Like a magician tracing a ley line, Aki confidently trots a straight path through wetland grass too tall for her to see over. An eagle does a fly over and two others perch. One of these occupies a stump in the middle of Lemon Creek. The other rests on a light standard that arcs over two lanes of traffic on Egan Expressway. Without knowing it, Aki is heading in the right direction—toward one of the odd little islands that seem to float on a tidal grass sea.
Fall and spring, foliage on the islands’ balsam poplars work like gold leaf on an icon to draw the eye. Spruce, alders, and elderberry bush squeeze onto the islands with the poplars. They all send roots into a mix of glacial silt and gravel carried there by the creek. Savannah sparrows nest in the grass bordering the islands. One of those diminutive birds flies to the top of an elderberry bush to watch us pass. I wonder what the tiny thing would do if we came near its nest. The severe look it flashes me as I pass within a few feet could not form on the face of a timid beast.
A raven plays with Aki on a beach made from Treadwell mine tailings. The beach was empty when we started the walk. Then the raven and a buddy flew over and landed on the beach in our path. One of them roosts on a piling but the other one flies a few feet ahead of my little dog, lands, and takes off again. In seconds the big bird lands on another piling and watches Aki wag her tail in anticipation.Down the beach two bald eagles scan the scene from a top a metal-roofed tower that once provided air to miners working the Ready Bullion tunnels. One spots food on the beach and glides down to investigate. It crashes chest deep into the water and splashes about until waddling onto an island of dry beach.
Overhead an immature bald eagle circles the scene, maybe planning in crowding in on the wet eagle’s find. But the one still on the mine tower flies up in a challenge and drives off the young one. It manages a more graceful return to its perch.
It’s Seven A.M. Strong sunlight hammers through the waters of Fish Creek Pond, turning its normally opaque surface transparent. Aki appears to squint. I do every time I look at the pond. A shy pair of mergansers hug the shadowed, far bank. Otherwise it appears as empty as the overhead blue sky. Then the crows possession of the place.
We climb the small dike that separates the pond from the creek delta and spot a clutch of bristle-thighed curlews feeding among the rockweed. There are tundra birds, just passing through. The crows seem intent on making a meal of them or at least moving them on.
In the mouth of fish creek a harbor seal shatters the morning quiet with a series of unexpected crashes. Curlews, taking it personal, flee the scene.
On the return loop, Aki and I watch an adult bald eagle launch from its spruce roost and fly with purpose over Fritz Cove. When it is a kilometer out, it kicks out its talons and crashes them into the water. But they are empty when the eagle regains the air. I am disappointed for the bird and amazed that it could target prey so far away. When we approach the eagle’s roost, it raises its beak and looks into the empty sky rather than down at the witnesses of its failure.
Aki and I climb a gravel road that passes above Sitka’s Fortress of the Bears. I hold up the little dog so she can see into the topless tanks that once contained caustic chemicals for breaking down wood into paper. Large brown bears splash in a pond that covers the middle portion of one of the tanks. Memorize that smell, Aki, and let me know if you ever smell it during one of our walks.
Earlier, the little dog had stayed in the car while her other human and I stood on a gantry above the tanks and watched four brown bears that would have been killed if not taken in by the fortress’s owner. Eagles and ravens roost in surrounding trees, waiting to pick up scraps left by the big carnivores. As much as I try, I cannot belittle the experience. While denied the hundred-mile range enjoyed by a wild brown bear, they don’t lay about with the nervous or dull look of a zoo animal. In minutes I relaxed, for the first time, in the presence of bears.
Still in Sitka, Aki and I walk down a forest trail near the mouth of Indian River. Totem poles line the trail like mile markers. There are no cruise ships in town so the forest is quiet enough to ease drop on the conversations of eagles and ravens.
The eagle conversation appears one sided, a scolding really, that leaves me as embarrassed as a person caught listening in on domestic dispute. The ravens take turns delivering animated speeches. Each sets up a punch line that you would find funny if you had a raven’s skepticism. A squirrel chits in what sounds like a complaint and scrabbles downs his host tree, apparently so preoccupied with raven’s story that he almost runs into my little dog.
Most of the ravens we pass on this Sunday morning stroll through downtown exude the confidence I’ve come to expect from the opinionated birds. They poise their rain-slick bodies on prominent cottonwood limbs or gather on newly green patches of grass. Some chase away eagles with triple their wingspan. But the two that we spot on the docks look hung over.
Near the morose corvids, two large rafts of surf scoters dive on balls of herring that have formed under the new cruise-ship dock. The ravens appear to cringe when the scoters panic onto the tips of their wings and use them to run across the surface of Gastineau Channel.
Under the partial protection of the Marine Park shelter, a homeless couple ignore the scoter’s din, dive deeper into their nest of castoff down sleeping bags, and try to gain a few more minutes of sleep. Soon city workers will start up their noisy power washers to hose down the docks. Then the homeless and the low ravens will have to find a quieter place to finish coming down.
Neither Aki nor I speak the language but I still enjoy the locals’ conversations. Along he forested part of the trail we thrushes, robins, wrens share their work songs. Eagles bitch at each other. Gulls bicker. Ducks warn others raft members of our approach to the beach.
In spite of all the forest noise, the beach is empty. A strip of fog forms a funny hat on Benjamin Island. Most of the action is at Shaman Island where the gulls and eagles linger. Close in a small collection of harlequin ducks make quick dives on baitfish.
Back in the forest, it’s more bird song and the occasional squirrel chatter. Near the car two red-breasted sapsuckers hammer the parallel parking sign. One flushes away. The other climbs to the top of a sign and gives up a hard look.