This is a picture of Goldstream Valley taken from on top of the bluff in front of our house. The bluff was formed by a gigantic road cut where the State of Alaska used to store road materiels like pea gravel and sand. It was also where a most amusing entertainment unfolded one summer afternoon. That would be the day the lowboy carrying a huge generator up to the North Slope oilfields hit the frost heaves in the pavement of Goldstream Road and broke in half. This cataclysmic event was followed by the arrival of a mobile crane. But that is a completely different story.
This story is about a very magical day in early July when I decided that I had been watching the sandhill cranes fly around for long enough. I was pretty sure they were nesting out in the valley nearby, because my neighbor had told me she had seen them doing their mating dances a couple of weeks before. She would not tell me where she had seen this phenomenon, and I was determined to find the area myself.
If you look at the picture closely, down in the lower left corner you can see a cabin roof. That cabin belonged to our closest neighbor, SL. She lived directly across the road from us. She was wildlife biologist employed by the Unversity of Alaska, and also a dog musher. You can just see a rail to the left of her place. This was where she secured her dogs while she was harnesssing them up.
She had about 14 to 17 dogs staked out in front of her place. They were mostly malemutes, but there were a few miscellaneous Huskies and Samoyeds down there too. She used to watch our pair of malemutes for us when we went on vacation, and she was the one who taught us the best way to teach a dog not to bark. That is also another story.
Right across the middle of the picture is a line of evergreens. Those are the black spruces that lined Goldstream Creek. We used to cross country ski along that creek.
So, I’ve got my good boots on. It’s a nice sunny day. Please join me as I walk off down our driveway. When I get to Goldstream Road, I cross the road, turn right and walk along past SL’s place. Her dogs raise their heads and observe me as I walk by, bored. I walk on down the hill and then the road flattens out as it runs onto the “flood plain” of the creek. The spruces, which have been robust and full, become scrawny and twisted where the permafrost and muskeg begin. The grass changes too.
I walk along another half mile to where a moose trail crosses the road and arrows off through the muskeg towards willows and alders that occupy an esker out there. This moose trail is generally where we take off away from the road when skiing in the winter. There is a large muskeg pond behind the esker, and I figure that maybe I’ll be able to get a bead on the sandhill crane nest from around there.
I walk off the road, and within moments I realize I have committed a real greenhorn’s error. I forgot to put on my mosquito repellent before I left the house, and I don’t have any with me. I look back up the hill towards the house, calculate the extra mile and a half going back for the bug juice would cost me, and decide to rely on what is left on my hat. I never put the stuff directly on my skin, but sort of soak my shirt and hat with it. That works pretty well.
I also tell myself the fairy tale that I will be able to walk along fast enough to leave the mosquitoes confused, the way I have been able to when running on the University’s ski trails during the summer. It quickly becomes evident that this is truly a fairy tale. I can not make the same kind of speed on the moose trail, and soon I am really pestered with the little biters.
I stop to ponder whether this is really such a good idea, consider going back to the house for the bug spray. I decide not to. If I go back, chances are very high I will not come back out again. Tomorrow is Monday and I won’t have an opportunity to return until next weekend. I decide to walk along, and tough it out. The bugs are biting bad, it is almost maddening. Just when I brush away one from my face there are three on my neck and two on my wrists. Soon, I find myself fiercely concentrated on not being there. “I’m not here, I’m not here. You can’t find me. My air is not warm and wet and saturated with CO2. I’m not here,” becomes my mantra as I march steadfastly forward into the swampy area. “Hmm,” I notice. “The blueberrries have set a really good crop. I need to get back here in a month to pick some for jam.”
Finally I reach the esker and climb up out of the wetlands a few feet. The esker is small, only about 30 feet wide, and twists along for only half a mile Birches and alders and willows really flourish there. I stop for a minute, to catch my breath. I take a sip of water, and focus on my mantra some more. Suddenly, I realize the mosquitoes are not biting me any more. There are fifty to sixty whining around my head in an aerial ballet, but none are landing.
I do not stop to question my good fortune, but continue my hike along the esker towards the pond, trying to be quiet as I brush through the alder clusters and willow thickets. I want to disturb the brush as little as possible, hoping not to awaken the dozens of mosquitoes I see napping on its branches. There is a low place in the sand where there is a little puddle of water left from the spring melt. I wend my way around that, and stop just inside the brush line that overlooks the large pond I have been aiming for in front of me.
It is probably about 3 acres of open water. It is shaped like a big amoeba, completely surrounded by grasses and tall reeds. The esker I am perched on continues around one side of it, and then runs into a sandy hill where the ridge our house sits on peters out. Across the ponds there are some rather tall trees. Off to the right, the marsh extends another quarter of a mile until it meets the bank of Goldstream Creek.
I look through my field glasses, scanning the marsh, hoping to see a nest mound. There are lots of mounds, no nests. I look up, and stand there for a while, watching the sky, hoping to see the crane flying around. I try to scan the horizon, and the willows I’m standing behind obscure my view. I decide to step out on the bank of the pond. Carefully, so I don’t walk over the edge, I step out into the brighter sunlight. The sun glints off the water, turning it to molten gold. I look up into the sky again, and there, just above the tree tops I see a crane swooping in for a landing, ju-u-ust behind the tree tops across the pond. Hmpf. Maybe I should skirt the pond and see if there is a dry way over to that hill, which is behind SL’s place.
I stop and look around on the gleaming surface of the pond. The air is still, the mosquitoes whine. Away off in the distance I hear the train whistle as the Alaska Railroad heads off towards Denali National Park and on to Anchorage. It fades away, and as it does I suddenly become aware of ducks talking right in front of me. I yank my attention back from the distance and look down at the pond, which suddenly has blossomed with ripples.
In the center of all the ripples are duck and goose families of all sorts swimming around. Everyone is extremely busy eating at the edge of the pond where the sedge grasses grow in bunches. I see a bunch of eider ducklings bobbing in the wakes of a pair of Canada geese and their flotilla of five goslings. There’s a lot of whistling going on in that bunch, as they paddle furiously, trying to keep up with their long-legged parents.
There are mallards, several pairs, a pair of loons, some canvasbacks, I think, and some other really pretty blue ducks. I curse a small oath because I left my bird book at home along with the insect repellent. I stand there in amazement. The birds do not seem to know I am there. They are swimming, and talking, and issuing directives to their wayward progeny.
The cutest by far are the eider ducklings. They are tiny balls of golden fluff, bobbing merrily and uncoordinatedly about on the surface. They are trying their best to dive under the surface of the pond to copy their parent’s foraging activities. Their little legs thrash the surface as they kick furiously, trying to drive all that bouyant down under the surface. Finally they manage to submerge completely. Just beneath the surface of the water I can see their little feet furiously kicking and kicking and kicking. They manage to grab a tidbit and as soon as they have it, they stop kicking. They pop out of the surface of the water like corks released from champagne bottles, landing in a chirping group near the reeds.
I can’t help myself. I laugh out loud. Instantly, the quacking and honking alarm is given, and the water becomes miraculously free of waterfowl. I watch the place where the little mallard ducklings swam to cover in the grasses at the edge of the pond. As soon as they held still they became completely invisible against their background. I marvel at how they disappear before my very eyes, without even the help of a magician. It is amazing.
I stand very still and quiet for a time, willing them to emerge from the reeds. But they are wise to me, and eventually I turn and head for home. I decide to follow the esker back and avoid the swamp. As I walk along, vigilant for little holes hidden in the sand and grasses, I run across another moose trail. This speeds things up considerably for a while, until suddenly I run spang into a little birch tree that just appears right in front of me. I stop, startled, and right in my face a robin explodes from her nest that is secreted in the fork of that sapling. I almost fall down, I am so startled, but catch myself on the limber trunk of the tree. This pulls the tree down just enough I can peer into her nest, nosily. There are four beautiful blue eggs in it, so I gently release the tree and walk around it. The moose path peters, out, there are bristly shrubs to bash through before I finally intersect with the power line right of way.
Evening is advancing as I walk along the well worn path that SL’s sled and summer cart had worn there. It winds in and around the willows under there. I come around a corner and there in the path stands a fox, almost completely shed of its winter coat. I stop, it does a double take and lopes off into the brushy area edging the right of way. I breathe in again, and pop over the edge of the ditch onto the highway right by our mailbox. I pick up the paper, and walk back up to the house.
What a day. What a beautiful day.