Rain starts soaking into Aki’s curls as soon as she jumps out of the car. Thanks to the storm, we had our choice of parking places. I expect to have the lake to ourselves. Then we hear someone speaking with a Caribbean accent. He is walking up the steps from the lake with his parka hood up. A white ear bud trails from his ear to the cell phone in his hand. By ease dropping I learn that he has just texted a selfie of himself to person he is talking too. His face beams with the excitement of seeing a glacier snaking through granite to the lake. If the rain can’t dampen the joy of his visit, I can’t let it discourage the little dog or I.
The level of the lake is high but there is enough exposed beach to provide a path to the Nugget Falls Trail. We join the trail where it touches a slanting rock wall that still bears the groves cut into it by sharp stones frozen into the bottom of the retreating glacier. Rainwater brings out the beauty of the grooved rock. Like a pebble plucked from a creek bottom, the beauty of the rock will fade as it dries.
On the way to the falls we detour over to the arctic tern nesting area. The fierce little birds are long gone. Small, white feathers, sodden with rain, cover the green moss of the nesting area. Here and there the moss has been ripped away, exposing a woven mat of willow roots. I stick my finger into a tiny, cave-like opening under the root mat. Is this the work of a hungry bear or a nesting tern?
Winter teased us with a few days of snow and cold. Now, like the fickle lover, it has left the rain forest for America’s East Coast. It’s mid-November and we are facing a week’s worth of wet storms. Aki and I suit up and head out to the Sheep Creek Delta.
Just a month ago we had to dodge eagles, step over salmon carcasses, but could tiptoe up to herons. The birds were there to feast on the wealth of wild food brought by the salmon spawn. Now all that has been washed into Gastineau Channel by rain and big autumn tides. This morning, only mallards and gulls remain.
The incoming tide shrinks the beach, creating isolated islands of gravel where the birds rest. The gulls squeal and the mallards cackle but otherwise they seem very comfortable in each other’s presence. It’s like they have formed a seasonal family for company until the salmon return.
Aki snuffles a patch of trailside grass. After watching her beaver away, I scan the Fish Creek Pond for bird life. Only the severed leaves of cottonwood trees float on the pond’s surface. Heavy raindrops plunk down on fallen leaves covering the trail. As the little poodle-mix finishes her investigation and seals the spot with urine, I try to ignore the chilling rainwater slowly working its way through the fabric of my expensive rain parka to soak the sweatshirt underneath.
My little dog trots down the trail, undeterred by the rain or the hypothermic temperatures. While I was soaking up sun in California and Washington State, Aki went out each day in the rain. It’s as if she has never stretched out in the sun.
While Aki squished down empty rainforest trails, I crunched over a gravel path, passing curated maples, ginko trees, and Henry Moore bronzes. While a North Pacific storm rolled over Aki and Juneau, I strolled along the Tacoma waterfront in crisp, dry weather. When I stepped on fallen leaves, they crunched underfoot.
The little dog and I push on to the mouth of Fish Creek. There gulls and mallards mutter to themselves and swim slowly away from the beach. The resident eagles are elsewhere. Maybe they have already joined the thousands of their kind that assemble north of Haines each November to feed on a late arriving run of chum salmon.
Yesterday, Aki and I watched hundreds of mallard ducks feeding in Fritz Cove. On this rainy morning I can only find gulls. Most huddle together in twos and threes on the beach as raindrops bounce off their feathers. Aki sniffs a quick survey of the ground and gives me a nervous look. No eagles sulk in the rain. No mean spirited shiba inu stares at her from the forest’s edge so I continue down the beach.
Still-yellow wild rose bushes, mountain ashes, and cottonwood trees glow like muted lights in the gray gloom. The next windstorm should strip the trees and bushes bare. After that we will have to look for beauty in bark patterns and tangled branches until it snows.
A matched brace of mallards swims out from a weathered piling. They swim slowly away from each other and come back together, tracing the shape of a heart on the water’s surface. A hundred meters away, a large raft of golden eye ducks float on Gastineau Channel. But there are no other mallards within sight. Without looking at the little dog I ask, Aki, do you think these two are on a honeymoon? She is already in the woods, sheltering from the rain.
An immature eagle lands on a midstream gravel bar and eyes a chunk of something pink and fleshy. In seconds a raven joins him. The eagle takes possession of the goody with a talon and starts ripping off a bite sized piece. Raven uses a bowing little dance to get the eagle to share. When that doesn’t work, it squawks out a coarse protest song. The song goes on and on until the raven lifts off toward another source of food.
Aki was back in the car before the eagle landed. We are both soaked with rain that just stopped pounding the Sheep Creek Delta. The clouds now drift up against the flanks of Sheep Mountain to be shredded by tall spruce. I brought the dog here so I could search for heron. We found none. Aki tried to keep me from crossing exposed sections of the beach. She prefers to sniff along the grassy dune that separates the beach from the old ore house. There she can hide from eagles.
We walked to dune’s end where gold miners park their sluice boxes. The sluices sit in boats made of salvaged wrecks, foam blocks, and scrap wood. Soft delta sand is shoveled into the sluice box, which extracts the gold. The miners are driven to stand in cold water in the rain for hours by dreams of wealth or perhaps the simple desire to get something for nothing, like the eagle-bothering raven.
Like the miners, the eagles and other delta birds are always on the make. When not searching the riverbank and beach for carcass scraps, they make half-hearted passes over rafts of ducks, driving most into flight. Even the tiny swallows are always working an angle. This morning one gave me the stink eye for distracting it from harvesting beach grass seeds.
Another rainstorm is hammering the Treadwell Woods. Heavy drops patter on the fallen cottonwood foliage and drip down the drooping remains of devil’s club leaves. It is still better here than out on Sandy Beach where a stiff wind would drive the rain into our faces. That’s a little too much liquid sunshine for me.
As rain soaks into Aki’s grey curls, I wonder who came up with the term, “liquid sunshine.” Did they see rain as the anti-sunshine? They’d have a valid argument. Sunshine warms and dries. Rain just makes you cold and wet. But, like sunshine, it can make the yellowing woods sparkle.
Raindrops dimple the surface of glacial stream. Some hit an expanding bull’s eye formed by a salmon’s leap. The rain glistens spruce needles and yellow cottonwood leaves. It soaks into the feathers of two bald eagles that watch the salmon’s antics from their usual perches. A week ago, busloads of noisy tourists would have been taking selfies with one of the eagles in the background. This morning only a silver-haired Juneauite pays the birds any attention.
When one of the eagles flies out and over Mendenhall Lake, the Juneau resident turns to share a memory of an October day where there were salmon in the pond and bears on the trail. This could be such a day.
The little dog and I say our goodbyes and take a roundabout way to Nugget Falls. It seems like every tree and bush along the way is in full fall color. Water drips off yellowing willow leaves into cups made of pink and red blueberry leaves. Above, tall cottonwoods seem to tear apart low-lying clouds. It is easier to capture such beauty with a camera when it rains than when it shines.
Aki gives me a cynical stare, as if she disapproves of the flowery descriptors running through my brain like a tickertape. Give me a break little dog. It’s been a noisy summer.