Monthly Archives: January 2018

Slow Growth Trees

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A sweet-sounding child, a boy maybe 7 or 8 dressed in a snowsuit, stands in the crotch of a mountain hemlock tree. He is trying to break off a six-inch-thick branch from the tree for use as firewood. His mother tells him to stop because they never break branches off of living trees. It’s a good lesson, especially given how long it took for the tree to grow the branch he has targeted.

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Unlike regular hemlocks that can grow relatively quickly in the good ground of an old growth forest, mountain hemlocks eek out a life on the edge of poorly drained meadows. Hundreds of their thin growth rings can fit in the branch that the boy wanted to turn into firewood. The thicker tree probably predates the founding of the United States.

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The family follows Aki and I across a muskeg meadow and into old growth forest. The ground is littered with burnable branches and twigs broken off by storms or snow loads. The forest’s tight canopy has kept the debris relatively dry. I hope they stop here to harvest what the forest offers for their family fire.

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Raven

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Raven struts down Sandy Beach, mimicking a prosperous and pompous dean of industry. Just beyond him, a small raft of mallards fish the waters around a collection of archaic pilings. Neither raven nor the ducks appear to notice the soft drizzle that settles on their feathers. When Aki follows me onto the beach, raven flies to a six-foot high piling.

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As if serving as a model for a life drawing class, raven strikes a 20 second long pose—chest puffed out, beak raised, eye pointed at me as if in a challenge. A series of other short poses follows. I stand without charcoal or paper, unable to capture the hardness of his beak and eyes, the softly curving line of his chest, the confusion of blue and purple feathers that look black from a distance.

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Reflections

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Intense winter light spotlights seven mallard ducks fleeing over a flooded tidal meadow. Behind and a little above, a white-headed bald eagle wings after them. Unable to gain on the ducks, the eagle snaps off a turn and flies into a nearby spruce tree. The ducks swing into a curving U-turn and fly past the perched eagle. I watched the scene while sitting on a driftwood log with ice cleats in a gloved hand. Aki, whose nose always directs her away from visual drama, is twenty feet away with her back turned to the eagle/duck show.

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It’s a day for reflections, physical and mental. A 17-foot high tide has swollen Eagle River, lifting small ice pans from the beach and creating a mirror for the mountains carved by the Herbert and Eagle Glaciers. I reflect, once again, on how a mountain’s reflection is always more intense than the mountain itself. I know it would take little, maybe a half hour of searching the Internet, to find an explanation for this phemomina. But would that knowledge enhance or diminish the thrill I get when comparing beauty with its reflection?

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Aki, whose nose if much more powerful than her eyes, has little interest in things reflected in river water. She didn’t join me when I tramped through devil’s club plots and around windfallen trees for an unobstructed view of reflected mountains. But I didn’t have to worry about her bolting. I knew that, like a dotting mother, she would wait for her foolish charge to return, standing on a perfectly good trail along the river that would eventually delivered us into sunlight.

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Enjoying What is Given

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Aki darts back and forth and then down a trail that crosses the glacial moraine—a target rich environment for dog scents. This time of year it should be covered with snow. The Mendenhall River should be silent under a layer of ice. But it’s 40 degrees F. and has been well above freezing for several days. Heavy rain has washed away the snow.

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The little dog and I walk along the edge of Moose Lake, which is still iced over. A thinner skim of ice covers the flooded sections of the old river trail. On a sunny day like this, I have the right to expect to see the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in the surface of the ice-free river. The river is ice-free but turbulence from the recent rain has clouded the water with silt. I snap a few photos knowing that they will all end up in the digital trash bin. A heron flies past with its long legs held straight out. I snap away knowing that the bird is too far away for a detailed picture.

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I have to face the sun to return to the car. It warms my face and enriches the view by crisscrossing the band of riverside willows with back shadow lines. Beauty and comfort are here to enjoy. All I have to do is stop whining about the absence of winter.

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Necessary Work

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The cottonwood trees bordering Gastineau Avenue are filling with ravens. Somewhere nearby a bald eagle screams out its territorial warning. Down the hill, fifteen mature bald eagles have settled in trees above Lower Franklin Street. They lurk beneath the tram that in summer carries cruise ship tourists up Mt. Roberts. I look down at Taku Smokeries to see if they are processing black cod. But no tender boats line the dock to off load their catch. The last time so many ravens and eagles assembled above South Franklin when the Taku plant was closed, they had been drawn by the body of a deceased homeless man that the police reported, “had been left unattended for an extended time in the woods.” I pray for different explanation for the scavenger’s gathering and try to remember the words of a poem I wrote in response to the homeless man’s death.

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Necessary Work

Stiff as corpses, large birds hover over fresh kills,

gliding in circles that draw a crowd of kind.

Locals call them turkeys to fool the tourists

who want to believe that the sun always warms

 

evergreen grass along the California coast,

that death is exiled to just north, south, east, west

of this place so close to heaven

that the undertaker is bored.

 

Home in Alaska, hunting reduces the need for trope,

and most families eat around bullet holes in their meat.

Eagles, ravens and crows tidy the dead. Without judgment,

I’ve watched them do this necessary work in the heavy rain.

 

Last winter, eagles hovered over Gastineau Avenue, screamed

at each other and the stubborn ravens. I took their pictures

then dropped down rickety steps to a Franklin Street coffee stand.

I bragged about seeing the eagle glut until the police

 

reported the Gastineau Avenue discovery

of the corpse of a homeless man, once a villager

now a mystery to his family, with no friends,

found in the area where I saw the cloud of eagles.

 

He lived unattended in the woods, died alone,

was waked by carrion eaters too innocent

to mourn. I’ll try to remember him as someone’s son,

not a once fleshy body now carrion reduced to bones.

(“Necessary Work” by Dan Branch, The Penwood Review, volume 21, number 2, fall 2017)

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Vacationing Winter

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Winter left this meadow in a hurry, little dog. Aki is sniffing one of the shrinking blocks of pond ice marooned on the meadow by the tide. Her paws sink into the softening meadow. Maybe our favorite season is down south visiting a sick friend.

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It is 47 degrees F., which is ridiculously warm for mid-January. There is a breeze but it seems to warm rather than chill. To add to the argument for an early spring, a plover works now-soft mud along the edge of Fish Creek.

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A great crowd of mallard ducks mingles with gulls at the creek’s mouth. We heard them cackling out alarms on our approach. When they see us a hundred of the mallards slip further out into Fritz Cove. But most explode from the creek, each doing a great impression of Chicken Little. I want to tell them to chill, to talk among themselves as we complete our circuit. Once airborne, the ducks all circle in front of the Mendenhall Glacier and wing deeper into the cove. The gulls don’t budge.

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Waiting Out the Tide

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Aki sighs. We are standing on a tiny beach waiting for the receding tide to open up a passage around False Outer Point. Small waves weakened by an offshore reef collapse at our feet. Over a hundred surf scoters have formed a raft to our right. But Aki can’t see or smell them.

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I’m content to wait out the tide, listening to the waves and watching gulls cruise past on the gentle wind. It’s 50 degrees F. and the wind warms rather than chills. I am fine. Then Aki signs again.

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Since she usually wins these fights, I backtrack from the point to a trail that leads over the headland. We climb up and over it and drop down onto another beach sealed off by the tide. Scoters, in groups of 30 or 40 birds curl around the point and fly in long lines across our horizon. Knowing that Aki lacks the patience to wait out the tide, we climb back over the headland rather than hang tough until the path around the point dries out.

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Rain on Snow

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The little dog shivers at my feet, hunching her shoulders like a homeless man might while warming himself by a barrel fire. She stands in the footsteps I just made in five inches of new snow. We just crossed over wetlands to reach the mouth of Lemon Creek. Normally, she’d be tearing out and back, leaping her way through the fresh snow. Two hours before that is exactly what she would have done. But it wasn’t raining two hours ago.

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The snow covering on the wetlands acts like a sponge, soaking up water from the retreating tide and the rain. Rather than expanding, the snow shrinks as the rain and tidewater condense fluffy flakes into thickening cement. It will rock hard if the temperature drops back below freezing. But the forecast is for warmer temperatures and heavy rain. Then the snow will melt away.

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The rain and snow conditions don’t bother a water ouzel (American dipper) that just landed near us. The dipper bounces up and down along the edge of tiny watercourse, apparently looking for a meal. Look at the little bird, little dog, dancing in the rain. Aki just shivers until we turn back to the car.

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Helped by Snow

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Aki sniffs tentatively near the bell of an old growth spruce tree. It is one of a small island of mature trees in a hilly second growth forest. For some reason the loggers who had clear cut the forest 60 or 70 years ago let this clutch of spruce live. The last time we visited the grove the little dog found the body of a newly dead bald eagle. The forest seemed full of complaining eagles that day, driven from the nearby landfill by cracker shells. This morning, we only hear ravens calling out to each other as fine snow falls through the canopy.

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The snow simplified finding the grove by painting the faint access trail white so it stuck out against the greens and browns of the forest floor. We followed the thick white line as it twisted around standing spruce and wind-fallen hemlock. It guided us through gaps in downed logs, under a canted hemlock tree serving as a nursery for the next generation of trees, and down to the eagle grove.

2            It was summer when Aki and I found the dead eagle. Broad, thorny leaves of devil club plants hid the trail. We were forced to climb over dozens of wind fallen trees and carefully slip through devil’s club thickets. There was once a decent trail from the grove back to the trailhead but much of it had been washed away during a fall storm or blocked by downed trees. I felt like a shipwreck survivor when the little dog and I finally managed to find the trailhead. Today, the magic white line painted by the snow helps us skirt all the obstacles.

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A raven near the trailhead stops crocking to watch me retrieve the plastic bag I had use at the start of the trip to contain Aki’s poop. It calls out to his fellow forest guardians and then flies along with us back to the car.

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Showdown at the Old Flume Trail

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Aki is in disgrace at least in my eyes. She probably sees herself as a hero for saving me from the imagine danger that awaits on the flume trail. It’s 16 F. degrees but we are both dressed for the cold. I can wait here at the start of the trail all day. So, apparently, can she.

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We both I hear the hum of water flying through the flume—a squared wooden tube that feeds a downtown hydro plant with water from Gold Creek. The little dog could feel the vibration of moving water if she were standing on the flume boards. With a look that could melt a tax auditor’s heart, she tries to convince me to abandon my reckless plan. Frustrated, I pick up the ten-pound poodle mix and carry her 50 meters down the trail.

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She skulks behind me until I lead her off the flume and down a rough trail that leads to Gold Creek. She flashes past to take up point, looking back often to make sure I haven’t fallen or worse, wandered off on some dangerous adventure. Runoff from an early January rainstorm gouged out a foot deep staircase that facilitates the descent. Above us, foot thick ice sickles hang from the flume. Ahead is a fine and stable bridge across Gold Creek. I am alone when I reach it. Aki stands 25 meters behind me on the trail. She looks back, apparently to convince me that we should climb back to the Flume Trail rather than cross the bridge. Guess who backtracks so he can carry a little dog across the bridge.

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(Note that the gorse is still green even when partially coated with a layer of January ice.)