Ravens seem to beg to be anthropomorphized. Aki and I happen upon a gang of the teenage-like birds gathered on a beach dotted with pink salmon carcasses. One of the purpley-black birds crouches over an eyeless salmon body, ripping flesh from the fish’s back with its massive beak. The other birds cackle criticism at the eating bird and then take off, making enough noise to scare nearby gulls into flight.
The ravens don’t bother a green winged teal or a brace of greater yellow legs that feed in a shallow pond. They ride rising wind currents up and over Fish Creek and then break off into head first dives like WWII fighter pilots descending on enemy bombers. When even this becomes too mundane, they dive bomb a bald eagle, driving it off its spruce tree roost. While the eagle had no stomach for a fight, a crow rises to the occasion and drives off the much larger ravens when they get too close to crow country.
The little dog and I walk up the stream, surprised more than once by the loud splashes made by male pink salmon as they fight each other for spawning space. We startle to flight a pair of great blue herons hunting the little fish that thrive on salmon flesh. Squawking like barnyard geese, they move to a nearby pond where another heron is already feeding.
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.
The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage.
Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds.
We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore.
On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream.
Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot.
Something has drawn a cabal of ravens to Sandy Beach. A dozen of the grouchy birds sulk on the sand or on top of broken wharf pilings. The usual eagle sits on its perch on the roof of the old ventilation shaft. The eagle isn’t watching the ravens. It stares down the beach toward Marmion Island.
I follow the eagle’s gaze and spot what looks like a giant bald eagle walking along the edge of the collapsed glory hole. In the rainforest, ravens are credited in legend with having magical powers, not eagles. Are the little dog and I witnessing the start of a new legend.
As we approach a dog climbs out of the water and runs up to the big eagle. The “eagle” is only a white-haired woman wearing a coat that hangs off her body like a bell. For some reason I don’t want to approach any further. Maybe it is because with each step the woman becomes more human than bird-like. Feeling foolish, I lead Aki back into the Treadwell Woods. Then I wonder if the real eagle, sitting on top of the ventilator shaft, was also fooled.
Aki and I passed just one cruise ship on our way to the glacier. It was just tying up at the old steamship dock. In a few hours five more of the floating hotels will be docked and disgorging over 20,000 passengers onto Juneau’s downtown streets. Many of those visitors will take buses out to the Mendenhall Glacier. Some will clog the trail to Nugget Falls. We should be early enough to have the trail to ourselves this morning.
Two ravens scrabbling over a discarded sandwich roll take little notice of Aki and I as we leave the visitor center area for the falls. After one of grouchy birds chases off his competitor we stop to watch the winner tear into the roll. It gives me the stink eye, encouraging us to move on.
Glacial runoff has swollen the lake. It covers low-lying parts of the trail and encroaches on the nesting grounds of arctic terns. Some of the fork-tailed little birds hover like helicopters over the lake. A raven invades the nesting area of spotted sandpipers looking for an easy meal. The peeping birds are too quick to be caught.
An iceberg recently calved by the glacier has grounded out a few meters off shore of the nesting grounds. Two kittiwakes, taking a break from their paternal duties at the rookery, sulk like bored teenagers on the little berg.
Aki is 90% asleep when I slip on her harness and take her out to the car. We need to be at the auto shop in ten minutes. For there we will take the scenic route home. Aki demonstrates some mixed feelings about the whole project. The little dog would rather be home eating breakfast or at least sleeping. Now she is skirting around gas pumps and tire racks in the rain. We walk toward the whale statue. Aki throws on the brakes when we pass the Juneau Hotel. Maybe she smells breakfast cooking. In a minute we are back in motion.
The whale statue plaza is deserted. On a mid-channel navigational marker, an eagle sits, its head turned toward a gang of gulls clouded over a school of salmon smolt. The big bird launches from the marker and glides toward the gulls with talons extended. In seconds the gulls drive away the eagle. One escorts the still hungry eagle back to its mid-channel perch.
While climbing up Main Street we spot two ravens in conversation. The smaller of the two birds is upbraiding the larger one, which is bent almost in half in supplication as the lecture ends. Ravens are the most human of birds.
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.