The bald eagle swooped from the spruce tree and glided down to the pond, reaching with outstretched talons for its breakfast. The water erupted with splashing as the eagle flew away without its meal. Emerging from the froth, the river otter rolled over in the water and resumed chomping on the flatfish. Then it swam into the adjacent pond with a chain of tiny surface bubbles tracing its zigzagging underwater route.
A scene from a wildlife television program? No, it's a morning's activity on Juneau's most popular trail: the dike around the airport. This cameo of nature is only one of the reasons people are drawn to the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. It's one of the shortest - and flatest - trails in town, but rich in variety and appreciated by a wide variety of users. More importantly, the trail is a symbol of coexistence between humans and wildlife.
People use this trail for many reasons. For some, the closeness to home means a quick walk or run can fit easily into the daily routine. For others, it's the best spot to watch the jets arrive and depart overhead, trailing streamers of wingtip vortices through the air. Yet others quietly search the forest for migratory songbirds' distinctive notes. In autumn, the trail is access for duck hunters on the grassy flats.
For dog owners, this trail has special appeal. Three of the roughest hazards for Juneau dogs are absent here: cars, porcupines and bears. But springtime's nesting birds and summer's returning salmon bring new opportunities that require either leashes or obedience to protect both wildlife and pets.
For me, the airport dike trail is a place of constant discovery. Practically every day for 18 years, I have walked the wetlands trail with two big dogs by my side. Conservatively, that equates to about 6,000 trips. But like the wise soul who suggested one might learn more by climbing the same mountain 100 times rather than by climbing 100 different mountains, I continue to learn more about this special place.
This year I have paid particularly close attention while on my daily walks, attempting to learn the species of ducks that frequent the tidal and brackish ponds. Armed with binoculars, a bird book and notepad, each day I have been recording the activities of eagles, ducks, geese, deer, otters and the favorite of many people, swans. A family of swans has visited the sloughs south of the float plane pond each spring and fall for years. Two adults and about three youngsters stop by for about a week and feed quietly, gathering strength and calories for the rest of their journey to or from Alaska's interior or Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where they nest.
Other waterfowl use the ponds also. Most are habituated to the busy trail and barely acknowledge the presence of people and dogs. We stay on the trail and they stay in the water. Frequently lively events like the otter and eagle competing for the same fish capture my attention. Due to the wildlife being habituated to predictable human activity, they allow us to observe them at remarkably close range.
Recently, I have begun to study all the details of this familiar trail. And, no, familiarity does not breed contempt. In this case, it breeds awe and stewardship. I watch with wonder as the nubbins of plants emerge from the cold earth to surge higher than my head in merely two months. I search expectantly for ducklings and pause to observe as their mallard mother leads them around the ponds, teaching them where to find meals. I marvel at the maneuvers of Northern Shovelers, colorful ducks with huge bills, as they shovel the mud for food.
Raised as a flatlander, I welcome the vestige of a horizon the wetlands trail provides in this land of towering mountains. The trail skirts a spruce and cottonwood forest that borders a glorious saltwater marshland of tall, undisturbed grasses and wildflowers that reach to dredge islands created in the 1960s by hopefuls who thought we could open Gastineau Channel for continuous navigation. But powerful glacial deposits from Mendenhall River and Lemon Creek proved impossible to overcome. The dredge islands now serve as nesting grounds for Arctic Terns, slender knife-blade winged birds with forked tails that hover over ponds and dive for tiny fish. These long distance fliers migrate to Juneau from the tip of South America to raise their families.
Every day new surprises await me. As my knowledge of the habitat and inhabitants of the forest, ponds and wetlands increases, my respect and fascination does, too. I am but one of many who love this place. Find out for yourself why the footpath nestled between forest and wetland is Juneau's most popular trail. Bring your binoculars and birdbook, dog leash and poop bags, and meet your friends at the trailhead at the end of Radcliffe Road.
Laurie Ferguson Craig is an artist and dog owner who has walked the trail almost daily for 18 years. Juneau Audubon Society will resume monthly meetings in September. To make suggestions for future columns or share sightings or observations, e-mail Juneau Audubon Society members at firstname.lastname@example.org.