Big tide changes push huge amounts of sea water up and down the North Pass. The current can run 7 knots through this bottleneck formed by two converging islands. When the wind blows in the opposite direction of tidal flow lines of waves stand up and march with the wind.
It happens the instant the tide begins to ebb or flow. Today the tide flows against a stiff wind to form a mile or so of 4 foot standing waves that build to a climax at a narrow point called the washing board.
The same convergence of conditions suck into the pass great balls of herring and other bait fish. This draws humpback whales and salmon and those who like to watch the former and catch the latter. Today there are plenty of both.
The whales pound the water near Lincoln Island with flukes and flippers, apparently stunning their prey or herding it into easily captured schools. Sometimes a whale explodes out of the water.
Below us big schools of silvers runs around the edges of bait balls. Enough take the herring we troll behind the boat to distract us from the constant pounding of waves on the boat’s hull. When driving into the waves, the boat slams into each wave, sending into our feet the same kind of vibration you’d feel standing on a sheet of plywood while someone pounds it with a sledge hammer.
We walk on this old friend of a trail finding reassurance. It’s in the backlit moss on every tree. It’s in this clump of low bush blueberry brush still heavy with last night’s rain and glistening in morning light. I search for berries as Aki sips water off the leaves.
Later we pass a forest recently burned and find promise in new growth forming on a nearly destroyed alder. Here there’s beauty in cottonwood leaves dried to tinder in the fire and then soaked by last weeks storms. This morning each curled leaf is an apricot colored sculpture.
Oddly, I find the most reassurance in a bear track overlapping my boot print. We had been working our way along a series of ponds formed by beaver dams. The last pond flooded out the trail so we had to turn back. Minutes later I find a ripe Nagoon berry dropped like an offering on the trail. In mud just beyond a fresh bear print covers one of mine.
Did the bear leave the berry as a treat or did it drop from his slavering jaws while he retreated from the berry path? Either way it tastes sweet.
When reflecting grey morning light our bathroom mirror can transform silver to blond, wrinkled to smooth. Then I see the man I know my self to be not the one seen by the world. He appears when someone turns on the light.
Yesterday, sunlight filtering through the forest canopy dominated our walk. Today it’s sound. Diverse tones of rain drop percussionists trump complaining eagles and the scolding Aki receives from this squirrel. Rain would deafen us if every drop made it to the understory plants. During this gentle storm I can almost count the number of drops contributing to the symphony.
The neutral patter of rain on blueberry brush provides the back ground for the richer plops made on spreading Devil’s Club leaves and baritone solos on thick curving Skunk Cabbage. Rain on the tall beach grass makes no sound but loads the tall plants with moisture that they share with passing hikers, soaking their jeans.
I am able to hear this music because man once forced this trail through the grass and woods, reinforcing his claim by laying down a board walk that even now rots and yields space to aggressive understory plants. In one or two seasons, nature could take it back, like it has the old river trail we tried to follow yesterday. Man scars and nature heals, given time and enough rain.
On this rare hot day we dive into the rain forest for relief and find the old river trail blocked by Devil’s Club. Beyond this thorny yellow green wall a bird sounds a continuous alarm which I can’t resist. Hoping that my jeans and heavy logger shirt will provide enough protection I move down the path, brushing past a gauntlet of Devil’s Club brush, each a spreading collection of large seregated leaves outlined with thorns. Some sting my hand like mosquito bites. Aki takes the low path passing beneath the pain.
The bird chirps on after we reach the river but I can’t see it. I do see a suddenly wide path through the lush growth of summer — the animal’s secret garden. Tall soft ferns line this path. We follow it back to another devil’s club tangle and then to the main trail. Shafts of sunlight now fall like javelin points through the forest canopy. Many illuminate spreading devil’s club plants turning translucent the normally opaque yellow green leaves. My shirt smells of the leaves we brushed through, a smell of high summer.
The First People of Southeast Alaska use devil’s club tea to ease the pain of chronic illness, stripping bark off its thorny skin and then soaking it in water on a sunny day like a Southerner would brew ice tea. I have a tin of Devil’s Club salve that helps wounds to heal. The plant gives and takes away pain.
Aki’s usual forest water holes have dried up so we head for the meadow where the gentle river bank will allow her a chance to drink. She noses into the water, front legs submerged but pulls back startled by seal lions as they slam their flippers on the river’s surface to drive newly arrived chum salmon toward their hungry hunting partners. As if figuring it out, Aki ignores their antics and drinks deeply from the glacier water.
Later we return to the forest, this time to harvest tasty Nagoon berries that grow on low plants. Each is a tiny universe of deep red globes offering the untamed taste of an Alaskan summer.
This morning’s solo bike ride to the Glacier predisposed me to guilt because I left Aki behind. After the usual exuberant welcome home, she hits me with one long sad look. To make up with her I pick a dog walker trail for our afternoon stroll.
At the trailhead Aki bounces out of the car to read signs left by dogs already on the trail. We encounter a half dozen on the gravel road leading up to the start of the meadow trail. She dashes from dog to dog, face frozen in an emotionless mask, only showing joy with welcoming posture and flapping ears. We are both hot by the time we reach the meadow.
Here we find Douglas Pine under stress, their needles already dry dead brown. The Mountain Hemlock look better except for one showing all the colors of a New England fall. The high mountains still rise above the meadow, now decorated with cloud shadows. Above its all blue sky and white angel clouds.
We climb out of the meadow to enjoy the moist shade of the old growth forest and ten walk briefly along the old Treadwell ditch. I think of the morning bike ride with its fog rising smoke like from the valley streets and of the sockeye salmon with their bright red heads and green bodies fighting for space on the spawning beds. Closing my eyes I see them and the field of blooming fireweed that provided a magenta frame for the glacier and its towers. “Why,” I ask Aki, “Am I always dreaming of one rich place while walking through the beauty of another?
Tonight the spruce reach up and tear the clouds
until their fragments rise
as smoke from a doused fire
as a gray peace settles over those I love
and those I don’t.
In these minutes between rain
and the easy sunshine
someone should bundle up our troubles
and toss them onto the deck of an ocean going boat
like that gill netter moving up channel.
They could do it from the Douglas Island Bridge
before the wind reunites the broken clouds
The eagles are invading Fish Creek as the first pulse of Dog Salmon move up from the salt water. Eagle roost trees mark spawning beds and holes where the salmon rest during their upriver journey. You can pick out the trees even when they are empty for white eagle scat decorates the understory plant and down and feathers gather in the upturned leaves of neighboring devil’s club leaves.
Perched over the stream on a thin alder branch, an immature eagle eyes us and some salmon moving into the current. Aki wades into the water for a closer look at the dogs, who don’t react to her presence. Do they sense the eagle?
I call Aki back and wait, camera ready for the eagle to move. It does, launching out over the river toward the salmon, talons extended. There’s no splash or dramatic struggle between 10 pounds of salmon and the mighty bird. It is just the fish, stream, and Aki looking at me with that, “Shouldn’t we be moving on” look.
The eagles must be waiting for the bears that will follow the salmon upstream. Those guys will do the heavy lifting of fishing salmon from the stream. If the run is strong the bears eat only the brains and rich eggs, leaving everything else for the eagles and ravens to squabble over.
Would Andrew Wyeth have snapped this picture from the seat of his touring bicycle? This image of this woman with hair the color of the arctic cotton she gathers as muskeg water soaks her shoes? At this distance he would be able to impose his idea of beauty on her face and form. I couldn’t get the colors right but do see her passion. We would both crown her queen of wild cotton.
Shaman island, gloomy in early morning gray, stands exposed by the minus tide. It’s our Mont San Michel but without a monastery or crepes. Named for the Native holy man buried there, it usually enjoys a barrier of salt water. Crossing the drying causeway we find a beautiful blend of wildflowers just above the high tide land — yellow Indian Paintbrush, red Columbines, and purple Harebells.
We start to circumnavigate the island but stop after realizing that every step around the island’s back side would crush a dozen barnacles. Most of the island lacks a beach. Here, on the back side, waves reach the base of a step slate cliff that protects the bones. Elsewhere on the island a thick tangle of spruce discourages the curious from entering its interior. I’m drawn to the cliff by displays of Harebell and Fireweed flowers that have somehow anchored themselves into the lichen covered rock face. The flowers have spaced themselves to mimic offerings left at a columbarium. Below thins sheets of fallen slate crack under my boots sounding like knackebrod being broken and shared on a Swedish picnic.
Pink salmon jump in the nearby sea, waiting for the flood tide to carry them to their birth waters in Peterson Creek. The small fry, crows and gulls, fight for scrapes on the creek mud flats. Eagles and Ravens squawk and jostle for position in spruce trees lining the beach. They wait for a more bountiful meal.
We leave over the temporary causeway for the trail home, passing a trusting song sparrow and a nervous deer.