Aki, this is a mellow dude. That’s the thought I throw he little dog while photographing a great blue heron as it works the estuary shallows thirty meters away. We are no threat since a deep stream buffers the bird. The heron bends over, looking like a handsome man enjoying his reflection in the water and then strikes down with its spear shaped beak. In seconds it is all over: thrust, retrieve, shake of the head, swallow. The bird resumes gazing for his next morsel. How many salmon smolt makes a meal for the stiff postured guy?
On these closed in, gray days, when clouds block mountain views from the glacial moraine, I narrow my vision to concentrate on small things—rain soaked berries, the fluttering flight of a belted kingfisher, a new trail to an untouched blue berry patch. For Aki it’s business as usual. She moves her bowels, sniffs and pees, follows me wherever I walk. Today’s heavy rain keeps away the other dog walkers. So we have solitude for appreciating the small things. The low clouds have ground the tourist helicopter flights so we also have peace.
I started today by writing a too do list. Posting on this blog wasn’t on it. I only write lists to stomp down the feeling that things are about to get out of control. Such scheduling of the tsunami calms.
A walk through downtown Juneau with Aki was on the list. We take a short route that does not take too much time away from the listed activities. The little dog and I pass Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where I once again have to discourage my Catholic dog from peeing on the threshold. We climb up Gastineau Street and ignore homeless camps and even the ravens that perch on the taller alder trees.
We drop down a long, twisting stairway until reaching the tourist trapline on lower Franklin Street. We walk the docks, passing a couple of great white cruise ships and a line of locals pitching land excursions to debouching tourists. We stop under the Marine Park Shelter for Aki to pee near a couple of homeless guys who sit on a bench. I ask how they are doing, not in a cop voice but in a tone that tells them I hope they are fine. After passing lines of tourists made grumpy by the rain, I really want to hear someone say they are enjoying the day. Both men, still clean after showers at the Glory Hole, smile and say they are, “good.” I can see the evidence of their happiness, if not joy—deepening of laugh lines, smile from one, surprised glace at his bench mate from the other. Making someone smile wasn’t on my list either.
Aki and I want the wet days of fall to stay away until at least September. We expect sunshine in July or at least dry, high gray skies. Today’s rain drives us into the cottonwood enclosure at Treadwell, where a myriad of drops hammer insect damaged foliage. The sound, like that produced by a million field mice banging the edges of tiny snare drums drowns out the lecture of on the Treadwell Mine disaster given by a local in sensible rain gear to a dampening crowd in thin plastic ponchos. I can’t hear the approach of a Damn boat, one of Holland America’s navy and white cruise ships that stop for a few hours in Juneau. I can’t hear bird song or the squirrels scold Aki. But I don’t turn back to the car because Aki is still working the ground; reading the scent of dog friends and wild things that already braved the storm.
Back home in the grey, I walk with Aki on a North Douglas trail. Last night at the airport, the little dog acted happy that I had returned after 12 days at writer’s school in Anchorage. She might be the better friend. I had little time to think about her during my residency.
This morning she trots along ahead of me like she did on every previous visit to this rainforest. Juneau has defaulted to grey, a color it wears well. Drops of last night’s rain hang from every leaf, berry and display of chicken of the woods fungi. The orange and red mushrooms have sprouted on rotting spruce trees.
While I miss my friends from writer’s school and all the chances to learn some skills, I don’t miss the Anchorage traffic noise that provided background for my daily trips through Anchorage’s birch forests. Here, except for low-pitched airplane growl of Beavers hauling tourists to the Admiralty Island bear watching stands, no machine noise completes with the songs of animals, from eagles to squirrels.
On this, my last full day of UAA writing school, I ride down the Campbell Creek bike trail, intent on pedaling the entire 16-mile roundtrip on a hunt for moose. Yesterday I looked, without success for them on another trail system. This is my last shot.
I see other things that make the ride worthwhile: the early morning sun frying on a blue pan circled by gray clouds, two ravens catching some rays while perched high on a bone-white spruce snag, even a snowshoe hare in summer browns. But, I want to see at least one more moose, one with the typical bulbous horse body, dainty mincing gait, and oversized ears.
Fifteen and a half miles into the ride, I slam on the brakes to give some space to a cow and her twins. Busy ripping off the tops of young willow starts, they ignore me until I click my camera shutter. Then, the mother twists her ears in my direction. A few clicks later, she returns to her feed. If she doesn’t escort her kids off the trail, I’ll be late for my morning class on metaphors. I should chill and let the big animals inspire similes. (a moose is like Michelangelo’s horse without the mane or long legs (you see why I need the class). When they start moving away from the trail, I mount up and ride past them, camera clicking. The mom turns, holds her ground and gives me a “I’ll stomp you into a jelly” stare.
This morning, the land drained by Campbell Creek offers neither drama nor solitude. I don’t see anyone else but hear the cars of Anchorage on their morning commute. There are brown moose in bears in these woods. Either of the oversized critters could be just out of my sight as I stand on a bridge across the creek. But in my view shed of green undergrowth, paper white birch trunks, and clear water, only two red figures stand out—salmon in spawning colors. I wait, camera on automatic setting, for a bear to break after the 15-pound fish from the cover of creek side grass. But the bears are probably down stream where the water is too shallow to cover the salmon’s upper bodies.
Taking a break from writing school, I join some other students on a drive north of Anchorage where we find a soft mountain land. True, defeated glaciers once carved it down to bedrock and clouds could be impaled on the sharp edged peaks that backstop the valley. But on this warm, sunny day, we lay in comfort on its carpet of heather, crow berries, and other low growing mountain plants—the kind that thrive beneath the storm winds.
Once hard men dug gold out of this mountain valley. Their detritus remains: shatter trestles and freestanding walls with wood burnished a warm brown by Alaska winter weather. A pen and ink artist could turn their abandoned board piles, iron rails, and twisted sheet metal has into something beautiful
These are serious people with serious tools to study the few gulls that float a hundred feet away. They hunch into binoculars so large and powerful that they can’t be used unless mounted on a serious tripod. With body language they let me know I’m am not wanted here; that I had better not pull out my life list and check off whatever bird that has drawn them to this edge of Cook Inlet.
I wait until one of them rises up from his Leopold scope and say, “Do you know about the sandhills?” Two of the long legged cranes were feeding along a slough just 200 feet away. Low angled morning sunlight made their brown feathered sides look as rich as mocha. “No,” the man replied, suddenly looking like a lover crushed when the woman with whom he wanted to elope failed to meet him at the train station.
Bastille Day, and I’m cycling on Anchorage’s Campbell Creek trail. I stop around five miles up the trail to watch three moose graze on streamside willows. There are three moose, an adult female and a brace of calves. At first I miss my camera but then realize it would spoil my concentration. With a camera I wouldn’t notice that the mother’s dark brown coat provides a nice background for the lighter color of her children or enjoy how their mule-like ears flicker in my direction when I braked.
I passed through a cloud of urban noise and scenes to get to the moose: riding under rush hour traffic, over a dormant sled dog trail, near a shackled homeless man and the twin policemen who cuffed him. I startled a clutch of geese with markings as Canadian as a maple leaf and flew past a car lot and the theatre offering matinee performances of “The Adventures of Dusty Sourdough.” But the moose munch away as they did before man occupied the Anchorage Bowl.