Aki and I are back at the mountain meadow accompanied by her other two humans. Everyone but Aki has a berry-picking bucket. It’s not raining but the sky is an almost uniform shade of grade and cloud fragments race long an eastern mountain ridge.
When one of us to throws her Frisbee, Aki tears off after it, growling as if it is a robber. If the Frisbee lands in a field of tall grass, the little poodle-mix porpoises after it, returning soaked to the skin.
After picking more than a gallon of blueberries, the three humans follow Aki back to the trailhead. Minutes from the car, an adult bald eagle flies to within twenty feet of Aki, circles, and flies low over her again. I wonder what would have happened if the little dog hadn’t been standing right next to me during the eagle’s second pass. I doubt that the big predator was after our buckets of blueberries.
Even though they are well past prime, I pluck a handful of cloudberries from the meadow’s surface. Their insipid flavor can only remind me of berries gathered from the tundra of Western Alaska or Swedish Hjortron berries. We are walking this rainy day on a mountain meadow near Juneau, far away from Sweden or the Alaskan tundra. Aki, a rain forest dog, doesn’t share my memories. She doesn’t care about berries or their ability to turn wilderness into food. She wants to hang with other dogs.
The rain starts as Aki and I round a cashew-shaped moraine lake, threatening the lake’s mirrored image of cottonwoods transforming into their fall colors. At first the falling drops just soften the reflected image so it mimics an impressionist painting. But then the shower’s violence increases; rendering the lake incapable of any reflection. The storm compensates for the loss of visual beauty with the percussive music of raindrop on leaf. Willow leafs fill the treble rain while the larger cottonwood and devil’s club foliage provide notes in the lower register.
On this walk over the moraine Aki and I have already seen evidence of the wild world’s give and take: mushrooms ripping their way through the trailside moss, bones and berries in bear scat, cottonwood trees fallen by beavers, and moss slowing reducing trees in the troll woods to soil
It doesn’t take knowledge of raven language to know what these juvenile birds are screeching out. Momma, Momma, bring us food. We are hungry. Aki I have wandered into a corvid day care. The adults are off gathering food for their kin. But that doesn’t stop the children from filling the forest with their pleas.
The forest is really just a collection of old growth spruce occupying the end of Point Louisa. Gulls and two eagles patrol the surrounding beaches. One eagle or a gull gang could make a meal out of a baby raven but they don’t seem too concerned. One, which had wandered from the protection of the trees climbs to the top of a small rock to get a better view of Aki and me. Watch out little guy, curiosity can kill a corvid.
My pant legs are as wet as Aki’s fur. I’ve spent the last half hour pushing through rain soaked meadow grass. Aki followed close behind. When I could, I used a bear path. The bear’s wide body crushed a nice swatch through the meadow grass. The bear and we were heading to the Peterson Salt Chuck—a flooded staircase of rock that homecoming salmon used to climb from salt to fresh water.
At the edge of the meadow the bear trail lead us over a forested headland, past a river otter den, and down to the salt chuck. Careful not to step on any of the partially eaten salmon littering the ground, I walk toward splashes on one of the salt chuck pools. Several bald eagles, a coven of ravens, and some watchful gulls stirred during our approach. Three or four chum salmon squirm in the pool. They had had to clear several waterfalls to reach the pool. Now they wait to jump the falls feeding the shallow basin where they stage.
Wanting to photograph one of the salmon in mid-leap, I stand and wait for action. Aki rests on of her rear paws on my soaked boot. She looks behind us, covering my back. When a Stellar’s jay scolds us from a nearby rock, I turn away from the pool. Seconds later, the dorsal fin of one of the salmon cuts the water above the waterfall. I missed it. Resolved to photograph the next attempt, I ignore the efforts of a belted kingfisher to get my attention and the didgeridoo sound of a raven flying just above my head. An eight-pound chum salmon throws himself onto the waterfall, thrashing with his tail, and slumps back into the pool. That will have to do little dog, we don’t want to keep the bears from their lunch. Aki and I climb over an exposed headland and drop onto the beach occupied by a landed raft of mergansers and their three-gull escort. Between the ducks and the woods are fresh tracks of a black bear. Aki follows the tracks into the forest and disappears. But when I catch up she isn’t growling, just smelling the scent left behind by the bear.
We rain forest dwellers have many words to describe rain. There’s snain (mixed rain and snow), drizzle, mist, downpour, monsoon (long periods of washout rain), and showers. According to the weather service, Aki and I are experiencing a shower. I can’t argue. Rain streams from the sky like water from a showerhead. Even though we walk under the big cottonwood trees of the Treadwell ruins, drops hammer my parka and soak Aki’s fur, turning both dark gray.
As she tends to do when displeased, Aki uses mind control tactics to turn me back to the car. She plants herself and stares at my back as I move further into the woods. Only when I stretch to the emotional breaking point the invisible rubber band that connects us does she start to trot after me. Near the beach, the little dog relaxes and starts to check the pee mail. It provides her with more distractions than I can find on the beach.
Across Gastineau Channel, a salmon seiner moves toward Taku Inlet. Near the collapsed glory hole two gulls complain about the weather. They don’t even bother with three plump dog salmon that washed up during last night’s flood tide. I can’t even enjoy the drama of heavy raindrops slamming into the channel because the shower has become a drizzle. We return to the forested ruins and amidst its monopoly of summer green and decay-brown a recent wound on an alder tree mimics the golden orange of autumn maple leaves.
This evening one of Aki’s other humans and I kayaked across Mendenhall Lake to the glacier’s face. Tourists in rented red kayaks meandered their way past us, struggling to get the boats back to the beach. I love being on lake on overcast evenings when the wind drops and the lake waters are gun metal gray.
The roar of Nugget Falls blends with the complaints of gulls that appear to yell at us from nurseries formed on rock recently revealed by the retreating glacier. We have no problem finding a landing place near the glacier’s face—another sign of the retreat. A well-trod gravel path leads to the mouth of an ice cave. Last winter we needed ice cleats to walk on the cave floor. Today, it is ice-free gravel. Last winter we could wander down at least two tunnels. Today, one has collapsed and we have to duck under a low roof in the main chamber.
Fifty feet ahead an immature bald eagle rises from the creek, a twelve–inch-long fish dangling from its talon. The fish drops as the bird wings skyward. I know the scene took only seconds but when I play it back in my head, the bird and prey moved in slow motion, like I could have dashed over and caught the fish before it hit the meadow grass.
Aki clung to my side during the walk. She was spooked by the sound of 10-20 pound king salmon splashing in the creek pond and the off-key symphony performed by ravens and crows in the creek side alders. I was spooked too by the angry sounding splashes and the smell of dead salmon, both of which draw bears.
It was low tide when we reached the creek delta. Clutches of six or more eagles loitered on the exposed wetlands. One burst out of the tree just above my head when I stopped to count its cousins. Any peace the eagles and gulls had reached was broken when an immature eagle flew over a gull-feeding zone. The little white birds dived bombed the eagles and drove them into a nearby spruce forest.
Now Aki and I prepare to pass again through the salmon zone. Just ahead a Sitka black tail deer feeds among a thick patch of flowering fireweed. Aki will never see it or its companion. In a fluid series of jumps, the deer reach mid-meadow and turn to look at me until I lower my camera, walk beneath two roosting bald eagles, and enter the spawning zone.
Someone has Hoovered up the blue berries that ripened along this trail. While Aki snuffles along the trail boards, I manage to find one bush of red huckleberries highlighted by evening sun. In a few minutes, when we reach the beach, all I will be able to think about is the sun dog that circles its sun—a phenomenon made possible by Canadian wildfire smoke. But now I wonder what drives my family and I to brave bugs, bears, and rain to harvest wild fruit. Our stores are well stocked with fruits and berries. We can buy fresh Chilean blues in the middle of winter. This does not deter us from putting up a gallon or two of wild blue berries each year. Not even the maggot-like worms that float to the surface when we washed the berries in salt water diminish our berry picking drive.
Sorry Aki. There is no room on the boat, even for a little poodle-mix. Aki took it well, didn’t even get up from the bed to say goodbye. Now I’m watching two humpback whales feed while we troll for silver salmon in the north pass. It’s seven A.M., but the sun already warms. It is easy to forget the weeks of rain that we just went through. I’ll return home with two more silvers for next winter and a touch of tan?