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.
The little dog and I are crossing the meadow where we met a bear on our last visit. The season’s first dusting of snow brightens the surrounding peaks. Six geese, each whiter than the new snow, swing off from Lynn Canal and drift onto the grass. Most of their fellow snow geese passed through here last month on their trip south. These birds should already be with them in the Lower 48 States.
I think about the tiny rufus hummingbird that hovered near our living room window a few days ago, long after the last wild flower went to seed. Elders tell their grandkids that hummingbirds fly south tucked into the feathers of snow geese. I wonder if there is still time for our hummingbird to hitch a ride with these tardy geese.
We have just finished walking the beach that separates the meadow from Lynn Canal. At least I walked. Aki preferred to run out and back, like she did when she was a puppy. There is something about the sand that energizes her. Perhaps it’s the way her paws sink in or the thrill of sending grains fly with every step. At least one raven watched the little dog run.
Distracted by a U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter flying down Gastineau Channel, I didn’t notice the raven arrive. When Aki finally looks at the big bird atop the root wad of a driftwood log, she shows little interest. I wonder if the raven is hurt or happy about the slight.
The raven tolerates my efforts to photograph for a minute and then turns it’s beak in my direction. It’s body language communicates a clear message—that’s enough photographs, please. Lacking a paparazzo’s boldness, I turn to look down channel where a Coast Guard rescues boat chases the helicopter toward Admiralty Island.
The low clouds that had been obscuring our view of Taku Inlet move up channel. We watch the rescue vehicles disappear into a wall of white. Minutes later it returns. Was the pilot forced to abandon his mission by weather or is the helicopter no longer needed. Hoping it is the later and that the missing folks have been located safe on a beach, I following Aki into the Treadwell forest.