I am not as disappointed with today’s rain as this miserable looking bald eagle. It has perched itself on a rise of gravel just feet from the edge of Lynn Canal. its hunched posture and rain soaked feathers make it look miserable. Worse, the eagle is going through the transition into adulthood so splotches of white feathers pock its chestnut chest like acne on a teenager’s face. Behind it, Canada geese, mallards, and gulls, unfazed by the weather, patrol the water offshore for food.
Only the lower flanks of the Chilkat Mountains show beneath the marine layer. Perhaps the eagle misses his mountain view. The water birds look as comfortable as tourists on a hot Rivera beach. They don’t need fancy raincoats or even hats. The eagle’s mood might be enhanced by a little something from Patagonia.
We have just walked down Eagle River and across exposed tidal flats to the canal, passing a drake Bufflehead duck and two hens. The drake did a barrel roll while the ladies watched. The little dog and I have seen ducks plop forward in a dive or plunge their heads straight into the water until their feet and tail feathers are sticking straight into the air. We have never seen one roll over and over while in the water. Is this an innovation spawned by love?
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.
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.
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 feel like Ulysses, Aki—Joyce’s Bloom, not Homer’s hero. The poodle-mix, who has never shown any interest in literature, ignores me. Two rambunctious Labrador retrievers, rather than the Cyclops force us to take a more circuitous route to the mouth of Fish Creek, sending us on an extended odyssey.
Our slow road takes us past a huge beaver dam and around a small, landlocked pond. Two bufflehead ducks and a tiny raft of mallards paddle nervously across the pond’s surface. One of the beavers pops up and crash dives when I look in its direction. Overhead two kingfishers battle for ownership of the pond. The victorious kingfisher roosts on a limb in the grove of dead spruce trees that surround the beaver’s den.
After circumnavigating the kingfisher’s pond, we take the proper path around Fish Creek pond and down to the creek mouth. Hundreds of mallards loaf on the beach and nearby waters. Near the little dog and I, a semipalmated plover darts from rock to rock and then takes flight. Since my attention is on the little plover, I miss an eagle’s attempt to snatch a mallard from the creek mouth. The predator only manages to flush the mallards into flight. In seconds the ducks form a tight cloud that twists and turns in the air over the creek like a school of mackerel. Seconds later, the mallards are back at the creek mouth listening to the eagle’s lament.
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.
Aki and I have the Outer Point Trail to ourselves this morning. I’m a little surprised given that we are enjoying another warm, sunny day. I am more surprised by the appearance of a pair of mallards just a few feet away on the beaver pond. Lit up by the early morning sun, the drake looks like it was painted by Michelangelo. Even the hen looks stunning. Aki, why do I take mallards for granted?
I expect the mallards to take flight but they hold their ground. While the male watches us, the hen stretches and preens her feathers. Maybe they will nest on the pond after the ice melts and opens up the remote parts of the little water body. The jackhammer sound of a sapsucker draws us away from the mallards. The little woodpecker is as hard to spot as the mallards were not.
We work our way out to the beach and are surprised again by ducks. This time it’s harlequins. The little clowns jockey for position on the water, like they are settling in for another summer. I thought that they’d be on the outer coast by now.
Aki ignores all the ducks but is quick to react to the arrival of a dog on the beach. She and the new guy sniff and chase each other for a minute and then form a team to case the beach for smells. It takes the other dog’s owner a long time to convince him to rejoin her.
Aki’s new friend must have flushed the mallards from the beaver pond. We find them hunting for food on a sluggish stream deep in the forest. Again, they ignore the little dog and I. Rather than take offense, I am pleased at this exhibition of trust.