No bald eagles are roosting on the roof of the mine’s ventilator shaft. That’s the first thing I notice when Aki and I drop onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell Woods. The beach has that sinister feel that always comes when a thin veil of overcast replaces a prior day’s blue sky. This is reinforced by the absence of any birds on the beach. The woods were full of birdsong belted out by winter wrens, yellow warblers, dark-eyed juncos, and robins. On the beach not even a raven is around to croak us a warning.
The scent-oriented Aki doesn’t care about our silent greeting. It just means there is nothing to distract her from the beach’s seductive smells. The quiet time is about to end. As the poodle-mix dashes down the beach to investigate a chattering cloud of Bonaparte gulls materializes over our heads. The Bonaparte is my favor gull, perhaps because of its distinctive black hat that makes it easy to identify.
Just after the gulls appear an eagle screams and then flies away to its nest in the woods. Quiet returns. Nothing distracts me from the rich yellow-greens of the beachside balsam poplars or the smell of the sweet incense that gives them their name.
I left the house this morning without brushing my teeth. Aki looked puzzled but still joined me in the car. Most days at this hour she’d still be curled up and asleep. A feeling, not a phone call or Facebook tip drew me out the door. I just knew that something magical was happening where the woods of northern Douglas Island touched the sea.
We looked without success for whale spouts in Fritz Cove on the drive to the north end of Douglas Island. No orca dorsal fins broke the surface of Lynn Canal when we passed False Outer Point. If we were to find anything special it had to be hiding in the woods.
At this hour I was not surprised to find an empty parking lot at the Outer Point trailhead. Bird song, punctuated by raven squawks and the hammering of red-breasted sapsuckers provided the soundtrack for our walk. The beaver pond was gray with patches of sky blue as the rising sun weakened the persistent cloud cover.
When Aki followed me onto the beach, we spotted a greater yellowlegs sandpiper in the shallows. An adult bald eagle seemed to be contemplating life from its perch on an offshore rock. On other rocks harlequin ducks slept or stretched.
The mountains bordering Lynn Canal, beautified by late winter snow, emerged from cloud cover. All the things we experienced—the nesting bird songs, woodpecker tapping, the sandpiper (first of the year for me), the contemplative eagle, and whitened mountains—were enough to draw us from our beds. But the magic of the moment was provided by early morning solitude, unshattered by the works or words of man.
I wish that those Canada geese would shut up. Aki doesn’t react to my rude comment as she moves down the Boy Scout Beach Trail. The geese, a clutch of at least twenty, occupy a frosty hillside on the other side Eagle River. Most search for food. Several stand guard on the hilltop. They all contribute to the general den, sounding like barking dogs.
The sun just managed to clear the mountain ridge to the south. Perhaps the geese are cheering it on. Maybe they are gossiping or giving unnecessary warnings about Aki’s presence.
Wrens add to the din, as do two red-breasted sapsuckers hammering an alder with their beaks. The little dog and I leave the woodpeckers behind and use a shaded trail to reach a tidal meadow. No matter how far we walk, we can never escape the dog yard sound of the geese.
More Canada geese float on river eddies or rest on exposed gravel bars. They start barking the minute we reach the meadow. The resident flock of Canada geese have spread themselves out on both sides of the river.
We won’t be free of geese chatter until we walk down Boy Scout Beach, swing back across the meadow, and return to the shaded trail. All the river birds will go silent when we leave the meadow. We will walk in silence, broken only by the roar of the river running over emerging rocks, until we are almost to the car. Men, not birds, will shatter the solitude, sharing their hunting stories.
The empty parking for the False Outer Point Beach promises an empty trail. This doesn’t bother the normally social Aki. It pleases her owner, who enjoys each chance to explore a beautiful place in solitude. Tears are forming in the thick fog that had been preventing us from seeing more than a half-mile of channel water. Through one of them we can see Mt. McGinnis. Through another a slice of the Chilkat Mountains appears.
I’m thankful for the mountain views and the fact that it isn’t raining. It pleases me more that nothing has scared the resident raft of golden eye ducks away from the beach. Aki stays close to my side as we round the point where an eagle sulks in the bare branches of a spruce snag. Off shore a man in an open skiff drops a hook baited with a herring into the water. I silently wish him luck in his effort to catch a king salmon, remembering the taste of winter caught kings.
The ebbing tide must have left behind some tasteful carrion. A murder of crows, maybe 200 of them, tussles with the local gulls for the goodies. A bald eagle abandons the beach to them and flies over our heads and onto a spruce limb. From the top of a small boulder, ten feet away, raven lectures the little dog and I. He follows us down the beach, croaking out his speech. It isn’t welcomed.
Needing to have the afternoon free so I can prepare for writing school, I leave the house early this morning. Aki has had her cheese so she doesn’t mind the pre-sunrise departure. We stop at the whale sculpture to watch the sun crack the darkness over Gastineau Channel. Our presence encourages a raft of mallards to slip into the cold water. They work their way over to a patch of water colored yellow by the sunrise. After relieving herself, Aki is ready to go. But she doesn’t complain when I linger to watch the ducks.
In a dusk-like gloam we drive out to North Douglas Island where it is calm and 15 degrees F. Last night’s wind knocked the frost from the trees in Downtown Juneau. But frost feathers that still cling to the roadside brush near the trailhead.
I have to carry the little dog over portions of the trail flooded by the water pouring over the tops of the beaver dams. It’s too cold for wet paws. The sun has reached a dead spruce in the middle of the pond. It draws my eye like a Las Vegas marquee. Whether suffering from the indignity of being carried, or just uncomfortable with cold, Aki refuses to follow me on the trail to the beach. I press on, knowing that she will soon end her strike. She does, flying by me to take the lead.
We are too early to see the sun light up the beach. But it does illuminate the mountains above the icefield. It also warms some offshore rocks and the gulls resting on them. Two golden eye ducks, lit by the same streak of sunlight, splash down near the rocks. It is so cold that I expect them to paddle over to the gulls’ rocks. But they are content to bob up and down in the surf. I, hands cold from handling the camera, body chilled in spite of multiple layers of clothing, feel very much the winter outsider.
Ravens flocked to Chicken Ridge this morning, drawn by a neighbor’s carelessly secured garbage bin. The messy eaters pierced plastic trash bags with their beaks and tossed kitchen waste everywhere in search for things rich in fat or protein. They ignored the vegetables.
No ravens greet Aki and I when we arrive at Skater’s Cabin. The song of a winter bird, perhaps a red poll, drifted across the ice of Mendenhall Lake. Otherwise it was quiet. No wind blew to knock frost feathers from the lakeside alders.
Even through we had the place to ourselves, Aki found plenty of smells to catalogue. While I photographed the glacier and his mountains, the little dog wandered onto the moss-covered floor of a new forest. She reappeared a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself as we walked along the lake edge to the Mendenhall River.
Since there was no chance that Aki could wander into a road or be carried off by eagles, I didn’t worry. But I still wonder at the meaning of her behavior. After 12 years of walks, is she looking to assert more independence? Or has she finally learned to trust my judgment. Until recently, she always acted like a careful nanny watching over a flighty three-year-old.
Rain is falling, dimpling Auk Lake and melting the remains of last week’s snowfall. Mt. McGinnis stands above the lake against a featureless sky. These rain doesn’t bother Aki or I. The little dog is excited to be out of the car and free to sniff and pee. While I’d prefer sunshine on snow, the soft grayness of the scene offers a calm alternative to the noisy world of man.
Just before leaving the lake, I spot a common merganser paddling away from the little dog and I. He moves fast enough to raise a wake. Calm on top, frenzy underneath. We drive out the road and take the Breadline Bluffs trail. The path crosses a small stream with snow-covered banks and then rises to a small muskeg meadow. In minutes we follow it into an old growth spruce forest.
The noise of airplanes and road noise ceases. After an eagle calls out to its mate from a nearby tree, the only sound we will hear will be that made by a small surf collapsing into the base of the bluffs.