One of the big Princess cruise ships moves up Gastineau Channel while we drive over the bridge that connects Juneau to the island of Douglas. A gentle rain falls on the boat and those passengers who ventured on deck to watch the docking. Down channel, only a small oval of blue skies survives a complex of gray clouds that is delivering rain. Are the passengers excited by the challenging weather or crushed? Will they hike up Juneau’s European-narrow streets to the Basin Road trail system or sulk in the Franklin Street tee shirt shops? Aki and I won’t see any of them wandering the Treadwell mining ruins.
It stops raining before we have passed through the forested ruins and stepped onto a beach made of crushed mine tailing. A resident pair of ravens watch Aki and I from atop jagged-topped wharf pilings. The one with a white spot on its wing bows toward my little dog when she trots up to its piling. After Aki follows me over to the collapsed glory hole for a visit with the belted kingfisher, the two ravens fly off down the beach, turning their backs on a battle taking place near the southern tip of Douglas Island between blue sky and rain-charged clouds.
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.
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.
Reunited after my stint at the Skagway writer’s school. Aki and I patrol Downtown Juneau. The little dog is all business, but doesn’t seem to hold a grudge about my absence. We walk in soft drizzle that dampens the morning’s color. A noisy raven, angry that one of his kind hold a tasty stick of something in its beak, lets us approach within a few feet. When he flies off, it is only to an alder a meter away where he continues to monitor the greed of his neighbor.
The lucky raven seems more stressed than the one with an empty beak. After trying to squawk with food in its mouth, it stops feeding and shifts his prize to one of his claws. The other grips the wet skin of a Chevrolet pickup. Down on South Franklin Street, where the docks are empty and the stores are closed, three women of commercial beauty have been pasted to the side of a cruise ship perfumery. The brunette in the center declares her’s an ageless society. But soon, even her beauty will fade, victim of rain and sun.
It’s the last day of writer’s school in Skagway. Students and teachers, including Paul Theroux are in a White Pass narrow gauge railway carriage that rattles toward the Laughton Glacier trailhead. The conductor has stuffed all the writers into one carriage where the sound of thirty or forty conversations competes with the grumbles of the old carriage and the disembodied voice of a tour guide giving the railroad’s history.
Last night rain soaked the trailside forest but now we have to squint to the morning’s sunshine while disembarking. Conversations began on the train continue as teachers and students start up the trail, joined by a couple from Galway who decided to follow us to the glacier rather than continue on the train to it’s terminus at Fraiser, British Columbia.
I hang back, letting everyone pass, until all conversation is being drowned out by a glacial river in a hurry to reach saltwater. The river also blocks out all birdsong. If a raven is scolding me, I can’t hear it. The forest plants aren’t steaming in the sun. That time has passed. But fat raindrops still cling to plantain plants and dead-brown foliage of last year’s bracken glows.
After a mile the trail leaves the river and leads me up through wind-stunted spruce and cottonwood plants. Still alone, I follow it onto a flat valley formed by twin walls of naked moraine. Only tough plants grow here. Ahead the Laughton Glacier curves up into clouds that obscure a mountain ridge. The clouds also block my sun. Ahead one of the writers, in long skit and windblown hair, walks towards toward the glacier with the help of a tall trekking pole. She turns the scene into a black and white photo of a pilgrim approaching her ashram.
I’ll pass the pilgrim and climb onto the shrinking toe of the glacier. The sun will return. I will hold sharp edged rocks just being released from glacial ice that carried them from mountaintop to my feet. “Look at these rocks,” I will shout to a much younger writer wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. But magic will be in their history, not their appearance so she will probably thinks me weird. Higher up the toe, I will fall into a conversation about wolverines: whether the grumpy loners are magic or just thugs. “Magic” will become my favorite word for the day.
Tlingit elders teach that when the tide is out, the table is set. This morning, the tide is clearing the table as Aki and I walk toward the mouth of Fish Creek. From the sounds being made by eagles, crows, and gulls, last call is too early. Across Fritz Cove, a noisy cloud of white forms over Mendenhall River as displaced gulls and kittiwakes rise from an inundated sand bar. The cloud rises, falls, swoops, and settles on a still dry section of the wetlands.
Rain falls through sunshine. In the American South, they would say that the devil must be beating his wife this morning. A rainbow appears in the skies above Admiralty Island. The wetland bird noise drops. Perhaps they accept the bow as a manifestation of the tide’s promise to withdraw from the wetlands after the crest.
The rainbow has no affect on the crows and eagles. Inside the spruced island near the creek mouth, they bicker like kids on the playground. Bald eagles glide in and out of the forest, some to fish over the cove, others to perch on a mid-channel navigation aid.
Two eagles, one wet, the other dry, sulk on the point separating fish creek from its pond. A minute earlier, one had crashed, talons first, into the pond water, struggled with something that appeared to pull it underwater. The then wet eagle released its prey and used its wings to lift out of the water for a short flight to the beach. Somewhere in pond, a sore backed king salmon drops into deeper water. .
It’s hard not to feel derided by the ravens and crows infesting the spruce forest that edges the Mendenhall River. The mere presence of Aki and me seems to put them in a foul mood. I experience emotions not felt since visiting a neighbor bar when in college. (Image me in school sweatshirt and jeans walking past a table of shipyard workers in machine-oil-stained overalls). The corvid choir takes me further back to the time of high school dances with their rigid hieratical order. The other birds along the river reinforce my feelings.A sole, immature bald eagle was exiled on our side of the river when Aki and I first broke out of the forest. Across the way, on a bar exposed by a minus four low tide, the big men and women on campus—a gang of mature bald eagles—reigned. Gulls, crows and ravens kept a respectful distance.
We learned the crows’ true social status when a single gull drove them off the bar, across the river, and into the trees where they now hurl insults at my little dog and me. As is the case of the high school dance status, in the bird world size does not guarantee dominance.
I’ve seen a sole arctic tern drive off a mature bald eagle and a raven do the same. I’ve watched a crow harass a raven into leaving a tasty morsel of food. Today, the Mendenhall River crows, having been embarrassed by a diminutive gull, are putting us in our low place.