As if to pin a lie on weatherman, nature brought us clear, cool skies this morning rather than the promised rain. At first light Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands. I’m hoping that it still retains the two inches of snow that fell on it yesterday. But this is early days for winter. The temperature is already above freezing when reach the wetlands. We take the trail along the river even though it is already slick with thawing mud. Aki finds cleaner footing on the grassy fringe.
At first light the still-surfaced river captures crisp reflections of the glacier underlined by trees flocked with snow. But the rising sun frees a breeze that riffles the water. The slight wind doesn’t wake a huge raft of Canada geese that doze, heads tucked into their back feathers, near the opposite side of the river. Among the sleeping flock, four white-fronted geese slip quietly toward shore. These arctic birds will soon resume their southerly migration.
When the heads of two harbor seals appear near the Canadians, the geese move casually towards the beach. I don’t see the seals make a move, but they or maybe a passing eagle flush the geese into flight.
Other than checking frequently to make sure she is near, I haven’t paid much attention to Aki. The little dog, who loves snow, doesn’t seem to mind until I head back toward the muddy trail. Then she gives me one of her “what an idiot” looks, hesitates, and then fast-trots towards her foolish master.
The Gastineau Channel eagles and seals are assembled for a banquet. Thirty seals lounge on a disappearing sand bar. An even greater number of eagles huddle together on a barge tied up near the salmon hatchery. Their dish for supper—homeward bound chum salmon—wait in line to climb the hatchery fish ladder. Soon the seals will be herding salmon into a tight group that will make harvesting easier. But I can’t figure how the eagles will cash in on the chum bonanza. Except for those fish killed by seals or fisherman and not eaten, the salmon will all end up in the hatchery pens. There they will be electrocuted and their eggs or milt will be removed. The milt will fertilize eggs to create the next generation of salmon.
Four gulls relax on their own floating island—a cork of dense snow that was carried from the beach by last night’s flood tide. You might say they look smug. Snow islands populate much of the bay. Some host gulls. Groups of others provide a harbor for a group of jumpy mallards.
The ducks explode off the water, fly back and forth along the beach and return to their spot before the water has had a chance to calm. Aki didn’t scare them. It’s a seal quietly swimming between the snow islands. In minutes the seal surfaces near the three gulls’ island, using an oblique angle to shorten the distance between itself and the possible prey. When the gulls stir, the seal slips beneath the surface until the birds calm down.
We are squandering petro this morning driving out the road. But it’s blowing 40 in Downtown and the forest drained by the Eagle River has 8 inches of skiable snow. If she could speak, Aki would tell me to ignore the expense and punch it. The little dog loves to run on snow. Since the road is icy I ignore Aki’s excited stance and drive slow.
It’s hard to hold anyone’s attention with a description of cross-country skiing. But that is what makes it so great for the skier. You slide the right ski forward and bring it back while shooting forward the left. That’s it. But, when the conditions are good, like this morning, you’re heart beat sets the rhythm, dropping you into a meditative state. For the first half hour the little dog dashes ahead of me and charges back. Out and back she goes until I find her trotting behind me. I suspect that in these quiet times she mediates on her next meal.
When the trail takes us along the river, now swollen by a 16-foot high tide, I look for the heads of seals taking advantage of the flood to hunt for late arriving salmon. But we won’t see seals, ducks, or even gulls during the ski.
Later, while I listening to a podcast of Everton fans arguing about who should be the next team coach, I drive up to a Sitka black tail deer running alongside the road. I stop. The deer leaps the guardrail and crosses the road in front of the car. Without thinking to turn off the podcast, I lower the window. The deer stops and turns to stare at us. I half expect her to utter “Don’t let them hire Allardyce.”
Aki loves the human friend we walk with today. She squeals when I drive up to his house and spends the whole ride to the trailhead on his lap. The little dog walks attentively at his side as we travel the length of the Auk Rec trail.
The resident clutch of harlequin ducks are in their winter place just off shore of the mouth of a small streams. Down beach from them a school of gulls sulks at the mouth of another stream. Last week Typhoon Lan rains turned the normally gentle streams into eroding firehoses, cutting deep channels into the beach gravel and exposing roots of tough beach grass. But shafts of silver light pouring from the marine layer seem to bless the storm tired land. Sunlight even manages to illuminate yellow stands of dogwood and Mt. ash trees to remind us of why we love the rain forest.
Even with all this beauty, the human conversation turns to the effects of mine tailing stacking on marine life. As we watch harlequins, buffleheads, and golden eye ducks dive on small fish, my friend tells me about the heavy metal concentrations being found in seals. As if on queue, a Steller sea lion surfaces just off Pt. Louisa to disturb the glide of a loon. The descendents of the Tlingit people who once lived above these beaches still harvest seals for meat. Rich in protein and vitamins, they feed it to their children.
Aki follows me on a trail that passes under a line of occupied eagle roosts. A large swath of the Mendenhall River bank is exposed by low tide, which has set the table for the big birds. The bald eagles are jumpy, made more so by a trio of ravens that worry them, acting like police in a homeless camp. One eagle looks down at Aki, screams out as if the presence of my little dog is the last straw, and throws itself into the air. Perhaps it is more accurate to write that the big bird threw itself down into the air, kicking away from its perch with talons and tensioning its wings until each tip curls look like witches’ hands.
On the southern end of Gastineau Channel, our local harbor seals treat low tide as leisure time. They are hauled out on a temporary bar formed by the receding tide. The seals will get back to work on the flood tide, which will carry a new pulse of silver salmon toward their home hatchery. They will rest again on the bar when it reappears with the next low tide.