Almost 100 years ago my Irish grandfather had this farmhouse built on land he transformed from cattle range to wheat fields. While he plowed behind a brace of strong horses, an itinerant carpenter fashioned the basement then raised the walls. As grandfather tilled under weeds in the summer fallow, the carpenter affixed a roof and installed the big dormer window through which his grandson enjoys the view of Square Butte across fields of rising winter wheat. By harvest the four Greece inspired porch pillars stood, shinning with newly applied white paint, to tell all who ride by that our family’s escape from poverty is complete.
This Spring brought a blessing of rain, hard on the old house but a gift for the wheat, how green and tall in the fields surrounding the farm stead. A Meadow Lark on one of the pasture fence posts constantly repeats a lovely 6 note song, broken occasionally by the disharmony of a male pheasant, the more welcome music of curlews. I watch a small herd of Pronghorn Antelopes move cautiously from a stubble field toward a wheat fields across the road. Beyond the pronghorns, Square Butte rises above the fertile, flat bench, a giant’s cowboy hat with crown smashed down.
Later we wait for the sun to set, battling mosquitos–Montana’s creatures of the night. This being summer the sun lingers above the horizon then paints the clouds and vapor trails in pastels while falling off the Square Butte Bench.
“Aki, you can burn some freshly cut wood like birch, but not alder.” The little poodle mix doesn’t need this information but I have to tell someone if just to stem my anger at the yob who severed, with a dull axe, the top half of this lovely beach alder from its gray skinned trunk. Aki often receives lectures inspired by the minor criminals or fools and their active disrespect for the rain forest.
We walk a trail between old growth forest and a stunning line of alders reaching out over normally clean beach gravel. It’s the first day of rain following weeks of sun and almost record heat. Fog fights a losing battle with the rising south wind for control of Lynn Canal, its mass torn to shreds that hang over the water like canon smoke does over a battlefield. All normal on the water. The woods are full of trash and abandoned camping gear now glistening with rain drops. I see the expected — plastic bottles, empty boxes that once contained 24 cans of cheap American beer, hacked trees, crap.
“If they are drawn here for beauty, why do people celebrate Midsommer with thoughtlessness and small acts of vandalism?” Aki pees in sympathy.
Hoping to find nature still preserved on the other side of False Outer Point we round it and see things as they should be. An eagle complains of our presence or maybe at the crows feeding behind him at the stressed campsite. On the water a line of whale watching boats wait like supplicants for humpbacks to surface from their searching dives. Those on aboard the boats may watch a whale slide gracefully to the surface, exhale a sail of vapor, slide under the sea, repeat all that two more times before gracefully extending tail flukes skyward to announce a deep dive.
Being more tortoise with a camera than yob or supplicant I join Aki in a slow motion race with the tide to round a series of sea bluffs before they are made impassable by rising water. We take a trail into calming old growth just after rounding the last bluff. Here high summer is celebrated with an explosion of green slowly being reduced by hungary insects. It brings instant comfort, like a plunge into the cool water of a desert lake. “Relax Aki, yobs can’t or won’t walk this far away from their cars.”
These guys, these teenage sea lions sleeping on the Pt. Retreat bell buoy, show better than words what a joy the morning offers to those willing to find their place on the waters of Lynn Canal. My friend and I understand their message, having spent the last few days fishing and exploring the tangle of land and water around Port Couverton.
Sticking like an elbow into the junction of Chatham and Icy straights, the point can provide a major challenge for boats traveling from Juneau to Hoonah, Glacier Bay or Pelican. Fortunately the winds laid down and the sun shone for most of our visit.
The folks from Hoonah pioneered a boat trail through the land around the point to save gas and sometimes lives when building storm waters make running outside the point too dangerous. The trail passes through Swanson Harbor, which provides a sheltered anchorage for little boats, like my friends, and the big commercial power trollers that fish for salmon along the productive Home Shore in Icy Straight.
The place is rich with wildlife. Eagles keep regular watch on the Swanson Harbor mooring floats while pesky land otters keep a constant eye out for any odd bits of food left exposed on a boat deck. Orange beaked Oyster Catchers have colonized quieter sections of the harbor among lichen covered rocks, the tasty Sea Asparagus plants, and magenta Shooting Stars.
In the expose waters of the point, Humpback Whales and Dall porpoise feed where we fish for next winter’s salmon. One whale surfaced 30 feet in front of our slow trolling boat, apparently unaware of our presence. Our slow speed and the whale’s quick response saved both of us from collision. Later, just feet from the boat a sea lion lunged at a salmon that we were trying to net.
The threat of high winds and a small craft warning drove us early from Couverton but we had no problem passing through chock points like Admiralty Island’s Point Retreat and Shelter Island’s North Pass. Waves can stack up there when wind and current work against each other.
The buoy bell sea lions aren’t troubled by the U.S. Weather Service warnings. They can just slide into stormy seas with their sun warmed bodies and relaxed minds.
Today the sunny warm weather continues but there is warm wind. It blows down Lynn Canal, raising lines of choppy waves to march upon Juneau. Aki and I watch from the safety of second growth woods near Amalga Harbor. The warm wind agitates Aki but relaxes me wearing only jeans, a short sleeve T shirt and ball cap.
Passing through the wind dappled forest we spot wild flowers in unexpected places. My favorite are two star shaped flowers, each growing out of their own plants, each white, shaped like Austrian Edelweiss. No high country meadow this.
Leaving the forest we walk over slabs of brown and gray rocks tattooed by lichen. The outlet stream to Peterson Creek Salt Chuck cuts channels through the rocky tumble. We could cross over them to extend the walk but at the cost of wet feet. Instead I watch an eagle spiraling up over Peterson Creek then surprising us with sudden barrel rolls. (turning 360 degrees on the long axis of his body).
I think of the bear we passed on the drive here. A black bear by species, it had cinnamon colored fur. He lay alone in shade on a grassy bed but kept his head up to scan for danger or a possible meal.
No bears on this rocky trail back to the car. There are gulls hovering above the sparkling sea then diving for food. There is this Wild Iris, its single bloom already collapsing into a purple mess. We make do with stands of blooming blue lupine, Nagoon berries and a few chocolate lilies—the color of their little drooping bells earning them the name.
During this extended streak of warm, sunny weather I’m becoming a bit of a spend thrift; squandering daylight hours inside reading or watching the TV. The pattern even affects my selection of hiking trails. This morning we take a heavily forested path, one that alleviates the need for sun screen. There’s a beach at its apex but most of it will be in shade when we arrive there.
What starts as a lazy indulgence turns into a conversion experience, at least for me. Aki is Aki, a dog most interested in the pee and poop of other canines. For me it’s the light, now piercing straight down through the spruce canopy to transform the color of blue berry brush and expanding devil’s clubs. On the beaver flooded portions of forest floor each pair of illuminated skunk cabbage leaves seem to admire their reflections in dark pond waters. Looking up I watch a cloud of small white butterflies fly into and out of the dark spaces in the old growth.
Commercial companies guide cruise ship tourists through this cathedral of trees. If each step along the path enriches my spiritual life, what does it do to them; they who ate full fat breakfasts on one of the Princess Cruise boats then wandered among the downtown tee shirt and jewelry shops before boarding their Gasteneau Guiding bus for the trail head. The beauty must hit them like a sledge hammer.
Approaching the beach I notice salt flavoring the moisture softened air that Aki and I both breathe. On this gentle, almost windless day, tiny ocean waves mimic the breathing of a sleeping giant. Since the midday sun light washes alway all the sea’s drama we don’t spend much time on the beach, but the sound of breathing travels with us well into the forest.
Waking before 6 this morning, then finding sunlight touching everything outside our kitchen window, I have no choice but to ride my old touring bicycle out to the glacier. Still snuggled in sleep, Aki won’t miss me for a couple of hours.
Even without a breath of wind it’s cold at first so I am glad to have on full gloves and a suit of rain gear. Beauty but not peace is easy to find at this hour. The lines of cars computing into Downtown Juneau break the peace but the road they use looks stunning paired with its reflection in one of the Twin Lakes. Pressing on after pressing the camera shutter trigger I continue against the traffic flow; passing the dump, gravel yard, prison, Walmart, views of hanging glaciers and wetlands. In 30 minute I’m in the flat valley left by a retreating glacier. Juneau’s bedroom neighborhood—-side-walked streets and cul du sacs. Ten minutes later the glacier appears in person and in reflection in a beaver pond.
Usually the a favored target of our industrial tourism, the glacier parking lot is empty of the big buses that carry over a million cruise ship tourists from the downtown docks to one of the prettiest places someone from Tulsa may see in years. I don’t begrudge him and his large cohort the view but am pleased to have the place to myself this morning.
Dismounting I walk through the empty amusement-park-style walkways to Picture Point and spy on the terns. A small number have returned even though ravens and a mid-summer flood wiped out their nests last year. Most rest on sand being warmed by strengthening sun. One begins to feed, flying to moderate height then hovering, hummingbird like before diving almost straight down. The point and shoot camera I use on bike rides can only capture the ghost of this drama so I take a few snaps then just watch—the hovering bird not even tired after its long migration, a shrinking glacier strongly white and blue in the intense morning light, whimsical shaped ice bergs that I’d love to be circumnavigating with our canoe.
With boots finally dried from the beaver pond dunking and the sun finally shinning like civilized people come to expect in summer, we returned to the mountain meadows. I bring little expectation of wildflowers since they hadn’t showned themselves during last week’s visit. The almost cartoon yellow skunk cabbage still hold a monopoly on color in the highest meadow but we find tiny magenta treasures—the poisonous bog rosemary and something I call, “wild rhododendron” (see photo) on the second. Here also blooms the cloudberry and bog blueberry.
Rather than continue to the lowest meadow we leave the path in search of the insect eating sundews. I found them here before but being blinded and made lazy by the sun we pass without a discovery. Aki really doesn’t care. She’s found the last patch of snow where she played chase the chunks of snow flying off somebody’s boot game. It’s a dog thing.
It’s enough on this windless, gray summer morning, to be alone on the moraine with Aki. She almost died on our last visit, giving into curiosity and the urge to across thin ice after a noisy beaver. Today we will avoid that part of the Troll Woods but not forgo adventure.
Along open sections of trail, especially around the burned out bit of forest, the wild lupine unfold their blue and white flowers that reflect in mounds of rain water still clinging to upturned leaves. This is the only show of color, except the green of new growth that is everywhere; the only drama if you don’t count cloud reflections on flat calm lake water. Every now and then a just planted juvenile king salmon brakes the lake surface, apparently happy to be free of the fish tank of his birth.
We could stay here in this calm gray and green place, maybe check out the beaver village for signs of this season’s building projects but I’m drawn to the lake beyond a rubicon of beaver flooded trail. I manage to make it across the inundated trail to a well maintained beaver dam. With Aki in tow I work along the top of the dam, stopping to enjoy the little forest of mares tail growing along the glacier side of the dam. We can see the glacier from here by looking over the beaver’s pond and through poles of dead trees. Buckbean (British Tobacco) grow straight and tall above the pond surface that reflects their angular leaf pairs and towers of downward facing white flowers.
The dam is really a dike between two ponds. We find a gap halfway across that doesn’t look deep enough to make up turn around. I take two steps in shallow water and then sink the third into a deep channel, flooding a boot with pond water and soaking my pants. Again I’m a victim of the beavers. Aki swims across the channel without urging. Clouds of mosquitos descend on me but do not bite. Reaching the other side of the gap we walk across the dike to an infrequently visited section of the Troll Woods. The bugs leave, as if driven away but the bird song that seems to come from everywhere. It’s almost loud enough to block the sound of a beaver tail slap coming from the pond. Aki hears it and charges to pond’s edge but comes back quickly, satisfied with the role of tourist. Just up the trail we find a fresh pile of bear scat that may have been left by the bear that crossed the road as we approached the trail head. Time to leave.
In the morning’s strengthening sunshine this string of mountain meadows lies like flabby farmers on a beach, satisfied to merely feel the warm sun banish memories of a heavy snow winter. Aki and I have left it late, having missed the first daylight so my camera can’t capture the beauty I see on the still brown ground.
Aki finds remnant strips of snow for rolling. Walking behind I find her little paw print joining one left by a passing deer. It’s the only drama on offer today so my mind wanders to king salmon and turtles and Edward Hoagland’s essay, “The Courage of Turtles,” where he writes with incredible restraint about a public works project wiping out turtle habitat near his home. In a short time a place much loved on each visit is gone, leaving ducks to wander about a drying landscape for food and turtles to die encased in hardening mud. He allows the facts to convince.
Will I be as able to hide the pain if the king salmon disappear our native waters? Great muscled fish, kings spend up to six years in open ocean growing to spawning size. Then, they return to us, those that avoid voracious sea lions and the organized hunts of killer whales, refuse the commercial trollers hooks, and swim under mile long drift nets set by pirates in international waters.
The government created a king salmon run in the very creek draining this relaxing meadow. I think about what will fall away if the kings never return: no more rich tasting red meat for me and mine, loss of their powerful presence on the spawning grounds, possible famine for eagle and bear. Even the trees will miss the enrichment of king carcasses turning to soil.