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.
Looks like the party is over little dog. Aki and I just crossed Fish Creek , which now appears to be empty of salmon. No eagles roost in creek side trees. We can’t even spot the pair of squabbling ravens that usually patrol the creek’s gravel bars.
The kingfisher that guards the pond is still here. When it spots us, the little bird flies off to give the alarm. It is time, I think, for the land to go to rest for winter. Then two silver salmon, sides spawning-red, leap about the surface of the pond. An eagle screams. The party is still on.
The eagle doesn’t bother Aki. She stares at the water as if willing the salmon to jump again. When they don’t she trots around the pond to where the trail climbs onto a low dike. There, a great blue heron surprises both of us by flying out of a nearby tree and settling onto the limb of a spruce just twenty feet away.
Aki seems glued to the spot on the trail where she first spotted the heron. When I call her she looks in the big bird’s direction as if to say, are you crazy, that thing is ten times my size. I could tell her that the heron hunts small fish, not small dogs. But from past experience I know that she won’t move. I’ll have to carry her to the perceived safety of the woods.
It could be the ruins of an Italian villa if not for the wild Alaska plants that encroach on its portico. Devil’s club leaves in fall color fills in for the Mediterranean sun. Drooping limbs of an elderberry take the slot that grapes would in an Italian garden. But there is no wine manufactured here in these remains of the Treadwell steam plant.
Aki wants to stay in the woods that have grown up around the ruins. I would rather check out the beach. We compromise and hang about in the woods for a bit longer before slipping through a barrier strip of beach grass and drop onto Sandy Beach.
One of the resident bald eagles, it’s feathers all ahoo, sulks on top of the old ventilator shaft. Two local ravens snatch up dog treats on the beach. With round nuggets in their beaks, they strut across the sand as if posing for a “Raven Brings Light To The World” sculpture. Once the first raven tricked a shaman into releasing the sun from a bentwood box so it could illuminate the land. These two ravens have much lower expectations. They just intend to enjoy a free meal in the light won by their ancestor.
Grey clouds dominate North Douglas Island this morning but some shafts of light manage to reach the glacier. This promises a sunny day ahead. But I don’t mind the low contrast lighting, which increases the chances for solitude. For the nose-dominated Aki there is little difference between blue or gray skies. She rarely looks above the horizon.
Two ravens spar like fighter pilots above the beach. One drops onto a rock near Shaman Island. When it curls its wings back for landing, the finger-like wingtip feathers curl back like an eagles. For a moment I believe that the raven has transformed into one of the big predators. Then it croaks, spoiling the illusion.
Down the beach, a mature bald eagle eyes us from its spruce tree perch. I walk out onto the beach for a better view of it while Aki waits on the trail. The sound of a surfacing humpback whale surprises me. When I turn to look, it is throwing up its flukes for a shallow dive.
While Aki and I wait for the whale to surface again, a walker approaches on the trail. He waits with us for the whale. He is old, but not stooped. With one hand he touches his beard. The other seems to grip an invisible cigarette. We talk of fishing the river that Aki and I visited yesterday. He points out the eagles strutting along nearby Peterson Creek. We agree that they are there for the returning salmon. The whale surfaces again but only long enough to toss its tail up for another dive.
When I first moved to Juneau, I was surprised to find Gold Creek imprisoned in a concrete trough where no plant or fish could survive. Before white settlement, its waters carried flakes of gold downstream to be discovered by members of the Auke Tribe. One of them led Joe Juneau and another white prospector up the stream to a rich vein of gold that provided the economic engine for a new city named after Mr. Juneau. Long ago the gold played out. Now cruise ships form our economic mother lode.
Perhaps to give our visitors something to photograph, the city placed small boulders in two parallel lines near the creek mouth. Storm surges carried gravel and sand down the creek to collect in the lee of the new boulder necklaces. The next summer chum and pink salmon began to spawn in the artificial reids. Salmon have returned each subsequent summer to spawn and die a few meters from the Foodland parking lot.
The abundance of salmon flesh entices to the stream the parking lot ravens that normally haunt trash bins and the pickup beds of careless shoppers. Gulls form a circle around the ravens or look for a chance to reach a salmon carcass before one of the big-beaked birds. I watched a gull perch on a rock in mid-steam and plunge its head into the water to pull flesh off from a spawned-out fish while other gulls complained about his good fortune.
This morning, for the first time in a week, the sun rose unimpeded by clouds. There was a thick rope of fog laid the length of Gastineau Channel but it was gone by 9 A.M. I listened to foghorns while drinking morning coffee and thinking about where to spend part of this sunny day.
As Aki slept curled in my lap, I decided to head North to where a trail snaked over a small rise and along the edge of Favorite Passage. The little dog always seems to enjoy that one.
Later, while taking a break on the trail, we waited on a pocket beach for Aki to rinse her new Frisbee. It was only unnatural thing on the beach. Time and tide, not human hands, had placed every pebble and rock. The tiny grass meadow at the edge of the splash zone was sown by the wind.
After finishing the walk we drove to the Shrine of St. Therese where someone with too much spare time had stacked beach rocks into cone-shaped cairns on the beach in front of the columbarium. Nearby a raven paced. When we neared the bird flew off and landed in the middle of small collection of cairns, knocking down two of them. After defecating on the ruins the raven surveyed the field of rock stacks and then turned to stare at us. I wanted to tell him about the beach not far from here where no one had tried to improve nature.
The ravens waited for Aki. Two of the large black birds strutted down the Fish Creek Bridge as if fat-rich bodies of dead dog salmon weren’t stretched out for them on a gravel bar beneath the bridge. They were sated and bored and looking to do some mischief. My little dog was a handy patsy. When they didn’t make way for us on the bridge, Aki growled and dashed forward. The ravens flited a little further down the bridge and waited for her to catch up. Just before she did, the ravens lifted themselves onto the bridge rails.
Game ended, the little poodle-mix trotted off the bridge and headed toward Fish Creek Pond. Two bald eagles eyed our approach. Incoming pink salmon splashed on the pond’s surface. One let itself be caught by a grade schooler on the opposite shore of the pond.
We’d see at least a half-a-dozen eagles on our walk to the creek’s mouth. All have been drawn here by the pink and chum salmon now filing up the creek. All around Juneau, chum salmon are spawning in their home streams. Each stream draws of collection of bald eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls waiting for the dying to begin.