On this Halloween, a traditional day for surprises, Aki and I enjoy two pleasant ones on our walk up Fish Creek. The first is the smell of just sawn spruce and the man who sawed it. He and his new pile of hewn trail boards stand in a pool of bright light. The fast moving sun will soon shift away his spotlight and turn it on some filaments of spider web and strands of old man’s beard, still wet with last night’s rain, that nearby decorate blue berry twigs. Wind blew down the spruce tree last winter and the man’s hobby is to use his saw to improve trails. So, the logger didn’t down a live tree. His efforts produced a treat, not a trick.
Further up the trail Aki alerts to a gang of five ouzels that fly low over the creek like WWII torpedo planes. They drop themselves, not torpedoes into the creek water but the effect is as deadly for their prey. Afterwards they collect themselves on midstream rocks to do their little bouncing dance. One calmly walks into the water. Another treat.
On this walk through the rain soaked moraine, I wonder what it would be like to be limited to Aki’s color range. A dog, she can only see shades of yellow, blue and gray. While the remaining few willow leaves are a mooted yellow, I can’t find anything that shows blue. So the little poodle mix is limited to the black to white gray tones offered by a 1950’s era television. In sympathy, I turned all the photos I took into black and whites. Well, all but one. I just couldn’t destroy the subtle browns of this line of dying alder leaves.
Aki was snug and asleep when I started assembling the gear for our morning walk. Fog lay like a feather boa on top of Gastineau Channel but no clouds blocked the dark-blue ski. It was 8:30, the crack of dawn in Juneau this time of year. Asking the little dog to leave so early in the day was probably unfair. I’d had had my coffee and breakfast and a bit of a read while she dreamed of snatching bits of cheese from the breakfast her other human would eat after returning home from the swimming pool.
The poodle mix rallied and joined me on a walk to a mountain meadow. Halfway up the access road, Aki stopped and starred at me—her way of requesting a turn back. Wanting to see the sunlight break over a frosty meadow, I pushed on. When the gap between up exceeded comfort, she padded slowing after me. On the lower meadow I found a standing dead pine that bent toward the rising sun. Two lower limbs mimicked arms offering subjugation. I said, “OK little dog, you win,” and turned back. She led all the way to the car.
How odd that the lowly bracken can look so beautiful this late into fall. The ferns have died back from green to a normally dull brown. They still hold their summer shape but soon their leaves will dissolve until just their stalks arc above the forest floor. In the old growth forest, this morning’s low angle sun brings out their hidden oranges and yellows. On exposed meadows, where the bracken had been forced down by frost, they look like over baked chocolate cakes dusted with powder sugar.
Aki has little patience for me when we reach Skater’s Cabin. She wants out of the car and onto the ground where so many of Juneau’s dogs are exercised. I am in almost as much hurry to see the glacier reflected in Mendenhall Lake.
Between autumn storms we have a calm, sunny break. We also have the place to ourselves. Way off in the closed campground we can hear kids blowing off steam as they ride bikes on asphalted now free of cars.
Aki and I keep to the lakeshore and find the remnant of iceberg that has grounded just off the beach. From one angle it looks like an angel that spread its winds to skim just above the water. This is old ice, maybe ancient stuff that will melt into nothing if winter doesn’t arrive soon. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. From water you came, to water you will go.
While Aki does her business near the trailhead notice board, I read the copy of Gerald Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall, to a Young Child” that someone tacked to the board along side a bulletin about invasive species and a ziplock bag of found items. Why, I asked my little dog, would the poet tell a child already sad over the end of fall color that autumn defoliation is a reminder of our mortality. Weren’t there any child protection officers around in 1880 when Hopkins wrote the poem?
Nothing in the old growth forest distracted me from these thoughts, not even the red sorel plants that brightened the forest. I found a flock of kindred spirits on the beach—gulls waiting for the tide to recede. They hunkered together at the waterline while one of their brothers stood guard duty on an offshore rock. I could almost hear them muttering, “Hopkins, what a jerk.”
Shinny, tall and black, and object draws my eye as it appears and disappears among the waves in Gastineau Channel. The object attracts my attention like I’d be attracted to a killer whale’s dorsal fin. But is it only a fragment of a spruce tree being driven toward Juneau by the same wind that blows Aki’s earflaps away from her face. The wind seems to stun the little dog. She stands stiff and still for a few seconds, barks, and starts dashing out circles in the soft beach sand. I get down on one knee and try to photograph her moves. She speeds up, makes it a game to avoid being photographed. I only manage to catch her in far edge of one frame. Is she had been a little quicker, I’d would have never realized how deep her front right paw sank into the sand just before she snapped off the turn.
Aki and I only see monochromatic birds on this walk down Fish Creek. One fat raven watches us from the pond–side willows. We watch a dull-gray water dipper bop up and down on the beach. From the number of screeches and complaints, I suspect the surrounding spruce trees are full of bald eagles but I only spot one and that, an immature bird, is soon gone.
There are still a few of leaves in fall color but more and more of them drop in every wind gust. We are entering the time where structure and shape will provide all the beauty. Maybe that is why on our walk down creek, I was attracted to a dead-brown alder leaf that hung precariously on a bare twig. It had dropped from its natal tree and twirled on a wind puff to the twig. A small sack of rain clung to the leaf stem, which pointed to the ground. Now on our return, I suspect that a rising wind has blown it away. The same wind raises ripples on the pond and pushes the forest toward winter.
When I first heard Bob Dylan sing, “He not busy being born is busy dying,” I ignored him. For many of my generation, the words gave license to live dangerously. It reminded others, waiting for deployment to Viet Nam, that they too might soon be bleeding and dying. That was 50 years ago. Today I still pretend that Aki and I will live forever.
What would the shore pines that line this trail make of Dylan’s words? They all seem to be in the process of dying, Some are completely bare. Others display a mix of dead brown and live green needles. If sentient, they might have cursed the fate that allowed their seed to germinate here at the northern edge of their range. They can’t compete with the spruce and hemlock on good ground so they colonized wet mountain meadow like this one. As a result they grow slowly. It takes them 50 years to expand their trunk a few inches.
I recently read about a contest for writers able to express themselves with only six words. Now I am challenged to describe today’s wet walk on the moraine. Here goes: Dog man glacier ducks all wet.