Today’s snow provides a welcomed, if temporary makeover for the moraine. It settles in fine lines along the branches of otherwise bare alders to emphasize their strength and grace. It hides mud and decaying leaves under a thinning white blanket. Aki and I walk to the moraine’s edge where it abuts Mendenhall Lake. Each beach pebble is wrapped in a coating of snow that can’t quite reach the underlying sand.
When we first broke through the trees to the beach sunlight muscled through clouds to shine off some of the glacier. It also reached the top of the surrounding mountains. That changed in minutes as a snow squall moved over the lake to block our view.
Back in the thin moraine woods, we slip and slide on a muddy trail and listen to heavy drops of snowmelt plop onto puddles. After a bad muddy stretch the little dog detours through the snow cover woods to clean her paws. The wet trail reminds me that this is just a taste of winter beauty. One storm off the pacific will wash it all away. One from the Bering Sea will bring the cold and more snow to free us from autumn’s purgatory.
Aki and I climb a service road to a high mountain meadow that still has snow. It’s an odd morning. No one else shares the road even though its over 50 degrees and blue sky backstops mountains, each a spruce green and white quilt. There is sun but it shines through a thin pewter haze that shows no sign of dissipating. Then there is the wind, not the broad breeze that can sweep across mountain and meadow, lifting the poodle’s earflaps when she faces into it, but a wind confined like a river, to unseen channels. When we cross one of these whippy tributaries, Aki dips her head low and I use the jacket, minutes ago unnecessary in the rising heat, as shield. Powering through, the little dog and I reach a saddle covered with snow. She is hesitant to follow me onto it, as if it lay over a lightly sleeping dragon. Maybe she smells the wolf that recently left this single track toward a pocket spruce forest. When the distance between us grows to the edge of her tolerance, Aki dashes toward me. Even though I am prepared for the dash, she runs too fast for me to capture her entire body with the camera.
Can the little dog read the signs of winter’s death, even in this high place? Already the rivulets run free, carrying snow melt to the sea. Bullet shaped skunk cabbage shoots power up through thawing ground. We can smell the decay of last fall’s grass and see the green specks of new growth pushing through it. Dash on, little dog, when this is gone, it will be all bog and biting bugs until next fall’s frosts.
I brought Aki to Treadwell for a sheltered walk among the old gold town ruins. The steady storm has already overwhelmed the bare-boned cottonwood canopy so we walk on mud, instead of the expected gravel trail. I look through thick walls of rain for a metaphor or simile that might be expanded into a poem. But none of the cast iron relics, made by true craftsmen over 100 years ago, stir my imagination. A boiler held together with thick bolts has no connection with my computerize life. An ore car rail emerging from the flesh of a spruce tree doesn’t drag me down a rabbit hole to find a mirror image in my life.
We leave the woods for the beach near the deep little bay formed when mine tunnels that ran under the channel collapsed. You would think that the worn pilings that once sported a shipping dock would make a good metaphor. I try some out out: rotten teeth, Hayden’s Wall, ghost army, the gates of Hell. All bad.
Then, while leaning against a worm-eaten piling, I spot an immature bald eagle that has secreted itself on the top of a piling 20 feet away. If it already had the white head and tail of adulthood, the bird would stand out like an ice cream cone. But today, soaked like the piling, by rain, it blends into the wood. The rain has darkened his brown feathers and turned his few white patches gray. The effect of rain on the eagle inspires me to give up my search for metaphor and try for a list of rain’s powers:
Rain blends eagle into wood
washes free iron relics
or buries them in mud
feeds the forest moss
floods its streams
softens my poodle’s curls
and makes them smell like spring.
When packed in a storm
rain ensures solitude
unwanted by my extravert dog
I find an old friend on the Outer Point Beach. A belted kingfisher watches from a perch on offshore rock as Aki and I emerge from the old growth. Aki and the bird ignore each other. He might be ignoring me as I walk slowly toward him to get a better photograph. I love this bird with its spear of a bill and mullet topknot. I like his feisty verbal challenges and goofy way he flies: up with a frantic beat of wings like a hummingbird then down in a dipping glide.
Twenty years ago on Prince of Wales Island a cloud of kingfishers circled my kayak and dived on a school of baitfish. The birds tucked in their wings and penetrated to a surprisingly deep depth, their passage marked by a line of bubbles in the water. I felt fear, wonder, and privileged to witness their casual demonstration of skill. I wanted to share it. I wanted to enhance the experiences value through secrecy. I never saw such a thing again.
You might say the devil is beating his wife this morning if your devil, when angry, grows yellow like the sun and his beaten wife can shed enough tears to soak little Aki and wash the trail clean. I prefer the idea that Akria Kurosawa illustrated in his movie, Dreams: that rain and sun share the skies over fox weddings. As my Aki, the little poodle mix, and I trot along the lower Mendenhall River, I root for the sun to muscle aside the rain clouds that have been camped out over Juneau for more than a week.
The tide is on the flood and in minutes it will cut off our retreat from the riverside beach if we don’t turn back. It has already eliminated the last mud bar in the wetlands and forced an armada of ravens to fly over us to roost in tall spruce. Now they mutter curses at the tide, each other, and maybe us. If they cast criticism of the little dog’s fleece wrap, she ignores it.
It’s early morning on a tidal meadow but we could be walking through downtown Los Angeles at sunrise. Canada geese, all locals, huddle like the homeless in protected dips of the meadow. Some make low complaints, as refugees from mental health treatment sometimes mutter to themselves while pushing a shopping cart of castoffs down the street.
If the geese represent the homeless of our cities, Aki and I are seen by them as police officers; my camera a baton to encourage them to move along from the protected doorways where they huddled for the night. Aki tries to ignore the big birds while I photograph them. I also take pictures of still-white peaks of the Chilkat Range reflected on the surface of Eagle River.
Tired of making geese nervous, I lead my little dog into the woods where we are greeted by a red-breasted sapsucker hammering away at a metal trail sign. I saw one of his brothers doing the same to a “No Motor Vehicles on the Trail” sign yesterday. Are the beautiful woodpeckers uniting against the man? As cops Aki and I should investigate further but the sapsucker flies off before I can question him.
Because people are coming over for a holiday dinner, Aki will get a bath today. I hide this from her. The little dog has a love/hate relationship with soap and water. She hates the bath but loves to dash around the house when freshly clean. She also loves to explore tidal meadows—a place she is unlikely to leave without mud and muck imbedded in her poodle fur.
We drop down from a well-used trail to the meadow and hear a series of “rock dropping into a well” sounds. Ducks start migrating over our heads, at first in one and twos, and then in dozens. I blame the Labrador retriever that went down the trail ahead of us for flushing the birds until I spot him heading back to the trailhead with his owner. Do the math Dan. The sound of something being plunked into water followed by ducks in frantic flight equals crab pot placements. Someone just dropped a line of crab pots into a chunk of Smuggler’s Cove covered with waterfowl. We won’t have much to watch when we reach the cove overlook so I snap pictures of fleeing mallards as they pass into front of the Mendenhall Towers and Mount McGinnis.
It’s a day for rain forest dwellers to cash in on an early spring day with sun and temperatures in the 50’s. Some with boats spend this warm Easter Morning dropping crab pots. Others troll for feeder king salmon off False Outer Point. Many, like Aki and I, just look at things.
We run into a group of serious bird watchers with serious spotting scopes and serious tripods for mounting them. Understandably, they are not happy to receive Aki’s happy, if loud greeting. I would have told them where the Smuggler Cove ducks now feed but did not want to intrude.
The little dog and I, we spend this holiday morning with sun on our faces listening to eagle song and duck complaints. I wonder at the beauty so accessible to one with eyes and interest; the little dog rolls in something rich in sea smells that last night’s tide left in the meadow grass. Thank God for the day and that Aki is scheduled for a bath.
The forest, this gray morning, reminds me of an actor awoken too early by noisy neighbors. The neighbors, clouds and clouds of pine siskins, never stop their shick-shick song. The forest, almost monochrome in the flat light, looks sleepy, maybe even grumpy. Sunlight breaks through the marine layer when we leave the woods for meadows drained by the Eagle River. Small groups of Canada geese, their honks blocking out the siskin’s song, stir in the yellow meadow grass. The geese fly off when we are still hundreds of meters away, heading toward the white Chilkat Range before landing on the river’s opposite side.
We spook a flock of American robins, which settle in a small alder. It is too early for them to sing their love songs but their presence en mass is an incontrovertible proof of spring’s arrival. Another proof is just across the river. A collection of white fronted geese take a break from migration on a sand bar. Some stand on one leg while one is sprawled, neck extended and wings stretched out to its sides on the sand.
Aki doesn’t chase a clutch of Canada geese that we stumble upon just before returning to the forest. They walk slowly across the trail, honking in a frustrated tone. The little dog just watches them take flight. God dog.
If the forest were an actor, he must have done his toilet, had his coffee and cigarette, read favorable reviews because the place thrives in morning light. Shafts of it enhance the electric green color of ground moss and make the forest’s watercourses sparkle. He had better savor the moment like a seasoned veteran. Wind driven rain will be raking him this afternoon.
Aki ignored the tanner crab shell until I took an interest in it. It was on its back; something with shape, substance, but little weight and no smell. The later explains Aki’s lack of interest.
We find many crab shell husks. The Dungeness ones are best because you can’t find a point of egress for the former occupant. (This tanner escaped by popping the top off his carapace.) But the Tanner husk that Aki noses with distain is unusual because it still has its delicate claws. I admire their slender pincers and walk on. My little dog stays by the shell giving me a look that would convey judgmental surprise on a human face. She only agrees to follow me when I try to photograph her next to her prize. Aki is not in the mood for modeling.
It’s almost low tide. A hundred gulls, made bright white by the low angled light, rest in a thin line on the sand. They mimic the light enhanced Chilkat Range on the horizon. When they rise in a porous cloud I realize that we walked over the place they vacated yesterday morning. Now, the little dog and I walk across the gulls’ horizon. Two bald eagles fly from nearby spruce trees out over Smuggler Cover. I turn away for a moment. When I look back, the placid mallards and scoters we just passed are nervous. A raft flies off, passing one of the eagles on an opposite trajectory. That eagle lands on a sandbar and looks around it like a tourist looking for the bus stop. The other one hunches over something on another sandbar, bobbing his head like the big birds do when the rend flesh. I can’t see what he holds in his talons but know it must be food. In minutes two crows land on the bar and stand at a safe (respectful?) distance from the eagle.
As the crows wait for scraps, I once again wonder at how much violence is committed in this place we humans find so beautiful. I honor the eagle for his skill in plucking a meal from the sea, understand his need to feed, respect the role of hunter and prey, yet find myself rooting for those lower on the food chain. I could almost pray that the molted tanner crab will survive his brief, naked existence on the ocean floor, until again protected by a hard shell.
I struggle not to attribute human attributes to the wild animals Aki and I see on our walks. These eagles are making it tough. They share the top of a spruce that offers a great view of the Mendenhall River and wetlands. When I approach with my old camera ready they stiffen and appear to pose, as if for a military poster. After taking a few bracketing shots, I shift twice to capture them from other angles. More posing.
Just before the little dog and I move down the beach, one eagle gives out a screech and glides over to the river. Through my unfocused lens I see it hit the water, talons extend. The splash sparkles in early morning light. Pulling out from the shallow dive, my model pulls up and arcs closely around us and then flies back to his perch. From there he seems to offer to do it all again I didn’t capture his glory. As a parting gift, he screeches out a warning. As it fades we hear a wing of panicked Canada geese that soon fly over our heads.