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.
This morning a frustrated Aki barked through the window at a thieving raven. It didn’t stop the bird from tearing strips from a bundle of floating row cover. The poodle-mix barked even more when the raven flew toward its nest site with a beak full of lining material. The raven, a pirate by nature, would probably blame me for leaving the cloth just laying around. It might even find fault with Aki for not figuring out how to escape from the house.
A few ravens flew over Aki as we slipped onto Mendenhall Lake to do a circuit around the cross-country ski course. Aki ignored them. There were just too many smells for her to catalogue. I listened to the hair-blown-through-comb sound of the passing corvid and started skiing toward the glacier. Aki dashed ahead until she was a tiny dot of color in a world of white—a small dog charging toward a river of ice.
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.