We have one more day of gray before the sun returns. According to the weatherman, it will bring glacier-borne winds to chill Chicken Ridge and the rest of Downtown Juneau. The promised wind will make short work of the frost feathers now decorating town. Thier angular crystals cling to almost every surface from car roof to spruce tips. They brighten the bare-branched alders that line Fish Creek. Aki and I visit there to enjoy the show.
Aki finds a brace of miniature collie dogs to chase near the Fish Creek Pond but otherwise we have the place to ourselves. Leaving the pond, we walk down an icy trail that splits a frosty forest of beach roses and cow parsnip stalks to a spot offering an unobstructed view of Fritz Cove and the Chilkat Mountains beyond.
All the bird action is near the tide line where mallards grumble, a heron wades, and a bald eagle rests on a rock. The sky hints at the change of weather. Rather than forming a locked pearl and gray ceiling above the mountains, the clouds scatter and pastel pinks and purples paint their bottoms.
On our return to the car I hear what sounds like a murder of happy crows. When we get closer I can tell that it is a chorus made by children playing a pickup game of hockey on a small pond. Even if they look up from their ice, they wouldn’t be able to see the pastel clouds, the heron or the eagle. They wouldn’t even see the mountains. But their apparent joy exceeds mine.
Aki is home on Chicken Ridge, watching the lilacs and Apple tree shed their burdens of snow as the temperature rise into the mid-thirties. Here, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, it is barely above zero. Snow slows pedestrians and several hundred Canada geese crowd a small section of open water.
On the inner bank of the flood control dike, a great blue herron stands motionless. It isn’t fishing. A coat of ice on the pond makes that impossible. No, the Hunter is just trying to survive. I wonder if this is the same herron that watched me last October when I pedaled after him on the trail to Asotin. I wonder if he will survive this rare cold snap.
We are walking on a desert-like stretch of the Sheep Creek Delta where current and salt-water soakings make it almost impossible for anything to grow. Aki would rather be on the large beach that borders the old ore house. She loves to run across the sandy expanse and sniff for dog sign left above the high tide line. But there is bird action here. A great blue heron flies a low trajectory in front of us and lands a hundred meters away. Harlequin ducks, mallards, and goldeneyes paddle into the channel just far enough to ensure safety from charging Labrador retrievers. They don’t have to worry about Aki. She ignores waterfowl and refuses to swim.
At Eagle Beach, Aki charges over the wild strawberry patches to retrieve her orange Frisbee. Drops of water fly from the brush she forces her way through to get her toy. When she returns it to us for another throw, green seeds color her muzzle. The little dog doesn’t notice the bent over humans up and down the beach as they search for the tiny strawberries. Some move on their hands and knees, like supplicants to the berry god. At first I share Aki’s disinterest in the berries. Domestic strawberries are already ripening in our yard and we will have almost two quarts of wild blue berries picked for pie before sunset. But between tosses, I start searching the weeds and find little red globes hanging just above the ground. They taste sweet but not like a farm berry. They taste a little like the grass and peety soil smells. They taste of the place that grew them.
Last Father’s Day at 6 A.M. in Missoula, when Aki was home in Juneau, I checked the progress of the sunrise. Yet to climb above the Garnett Mountains, the sun still managed to paint the underside of broken clouds pink and pearl. Each subsequent second intensified the colors of a yellow and green field of blooming wild mustard. A single blue heron flied toward me as I straddled my folding bicycle. The bird’s wings beat a slow, full rhythm as if all the souls of those who had died during the night rode burrowed under its feathers. The heron, its body almost as thin as a paper airplane, flied toward the Blackfoot River and disappeared into a wall of still-gray clouds.
I rode toward the town of Lolo to watch a herd of bison graze near the edge of Highway 93. Traffic was light, but I still took the unfinished bike trail rather than the highway for the views it offered of the Blackfoot River a quarter of a mile below. The slight sound of my brakes disturbed to flight another heron feeding along the river. Later, I watched it fly over my head when I pedaled back to Missoula.
The rancher was irrigating the field where the bison herd grazed. Some stood in the spray like city kids on a hot day. Most fed on the drier grass along the old rail line that once served the Bitter Root Valley. One large bull watched my every move. He had a lot to protect. At least a half-a-dozen young bison, horn-less and with fur still reddish-brown, wandered among the bulls and cows. One butt his mother, like a dairy calf wanting to suckle. Getting no response, he returned his attention to the grass. While most of the young feed, one gave me a long hard stare until I remounted my bike.
Back in Juneau and reunited with Aki, I follow the little dog down one of our favorite beachside forests. Rain, rather than irrigation spray wets the ground. I think of the Lolo bison and the mule and whitetail deer that I saw on my recent family visit to Montana. Funny that I haven’t see many our Sitka black tail deer on my walks with Aki. Then, I spot the young male deer, hock deep in shallows of a little pond, starring at me. I’m not carrying a camera, which allows me to extend the eye lock without the distractions of focusing and framing. I broke before the deer, which held its ground even after I continued down the trail.
When I look up, it’s all grey and cloud. But here on the ground sunlight makes the most out of the new growth colors. Aki and I squint against it. We hear an eagle claim ownership of a beachside spruce before we spot it. Aki hangs back near some rocks as I walk past the eagle and toward the partially exposed causeway to Shaman Island. Black crows and white/gray gulls patrol the tidelands and I wonder why they evolved into such easy-to-spot colors. A godwit, a rare visitor with a chestnut cloak almost disappears against dun colored rocks. Same with the blue-grey heron. When I get home from the walk I discover that the two camo birds pose together in one of my photographs. I was trying to capture the great blue heron when photobombed by the godwit.
I would call this sea mammal rock if I wasn’t inadvertently sitting on the remains of a river otter’s meal. From the amount of scat and empty shells, it must be a favorite meal spot for the big weasels.
On prior visits Aki and I have looked down on harbor seals raising their curious heads into the air and watched a raucous pod of stellar sea lions swim around us on a high tide. Today two humpback whales feed just a quarter-mile away.
One of the whales is two-thirds the size of the other and I wonder if they are related. They are all business. We see no showy breaches or even an iconic flash of a tail framed against the sky. They just feed like they would at the end of a fast. Have they just returned from Hawaii, where humpbacks are so busy procreating they don’t eat? Or are they part of the minority that stays all year in Alaska waters?
Concentrating on the whales, I don’t notice that my little dog has begun shivering. Stiffly, I rise up, poke my head over the rock edge like a curious otter, and lead Aki back into the woods.