With the wealth of trails in the Juneau area, I knew we would have this one to ourselves, even on this warm, sunny Sunday. Just a gated gravel road ending at an old mine, the trail climbs through and then above an old growth conifer forest. Succulent salmon berries, red or yellow, grow along the trail. The red ones’ glittery translucent makes them the easiest to spot. When ripe they taste like watered wine and leave a wild after taste on the tongue. I haven’t worked out a way to describe the taste of the opaque yellow ones.
Away from flight and helicopter corridors, the trail offers silence as well as tasty berries. After minutes of climbing we only hear the sounds of boot strikes on gravel and Aki’s panting. Undeterred by the heat the little poodle mix pushes on ahead. I worry about the lack of trail side watering possibilities until we hear a small brook ahead. Even through thirsty, Aki won’t approach the water on her own but waits from me to slip and slide down a small slope to where the stream enters a culvert. Aki takes a few caution sips then moves up stream where blue berry brush and ferns form a shading canopy. When she has drunk her fill we return to the sun washed trail and find that American Robin just ahead— the one that all summer has waited for our approach on each trail taken.
Back in the rain forest after two weeks of sun in Anchorage, I’m wandering the Troll Woods with Aki. A gray world of softness, the woods offer the best place to relax after cramming a semester’s worth of learning into 12 days. Yellow-green moss climbs the trees and covers the ground five inches deep. Beavers hauling freshly cut tree branches to their wood stash have worn a trail in the moss, which we follow to where a break in thick alders offers a filtered view of a pond.
I never noticed the pond before and wonder if it is another beaver public works project. Ever interested in finding the new in well known places I lead a reluctant Aki around an alder tangle then down a recent path formed through three foot tall grass. It ends in a circle of crushed grass near the pond’s edge—a bear’s bed. “Why not,” I tell Aki. If I were a bear recently sated by Sockeye Salmon snatched from Steep Creek while tourists snapped their cameras, had endured helicopter noise and bus fumes, I’d come here to contemplate this pocket pond. I’d watch water bugs skate its surface, dig the perfect reflection of the deep green buckbean stalks choking one bay, laugh at the how a solitary glacier erratic looks like a partially submerged skull sporting mossy hair. When darkness shuts down the industrial tourism machine I’d curl up on the still soft grass stalks and dream of more salmon. I’d wake in the morning before the mosquitos and snatch a few Nagoon Berries before heading to work.
Not wanting to be here when the bear returns, we take a reverse course on the beaver’s logging road. Near another pond, the one where last Spring she dashed across too soft ice to investigate beaver tail slaps, Aki stares at the water then dashes over to a newly formed beaver den of branches and mud. With the tense posture of an interested poodle and tail a metronome she stands on top of the den until reluctantly answering my summons to, “Get away from there you stupid dog.” When will she learn that the big toothy rodents do not want to be her friends?
In Anchorage, near University, flying abeam Chester Creek over birch and spruce cast shadows then slowed by red bike jacket—spandex on go fast bike flushing out moose blendied into trailside trees
Dark light dark light bounce
Blind see blind see go
Slow for moose
With a name like “The Old Rondy Trail” this dark line on the map promised a little adventure. It should also provide a way to avoid the traffic noise I would have to endure using the street alternative. So, at 6:45 on this overcast Anchorage day I steer my beefed up comfort bike onto packed gravel past a “Dog Musher Only Sign.” Knowing those boys won’t arrive until the winter snows I push on. It’s all civilized gravel until I reach a wooden bridge partially covered with tuffs of white hair. I guess it is from a shedding moose but can’t figure out why so much of it ended up on this flat wooden deck way.
Now looking carefully for moose I continue through a boggy, birch dominated forest that offers occasional views of mountains. I have to ignore the possibility of moose when the trail deteriorates into an obstacle course of mud, ruts and exposed tree roots. Being a road bike guy it takes all of my mountain bike skills to make it to the pleasantly paved Campbell Creek Bike path and its easy trail back to the dorm.
This trail, beginning at the Alyeska Ski Resort and ending in a string of beautiful subalpine meadows, teaches the value of solitude. The first half mile hosts a near constant stream of hikers, most just taking a curious peak into a northern rain forest. A smaller number push on to see the Winner Creek Gorge and take a promised ride over the stream in a bucket suspended from a cable. The trail forks before the gorge where I right turn to explore a less visited section of the creek.
Before the fork, I dottled along finding spaces between groups so I can enjoy the play of lights of darks in the forest understory. After taking the road less traveled I am alone except for a tiny vole galloping up the trail then diving to safety beneath a blueberry bush. Aki would have loved that. There was also a raven sounding like a honking Canada Goose.
After the junction the trail climbs through a forest of smaller and smaller conifers before delivering me to the subalpine meadows. I guess you should call them that. They form in places where the creek valley opens into a shallow “V”—large swaths of grasses and taller plants like the Elderberry and Wild Rhubarb. In between I find almost hidden clumps of dark purple Monkshood, blue Wild Geraniums, and even red Columbine. Above rises two glaciated peaks. Here the wind cools and blows off the mosquitos, the stream sings its low sound without having to shout to be heard over the sound of passing conversation.
I’ve ridden to this spot three times to see the cranes that I saw here Saturday week. There they are, two huge birds, mostly brown, harvesting food on a grassy mud flat. They ignore me and the other traffic on the bike path, the noise and vibration of a passing train, the oil tanker they can easily see down inlet from their feeding station. I am pretty sure they are Sand Hills but have no confidence in my birding abilities. While I am a little jealous of those who can tell one gull from another, I can’t get over the awe stage that settling in while watching early morning light enrich the colors of a wild bird’s feathers.
Resurrection Bay, like the rest of maritime Alaska is lovely on a sunny day. Today the sun shone down on the boat taking me down the bay and into the Kenai Fjords. In five and half hours we saw Sea Otters snack and float, Dall Porpoise explode from beneath the boat, lazying sea lons, a Peregrine Falcon dive on a roosting eagle, several tidewater glaciers, clouds of Kittiwakes, escaping puffins, auklets, and a mother and baby Humpback whales. But it was the tall islands of granite guarding the entrance to the bay—some all knife sharp angles, others mimicking in hard stone the swirling mounds produced by soft ice cream machines —they appeared to the special things today. Then, on the drive home, we saw a double rainbow form over fireweed and a mountain lake.
I am still in Anchorage, 1200 miles away from Aki, riding a rental bike each morning before classes begin. The sun shines down on the Chester Creek Trail on this morning’s ride, at one place striking Canada’s beautiful red and white maple leaf flag as it hangs next to a Stars and Stripes still in shadow. I catch the translucent thing through the forks of a birch tree while flying down the trail. Is it a sign?
The plan was to ride all the way to Cook Inlet and back but a gang of Canada Geese, maybe 30 or 40 derailed me. They occupy the entire bike path near the bottom of Westchester Lagoon. A jogger on the other side of the geese waits a respectful time then slowly chugs through, Moses like, while the Geese part—driven by an unseen hand or common sense. At this time of the day either explanation works.
The geese close in behind the jogger to retake the ground. Not feeling the jogger’s power, I turn around and pedal back to the dorm, passing a surly looking group of chubby birds standing motionless in the water.
In a world without mirrors
I always would be 30
taking the young man’s open path
avoiding my reflection
in the eye of the truly young
I usually won’t stop on morning bike rides like this one along Anchorage’s Chester Creek. The creek drains an envelope of mixed hardwood forest running across our big city. From the university where I am staying for a couple of weeks, the Chester Creek Trail is the quickest way to access another trail running for miles along Cook Inlet. There I hope to see transient birds refueling on their way south.
At 6 A.M I enter a trickle of riders commuting to work. They reduce my concern about moose who browse along the trail and bears who might be moving into the woods now to catch in-migrating salmon. Relaxing into the pedals’ rhythm, I drop my guard and let the individual trees soften into a edgeless blur.
I don’t stop to watch the gulls screaming at each other on Westchester Lagoon, pedal slowly through a gaggle of almost domestic Canada Geese, move faster past the guy fishing for salmon near the outlet stream. I slow again at the tidal meadow where I saw two Sandhill Cranes on my first day in Anchorage. I stop at a bench surrounded by blooming Rugosa Roses.
I wouldn’t have stopped here if not for the roses now scenting the trail. The tide in Cook Inlet is out, revealing a broad, gently sloping mud bar mostly covered with pioneering grass. Low clouds cover the top of Sleeping Lady Mountain and seem to wash over the scene with gray. Up Inlet the lights of a small oil tanker provide the only hint of city industry. Above, a stack of thin horizontal clouds climbs to the marine layer. Most are grey or white but one is a lovely violet, as if a glass darkly reflecting the magenta roses.
I don’t stop again until back at the dorm, not for the fisherman fighting a salmon, not the for the geese, not at the crime scene filling with uniform police, some bent over something in deep grass while others talk into microphones clipped to their shoulders. One cyclist did stop, balancing his bike while straining to get a look at what lay in the grass. Did he see a vagrant sleeping (best case scenario) or a body cast into the forest by a murder? Both demand prayer.