Four Octobers ago I made the first post for this blog. It was on a wet October 9th. Aki and I walked up the Fish Creek Trail and found a land gone to rest after the summer salmon spawn. That is how we find the creek and its forest today. No salmon hold in the creek. No decay perfumes the air. Rain-swollen creek waters have flushed out the bodies of spawned out dogs, pinks and kings. No bears hunt for meals.
We have to step over fresh eagle scat that looks like a splat of pancake batter sloshed from a mixing bowl. I hear the cry of what might be an eagle or even an osprey. I want it to be an osprey and remember Kathleen Dean Moore advising me and others in a Skagway church to write like an osprey—-hover over the terrain of ideas and then dive for promise. Moore told us to struggle on the page with our catch. The struggle provides the reader meat. Today the forest provides a more corporal challenge.
The wind-felled trunks of five or six old growth spruce block the trail near the turn around point. There, in past summers I cught salmon and once watched an otter rinse a meal in the stream. This late into the fall, I know of nothing that would justify the effort and risk of crawling over and under the tangle of sticky trunks and limbs. But, sunlight illuminates the path beyond the windfalls just before I turn back. It sparkles on the moist moss, turning it an electric green, backlights hanging strands of old man’s beard and the fine structure of ferns now the porcelain white of fall. Aki holds back but I begin the struggle that wins me a place on the other side of the downed trees. The sunlight disappears just after the little dog dashes under the downed trunks to my side.
Oh Carl, what would you make of this Juneau Fog? The stuff obscuring Gastineau Channel didn’t come on cat feet. It manifested itself like a ghost. From Chicken Ridge, I could see the morning sun light up Douglas Island as I loaded the Black and Decker coffee maker. Fog blocked the view before I could take my first sip. Some days it outlasts the sun but today’s channel fog disappeared in an hour.
Aki and I find a slip of fog still haunting the mouth of Nine Mile Creek. It forms a line of parallel scimitars and heads toward a grove of still yellow cottonwood trees until dispersed by a puff of wind. More formidable fog patches recline like toga wearing drunks over ridges of the Chilkat Mountains. One tries to hide the glacier from view. It could hold there all night if the wind doesn’t rise.
I’m on my way to Pilipino Hall for Tai Chi class. Aki can brush my knee when she wants attention but can’t manage the parry-parry-punch so she stays home. I carry a camera because the low angled morning sun is turning even tired willow leaves into a show. I will be late to class. According to the weather service, we should be in the middle of week long stretch of rain so walking in sunlight, seeing the electric combination of light and fall color brings the kind of joy I once felt while Swedish milk chocolate melted in my mouth.
At Capitol School Park I swing over to a bronze rendering of an empty chair. Members of the Juneau High School class of 1942 placed it there to commemorate the forced internment of their valedictorian and all the other Japanese Americans in Juneau. Two strands of origami cranes, their paper bodies soaked by last night’s rain, hang down the back of the chair. The cranes are a prayer for peace and longevity, the chair a protest against the unfair incarceration of loyal Americans. I wish it were a binding promise of, “never again,” and hope that it will remind the generations of children that will sled past the diminutive monument of the destructive power of fear.
Between rain showers and tides, Aki and I explore the Sheep Creek delta. From the number of loitering gulls and crows, a lot of feed still collects on the beach. The birds hold their ground as we walk out to the water. I watch the tide as they watch us, making sure we are not cut off by the quick moving flood.
Aki would like to run with a gang of bird dogs on the other side of the delta, but I hug the creek, wishing we didn’t have to share it with the dogs’ noisy people. They talk, yell at their dogs, blow whistles, talk some more, and ignore the reflection of fading fall color in the gray channel waters.
The yelling jerks me out of a reflection on the merits of Facebook, hating its invasive practices, loving the access it gives me to distant friends. When will I reach the tipping point? I dislike the political hate posts that appear unsolicited on my newsfeed; hate each ad that demonstrates how much the Facebook folk know about my internet search history. It will only get worse. When it does, I’m off the platform.
We drive to one of the access points to the Mendenhall wetlands but don’t stop because pickup trucks fill almost all the parking spaces. Guys with guns must be hunting ducks along the trail. We head over to the Auk Lake Trail where we won’t hear explosions or see plummeting birds.
Volunteers using government money civilized this old lake muddy trail, packing gravel between straight spruce trees that stand like the two lines of a minuet. Aki trots down the trail as if being honored by soldiers holding drawn sabers over her head.
It rains hard enough to pockmark the lake but we have some protection in the trees. Enough wet gets through to charge a small stream. The watercourse passes under the trail through a culvert and emerges as a miniature waterfall. While Aki chases her orange Frisbee, I set a chunk of granite under the outfall. In season, birds might fan their wings in spray that bounces from the rock. In time, if nothing shifts the stone or clogs the culvert, the stream might turn rock into a bowl. After six decades of watching, I want to get in the game.
The beauty of the Gold Creek Valley shows through the fog, rain, and gloom. I credit the yellows of willows and cottonwoods whose leaves will be swept away in the next strong wind event. Aki trots over the top of the flume through a shower of rain and falling leaves.
Two battered silver salmon maintain station in a Switzer Creek eddy. I can see a child’s slide that the fish had to swim past to reach their holding water. The head of one fish is white with scars but neither move with the lethargy of spawned-out salmon. I’m thinking that they took a wrong turn out in the Gulf of Alaska or spent too long at a herring feed. For whatever reason they missed the procreation party. Nature won’t allow them to spend another year fattening up in salt water so they are doomed to hunker until death in an ice covered hole.
When Aki grows impatient we move up creek through an old growth forest, then onto the boardwalk trail across Switzer Meadow. Black slime makes the submerged boards too slick for my boots and I almost fall several times before we can reach an old corduroy road paved with fallen tree trunks. They must not be chasing eagles away from the nearby dump because none of the big birds perch in the spruce lining the meadow.
We hear city noise in the hillside forest: the city bus shifting gears as it heads to Lemon Creek State Prison, heavy equipment moving gravel, the beep-beep-beep of a truck full of televisions backing up to the Walmart loading dock. Except for the forest and the neighborhood of middle class houses drained by Switzer Creek, all the land we could easily reach by foot is zoned commercial. We drop down into a small creek’s drainage and find a place where kids could camp during the summer. With the stream noise blocking that made in our industrial area they could pretend they were in the heart of darkness.
Just past the campsite we enter the true dark heart of forest recovering from a 1930’s clearcut. Nothing grows beneath uniformly thin spruce. Their roots, thin and crooked as a witch’s fingers, reach across the trail. Someone has marked the way out with pink florescent tape. We follow it back to the older forest and find the two salmon still hanging out, still looking for the party.
Aki dances around as I prepare for this afternoon’s expedition. God blessed her and all dogs with a weak short-term memory. She seems to have forgotten yesterday’s windy walk through the woods.
Soft, sparse rain falls as we walk onto the moraine. A fog ghost rises from a grove of yellow leafed cottonwoods and climbs up the spruce green wall of Thunder Mountain. Recent weather has put me in an Old Testament kind of mood so I pretend that the rising white form proves cosmic acceptance of our sacrifice during the just ended wet summer. (Juneau set a seasonal record for rainfall). But I know better.
Years in Alaska have taught me that bad weather never guarantees future stretches of good. Last summer’s monsoon season didn’t produce any cosmic credit that we can cash for a dump of snow followed by weeks of winter sun. I also know that a good stretch of summer sunshine creates a debit that can only be paid while wearing rain gear or arctic gear to block the icy Taku winds.
Aki doesn’t worry about cosmic imbalance or even the rain. She bounds around the moraine playing with a heard of water dogs that gallop up to her with wagging tails and goofy grins. I urge her to let them go and move on to the shore of Moose Lake so I can enjoy the reflection of the blue iced glacier underlined with a jagged line of yellow cottonwoods. We reach it just in time for a few quick photographs of the ice reflected in gently dimpled lake. Then, a deluge destroys the reflective power of the water. I wonder why this won’t earn us any points.
The day broke well on Chicken Ridge, announced by the slap of Sunday’s paper on almost dry ground. “Where shall we go today, little dog?” Aki ignores the question and heads for the kitchen, nails clacking on the hardwood floor. Her tongue lifts water from her dish when the first blast of wind driven rain slams into our house. Heavy raindrops appear to atomize when each strikes our neighbor’s metal roof. Wind carries the resulting vapor toward Gastineau Channel.
The poodle mix withdraws to the back of her kennel as I carry out the prep work for a walk in the woods—fill water bottle; grab camera, leash, pop bags, fleece for Aki; don rain gear, insulated Elmer Fudd hat, boots. She joins me just before I open the front door and we fight our way through wind and rain to the car.
We park at the edge of an old growth forest with a trail that leads to the sea. Aki dashes into the woods where it is calm and even free of rain. A gentle breeze tosses ferns that grow on the roots of a wind-tumbled spruce. Reminded of the power of wind, I look to canopy to see if the tops of the century old spruce trees bend. They don’t. Deep in the woods we hear the trickle of water in swollen streams but not the crack and creak of trees struggling in a serious wind. Still, Aki walks with caution; quick to jump when a stray alder leaf flutters toward her.
We follow a trail that snakes around broad circles of spruce root wads ripped from the ground when 100 miles an hour winds toppled the tree they once gave life. I’d like to be in the woods when such a wind drops giants but each time a storm brings them, common sense convinces me to hunker down on the ridge and ride it out.
Even on the bordering beach, the great trees shelter us. Gusts break over the tops of the tall spruce to darken the otherwise calm water with small, spiraling ripples. Some rip off isolated alder leaves that twirl and spin to beach. Apparently feeling exposed, Aki dances back into the woods. I follow, my mind filled with a memory of Cara Dillon singing “Donald of Glencoe.” I think of that exposed Scottish glen and the coast between Oban and Fort William so open to the wind. Is the sister to this Alaskan wind scouring the Highlands? “Ponder that little dog, those coastal Scots can’t even duck into the woods for shelter. The dog ignores my admonishment. We motor through the woods. She doesn’t doddle when asked to hop into the car.
After all my whining about the recent spate of wet weather I probably do not deserve this crisp, sunny day. Alaskans are supposed to suffer in silence. My only complaint on this walk through forest to the beach is that the fall color has peaked. The Douglas Maples show some color but only a few scarlet leaves still cling to beach side crab apple trees.
Aki is busy herding her charges—today another guy and me. We break through the woods and sit on a rocky shelf above Favorite Passage. Six harlequin ducks paddle their party-colored bodies along the shore until a sea lion cruises through. Out in the passage a humpback whale breaches and falls, breaches and falls, sending a gush of water upward each time he returns to the sea. He dances alone, without the presence of the tourist boats that had tracked him and his kind all summer. For this afternoon, it’s just Aki, our friend, a sea lion, colorful ducks, and a whale dancing in the sun.