Alaskan Desert

My boots break through the thin crust, increasing my chill rate. If I keep walking, toes will stay warm, but this is a waiting game. Iced feet are a small price. I will stand still in the center of the marsh, hopefully blending with the old stumps and logs that surround me.

A cool November morning sun, low over Douglas Island, shines coolly across the snow-covered wetland. A scene only a few weeks ago dominated by the pink flowers of fireweed, is now a sea of dry cow parsnip stalks, their waist-high seed heads crusted in glistening hoar frost.

Scanning the field, I imagine myself surrounded by an army of giant dandelion soldiers awaiting orders to release their potential on the unsuspecting terrain. Here and there, rivulets of steam rise from bare soil at the edges of narrow sloughs kept warm by the silent slipping in and draining out of the tide—smoke from the weedy battlefield. My imagination, fueled in equal measure by the surprising newness of winter-boding weather, and the anticipation of arriving wings, is hyperactive.

A dollop of crusted snow breaks from a larger sheet and falls from heavily laden grass behind me. I close my eyes and listen. I am all too aware of my luxury. Taking the time to listen to any stage in the succession of decomposing snow is something not everyone finds the pleasure of experiencing.

Beneath the bowed grasses, a network of small rooms and sparsely connecting tunnels gridiron the field. Not having surveyed the inhabitants of this place, I do not know what scurries about the labyrinth at my feet, but if ever there was a place made for meadow voles, this is it, and I am grateful for whatever makes its home beneath snow and blade, for it is credited with my presence here this morning. More accurately, whatever kin of mouse are here are the attraction for the owls, and the owls have attracted me.

A flash pulls my scanning eye westward, beyond the stumps. A short-eared owl, too far off to photograph, nonetheless brings me a smile. I raise my binoculars. Buoyant on the thin air, his flight more moth-like than raptor, the owl lifts itself with long wings pulsing white with every soft, powerful push. Low over the ground, he jerks one way, then the other, then quickly, suddenly, drops out of sight. If he had pray, he would not immediately reemerge, but this time he is right back in the air, talons empty, continuing his hunt. I return to scanning the marsh.

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A pair of photographers stand together a couple hundred yards north. They are looking away from me towards the Mendenhall Towers—a group of show-covered jagged peaks erupting from the Juneau Ice Field. In front of the towers, Mendenhall Glacier is also freshly covered in snow concealing her summer blue with white. Perhaps they see another owl in that direction. Their voices carry softly across the marsh, not loud enough for me to decipher. I wonder if they hear the snow melting over their conversation.

When I look back to the west, I see a second owl, closer than the first, followed by a third near the tree line. The two photographers see the activity and begin moving that way. I remain in place, watching the far off birds, listening to the snow. Behind me, the tide is slipping in. An eagle calls from somewhere in the distance, then a gull. A mallard, spooked by owl-chasing photographers wings a broad circle around me. If the owls never come close enough to photograph, it is a perfect morning in the marsh.

Out of the north, a songbird approaches. It’s flight is familiar. Rapid wing beats alternating with wing-tucked bounds create a shallow undulating path from a spruce some five hundred yards away in a straight line toward the stumps. Perfectly lit by the morning sun, the robin-sized gray bird is immediately recognizable, and I forget about owls. I forget about the marsh. I forget about the snow and frost, about Juneau, about Alaska. I am no longer here.

With recognition, heat and aroma overwhelm me. My nostrils flare as the warm, dusty scents of desert sage, and creosote bush flood in. Stumps become saguaros, parsnip turns to ocotillo, sage, and paloverde. The northern shrike drops low, then swoops upward to land on a barrel cactus. Training my lens on the unique bird in front of me fades the mirage, but the aroma lingers. I am in the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix twenty-five years ago. Having just found a horned lizard impaled on a thick green paloverde thorn, I am looking for the gray and white songbird sporting a black mask and decurved raptor-like beak.

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A planned hour-long walk that day turned into the whole morning when I found the shrike hunting in its usual fashion, flying from one perch to another swooping low in between, searching for lizard, sparrow, snake, just about any small critter it can pounce in front of, hop over and back, confuse, and finally grab by the neck, dispatch, and hang on a thorn, twig, or barbed wire fence for later.

I do not move, and my blending with the stumps pays off, as the shrike bobs its tail a couple times then flies straight toward me to a new stump a mere twelve feet away. Trying not to breath, I track him through the camera, and trigger the shutter as soon as he lands. Startled by the machinery, his eyes find my lens. It does not take long for him to realize I am not a snag, and remove himself forthwith from my immediate proximity, taking the smell of the desert with him, but leaving behind his image both in memory and on disc, and returning to me my cold feet.

Seeing two of the owls have made their way within striking distance, I return, with my toes, to the marsh, and I waste no time taking photos. Owls come and go over the next couple hours and I manage a hopeful handful of photos before my stomach tells me it is time to go.

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Behind the shadow of a stump, I file through the images on my camera, pausing first on a short-eared owl with prey in its talon—a detail I missed when I took the photo. Zooming in, I verify vole. On to the shrike, I lam pleased to see a sharp, shiny black eye.

Walking back across the wintery marsh, my toes are warmed by rich, aromatic desert air that is oxygenating my blood and reminding me why I love sitting still and listening to snow melt.

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