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.
It’s early morning on a tidal meadow but we could be walking through downtown Los Angeles at sunrise. Canada geese, all locals, huddle like the homeless in protected dips of the meadow. Some make low complaints, as refugees from mental health treatment sometimes mutter to themselves while pushing a shopping cart of castoffs down the street.
If the geese represent the homeless of our cities, Aki and I are seen by them as police officers; my camera a baton to encourage them to move along from the protected doorways where they huddled for the night. Aki tries to ignore the big birds while I photograph them. I also take pictures of still-white peaks of the Chilkat Range reflected on the surface of Eagle River.
Tired of making geese nervous, I lead my little dog into the woods where we are greeted by a red-breasted sapsucker hammering away at a metal trail sign. I saw one of his brothers doing the same to a “No Motor Vehicles on the Trail” sign yesterday. Are the beautiful woodpeckers uniting against the man? As cops Aki and I should investigate further but the sapsucker flies off before I can question him.
Because people are coming over for a holiday dinner, Aki will get a bath today. I hide this from her. The little dog has a love/hate relationship with soap and water. She hates the bath but loves to dash around the house when freshly clean. She also loves to explore tidal meadows—a place she is unlikely to leave without mud and muck imbedded in her poodle fur.
We drop down from a well-used trail to the meadow and hear a series of “rock dropping into a well” sounds. Ducks start migrating over our heads, at first in one and twos, and then in dozens. I blame the Labrador retriever that went down the trail ahead of us for flushing the birds until I spot him heading back to the trailhead with his owner. Do the math Dan. The sound of something being plunked into water followed by ducks in frantic flight equals crab pot placements. Someone just dropped a line of crab pots into a chunk of Smuggler’s Cove covered with waterfowl. We won’t have much to watch when we reach the cove overlook so I snap pictures of fleeing mallards as they pass into front of the Mendenhall Towers and Mount McGinnis.
It’s a day for rain forest dwellers to cash in on an early spring day with sun and temperatures in the 50’s. Some with boats spend this warm Easter Morning dropping crab pots. Others troll for feeder king salmon off False Outer Point. Many, like Aki and I, just look at things.
We run into a group of serious bird watchers with serious spotting scopes and serious tripods for mounting them. Understandably, they are not happy to receive Aki’s happy, if loud greeting. I would have told them where the Smuggler Cove ducks now feed but did not want to intrude.
The little dog and I, we spend this holiday morning with sun on our faces listening to eagle song and duck complaints. I wonder at the beauty so accessible to one with eyes and interest; the little dog rolls in something rich in sea smells that last night’s tide left in the meadow grass. Thank God for the day and that Aki is scheduled for a bath.
It is Heron Day on the Sheep Creek delta. True, there is one bald eagle perched on the number 2 navigation marker and the usual scattering of mallards, scoters, and gulls on the beach. But I am drawn to three great blue herons.
Aki finds a lumbering golden retriever to circle as I snap pictures of the herons. Two are as rigid as tide markers. A third, perhaps made uncomfortable by the playing dogs, trots into the wind with wings extended and lets itself be lifted by the breeze off the beach. Once airborne, the big bird turns sharply and glides to a stop 30 feet down the beach.
After the flying heron resettles itself, I notice that rather than extend its long neck for optimal viewing of the small fish it usually hunts, one of the other herons hunkers down. He looks like the skulking villain in a melodrama. I figure out why when I enlarge a fuzzy photo I took of him and see a pan sized fish dangling from its beak. His catch must be too large for the little snap head back and swallow technique I’ve seen herons use to eat prey.
Looking at Douglas Mountain range reflected in the channel on this rare blue sky day, I wonder if angels take flight like herons. Do they unfurl wings as wide as they are tall, curl them into a aerodynamic foil, and float off the earth?