Some force too subtle to feel carries cloud fragments up the Gold Creek valley. I can see then from Chicken Ridge, which makes me want to hurry to the creek valley to watch their passage. Aki has other ideas. She examines and rejects a myriad of spots to pee and resists any encouragement to move. By the time we arrive, the air above the valley is empty. Then another train of the ghosts appears. Should I be surprised? Soon people in the Americas will celebrate a Day of the Dead. Europeans will visit their cemeteries to remember their loved and departed. I think of our family’s beloved gone as the cloud fragments dissolve against the slope of Mt. Juneau.
Aki loves this part of the moraine, not for the lingering fall color that underlining the glacier or the chance to spot a fishing eagle. She loves all the dogs that we usually encounter here. Right now she plays with a terrier that could almost pass for a miniature schnauzer. My little poodle mix bows, tail wagging, and dashes a few circles around the stunned terrier. The terrier figures it out and runs a few circles around the little poodle mix. The whole time the terrier’s owners call for him to follow them down the trail.
This morning unexpected sun shines on the Dredge Lakes and no wind blows off the glacier.. The moraine lakes form perfect mirrors that reflect mountains, glaciers and what is left of the fall color. Lakeside cottonwoods look gaunt—more branches than leaves, more brown than orange. Two bufflehead ducks etch the Moose Lake mirror with their wakes. Near the opposite shore, a female red duck almost blends into a reflection of willows. The buffleheads might stick around until freezeup but the red duck, like the lingering cottonwood leaves, will soon be gone.
As Aki and I work our way around False Outer Point, I have the vague feeling that I should be celebrating something. The weather gives no cause for a party with its rain that soaks Aki and eagles alike. I’ve seen and heard whales from the point but there is little hope of that today. The advance guard of humpbacks are already chasing each other around Maui. Just off shore a gang of gulls gives a play by play our progress. Their screams and calls could pass for music in this gray silence. Now I remember. This is the anniversary of “Walking with Aki.” Sometime this week I should take the little dog up the Fish Creek trail, which I described in my first blog entry. Thankfully, these Southeast Alaska trails are rich enough to stimulate five years of blog posts. Even on a day like this one, when memories provide more to think about than this rocky beach in flat light, the little dog and I find cause to doddle.
Aki should be as frustrated as me. The only dog she can smell is locked up in a fisherman’s truck. Otherwise, it’s all spawned out salmon the eagles and gulls that feed on them. She wisely ignores all. It’s the eagles that frustrate me. We have seen at least five this morning since walking onto the Sheep Creek delta. One flew right over my head as I focused at a dead silver salmon that had been wrapped in seaweed left by the retreating tide. The bird, a mottled brown immature bald eagle glided over us to snatch a chunk of salmon from the foot of a gull. Now it tears away at the carcass just a hundred feet away. I know that in these low light conditions the old camera I brought won’t capture any detail. I click a few frames anyway, walk to the channels edge and startled a harbor seal that had surfaced 20 feet away. A raft of Barrow Golden Eye ducks explode into flight as my old camera tries to focus on their escape. Two mature bald eagles, perched on a channel marker 200 feet away turn their heads as if to spare me more shame.
On this Saturday after the storm, Aki and I walk the flume trail, a neighborhood route that climbs up one side of Gold Greek and down the other. The little dog stays on lead during the ascent, which involves city streets like Gold Street, and once over the old wooden trestle bridge, a gravel road. Like Marmots taking advantage of the fair weather, dog owners are out and provide Aki with much entertainment.
I am drawn to the tall cottonwood trees on the south slope of Mt. Juneau. Some hard chargers have already dropped their leaves. The brown and yellow colors of died back ground cover show through a confusion of their trunks and branches. Cottonwoods near the creek still sport green leaves. Others illuminate dark spruce groves like yellow candles. I should be bored with these trees since I have walked past them for 20 cycles of the seasons. But each day they show me a different flash of beauty. Even during an autumn storm they provide a place for rain to collect and glisten.
Yesterday a Hawaiian cyclone named Oho slammed into Ketchikan, 300 miles south of Chicken Ridge. It brought that Alaska border town strong winds and heavy rain. Over seven inches fell in 24 hours. Now the cyclone moves up the Alaska Panhandle. NOAA predicts high winds and a soaking for Juneau. Aki and want to be home in time to watch the show so we move up the time for this walk through the North Douglass old growth.
Steady rain brought by the cyclone’s forward elements hammers the little dog as she does a handstand while relieving herself. A poodle thing, this raising of her rear to the storm. Lacking the little dog’s nonchalance, I walk wrapped in a chrysalis of high tech rain gear. This keeps me dry but also isolated from the world we pass through. It leads me inward to puzzle over things like why some human users of the forest must leave some proof of their passage. The most benign form makeshift sculptures out of the rocks or driftwood. Those trained to conquer nature cut down trees to build drying racks, seats, and other campsite furniture. If we want this natural beauty to last, we should try to follow the old wilderness etiquette rule: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints. There are just too many of us and too few wild places otherwise.
The time of autumn sun is over. Rain comes this afternoon. Aki and I are squeezing in a quick walk through the Treadwell mining town ruins. Aki will see no dogs on the walk and we will only spot four people. We are the only ones to see a random shaft of sunlight strike a mallard hen as she wanders among old wharf pilings. The shaft moves north across Gastineau Channel to make Slide Creek sparkle for a few seconds before clouds cut off the spotlight.
We might be the first to notice the grey and white columns of red alders form a tangled prison for still-yellow Sitka mountain ash leaves. If we walked here yesterday, I would have been draw to the flashy show of colors of cottonwoods and ashes against the always-dark green spruce. But in today’s softer light, the Alder’s strong form and subtle palette can compete with yellowing leaves for attention.
Another sunny day, a day for the ducks to fly above the guns on the wetlands. Aki and I take advantage of the resulting lack of hunters to use the Nine Mile Creek access point to edge onto a plain of flaxen colored beach glass. Still-green patches show through the standing dead stalks. Everything is covered with frost that is already yielding to the rising sun. I want to linger under the cloud-free sky and watch ground fog dissipate to reveal the islands dotting Gastineau Channel. Even now I can just make out a patch of orange-leafed cottonwoods that challenge the green monopoly held on the island by spruce most of the year.
Distracted, I lose track of Aki. When I finally spot the little dog, she is moving toward the tree line. Something has spooked her. I don’t hear eagles so suspect she smells cordite that lingers on the wetland from the last hunter’s visit
Today, Aki and I delay our walk until afternoon until a lower angle of sunlight can give the commonplace a rich texture. The little dog might prefer an overcast day when the sun doesn’t shine into her eyes. She doesn’t care that the sun gives her a halo as she waits for me near a display of yellowing thimbleberry leaves. We take a casual trail that runs down the north side of Gold Creek canyon. Halfway up the canyon wall, the sun washes out the forest of half-bare cottonwoods and evergreen spruce. Everything below is in dark shade. The sharp line of demarcation reminds that we recently passed the autumnal equinox when the sun was halfway on its winter journey south. On every sunny day we enjoy between now and the solstice, this shade line will climb the south slope of Mt. Juneau and reduce more and forest to gray. So begins the season of contraction and relaxation.
When you live 12 miles from a river of ice, too many waterfalls to name groove your mountains, and whales hunt your downtown waterways for food, your risk the loss of awe. But today, Juneau’s children remind me that our home ground is full of wonder. On a walk across glacial moraine to Nugget Falls, Aki and I pass many tiny kids who squeal and jabber as they walk down a trail lined with vivid yellows toward a waterfall powerful enough to produce it own rainbow. It took Noah’s flood to produce the first recorded rainbow. The little dog and I get one as a reward for walking to the falls on a sunny autumn day.