This is our last walk together for a couple of weeks. Aki knows that I am leaving. She watched me pack a bag last night. We take the usual route through Downtown, squinting against a strong morning light. It clarifies with sharp contrasts of darks and lights and throws cloud shadows on to the flank of Mt. Juneau. On a telephone pole someone has attached a “Have You Seen This Cat?” sign. Beyond it I can see the nest of our neighborhood eagles. They usually carry off a few felines during famine time.
The little dog dawdles, stopping too often to sniff and mark spots with her scent. She doesn’t need clarifying light to learn who passed through here during the night. Where the hillside drops steeply away from Gastineau Avenue, three ravens sun themselves high in cottonwood trees. Two break off twigs, perhaps for a nest. The third stares down channel where dark clouds climb over the Douglas Island Ridge.
Down on South Franklin Street, a young woman pulls her luggage between shuttered tee shirt shops and jewelry stores and stops in front of a tropical clothing store. She opens a suitcase and fluffs out its contents, including a pink dress with fancy black trim suitable for 1890’s dance hall work. The police will soon find her in this light, make her pack up and move on like they do the other homeless.
An 18-foot high tide has forced the little dog and I off the beach. We scramble up and down a series of headlands near Amalga Harbor. Aki leads me down otter trails. Smaller than an otter, she glides under the alders and blue berry bushes that challenge me. Aki waits with apparent patience while I push through the barriers. Strong sun sparkles on surf just offshore and gives her a glowing gray aurora. We are trying to reach a little pocket beach that offers a private view of Lynn Canal and sometimes sea lions, seals and whales.
Breaking through a border of alder and crabapple brush, we stumble upon a collection of Herring Gulls sunbathing on top of the rock outcropping that once offered us a great view of feeding humpback whales. Normally as common looking as pebbles on a storm beach, the gulls, squatting on electric green moss, backlit by the sun, look like self-possessed dowagers on the French Riviera.
We were talking politics when I slipped on shale and cut my hand (discussing politics with a human friend, not Aki). That was the second mistake. The first was attempting to round False Outer Point after the incoming tide had already covered the easy beach path.
The point provides us with a windbreak and no rain falls from the sky. But otherwise, the walk offers little but low-level risk and enough crows to satisfy Alfred Hitchcock.
I don’t realize I’m bleeding until three crimson drops hit Aki’s yellow wrap. I elevate my injured hand and squeeze it closed to slow the flow. Overhead two bald eagles fly out over the channel and return to their spruce roosts. Crows darken the beach just ahead of us. When we cross their privacy line, they explode into the air. Are we invading the privacy they have come to expect each time the tide rises high enough to block human access to their beach? Maybe because my little dog looks so much like a stuffed animal I wonder if we have stumbled on the equivalent of a teddy bears’ picnic.
Aki and I just rounded the spit that forms the western jaw of Fish Creek’s mouth. In five minutes the path will be closed by the incoming tide. A strong wind blows down the creek, appearing to come from a break in the clouds hanging over the Douglas Island ridge. For the brief moments that the break will last, sunlight reaches the glacier and the lower flanks of the mountains that surround it.
A slim, white eagle feather spirals down, distracting me long enough for me to miss the flight of a mature bald eagle over our heads and into a screen of spruce trees. Ducks, spooked by the eagle fly off before I can photograph them against the face of the glacier. Bad timing, little dog. She gives me what looks like a “think it through dummy” stare. She probably just wants to escape the wind but my brief anthropomorphic moment makes me wonder whether opportunities to witness the wonderful or beautiful in nature is controlled more by luck than timing.
It was in part good timing that placed us here during the brief storm break illuminating the glacier. Such things tend to happen just as the sun first reaches mountain peaks. Knowledge of tide tables allowed us to sneak past the headland just before being cut off by the flooding tide. But the rest was a matter of uncontrollable luck.
Wind blown rain whipped across Chicken Ridge when we headed out to the western edge of Mendenhall Lake. Aki and I drive through rain, heavy and light, along a Gastineau Channel flooded by the tide. We have little hope of dry weather and no reason to expect sunshine. The weatherman calls for four more wet days. But the glacier makes its weather without consulting meteorologists.
Near the glacier, ice covers the lake and all available trails. A skim of fresh rainwater makes everything super slick but the little dog’s sharp nails and my ice grippers allow us safe travel. We have the place to ourselves so no one else sees the sunlight wedge open a crack in the cloud cover. At first only a tight shaft slides through to hit halfway up the glacier. As we walk along the lake edge, blue sky replaces gray and the greens of spruce covered hillsides warm towards yellow. We turn back into the woods and don’t notice blue’s disappearance. Under occluded skies made more acceptable by the short, but rich taste of spring, the rain returns.
I’m without a camera on this North Douglas walk. Nothing filters my views of the forest trail or the beach it leads to. The need to fiddle with focus or the light settings won’t prevent me from seeing the coordinated dive of two mergansers or the way their feathers cowlick behind their heads when they surface.
I think of something I read this morning in an essay by the former Alaska poet laureate John Haines:
The secret of creativity is not to be discovered in the laboratory or in abstract theory…but in attention to the world and for me that means primarily attention to the natural world… in the reflection of trees in standing pools, the light of the sun on leaves and water…can be found those primarily patterns of creative order.” (“The Creative Spirit in Art and Literature).
I think of the forest pond, white, opaque ice covered with clear snowmelt that reflected a sun-bursting-through-storm-clouds event overlaid by bare alder trees. Then I realize that unlike Mr. Haines, I am still at the “I know it when I see it” stage of art appreciation. Seeing the pond water reflection made me feel like I did seeing The Burghers of Calais for the first time or parking myself before any Rembrandt painting—awe, then humility, then acceptance that I can’t take the beauty home or even capture it with a camera.
It’s a smear of slush kind of day in Downtown Juneau. Aki and I approach a parliament of ravens and pigeons feeding on some scattered grain. The ravens’ “y” shaped tracks dapple the disappearing snow. Beyond the birds, I can see empty cruise shop docks and the Tee Shirt and Jewelry shops that form the tourist trap line of summer. Guys building yet another cruise ship dock fill the air with industrial sounds. The melting snow and ice reveal trapped smells that hold Aki’s focus. It’s a good day to be a dog.
Again, I’m on the beach in front of Treadwell, looking to Aki like I am worshiping a raven. This one lands on the splintered top of an old piling that had been driven into the seabed over a hundred years ago. Then, the tough column of wood formed part of the Mexican Mine wharf. I’m on my knees trying to frame the purple-black bird against the flank of Mt. Roberts. Last spring I assumed a similar supplicating posture in front of a raven on this beach for the same reason. I felt like a fool then as I do now.
Aki trots over to the piling and barks. The raven croaks back. I struggle to take the bird’s portrait while they converse. Minutes after we leave the beach for the woods that have grown up around the mining ruins, the same raven lands nearby. It struts at an oblique angle that allows it to keep one of its hard little eyes on me as it approaches. Since there is nothing for him to scavenge nearby, he must be seeking attention, not food. No, attention is the wrong word to describe his motivation. It’s admiration he is after. Aki is having none of it. The little dog wanders away from the bird who-would-be-a-god, nose down, tail up, trying to set a good example for me.
The trail to Dupont leads to a World War II ruin, not to heaven. But I still feel like a soul in purgatory. Cursed looking tree roots try to catch my feet as I maneuver around hemlock trees that cling to a precipitous slope. Super-slick patches of ice lay between the roots. Aki has no problem with either of these challenges. She scampers up or under or around the hazards and waits patiently for me to work my way through each danger zone.
A mile in we enter a zone of windblown trees, each ripped out by the roots. Rocks that the tree roots had formed around remain stranded in their root wads. It’s been at least five years since we last walked to Dupont. Then, this section of the forest offered a peaceful place to rest and enjoy a filtered view of Gastineau Channel. Now, it is a metaphor for the devastation of war, which makes a kind of sense given where the trail through upheaval ends. Dupont once served as a depository for bombs and other munitions. Today alder trees crowd the ruins of bomb cribs and the old loading wharf that is no longer useable. We catch Dolly Varden trout in the stream that once provided water for the war workers. Aki loves to chase her Frisbee on the flat beach where they staged explosives for loading. If I didn’t know that we would have to pass back through the blow-down zone, I could almost forget that parts of the world are at war.
Aki and I leave Chicken Ridge early, before the scheduled start of the Women’s March. In a half-an-hour our escape route down Main Street will be blocked. The sun crowns above Pt. Salisbury, infusing wispy clouds above the channel with Easter-egg colors. It’s cold and windy but the little dog and I are dressed for it and the colder temperature we will have along the Eagle River.
The big meadow that feeds migratory birds Spring and Fall wears a new covering of snow, untracked except for those left by a cross country skier and a clutch of snowshoe hares. One bald eagle skulks near the meadows edge where it searches the riverbanks for food. Small lines of surf roll up river and the incoming tide lifts and cracks new ice. We have to take a long detour around the normally dry meadow channel because chucks of heavy ice now slosh against each other on tidal water.
This early (It’s sunrise) I expect solitude but we meet a group of young woman chattering and sliding over the new snow on skis. They fill the air with something like tropical bird song, a impression reinforced by the flash and color of their hi-tech clothes. Soon winter-quiet returns. The sun breaks over a forested hill to sparkle the new snow and the great blocks of river ice stranded on the meadow by the tide. In the forest I find a single high bush cranberry set to glowing by a streak of sunlight that managed to penetrate the old growth. Made sweet by the winter freeze, it tastes as good as it looks.