Monthly Archives: October 2011

Solitude Follows the Bitter

The party is over on the glacial moraine. Most of the fall color left last week. The first strong wind will blow away the rest. We walk through it in the rain, alone but for the few ducks prospecting the far side of Crystal Lake for food.

Aki finds plenty things to smell and many trails to follow. She passes two piles of bear scat, each the color and texture of crushed plaster. A man’s boot print marks one of the piles. I’m thankful Aki ignores both and feel sorry for the guy now washing the smelly stuff off his size 10 hunting boot.

I wanted to stay in the open moraine but can’t resist following Aki down our familiar trail into the troll woods.  The light and sounds are different here.  Rain drops on the dead leaves covering the moraine trail mimicked the sound of a campfire being stirred. In the deep woods the rain is felt and seen hitting puddles and lakes but no longer heard. We stopped hearing the rain in here when the big leaves dropped.

A half and hour in I’m cold enough to wish I had replaced my cotton T-shirt with a quick dry base layer. The waterproof coat over wool and fleece isn’t doing the trick.  In this season I wonder if my bones, grown to length in a California desert can get me through another Alaska winter.  This is the time of hypothermia not my discontent. Always damp and never more than 49 degrees, our days in late autumn drive most people to Fred Meyers or Costco. Tomorrow I’ll avoid that fate with a warmer set of gear.

The bitterness of this weather grants the gift of solitude to those willing to embrace it.  With solitude comes a peaceful isolation and sometimes wonder. I was trying to engage Aki on the subject when we rounded a grove of moss encumbered cottonwoods and reached the shore of a pocket lake. Six mallard hens exploded from where they had been sheltering just feet from us. Lifting off at a steep angle, they held in tight formation until out over the lake where they spread out, blanked as a team, and headed out toward the moraine.

We see two of the hens later while trying to negotiate a trail now flooded by beavers. Having dropped all the smaller cottonwoods in reach the big rodents have started to gnaw their way through some trees a good 2 feet across. Tacked to a nearby spruce is a polite request from the Forest Service not to poke any more holes in the beaver’s dam. This is a good choice for a sign post because beavers don’t seem to chew spruce.  Another sign asks for fellow hikers to snitch on anyone, presumably wearing wet boots and a look of frustration, trying to undo the beaver’s work. We see no one attacking the dam. We see no one at all.

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Lucky Ducks

We find the back door unlocked at Eagle Beach on this wet wednesday. A minus tide has left the river’s secrets exposed. We feel like fans with a back stage pass to a fancy theatre—-one with lots of expensive devices to suspend the audience’s belief.  One other person could share it with us but she is present only to her cell phone.

From the back she looks like a bird watcher using binoculars. Then I hear her, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, no not yet.” Cell phone coverage is spotty this far out the road.  She comes here for bars not beauty. If she looked she’d see a mixed sand and gravel bar reaching at least a half a mile into Lynn Canal. The now indistinct Chilkat Mountains, tucked under clouds, line the canal’s far bank. She wouldn’t miss any animal action. We only find two nervous gulls who fly before we can get within 300 meters.

The bar testifies to the carrying strength of water and the power of tide driven current. A wide barrier of supersaturated glacier silt forms an unpleasant border for the bar. Once across, shoes wet, happy not to have to free boots and paws from the sucking sand we gain firmer ground formed of heavier stuff. Between islands of golden beach grass run shallow channels where the the hammering of the out going tide carved in sharp sided ridges like those on a washboard road. Closer to the main channel we reach a bar made of round river rocks—-pebbles really—that roll under Aki’s paws as she walks.

I know the river is a mindless engineering model but it often acts as if guided by wisdom. When strong with storm water it gathers all within reach and carries it as far as the sea. It quickly drops what it can no longer carry when the sun shines or a big flood tide robs it of power. It seems to know that the tide always ebbs and other storms will come and what it has dropped eventually will ride again in its current.

Moving up river we pass a small raft of sleeping Bufflehead ducks. They float freely in the current, bills  tucked into back feathers. In minutes they pass an eagle facing away from the river while sitting on an upturned stump.   Will we see drama? We don’t.

A little further upriver another eagle sits alone high in a tall spruce skeleton. We have seen him there on every visit since mid-summer.  Today he peers through the fog forming on the river’s surface as if for food. Focusing on him I don’t notice a raft of red breasted mergansers floating by. One of my steps sends them into panicked flight.  These are local boys, probably jumpy from being so close to the eagle.  The sleeping Buffleheads, who are just passing through, must have floated by the watchful upriver eagle.  Was it exhaustion or lack of local knowledge that left them so oblivious to danger?  I just know they are lucky.

Reluctant Dowager

I started this journal a year ago with a description of the Fish Creek Trail. Today Aki and I are back. It rained hard last night and will again later today. We enjoy some dry weather in between, pleasantly surprised when a little sunshine muscles through the marine layer. It hits the grassland bordering the fish creek pond where we had been enjoying the subtle play of yellowing cotton wood leaves against the deep green spruce woods. The sunshine drives away subtlety, enriching fall colored trees and grasses and energizing the sacks of rain still clinging to blade and leaf.

The color had faded by last October 9th. The salmon and eagles and bears had all left. It was a land going to rest. Today summer green holds on if a little faded, bug eaten with wounds of brown. This year’s summer is a strong willed dowager resisting the inevitable move to a nursing home. Berry brush and willows retrain their summer foliage. Even the ferns hold on to some of summer.

A mile in we catch a whiff of fish carrion—what bears smell like at the end of salmon season. I’m relieved to find Aki taking timid steps at my heals and continue on. Minutes later the smell returns even though recent storms have washed away all the dead salmon. I slip her leash on and we walk with cautious eyes to the turn around point.  I sing and talk to Aki in a loud voice who appears to raise an eyebrow in critical response. An eagle complains from a close tree so there must be some salvageable salmon still on the spawning ground.  The smell returns. Aki, suddenly appreciative of my wisdom moves back behind me for the return trip. She stays there until we cross a small stream — ther Rubicon. Aki struts from there to the car.

Beauty in the Dying

An empty parking lot at the trail head promised solitude and we have it to enjoy for a few minutes. After the complaints of a disturbed eagle fade away it is quiet. Taking advantage of openings left by crumpling devil’s club leaves we leave the main trail to follow a faint path over to the river, There, 10 feet above the water we look down on two sand bars divided by a tea colored stream. Two sets of track, one bear and the other wolf parallel each other on the near bar and I wonder if they were left last night by two friends going to a party.

Aki quickly finds a way down to water level, sprints across the near bar, fords the stream to gain the other bar where she dashes up and down, ears flapping, tongue hanging carelessly to one side. After this brief but exuberant indulgence she returns to my feet and we return to the main trail.

Farther along sound like that made by a confusion of gulls carries from across the river. It’s made by children yelling, lot of them. With any chance of solitude gone I turn into Sister Anna Marie and my tormentors become Mouse Powers and I sharing a joke in the confession line. On realizing this I forgive the river children in the way Sister had to forgive us for bad church behavior.

With distance the irritation fades and we enter a dessert without wild sound or sights. The beach where we turn around is empty except for two ravens that fly back and forth over our heads, wings sounding like whisk brooms in the hand of angry janitors. The party is over for another year. Ravens might stick around to clean up but with the salmon spawned out there is nothing to attract life here but bugs in the water and bones on the beach.

We spot four nervous mergansers—local boys—-but no swans or cranes or geese. After the fish ducks fly off  only a small series of rollers make sound as they hit this gravel beach. With better luck we might have heard the creaking gate sound of migrating sand hill cranes.  That song use to dominate the brief Fall on the Kuskokwim River.

In the absence of wild sounds or sights we have a greater appreciation of the color of leaves dying so their plants may live. Death with a guaranteed resurrection. Today even the smallest clump of beach grass produces beauty in the dying.

Bridge Closure

Yesterday they closed the Basin Road Trestle Bridge to automobiles so no one can drive to the Perseverance Trailhead.  Basin Road is now a quiet walking path into the woods.  Aki and I head out to measure the impact of the bridge closure.

It’s a day with full sun, no wind, and the temperature at 37 degrees and climbing. The first thing noticed —- we know almost everyone we pass — all are Downtown Juneau neighbors. Owners of the Craftsmen houses on Lower Basin Road are outside cleaning and repairing in preparation for winter.  They squint and smile hello as we pass.

The change from town to country that comes when we reach the trestle bridge is more dramatic today because of the sun, which floods Mt. Juneau down to the old water flume with light strong enough to wash out the remaining fall color. The cottonwoods lining the flume are half in shadow, the rest light. They have dropped many leaves, allowing for greater appreciation of the strong curves of their limbs.  Beneath this line everything is in deep shadow. Minutes later, when we climb out of the shadow of Mr. Maria everything is bathed in sun.

We start climbing now, gaining downward views of a sloping spruce wood decorated by bright yellow devil’s club plants. Their leaves look as spread out as tourists on a Mexican beach.  A steady stream of hikers begin to pass us. I mess about with the camera, Aki with the hiker’s dogs. Wanting a little solitude we drop down to the trail head parking lot and for the first time find it empty of cars. The road leading to it is empty of people for everyone has taken the more direct footpath to the mountains.

Gold Creek spreads out here forming a braiding of channels over gravel tailings from the old mine. Light sparkling off the water gives me a head ache so we move back into the woods to a little used trail where we only hear the creek and an occasional raven complaint. Fall has advance enough here to shrink devil’s club leaves and reduce other leafy pants to nude stalks. For the first time since last Spring I have no problem finding the way home.

They all lead to water

All our favorite trails end at a beach. They usually begin at the edge of an old growth forest. Today’s starts with a crossing of this grassy marsh. It would be a great place to be late this afternoon if the sun breaks through the marine layer to bring shadow and light to this expanse of grass, now more yellow than green.

After crossing the marsh we take a path bordering it and a spruce forest.  Large alders line both sides of the trail. The sun breaks through to throw a haphazard pattern of light on their grey and white trunks before we turn into the forest and start to climb a long low hill. Autumn is well advanced here. The now rot brown leaves of large skunk cabbage plants lay splayed out in circles around their centers where small young shoots makes foolish attempts to grow.

The sun finally breaks free of clouds as we crest the hill, Here a young spruce grows despite a large scar made by porcupine teeth. It will die unless the tormentor moves on. I can’t find  teeth marks on any of the surrounding trees so I wonder if it has been chosen for sacrifice or simply tastes especially good to the spiny rodent. Aki leaves the trail often now on secret missions while I try to capture with the camera the translucent of willows and devil’s club leaves being backlit by the low morning sun.

I’m the first to reach the rocky beach I set for our goal. While waiting for Aki to catch up I inspect the remains of a river otter’s meal—a sea urchin shell picked clean of meat and an equally denuded mussel shell. They are such tidy eaters.  When Aki arrives I plot down on a flat toped rock offering views of a short promontory jutting into Lynn Canal and a pocket beach now exposed by low tide. Aki takes station behind me where she can watch the forest. She leans against my back, a pleasant weight, and we settle down to see what there is to see. I spot something first—two things actually—a pair of seals moving cautiously around the rocky point. I manage to snap a picture of them before they disappear.

We come to expect solitude on Juneau’s trails, especially in October. No one has bothered to count the number of pocket beaches like the one in front of us. If inclined, Aki could be the the first after last nights high tide to spot its sand with paw prints. Today there is a bonus. No boat transits past us on Lynn Canal, no floatplane or helicopter competes with the sound of small waves washing over mussel encrusted rocks. The seals never return but we watch a double kayak move slowly up channel toward the Eagle River bar. I run my hand over Aki’s soft grey fur and we move back into the woods for home.