car, the birds settled back on the beach to continue their battle over the deer remains.
On this rainy morning, Aki and I are going old school. Rather than drive to some remote trailhead, we will start an exploration of Downtown Juneau from the house. On the way we will visit some sculptures and watch ravens fool around. There will be an eagle, only one, but it will sulk on a light standard with it’s back to us. Aki will refresh her pee mail trap line. Her stubborn streak will appear and she will throw on the brakes to keep us from exploring new paths. We will pass a great bronze whale and life-sized bear made from the same material, each glistening with rain. When we return home, I will need extra time to dry the little dog with a towel.
No rain falls on Aki as we leave the house. It will pound on her when we return. But we will stay dry while on the Sheep Creek Delta.
Less than a month ago the place was crazy loud. Eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls fought over the bodies of spawned out silver salmon. Newly arrived silvers splashed in the stream, digging spawning depressions in the gravel and muscling competitors out of the way. Aki would have liked all the commotion.
Things have calmed to winter quiet. I don’t see any eagles, but Aki still shelters near rocks while waiting for me. A mixed raft of mallards and green winged teals chase bait fish in a small tidal lake. Gulls rest next to the creek. Down channel, clouds mottled with darks and light let shafts of light escape to turn the water silver. These signs of instability give me hope for clearing weather until I turn towards Juneau, where clouds thick with rain have descended on the town.
Before leaving the creek. I walk a little upstream. The water is turbulent with run off from the recent storm. In an eddy, a water ouzel dives into the stream and emerges, not with a tiny fish, but with some weeds torn from the stream bottom.
A map on my weather app shows a pixilated mass of dark greens and grays about to envelop Juneau. The sun has just cleared the shoulder of Mt. Roberts. One our neighborhood ravens perched on top a neighbor’s roof sings up the sun. When the new sunlight hits the raven it joins its mate circling in the gray sky.
I grab Aki and head out to the car. Clouds already obscure the sun but sunset tones color Gastineau Channel. Even though it will mean getting caught by the oncoming wall of rain, I stop on the way to the trailhead. The little dog and I walk onto the Douglas Island Bridge, which offers an unobstructed view of the channel. At the far end, where the Gastineau opens onto Taku Inlet, yellow and peach colored light paints the clouds. In minutes the scene is reduced to gray.
We drive to the nearby Dan Moller Trail and walk through wet evergreens to open muskeg. The meadows have gone to rest for the winter. There are still splotches of sunset colors around the bases of mountain hemlock trees, where low bush blueberry bushes and sorrel plants shelter. The promised rain arrives to soak the little dog and make the sorrel leaves shine.