Summer is late to come on in this part of the rain forest. We are only 30 miles as the raven flies north of home, where the ferns long ago unfurled and blue berry bushes are already setting fruit. Here, along the Eagle River, tightly wrapped scrolls still top the bracken-like ferns. Wild cucumber plants have yet to flower.
Aki leads me through an old growth spruce forest to a wooden bridge that crosses a swollen slough. In a month or so, the slough water will churn with spawning salmon. If we visit then, we will have to take care not to startle a fishing bear. Today all we have to worry about is slipping on the rain-slick boards that provide the only trail across a swampy meadow.
Near the end of the meadow, sprays of elderberry and service berry plant form a low canopy over the trail. A days’ worth of rain clings the green leaves and white flowers of both bushes. The little poodle-mix passes under the obstruction without disturbing a drop. Aki passing beneath the arbor without dislodging a drop. It all falls on me when I stoop to pass through.
After shaking off water like a wet Aki, I follow her back to the car, hurrying past shooting stars, buttercups, wild rhododendrons, Canada geese, and a red breasted sap sucker very intent on its work.
There is little drama on the Fish Creek delta today. We are in between ducks and salmon. Even the tide is middling. In an hour the flood will cover this trail like it has already covered the food-rich wetlands. Then it will retreat and things should get more interesting. As the Tlingit elders tell their grandchildren, when the tide is out, the table is set.
The tide is widening channel of Fish Creek where a great blue heron hunts and pecks for salmon smolt trying to reach salt water. Several crows land near the heron, watching it out of boredom or in hopes of snatching some leftovers. In a minute they are gone. The crows didn’t distract the heron. Nor did a bald eagle that flew a meter above the heron’s head.
My attention level is somewhere between the heron and the crows. I planned to remain near the heron long enough to watch it spear a salmon smolt. Then an eagle flew down the creek and clouds that have been covering the top half of the glacier lifted. I leave the heron to head down stream to Fritz Cove where one might better see the glacier, spot a seal lion or maybe even a killer whale.
Clusters of emerging water lily leaves look like whales breaching on the surface of the beaver pond. Some leaves have already flattened out on the water to gather the summer’s energy. Strong morning light makes the others translucent.
The tail slap of a nervous beaver sounds on the other side of the pond. Above the pond, a male woodpecker hops erratically up and down an overhanging alder tree. It’s a red-breasted sapsucker, not the three-toed woodpecker I was expecting. Last summer the three-toed raised a brood of chicks in a nearby spruce snag. I saw the male feeding near where the sapsucker is staring at me. Each season has its winners and losers.
We’ve been enjoying an early stretch of sunny, warm weather, which has drawn campers to beaches, like the one that Aki and I will soon reach on the trail. When a family of campers approaches, I grab Aki and retreat a few meters off the trail. In a few minutes the little dog and I reach their campsite and find an eagle and raven checking it out for scraps.
These campers had totally extinguished their fire before leaving. Two days ago, sixteen acres of forest and grass-covered dunes burned near Boy Scout Beach, a place Aki and I like to visit. We have seen bears digging up the meadow grass there to harvest chocolate lily roots. The place was crowded with Canada geese the last time we walked over the dunes. Now the geese and bears will have to find somewhere else to feed.
Wind-driven rain slammed into the car as we drove out to the northern end of Douglas Island. The rain but not the wind stopped when we arrived at the trailhead. When a few minutes down the trail we flushed a varied thrush from the trail. It landed on a nearby alder branch and gave the little dog and I a hard stare. That’s when I notice the total absence of bird song. On our last visit, varied thrush, like the one looking at us, filled the air with their blurry whistles. Wrens and kinglets added their signature songs. This morning, not one bird, or even a squirrel tried to be heard over the sound of the wind. I normally savor silence. It’s hard to come by, even in the rain forest. But this absence of bird song is chilling. Trying not to think about Carson’s Silent Spring, I follow Aki down the switchback trail that leads the beach.
At forest’s edge, we hear a thrush whistle and then the sweet song of a robin. The resident rafts of golden eye ducks and surf scoters work the offshore waters. Two eagles fly interlocking circles over Shaman Island. A song sparrow searches clumps of greening beach grass for food. Another sparrow sings out from inside an alder thicket.
Everything seems normal on the beach until a red breasted sap sucker lands on an exposed alder trunk. With jerky movements it moves up the tree, not stopping to hammer it with its powerful beak. It’s the first time I’ve seen any woodpecker land on an alder, let alone one so exposed.
Wanting a better view of the beaver pond, I walk out onto board walkway that crosses a small bay. Aki dinks around on the gravel trail while I stray. She has no need for an unfiltered view of reedy water. A meter or two away a juvenile mallard is curled up on a tiny island. She doesn’t stir when even after I walk a few more steps on the boardwalk. I feel pretty stealthy. Later, when I look at a picture of the duck on my computer I’ll learn that the little duck’ was staring me down.
Leaving behind the duck to soak in the sun, Aki and I walk toward through the old growth forest to the beach. On our way we pass an acrobatic pair of young sapsuckers. I would not have seen them if they hadn’t started squealing. One flits onto a branch a sun-bleached snag, hammers away at it, then summersaults its way through the air in a large circle. In seconds the other young woodpecker copies its buddy.
Gulls loiter on the beach when we reach it. They scatter into flight when an adult bald eagle does a fly over. After the eagle lands in a beach side spruce the gulls flutter back to their places and mutter among themselves. Aki encourages me back into the forest where we run into a young sapsucker. This one revealed its presence by pounding its beak into a middle-aged spruce. No goof off he. After seeing all these juveniles and no adults I wonder why the mature birds have left this portion of the rain forest to the kids.
What a difference a few days can make. It was hot during our last visit to this rain forest. Forest fire smoke had turned the sky gray. The sky is grey today but colored so by clouds, not smoke. It is cool enough to need a sweatshirt to keep warm. Last week the trail was jammed with kids and their parents—all heading toward the tidal flats or Shaman Island. This morning the trailhead lot was empty until I parked there.
Without crowds, heat, or sun, the rain forest is a calming place. The quiet helps too. Only birdsong breaks the silence. It’s a once again a place to heal.
The little dog and I fall into our familiar patterns. She sniffs and I click my camera or look at reflections in the beaver pond. She sniffs and I pop a few sweet blueberries into my mouth.
A flurry of bird action takes us both surprised when we reach the edge of a little muskeg meadow. Chestnut-backed chickadees land on branches just above our heads. Thrush and their cousins the robin trot across the boggy meadow ground. Just ahead a red breasted sapsucker prospects the trunk of a slow growing pine tree for sap. After eyeballing us briefly it returns to his work.
I just can’t help attributing human attributes to wild things. In the stare of a thrush I see defiance. A slouching marmot telegraphs nonchalance. This morning, on the way to the Rainforest trailhead, I tried to read the emotions of an adult bald eagle.
The big bird was perched in the top of a short spruce tree. I stopped the car just twenty feet away. The eagle looked to be contemplating the view up Lynn Canal or maybe just enjoying the feel of sunshine drying out his rain-dampened feathers. An audio version of Nina George’s “The Little Paris Book Store” was playing on the car stereo. As one of the actors described the meeting of the protagonist and his lover, the eagle turned and looked at us with its eyebrow raised, as if questioning my taste in books.
It’s early morning so there is only one car in the trailhead parking lot when we arrive. In an hour or two the eco tour vans will disgorge cruise ship passengers more interested in wild things than jewelry shopping on South Franklin Street. They are my favorite kind of visitors but I’m pleased not to have to share the trail with them today.
The leaves of understory plants in the forest are still weighed down with rain from a recent shower. They sparkle when struck by sun shafts. Above the trail a gray thrush mom tries to induce one of its chicks to fledge. In a nearby hemlock, a red-breasted sapsucker stops hammering the tree’s bark to give the little dog the stink eye.
Eagles are flying over our heads, forced off the wetlands by an incoming tide. I ask Aki, “Little dog, where are the ducks? The poodle-mix looks at me like a person might look at someone searching for the nearest ice cream store in a burning city. Maybe she wonders why I care about dull ducks when the tidal meadow is magenta with shooting stars. She knows that they are my favorite flower, something I inherited from my dad.
My interest in waterfowl is more intellectual than esthetic. All winter the Fish Creek delta was infested with mallards. American widgeons and teals joined them in the spring. Fish ducks like golden eyes, buffleheads, and harlequins paddled offshore. Today it’s all gulls, eagles, and crows.
Our first eagle of the day was an immature bird that roosted near the opening of Fish Creek Pond until forced off by one if its elders. We see the young eagle a half and hour later being driven off an ocean side roost by an adult bird. The three other adult birds in the neighborhood scream what sounds like curses as the immature eagle flies off across Fritz Cove.
All the eagle action pushed duck thoughts out of my mind. So did our sighting of a red-breasted sapsucker that we inadvertently flushed from the path as we rounded the pond. But soon I thinking about ducks.
There is a place on the trail back to the car where a guy can sneak through a screen of spruce and spy on a little pond. A few weeks ago the pond was lousy with ducks. Today I found two mallards when I eased out of the trees—a hen and drake. They stood as close as lovers on a mound of bare dirt, a nesting pair. Mystery solved.
Let’s get this out of the way. It’s raining. It’s raining for the first time in a week Drops cling to emerging leaves and blueberry blossoms. They soak into Aki’s grey fur. The rain doesn’t slow down the little rain forest dog. She muscles ahead over a low ridge and then leads me down to the beach.
I was hoping we would see whales or at least Steller sea lions after we leave the woods. But no cetaceans break the surface of Favorite Channel. We normally walk down the beach before returning to the trail. But someone is camping out in a tent. While taking a lesser-used trail to return to the forest, we are surprised by a pair of bickering, red-breasted sapsuckers. So intent on their territorial battle, they don’t notice us until we are only ten feet away.
When we return to the place the sapsuckers battled, we will have seen iridescent sea anemones jammed together in a tiny tide pool, several sea lions, and our first humpback whale of the year.
While planning where to hike this morning, I look out at the garden where heavy raindrops make the tough kale leaves bounce. No wind blows them off course. Already the storm is soaking the old growth canopy. But the little dog and I still head to the Outer Point Trailhead.
I am not surprised to find the parking lot empty and pleased that nothing falls from the sky. Ironically, inside the forest that usually protects us from the worst of storms, it is raining. Fat drops drip from the canopy of spruce and hemlock. Storm light, more pearl than gray in color, reaches into the forest and turns the surface of a beaver pond into a fairy tale mirror. It might tell Aki that she is the fairest dog in the forest. That wouldn’t be a lie since the place is empty except for local residents like the red-breasted sapsucker hammering into a 100 year old hemlock. The overdressed bird grips an imperfection in the bark with one foot, which in my mind, makes it look desperate, as it pounds yet another hole into the hemlock. Hell for the hungover must be full of such unrelenting woodpeckers.