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.
I hadn’t meant to climb so far and fast up this mountain service road. Aki had animal signs to read and I wanted to study the emerging high country flowers, enjoy surprising mixes of magenta dwarf fireweed and white daisy, stand of shooting stars rising above yellow butter cups. Noise drove us on —- in the form of a lecture about a 1960’s US presidential election given by a man to two woman as they kept pace just behind me on the road. Finding a gear not used for some time I pressed ahead until no human voice could be heard above bird song and the occasional warning whistle of a marmot to it’s younger kin.
Once in gear I moved up without thought, like a Tour de France cyclist climbing in the Alps. Up we moved until only old wind battered spruce broke the horizon line. Soon we even rose above them to where carpets of flowering heather cover the ground. I tried leading Aki across snow fields linked by a heavily damaged wood planked trail to a ridge line promising views of Admiralty Island. Aki loved the snow, sliding and digging in it like a puppy as I struggled to stay upright. We turned around before having to cross a steeply sloped snow field that ended just above a steep drop.
We find the rain forest trail between downpours. Only one car sits in the trailhead parking lot. In minutes Aki will find it’s occupants, a brace of identical chocolate colored malemutes—great brutes just barely controlled by their owner with stout ropes. After they pass we only share the forest with its occupants.
Perhaps it’s being between storms but Aki and I want to press on rather than stop to watch, maybe see something wonderful in this monopoly of green. While she pees, I do notice rain from the last downpour beading up on plump blueberry leaves; rain from earlier storms soaking into white eagle scat trapped in the leaves’ vein channels. With patience we might see rain wash the scat away, might see a branch above bend with the weight of an arriving eagle, hear the new occupant complain to God of our presence.
My red jacket, the color of wild columbine flowers, attracts a hovering hummingbird. I could patiently stand here while Aki whined and the red and orange blur might land on my shoulder then poke at the red cloth. I could camp out down at the beaver pond until a lodge occupant swam over to check me for weapons. I could squat on the beach, starring over the grey of sea until humpbacks, maybe two or three, broke the surface to breathe. I could simply be for while, taking in the empty beauty of forest, beach and a sea surface only broken by crab pot floats; smell the sweetness of beached seaweed and the sour assault of beach grass.
My mind and heart tell me to wait and watch, ignore the line of rain clouds moving down from Lena Point, block out the drumming of passing float places, curse the bass hum of a fish buyer’s tender moving slowly up Lynn Canal. When the rising tide dislodges a gang of gulls huddling on an off shore rock, their loud complaints push me back to the woods and up the trail as the first drops of rain spot beach rocks like holy water sprayed on a shirt freshly laundered for Easter.