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.
You might say the devil is beating his wife this morning if your devil, when angry, grows yellow like the sun and his beaten wife can shed enough tears to soak little Aki and wash the trail clean. I prefer the idea that Akria Kurosawa illustrated in his movie, Dreams: that rain and sun share the skies over fox weddings. As my Aki, the little poodle mix, and I trot along the lower Mendenhall River, I root for the sun to muscle aside the rain clouds that have been camped out over Juneau for more than a week.
The tide is on the flood and in minutes it will cut off our retreat from the riverside beach if we don’t turn back. It has already eliminated the last mud bar in the wetlands and forced an armada of ravens to fly over us to roost in tall spruce. Now they mutter curses at the tide, each other, and maybe us. If they cast criticism of the little dog’s fleece wrap, she ignores it.
On a day with rain low and snow high we drive to connected mountain meadows where winter is enjoying one last rager before springs takes over. Falling snow adds to a skiable cover on the muskeg. When snow stops and the sun breaks loose of cloud cover it animates the tundra like meadows. Aki and I have to squint our eyes against the glare. Snow blindness conditions. I’m reminded of the day trips to the mountains behind Los Angeles “for the snow” I took when a child. There was beauty and pain then too, both provided by winter. The beauty most North Americans know: sun enriching white ground and the evergreens poking into a crayon blue sky. The pain was as simple: cold felt by bare hands or ones covered in cotton gloves. After an adulthood living in Alaska, I accept pain as a price for beauty. But it always surprised me when I was a California boy.
Aki and I are on the Gastineau Meadows, back together after my weeklong trip to Minneapolis for writing stuff. During my absence, the little dog stayed with friends who care for her, but a week apart has made both of us a little more excited about this walk than usual.
It’s early so rich Arles-like light floods the meadow like it does in the first hours of a sunny day. Aki sips dew from new grass then walks around with a severed stalk dangling like a cigarette from her mouth. Her prop flies away when she barks at something that just dashed to cover in a scattering of bull pines. I look in the direction she indicates with her muzzle but only see twisted pines and passive muskeg. More of the same. Last winter, I followed tracks of deer, lynx and even an insomniac bear across this meadow. But only Aki saw the animals that laid them in the snow.
Our disparity of sight reminded me of the AWP conference I just attended in the Twin Cities. At many of the panel discussions, I could follow the presenter’s presentation and even recognized the essay or poem used for reference. But during lectures on how to solve one of my many writing problems, I saw nothing but new tracks in the snow.
We head out North Douglas Highway to a path taken often to the sea. As I always do on this walk, I stop where a beaver pond pushes against a row of old growth spruce and look at the feeder stream curving out of sight. What lies around that corner? I plan on bringing the canoe here so I can answer that question. I think, once again, that I should have explored the creek during last winter’s cold spell when strong ice covered it. But this summer, there will be no canoe expedition into the darkest recesses of the muskeg it drains. I’ll move past it on my way to the more dramatic beach even during next winter’s cold winter. Does something in me want to preserve the mystery? If Aki is stuck in similar mental loops, she is too busy to say. She has squirrels to chase and pee messages to leave dog friends.