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.
As we wait for a human friend to pull on his winter boots, Aki and I watch several hundred Canada geese floating on Auk Lake. Most sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers. The guard birds cackle. It’s hunting season. The geese spend the daylight hours when hunting is allowed resting on this lake where hunting is prohibited. Shortly after sunset they will fly out to the wetlands to feed. The birds have adapted.
We leave the birds’ sanctuary and head out to a riverine forest gone to sleep until the spring. No bird or animal breaks the silence. We see only a single raven and it flies off when it hears us talking. We continue on in the direction of the raven’s flight and find twin hemlock trees loaded down with Christmas ornaments. A strong offshore wind whips about the little trees. The nearby ground is littered with fallen ornaments. Normally I dislike human attempts to embellish nature’s beauty. But today, when low clouds hide the mountains and nothing but ravens fly, I appreciate some little globes of color.
At beginning of this walk to Gastineau Meadows, a raven supervised me as I captured Aki’s scat in a plastic bag. From its post in a nearby spruce tree, it squawked with apparent disapproval when I dropped the bag on the ground and continued up the trail. I don’t think it trusted me to pick up the bag on the return trip to the car. It is one of those “at least it is not raining” days. The sunrise provided a little drama at daybreak but now gray skies seem to suck the color out of the rain forest.
A crust of snow covers the frozen meadow. It doesn’t deter the little poodle-mix from following me off the gravel trail and onto the muskeg. Someone with a fat tire bike has crushed his way across the south section of meadow. Worried that the thin snow covering is not enough to protect the fragile muskeg, I mutter curses to heap on the bike rider if he appears. But he is gone. After leaving the portion of the meadow marked by his tracks, we won’t see any other human tracks.
We follow the tiny tracks of a first-year fawn, hoping to find those left by its mother. But the little deer appears to have walked alone. Later we find the tracks of an adult deer moving in the direct we need to take to reach the trail to the car. A few yards later we see the tracks of a stalking wolf. I wonder if a single wolf could run down a deer impeded only by a thin crust of snow over frozen ground. Aki and I will find no sign of a kill.
The raven will still be in its post when I bend to pick up the poop bag that I had dropped at the beginning of this walk. It flies off only after I carry the smelling bag a few feet down the trail.
Aki should be bored. She has little to distract her while I gather seaweed into five gallon buckets. The last high tide rolled severed rockweed into a thick line that extends the length of the beach. I tell Aki that the buckets will soon be filled thanks to this bounty. She ignores me, like she ignores the five ravens that glide and croak over the beach. They must be waiting for us to leave so they can continue picking at a nest of nearby deer bones.
This beach won’t enjoy direct sunlight until next spring. The Douglas Island Ridge sees to that. But this morning’s sun throws cloud shadows on the wooded hills on the far side of Fritz Cove. Between the sunny hills and this dusky beach a seal hunts the cove waters.
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.