I’m biking across a cement bridge across Idaho’s Snake River. To my right, at eye level, a red tail hawk flies a parallel path over the river. Back home in Juneau Aki might be watching an eagle do the same thing as she travels by car across the Douglas Island Bridge. Would the little dog believe as I do, if only for a second, that she was soaring with a raptor?
Upriver thick, grey clouds block my view of Asotin Washington where my uncle once worked as a sheriff. For the first time in many years, I will have to run from a summer rainstorm in the Snake River valley. While visiting relatives here in the past, I’ve always had to get in my bike rides before the summer heat made it impossible to exercise. On this trip I will postpone at least one ride until the temperature rises above 60. Yesterday I watched three white pelicans swim downriver and learned that they are new to the valley. More evidence of climate change.
Gatineau Meadow provides great awards for anyone willing to put in the modest effort required to reach it from sea level. We have snow shoed and cross country skied across it, read tracks in its snow and watched deer emerging onto its muskeg from the surrounding spruce forest. Unless low cloud cover hides them you can view our highest mountains from the meadow. Today, long after the winter snow melt, I am looking for summer flowers.
Aki isn’t a flower fan. But while I shuffle from bog rosemary to Alaska violet, the little dog can leisurely check her pee mail. I usually have to coax her past the coyote trail. Today she scoots past it as if her wild cousins have moved south for better hunting.
This morning, some of the meadow’s flowers offer more than beauty. A dramatic scene is unfolding in the yellow cup of a large-leafed avens blossom. Two legs of a tiny spider grip a flower pedal, tensed to pull the spider into the flower where a fly is trapped in a forest of long stamens. Aki’s patience is limited so I move on before the kill and look at a carnivorous sundew plant. I hate to hear her whine.
Even though we have full sun, warm temperatures and are alone on the Fish Creek Delta, Aki and I are not having a good time. Ten minutes ago the little dog found a roasted chicken thigh along the trail. I had to literally carry her off to keep her from eating it. Now she sulks in a pocket meadow, refusing to follow me into the woods even though an eagle watches her from a nearby spruce tree. I back track and carry her to safety.
Last week the hatchery released this year’s school of king salmon fry into the creek pond. The ones that haven’t figured out how to reach salt water dimple the pond’s surface. Their presence explains that of the eagles in the surrounding trees.
One eagle settles onto a spruce branch above the crow’s roosting area. In seconds an adult crow is flying at the eagle’s head. The eagle ducks down but doesn’t fly off until the crow has dive-bombed it a half-a-dozen more times. The victorious crow then lands on the eagle’s now empty perch.
Aki and I have seen crows drive off eagles many times, but not what came next. The displaced eagle dive-bombed the crow until it flew off. Aki, wanting to return to the chicken thigh, wouldn’t let me stick around to see if the crow would return together with a murder of its friends.
I am focusing my camera on a water drop when the drumming starts. Soon the sound of a chant travels across the waters of Stephen Passage. Several white-hulled seine boats and a traditional Tlingit canoe close on each other. Someone yells out a welcome. The semi-annual Celebration is starting.
Every other year, the Juneau’s Tlingit people welcome people from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations to town for traditional dancing and visiting. Most of the dancers will arrive by plane or the state-run ferry. But some will paddle from their village in a traditional canoe, passing feeding humpback whales and hunting orcas.
Most of the canoes are carved from a single red cedar or spruce log and have room for a score of paddlers. Aki and I just witnessed that arrival of one from Hoonah, Ketchikan, Kake or Angoon. We aren’t the only present for the welcoming ceremony. On the edge of the beach, an eagle watches the paddlers approach the waiting seine boats.
For the past four days, while Aki enjoyed a rare stretch of sunny weather with her other human in Juneau, I attended the North Words Symposium in Skagway. Each day fellow writers and I enjoyed workshops and listened to panel discussions in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. Outside the hall thousands of cruise ship tourists crowded the boardwalks of the old gold rush town. Behind carefully preserved false fronted buildings sellers of jewelry, art, draft beer, and popcorn waited for customers. Women dressed like 19thcentury prostitutes dangled a leg from the second story windows of a music hall to entice tourists to attend the 2 p.m. performance of a gold rush drama.
The symposium organizers didn’t provide us with showgirls or faux prostitutes. But they did provide a faculty of talented writers, including Pico Iyer. Pico offered insights and advice in a manner that showed respect for the attendees and fellow faculty members, knowledge of his craft, wisdom, and inchoate gentleness.
Before the concluding banquet, we pulled up chairs in a circle around Pico in a northern garden just warming toward summer. His face was dappled by sunlight filtered through the leaves and flowers of a lilac tree. He talked about his time spent with the Dali Lama. We learned that every October the Dali Lama travels around Japan with Pico, shaking the hands of truck drivers as well as dignitaries.
This morning, back home with Aki in rainy Juneau, I wondered why Pico’s description of the Dali Lama among the truck drivers grabbed pride of place in my memory of the symposium. I had heard more powerful stories about his life and travels. I had learned much from other facility members and fellow participants. But my strongest memory is of a smiling, bespectacled monk by the door of a gas station convenience store pressing the flesh of a line of confused working men. It seems an apt metaphor for Pico’s presence at the symposium, offering without judgment, a recognition of our human value.
Aki and I are alone when we leave the Treadwell woods for Sandy Beach. The minus low tide has uncovered a huge expanse of the fine mine tailings that we call “sand.” Racing her impatience, the little dog charges onto the beach, makes a tight circle, and then runs along the high tide line with her nose close the sandy surface. I understand her reaction. So much openness also makes me want to run because we live in a deep-sided valley drained by a fjord and most of the flat ground is forested.
While I consider walking to the edge of Gastineau Channel, two small white birds (gulls?) dive on a pair of northern goshawks. The goshawks had been on the beach. Their tiny tormentors drive them out and over the channel. One of the goshawks eludes its pursuer in the air over Suicide Falls and arcs back to Sandy Beach and flies over our heads. The other goshawk is still being harassed as it flies out of our sight.
After watching the second goshawk disappear, I count four cruise ships docked for the day near Downtown Juneau. Thousands of their passengers are disembarking. Many of them will take a bus to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The richest will hire helicopters to land them on the Juneau Icefield. We will hear helicopters and tourism float planes all day. The little dog and I have had to adapt to this seasonal invasion, as have the whales, deer, eagles, wolves, bears, goshawks and gulls.
Three harlequin ducks shared a near shore rock, each bending over as if to preach to the rest of their raft as they floated in the water. No bird attended to the sermon of a crow standing alone on another rock. Then, as if conducting an ordered evacuation, the three ducks dove one after the other into the water. Without the little dog or I knowing it, two bald eagles had been watching the harlequin performance from high in the spruce tree behind us.
After screeching out a critique, the eagles flew over our heads and glided over the ducks. If the eagles were planning on diving on the ducks, they soon gave up on the idea. Instead they started what appeared to be a game of tag. One eagle closed on the other. When a collision seemed imminent, the two birds sailed apart. They continued the dance over the ducks for a minute and then flew off in different directions.
The raft of harlequins, which had moved close to the rocky shore, spread out and returned to their fishing.