In Anchorage, hundreds of miles away from Aki, I wonder what she would do on this willow-lined trail. I’ve passed a series of dog walkers. Some were tethered to their pets with extendable leashes. Others, like a brace of stubby-legged corgis, are free to bark and chase after my bicycle. Minutes after passing the little Welsh dogs, I slammed on the brakes when an adult moose walks onto the bike path and stands astride it like a crossing guard. Seconds later, her calf crosses the path. Mom gives me a long stare and she joins her child in a meal of young willows. After they have mowed their way into the woods, I continue on my way without having to dodge mom’s slashing hooves. I hope the corgis have the same luck.
The Mendenhall River could be a middle-aged uncle with body issues. He brings on dramatic weight changes by climbing on and falling off the latest diet bandwagon. Our last visit the Mendenhall flowed low in its channel, comfortable in the banks it cut for itself through glacier moraine. This morning, Aki and I find Uncle Men fat, sloppy and aggressive. His waters cover all the gravel bars that once offered a home to river beauty and stabilizing willows. He has even cut off the establish access trail into the troll woods. (Rain fall and accelerated glacier melt cause the floods but I can’t pass up a metaphor).
Turning our backs on his disturbing excesses, we use a faint forest trail as a work around. Aki is ecstatic to be out of the house. The little dog ignores the steady rain as she hunts for sign. This morning she acted like her teacup sized heart would break if I left for the woods without her. When I drove off yesterday morning to drop the car off at a mechanic’s shop, she sang a very sad song. It’s the suitcases. She has been watching me pack for my two-week residency at an Anchorage writing school. (UAA). Yesterday afternoon, she stared out the window as I stuffed my disassembled travel bike into its airplane bag.
Tomorrow, she’ll calm down after she watches me pass through the TSA security line at the airport. She has witnessed this ceremony performed many times by me, my spouse, and our child. Each departee has returned through automatic airport doors. This witnessing has given her faith in TSA, Alaska Airlines and the 737. It gives her confidence that we will return to the glacier moraine in late July for me to sample ripening high bush cranberries while she rolls in beaver sign.
(Rain collected on sundews)
I listen to Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” as I write a summary of this morning’s walk. The ancient rock music provides a suitable background for the just ended shuffle across several rain softened muskeg meadows for cloudberries. (rubus chamaemours). This summer presents the first opportunity in the 26 years that we’ve lived in Southeast Alaska to pick the plump, yellow fruit.
Near Bethel, Alaska, Aki’s other human and I picked cloudberries on the tundra. Like everyone on the Kuskokwim River, we called them salmonberries. The name made sense to a river people because when ripe the segmented berries look like a broken skein of salmon roe. We ate them in cereal, on ice cream, or mixed with sugar, whitefish, and whipped Crisco shortening (as akutaq or Eskimo ice cream). Aki’s other full time human called them hjortron when she ate them mixed with Swedish buttermilk at a friend’s breakfast table in Avesta.
Sweetened by northern sun and the solitude enjoyed while meadow picking, the berries always taste of summer whether collected on tundra, muskeg, or Swedish hillside.
It was hot on the muskeg meadow, even at 8 am. I could adjust by slipping off my sweatshirt but Aki could do nothing but pant. So I carried away my cup or so of cloudberries and headed with the little dog into the old growth. Strong morning sun reached into the forest to turn a devastated alder bush into what might be museum quality art if the person who killed it acted with artistic, rather than malicious intent. Later we found another sculpture formed when an eagle let one of its white feathers settle on a damaged skunk cabbage leaf.
When we reached the beach, it and Lynn Canal were empty except for a skulk of crows and a woman wadding the submerged causeway that will provide a good trail to Shaman Island at low tide in a couple of hours. I thought of barefooted Irish pilgrims approaching their shrines and for some reason the lone killer whale I watched yesterday from the deck of a friend’s fishing boat. Before slipping back into the water, the big male hurled most of his body over the water surface, enough to show all of his high dorsal fin and a thick white strip that wrapped around his lower body. The whale repeated this one time and disappeared like a magician or stealthy performance artist.
My inner narrator mutters to himself as Aki and I walk through an old growth forest to the beach. He forms and rejects sentences designed to describe eating ripe cloudberries. I picked them earlier, on a mountain meadow. We both agree that the low growing fruit has a complex taste: first sweet, then a fall into bitterness until the aftertaste—an almost chemical flavor that reminds us of the way a muskeg meadow smells. What rain forest folk call the cloudberry, is known as a salmon berry in Western Alaska, and Hjortron in Sweden.
I want the narrator to give drafting a rest so I can enjoy the ocean scent that strengthens as we approach the beach. I want to watch Aki maintain her serious face as she patrols ahead. I want to listen, without distraction, to the happy songs of robins and thrush. But the narrator natters on about breaking his fast with fruit the color of soft sunlight even through he started the day with coffee, a banana, and handfuls of almonds.
Aki and I are out the road from Juneau berry picking. The little dog’s other human and I work diligently to fill the half-gallon soy sauce containers that now serve as our berry buckets. Aki dashes between her humans with an orange Frisbee in her mouth. When she drops the disc at my feet, I’m expected to immediately send it flying for her to chase.
Metaphors fill my mind in between Frisbee tosses. This happens often when picking blue berries. Today mine are ornate and a little strange. When an immature bald eagle rises slowly from the beach, disheveled looking in his spotted brown coat, I see a university don with a publication history that protects him from grooming criticisms, lift himself painfully from his chair. We pass several pickers on their knees to gather low growing nagoon berries and I imagine crones searching the threshing floor for forgotten grain that just may see their families through the winter. Near the tide line five or six mature eagles hunker over a salmon carcass. Another stands erect 30 feet away. They turn into a gang of dope smoking teenagers about to rousted by the law.
Although alive with bird song, mostly the robin’s, this mountain meadow feels like a cemetery. It’s the dead shore pines. Their carcasses stand above poorly drained soil that could no longer support them. Aki focuses on the living, those still capable of leaving her scent messages. Stationary shapes mean little to her. But I am a little in awe of these bark-less statues that took so many years to reach their size. Hunger for sun and an ability to tolerate soil that would not support spruce or hemlock allowed them to tower above lady tresses, shooting stars, and now flowering grasses. With patience I find a black and white beauty in their form.