Today the first freezing weather arrived on Chicken Ridge. The sun appeared and the wind did not. But it is mid November, a month and change from the shortest day of the year so the sun only brushes the tops of the North facing valley wall at noon. In the gloom beneath the bright white mountain top, naked cottonwoods, each 100 feet tall, each as thick at the bell as middle-aged spruce trees, form arthritic silhouettes. They dropped their pretense at growing when they dropped the last of their inverted teardrop leaves. Now they stand like supplicants to the sun, as if ready to sacrifice one of their own to bring back the rich spring light. Maybe they have. A felled cottonwood lies near the trail.
Aki and I returned to the Eagle River today and find a land going to rest. The clouds and their brother fog provide all the drama. The siblings let the sun slant rays through the old growth forest where it manages to infuse beauty into lifeless devil’s club leaves. We have no sun on the big tidal meadow but fog tears itself on spruce of the foothill forests. Above, the north face of Mt. McGinnis shines in full sun, its fresh snow looking bright and new like still wet white paint.
I don’t like it when Aki barks during beach walks. Looking over my shoulder I can’t spot the object that has set her off this time. There is a large metal drainpipe mangled by strong tides. Sometimes the little dog barks at such dark shapes. Sometimes she just barks, as if telling a loitering ghost to move on to heaven or hell. Her alarm apparently doesn’t bother the mallard ducks and glaucous-winged gulls that float just shore. Maybe they see Aki’s ghost. It ticks me off since I am trying to sneak up on what look like crows down the beach. They turn out to the remnants of pilings for a wharf that once serviced the AJ Mine.
Down channel the towns of Juneau and Douglas disappear under white, rain-charged clouds but we are in the dry. We are also alone except for the birds. It is two hours short of a 19.1 foot high tide. Already the flood lifts mallard ducks, lesser scaups, and the gulls off their shrinking sand bars lunch counters. Eventually, it will cover the beach and wash away all traces of our passage over the sand. Maybe it will carry away the large lion mane jellyfish that Aki stopped to sniff. In eight more hours we could return to hunt for other things deposited by the retreating tide.
I’ve taken many pictures of the bull pines and mountain hemlocks on this meadow. None have captured the life force that drives their struggle on poorly drained soil. Their ability to root in soil too marginal to support the tall spruce gains them an open place in the sun. It also slows their growth and leaves them to face harsh winter winds alone. The old ones have the twisted limbs of an arthritic. They could have stood here when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris stumbled up Gold Creek and later when gangs of Chinese laborers dug out the nearby Treadwell Ditch. They have managed to survive long enough to watch Aki pee on one of their brothers. But, given the number of dying trees on the meadow, I wonder how many more winters they have left.
This is supposed to be a fishing trip. With the trees now bare of leaves, clouds blocking the mountains, and rain discouraging the use of a digital camera, fishing seemed to be the best use of the day. Since it is small, I slipped the camera into the day back at the last minute.
Aki is wet in minutes. My gear holds up better but she doesn’t appear to care. We have the place to ourselves until we run into the volunteer beaver patrol. Armed with sturdy, three-pronged rakes, they are opening up a key waterway so late run coho salmon can reach their gravel spawning beds. This involves deconstructing beaver dams. Since they concentrate on building up their winter woodpile, the beavers won’t undo the patrol’s work until the salmon have moved through.
The patrol’s efforts also allow recently submerged human trails to dry out. Aki and I take several to various fishing spots around the moraine. We are too early or too late for catching dolly vardens. At two of the lakes I watch trout rise in the center of lake. I was tempted to wait for them to swim to us but Aki looks bored and, since she is wet, a little pathetic.
The clouds rise during our walk to reveal Thunder Mountain and the sharp peaks that surround the glacier. Standing on a still intact beaver dam, I watch the wake of a bufflehead duck and two companions ripple the image of mountains, clouds, and fog enriched by lake waters. This time of year, the surfaces of lakes provide the richest beauty.
We leave Chicken Ridge early hoping to get in a hike before the arrival of forecasted 60 miles an hour winds and rain. A thick cloud layer blocks the morning sun like a leaden cover. When we start up the road to OUR mountain meadow trail, a cosmic hand lifts the cover and let the sun shines on the car and the freshly white mountain peaks to the north. Not trusting the strength of that hand, I fret that the sunlight will vanish before we reach the meadow trail.
The yellow light still shines on the meadow when Aki leaps out of the car but fades to gray before I’ve taken more than a few photographs. Sunlight will blink through for a few second at a time during our hike but only it will confuse my digital camera. Without its rich distraction I can appreciate reflections of the bordering mountain ridges in the meadow small ponds, even those broken by fading lily pads.
Aki finds little to distract her on this walk. No dogs come charging up the trail; no squirrels declare the forest a no trespass zone. She still dashes about, tail wagging, nose to the ground as we climb to higher ground. She shows surprising patience when I stop on a flat section of trail and start Tai Chi warm-up exercises. It’s the prefect place for it—the edge of a pocket muskeg meadow separated from a mountain wall by Fish Creek. I face the mountains at commencement, offering an invisible globe to the avalanche chutes. Am I performing a pagan liturgical dance? Aki stands by as I single whip, wave hands, brush knee, parry, punch, block, and finally, push the mountain. I offer another invisible globe to the mountain and pet Aki. For the first time since entering the meadow, I feel in sync with the place, as if my life energy flows at the speed of the stream.
Today Aki and I take a route I usually travel by car. We walk from the town of Douglas, cross the channel bridge and climb up to Chicken Ridge. This is new ground for Aki to read so we stop often so she can sniff and pee. A stream of cars rushing by at 45 mph gives our walk an urban feel. I have a camera but find little use for it in the day’s flat light. There is a fence, bare of paint, aged by lichen that has somehow managed to stay upright. A few maple leaves cling to otherwise empty trees. On the bridge, one crow preens while perched on the Gastineau Channel sign after covering ground with crow poop and empty mussels shattered after he dropped them from height.