Under full sun on this Sunday, Aki, his other human, and I go for a bike ride. The little dog rides in a handlebar basket. In truth she would rather be running along side us but that would not be safe on this road between the Herbert and Eagle Rivers. We ride through a crowded picnic area to a meadow covered in blue lupine, wild flags (iris), yellow Indian paintbrush, and chocolate lilies, stopping where it touches a beach along the Eagle River.
We are not far from a picnic shelter full of people enjoying the weather, view, and each other’s company. Their conversations blend with the complaints of a gang of Canada geese watching the tidal moat that once protected their gravel bar island shrink on the ebb. When a land bridge forms, the geese fly away, shouting out the geese evident of, “There goes the neighborhood.” Aki ignores them.
Aki and I leave Chicken Ridge early so I can see the effect of early morning light on the birds drawn to the Mendenhall River. Walking an approach trail through the old growth, we hear the falsetto cries of eagles in the canopy and the lower register complaints of mallards and Canada geese coming from the beach. The geese and eagles leave before we make the beach but I can see a raft of mallards on the river. But, they burst away when I am still too far away to use the camera. Aki is fine with an eagle-less beach. She ducks when darkened by the shadow of the last eagle to fly away.
I am disappointed with the emptiness until we find a patch of lupine flowers just catching their first light. Their stalks resemble spear points painted a white at the tip that yield to lilac where the points swell.
Aki sniffs at the lupines but is much more interested in four water bottles that rest in a line. They look like lazy campers warming in the sun. Does the poodle catch the scent of someone who purchased the bottles at Costco and laid them out in a row so they could glow in the sun? More likely she is overwhelmed by the smells acquired by the bottles as they floated to shore on the tide.
Aki and I need this walk through the rainforest in gentle rain. The little dog needs to again enjoy freedom of movement after her 8-day stay in a boarding kennel. She luxuriates in the spacious forest, woods quiet except for the far away tapping of a red-breasted sapsucker on a metal signpost. I need the calming softness of the grey light that diminishes the differences between forest greens. Yesterday, Aki’s other resident human and I flew back from Washington D.C., worn out by the stark contrasts in temperature, sound, sights, and even shadows like the straight edged ones the early afternoon sun threw at the feet of the town’s famous cherry trees. We sometimes walked in silence, unwilling to sustain the high volume speech needed to be heard over city buses, honking cars, and surrounding conversations. We wore raincoats against the cold in the morning and were encumbered by them during the heat of the day. There were contrasts in emotion too, positive (produced by time with family and friends and from attending a wedding in Richmond, Virginia) and negative (from trying to ignore street poverty). There was the reaffirmation of the universal good by various African-American strangers who showed us nothing but helpful kindness when we were lost. Just before Aki and I leave the rainforest for the beach with its view of Shaman Island, I think of the off duty city bus driver who broke off his conversation about child support woes to help us find the Richmond train station; of how I offered him the respect expected in Southeast Alaska by standing quietly as he talked to a friend in an almost foreign dialect; of how he spoke as if he had nothing to hide; of how he drew a small breath before saying, “How can I help you sir?”
Aki slept in too long this morning and we missed the morning light. Now, with the sun high over the mountain meadow, there is no reason to point the camera at the surrounding mountains or trees. We did see a deer grazing along side the road on the way here but only a robin show themselves on the meadow. The bird makes a languid attempt to lure Aki into a chase but the little dog ignores it. When did she become board with the chase game?
There is beauty here but you have to look low for it—where water bugs dash between Lilly pads, Labrador tea flowers, and the petals of cloud berry pants relax in the sun. It is a time to enjoy shapes and light, like that penetrating through a skunk cabbage’s skin and turning the dew drops that cling to horsetails into tiny prism globes.
Remembering how a few years ago, rafts of migratory birds filled Eagle River at high water, I am walking along the river with my old camera, brought for its 420 mm lens. We find no ducks, swans, cranes, or scoters on the river. Instead, the subjects vying for a photographer’s attention are fiddle head ferns on the verge of unfurling, swelling lupine flowers, and my favorite guys—the shooting stars. Unfortunately, the camera is rarely able to to focus on flowers.
I inherited an appreciation for the little magenta shooting stars from my dad. He had to hike into the Montana high country to find a few of them. The name triggered for him images of clean, green meadows with an elk gazing on the edge lined by woods. This meadow drained by Eagle River is covered with the flowers. Aki dashes around them when retrieving her beloved Frisbee. Alaska is rich in these icons of wild country—the lupine, the shooting star, the bear, the whale.
I had to step around fresh bear scat today but fortunately, we didn’t see the guy who produced it. Yesterday, I spotted a large black bear lounging in a swatch of flowering dandelions, languidly grazing on their yellow flowers. Today, I see my first whales of the year. One surfaces in Pearl Harbor, near the Shrine of St. Therese. Its exhale sounds, as it should, like air being forced through a fire hose. It dives and surfaces like it is feeding on herring. A pod of other humpbacks paints the sky near Shelter Island with their white breath plumes, each vapor cloud hanging in the air long enough to sparkle in the afternoon sun. Frustrated by trying to photograph the flowers, I left the camera in car when we visit Pearl Harbor. This frees me from the responsibility of capturing the whales’ beauty, allows me to watch undistracted, the big creatures fattening up after their long, foodless swim, from Hawaii.
Iceberg islands dot the glacial lake that we have skied across and walked around since last summer. Although not a comfortable canoeist, Aki doesn’t fight being lifted into the Holy Cow canoe as we slide it into the lake waters. She does whine and pace from the right gunnels to the left as we paddle a course between ice islands, taking care to avoid the sharp edged bits that float near the surface like marine mines.
Some of the ice bergs are pierced like a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. Others have the soft and abstract quality of Henry Moore’s work. Most glare white in today’s strong sunlight but one set is dark with glacial flour and gravel. Some glisten with melt water. Others appear as dry as Styrofoam. I want to float slowly about this sculpture garden, enjoying ice shapes and they way they stand out against the spring colors of the mix spruce and cottonwood forest. But Aki protests. She wants to land on a promised beach where she can wear herself out chasing her beloved orange Frisbee. Guess who wins.
Aki and return to the Outer Point trail where early morning sunlight dapples the old growth and lilies on a beaver pond. A male varied thrush waits for us at the edge of a muskeg meadow. He is doing the thrush/robin good parent thing: dangling himself in front of the little dog like a wooly bugger fly drifted across the noise of a trout. Aki ignores the bird so it comes closer. It flies down the trail when I walk toward it but not far. The thrush breaks back to his starting place when we move out of his nest’s privacy zone.
More woods and then we reach the beach. I scan for a grazing black bear on the strip of new growth grass across the bay. I look over the waters near Shaman Island for the black back of a surfacing humpback whale. But only a crow calling attention to itself with a raw call fills the void. The bright sunlight diminishes its blackness. Pondering the absence of animals, I blindly walk under a heron’s roost, flushing the wide winged bird.
Down beach I force myself to sit and just watch scoters and their brother fish ducks work the flooded tidelands. Some paddle forward with their beaks submerged. The scoters snap their heads under, followed quickly by their bodies. “It’s only to be able to identify them later,” I tell myself as I point the barrel of my old camera at the working birds. Now I’m clicking, not observing—attention on light and focus, not on the striking pattern of white blocks on a Barrow goldeneye’s black wing.
Home, on the computer, I enlarge my birdshots; learn that I had been documenting a red breasted merganser couple, surf scoters, and a small raft of party color harlequin ducks. The later dived each time I pointed the camera at them. It’s ironic that only now, on this machine, can I grasp their beauty.
Aki and I head out early to the glacier before the wind can rise on this sunny day. A dog walker turns into the closed campground as we pull up. His is the only car. Out of consideration for him and to satisfy my need to have offered beauty to myself, I lead my little poodle mix to the informal trail that traces the lakeshore. A light breeze dimples the lake but protected bays produce sharp reflections of Mendenhall’s river of ice. I feel light for the first time since finishing a week of lay chaplain work (visiting really) at the hospital.
If in London, I would let Mr. Turner’s paintings at the Tate lift me or listen to children play in a park. Here, morning light that illuminates optimistic spring growth and deepens crevasse shadows on the glacier substitutes for his masterpieces, robin songs for children’s laughter. Natural beauty backfills holes formed by settling sorrow.
Aki dashes over an expanse of exposed glacier silt after her Frisbee. If she could fly, she would be over the Mendenhall Glacier in seconds. A more romantic poodle might see the river of ice as a solemn stairway to the divine wrapped in cloud vestments. Sunlight breaks through the marine layer to backlight a hillside congregation of sap green alders that face their cold deity, faith unshaken by an approaching storm.
It was a morning to amble without a camera. I didn’t even try to take a picture of the Sitka black tail deer that grazed in the North Douglas Highway verge. It’s tense posture told me it would bolt if I did anything but continue up the road. I many unsuccessful attempts to capture a belted kingfisher piercing the surface of Fish Creek Pond for salmon smolt. A formation of crows diving one at a time on a perched eagle made compelling subjects but when I hit the shutter release button I got nothing but blur.
All the scolding we received didn’t help my mood. The little dog and I were chattered at by squirrels and Steller jays, verbally abused by the kingfisher, and mocked by the rack-rack-rack chants of crows. I even took personal the displaced eagle’s high pitched complaints.