Tide and current often expose bones on the Sandy Beach. This morning Aki and I step over deer bones tumbled smooth in Gastineau Channel. They will soon breakdown into white specks to become lost in the pulverized gold ore that gives the beach its name.
The little dog and I also step over bones made of iron, or ceramic—train rails, machine shop pulleys, slabs of ore cars, and pottery shards. These 100 year old relics of a collapsed mining community won’t be disappearing soon.
Nature is working hard to reduce our human detritus to its base components. Mussels and barnacles have colonized the iron train rails and wooden wharf pilings. Wind, rain and sun work then over after the tide ebbs. Currents rub the rails together, scarping and scratching away tiny bits. But the relics will be rusting or wearing away long after Aki and I are gone.
Aki barely stirs when I walk up to her, harness and rain coat in hand. She raises up her head when I call her name then curls up on the bed where she spent the night. I know she can hear me. The sound of heavy rain drops hitting the house’s metal roof isn’t loud enough to block the sound of my voice. I ask her to get up. With some reluctance the little poodle-mix stands, does a downward dog yoga stretch, and lets me dress her.
I’m not looking forward to this walk in the rain. But I know that Aki will be squealing with anticipation when I park the car near the Treadwell Woods trailhead. After she leaps out of the car, I’ll climb out to join her, pull up the hood on my rain parka, and realize that it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.
We will walk into woods full of bird song, including the sweet-as-candy call of the American robin. Thrush and flycatchers, grown tame by the absence of other dog walkers, will ignore us as they go about their business.
Aki will investigate seductive smells. I will look down, not up for things to photograph, find an iron mine car railing emerging from the bell of a spruce tree. I will be surprised by other things that I passed by in the past without recognizing their beauty. It’s an unexpected benefit of having to bend down to the rain.
I’m again walking into the breeze on Sandy Beach. The wind tosses rain into my face and onto my parka. I want to ask Aki why I always make this mistake. But the little dog is thirty meters away, trotting along the forest’s edge where the wind can’t reach her.
Next time, I promise myself, I will walk through the Treadwell Woods to Glory Hole Bay and then home with the wind at my back. I wipe rain from my glasses so I can see down Gastineau Channel. Just past Glory Hole Bay, two bald eagles ride upward in the wind. Flexing their wings, the eagles then drop like stones. One dives on something in the channel. The other eagle turns its wings into a parachute and drifts onto the top of an old wharf piling. They are masters of their six-foot wings.
Aki is snoozing, worn out from herding another human and myself around the Treadwell Ruins. She was much less opinionated than when the two of us walk the ruins alone. She didn’t stall and stare, as she normally would, when I started up a trail that leads to a junkyard of gold mining stuff. She dutifully dogged at the heals of our human friend, waiting without complaint when we stopped to take photographs of an ore car in its rusting glory.
Sunshine powered through the forest canopy, raising the candlepower of yellowing devil’s club leaves beyond what my old DSLR could handle. Aki must has been squinting her eyes. We moved to an overlook where through a double chain link fence we watched a stream plunge several hundred feet into the flooded glory hole. Anywhere but here, where every mountain hosts at least one waterfall, this one would be mentioned in tourist material. Only locals can find this waterfall, and only those willing to climb the fence can see it’s entire length.
When Aki herded us onto Sandy Beach it seems packed with dog walkers, each smiling as their border collie or husky dog trotted along the water line. Forgetting her duties, my little poodle-mix dashed toward them. When they ignored her, Aki ran full speed down the beach, turned a wide arc and dashed back to her human charges. Break over, she dropped behind my human friend’s heals and monitored our progress back to the car.
As Aki and I took the switchback trail that drops into the Treadwell Woods, something brushed by me and leaped in Aki’s direction. The little poodle-mix knew what was coming. She wasn’t surprised when a large bird dog puppy, all legs and grin, dropped into a crouch in front of her. The two yipped and circled each other until the bird dog, easily four times Aki’s weight, got a little too exuberant. Aki snapped out a reproach and the puppy dropped her head down in submission. It amazes me how Aki gets away with bossing around bigger dogs.
After the puppy’s owner dragged his dog away on a lead, we wandered among the ruins of old Treadwell and dropped onto Sandy Beach. I was not surprised to see two bald eagles roosting on the roof of the old ventilation tower. The waters of Gastineau channel had cut the tower off from the beach. From their island tower the eagles watched a murder of crows that had taken up station of the tops of old wharf pilings or beach rocks. After Aki and I entered the scene two of the crows descended on a fresh salmon carcass to feed.
The eagles just watched the crows tearing into in fish they probably desired. Did the feisty, but much smaller birds intimidate them like my 10-pound poodle-mix intimated the puppy? Or were the eagles just worried about the man who was pointing a suspiciously gun-like object at them?
Shouldering my camera, I moved down the beach to let the crows and eagles work things out for themselves. After a gap of fifty meters had opened up I watched all the crows take to the air. Only one eagle roosted on the roof of the ventilation shaft.
When we reach the border of the Treadwell Woods and Sandy Beach Aki leaps onto the sand and charges up to a brace of Bernese mountain dogs. The dogs and their masters are kind so I am not worried. Aki squeals and runs circles around the big dogs trying to entice them into a game of tag. They stand like stunned statutes rather than accept my little poodle-mix’s invitation.
Fifty meters away an adult bald eagle watches the show from atop the old mine ventilation shaft. A minus ebb tide has exposed much of the beach and emptied the little moat that usually isolates the ventilation shaft from the rest of the breach. I expect the eagle to fly off when the little dog and I approach. But it just looks down with apparent distain on its face. Its mate roosts nearby on a barnacle-covered anchor. Even though the anchored bird is more exposed than the one on the ventilation shaft, it shows even less interest in me.
After watching the eagles for a moment I look down, expecting to see Aki giving me a bored look. The little dog is twenty meters away standing near driftwood that would offer her a hiding place if things went bad with the eagles.
We walk parallel courses down the beach until forced to return to the woods by the little cove formed by the collapse of a mining tunnel. While watching a golden eye hen launching itself into a dive, Aki appears at my feet. She gives me one of her “you are not going to do something stupid” looks, like she thinks I am going to try to cross the deep cove. No trust, little dog, no trust.
A harsh, almost equatorial sunlight bounced off the surface of the Treadwell glory hole. I tried to stare across that bay formed by the collapse of a mine tunnel, hoping to spot the belted kingfisher that was squawking out his territorial claim. Above and close, an unseen bald eagle screamed. After checking to make sure Aki was close and safe I spoted the eagle tucked into a crotch of prickly spruce branches. I wondered for the hundredth time at the fierce aggressiveness of the tiny kingfishers and the apparent cowardness of the powerful eagles.
Earlier, just after Aki and I dropped onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell woods, three kingfishers dog fought over Gastineau Channel, their chitterling calls as rapid as machine gun fire. A bald eagle roosting on top of the old mine ventilation shaft watched without concern. Perhaps the eagle knew it was not the kingfisher’s target.
Other birds made low flights over the little dog and I today. Early morning sun lit up the white patches on Canada geese as their “V” shaped formation moved toward the Mendenhall wetlands. Minutes later we watched the underside of a great blue heron as it flew close to my head, looking more dinosaur than bird.
This morning only one bald eagle roosts on top of the old Treadwell mine ventilation shaft. Small waves slap at the base of the shaft. Rain soaks into the eagle’s feathers. It focuses one eye on the little dog and I and forces its eyebrow into a shallow “u.” I’ve seen a similar look on policemen and teachers about to scold a troublesome student.
Aki trots over to the beach’s grassy verge, apparently unaware of the eagle’s mood. A few yards away, a rusted piece of ore car railing emerges from the sand. Further down the beach, the tide has exposed a hundred-year-old engine block. In between chunks of shattered pottery and bricks lay on the beach. Maybe the eagle is upset with the men that left all this junk behind when the mines closed after World War I.
We walk on down the beach into the wind and exposed to the rain. When Aki and I reach the little bay formed by collapsing mine tunnels, we move into woods that have grown over the mining town of Treadwell. Steel cables, car springs and ore cart railings emerge from the flesh of spruce trees. The trees, not the things manufactured by men, are the aggressors. This is not right. The trees aren’t attacking, just tiding up the mess left by the men who moiled for gold. (“Moiled for gold” borrowed from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service).
It’s too early for true spring, little dog. Aki squints up at me. She looks relaxed, not annoyed. Even through the temperature is below freezing, my gloveless hands are warm.
We crunch over still frozen sand toward the little bay formed by the collapse of the Treadwell mine tunnel. I look for bird tracks but see only those of dogs and their people. Just offshore, a small raft of golden eye ducks pull mussels off splinted pilings. We watch for several minutes until the head duck stares us down.
With regret, I lead the little dog off Sandy Beach and into the forested ruins of Treadwell. Even here, sunshine manages to dapple the snow-covered ground. A bald eagle gives itself away with a screech. I find him hidden in a snarl of spruce and cottonwood limbs, apparently enjoying the sun.
Minutes after we leave the Treadwell woods, two border collies start stalking Aki. They look so similar that I wonder if a sheep dog factory stamped them out. One of the collies is stretched out on the snow, head down, front legs stretched out, ready to charge forward. The other one creeps forward slowly, head down, using mincing steps. Now I know how a lost sheep must feel.
We are not in New Zealand and Aki is a poodle, not a lamb. As if to make that point two eagles roosting on the roof of the mine ventilation shaft let out their keening calls. I check the eyes of the collie dogs and then those of their owner. Finding no meanness, I relax and enjoy my little dog’s reaction.
Aki stands as tall as she can, tail a metronome. When one of the collies breaks toward her, she dashes forward to meet him. They sniff and then Aki runs a circle around me, her tail now an invitation for the collies to chase her. When they do, she yips and drops low onto the sand. Normally the poodle-mix can always win this game. But these two sheep dogs work together to herd her, like seals driving pink salmon into a trap. Aki has met her match.