Aki and I are thirty miles North of home, slipping between rain-soaked blueberry bushes. More deer than men have used the path. It leads to a chute that bottoms out on a rocky beach. Like the herder that she is, the little dog waits for me to move onto the beach before she joins me.
I don’t know what Aki wants out of this walk. She seems satisfied with the smells on offer so far. Me, I hope to see a whale or seal or sea lion. I’d like to watch a heron hunt the shallows or spot a swan cuddled up in beach grass.
As if it read my mind, a harbor seal steams toward us, throwing up a bow wake as it nears the beach. It slips under the water when only a few meters from the beach. We won’t see it again. Well little dog, at least we saw one animal on the list. I don’t think Aki even saw the seal. When it appeared, she was snuffling along the edge of an old campfire ring.
We move back into the woods and follow another informal trail to a small rocky shelf that overlooks a pocket bay. Aki whines while I try to find the source of splashing coming from the bay. Twenty or thirty tiny fish burst out of the water, which is swirling to the movement of unseen predators. The scene repeats five or six more times. I can just make out pieces of the predator rising above the water. I assume it’s a winter king salmon feasting on baitfish. At home, in the pictures of the hunt that I took are enlarged by the computer, the predator will look more snake than fish.
We return to the car on trail that takes us up and over a forested hill and onto a tidal meadow where I’ve seen heron hunt for frogs. Aki flushes one that was feeding feet from the trail. It is considerate enough to only fly thirty meters away. Check another one off the must-see list. The heron eventually flies to just above where a stream drains into a salt chuck. On the shore of the brackish little lake, a swan cuddles in the beach grass just inches away from a brace of mallards.
I knew that the tide would be low when we reached this North Douglas beach. But I didn’t expect to see the causeway to Shaman Island exposed. I decided to walk across it and return before the tide turned. Aki wouldn’t follow me so I’d had to carry her. To reach the path we had to cross a stretch of open beach frequently flown over by eagles. Fear of them causes the little dog to hug the forest’s edge whenever we walk up this beach at low tide.
Holding the poodle-mix with one arm and my camera in the other I walked to the causeway. We met a couple of hikers coming back from the island. They managed to spot two oystercatchers on the spit. The little dog and I didn’t. There were the usual crows and gulls and harlequin docks, but no oystercatchers. A pair of common goldeneye ducks flew low over our heads, offering me a hunter’s eye view of their chests.
The sun climbed above the clouds as we started back across the causeway. I had to carry Aki again, this time because part of the path was already under water. Minutes after we returned to the beach the causeway became impassable.
Continuing on to the car, we passed the beaver pond where we had seen the swans a few days ago. At first I only spotted three of the big white birds. Then I noticed another two in a brush-choked portion of the pond. A fight broke out when the two isolated guys tried to rejoin the rest of the bevy. Two of the swans rose up their heads and beat their wings at each other. Then, the apparent loser sulked off to the weeds. The remaining four floated past the little dog and I, long necks straight, looking like a naval squadron on parade.
We hadn’t planned on hiking the False Outer Point Trail on this overcast day. But the parking lot for our targeted trail was jammed full of mini-vans. I drive on to the Outer Point trailhead, park, and follow Aki into the old growth forest. Only the blurry song of a varied thrush breaks the silence. As the little dog splashes through streams of water leaking from the beaver dam, I spot three white blobs floating on the far side of pond. A long, white neck rises from the water and I realize that they are trumpeter swans.
I’d like to linger and watch but Aki seems in a hurry to reach the beach. She wins out, as usual, and we both walk quickly to the beach. Only a handful of mallards drift off shore. Low clouds reduce the view of the Chilkat Mountains on the other side of Lynn Canal. Nothing too exciting. At least we saw the swans.
The trail takes us back into the woods and then onto another beach. Here we watch harlequin ducks ride a light swell. In better light we could have made out their bright party colors. I still enjoy watching them dive under the water and pop back up with food.
Aki doesn’t like to linger on the beach so we are soon back in the woods, taking the return trail to the car. The little dog doesn’t object when I turn onto a little-used path that ends up at the beaver pond. The swans are feeding near the beaver dam when we arrive.
There are six swans, not three in the bevy. One stands watch while the other five plunge their long necks under the water in search of food. They don’t seem to notice me squatted down on the beaver dam until another group of hikers arrives. I am not sure if the big birds would have reacted to them if one of the hikers hadn’t tried to do a poor impersonation of a swan honk. The guard swan stares at me until I move up the trail. It had already returned feeding by the time I turn back for one last look. I feel guilty for distracting them, even for a moment, from feeding. They still have a long way to fly before reaching their northern breeding grounds.
After 17 dry days the rain has returned to Southeast Alaska. You can almost hear the forest sigh with relief. I am doing the same. The rain has washed away a thin layer of glacier silt that covered the downtown streets and sidewalks. The rain may have discouraged other hikers from using the Dredge Lakes trail system. Alone, Aki and I move up a trail that parallels the Mendenhall River. On a clear day the trail offer views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. This morning only a sliver of the river of ice appears above the river.
Thanks to the recent stint of dry weather, a tributary normally too deep for us to cross has been reduced to a trickle. I take advantage and lead the little dog up a side slough to a section of the river we can rarely reach. Today it’s a hang out for mallards and merganser ducks. As we approach they fly off the beach in twos or threes and land a short ways off in the river. Soon the whole raft follows them.
After circling a large beaver den, we cut back through the woods to Moose Lake. While Aki rolls and rubs her face in a soft patch of trail snow I hear a bird with a powerful voice call “ko-hoh.” We move on, after an unsuccessful attempt to locate the caller,and reach the lake. Ice still covers most it. Two trumpeter swans float in a small patch of open water, their long necks stained brown by the muskeg water in which they recently fed. Now they sleep with their black beaks tucked into their back feathers.
One of the swans wakes up when my foot slips on some gravel. It looks at the little dog and me, then resumes its nap. I assume that they have just finished a leg of their northward migration. Now they must rest and feed before resuming their flight to the summer breeding grounds.
Aki and I meet two humans and their three dogs on our walk back to the car. When I mention the swans, they tell me that two swans were feeding on the lake last week. I wonder if our swans are the same birds, still recovering from the long flight or a newly arrived pair.
I am walking along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. It just stopped hailing. Now a gentle rain dimples the open sections of water between pans of rotting ice. Aki has disappeared into the woods. For the first time in awhile, I am worried about the little dog. Last week on a nearby trail, another dog walker watched his pup take a one-way trip into the woods. The wolf that killed his dog emerged carrying part of a freshly dead deer. Fish and game investigators reported that the wolf was only protecting its food and would not otherwise have harmed the dog.
When the little poodle-mix fails to answer my whistle call, I start wishing that I had kept her on a lead. Turning my back on the glacier, I head into the woods and find her casually walking toward me.
While spending most of my adult life in semi-wild areas of Alaska, I’ve had to weigh the ups and downs of living in place where bears and wolves might walk past your house in the dark. A recent trip to the Low Countries, where we cycled past swans and a great blue heron flew over the train taking up to the Brussels Airport, reminded me of how well wild animals are able to find their niche in human communities. I hope this is always the case, even it means increasing the risk of a walk in the local woods.