Aki never enters the burn. She always waits with a worried expression for me to finish my search for recovery. Until today, I found little to report. Today, the flashy blue of lupine blossoms draw more attention than the skeletons of burn trees. Young poplar trees rise in a scattered pattern between ruined spruce. In a decade shade from the fast growing poplar will force the lupine to the sunny margin that lines the trail. In 100 years the spruce will have pushed out the poplar. But today, the lupine thrive in ancestor ashes.
As if to encourage thoughts of our well-loved dead, clouds have jammed themselves tight against the channel-side mountains to diminish our view-shed. The same mass of grey now drops heavy rain onto picnic tables and popular beaches. The clouds haven’t spared Salmon Creek Trail where Aki, my now-soaked poodle-mix trots up a steep slope. Her enthusiasm wanes after she sniffs the severed trunk of a cow parsnip plant. She reacts as if the trunk were a half eaten salmon lying next to a spawning stream in August.
A bear chewed off the root structure and upper portion of the parsnip remnant before tossing it on the path. Other bear discards form a wavy line on the trail ahead, like shoes and bits of clothes dropped from front door to bed by a drunk. The last segment of torn leaf lies next to a thick patch of cow parsnip plants with swollen flower pods. I imagine the bear, 100 pounds, black fur shinny with rain, waddling down the trail, a three-foot-long chunk of cow parsnip crushed in its teeth, stopping every few seconds for another bite. He drops the last bit on the trail and heads down to Salmon Creek to see if the chum salmon have come home from the sea.
Aki chases after her Frisbee through a forest of lupine, tall grass, and buttercups that form road a verge along the North Douglas Highway. After she disappears I can track her progress by the twitching of flower stalks she shoulders during her passage. Now thickened with flowers, those lupines not disturbed by the little dog stand like garden gnomes on a lawn badly in need of a mow.
Earlier, she had chased her Frisbee on a nearby gravel beach, empty except for one crow that strutted along the water line like a rich man leaving the funeral of an enemy.
This morning I said “goodbye” to Aki and her other human at the Auk Bay ferry terminal and boarded the MV LeConte for the six and a half hour ride to Skagway. Five or six thousand cruise ship tourists clogged the old gold rush town when I arrived. After dropping off my luggage at a historic brothel that now serves as a hotel, I walked the Skagway back streets to a nice trail that leads to Yakutania Point. The sounds of helicopter traffic and cruise ship boarding announcements marred the walk until I reached an exposed corner where the wind could carry away the noise of industrial tourism.
Facing the deep-water Taiya Inlet, I tried to relax with Tai Chi exercises. Half way through “waiving hands” an arctic tern dipped and ducked across my view shed. I stopped to watch, then resumed. Just before the first “parry” of “parry, parry, punch” the long distance traveler returned. Three more times it appeared, each time its fluttering flight broken my concentration. “Little bird, little bird, did you fly from the south end of the hemisphere to the north to tease or thrill me?”
Does Aki see ghosts? We are on the sandy bight that arcs past the old Auk village site to Point Louisa. The little dog hops and squirms, her body an uncoiling spring. She could be playing with the ghosts of dogs that once watched their masters pull toward shore in canoes formed from the trunk of a giant cedar. More likely, she is reacting to the new crop of mosquitoes that buzz around her eyes.
I strain to spot orcas in Lynn Canal, or closer in, the wakes of diminutive Dahl porpoises as they skim just below the surface of the bay. Memory ghosts of orcas and their smaller cousins float over the water. I try to give them some substance with my imagination, but fail. I also fail to see the reclining bodies of Stellar sea lions on a nearby island, growling like gluttons. This allows me to envision them as waist-coated gentlemen, spayed out in comfortable chairs after an enormous meal.
Among the flowering lupines at Point Louisa, Aki and I stumble on a blooming Rugosa rose. Someone must have planted it here, perhaps to commemorate the death of shipwreck victims. In 1918 the 343 passengers on the Princess Sofia drowned after the ship stuck nearby Vanderbilt Reef. Only a dog survived. As if to dispel the ghosts, a bumblebee flies down the throat of one of the rose blossoms. While it gets to work, Aki and head back to the car, passing a focused sapsucker climbing a spruce tree. The woodpecker pounds a bug out of the tree and flies off. He has no time for ghosts.
A recent stretch of warm, sunny days must has encouraged the more cautious forest plants to throw in with summer. Skunk cabbage leaves tower above my diminutive little dog. The broad, thorny leaves of devil’s club tower above me. At our feet, downward-facing shy maiden flowers tower above busy insects.
Optimistic blue berry and huckleberry plants set their bell-like blossoms a month ago. In a landscape dominated by green, clusters of the white or pink flowers caught my eye and that of pollinators . Now, as if hoping to hide from hungry bugs, the resulting berries are as monochrome as their mother plant’s leaves and branches. In another month or two, when heavy with fertile seeds, the blueberries will live up to their name; the huckleberries will turn a seductive red or purple. I’ll serve out their sweet fruit to the little dog with hands stained berry-blue.
This morning a thin but high layer of clouds filters the sunlight. The little dog and I head to a mountain meadow. If Aki planned ahead she would not expect any dog traffic. It’s too early for that. I could have returned to one of the ocean-side walks where we would see eagles and other birds. But it’s time to appreciate the tiny beauty of mountain wildflowers.
Parts of the meadow are colored pink by flowering Labrador tea plants and wild rhododendrons. Others are almost white with cloudberry blooms. Dew droplets cling to new grass and outline a downward pointing shooting star.
We slip off Chicken Ridge before the trash truck arrives, before the guys at the Capital building start chipping bricks off its façade. Aki and I drive out to the Fish Creek Delta because it is sunny and perhaps early enough to catch some animals in their relaxed, post-dawn state.
Just after leaving the car I spot a young, male Sitka blacktail deer feeding on new grass along the creek. The sound of rushing water must have masked from it the sound of our old Subaru bumping into the parking lot. Aki, busy checking all her pee-mail messages doesn’t notice how the deer’s long black tail bisects its tawny haunches. It jerks slightly each time a car passes over the creek bridge. We won’t see the deer on the return trip.
The purple lupine flowers are peaking beside shooting stars with fading magenta petals. Frost covers lupine leaves in areas of the meadow yet to feel the morning’s sun. Our presence discomforts the resident mallards and surprises to flight a lone, red-breasted merganser. But the song sparrows seem more interested than frightened as they settle on the tops of nearby trees and bushes to sing.
It’s once again low tide so the eagles are out on the exposed flats, bickering at their children like human parents do before the coffee kicks. We walk through columns of mosquitoes without getting bit. Instead of feeding, they form and reform abstract ghosts at the edge of the alder forests. With the rising heat of the day, they will switch from artists to vampires. The little dog and I will be long gone before their transformation.
Back from Sitka. Picked up Aki from a friend’s house last night and returned to Chicken Ridge surprised at what a few sunny days can do for the garden. The lilac blossoms have popped open and even the conservative apple tree leafed out.
Aki would have like part of our visit to Sitka—the hanging out with our friends’ two dogs and the walks we took with them each day.
She wouldn’t have noticed the changing sky, capable in three days of emptying itself self of clouds then giving into to a Pacific front that brought, rain, Turner skies, and rainbows.
She would have moved with caution under eagles roosting on hemlock trees or the cross tower of St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Aki would have had nothing to do with the brown bears that played in the huge red liquor tanks of the now-abandoned pulp mill.
I am in a hurry to reach Gastineau Meadow so I can see its wildflowers glow in early morning sunlight. Aki, color blind, has never shown an interest in flowers unless another dog peed on them. She stops often to eat grass blades after first giving them a sniff. I try not to think on what she smells on grass.
Even with the little dog’s delays, we reach the meadow with the light and find clumps of shooting star flowers at their peak. Soon they will change from pollinator attractors to seed cases. But now their magenta beauty reminds me of my father, not a physically beautiful man, but a man who always smiled while looking at beautiful shooting stars.