Today, unseen things on this mountain meadow bother Aki and I. Distracted by the wind that shakes elephant-eared skunk cabbage leaves, the little dog almost steps on a trail-side grouse. She doesn’t even react when the plump bird flutters to life and takes refuge in the crotch of a hemlock tree.
At first I welcome the wind because it blows away mosquitos and other bitting pests. Then it carries the sound of other hikers—-children who would rather be home watching TV than on the meadow; barking dogs; adults sharing the events of the past week. On the now friendly wind, Aki hears promises of the caress and maybe a chance to chase another dog. Her curmudgeonly owner hears only the disappearance of solitude.
Black bears and porcupines are common yard pests on Chicken Ridge but Aki has never had a chance to bark at a deer walking past the house. I saw at least one deer each day of my visit to Montana wheat country.
A fine-boned whitetail doe spied on my sister and I while we wandered the ruins of an old brick factory, now pottery center, near Helena. I biked past a grazing mule deer and her sister near Missoula. On our last evening at the family ranch near Geraldine, we finally saw the little doe that had broken trails through the ranch’s shelter belt of Russian olives and other draught resistant plants.
The Montana prairie, so yielding to a wide sky, provides a good retreat place for rain forest dwellers but you have to dress in layers. It can rain hard or burn you during a heat wave.
In August, after harvest time, it’s all monochrome, stiff stubble. But last week we had sunny, warm days spiced up with afternoon thunderstorms. The still green wheat pushed to harvest height and the leaders of a tribe of prong horn antelope shepherded their young across the summer fallow.
In Fort Benton the old cottonwood trees along the Missouri River released down that floated across the red brick facade of the Grand Union Hotel, then gathered into drifts when the wind dropped. We saw deer there and along the two lane roads that climbed from the river to rolling wheat lands that appear to break like surf around Square and Round Buttes.
A porcupine scurried along the road as we drove away from the ranch our last day. I expected him to rise up and ask for a ride to Juneau, where the water rich plants in our yard would offer him a welcome break from the August drought to come.
Back from an Aki-less visit to the Montana wheat country, I take the little dog out on one of her favorite moraine trails. A long stretch of rainy weather ended in Juneau yesterday and we have a windless, sunny morning, which we don’t have to share with other hikers.
The Alaskan summer had raced along during my absence. The purple of lupine blossoms have faded and I found fireweed, that magenta harbinger of fall, in full flower. A nesting robin jogs along the trail to lead us away from their hatchlings. Now mated up, the beavers have switched into construction mode. Every day they add stripped tree branches and mud to dams that back water over our hiking trails.
We manage to arrive, with wet paws and boots, to a remote lake on the edge of the Troll Woods. A young beaver, fur slicked back with water, cruises 30 feet away. He swims back and forth in front of Aki, who watches with partially submerged paws. When she doesn’t plunge in, the beaver slaps his tail on the water and disappears under the resulting splash. I think the beaver is trying to drive us off, so I lead Aki away from him. The beaver follows our progress around the lake. Each time we stop, he starts cruising back and forth in front of Aki, like a teenager trying to screw up the courage to knock on a pretty girl’s door. The little dog loses interest long before the beaver, who punishes the lake with a series of tail splashes when we finally reenter the Troll Woods.
The rain started at 6 AM and has fallen since in a steady drum beat. Already, it has loaded the canopy of this old growth forest with water. Concentrated in fat drops at the edge of spruce needles, the rain drops with a thud on Aki and I.
I chose this walk for its usual protection from wind and rain, something it does not provide us this morning. But, we do have broad skunk cabbage leaves that reach for their cousins over the trail and glisten even under dense canopy. Raised water bubbles on spruce needles shine like low grade jewels and magnify the things to which they cling.
Small domes of rain water occupy the crotches of lupine and camp out on the open plains of ferns and this twisted stalk plant. We step over leaves and twigs scattered on the Eagle River Trail by yesterday’s storm. The mid-summer forest is again a place of peace.
With the understory plants in high summer foliage and moss coloring much of the standing trees, a watercolorist could capture the forest’s emotion with a few tubes of green pigment. Peace and calm come from the restful colors but also, perhaps, from the abundance of oxygen exhaled by the forest.
Mosquitos swarm me every time I stop to photograph the green. Normally a slapper, I try to honor their lives until they leave a line of irritating bumps along the bottom edge of my hat. Even after that I can only roll them off.
We heard some slight road noise at the beginning of this walk but deep in the forest only thrush song rises above the river’s white noise. Near a meadow dominated by purple lupine the thrush breaks cover to fly onto a spruce limb. She watches in silence until the little dog and I drop onto the meadow. If not for the bugs, I would wait in the green for her song.
Aki sleeps. The hummingbirds feast on sugar water. There are three of them, a couple and a single guy that only feeds when the other two are full. Almost every tree, bush, and plant in the yard is heavy with flowers, including red columbine bushes. Columbines sustain hummingbirds in the wild. The tiny guys ignore organic, holistic, healthy blossoms to feast on sugar water—the feeder a hummingbird junk food drive through. I feel a little guilty about the thrill I get when they blink into existence at the feeder then hover and suck down the stuff. But guilt does not block admiration.
Magenta is losing it’s mountain meadow monopoly. Already, bog rosemary and the other pink hued mountain flowers go to seed. That’s why the shooting stars are a surprised find. I spotted them earlier on rich beach-side meadows where they formed large islands of magenta in a sea of grass seldom disturbed except by foraging bears. I once brought home from such meadow, an intact shooting star plant in a clump of meadow dug loose by a hungry bear.
Along this mountain trail, the shooting stars have spread themselves out so they dot rather than dominate their sections of the meadow. Long but thin stalks allow the flowers to dip and rise on the wind, always pointing down, their inverted petals form bowls that catch today’s soft rain.
Aki and I walked with pride up the steep mountain road on a hot, sunny day. The little dog should be proud of the way she kept pace with a well conditioned husky dog on his way to the mountain ridge. I was smug at being able to climb at speed without having to take deep breaths. I don’t know about Aki but my pride dissipated when we passed a half a dozen young women escorting a day class down the road. Almost all of the women pushed a child laden jogger cart. One lady, with a baby strapped to her chest, pushed twins in a cart. It aged me 5 years.
We were alone on the mountain after the day care class passed—-at least we didn’t run into any other people or dogs. There were robins and blue jays uninterested in yielding to the little dog. A marmot sang out warning to her children, not the shrill air raid siren whistle the oversized guinea pigs usually sound just before an eagle flies over the nest. This was a sweet song, a gentle warning that one might give well behaved children, more to impress the neighbors than to scare the off spring into action. I thought about approaching closer just to hear it again.
We pass muskeg ponds made opaque by fallen spruce pollen. They add a new color, a pale golden yellow, to the forest. Above one pond a cloud of pollen lifts from a stand of spruce and grows to partly obscure the trees. It pulses, as if its bellows blew the pollen from the cones. It’s beauty has a price—congestion and stinging eyes. On the way down the mountain we smell the resin of sun-heated spruce and the complex perfume of flowering skunk cabbage. The perfume smells nothing like cabbage or skunks, more like lilac but with a sharp, acidic twist.
The rain’s back. We walk with the old friend through the Treadwell ruins. Since the mine collapsed almost a century ago, nature had been trying to reclaim the once bustling townsite. When it could no longer produce wealth, the mine owners abandoned it and, I think, its workforce. Large buildings, a baseball field, swimming pool and other comfort providing things were left to the mercy of alders and willows.
Aki and I find an ore car in the deep woods, still standing on the rails once used it move it in and out of the mine. Ground plants have already claimed most of the track but the car stands ready to report for duty where miners left it after seawater flooded out the mine tunnels. Nature would reclaim our Chicken Ridge Neighborhood in a generation if we let the Taku winds blister away house paint and moss destroy our roofs. Maybe we should have built our shelters with the industrial bones left by our ancestors in Treadwell.