Three thick white streaks form against the blue sky over Gastineau Channel. One of the streaks is connected to the stack of a Princess cruise ship. It has just pulled in behind two other cruise ships that have already docked. Their emissions are the only visible, man-made pollutants that poison our clean air.
After seeing the smoke lines from the Douglas Island Bridge, I drive with Aki to the Gastineau Meadows trailhead. The pollution is also visible from the meadow, showing a kind of industrial beauty in the way it coalesces on the slopes of Sheep Mountain.
I resent the cruise industry’s decision to use the cheaper fuel in their Alaska bound ships and wonder whether they could reduce their emissions by using city power rather than that produced by their boilers when tied up to our docks. They won’t change so I spend the rest of the walk looking for small shows of beauty, finding it backlit flowers and the orange needles of damaged pine trees.
The number of cars with bike racks in the trailhead parking lot makes me nervous. I’ll have to keep an eye out for mountain bikes as we climb the graveled portion of the trail. The morning sun has burned off most of the marine layer and is flooding the Dan Moller Trail with light.
We could hear the songs of forest birds if not for the sound of a truck dumping gravel at a new construction site. Someone with money and little luck is going burden the hillside with a new subdivision.
No bikes whiz down the trail as we climb toward the Treadwell ditch. We are alone until we reach the boardwalk portion when a young woman and her old Labrador retriever join us. The woman continues to climb toward the Dan Moller cabin. Her dog stays with us. Even though they have never met before, Aki and the lab act like two friends who have shared much in their long lives.
I was drawn here by the meadow’s promise of a little solitude. Cars clogged the parking areas for the trails I would have preferred on this Father’s Day. But this meadow has few summer visitors.
With silence broken only by robin song, Aki and I fall into our usually routine. She sniffs and pees, updating her message system with a plain-faced concentration. I stroll past the low growing wild flowers, stopping occasionally to enjoy the way water droplets cling to colorful blossoms.
Each flower displays the complexity and beauty of great paintings. But I am the only human in attendance at this outdoor art museum. There are art critics here, insects that show their appreciation for a flower’s form or color by landing on it. The flowers getting the best reviews will soon reproduce.
The rain doesn’t bother Aki. I’m not surprised because it falls like a gentle cloth onto the wild flowers of Kowee Meadows. Remembering past sunny days on the meadow, I do wish for a shaft of sunlight to break through the marine layer. But that might wash out the purples of the iris and the magenta color of the river of shooting stars we skirt.
We continue walking over the meadow and then drop down onto a gravel beach where iris and the purple flowers of beach peas color the bordering grass. While we eat lunch a doe deer approaches. It stops when thirty meters off, gives us a hard look, and continues in our direction. Could it be curious or is it just foolish with trust.
I grab Aki and hold her in my lap as the deer approaches. When it reaches the ten-meter line that marks the border of my little dog’s comfort zone, Aki growls. The deer slowly walks into grass and disappears.
We won’t see another deer but will hear the warning scream of marmots and step carefully over countless piles of bear scat. The scat and holes in the meadow dug by foraging bears will keep us aware that we are in a wild, maybe dangerous place and not a tame flower garden.
What are you doing little dog? Aki is too busy to answer as she dashes into the woods on one side of the trail, stops for a second, and then charges to the other side of the trail. Are we surrounded by bears, beavers, or ghosts? I’m guessing it’s ghosts because I can’t see anything but plant life in the trail margins.
There is plenty of evidence that bears and beavers have recently occupied the area. We pass many piles of bear poop and a myriad of cottonwood trees felled by beavers. But we don’t hear trees crashing to earth or bears crashing through the undergrowth. Aki leads me off the main trail and onto a narrow path. Even if they were here, I wouldn’t see bears or beavers through the tangle of hardwood brush that closes in on the trail.
When the trail widens I spot flowering Nagoon berry plants, not bears. Later in the summer, the berries will draw a crowd to this trail. The berries have a cult following in Juneau whose members will race the birds and bears to harvest this patch.
Aki goes on alert—head up, front feet planted in the sand, tail straight as a mast—and stares at the fluttering wing of a bull kelp strand that had been snagged on a splintered piling. I could tell her that the long strip of stranded seaweed poses no threat. But until she has made her brave charge at the perceived enemy, she won’t believe me.
Up Sandy Beach, a raven cocks its head in wonder or dismay as it watches my little poodle mix act out a scene from Don Quixote. A bitter sounding bald eagle, perched in a beachside spruce might be offering its own commentary on Aki’s actions.
After the raven flies from beach sand to the top of its own piling, we push on toward the small but deep bay formed when one of the Treadwell mines collapsed. A recent high tide has stripped away the sand covering the body of an old pickup truck. It could have been abandoned after the tunnel collapse in 1916. It might have been buried and then revealed by tidal action many, many times. But I’ve never seen it before. The bed box of the pickup contains a rusted tool and shards of a heavy ceramic bowl that might have held oatmeal eaten by one of the miners on the morning of the tunnel collapse. I could slip one of the shards out of the box and into my pocket. Would that be a relic rescue or interference with nature’s efforts to cleanse?
As if sleeping off the effects of yesterday’s party of sun and wind, the rainforest indulges in a few hours of gray calm. This doesn’t discourage Aki from squeaking as I pull into the Sheep Creek trailhead. Only the bickering of eagles breaks the silence until the weekly AML barge chugs up channel toward the creek mouth. Two tour buses, a charter fishing boat and a Ford Expedition top the stacks of metal shipping containers that weigh down the barge. The barge’s wake stirs a great blue heron to flight.
Down channel, the day’s third cruise ship rounds Marmion Island, trailed by a plume of its pollution. A herd of venue buses are already queued up near the old steamship dock, ready to carry the ship’s passengers to the glacier or one of the whale watching boats.