At Eagle Beach, Aki charges over the wild strawberry patches to retrieve her orange Frisbee. Drops of water fly from the brush she forces her way through to get her toy. When she returns it to us for another throw, green seeds color her muzzle. The little dog doesn’t notice the bent over humans up and down the beach as they search for the tiny strawberries. Some move on their hands and knees, like supplicants to the berry god. At first I share Aki’s disinterest in the berries. Domestic strawberries are already ripening in our yard and we will have almost two quarts of wild blue berries picked for pie before sunset. But between tosses, I start searching the weeds and find little red globes hanging just above the ground. They taste sweet but not like a farm berry. They taste a little like the grass and peety soil smells. They taste of the place that grew them.
Last Father’s Day at 6 A.M. in Missoula, when Aki was home in Juneau, I checked the progress of the sunrise. Yet to climb above the Garnett Mountains, the sun still managed to paint the underside of broken clouds pink and pearl. Each subsequent second intensified the colors of a yellow and green field of blooming wild mustard. A single blue heron flied toward me as I straddled my folding bicycle. The bird’s wings beat a slow, full rhythm as if all the souls of those who had died during the night rode burrowed under its feathers. The heron, its body almost as thin as a paper airplane, flied toward the Blackfoot River and disappeared into a wall of still-gray clouds.
I rode toward the town of Lolo to watch a herd of bison graze near the edge of Highway 93. Traffic was light, but I still took the unfinished bike trail rather than the highway for the views it offered of the Blackfoot River a quarter of a mile below. The slight sound of my brakes disturbed to flight another heron feeding along the river. Later, I watched it fly over my head when I pedaled back to Missoula.
The rancher was irrigating the field where the bison herd grazed. Some stood in the spray like city kids on a hot day. Most fed on the drier grass along the old rail line that once served the Bitter Root Valley. One large bull watched my every move. He had a lot to protect. At least a half-a-dozen young bison, horn-less and with fur still reddish-brown, wandered among the bulls and cows. One butt his mother, like a dairy calf wanting to suckle. Getting no response, he returned his attention to the grass. While most of the young feed, one gave me a long hard stare until I remounted my bike.
Back in Juneau and reunited with Aki, I follow the little dog down one of our favorite beachside forests. Rain, rather than irrigation spray wets the ground. I think of the Lolo bison and the mule and whitetail deer that I saw on my recent family visit to Montana. Funny that I haven’t see many our Sitka black tail deer on my walks with Aki. Then, I spot the young male deer, hock deep in shallows of a little pond, starring at me. I’m not carrying a camera, which allows me to extend the eye lock without the distractions of focusing and framing. I broke before the deer, which held its ground even after I continued down the trail.
Summer came today for a brief visit. The temperature has reached 77 degrees and no clouds prevent the sun from warming the stones we sit on near the edge of Favorite Passage. Aki pants and pesters us to throw her Frisbee. Her other human hid it away because wind driven waves slam the base of these rocks. Aki won’t survive if she fell in the water while chasing after he flying toy. The dogs’ yaps bounce off the rocks as three eagles cruise overhead. Maybe they are looking for a tasty, if noisy treat.
Low angle sunlight on Mt. Ben-Stewart, I think on the drive up Fish Creek Road. That’s what I’ll photograph this morning. Aki starts squealing when we pull up in the parking lot. This is a chance for her to catch up on recent dog use of the trail. She doesn’t care about early morning light unless forced to walk with it in her eyes. She ignores the dew glowing on the sunlit grasses and lupines and steaming into ghosts off the muskeg. I doubt if she can even see Mt. Ben-Stewart.
The mountain does look lovely in light that banishes shadows from its granite face. But how many times have I taken its portrait in summer, winter and fall? A Western White butterfly photo bombs my shot of the mountain and settles on a yellow flower that I can’t identify. The butterfly folds back its wings and holds on to the flower’s stamens as it shakes in a light breeze. I’ve never seen that before. Click.
On a beach just off the North Douglas Island road system, a child wearing an old fashion, brown-colored cotton dress bursts out of the woods, apparently alone. Aki doesn’t react but I can see her squat down to examine a tide pool. I don’t reject out of hand, the idea that she appeared through magic. The weather gives no reason to expect logic. The little dog and I have to squint against the sun while raindrops wet the stones around us. Along the forest trail to the beach blue berries are almost ripe and the low growing cloudberries glow orange—both a month early. Even our relationship with the Chicken Ridge birds seems out of whack. This morning, an Anna Hummingbird gave me attitude while preening herself on our lilac-colored fence.
I lead the little dog into the woods before the beach child can turn back into a deer or a seal.
I could be in downtown, watching members of the three Tribal nations of Southeast Alaska—Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian—sing, dance, and drum down Egan to Centennial Hall. But Aki and I are walking a trail through the gravelly ground left behind by a retreating glacier. The parade is the first major event of Celebration 2016 I’ve missed since Wednesday evening’s opening parade.
We can’t hear dance drums echoing off the moraine’s pocket lakes and heavy cloud cover has grounded the tourist helicopters so there’s silence for reflection. I doubt that Aki reflects on anything more complex than animal scents and the pile of beaver scat that she rolls in while I enjoy the reverse image of tree-covered mountain flanks half-hidden by cloud.
Raven’s song bounces through my brain—the one performed as an encore last night by the Git-Hoan dancers. The name means, “People of the Salmon” in Tsimshian. It’s an inclusive term because of the importance of salmon to everyone in the Alaskan rainforest, especially the Native residents. Earlier in the perform Git-Hoan released three man-ravens into the crowd, dancers with large wooden raven mask with articulated jaws. Knowing the ways of the wickedly smart birds, the people of the salmon saw the dancers transform into ravens.
There are no ravens on the moraine today. Only sparrows and one, apparently grumpy robin appear. In a month or two, silver salmon will move through the waters we now walk along. Eagles and ravens will perch above the trail, waiting for their opportunity to feed. The Native people now in Juneau attending Celebration will be on their own salmon streams. Here, trout and char will stalk the spawning beds. The cruise ship tourists will be home in their suburbs. In the early mornings of spawning days, black bears will slap the silvers out of the water. Aki and I will be home on Chicken Ridge, eating fresh salmon,
Aki and I are way out the road, visiting a riverside forest for the first time in months. It’s sunny, hot, and windy. The sun brings drama to the poor cousins of the woods, illuminating with back light spruce-bough moss and spotlighting a flowering twisted stalk. Wind articulates the broad, thorny leaves of devil’s club in slow movements of the Bon Odori.
Unfortunately, the wind doesn’t cool Aki, who pants as she trots through the old growth.
For the first time in a month, the false outer point parking lot is almost empty. We pull in near the only other car and spot its owner fishing for king salmon on the point. Two crows stand on either side of the fisherman, waiting for him to clean a fish. Between the fisherman and us, an immature bald eagle stands erect on a rock near the tide line, surrounded by a small murder of crows. Duffer, not a scientist, I imagine the eagle is preaching or teaching to the crows. But they are more likely the bigger bird’s guards.
The crows scatter when Aki walks onto the beach but the eagle stays. I wonder if it is waiting for the tide to ebb enough to reveal something to eat. When several of the crows fly low passes over the eagle, it flies a few yards down the beach. After this happens several times, I realize that the eagle just wants some peace. Our presence and its effect on his tormentors is giving him a little.
It’s worst for the eagles perched in the spruce trees above the point. Squawking crows take turns diving on them. Some eagles hold their ground or try to place spruce boughs with their sharp-tipped needles between themselves and the little corvids. The crows drive off two who fly around the point to a crow free zone where they bicker over a perch that offers a good view of the expanding tide lands. When the sounds of crow and eagle complaints die away, I can hear sea lions grumbling. They are all waiting for the ebbing tide—eagles, crows and sea lions—as unhappy as commuters waiting for an overdue bus.
Aki and I have spent sometime together almost every day since she arrived on Chicken Ridge. That was nine years ago. Still, I don’t understand her complicated ways. I know that she lacks the focus of a sled dog. Aki would never be content to trot at ten miles an hour as the tail of a teammate swishes before her face. She is capable of love but on her terms. The little poodle-mix never shows the blind affection of a Labrador retriever.
This morning she refused my invitation to take a walk. Only after I left the house did she dash from her nest on the couch arm to cry at the door. When we arrived at the Gastineau meadows trail, Aki shot of the car and showed her usual interest in animal signs. But near the edge of the first meadow, where Mt. Juneau and the Sheep Mountain ridge seem to curl like a giant’s fingers around us, she stopped. Cocking her head in apparent amazement that I wanted to continue up the trail, she refused to move. As she expected, I soon joined her on a quick trip to the car.
Aki whined as the old Subaru struggled up Main Street and turned onto the ridge. She wriggled in my arms as I carried her to the house and burst through the door when it opened. I found her in the kitchen where the scent of tea and toasted rye bread lingered, where a plate with smörgås scraps rested on the counter. Aki stared at the woman who ate the open-faced sandwich and now held up a tiny piece of goat’s cheese. The dog walked toward the cheese on her rear legs. The little genius knew that while she kept me company on Gastineau meadows, someone at home was eating cheese. Rule number one for understanding Aki. It is always all about the cheese.
I see this mountain valley every morning. Now it is filled with fog. Aki and head out to find out what hides beneath. After climbing up a gravel trail busted through the forest by a snow machine club, the little dog and I walked along the Treadwell Ditch, busted through the same forest a hundred years ago by Chinese immigrants to bring water to the Treadwell mines. We pass by the usual forest characters—shy maiden flowers, skunk cabbages, sorrel, and delicate blossoms that will soon set famine berries.
When the trail leads us onto an open meadow, we get into mountain flowers—shooting stars, wild rhodendrens, and the remains of bog rosemary. In the flat light, the shooting stars have a violet cast. A Sitka blacktail deer breaks from cover to dash across the meadow to the safety of the bordering old growth forest.