Aki and I climb to a mountain meadow. The little dog moves slowly, like an old man just awake. New ice covers the meadow ponds. Frost crystals on dead grass stalks melt into dew. The meadow rests as it must until the first real snows.
The Christian calendar calls for us to use these first days of ice and frost to remember our dead. Tomorrow, we are to honor saints. The next is for souls. This year I want it to be a time of remembrance, rather than mourning. I will think of a writing mentor who died last winter, remember the lessons she gave between her chemo sessions. I will pledge to honor her by applying those lessons in my work. Then, I will pray for all the souls who touched my life.
Aki isn’t allowed in Juneau’s graveyard. No dog is. So, we walked the parameter streets. Small stone rectangles reset into the ground mark most of the new graves. Modest marble markers stand at the head of the older ones. Darkened with age, most of these gravestones lean toward the ground. A stone angel prays at the foot of a maple, like it is giving thanks for the fall color.
Aki delays our progress by checking pee mail left on this unfamiliar ground. One of the messages must have been rude because she sulks as we walk along the waterfront and turn up Main Street. The little dog strains at her lead as I try to photograph a raven preening in a birch tree. The raven looks smug, like it just won a bundle by betting against the Seattle Seahawks. That American football team was winning when we left the house. Three young guys walk toward us from the Viking Bar with booze breath and somber faces. The raven makes a sound that I would find offensive if I’d just lost money betting on the Seahawks.
There’s rain in Downtown Juneau, brought by a curl of clouds that rode in last night on a Pacific low. But north of town, where the little dog and I walk along a Lynn Canal beach, it’s sunny. A few miles south, clouds push up against a weakening high-pressure ridge that reaches back to the Yukon Territory. Soon, gray clouds will blanket our sun, but not before we reach a little pocket cove where we’ve seen whales, sea lions, seals, and once an ocean-going beaver.
We work our way over rocks made slick by spray and moss to where the cove opens into the canal. I wait for the magic, for a brace of seals to round the headland or an eagle to pull something from the sea. It too late for whales but I strain to see one out in Lynn Canal. It is empty as is the sky and the trees surrounding us—empty of wild things but also of those made by man. All summer prop planes and helicopters flew over this place while fishing boats and whale watching rigs made noisy passages up the canal. Today, there is silence broken only by tiny waves strikes. Silence, and sun before the next storm.
It’s late October, the feisty time for squirrels. A big grey one runs down the slanting trunk of an old growth Sitka spruce to stare me in the eye. I want to tell him that neither the dog nor I are here to rob his cache. Aki would rather eat cheese than the contents of the winter store of spruce nuts and mushrooms.
All through today’s walk squirrels drop from their tree perches to challenge Aki. She falls for it every time, dashing a few feet into the forest and then stopping to assume a rigid, tails-up pose very like that the big grey squirrel showed me. I know the little dog has no interest in harming the noisy rodents. Last year, on the moraine, a squirrel actually turned to face Aki’s charge. The poodle-mix stopped abruptly and wagged her tail like she does when meeting a friendly dog.
While Aki slept less than ten feet away, someone rifled through our car. Nothing was taken. Nothing was broken except the little dog’s pride. Apparently, to rebuild her reputation, Aki growled at everyone we passed during our descent from Chicken Ridge. I apologized and chastised until she finally stopped. She could have spoiled the otherwise beautiful morning with its low sun milking remaining fall color for beauty. But, the ravens came to the rescue, mooching and hopping and giving Aki the eye. One climbed on top of an outdoor receptacle for spent cigarettes and tried to grab a butt. It hopped off when I tried to take a picture then affected interest in a nearby patch of grass.
Not knowing how long this sunny spell will last, I load Aki into the car and head out to places that look best in bright weather. First stop—Peterson Creek Salt Chuck. Aki whines and then shoots out of the car after I park next to the chuck. A small raft of mallard ducks sleeps on the other side of the salt-water lake. Near them two great blue heron hunt the shallows. Through a forest opening formed by the cascade that drains into the sea, I can see a slice of the Chilkat Range.
I think about taking a trail that circles around the opposite side of the salt chuck until the ducks wake up and burst into the air. The herons are already gone. At the edge of the woods behind their fishing hole, three people lower their cameras.
Later the little dog and I stand near the mouth of Eagle River and watch lines of waves crash into foam against the river’s protective sand bars. Some of the waves ride up the river. Later we will see a seal in the river, far from the mouth and I will wonder how it navigated the riling channel.
Aki and I hear wave strikes when we are still in the old growth forest. In a minute we will learn that the sounds are made by small waves that have been driven ashore by the north wind. Aki won’t bother or even acknowledge the presence of the thirty mallard ducks or sixty gulls that stand on the beach just beyond the splash zone.
I think that the birds have been penned on the exposed beach by wind and waves until one of the gulls snatches a small fish from wave foam and gobbles it up. Rather than refugees, the gulls and ducks are exploiters: efficient feeder that let the wind and waves deliver breakfast.
After paralleling the feed zone, the trail takes us through woods to another beach where a scattering gulls stand about looking like you might when waiting for a bus. One patrols the splash zone, turning from time to time to face the waves. It doesn’t flinch when a leading wave crashes toward it or step back when surrounded by rising foam.
For the first time in a week, Aki sees her shadow. But, she doesn’t look at her dark self. She concentrates on an orange colored disk that flies along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. After running her Frisbee to ground, the little dog trots up to me. Distracted by a nearby eagle, I give Aki a nonchalant pat. The eagle, an immature bald, perches on a small rock and faces the glacier. I wonder if the big bird is stunned by the glowing river of ice or merely enjoy the warmth of afternoon sun on its chestnut colored back.
The eagle turns its head to watch us. We place Aki on a lead so she won’t disturb the bird and circle around it. But we can’t avoid entering its privacy zone and it breaks into flight.
After visiting a monster-sized beaver dam, we circle back to car but have to pause to let two mature bald eagles bathe in peace in a shallow stream. When other dog walkers approach these birds from the opposite direction they fly up into a nearby cottonwood tree and give us the stink eye when we pass underneath their roost.
Aki and I slog up the Fish Creek Trail, entering a land gone to rest after the salmon runs. In late summer, pink and chum salmon fought for space and mates on the creek’s shallow stretches. They mated and died, providing food for bears, eagles and herons. Thick brush lined the trail, hiding the presence of bears until a black mass darts away when you round a corner or you narrowly miss stepping in a half eaten salmon.
In summer this creek valley is an exciting, dangerous place, especially for a ten-pound poodle mix with a Napoleon complex. But today, with old growth canopy providing some protection from the rain, and the creek waters humming their calming song, I can relax and pretend that the creek is carrying away my blues.
Aki is not relaxed. She stations herself a few feet in front of me as we wind around hundred foot high spruce trees, checking back often to make sure I am not about to do something stupid. Thinking that she smells danger, I look for the tracks of bears or wolves but only find one made this morning by a deer pivoting off the trail.
I wonder what it would be like to spend your whole life in this little creek valley, smoking and drying salmon and deer meat to carry you through to next summer. After years of watching the creek bring salmon to your camp would you claim it as your god?
Just the little dog and I walking toward the Perseverance basin.
Just three mountain goats hammering brush along the flanks of Mt. Juneau.
Just one porcupine climbing up the north side of Mt. Maria within a few feet of the Basin Road trestle bridge.
No lingering flowers.
Just strings of shriveling Oregon grapes.