Aki is off lead on this riverside forest trail. I am not too worried. Dog salmon splash in the river but I’ve not heard the fwaap of a bear paw sending a fish and part of the river onto a gravel bar. I see bushes stripped of salmon berries but can’t detect the death stink of a bruin.
Near the edge of a tidal meadow jays, crows, ravens and eagles chit, caw, squawk, or scream. They sound cranky, like hungry people in a town with no restaurants. Aki and I skirt a fresh pile of bear scat and walk to Eagle River now filling with chum salmon that ride the incoming tide to their spawning streams.
Many of the salmon will take a sharp left turn in a tiny creek a quarter-a-mile upstream where early arrivals already mill. The lucky ones will end their one-way trip squirting out eggs or fertilizing milt into the waters of their home waters. Others will swim up dead end streams and die without procreating. The carrion birds now making such a racket along the river don’t care if the salmon die frustrated or satisfied. The just want the dying to begin.
This has to be a lucky day—-the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventeenth year. We count ourselves lucky to be alone on the Mendenhall Peninsula trail on this dry, if gray morning. Bald eagles complain while we plunge down though old growth forest to the Mendenhall River. More eagles sulk in the riverside spruce trees.
Diminished by the low tide, the river is empty of waterfowl. Only a seal head breaks the surface. Even though they should be out foraging on the exposed tidal flats, a mob of bald eagles sulk in the riverside spruce, some two to a tree. Even though it hasn’t rained for a couple of days, an immature eagle stretches out its mix-brown wings to dry. He must have crashed into the river trying to pull free a salmon. He was lucky to find one.
This time of year, the river should be filling up with pink and chum salmon but we see no fins, no impatient leaps of salmon returning to their spawning grounds. I pray that they are just late in arriving. With the king salmon return being so small, bears and eagles are going to need lots of chums and pinks to get through the winter.
While I start to feel sorry for the birds and bears and myself, three eagles whoosh over my head, so close that the wind sound of their wings startles me. One veers off while the other two fly toward each other with talons in attack position. But they are not serious about doing battle. Were they serious about snatching away Aki? Apparently unaware of any danger, the little dog stood relaxed at my side during the event. I guess seven must be your lucky number poodle-mix.
Downtown Juneau in summer often has more visitors than locals. This morning Aki and I meet two couples. One man and woman are from the British Isles, the other couple from Atlanta. As she usually does, Aki acts as an icebreaker. She reminds the woman from Atlanta of the little poodle-mix that waits for the woman to return home. Her voice breaks describing that dog. The Brits are more reserved but melt as we watch two bald eagles resting on an abandoned wharf. It takes so little to bridge social gaps. Sometimes, you need a little dog. Sometimes it just takes a couple of eagles on an aging wharf.
This eagle tells you everything you need to know about today’s weather. He squats in the top of a hemlock tree, rain-soaked wings spread out to dry. He will hold that pose for the ten minutes that Aki and I explore the false outer point beach. I poke at a spray of purple beach pea flowers, snap a photograph of them, pet the dog, and look up at the eagle. He holds the same pose. I talk with Aki’s human sister, watch her skim stones on the calm water, pet Aki, and look up at the eagle. I smile at a brown junco with the nerve to land on a drift wood log a few feet away and stare at us. I squint out toward Shaman Island at the head of a curious seal, apparently wondering why we linger on the beach. The eagle still hasn’t moved. That’s how hard it rained today.
The dogs looked miserable even though they reclined at the feet of doting owners next to bowls full of food or water. In the sidewalk seating area of an Oregon brewpub, they coped with 100-degree heat by sleeping. Tired from a morning bike ride along the Pacific and full of pub food, I felt like joining the pups. Aki, who even though she likes to sleep next to a heating vent in winter wouldn’t know what to do about the heat.
The next morning, while getting in one last bike ride before our return to Alaska, I thought about the flexibility of man and dog. In urban Oregon, dogs stay home while their owners ride crowded public transport to inside jobs. Each must look forward to the nightly reunion. They have many walks in the rain and some in snow. But one sniff of the tea roses perfuming the bike paths and you know that they have a gentler climate than Juneau. They have shopping, wineries, fancy beer parlors, and quality cell phone coverage. We have Costco, a hometown brewery, and ready access to the woods and sea. Orcas chase salmon and sea lions in front of Juneau. What predators work the streets of Portland?
This morning, back in Juneau, I join Aki for a walk on the Rainforest Trail. Soft rain collects on the path-side plants. It soaks my pants when they brush against the cow parsnips leading over the trail. How nice, little dog, to be soaked by rain rather than sweat, to walk through air cool enough for comforting fleece. Aki, who rarely has to pant, would probably agree.
The weather service issued a heavy-rain advisory for this morning. Mendenhall Lake could rise two feet and Montana Creek is likely to flood. In my mind I measure how high the arctic tern nesting colony is above the normal lake level. The colony just might survive a two-foot rise but not much more. If birds can experience fear and grief the terns, who migrated here from Patagonia to nest and feed, must have heavy hearts.
Knowing that there is nothing we can do for the tern colony, I decided to drive Aki out to the Eagle River. From under a bed the little dog watched me assemble camera and rain gear, showing no interest in joining the expedition. She listened to rain tattooing our roof as I pulled on rain pants and jacket. Just when I was about to walk out the door without the little dog, she stretched and trotted up, tail wagging. Maybe the rainy weather made her sleepy.
The rain stopped by the time we reached Eagle River. But the sky stayed gray. Aki jumped out of the car and headed up the trail. I followed behind. We entered the forest where green understory plants were already taller than me. The time of flowers has passed and that of colorful berries is weeks away. The forest only offered varying shades of green. But envelopment in such a green world calms like a day spa can never do. I must have slowed my pace in response because Aki stopped often to stare back at me with what looked like concern.
Later we crossed a riverside meadow rich in flowers. Blue lupine, magenta shooting stars and nagoon berry flowers, yellow buttercups, red columbines, and wild strawberries thrived. I remembered summers passed, when we watched chum salmon swim up the tiny watercourses that drain the meadow. At high flood tides, the salmon would swim across the meadow and die where the retreating waters left them. That part of their bodies not carried away by carrion birds, stayed to fertilize the meadow flowers and berry brush.
Rain or boredom seems to have depressed the Treadwell eagles this morning. Even though it is low tide and therefore the best time to find food or carrion, two mature bald eagles are glued to the tops of splintered pilings. Two more hunker on the beach near the water. The inclement weather doesn’t seem to have bothered the ravens. They fly back and forth over the glory hole, harassing first the piling plunked eagles and then returning to the beach occupied by those squatting on the sand.
Aki finds a cache of dog kibble that has been sprinkled on the top of a foot-high piling. Someone, perhaps the sprinkler, placed a flat stone over the kibble but Aki manages to tongue out a morsels before I convince her to stop. Two ravens land on nearby pilings to watch. I have little doubt that they will have the stone off and the kibble down their beaks before we make it back to the car.