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.
Near an ocean offering no hint
of salt, just mud
under skies lit by sunlight
filtered by the works of man
find a place where picture windows
next to prints of
sled dogs at Denali
where on wind change
you can smell Alaska,
stand in a birch wood forest
ever looking for an opening
into settled ground.
These birch trees retain beauty even though surrounded by Alaska’s largest city. Aki, only knowing the Southeast rain forest, has never lifted her leg to a paper birch. Even if she had walked many times through birch woods, the little poodle mix wouldn’t miss their parchment like bark, rough to the touch, that can peel back to a paper thin strip that glows when backlit by low angled sunlight. She might long for the perfume smoke of burning birch wood. I do.
Walking on a summer evening among birch and their taller cousin the aspen on trails crisscrossing the University of Alaska campus, I hear barking dogs, laughing children, the chimes of a clock tower, airplane noise, bicycle tires skidding on gravel, conversation carried out without reference to the birch. No one appears to notice the yellow green leaves dance under blue skies or the puzzle of cast shadows on the paths they walk. I wish I was so rich in birch trees, blue skies, and sun.
Until the blueberries, this walk was all about sounds–the typical coast forest early morning symphony: complaints, mostly gulls but sometimes an eagle drying its wings; the distant jack hammer sound of a red breasted sapsucker; a slightly off key bird song (not the bell clear tones of Robin); buzzing of the cruising bumblebee; gentle shushing of small wave action on a gravel beach; wet slaps of rain charged plant leaves hitting my cotton pant legs. All this builds to the crescendo finale delivered by a flight of old radial engine float planes on the morning run to Pack Creek—loaded with cruise ship tourists hopeful to see Alaska Brown Bears.
With my ears still ringing with airplane noise I follow Aki to where she growls at a fallen hemlock across the trail. “This is new,” I say in part to let Aki know there is no danger. We’ve had no storms since our last use of this trail so I wonder what delivered the coup de gras to this rotten tree; perhaps it was the pressure applied by a scratching bear or simply a yielding of the few fibers still holding the hemlock upright. I start to tell Aki the riddle about a tree falling in an empty forest but remember she has heard it before.
Late in the hike we reach the a patch of load bearing blueberry bushes, fruit just ripe. For weeks I’ve stalked the early setting Salmon Berry, find only empty or picked clean bushes. Here I am at the opening day of blue berry season. Is this karma rewarded or just luck? It matters little for the berries yield crisp sweetness that define an Alaska summer as much as the salmon, eagle, whale, and industrial tourism.
It takes three sets of footwear to make his hike—one pair of street shoes for driving, hiking boots, and rubber ExtaTuffs for trail portions flooded by the beavers. Joined by a friend, Aki and I make our way down a slippery boardwalk trail that dumps us onto a muddy track through old growth woods. We don’t mind the mud. Aki manages to skirt the worst and my rubber boots make me impervious to the stuff.
We glimpse flowering lily pads dotting an arm of the beaver pond just before the trails leads onto a large open meadow, now watched over by an eagle air drying his wings. Again the rubber boots serve me well, now to cross large stretches of flooded trail.
We’ve missed the height of the wild flower bloom but fireweed blooms and stalks of white arctic cotton dominate much of the meadow. Crossing a berm raised across the meadow by a long gone homesteader we find the excavations of the local brown bears (AKA grizzlies) where they have ripped up the meadow in a search for tasty roots. We’re heading for a stream with faint hope to catch some pink salmon. If they are ready to leave salt water for the fresh waters of the birth, the tide hasn’t raised the water level at the stream’s bar high enough to admit the seals, the bears are sleeping, we should catch some fish.
Unfortunately the seals managed to enter the creek waters before us and now splash and slam the water, growl and gurgle bubbles in the stream—all designed to drive the salmon toward their hungry chums. All is not lost. We catch smaller, taster Dollie Varden char and there are the marmots.
We didn’t seen the big gray rodents — think guinea pigs with long lush tails—when we arrived. A menacing gang of eagles held the high ground but yielded on our approach. In seconds four or five marmots took the eagle’s spots on tall rocks. I expected them to dash to safety but they held their ground, feigning disinterest. Have they learned to tolerate our presence because we keep away the eagles? They sure acted like it.