When Aki and I started up the Gastineau Meadows trail, we had every right to expect a pleasant walk. The sun was making its low arc across a blue sky. Aki could feel it warm her fur. Someone had scraped the accumulated ice off the access road. Then a wind twisted over the Douglas Island Ridge to raise whitecaps on the channel. On its way, it nudged Aki in the rear. Another air stream pushed long plumes of snow off Mr. Roberts.
Aki ignored the rude breeze. I watched a raven ride a thirty-knot gust up and then barrel roll into a dive. Its silhouette sliced across the face of the sun.
Since the wind didn’t discourage the little dog, I refused to turn back to the car. Together we climbed the icy track to the meadow proper. I expected to be hammered by gusts when we lost the protection of the forest. But the meadow air was as calm as a tightrope walker practicing a few feet above the ground. The lack of expected drama disappointed at first. Then I spotted Aki flying across the still firm meadow snow.
The empty parking for the False Outer Point Beach promises an empty trail. This doesn’t bother the normally social Aki. It pleases her owner, who enjoys each chance to explore a beautiful place in solitude. Tears are forming in the thick fog that had been preventing us from seeing more than a half-mile of channel water. Through one of them we can see Mt. McGinnis. Through another a slice of the Chilkat Mountains appears.
I’m thankful for the mountain views and the fact that it isn’t raining. It pleases me more that nothing has scared the resident raft of golden eye ducks away from the beach. Aki stays close to my side as we round the point where an eagle sulks in the bare branches of a spruce snag. Off shore a man in an open skiff drops a hook baited with a herring into the water. I silently wish him luck in his effort to catch a king salmon, remembering the taste of winter caught kings.
The ebbing tide must have left behind some tasteful carrion. A murder of crows, maybe 200 of them, tussles with the local gulls for the goodies. A bald eagle abandons the beach to them and flies over our heads and onto a spruce limb. From the top of a small boulder, ten feet away, raven lectures the little dog and I. He follows us down the beach, croaking out his speech. It isn’t welcomed.
Gulls are as common in Juneau as ravens on garbage day. I’ve seen both on my way to writing school classes here in Seaside, Oregon. This morning two gulls landed on the wooden railing of a second story deck. One acted as look out while the other one shuffled over to a sliding glass window. The forward one rapped on the window with its beak, then clucked. The scene was repeated five times without anyone answering the gull’s summons.
Not wanting to be late for a lecture on scene, I moved on as the gull made a sixth try to have someone answer its call. I remembered the crow that landed one morning on our deck railing while I practiced guitar. As I ran through the scales, the little guy strutted up to the window that separated us. He didn’t tap on the window, just twisted his head to the side as if to hear me better. When I switched from warm ups to “Toy” by Dowling, the crow flew away.
Ravens flocked to Chicken Ridge this morning, drawn by a neighbor’s carelessly secured garbage bin. The messy eaters pierced plastic trash bags with their beaks and tossed kitchen waste everywhere in search for things rich in fat or protein. They ignored the vegetables.
No ravens greet Aki and I when we arrive at Skater’s Cabin. The song of a winter bird, perhaps a red poll, drifted across the ice of Mendenhall Lake. Otherwise it was quiet. No wind blew to knock frost feathers from the lakeside alders.
Even through we had the place to ourselves, Aki found plenty of smells to catalogue. While I photographed the glacier and his mountains, the little dog wandered onto the moss-covered floor of a new forest. She reappeared a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself as we walked along the lake edge to the Mendenhall River.
Since there was no chance that Aki could wander into a road or be carried off by eagles, I didn’t worry. But I still wonder at the meaning of her behavior. After 12 years of walks, is she looking to assert more independence? Or has she finally learned to trust my judgment. Until recently, she always acted like a careful nanny watching over a flighty three-year-old.
Last night, at the end of Aki’s before bedtime walk, the little dog lingered in the cold to smell a spot in the yard crusted over with snow. Before this morning’s sunrise, she asked to let out. It was 24 degrees F. at the time. Since she usually likes to sleep in, I was puzzled. When she didn’t return right away, I went out side and found her munching on a piece of sliced bread. I stopped her half way through the feast and brought her back inside the house. Minutes later one of the neighborhood ravens carried away the remains of Aki’s found meal. I had just been trying to work out how Aki managed to find a slice of bread buried in the snow. Mystery solved. She had raided the raven’s cache. I doubt if the bird will make that mistake again. Too bad for you, Akio.
The outdoor thermometer on Chicken Ridge promised a mild day for this time of year. If not for a brief snow shower that fell while I gathered things for today’s walk, winter would have seemed a long way off. Aki and I headed out to the wetlands to cruise for ducks or eagles. We only saw ravens.
The temperature during the walk never dropped below freezing but the wind chill made Aki shiver and me wish I had brought a heavier coat. At the beginning of the walk, we watched an airborne raven try to drive its brother off a scrap of food. After that it was all windblown grass and muddy trails. Well, that is not entirely true.
On the side of a large driftwood log, I found a little moss and lichen garden. Red lichen flowered among moss with leaves like tiny blades of grass. I would have never found this magic garden if not for the wind, which forced Aki and I behind the big log to warm up.
Aki wants to leave the Treadwell ruins for the beach even through a forty-mile-an-hour wind is whipping rain over the sand. I follow the little dog into the maelstrom. One of us knows what to expect.
We usually walk north down the beach to the little bay that formed more than 100 years ago when an undersea mine tunnel collapsed. On a calmer day we could expect to see a pair of eagles sulking on top of the old ventilation shaft. Two ravens are usually here looking for mischief. Today there is only a diminished raft of mallards huddling in the lee of a small point. Later we will see the ravens roosting on a pickup truck in the Foodland parking lot. They, will be staring at the Domino’s Pizza store, as if waiting for the cooks to finish the large meat lover’s special they ordered.
While I try to count the ducks, Aki sprints across the beach to take shelter in the border grass. In seconds she is standing at the start of a trail that leads back into the woods. I follow my poodle-mix into the forest. Steel rails that were once used by horse drawn carts to pull ore from the mine now twist and turn along the mossy ground. Some seem to erupt from the trunks of the spruce trees.