Monthly Archives: April 2012

Hummingbirds, Aki and Heavy Rain

We have a taste of Fall today with 40 degree temperatures and heavy rain. In the kitchen I try to ignore Aki’s plaintive stare and fantasize about spending the morning drinking coffee and watching Italian soccer on the TV. Then I spot the hummingbird, a Rufus, taking sustenance at our neighbor’s feeder. He manages to suck the red sugar water from the feeder even as it sways in the wind. The bird shames me into action.

These tiny hummingbirds migrate great distances to feed on our columbine flowers. A Ketchikan legend has them riding north while burrowed into the feathers of strong geese. It is easier to see the tiny birds (3.22 grams) hitchhiking north on snow geese than actually flying the thousands miles on their own.

Wrapping myself in rain gear and Aki in a red cape we drop off the ridge to explore Gold Creek. Juneau’s European founders followed a path of gold in the creek to Perseverance Basin which contained enough of the shinning mineral to make Juneau one of the most productive mining districts in the world. We start in Cope Park, skirting the ball field and tennis courts and enter the old growth spruce forest allowed to grow along the creek. This is the best sort of urban planning — ignoring   what can not be improved upon.

From the park a seldom used trail crosses Gold Creek and then meanders through alders up to the flume trail. At first Aki doesn’t follow me up the trial. Turning around I see her, now completely soaked in rain. She wears her “you have got to be kidding look.” I know there is a snow field ahead, which she will love, and chances for dog encounters so I push on. Loyal thing that she is, she follows.

Today’s heavy rain accelerates the snow melt and the creek runs full with it. The sound blocks out bird song until we reach the flume trail. From then until we return to Chicken Ridge we hear the robin and the thrust and the wren singing melody to spruce grouse’s percussion. (a drum played the first time by a carpenter — the rhythm of hammer driving nail.).

With grey skies and clouds obscuring mountain tops I am thankful for the new balsam poplar growth that brings a rich fall like color to the forest. A few of the trees stand like brilliant yellow-green candles above avalanche snow covering the trail.  Aki gets a bit wild here, dashing up and down the trail, rolling her face in the snow. 

After crossing the snow field with its trees shattered by avalanches we drop down to the creek and walk a trail now lined with dark green horse tail reeds. In a flooded area of the forest islands of blooming skunk cabbage rise out of the water.  Their rich yellow and green colors stand out against the still dormant grass of last fall. Like the hummingbird, they are creatures of spring and summer. 

Hearing Carillon Bells in a Mountain Meadow

Without a working car this weekend we again start and end our walk from Chicken Ridge.  It means keeping Aki on a leash for the drop down Goldbelt Street with it’s gold baron mansions and then through streets lined with Craftsman houses that lead to the Douglas Bridge. We cross over Gold Creek, here contained by a concrete trench and past the giant willow on 10th Street, now orange-yellow with rising sap.

Aki manages three bowel movements between the house and the bridge. forcing me to pick up the product of each with large leaves and carry it to the nearest trash can. Since the cans are few and far between I carry her waste for blocks, passing friends and a legislator and his wife. They all smile and act as if I am not carrying  a smelly leaf wrapped bundle in my right hand. 

The sky clouds up as we begin the climb up the Douglas Bridge. I photograph the mottled sky reflected in a spot of calm channel water while Aki cringes at each passing car. We move quickly on to Douglas Island and start climbing through the Cordova Hill neighbor to the Dan Moller trail head.  This is crow country and one of the black birds shadows our ascent. “Is this Cubby,” I mutter to myself for he acts like he knows me.

Cubby was the runt of a brood of crows that hatched in our spruce tree. That was before the crows abandoned Chicken Ridge to the ravens.  He only survived through the kindness of a sibling who would bring him food after they fledged. A weak flyer, Cubby could just manage to reach a suspended telephone cable that ran in front of our house.  Once there he would call for help until one of his nest mates landed to transfer food from her beak to his.

The following summer Cubby returned, now sleek and strong to raise his own brood in our tree. On sunny mornings he would take up station on our porch railing and peer in the window while I practiced guitar. The crows left that year and never returned. Perhaps they moved to this wide suburban street with its large new houses and mowed lawns. The crow that could be Cubby escorts us to the trail head and is there where we return to his street for the trip back to Chicken Ridge. 

The Dan Moller Trail starts at a small parking lot that separates two fancy modern houses. It makes a modest angled climb up a wooded slope and then cuts across a series of muskeg meadows.  After that it forms a series of switch backs that carry you to the Treadwell Ditch.  Today we hit deep soft snow before the first meadow. I am breaking through with every step, sometimes up to my crotch. Even Aki makes deep impressions with her diminutive paws. 

Fighting on we reach the first meadow and hear the chimes of a carillon in Downtown Juneau announcing the tenth hour of the day.

First Spring Light

I am suppose to be practicing guitar or preparing a lunch to take to work but I was seduced by steam floating off the neighbors’ roof shingles. It grabbed me while I opened the window shade in our front room. Now I’m walking down Chicken Ridge in half fasten sandals and no coat in this strong spring light — a welcome surprise on a day that promises only clouds and afternoon rain.  It’s just me, an inpatient dog walker and robins singing as if energized by the light. Aki, immune to the bright and shinning, hasn’t left her bed. 

Bears and Bending to the Force of Spring

On this windy spring day Aki and I would like to head out the road and sample a seldom used trail. With our only car in the shop for repairs we must explore what is close — the old mining road to Perseverance Basin. Dropping from our house on Chicken Ridge to Gold Creek we cross it and then climb an avalanche chute to the flume trail.  Aki seems reluctant to hang about so we move up to where the trail links with the old mining road.

Sticky husks that recently covered balsam poplar buds litter the trail boards. If it were 10 degrees warmer the fresh buds would perfume the air. Today I must hold one of their husks to my nose to smell the almost religious scent.

Reaching the road we climb its steady grade to where it is buried under several meters of avalanche snow. A line of poplars wearing bright yellow green foliage await us on the other side of the snow slide.  We climb on to it. Aki checks out some wolf scat while I measure the killing power of the avalanche. It buried some trees and bent over others. One poplar, bent low to the snow, supports a full load of spring leaves. Another stands straight and green with growth — too strong or lucky to be diminished by the great snow slide. 

Climbing further we pass by a series of small rock slides that have tumbled onto the trail. Robins and other birds fill the air with song and the sun breaks out of clouds. Only the wind refuses to bend to the force of spring. It blows steadily flattening Aki’s facial fur and pushing back her ears. She must tack like a schooner into the wind to move forward. We pass a hemlock tree that recently rode a rock slide onto the trail. It still stands happy and tall as if grateful for the free ride to such a sunny place. 

I had hoped to spot some mountain goats for they often feed on these slopes in Spring. Instead we find a female black bear and her two large cubs playing on the remains of a avalanche. Mom moves onto the snow first followed by her two children. She stretches out to cool herself on the snow while the kids slide on their paws down the hill. One must have done something wrong for the mom gently cuffs it. All three were laying out in the sun when we resumed our walk home.  

Mountain Meadows

I blame Aki for the snow melting inside my already wet boots. We are on this trail because of the impatience she showed in the car. She was on fire to hit the trail so we chose this nearby trail which offers a snow covered passage through mountain meadows on Douglas Island.

Aki loves spring snow on warm sunny days.  This morning she finds this meadow a refreshing field of white that she can cross without breaking through the crust. Weighing more than her, I break through the crust with every fourth step.

At first we follow the main trail to the Treadwell Ditch path. A Hadrian’s Wall  of snow runs up the trail. I want to walk on the wall’s top but it is too narrow so I abandon it for a soft trench running along its base. Aki, who fits nicely on the wall can’t seem to understand why I want to leave it for the faint snowshoe trail that will carry us deeper into the meadow.

The trail crust holds my weight for a hundred meters and then loses cohesion so my boots form deep fence post holes with every step. Aki could rush ahead but chooses to stand by as ready to offer a lift up if I fall. I appreciate the spirit of the gesture and stop blaming her for what has the makings of a fiasco.

I find walking as tiring as it is frustrating and must stop often to rest. This allows  moments to appreciate the constant drumming of male grouse, their love song, and the songs of nest building birds. A raven complains about our presence from a distance. Looking for him I spot a Northern Goshawk perched in the dying top of a tall hemlock.

The trail, which has taken us through a meadow of scattered and weather beaten pines now crests and I start a wet decent into a rich spruce forest. Facing south, this snow is yielding quickly to the sun. Enlarging ovals of bare ground around the spruce trees offer easier passage. Here and there skunk cabbage shoots, shaped like vivid yellow rocket ships push through the snow.

We pass fresh tracks of a waddling porcupine, Alaska’s hedgehog, and deeper ones left by a small deer. At the bottom of the slope the trail flattens out. I stop to study a wolf track made last night after colder temperatures firmed up the crust and that on a black bear made in the softer morning snow.

The wolf must be here for the deer but there is little in this snow covered place for a bear. Maybe he just emerged from his winter den up there on that high forested slope.  A bear already visited Chicken Ridge. Aki and I ran into it on a recent evening constitutional.  Sometimes they can be a bit grumpy this time a year but the bear tracks left in this mornings snow lead back up the slope.

With perseverance we reach bare ground and move more quickly to the trailhead. Three feisty blue jays fly into our airspace. Two descend into a bog full of skunk cabbage to feed. The third bird flies down the trail calling a challenge to Aki.  It flies back over our heads to join its friends when we have moved away from the skunk cabbage patch.  

Someone Forgot to Cue to Swans

I enter here under obligation like someone attending a friend’s acting debut. Last night’s wind storm drained all the excitement from the moraine leaving it to recover under stubborn gray clouds. In this awkward time of transition no snow brightens the forest, no fresh growth shows in the willows and alders. Not even the watercourses bring drama.

Expecting floods trails we find a dry path all the way to the beaver village. We pass mallards and other local ducks paired up and showing  reluctance to move from their chosen nesting ground. Approaching the village we find newly attacked spruce trees, gnawed more than halfway through by beavers. It’s as if they were preparing a barrier to protect the series of their dams beyond. They were too late. Government workers or volunteers have disassembled the upper beaver dam and breached the lower one with deep wide notch.

Aki and I walk on recently submerged ground then drop into the now dry bottom of a deep channel the beavers cut into the mud to offer safe underwater access to the lower dam. They lost this spring campaign but I suspect they will rebuild the dams in time to catch the fall floods.

We are neutrals in this government versus beaver battle. While neither of us wants to join the fight, Aki does enjoy the dry passage offered by man’s recent victory and I fear what would happen if the beavers flood this part of the forest and turn it into the kind of watery wasteland we pass through on the way to Mendenhall Lake. We head there next and discover that the water level has dropped enough to allow safe passage over a long serpentine beaver dam.  From here to the Lake a series of beaver dams have formed a stairway of ponds.  The trails takes up along the seldom traveled shores of the ponds.

This deep into the woods we only hear the song of nesting song birds and trees rubbed rhythmically together by a building wind storm.  Aki moves impatiently toward a glimmer of light off water coming through the trees. It’s another pond opening up as we approach the shore.  Too remote to be wasted on nesting ducks, the pond promises a view of transit swans or geese gathering strength before continuing north. That would be good theatre after the emotional rise and fall accompanying the trip here. Unfortunately, someone forgot to cue the swans.

It would be nothing without the gray

On an evening walk with Aki I carry a camera, photographing grazing mountain goats, hard woods with a just a fuzz of new leafs, and a small course of water soaking green moss. There are smells too like the perfume of bursting balsam popular buds and the cleansing  sounds of water runoff from recent avalanches and robin sound. Returning to Chicken Ridge we see the sunset reflected orange, red and gray in a neighbor’s craftsman window.

Picnic and Poetry

April is poetry month in America even though early spring must inspire bad verse.  On days like today, when a patient person could watch wild trees leaf out and robins sing I want to gush. Wordsworth got away with Daffodils 200 years ago but would be savaged if he published it today.

Good thing Wordsworth isn’t with me today. He would be stunned by Gasteneau Channel now animated by strong northern light except where crowded over by feeding  scooters. I ride a bicycle out to Sheep Creek at noon and find hundreds of gulls and ducks crowding sand bars diminished by a high tide. One Canada goose paddles between islands of gulls while I eat a sandwich. The wind is up but it is comfortable enough if I take shelter behind a sun warmed boulder. Sunlight reflecting off the gulls’ feather cloaks makes me look away down channel and then up to appreciate the lights and darks on snow colored mountain peaks. Behind me mountain goats feed far down the mountain on the first burst of sweet leafs. When the wind drops I hear robin song.

Eagles and a Walk in Reverse

I can not figure out what these eagles are doing. First one in the mottled feathers of an immature bird lands on this beach. Three crows then arrive to surround him. A fully mature eagle dives, yellow talons extended to drive off the crows. Rather than thank the new arrival, the immature eagle looks away down the beach in a sulk. Two more mature eagles arrive. One lands on the beach and one, to add to the strangeness, lands in a few inches of water just offshore. Is the water bird pinning a scrap of food under the surface? In minutes they all fly over our heads and land in tall spruce trees. We move off for a walk in reverse. 

Aki hasn’t expressed a trail preference today but I want to walk somewhere dry where beauty will be enhanced by the sunlight now breaking through the scattered marine layer of clouds. To add spice on this early spring day we start at the trail’s end and walk to the beginning. In this direction the trail through old growth forest drops quickly to the beach.  Aki shows patience while I stop often to admire the translucent white blueberry blossoms so recently released from the bud and listen to male grouse drum their seductive rhythm of bird love out to the girls. The forest smells like moss washed clean by winter storms.

The tide is out when we reach the beach so I cruise the tide pools looking for life. Aki pokes her nose toward the surface of one deep pool then pulls back suddenly when a tiny sculpin disturbs the water surface. I have the pools to myself after that.  Great herds of tiny periwinkle snails crowd the shallow basins but one green sea anemone decorates a deeper one. A deadly bloom, it holds a captured  critter in the bell of its flower.

We share the beach with a few crows, gulls and one raven who eats an apple under the beachside alders. Time to climb off the beach and take the clifftop trail back to old growth woods. Here the hardness of winter has left its mark. Aki finds an burst of gray-white gull feathers released by retreating snow. We must constantly detour to avoid storm blown trees blocking the trail. At several places we pass through wooden caves formed by the large root wads of tumbled spruce and hemlock trees. In open areas newly hatched mosquitos hover together in tight groups, their drying wings glittering in shafts of sunlight. It is a relief to return to the more peaceful forest trail.

Winter’s Wake

Yesterday I rode with an eagle. Today Aki and I morn the death of winter. Yesterday, with the sun shining and a strong wind blowing down channel I approach the Douglas Bridge on my bicycle. A mature bald eagle rose on the currents to my eye level and floated along with me for a few meters before taking station over the bike path at the bridge’s apex. It just hung there as if suspended by strong string before moving a few feet away from the bridge where the air current dropped it straight down toward Gasteneau Channel. It didn’t move its wings until necessary to pull out of its free fall. With that sunny memory in mind I join Aki today at winter’s wake in the rain.

The heavy snow load on this meadow just a week ago promised at least one more ski in the spring sun. It lied then died leaving most of the meadow bare. We could have pieced together enough skiable ground for a fair outing if firm ice still covered the watercourses. They run free.

It was a good winter, blessing us with much useable snow without sending too many days of punishing Taku winds. Rather than cling to an unhappy life under clouds and rain this winter enjoyed a quick but happy death during a week of warm and sunny weather. Now spring has a chance to raise up flowers and arctic cotton from this meadow and feed the robins building nests in the bordering trees.