If there’s an animal that evokes the north coast of Alaska’s Kodiak Island for me, it’s the bald eagle perched in a seaside spruce tree. The eagle’s size, its plumage, its simple but regal features make it unforgettable. The eagle lights on a bough or a driftwood snag, a crag or a grassy clifftop, and pairs of them guard our beach with the imperial disdain of centurions. They seem to do nothing but watch, keen-eyed and aloof, all-seeing and inscrutable, revealing nothing.
Eagles are predators and scavengers, and what they watch for is food, but it doesn’t diminish their superiority that they eat meals like the rest of us. An eagle holds himself so frostily upright it’s a wonder he doesn’t fall backwards off his perch. A primmer, more erect posture you never saw. I’m an underling, a shlub on the beach compared to him and his lofty gazing at the horizon. If he notices me, it’s by glacially turning his head and eyeing my carcass; and if my existence irritates him enough, he’ll step off his branch and glide to a superior perch.
When I am beachcombing, I may not be aware of the raptor’s presence until I see the shadow of her outspread wings or hear the rustle of her feathers above me. If I unwittingly approach her nest, the eagle shrieks at me and dashes overhead. They don’t like to mingle with the lesser birds, but if we’re cleaning a catch of fish on the beach, an eagle may condescend to land, and always the patrician, she’ll stand apart while the seagulls squabble among themselves over a length of intestine.
The eagle’s aquiline bill and priestly plumage — black habit, white collar — contribute to its noble image. The eagle’s totemic majesty is such that I was disappointed the first time I heard one open its mouth. The cry was laughably high-pitched. I had expected something defiant and heaven-resounding, a Wagnerian wail worthy of the name eagle, and what I got was a soprano bleat.
With time, I grew accustomed to the icy shriek of the bald eagle. This is what angels would sound like without their human hormones and their trumpets. The cry of the eagle is a pure celestial echo, a distillation of the skyey heights it flies.
It’s hard to think of bald eagles as frisky and sociable, but their dour demeanor changes during spring courtship and breeding. Eagles answer to the same god, Eros, as the rest of us. The eagles of Kupreanof Peninsula wheel in topless columns, soar in linked spirals, whistle in exultation and tag one another in the sky. Their spring frolics are a delight to watch. I’ve seen couples tumble earthward with their talons entwined. Eagles are said to be life mates, romantically loyal and sharing in their parental duties.
We encountered a dozen or so eagles by a mountain lake one morning. Half of them were juvenile eagles, and they appeared to be playing a game or running a flight clinic. One by one the eagles flew across the lake, skimming just above its surface, and disappeared over the green precipice beyond. Every bird took its turn until the last bird was alone on the lakeshore. The eagle shifted its feet and flapped its wings but refused to fly. The minutes went by. The other eagles whistled at it or clucked in encouragement or impatience. An adult eagle floated overhead and surveyed the situation. Finally, the holdout took flight. In a few wingbeats the eagle cleared the lake and soared out over the green cliffs. It was a balmy July morning, the rock ridges bright with the blooms of Kamchatka rhododendron. When the eagles had tired of riding the winds, they lit directly on the green slopes. We had never seen bald eagles so sociable. We at first assumed there was an animal carcass in the area, but the eagles were simply celebrating the day as we were, no other explanation necessary. It was good to be an eagle and good to be alive.
On a freezing winter day at sea level, the eagles watch impassively from the spruce trees. The wads of snow caught in the tree branches give them a wintry camouflage by reducing the conspicuousness of their white-feathered heads. Their dark torsos blend in with the slates and olives of the shoreline. Bald eagles don’t need much camouflage since we humans left off massacring them, but the concealment helps when they still-hunt for prey. These raptors aren’t as shiftless and cowardly as high-profile observers like Ben Franklin and John J. Audubon made them out to be.
Police in the Netherlands recently trained bald eagles to intercept enemy drones. Eagles don’t just feed on whatever carrion they find lying on the ground, they are active as thieves and hunters, too. I watched an eagle steal a fish from an unsuspecting fisherman on the Kodiak docks. The eagle dropped off its lamppost, grabbed the cod or sculpin in its talons, and flew off with it. People ask if bald eagles really swoop down at sea and catch live fish in their talons the way nature programs show on television, and the answer is yes, they do, with grace and devastating efficiency; and they fly on cool and unruffled, barely breaking a wingbeat.
The “baldness” of the bald eagle does not refer to an absence of head feathers but rather to the whiteness of its head feathers. The eagle’s surname, leucocephalus, means “white head.” Young bald eagles don’t have the distinctive white head feathers of the adult and so they aren’t “bald” except taxonomically. These eaglets, mottled brown and gray and white, look just-got-out-of-bed messy. They may be large, but in color they lack the severe simplicity and striking contrast — white head, white tail, black trunk, yellow bill — of the mature baldy. I use these colors advisedly. From a distance the bald eagle looks black, but the eagle feathers that I have observed on the beach are chestnut and charcoal in hue, not black.
It is all the same to the bald eagle. To the eagle on its branch over the sea; to the eagle in flight, propelled by the power of those massive wings; and higher still, to the eagle soaring overhead, to the eagle drafting on the winds, it is all the same. The eagle gives the impression of having transcended its nature, of having achieved a supreme knowing and needing nothing at all. Hearing those piercing whistles, I search the sky; but the eagle is far, far out of sight.
One drizzly morning a sea otter emerged at our trailhead, galumphed past the cabin, and heading away from the saltwater, disappeared in the willows. I wish I knew where he was going. With his webbed feet and stout legs, he moved like the monstrous offspring of Quasimodo and a seal. I’m sorry to drag the Frenchman into this, but I can’t think of a better way to convey the awkward locomotion of a sea otter on the land.
Maybe he was electromagnetically challenged, a victim of global warming. Maybe he was a beatnik otter following an eccentric beat. A naturalist otter in search of the inland beavers. An explorer otter determined to be the first sea otter to cross the Kupreanof Peninsula on foot. Maybe his people suffered from an obscure mineral or vitamin deficiency and he knew where to get the stuff and would return home a hero.
There were many explanations why a sea otter might venture so far out of his element, but the personnel at the Kodiak offices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge couldn’t give me a single one. Educated people, they wouldn’t believe what they couldn’t explain, and they doubted that a sea otter had hiked a fifth of a mile uphill from the seashore and made an ungainly appearance by my cabin. Had I mistaken a river otter for a sea otter? The creature I had seen, big in body, short in tail and ludicrous in gait, was unmistakably a sea otter.
As a child I read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water and I have since been a fan of otters, of river otters and sea otters alike. Not everybody is as fond of otters. River otters are known to occupy and befoul the crawlspaces under people’s cabins, and I have yet to meet the homeowner who doesn’t have a threshold at which warm-hearted affection turns to cold-hearted problem-solving. The river otters are unafraid of saltwater and if surprised on shore they will dash for the safety of the sea.
We unintentionally bayed a river otter on a forty-foot clifftop and she flung herself off the cliff — kerploosh! — in a dramatic gesture worthy of the Greek priestess, Hero, who flings herself into the Hellespont after her beloved Leander drowns. While the otter, swimming back and forth in the waves hissed at us, we followed her small footprints and her long slim body prints to the base of a spruce tree where she had been hollowing a den under the tree roots.
River otters are native to Kodiak Island, and Kodiak lies at the heart of the northern sea otter’s range. Sea otters are our neighbors all year long and in every kind of weather. Rafts of them snooze and feed among the kelp beds in the lee of the nearby islets. When we beachcomb it’s not unusual that a frisky sea otter follows in the shallows. She treads water, observing us, then she vanishes, and presently her whiskered face pops up elsewhere.
If on land the sea otter is ambulatorily challenged, a terrestrial misfit, at sea she’s a sleek graceful nymph. Her wake, visible from our cabin window, is a single dreamy line in the placid water. In foul weather she is maddeningly nimble and nonchalant. I might be drowning while she floats on her back paring her nails. Her dense fur keeps her warm and buoyant in the frigid waters. If a wave breaks on her she casually tosses her head like a surfer shaking the wet hair out of her eyes. During a winter storm I worked to save some equipment that I had been foolish enough to leave on the beach, the snow was falling, the surf breaking, the tide driving high on the beach, and a trio of sea otters watched me scurry about like their midday entertainment.
In winter and summer, in lousy weather and fair, the mothers and pups punt along in a happy domestic embrace. The mother likes to swim on her back, and since her nipples are on her abdomen, her pup lounges there while pulling at the milk. These tender scenes are common, the mothers and pups cuddling and eating and grooming at sea. We once heard an otter keen for hours in terrified grief, we assumed, for her lost pup. The screams were heartrending in their hopelessness. Sea otters are protected by law, by human law; but killer whales and sea lions and salmon sharks answer to another law.
It’s probably a good thing the sea otters have natural predators. Otters consume tons of forage and may impact a shellfish population. Fisherman Mark Thomas blames the smash-and-grab otters for the decline of Kodiak’s Dungeness crab, “The otters wiped out the west side of the island and they’re moving east and south,” Mark tells me; “They catch a crab in their paws or bash it open with a rock and munch the soft meat and move on to the next crab. I always loved sea otters, but in Seward Harbor I watched an otter bring a Tanner crab up from the bottom. He ate what he wanted, threw the parts away, dove down and got another one, and in twenty minutes he ate like twenty crabs. How’s that possible? That’s when I knew there was a problem.”
Another fisherman friend was attacked by a “water weasel” as he drove it off with an oar. The otter had been stealing salmon from his net. The otter hissed at him, bit the oar and tried to wrestle it away from him. Sea otters belong to the exclusive club of tool-wielding mammals, and this one nearly seized the oar and brained my friend with it.
I imagine a coffee table book of old otter faces like those photo albums of wizened Tibetan faces and pensive Mediterranean faces. Our raft nearly collided with one old codger — hard of hearing, maybe — before he shrieked indignantly and slipped underwater. Groups of senior otters with white collars stare at us like faces from a Velázquez portrait. Their grizzled faces are scarred by everything from crab claws to rough sex. According to biologists the scarred face of an elderly matron may chronicle a lifetime’s sexual vigor. It’s an excellent thing the sea otter breeds all year long. Once almost exterminated, sea otters now thrive in Alaska and we humans have made true progress in our relations with them.
Our Kodiak rabbits — hares, actually — aren’t native to Kodiak Island. According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, snowshoe hares were captured along the Alaska Railroad in the 1930s and resettled on Kodiak to enrich the protein base. The hares we meet today are heirs of these forced relocations of the last century.
Putting aside the ethical questions (never difficult to do), the Kodiak resettlement was a success. We see the rabbits — hares, I mean — at every altitude and in every season. The glimpse is usually a sketchy one because hares are skittish animals with hair-trigger escape instincts. They zip elusively through the lower foliage and show the whites of their enormous, flaring hind feet as they thump the earth in retreat.
Snowshoe hares change color from tawny gray in summer to white during the short days of winter, but the camouflage is imperfect, and sometimes its color betrays the hare. In a warm spell if the snow melts, a white hare stands exposed. Still, the tabby rabbits of summer and the white rabbits of winter are practically invisible when motionless. I’ve been three feet from a snowshoe hare in snow and wouldn’t have known it was there but for its dark watchful eye.
In my twenties in Fairbanks I ate some hares and tanned their skins without being clear what distinguishes hares from rabbits. This embarrasses me. At our homestead young Miranda set me straight. Hares are born furry and open-eyed, not blind and naked like rabbits, and hares don’t inhabit underground dens. Miranda associated hares and rabbits with fairies, elves and miniature tea cups, and I inflamed her faith in these fine things by saying nothing to corrode it. She and I went hare-watching at the wood’s edge after daybreak. We watched the hares flit among the brambles or feed on the spring buds, enormous hares, nervous and upright as they nibbled, eyes and ears always alert. A hare might shift a quarter turn while vigilantly chewing a mouthful of greens, but it never stayed in one spot for long.
Considering its perilous place in the food chain, a hare’s caution is well founded. The local predators include fox, eagle and bear. Inevitably a fox and hare will go peaceably by, the one hanging from the mouth of the other. A hare with a leg wound dragged across our path one day, a doomed creature who wanted badly to live. How can I forget the tragic look on Miranda’s face? But nature’s tenderness is balanced by its harshness, and the far side of the moon was no less a part of the moon when it was dark to us.
I once happened on a young eagle in the spruce forest. The eagle clumsily flew among the trees and bruised its wings on the branches. Back and forth it flew. This was the awkwardest show of adolescence I had ever seen in a bird. The eagle’s wingspan was too big for the close growth of trees and my presence only agitated the bird. A few steps along I discovered why. Two hind legs and a length of backbone strewed the path, and also a pile of softer parts that included a rabbit’s face with its nose chewed off.
The season of spring, before the vegetation thickens, is a good time for watching rabbits. There’s a day of license each spring when the rabbits celebrate the season with climactic and feverish abandon. A rabbit alone — a hare, I mean — is a trembling, humorless, fearful creature, but when they flock in the spring, when they go Maying, when love is in the air and the grass and horsetails and fiddleheads sprout, the hares scamper from cover, chase one another, hip-hop in broad daylight and run rings around our feet, life surging so imperatively, so irrepressibly through them that, mighty in their madness, they lose all caution and sweep past us in a headlong frolic, circling and playing and to all appearances become the fairies that the children always wanted them to be, our fellow denizens in a fantastic dream.