Does Aki prefer the one note song of a varied thrush or robin’s happy refrain? She wouldn’t tell me even if I asked, which is impossible at the moment because she is off investigating a patch of grass 50 meters away. We are moving through dense alder brush on the way to the Mendenhall River. The woods hide what sounds like hundreds of birds, each singing a carnal song of spring. Aki, neutered long ago, ignores the din. I stop on a patch of trail temporality flooded with morning light and search without success for the choir. “Why,” I wonder, “Do we say we taught our children about the birds and the bees by explaining the mechanics of human procreation?” Aki and I know there are birds in these woods singing for a mate and others doing what is necessary to continue their bloodline. But I’ve never seen a bird, let along a bee, do it. Well, there was that time when I saw two eagles lock talons and tumble toward the ground. But trees blocked my view of their final descent so I never learned whether they consummated their love before striking the ground.
This morning, another storm sweeps through Juneau. Its rain discourages trips outside. But, I have good rain gear and a dog determined to have her daily adventure so we drive out to North Douglas where a trail meanders through protecting old growth trees. At the trail head, heavy drops slam into Aki’s fleece wrap. She gives a full body shake and trots into the woods where the spruce/hemlock canopy keeps out the worst of the storm. I think the rain has stopped until the trail takes us to a beaver pond where emerging water lily fronds, still infant brown, curl toward the gray sky, accepting the rain drop battering as if it were punishment from God.
Crossing through more woods, we reach the beach where aggressive surf hammers the gravel. It releases a salt sea smell that we can only enjoy when a westerly stirs the fjord waters of Lynn Canal. Crows stand at the tide line and stare at surf like a bloke might stare at football on TV. A small raft of parti-colored harlequin ducks appears and disappears in the offshore swell. Four form a line and turn to watch the little dog just before they slip behind a wave. As is always the case, they watch us and we them.
A storm is moving in. Its first breaths of wind stir Aki’s curls as she dashes after her orange Frisbee. She flies by the royal blue shell fragment that rests next to the moraine trail—the top half of a robin egg shell of a shape and color that could have made it a fine wine goblet for the mouse king if not for a small hole on one side—evidence of efforts by the occupant to break into the world. Nestling it in my hand, I wonder at it’s lack of weight, how it stirs in the strengthening wind, if it protected its occupant until birth, or carried the little chick to its death.
This morning, as we do on every walk, little Aki and I teach each other patience. Tethered together on the busy lower section of Perseverance Trail, I must stop often and wait for the little dog to sniff and mark. She must sit while I try to photograph three mountain goats that graze on the slope of Mt. Juneau. The goats were further down the mountain last night when we took advantage of early summer weather to walk the lower section of the trail. One goat feed near the base of a waterfall; close enough for me to make out its four legs and head without binoculars. Do they move down to the sweetest forage when human and dog traffic falls off at night? This morning, as a truck takes the last Mt. Roberts’ trailhead parking lot, the goats move steadily up the steep slope.
Last night one goat flew from a rocky ledge. It appeared to leap, rather than fall, and sailed above a hundred foot drop at an angle that carried it behind a rock outcrop. This morning, I wonder if it’s broken body lies on top of avalanche scree. If the goat is dead, ravens and eagles would be circling above it. I see nothing but a goat, hopefully last night’s acrobat, feeding a quarter a mile up slope.
Aki, patience at an end, tugs me away from the goats and up the trail where willow catkins shimmer in strong sunlight.
Aki and I climb a service road to a high mountain meadow that still has snow. It’s an odd morning. No one else shares the road even though its over 50 degrees and blue sky backstops mountains, each a spruce green and white quilt. There is sun but it shines through a thin pewter haze that shows no sign of dissipating. Then there is the wind, not the broad breeze that can sweep across mountain and meadow, lifting the poodle’s earflaps when she faces into it, but a wind confined like a river, to unseen channels. When we cross one of these whippy tributaries, Aki dips her head low and I use the jacket, minutes ago unnecessary in the rising heat, as shield. Powering through, the little dog and I reach a saddle covered with snow. She is hesitant to follow me onto it, as if it lay over a lightly sleeping dragon. Maybe she smells the wolf that recently left this single track toward a pocket spruce forest. When the distance between us grows to the edge of her tolerance, Aki dashes toward me. Even though I am prepared for the dash, she runs too fast for me to capture her entire body with the camera.
Can the little dog read the signs of winter’s death, even in this high place? Already the rivulets run free, carrying snow melt to the sea. Bullet shaped skunk cabbage shoots power up through thawing ground. We can smell the decay of last fall’s grass and see the green specks of new growth pushing through it. Dash on, little dog, when this is gone, it will be all bog and biting bugs until next fall’s frosts.
It is hard not to be trite on Earth Day, when you write about a walk in the woods. By spotlighting unfurling leaves on the forest floor, the sun makes its tough not to dance like a druid. I turn off the composing machine and let my little dog be my metronome. Exuberance can be forgiven on our first real spring morning.
As she always does, Aki squeals and fidgets in the car as we approach the glacier trailhead. She flies out of the car when I open the door even though no dogs are near to welcome her. She must always expect wonders at the start of every hike.
We drove through rain, snow, sun and more rain during the 12-mile drive from Chicken Ridge so I only expect confusion from the weather. I hope for a chance to watch mountain goats forage on the rock face above Nugget Falls. I didn’t expect to spot a female white-wing crossbill on some glacier-scrubbed rocks near the trail. The little yellow/gray bird’s bill strands it way out on an evolutionary limb. Overlapping like a broken pair of scissors, the bird’s bill is dynamite for prying seeds from spruce cones, which is why it thrives in the rainforest. The Audubon folks write that the white-winged crossbill can feed on pine seeds and even fruit in a pinch but it’s slim beak evolved to hammer spruce. “Chow down, little bird,” I tell it, “and pray that the spruce forest doesn’t shrink like our glacier.”
I brought Aki to Treadwell for a sheltered walk among the old gold town ruins. The steady storm has already overwhelmed the bare-boned cottonwood canopy so we walk on mud, instead of the expected gravel trail. I look through thick walls of rain for a metaphor or simile that might be expanded into a poem. But none of the cast iron relics, made by true craftsmen over 100 years ago, stir my imagination. A boiler held together with thick bolts has no connection with my computerize life. An ore car rail emerging from the flesh of a spruce tree doesn’t drag me down a rabbit hole to find a mirror image in my life.
We leave the woods for the beach near the deep little bay formed when mine tunnels that ran under the channel collapsed. You would think that the worn pilings that once sported a shipping dock would make a good metaphor. I try some out out: rotten teeth, Hayden’s Wall, ghost army, the gates of Hell. All bad.
Then, while leaning against a worm-eaten piling, I spot an immature bald eagle that has secreted itself on the top of a piling 20 feet away. If it already had the white head and tail of adulthood, the bird would stand out like an ice cream cone. But today, soaked like the piling, by rain, it blends into the wood. The rain has darkened his brown feathers and turned his few white patches gray. The effect of rain on the eagle inspires me to give up my search for metaphor and try for a list of rain’s powers:
Rain blends eagle into wood
washes free iron relics
or buries them in mud
feeds the forest moss
floods its streams
softens my poodle’s curls
and makes them smell like spring.
When packed in a storm
rain ensures solitude
unwanted by my extravert dog
I find an old friend on the Outer Point Beach. A belted kingfisher watches from a perch on offshore rock as Aki and I emerge from the old growth. Aki and the bird ignore each other. He might be ignoring me as I walk slowly toward him to get a better photograph. I love this bird with its spear of a bill and mullet topknot. I like his feisty verbal challenges and goofy way he flies: up with a frantic beat of wings like a hummingbird then down in a dipping glide.
Twenty years ago on Prince of Wales Island a cloud of kingfishers circled my kayak and dived on a school of baitfish. The birds tucked in their wings and penetrated to a surprisingly deep depth, their passage marked by a line of bubbles in the water. I felt fear, wonder, and privileged to witness their casual demonstration of skill. I wanted to share it. I wanted to enhance the experiences value through secrecy. I never saw such a thing again.
Bilbo is the first good thing that has come our way on this adventure. Before the big Chesapeake Bay retriever joined forces with Aki, it was all rain and emptiness along Eagle Beach. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. There were the crows, a small murder (manslaughter?) that croaked at us from safe perches along a narrow trail. We heard the nervous Canada geese that still fly almost of eyeshot along the river surface. I wonder if Bilbo makes them tense but the geese don’t react when he lumbers toward then and into the river, as if he needs to cool off on this 40-degree day, as if there is not enough rain to keep his skin pliable.
When they first met, the Chessie wiggled and galumphed around Aki. After he settled down they formed a dog gang—Aki the brains and Bilbo the muscle.
Every few minutes Bilbo wets himself in the river. Aki stays in the meadow always on alert for smells and animal movement to investigate. When they reunite, Aki appears to organize them into a recon patrol.
Just before we reach the woods, I hear a faint, “Bilbo.” Way down meadow a mom and her two kids call for their dog. Bilbo ignores the summons like he ignores the queen bumblebee that circles his thick skulled head. I pick up Aki to break the spell. Without the little poodle mix to distract him Bilbo hears his mistress and lumbers back to her. I drop Aki to the ground; half expecting her to follow her new homeboy, but never gives him another look.
A minute later we stumble on a local naturalist sitting in front of a blue berry bush covered in blossoms. Even though we interrupted his attempt to film a feeding bubble bee, he is gracious and tells me that only queen bumblebees survive the winter. All her royal subjects perish in the cold. These insects cannot be capable of emotion. No one with feeling could ever survive such generation genocide.