I was in the mood for solitude so I drove Aki to the Mendenhall Peninsula trailhead. Falling snow slowed traffic and deadened the view from Egan Highway. Only one car was parked near the trailhead. No tracks led from it. The scent of marijuana smoke hung in the air. The driver of the parked car was putting his solitude to use.
The little dog and I followed an informal trail across a forested side hill. The trail is tricky on a dry sunny day. This morning’s thin screen of snow made it worse. The nimble Aki had no problems reaching the water. She waited a long time to me to join her. We spooked a raft of mallards and watched them fly over the Mendenhall River. If the sun were shinning, the ducks’ shadows would have touched a cruising seal.
We saw two other seals and a sea lion before returning the forest. Seals normally slip quietly beneath the water’s surface. One we spotted today crash dived, like it was in a hurry to catch prey. It reappeared near the far shore of the river. I wondered if it had been day dreaming when it looked over and spotted the poodle mix and I on the beach.
An eagle scream diverted my attention away from the seals. We watched an eagle join its noisy mate in the top of a spruce tree. No food hung from the talons of the new arrival. I suspect that it’s mate’s scream was a scold, not a welcome home greeting.
I took my time this morning on the Outer Point Trail. Aki was a good sport about it. Usually we rush through the forest to the beach. But this morning, with its flat light and graceful snowfall, was one best spent admiring the woods.
A recent rain had washed the forest bare. Snow started falling last night. Thin lines of white cover the tops of exposed limbs and leaning tree trunks. The lines emphasized the gaunt beauty of standing dead pine trees.
Snow coated exposed rocks when we reached the beach. Waves raised by a rising wind curled toward the land. I heard over the sound of the waves, a group of school kids playing on Shaman Island. They had ten minutes to get back to the mainland before the incoming time buries the now exposed causeway.
I returned to the car before finding out whether the kids made it across the spit with dry feet. After lunch, Aki and I headed out the road and walked over a small hill to a little bay. Ours were the first prints on the trail so I expected to find some ducks huddled on the beach when we reached it. We did, but they panicked into flight when we broke out of the woods. Aki refused to leave the trees while I walked to the waterline.
A loon floated on the bay, diving occasionally on bait fish. Then a seal popped up. It swam toward the beach, peering at me like a myopic senior with too much time on her hands. The loon gave the seal a look and returned to his fishing. The seal switched its attention from me to the loon. It started circling the plump bird. When both disappeared beneath the water. I expected to see feathers float up to the surface. But the loon reappeared in good shape. Then the seal surfaced looking for another distraction.
While driving through the avalanche zone on the way to Sheep Creek, I wanted to stop and photograph the southern end of Gastineau Channel. A rising wind had broken up the gray mass of clouds that hung over the channel. Sunlight infused the clouds above Lucky Me. But there was no place to stop safely and we were only a few minutes away from the creek. When we arrived, the light was gone and the clouds were beginning to heal their wounds. At least it wasn’t raining.
I followed a dune of gravel out toward the channel where a raft of Barrow golden eye ducks fed. Aki held back to stare at me from a fringe of beach grass. Then came rain. It feel in sporadic drops at first then followed by and a wind-driven deluge.
After the little dog joined me on the dune, we moved toward the channel for a better view of the ducks. The golden eyes were keeping close to the shore even as we approached them. Usually they would edge out into the channel, like shop lifters moving slowly out a store’s door to avoid looking suspicious. This morning, when they tried to edge out a little, they quickly returned and to the shallows. That’s when the seal head appeared. It wasn’t the first time that we had been used without our knowledge to herd ducks in a seal’s direction.
Morning clouds hide the Mendenhall Towers and the top of Mt. Stroller White. They do lift enough to offer a filtered view of Mt. McGinnis. From the pocket beach of gravel where Aki and I stand, Mendenhall Lake looks like a solid, gray-colored mirror. I am tempted to test the mirror’s strength. If it could hold my weight, I could stroll across reflections of McGinnis and the blue glacial ice to Nugget Falls.
Something hidden swirls the lake’s surface, rippling the glacier’s reflection. Ten meters off shore the head of a harbor seal breaks water. After snatching a quick look at us it is submerges. When the seal next comes up for a breath, it will be fifty meters away. There must still be some salmon working their way across the lake to their spawning stream.
The seal’s presence is as unexpected as the lack of rain. We must be in between Pacific storms. Hoping to complete our walk before the skies let loose, I join Aki on a trail through the woods, leaving the seal to hunt for salmon. We pass two braces of bufflehead ducks on a kettle pond that quickly put as much water as they can between them and us. I wonder if they are reacting to our presence or the sound of rapidly fired rifles from the nearby gun range.
When the shooting stops an eagle screams in the way they do when another eagle invades their personal space. I expect it to fly off when it spots us, but the eagle keeps its talons wrapped around branches in the top of a young spruce tree. For the rest of the walk we will hear it scream every few minutes, as if calling out to a missing child or wandering lover.
Aki and I are walking along the verge of a highway that curves around Fritz Cove. I didn’t notice any cars have passing since we started. But one or two might have slipped by while we watched the seal. It hovered just off shore, not far from a scattering of deer bones on the beach. The seal gave us a long, sad stare, like a high school actress emoting loneliness in drama class.
It slips under the water, barely disturbing the surface. When it returns, it holds a deer bone in its mouth. Now it looks like a dog, wanting to play a game of fetch. When we move down the road, the seal disappears again. If we had stuck around, we might have been able to watch it snake onto the beach and grab another bone.
In a nearby spruce tree, a bald eagle screeches out a warning. It gives us a stern look that reminds me of the one saved by policemen for vagrants weighed down with burglary tools. When two other eagles return the screech, I take my hands from my pockets and affect an interest in something on the opposite side of the cove. A beam of sun has just powered through the cloud cover to light up the tips of spruce on an island, frosting the fall green trees with a thin layer of summer.
It’s a flat, gray day, the kind of day when I have to dig out beauty from close in things. Aki is having a great walk along the crescent-shaped beach at Auk Rec. Her joy depends on smells, not sights.
We move into the woods and then to the tip of Point Louisa. A few months ago we watched seal stalk a small raft of harlequin ducks. Those ducks are gone, moved out to the rugged outer coast waters. The seal is still here looking to nail one of the pink salmon leaping in and out of the water.
Turning my back on the seal, I watch honeybees flitting about stalks of magenta fireweed. We won’t see anything more beautiful today.
Sunshine tempted the little dog and out the door early this morning. No wind stirred the neighborhood spruce trees so we headed over to Sheep Creek. I hoped to enjoy reflections of the Douglas Island ridge in the still waters of Gastineau Channel.
Thanks to the near presence of the Juneau Icefield, sunny days are often windy days. Not this morning. The resident mallard drakes can admire their reflection in the tidal ponds scattered around the Sheep Creek delta. Aki can walk without wind flattening her fur. I can enjoy the reflections.
Just offshore gulls crowd onto a shrinking gravel bar. I measure the progress of the tidal flood by the number of gulls forced to flight. The remaining gulls lift off in a group, moaning and complaining about the thoughtless tide, forgetting that soon they will feast and fight over food that it will leave behind.
A cloud of fussing gulls flies over two seals that splash and swim around each other. One of the seals appears to climb up on the back of the other. Is this a frolic or something more serious? Are the voyeuristic gulls invading the privacy of the seals while they try to mate? It’s way too early in the year for seal sex in normal times. But we rarely, if ever, have 60 degree F. temperatures on a mid-March day. Is climate change changing everything?
The wolves around Juneau are usually black, not white or grey. As Aki and I approach the Eagle River, I see what looks like a black wolf scampering up and over a snow bank. It disappears before I can turn on the camera. Following in its tracks, we reach the edge of a meadow. Thinking that I saw a dog, I expect to see the big canine trotting down the river along with its owner. But only pans of broken river ice dot the grass. Later I will find an isolated line of tracks crossing into the woods.
A harbor seal swims past in the river current. It stares at the little dog and then disappears under the water. Then a raven flies over our heads and lands on a snow bank. It takes what I can only describe as a snow bath: digging out chunks of snow with its beak and tossing them onto its back, then rolling over and over on the snow. It then tumbles down the snow bank like a child rolling down a grassy slope.
I feel an urge to rate our interactions with the three citizens of nature. Wolf sighting are valuable because they are rare, so rare that I can’t believe that I saw one today. The deep sadness of the seal’s stare haunts me. But the goofy antics of the raven made my day.
Today Aki will make an odyssey along a crescent shaped beach where she will see many strange things.
She will walk on an empty beach, passing a stream mouth full of bathing gulls. Other gulls will fly far over water to join them. A pair of mallard ducks will be tempted by the commotion but will paddle away when they discover there is no food.
The same pair of mallards will dance in a tight circle until the drake rides like a fuzzy chick on the hen’s back. Aki will wonder if they are mating as all but the head of the hen disappears under the weight of her dude.
Seas normally fractured in winter will remain calm, its surface like satin.
Western grebes will pass in threes, harlequins in groups of five. A harbor seal will creep with feet of two harlequins and then swim past them. He will pursue a raft of golden eye ducks until they reach water too shallow for a seal to swim.
The little dog will reach the car dry even though she passed through a light rain to get there.
I wonder if seals are the ravens of the ocean. Aki, who has never interacted with seals but has a grudging respect for ravens, is uncomfortable responding to my musing. It might be different if we were talking beavers or river otters. She has been lured out onto thin ice twice by their kind. Two otters called for her to join them on thin ice over this very Fish Creek Pond. She broke through pond ice twice near the glacier while answering the call of a young beaver.
My little dog may be wondering why I bring up harbor seals where we are walking along a fresh water stream. But then she cannot see one of them twirling and diving in Fish Creek. It must have followed the high tide surge up the creek seeking something to eat or just to alleviate boredom. More than once while kayaking I have turned in my seat to see a harbor seal a few feet from my rudder, looking at me with the saddest eyes in the world.