The shape of a healthy of Snake Lake dominates the public map of Tacoma Nature Center. But this summer’s drought has reduced the lake to mud. At the lake’s center, only a small pond remains. Dozens of turtles sleep there on drift wood logs. Several dash into the pond when we approach. Minutes later they pull themselves back onto the logs.
Leaves turning yellow, red or orange add a tiny bit of beauty to the day. But the lines of drying turtles provide the only drama. Then an old Japanese American man approaches the pond and stops to stare toward the edge of the pond. In a minute we realize that he is watching a great blue heron frozen at the edge of the pond.
The heron panics from the water, struggling to fly away. It twists and rolls until it has enough space to stretch its wings enough to lift him into the sky. In seconds he can glide over the tiny pond and into a tree covered by crisp, orange leaves.
After the Second World War, most brave Japanese Americans left the army. Their family members had just been freed from unjust prison camps. They worked their way back into American society. They told no one the history of their poor treatment with their new neighbors or their own children. In 1970 I first discovered the history of the Japanese American internment camp at college museum. Later I discovered that my Japanese American friends were learning the sad story at the same time.
I remembered this history yesterday while visiting a bonsai garden in Tacoma. All of the plants had been started after World War II. Some stood in front of photographs of Japanese Americans entering guarded internment camps, where bonsai artists would teach the interned how to create new bonsai trees. Only one tree had recently been plucked from a mountainside. Nearby, a thousand year old bristle pine looked like it was still growing on the slope of a 13 thousand foot Californian peak.
People often visit this bonsai garden. Few are Asian. All are drawn to the trees’ beauty. They collect little stories of how Japanese Americans protected that beauty from racism, transformed common American trees into symbols of an ancient culture adapting to cultural change.
Just after I flew down to Seattle for surgery, sunshine skies arrived above the rain forest, letting the stormy fall colors follow me south. The clouds polluted the Puget Sound skies with fire smoke. They thickened over San Francisco, Vancouver, and most of the West Coast. Huge swaths of its forests were burning.
But yesterday the winds shifted. The temperature dropped so sunshine could finally highlight a clear, blue sky. I pulled on a parka and headed toward a shade-free section of street where late-afternoon sunlight backlit the branches of everyday maples. It took little effort to discover a flash of maple leaves—clashes of reds, oranges, yellows, greens and browns. On a normal fall day, I’d probably accept the scene as the usual pre-winter portrait that such leaves paint each year before falling dry and brown to the ground.
It took me a long time to finish my little tour of the neighborhood. Rich, green grape leaves brightened some gardens. Fruits that I couldn’t recognize glowed red with blossoms. Just before turning back toward home I stumbled on a tiny, lime green insect scrambling up the outside of a clump of red berries. The stink bug froze on top of the clump, gave me a hard stare and returned to feed. If I had found a feeding insect while harvesting low bush cranberries back home, I would have crushed it like an enemy. But down here, where I don’t even know if the berries contain poison, I let the bug return to its work.
He would be up early, drinking rich expresso at the cabin window as a strengthening sunshine sparkled the frosted meadow grass and the usual hometown deer worked his latest attempt at kale.
He would turn on the radio and listen to morning’s new complaints about followed politics and the latest baseball scores. He would be bored but he would be free to putter and push for change.
He’s up but there is no bear to search for, no sun melting a satisfied frost, no desire to do anything than monitor the fire, the smoke that thickens and soaks the morning air like a sarcastic joke as it has for the last week.
The kale still grows as if it cannot feel the gray heat. He passed it while carrying survival things to his car, an older Toyota almost filled with stuff he can’t abandon or burn, like fresh ground coffee. He now drinks instant.
Will the fancy cut street houses catch first, or will the abandon old growth forests burn? A northerly gust rips across the meadow, driving away smoke, turning the air crisp and clear, letting the sun pierce and reveal.
The survival road clears. He starts to return his coffee maker from the car, plans on re-furnishing the cabin with needed gear. Then the thick smoke returns, a nearby forest fire renders the air almost impossible to breath so he repacks the car and waits.
Aki stays just ahead, sweeping the trail for problems. She doesn’t shoot ahead or stop to monitored a ply of recipient poop. I walk with an old friend and his dog, sharing a bit of information—the desk drawer to open if my medical treatment in Seattle goes south.
A week later, after the treatment worked, my friend and I can think about the approach of fall weather and decide when to pull the old fishing boat for winter. He is still in Juneau while I recover with family in Tacoma, Aki stays in Juneau with her best friend, Cedar. They head on adventures each day and curl together for sleep each night. But she will squeal like a puppy when we return to our rainforest town.
In Alaska, like the rest of the United States, Labor Day signifies an end to summer. Before the pandemic closed our border with Canada, we often spent the Labor Day Weekend riding the ferry to Skagway and then camping in the Yukon Territory. It was a time for enjoying the fall colors of poplar leaves and drinking morning coffee next to a campfire as the northern sun warmed your face.
I am warming my face in the sun on this Labor Day while Aki and I stand in the center of Gastineau Meadow. Meadow ferns and the leaves of miners’ cabbage are already fading from green to yellow. In another month the leaves will become dry brown crusts being reduced to mud by autumn rains.
Tomorrow the rain will return and low clouds will cover the surrounding mountains in a grey gauze. The weather man prefects more of the same for the next week. Today is one for creating sustaining memories of crisp autumn leaves and sun-warmed skin.
The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
While Aki dashes off to investigate a pee mail message, I stop to study what looks like a red rose growing at the end of a willow branch. The rose is formed by willow leaves, not flower pedals, changing from green to an autumn red.
Last spring, after the winter snow melted but before willow buds burst, a female willow gall midge laid an egg at the tip of the willow branch. A wormy little grub emerged from the egg and burrowed into a willow bug and started feasting on the new green bud. Rather than unfurling,, leaves from the bud morphed into the shape of a rose flower.
Shafts of sun break through cloud cover to brighten the reds in the willow rosette and the rosette growing at the tips of the surrounding willow branches. I feel like we are in a rose garden, not standing at the edge of a willow-lined pond that was formed when beavers dammed a small stream.
By turning around, I could see a reflection of a glacier in Mendenhall Lake. I could watch a merganser sunning itself on an offshore rock. I could study Nugget Falls or take in the flight of a kingfisher. Those are natural things. Their presence doesn’t surprise anyone. So I can’t turn my back on these red, red willow rosettes.
Yesterday morning we were mugged by a bear. It’s was the pleasant, perhaps too casual bruin that we caught a few days before shaking apples out of our tree. Yesterday, it toppled over our wheelie bin and cheery-picked our garbage. Then he strolled away, swaying from side to side as he headed towards the next garbage bin.
After sampling our garbage, the bear walked right past our neighbor’s bin. Later I learned that she fills it on the morning of trash day with kitty litter. After the bear walked on, she dropped in the real garbage.
This morning the bear has moved on to a neighborhood this is having its scheduled garbage day. We are left to skirt piles of bear poo and pick up scraps that it left behind. I can’t get too mad at the culprit. Since the local berry crop failed and few salmon made it to the downtown spawning stream, they are forced to search our garbage for the sustenance they will need to hibernate through the winter.
It is hard this morning to find a parking place near the Sheep Creek delta. The tiny parking lot is full. Both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks. We find a place to put our car on the southern side of the creek. The guys who parked the trucks are fishing for silver salmon on the Gastineau Channel shore. They are only outnumbered by gulls.
The last time we visited the delta, eagles greatly outnumbered humans. Only two guys tried their luck at fishing. Dozens of eagles ripped flesh from spawned out salmon. This morning there is only one eagle perched above thousands of gulls. The birds wade in the stream or hover on the exposed gravel, all waiting for pink salmon to die.
One gull screams at a small female pink salmon as the fish rolls on the beach. After minutes of flopping, it goes still, letting the gull start its feast. Newly arrived pink salmon power their way up the stream. Some males with grotesque humps, try to shove each other off the spawning ground. The gulls keep watching. They will watch until the spawning is done and the dying begins.