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.
On the way to the Treadwell Ruins trailhead, Aki and I stopped on the Juneau waterfront and watched sunlight break through the clouds. As if shinning through a lattice window, the sun formed sunrise colored squares onto Gastineau Channel. Near the navigational tower, a single seal swam through squares of yellow/red light. I told the little dog that that was more beauty than we are to expect on this early December day. But I was wrong.
On the sandy beach that borders the Treadwell Ruins, I try to correct my earlier statement. Aki, I think each kind of weather produces its own beauty. As she usually does when I try to share a profound idea, the little dog throws me her “are you kidding” look.
No, really. Take this scene, one with frost but no snow. Even without sun to sparkle the frost, this beach and the trees that crouch towards it are quite lovely.
Knowing this I am not convincing the little dog, I turn and look toward Juneau. Sunlight has managed to again pierce the clouds to swath the town and the mountain with the same name.
We move south until reaching the collapsed glory hole that marks the end of Sandy Beach. Frost feathers have turned the offshore rocks an icy grey. A raft of mallards slides from behind the rocks to provide just the right punch of color.
Aki should be bored. She has little to distract her while I gather seaweed into five gallon buckets. The last high tide rolled severed rockweed into a thick line that extends the length of the beach. I tell Aki that the buckets will soon be filled thanks to this bounty. She ignores me, like she ignores the five ravens that glide and croak over the beach. They must be waiting for us to leave so they can continue picking at a nest of nearby deer bones.
This beach won’t enjoy direct sunlight until next spring. The Douglas Island Ridge sees to that. But this morning’s sun throws cloud shadows on the wooded hills on the far side of Fritz Cove. Between the sunny hills and this dusky beach a seal hunts the cove waters.
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.