There is still an hour before the tide crests at 18.7 feet. Already it has turned the Fish Creek delta into a lake. Whether to escape the shrinking beaches where they had been hunting for food, or because they just feel like it, a large murder of crows retreats to the forested island that we are attempting to circumnavigate. Aki ignores the verbal battle that erupts between the crows and a handful of eagles that already occupying the island’s canopy.
On the other side of the temporary lake, a bald eagle swoops over a raft of mallard ducks, flushing them to flight. Failing to snatch one for a meal, the eagle returns to its roost in an old growth spruce tree. One of the crows flies over to flush the eagle from its roost. I wonder if the crow’s squawking speech would translate, “How does that feel tough guy.” The eagle holds to its perch, sending up its own verbal abuse.
None of this ruckus disturbs a local song sparrow. The diminutive singer moves along side of us as we try to reach higher ground before the tide floods out the path back to the trailhead. Even though it could fit comfortably in my breast pocket, the sparrow shows no fear. It lands on an old piling just a few feet and stares us down like a sheriff about to tell two trouble makers to move along.
Aki and I are crossing another meadow. This one should be free of bears. The river that divides it is almost free of birds. One bald eagle roosts on a driftwood snag. Close by, a small raft of mallards hugs the shore. Noise from the nearby airport blocks out the song of sparrows sheltering in the grass. Aki is bored and looks at me often with an “it’s time to turn around” look. But I feel at home.
It’s the grass, which has the height of color of wheat at harvest time. Turn away from the glacier and the river and it could be late June on a Montana bench like the one homesteaded by my grandfather.
Aki just growled at another bear. We are on a pocket beach miles away from the meadows we visited yesterday where we watched two back bears digging up chocolate lily bulbs. There were signs that many other bears had been grubbing there. Wanting to keep some space between the meadow bears and ourselves, I chose this quiet beach as today’s destination.
Today’s bear grazes on a late crop of beach grass. It would like to resume his feast but has temporarily abandoned it to keep an eye on us. We backtrack off the beach and take a trail that arcs around the bear. This path eventually leads to the meadows where we spotted the bears yesterday. The pocket beach bear might have walked over from the chocolate lily meadows to get a little variety in his diet.
The bears had a tough time this summer. Most of the salmon runs were small. The Silver salmon showed up in strength but they arrived late. The berry bushes had low yields. To get through the winter the bears need to plump up on roots, grasses, and whatever the sea sends their way. The last thing they need is a little poodle trying to chase them away from food.
Thank you bear, I say while securing Aki to her leash. The black bear had been digging up chocolate lily roots when we approached. It spotted us when we were only 30 meters away and slipped into a nearby copse of spruce. Aki never saw it.
We are on the return leg of the Boy Scout Beach Trail. It was raining when we started toward the beach. Now we walk under full sun. A stiff westerly blows at our backs, stripping yellow leaves from the riverside poplars and pushing waves up Eagle River. The wind has a fall bite to it.
On our way downriver Aki dashed from grass clump to grass clump trying to find relief from the breeze. To make our return trip easier on the little dog I lead her over a beach berm and onto a protected meadow. We bailed on that route after walking through large patches of trampled grass and pot holed ground. Tall grass and the dried stalks of cow parsnip plants prevented me from seeing more than a few meters in any direction. A whole work gang of bears could be within claw reach and we would never know it until it was too late.
To avoid a nasty surprise for bear, dog and man, Aki and I left the meadow to take a trail through the woods where no bruin had reason to occupy. It was just after we walked out of the woods and onto a small meadow that the day’s second bear spotted us.
Earlier, while on the opposite side of Eagle River Aki and I watched a different bear foraging for roots. Reaching to a noise from upriver, the bear sat up and stared toward the disturbance. This got Aki’s attention and she let out with a quiet growl. Now we had the bear’s attention. It was time for our retreat across the river.
Aki is bored. She doddles along behind me on this mountain meadow trail. There’s not a dog in sight. When we first arrived, only the ghosts of Douglas pines could be discerned in the fog. Within minutes the fog started to lift. In minutes all the drama was gone. Okay, little dog, let’s try a rain forest trail.
We drop down to sea level and park in a trailhead parking lot. Fog still penetrated the rain forest and hung low over the beaver pond. It robbed us of any view of the Chilkat Mountains. I could just make out a section of Shaman Island and little of the coastline.
We heard an eagle call out to its mate when we walked onto the beach. After that it has been quiet. There are no gulls or scoters to break the silence. Thanks to the fog, no airplanes can drone overhead.
Without the competition of sight and sounds, my nose takes center stage. I breathe in the soft, salty smell of the sea and the sharp iodine tang of severed wrack. But I am still just a burgers and fries guy compared to the little nasal gourmet searching the trail for scents of her dog friends.
What are you doing here? I ask this of a lone, white daisy. One of the flower’s petals is folded over it’s yellow-green center, like it fell asleep at the end-of-summer party and missed the last bus.
The daisy is the only sign of summer along this mountainside trail. Months ago the its lupine neighbors dropped their purple flowers. Now their armored seed pods sling to dead stalks. Grass leaves have turned to straw. Willows, poplars, and even the lowly alders show fall color.
The rain forest animals are also in autumn mode. Red squirrels carry giant chunks of mushrooms up trees and into their winter stashes. Tundra swans have already refueled on our lakes and beaches and continued south. Just now Aki and I watched a black bear root in a riverside meadow for roots. With summer berries and the salmon spawn now just memories, the wild bear’s menu is severely limited.
As rain soaks into Aki’s fur, a belted kingfisher pluck a baitfish from the water and then lands on a rock in the tidal zone. It flips, chomps, and swallows the fish and settles in atop the rock. Plumped up and with its feathers slick and wet, the kingfisher reminds me of the banker icon from Monopoly, With my rain smeared glasses I can’t see whether the bird is sporting a monocle.
The little poodle-mix and I are the only one using the Rainforest trail this morning. Aki is a good sport about the rain, as usual. But she appears to be in a hurry to get back under the old growth canopy.
I’d follow her off the beach now if not for the line of harlequin ducks cruising through the trough line of a swell. When they are not hidden by a wave, I can see that the little party-colored ducks swim with heads buried in the water. Closer in, gulls appear to be standing on the ocean’s surface. The incoming tide will soon force them off their already submerged perches. But for now, they are quite content to rest on their rocks.