Aki and I are on a mission. Now that the best sea-level berry patches are past prime, we are in the mountains looking for bushes with ripe, blue fruit. The dog, who has been known to sample blueberries from one of our hands, doesn’t pick her own. She conducts a search, one that only she can understand; only she can evaluate.
My search is also shrouded in secrecy. There are only so many berries on the slopes and we pass whole families of berry pickers heading up the mountain when we descend. I am sworn not to help them.
Some of the berries grow along the shores of tiny lakes that dot the muskeg. Each are full of skating water bugs that seem to levitate on the water’s surface. In their tiny world, they are as impressive as the bubble-feeding whales I watched yesterday in the North Pass.
Aki is not on the boat. We can’t afford to have a dog on the boat for this, our first attempt of the summer to catch silver salmon. The guys at the Sand Bar will tell you that targeting silvers this early in the season is foolish. Call us fools but here we are in the North Pass between Shelter and Lincoln Island, trolling for salmon.
At least we have whales, I think as four humpback whales bubble feed near the shore of Shelter Island. They swim around a school of herring, building a net of bubbles that force the school into a tight ball. Then one swims underneath it, opening its huge jaws to capture them all.
We will see many whales today. One will surface fifty feet front our boat, swim under it, and reappear on the other side. Others will bubble feed near the spot where we actually catch two silver-bright silver salmon. We will butcher them with the care that wild things deserve and freeze the filets, eat the backbones fresh with kale from the garden. Aki will enjoy salmon skins for breakfast tomorrow.
Ravens and gulls are the black and white of it this morning. Aki ignores both. She doesn’t notice how the birds feed on spent dog salmon carcasses or wait for the ebbing tide to reveal more. She has no time for sights or sounds this morning but uses all her energy to study pockets of smells that dot the trail. Each one seems just out of her reach when I stop to photograph a bird. She manages to jerk forward just as I hit the shutter button on my old camera. This frustrates both of us but produces one little blessing in the form of a raven’s portrait captured in flight.
After days of heavy rain, Aki and I finding ourselves squinting into sunshine. We just left the flume trail that links the Juneau Highlands to Perseverance trail, knocking accumulated rain water off elderberry plants that crowd the trail. I probably shouldn’t have chosen this trail because it is flooded at by charged streams that plunge down the side of Mt. Juneau to Gold Creek.
Even the humble salmonberry leaves sparkle in the sunshine, which also turns the normally dull devil’s club berries into bright red globes. When the sun moves back behind the marine layer colors fade and we return to the world of muted greens that typifies the rain forest.
On this walk through the Treadwell ruins it will rain hard but there will be no wind. We will pass many dogs and their humans. Aki will play with the dogs and ignore their humans, including the woman who will shout, “Keep that dog away from me,” even though Aki will already be twenty feet down the trail. A raven will waddle between the stubs of wharf pilings and stop only long enough to give us the stink-eye. Three kingfishers will chase each other across the surface of the glory hole and one will land in a nearby branch for the sole purpose of scolding my innocent dog. An eagle will sink its talons into the top of a ruined wharf piling and screech defiance at a pair of other eagles who will show the good sense to perch under the shelter offered by beach-side spruce trees. It will be a good walk in spite of the rain.
Today I planned on writing about the rain after Aki and I returned from walking a circuit around Outer Point Trail. A hard storm had hammered the forest just before we arrived, leaving behind beads of water that clung to berries and mushrooms. These water beads captured all the surrounding light and then shined like globes of hope until destroyed by wind. Globes of hope are compelling subjects, more interesting than politics or street violence. But a whale trumped them when it surfaced and exhaled a one hundreds meters from the little dog, swam through its own mist cloud and disappeared. Aki, who finds squirrels the most compelling things, turned away from the whale while I fiddled with the lens cap on my camera. But she waited we me, without complaint, for the whale to resurface. When it did, all but its spume hidden by the Shaman Island spit, she led me back into the forest toward the chitterling squirrel.
Near the downtown Juneau bus terminal, Aki ignores the guy standing next to a spray-painted sign that asks, “Why Me?” I can’t. In his hand, he holds a beautiful, if old, carving adze. It’s one of the curved-bladed ones, handy for scooping out the back of a mask but hard to sharpen. Performing a sacrilege, he uses the adze to dig a trench in the soil of a planter box. Above the sound of passing tourist buses, we hear a song of condemnation hurled in the man’s direction by a nearby raven. I’d join in if I knew the words.
Back in Juneau and back with Aki, I load the little dog into the car and head out to North Douglas Island. This morning’s light, but steady rain doesn’t deter us. We stop near the boat ramp where fog rising off Fritz Cove obscures the industrial buildings that dot the north section of the Mendenhall wetlands. For once, we can see the glacier snake off the Juneau ice field between coastal mountains as one could have before Joe Juneau and Richard Harris followed Chief Kowee up Gold Creek—before the mining and all that followed.
Minutes later, we walk onto the Rainforest trail and hear the voice of a tour guide educating cruise ship passengers about the old growth. We will pass three more guided groups before the walk ends. During interludes when the forest manages to swallow projected voices and camera clicks, water and bird songs dominate. “Plunk….plunk…plunk,” chant drops striking elephant-ear like skunk cabbage leaves while the varied thrush whistles.
It’s raining on this, the last morning of writer’s school—my last chance to spot a moose. I choose the Chester Creek trail even though it doesn’t offer the best chance of encountering big animals. I just hope to watch the sandhill cranes.
It’s windy. Last night a gust knocked over a portal toilet that is used by residents of a makeshift camp. Near downtown I pass a pile of black trash bags, each stuffed full of the possessions of homeless people. The only mammals I spot on the ride to Westchester Lagoon wear spandex and high tech rain gear.
At the lagoon’s western edge the resident Canada geese wait out the wind. Comfortable in such a large group, each goose seems reluctant to yield enough space on the bike path for a jogger and I to pass. Surviving the geese traffic jam, I pedal to the mouth of a small slough. The ratcheting cry of two cranes reaches me as I put on the brakes. Another pair of sandhills flies low over the singing birds.
The feeding pair stretch out their long necks when another crane call sounds. Soon five cranes gather to feed at the edge of salt water even as a bald eagle flies over at hunting height. One crane seems to stand guard as the others feed in pairs. There is no morning class scheduled to force my departure but I only stay ten minutes. The cranes might stay nearby all morning or explode into flight in seconds. But I feel sated, like I might after a rich dinner followed by cake.
Sand hill cranes have dominated my twelve-day stint at the Anchorage writer’s school. No moose or bear sighting yet. This morning, at the mouth of a slough that drains into Cook Inlet, two cranes foraged on a small island of reeds. Yellow legs scurried over the surrounding mud. When another crane called, one of my pair stretched its long neck to full height and looked toward the call. I looked in the direction indicated by the searching crane, hopping to spot a descending one. We were both disappointed.
Saturday afternoon, I might have seen the off-stage singer feeding along with this morning cranes on the inlet’s mud flats. Even though they had sole possession of the flats, the cranes gave each other excessive personal space. Watching from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I envied the cranes’ solitude. Every few seconds strolling tourists or bike riders filled the air with chatter. Some of the cyclists talked about their hope of seeing the carcass of a dead humpback whale now stranded on a beach near the motocross track. I would never see or smell the whale. Nor would the hundreds of people who poured down from the Kincaid Park chalet to hunt for its bones for it rested elsewhere. As I weaved through them, I wondered why they so wanted to see a whale that had lost its spark of life.