As the second Pacific storm in as many days shakes the car, I drive Aki out to the old Auk Village site. It offers a trail through old growth large enough to protect us from wind-driven rain. Ducks—Barrow goldeneyes and harlequins—fish waters just off the crescent-shaped beach. We spot no eagles or ravens but herring gulls fill the air. They seem to ride the strengthening currents for recreation, not for advantage. Graceful in flight, they plunk onto the water when they land, wings half folded, as if they misjudged their approach. Many of the gulls land on the beach and gather where a fresh water stream erodes the beach gravel. Some flutter in the stream, splashing the water like children in a municipal pool. Others look for bits of food dislodged it or the small surf pushed onshore by the storm.
A week ago, the police found the body of a young man about 500 feet up this slide chute. It was close to the makeshift camp where he had spent the early winter and just a ten-minute walk from Downtown Juneau. According the police, the body showed signs of being unattended in the woods. It’s that statement that has me taking pictures of ravens during this walk down Gastineau Avenue.
I think about the cloud of ravens, eagles and crows that Aki I watched during last week’s Gastineau Avenue walk. I remember the collection of similar birds drawn to a wolf-killed deer on the glacial moraine. I look away from a nearby heaven’s stare.
The flooding tide just displaced this murder of crows from an offshore bar. They regrouped on a lumpish rock thirty feet from where Aki and I emerge from the woods. My dog ignores the crows, as she tends to do with corvids except for our neighborhood ravens, which act like her teasing cousins. One by one the crows launch into the air. A small one keeps a look out while the rest line up like jets waiting to take off at the Seattle airport. I wonder if this organized nonchalance is designed to hide fear.
The ducks and scoters are definitely jumpy. There were two rafts of mallards when we arrived but one group panicked into a short flight to join up with the other. Now they hang close to shore while one of their number cackles in way that would suggest insanity in a human. The party colored harlequin ducks are quick to dive until driven to flight by the appearance of a bald eagle overhead. This sets some mergansers off and into the air.
The eagle pulls back its talons and skulks back to its spruce roost. I want to hang around and watch micro bursts of wind push small waves through the ducks’ formations but Aki whines. She has a point. It’s blowing hard, a wind that propels raindrops like missiles. I followed her into the woods where the storm hums through the canopy and we have to climb over a hemlock tree downed by the last windstorm.
It was colder yesterday but my body doesn’t believe it. I’ve dressed Aki in her felted coat, one that helps her retain most of her warmth. The water bottle I left in the car last night is frozen solid. But still we drive out to the Fish Creek Pond to watch the sunrise.
An incoming tide floods up Fish Creek, carrying wisps of fog that will soon congeal to obscure the other side of the stream. The tide-borne fog has already thickened over Gastineau Channel and Fritz Cove, hiding the glacier. Pieces of the surrounding mountains peek through, looking like puzzle pieces tossed onto a grey tablecloth.
My camera punishes me when I remove a mitten so I can take a picture. Each depression of the shutter trigger delivers an ice burn. It feels like the transient sting of candle being snuffed between thumb and finger. For the thousandth time I wonder at Aki’s bare paws. The icy trail doesn’t seem to sting them while she waits for me to turn off the camera and get back to business. The cold is her ally.
Aki and I move down the Boy Scout Beach trail with an old friend. The thing that brings the most beauty to this trail makes it treacherous. Seepage from a steep hillside builds up complex frozen cascades over trailside rock faces also coats the trail with a glacial-slick layer. With the help of ice grippers we manage to negotiate all but the last ice covered section of the ice. While the humans test the start of this ice barrier, Aki scrambles up and over it. Realizing that it would take climbing crampons to gain a safe purchase on the ice, we turn back. The little dog doesn’t complain when we give up.
After returning to the car we drive to the Eagle Beach picnic area from where we can see Boy Scout Beach across the river. We startle to flight a collection of Canada geese but they fly less than 50 meters and drop onto an offshore sandbar. A flooding tide swells the river, allowing a seal easy passage. Sunshine glistens off its head and reduces the snow covered meadow, blue sky, and spruce forest to colors you could find in a Crayon box.
Trying to focus a camera is probably the worse thing to do when a dozen bald eagles are flying over your head. Bur here I am, pointing it skyward. There are ravens too, more athletic than the eagles, more aggressive. Holding Aki’s leash and a full poop bag in one hand, I move the camera in the general direction of the birds and click like mad. If I drop the camera now, I could watch their dives and in the case of the ravens, barrel rolls. I might figure out why they spend so much energy during this time of near-famine. Could it be sport—an avian rodeo?
The little dog and I push on into the wind and climb from seawater to Chicken Ridge. A block from home we stumble on a small flock of European Starlings harvesting in our neighbor’s yard. Sunlight angling up Main Street enriches their chestnut feathers and brightens the males’ reds and violets. Here, the camera proves a better tool for accessing beauty and personality.
The guns are gone now that hunting is over on the wetlands. Except for area far above the high tide line, there is no snow, just ice, bent grass, and frozen mud. A raft of very relaxed ducks floats just down channel form the little dog and I. How many quiet days does it take for them to drop their guard?
Wishing that I had brought my ice grippers, I spend most of my time with eyes down, careful to step on patches of grass sticking out the ice. I am surprised by the view of Lemon Glacier when I do look up. Its terminus hangs above the Lemon Creek Valley with its collection of box stores and the state prison. Long banners of blown snow trail off the surrounding peaks.