The sun returned to Anchorage yesterday afternoon. Last night, as it softened towards sunset, low angled light transformed the normally nondescript Chugiak Mountains into Swiss Alps. The drama continues this morning as I ride from the university past University Lake. With no wind to whiff it, the lake forms a polished mirror for the rising sun.
When the sun breaks open a blue-sky day like this one, Alaskans tend to turn their faces to the light. Some have to resist using overblown adjectives to describe the resulting beauty. The bike path keeps me in wood shade during most of the ride toward Cook Inlet but, I am able to turn my face to the sun at the spot where Fish Creek flows under the Coastal Trail. Then, I scan the wetlands for the Sandhill Cranes that fed on these flats every day of last summer’s writing school. But only gulls cruise for food. Out on Cook Inlet, a powerful tug pulls a loaded barge to the Gulf of Alaska. It might be heading for the Bering Sea to deliver fishing skiffs, trucks, can goods or house building materials to Unalaska or Nome. I remember watching similar, if smaller barges slowly moving up the Kuskokwim River, wondering what lucky guy was getting the Hewescraft boat perched on top of a stack of orange or yellow freight containers. Maybe this Cook Inlet barge will deliver happiness to someone on St. Lawrence Island or Dillingham.
It’s raining on this, the last morning of writer’s school—my last chance to spot a moose. I choose the Chester Creek trail even though it doesn’t offer the best chance of encountering big animals. I just hope to watch the sandhill cranes.
It’s windy. Last night a gust knocked over a portal toilet that is used by residents of a makeshift camp. Near downtown I pass a pile of black trash bags, each stuffed full of the possessions of homeless people. The only mammals I spot on the ride to Westchester Lagoon wear spandex and high tech rain gear.
At the lagoon’s western edge the resident Canada geese wait out the wind. Comfortable in such a large group, each goose seems reluctant to yield enough space on the bike path for a jogger and I to pass. Surviving the geese traffic jam, I pedal to the mouth of a small slough. The ratcheting cry of two cranes reaches me as I put on the brakes. Another pair of sandhills flies low over the singing birds.
The feeding pair stretch out their long necks when another crane call sounds. Soon five cranes gather to feed at the edge of salt water even as a bald eagle flies over at hunting height. One crane seems to stand guard as the others feed in pairs. There is no morning class scheduled to force my departure but I only stay ten minutes. The cranes might stay nearby all morning or explode into flight in seconds. But I feel sated, like I might after a rich dinner followed by cake.
Sand hill cranes have dominated my twelve-day stint at the Anchorage writer’s school. No moose or bear sighting yet. This morning, at the mouth of a slough that drains into Cook Inlet, two cranes foraged on a small island of reeds. Yellow legs scurried over the surrounding mud. When another crane called, one of my pair stretched its long neck to full height and looked toward the call. I looked in the direction indicated by the searching crane, hopping to spot a descending one. We were both disappointed.
Saturday afternoon, I might have seen the off-stage singer feeding along with this morning cranes on the inlet’s mud flats. Even though they had sole possession of the flats, the cranes gave each other excessive personal space. Watching from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I envied the cranes’ solitude. Every few seconds strolling tourists or bike riders filled the air with chatter. Some of the cyclists talked about their hope of seeing the carcass of a dead humpback whale now stranded on a beach near the motocross track. I would never see or smell the whale. Nor would the hundreds of people who poured down from the Kincaid Park chalet to hunt for its bones for it rested elsewhere. As I weaved through them, I wondered why they so wanted to see a whale that had lost its spark of life.