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.