It looks rich and sweet, this ruby-red salmon berry. Aki waits patiently as I photograph it. Blown up in the viewfinder, it looks like a confection covered with syrup. Now the little dog gives me a look that makes me think she wants to share the berry. “Forget about it little poodle.” The berry dampens my fingers when I pluck it from the stem and crunches between my teeth. But it tastes odd, not sweet, like it was doused in insect repellant. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Aki’s smug smile.
We have sun again, which on this Sunday afternoon has filled the trailhead parking lots with cars and trucks. I drive to road’s end and still find two vehicles in the cul-de-sac. Everyone must have taken the boardwalk trail to the beach because we have the dirt path through the woods to ourselves. Well, that is not quite true. An opinionated eagle yells at us as I pick blue berries near his tree. I’m a little disgusted to find his poop spoiling a fine spray of berries and then I think, how cool is it that an eagle fertilized the berry brush and now comments on my picking technique. Nice to have interesting neighbors.
I relax into the picking, leaving berries on the bushes so Aki won’t get too bored. She gives me that look after she has surveyed all the local scent. Leaving fat, sweet berries doesn’t bother me this early in the season. I’m picking for morning breakfasts now, not to put a winter’s supply in the freezer. In the fall, when the berries are a mix of those late to ripen and mere sacks of juice and we have to wear rain gear against the wet, we will pick the needed gallons. But today, when sunlight illuminates the still fresh foliage and I can walk anywhere in trainers, I pick for the sweetness and the peace that fills in spaces left when worry leaves.
The lake at the feet of Thunder Mountain is low—drought low. We walk along it under light rain, sometimes through a tunnel of water rich foliage. Later, at the beaver village, we walk down a dry creek bed and climb over one of their dams. The furry dudes must be hunkered down in a lakeside den, sweating out the low water. Maybe they took the kids into the mountains to chomp on new growth cottonwoods away from us tourists.
I lead the little dog into the woods so I can search for ripe blue berries. I know they are around, had fresh ones in my morning pancakes. We find few, but they are sweet and rain-washed. Tomorrow or the next, the harvest will begin.
The second time in as many days, I am walking in wet footgear. Yesterday, rainwater clinging to grass on the Lewiston Montana labyrinth washed off Rocky Mountains dirt and soil from our family wheat ranch. Today, low bush blueberry brush cleans Alaska river mud from my boots.
During my Montana visit, I squinted at sun soaked prairie or mountains by day and read Thomas McGuane’s Some Horses before I fell asleep at night. With Aki back home in Alaska, I had enough distance from her to ponder out relationship. McGuane inspired this reflection. He writes that when anyone goes forth with an animal—hunting dog, cutting horse, or poodle—the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Does the little dog make me greater and I do the same for her? She accomplishes more on this walk on a soaked mountain meadow. When we return the car she will know the local history—who passed through, whether there was violence or a mating or consumption of a meal. She will know she has done her duty, stood by my side when I made water, scanned the muskeg for a bear that she would have chase away if it came near. The ten pound dog takes on much.
I just muse and wander and call her back if she heads towards danger. I add little substance, but McGuane is right. Our whole exceeds the sum of our individual contributions. Without me, the dog would be stuck at home, posed to bark the mailman. Without her I would spend this cool, wet day inside, maybe listening again to Corelli’s Concerti Grossi and finishing up Some Horses.
Aki and I walk the North Douglas Highway—the part that runs along Smuggler Cove and then the more open Lynn Canal. I’m here for the Orcas: a chance to spot the pod that chases homebound king salmon this time of year. They don’t show. Nothing but driftwood and severed seaweed marks the water’s surface. An immature bald eagle makes an appearance, flying circles over water that might contain baitfish. My little dog, hot on this sunny day in her permanent fur coat, pants in the partial shade of a cow parsnip plant. She will wait there, without complaint until I the eagle dives on food or I give up on it. After a few minutes it’s the eagle that gives up, flying back to its roost. We hear its high-pitched complaints, perhaps about fishing going to hell, for a half and hour.
Since she showed me such patience during the eagle watch, I give her all the time she needs to study a patch of goat’s beard. She freezes, forces all her concentration on the spot like a scholar would give to a parchment that could form the cornerstone of her thesis. I spend the wait looking at the accessible beauty of the Mendenhall Glacier splayed out like a sunbather between saw-toothed mountain peaks. Next to Aki, I feel like a guy reading low fiction in a rare books reading room.
During this break in an unbroken streak of rain filled days, the little dog and I choose an open trail along the Mendenhall River. Aki’s other human is here too—the one who tosses a Frisbee for her to chase. When the orange disk drops into deep growth, Aki bounces after it through foot high meadow grass. She flies over Indian paintbrush, lupine, beach peas and shooting stars going to seed.
The trail takes us under the airport flight path so except for the mandated intervals between take offs and landings, we can’t hear bird song. I can see swallows working the wetlands for bugs and song sparrows wrestling each other for food. I can see the glacier, from this distance an ice river curving down along mountain flanks. I must listen to the 10:23 Alaska Airlines flight to Sitka and seemingly one turbo beaver after another taking tourists for brief trips away from their cruise ships. The little dog doesn’t mind and, I guess, I can live with this juxtaposition of wild beauty and industrial noise.
The king salmon are late this year. The lack of fishing boats or orcas in Smuggler Cove screams their absence. Missing also is the sun. It hides behind the wall to ceiling clouds that dome Juneau in gray. In the rainforest, Aki flashes her impatient posture because I stop too often to focus on small beauty—rain drops lined like peas in a folded leaf, green blueberries, and a fireweed flower bud. What does the little dog expect? With the forest crowded with full summer growth, I can’t see the big picture. It’s a day for micro views and listening to the birds.
We walk through clouds of bird song: robin’s relentlessly happy ear worm, an eagles touchy falsetto screech, the disharmony of crow complaints, raven’s sarcastic chant, the jack hammering of a red breasted sap sucker, and a great blue heron’s barnyard squawk. The call of the elegant heron startles out a memory of two of the long legged birds, each with head feathers that formed elegant hats. They moved like ballet dancers through a shallow pool, struck with cobra quickness at sand lances, flipped and swallowed their prey like a juggler of peanuts. “Little dog, what does that graceful bird need with a lovely singing voice?”
This time of year in Juneau, the paths to mountain meadows are lined with blooming goat’s beard (aruncus dioicus) and buttercups. As I gardener, I am expected to hate these flowers. I Honor the code and rip out the fast growing goat’s beard from the snap pea bed before it can bloom. I untangle and destroy buttercup vines when I find them insinuated between carrot tops and broccoli starts.
As a benign user of the wilderness, I should rue the buttercup as an invader that shoulders asides the locals. I should resent it, as I do the non-Alaskan owners of the jewelry stores that have rooted in lower Franklin Street in ground that once supported the City Café and Juneau Cold Storage.
But on the path to this mountain meadow, yellow buttercups dance in the wind with white, delicate tassels’ of the goat’s beard. I tell Aki, “So what,” when we have to climb to higher ground for a view of chocolate lilies and the scented stalks of our lady tresses orchid.
We ran out of blue berries this morning. The low bush berries we picked last summer are gone. Aki and I head to the mountains to survey this year’s crop. It looks strong. Little pink lantern-shaped blossoms hang from almost every diminutive bush. This must be a gift from our mild winter, the sun rich days of May and early June, and rain.
I lead Aki down off the muskeg onto an old growth forest trail that parallels Fish Creek. Aki is looking for the animals that marked the trail with scent. I am after early Salmon berries—a raspberry like fruit that tastes fruit sweet and swamp sour at the same time. The little dog is more successful than me. None of the red or yellow or orange salmonberries hang beneath the canopy.
Some plants in the rainforest are paying a price for their excesses during our recent stint of warm, sunny weather. The devil’s club bushes that expanded their platter-like leaves too fast and too far lay spewed open by yesterday’s windstorm. Three little bags of rain cling to a now horizontal limb. One rain is coalesced around a thorn that has pierced through it without shattering the surface tension. I see the dog and I reflected in another of the sacks.
The columbines came through the storm without harm. Their flowers must have swayed gently as the surrounding goat’s beard plants absorbed the brunt of the wind. Few drops of rain cling to enhance their beauty. They don’t need more to attract than their pagoda shaped blossoms.