The Anchorage to Juneau jet was encased in dark clouds when the 10,000 foot warning chime sounded. I’d been thinking about lessons learned and relationships deepened during writing school at the University of Alaska. After hearing the chime, I looked down for dark shapes that could confirm we were over Lynn Canal and not skimming mountain tops. Seeing nothing but gray, I turned my life over to the pilot and his hi tech gear and tried to nap. It’s the only sane way to fly to a rain forest town crammed between glaciated mountains and a strip of sea.
Aki and my partner waited outside the security area. My partner smiled a warm welcome and the little dog squeaked and jumped when she spotted me. This morning Aki and I hiked up to Gasteneau Meadows even though it rained and clouds obscured the mountain tops. I couldn’t find flower blooms, wild animals, or even birds. Beauty hung in rain drops that clung to down facing pine needles. That’s how it is sometimes in Alaska. You learn to appreciate the comforts of friends, dog or human, and beauty where offered even when the rain falls and clouds block the peaks. You learn to appreciate the difference between the warm rain of summer and the punishing stuff that will come in October. In fall, you look forward to the crispness of winter and search the old growth for its rich mix of clam and drama.
Partially surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, the City of Anchorage Bowl retains its impurities until rain washes the air clean. It has not rained for several days so the new sun shows above the mountains like a weak light. This early, the sun lacks the strength to burn fog off Mosquito Lake. I ride past the lake and over moose browse to the bike path that cuts through Anchorage’s industrial strip. The path also runs along Ship Creek, now filling with spawning salmon and a swarm of fisherman. The men had better be mindful of bears drawn to the salmon.
To the north, the Alaska Range shines white with morning light, what I can see of it over an idle Caterpillar earthmover. After a train full of tourists sounds a mournful warning to car commuters, I hear a splash. In the front of a sheet metal shop, three beavers gather their winter supply of food wood. Maybe they are at home in this gritty part of town where men and women work hard for their families. But they collect their alder and birch in polluted waters. The sun is too low to light their world. In the pre-dawn gray I only see soft swells and curves and ears but they swim strong and disturb the surface of their pond with their tails. I couldn’t hear the splash because a nearby machine started up for the day.
She stood defiant. I hit the brakes of my bicycle then straddled it like she could have almost straddled the bike path. She would have put me in the hospital if it necessary to protect her twin calves. The photograph I took suggests much distance between us but I felt like I could touch her layered brown stomach, feel it heave in stress. Two smaller versions of her trotted across the trail. When she followed them into the spruce forest I pedaled back to the University of Alaska where I am studying this week.
She was the third adult moose I had seen on yesterday morning’s ride on the Anchorage bike paths. She was probably the cow with twin calves I saw last Saturday night when a late afternoon shaft of light set off gold yellow highlights in the twin’s glistening fur.
Less than 100 years ago men started building an American style town here on top of moose browse and bear territory. The animals hang on in the Anchorage Bowl. Moose wander downtown neighborhoods in winter, chomping down garden cabbages and decorative trees. They rest on snow-covered lawns and sometimes become tangled in strings of Christmas lights. Few die from gunshot; more from motor vehicle or train collisions.
Less lucky are the urban bears. I didn’t see one on my bike rides even though a sow and cubs had been spotted often on campus last week.
Bears drawn to the salmon spawning in city streams do ok as long as they don’t develop a taste for human garbage. Those that do, or allow themselves to be seen often in neighborhoods or the university campus are shot. That’s what happened this week to the mother of two cubs that others saw near our dorm. She led them once too often across the campus green spaces. Out of fear that she and her cubs would develop a garbage habit, a state official shot her. They captured one of her children who might now end up in a zoo. The other one is still somewhere in the surrounding forest, alone.
It may be past Mid-Summer in Alaska’s biggest town, but along Anchorage’s Bike paths I see evidence of spring. Flowers bloom. Last night a moose calf and her twin long-legged babies blocked the Chester Creek path. In a corny, but beautiful move, a shaft of late evening sun brought all the gold out in the twins’ wet fur as they followed their mom up the trail. The moose trapped a young jogger against bordering birch trees. Although she could easily have been trampled by the skittish mother, the jogger, dressed in shorts and a tie-dye tee shirt, held her ground until the trio broke into the woods. We exchanged survivor smiles after the moose left the trail.
This morning it was birds—a family of Canada geese, two adults and three kids, who enjoyed a quiet meal along Campbell Creek. I wasn’t surprised. Canada geese are as common as Eton Swans in Anchorage. I dodged piles of their scat while biking to the geese picnic spot from the university. I also found two perfect geese wing feathers lying on the grass like careless lovers; each a weightless miracle that once helped to lift an adult bird over Cook Inlet. I took them, officially to save them from the lawn mover that would have chopped them in pieces if I didn’t find them a safe home. Tonight they rest on the desk in my otherwise unadorned dorm room. I can feel the tension of the tightly packed segments along each white, hollow shaft; count their many shades of brown.
After the geese, I pedaled to Campbell Lake and watched a reflection of a single gull under the clouded sun and wondered how it exceeds the beauty of the things that cast it.
I’ll be in Anchorage at writing school the next couple of weeks so this is my last trek with Aki for a bit. We walk along lower Fish Creek to the pond circled by a thin line of fisherman. Using large treble hooks, they try to snag king salmon now going to rot in the pond. The men ignore us, concentrate instead on the bass notes made by 20 pound salmon as they crash into the surface of the pond.
Fishermen and fish are both driven here by DNA. For the men, a deep need to hunt and harvest, feed their families, drove them from their beds. The fish seek only to reproduce but can’t make it up the shallow creek to their spawning beds until it is swollen by August rains. Genetics might also be behind Aki and my moves this morning. She seeks promising scents, I satisfy my inter-caveman with a camera rather than gun.
The tide is out so the place smells of death and new life—-the stink of spent salmon and exposed tidal mud is almost overpowered by the sweetness of just opened wild rose buds.
Eagles and crows hunt carrion on the tide flats. I look for a way to capture the gold-yellow beauty of a seaweed carpet exposed before the glacier by the ebb tide. Four foot hight stalks of fireweed stand before me and the tidelands, the bottom rungs of their ladders of magenta blooms already in full flower. The layers will blossom one after the other until all the flowers transform into seed down that will float away at the end of summer.
On this straight trail through a green tunnel of alders, my mind wanders from thought to thought like Aki wanders from spots of scat and pee. Through a break in the green wall made by a deer trail, I see an enormous boulder in the moss covered troll woods. Hemlocks surrounded it. Another hemlock grows straight out of the glacier erratic’s top.
In my imagination, the isolated tree becomes an ancient troll teacher, his mossy bark transformed into a warm beaver coat. He leans on a cane made from a bear’s leg bone. The little trees around the rock turn into young trolls, their stomachs swollen with salmon head soup push out against their green sockeye salmon skin tunics. It’s raining so they wear caps made from inverted mushrooms. Unrestrained by science or access to the Internet, the old troll is free to pull answers for his student’s questions from the air.
“Teacher, where did the great school rock come from?”
“It fell from the pocket of the giant whose footprints became our lakes after they filled with water.”
“Teacher, who cut the grove in the rocks under our waterfalls?”
“The giant’s bear friend, when he sharpened his claws.”
“Teacher, why do the salmon gather each summer in the deep pool beneath the waterfall?”
“The giant sends them to us so we will have food to each and skins to wear.”
Aki, shocked by this heresy or unable to see the trolls, grows restless so we slip out of the troll woods beneath a tree dotted with eagle scat and cottonwood down.
As we round False Outer Point I notice the incoming tide, normally as stealthy as a submerging seal, splash over near-shore rocks with as little regard for silence as a surprised seal lion. Fog ghosts move quickly across Smuggler’s Cove. In minutes they become stuck in a hillside spruce forest where they will melt away as the day warms.
I look for drama, a flash of yellow warbler or the plume of a surfacing whale but there are only crows, crabby if their harsh calls mean anything, and one immature eagle that floats to its cliff top roost.
Thankfully, there is rain to dimple the sea and slick rock tide pools. It wets a midden of pulverized mussel and clam shells so they sparkle under Aki’s feet. The shower adds the drama that I seem to need on this mid-summer morning.
I get funny notions when walking in the mountains with Aki. On this image-rich meadow, I wonder whether it will transform me, just a little bit. Will the resin smell of pine and mountain hemlock hide in my hair; the insects, bubble bee, dragonfly, water bug leave faint marks on my soul? Will my laugh at the sight of the little dog galloping back with her frisbee spice the words I speak to the folks at the hospital, where I will visit as lay chaplain later this afternoon? Certainly the peace I take from the walk will help me sit quietly with the lonely or frightened as they begin to heal.
Yesterday the booms of fireworks would have swept over this mountain valley. The false colors of starbursts would have humbled the yellow marsh marigold and the reddish berry flower. Today the flowers shine without competition, as do the water drops clinging to grass and broad leaf plants. A parade of dogs, children, and people move past us on the narrow boardwalk trail. Aki and I step off the trail to let them pass, even the guy talking to his girl on a cell phone. I want to eavesdrop—-to learn if he shares the beauty of the place or just asks her to pick up a half rack of beer at Kenny’s Liquor. I could almost forgive him if he told his lover about this water drop and its neighbor, the berry blossom that mimics a Japanese lantern.