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.
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.
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.
Today’s harsh, mid-day sun backlights Juneau’s homeless people and ravens to simple silhouettes. The same bright light makes Aki squint. But with a strong west wind blowing, no one can feel the warmth of the sun. This makes the ravens and the little dog cranky and the homeless subdued. A dozen of the latter gather together like a church community in Marine Park, wearing winter gear with sleeping bags over their legs. For them April might be the cruelest month for it’s tendency to deliver warm days followed by cold, never letting the vulnerable accept that the worst of winter is over. The forecast for tonight calls for snow.
It’s avalanche season in the Perseverance Basin. The little dog and I hear the thunderstorm drama of two but don’t turn back. We’ve chosen a route that avoids the run outs of their chutes. It still startles to hear the ripping, crack of thunder sound of a winter’s buildup of snow breaking away from Mt. Juneau. Today the smaller snowfalls we see quickly diminish to cascades that sound like loose gravel falling down a drainpipe.
It’s also early spring. The forest ground, now freed of its overburden of snow, seems to exhale. It’s breath smells faintly of mold, dirt, and the resin of fallen spruce needles.
Not far from the ruins of the A.J. Mine, Aki and I pass a woman sleeping in the front seat of an old SUV. I hope she doesn’t have children cuddling together in the car’s luggage area. After passing her in silence, we drop down Boroff Way—nothing more than metal stairs crooked enough for a fairy tale—to reach South Franklin Street. Ravens croak and a flock of red polls chit and swirl overhead. But I can barely hear them over the sound of a motorized barge warming up. The bargemen will work overtime today to get the new cruise ship dock ready for the first Princess boats in May.
On South Franklin several homeless people make their way to the Glory Hole for breakfast. One pulls a wheeled suitcase behind him. Weak sunlight glints off the plastic with which he has wrapped his bedroll. Three homeless, gray haired, dressed in faded gear, have jammed themselves onto a Marine Park bench. Others stand along a nearby railing. In a tree above them, a raven roosts in silence. The homeless stare out at a channel empty of boats, birds or whales. Are they looking at from where their came? With a decent boat, they could use the channel to reach their home village or even take the Inside Passage to Seattle.
Later and blocks away up Main Street, I’ll hear my first robin song of the year. But in this place where Juneau’s homeless pass the day, robins rarely sing.
After yesterday’s deep-snow struggles, Aki and I are exploiting the efforts of snowplow drivers and sidewalk shovelers to move easily around downtown Juneau. Berms of snow line the paths and roadways. It’s was not snowing when we left Chicken Ridge so the berms were dark with the sand and gravel used to improve traction for the cars. But it only takes a flurry of quarter sizes snowflakes to cover the mire with white.
Before the purifying flurry, I could anticipate each of Aki’s stopping points because they were marked yellow with dog urine. The new snow covering has no apparent affect on Aki’s nose for she continues to drag me to a stop every few meters. On a metal set of stairs, the little dog throws on the breaks. She must smell the cat that stands still as a statute in front of the Tibetan pray flag house. Aki doesn’t see the cat or she would growl. She doesn’t like cats, even wee things like this. Later Aki will not see the brace of ravens huddled together on a snow covered flower box. But, after detecting my attention, they will fly away into the storm.