Aki doesn’t know it but we are on a scouting trip. As usual, she thinks the outing is about her and her orange Frisbee. But her other human and I are here to measure this year’s blueberry crop. We only have one small plastic bag of blues left in the freezer.
While the little dog roars after her beloved flying disk I gauge the river’s level to determine if it has left us enough trail to negotiate. By detouring into the riverside willows we can make it. Across the river the Mendenhall Glacier appears to snake out of the clouds to devour the spruce forest at its foot.
Only a few small berries show through the leaves of the trailside bushes. Last year large berries weighed down the branches of the blue berry plants. It might be a bad berry year for us and a worst one for the bears, who also must deal with a low salmon return. The high bush cranberry bushes are setting large numbers of berries. Maybe the bears can substitute sour cranberries for the sweeter blues. But Aki’s family prefers blueberries in their Saturday morning pancakes. We’ll look higher in the mountains for our winter’s allotment of fruit.
Walking where yesterday we saw a whale, Aki and I watch charter boats trolling for king salmon near the mouth of Gastineau Channel. Most will catch nothing. Aki doesn’t really notice the boats. She is too busy sniffing and peeing. When I share out loud my thoughts about the fate of king salmon she ignores my words. But I fool myself into believing that she is listening when I ask if king salmon might be serving the same role for the rain forest as a canary does in a coalmine.
More susceptible than men to methane gas, the canaries inform miners of the gas’ presence by dying. The king salmon, who postpones its return to their spawning waters longer than any other Pacific salmon, is the most susceptible to negative changes in the ocean. When, as happened this year, they return in low numbers to their home streams, like the nearby Taku River, we should be alarmed into action.
Aki squealed and squeaked at the back door as I pulled on my boots. She just managed to stay still as I fastened on her harness. I had returned home this morning on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Malispina after a canoe trip to Prince of Wales Island. She spent the time of my absence at a good dog boarder. But I could tell by her actions that she needed a long walk in the woods.
Aki had calmed down a bit by the time we reached the False Outer Point trailhead. At that point the little dog’s attitude was most compelling thing about the day. Gray clouds blocked the sun and dulled the colors of Fritz Cove. Neither of us cared.
Racing the incoming tide, we managed to round the point and three more headlands on moist rocks. On one columbines attracted hummingbirds with their bright-red flowers. Overhead an eagle flew a patrol. Even it’s cries failed to dampen Aki’s spirits. The sun came out by the time we left the beach for woods and circled back to the car.
In Fritz Cover a single humpback whale fed close to the road. Aki and I watched it’s back crash above the surface and heard the whoosh of spent air being forced through the whale’s blowhole. It made three shallow dives and then threw up its flukes in a dive. The small amount of barnacles on its tail identified it as a young whale.
One of Aki’s human friends paddles from the front seat of my Holy Cow Canoe. I’m in the back, steering the canoe in what I hope is the direction of the Sarkar Lake cabin. The lake, itself on an island of old growth forest in a sea of recovering clearcuts on Prince of Wales Island, is dotted with tree-covered islands. Aki would have liked the ride but not the day-and-a-half long ferry voyage we took to reach the island. She is snug back home.
The boat it full of gear and an ice chest of food but we carry no tent. We have been exploring and wandering on the lake for several hours but haven’t found the cabin. I’m starting to wish we had brought the tent.
Before the government subsidized large scale logging in Southeast Alaska, Prince of Wales Island was covered with old growth cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees. By sinking their roots into the limestone karst of the island, many of the trees had grown massive. It was land of big trees, salmon, and over six hundred caves before we outsiders joined the Tlingit and Haida people on the island. In the Sixties the clearcutting began.
I last paddled Sakar Lake thirty years ago when many of the clearcuts were still raw slash and Coffman Cove was a company town. Now nature is healing the wounds. Sockeye salmon climb up rapids to spawn in the lake’s inlet streams. Eagles gather near the rapids to wait for the dying to begin.
To stop worrying about finding the cabin, I ponder of the power of nature to heal human inflicted wounds and remember the twenty or thirty deer, many with new fawns, that we passed to the get to the lake from the ferry terminal. All will work out, I tell myself just as the nose of the canoe rounds a point hiding the cabin.
Early this morning Aki and I walked past the Basin Road Craftsman homes and crossed an old trestle bridge. We reached the Perseverance Trail just as first light touched the side of Mt. Juneau. The air borne seeds of willows drifted like snowflakes over the trail. Now the little dog and I climb past red columbines in full flower. Those not yet exposed to the sun still glisten with dew.
Where the sun has reached the plants, I can easily make out strands of spider silk. The strong morning light turns the strands into prisms that reflect all the colors of the rainbow. Inside the seed globe of a dandelion flower the being that spun out the silk hides. A smaller spider lies exposed in a web thrown between buttercup blooms.
On our return trip we pass a group of young men and woman wearing hard hats. One is test starting an industrial weed whacker. They will spend the morning mowing down trailside plants. “Spare the red columbines,” I say, “they are important to the hummingbirds.” The gang’s leader promises that they will. I hope he keeps his word. In previous years trail crews have whacked the flowering plants down to the ground. Whether or not they spare the flowers, it is going to be a hard day for spiders.
Three thick white streaks form against the blue sky over Gastineau Channel. One of the streaks is connected to the stack of a Princess cruise ship. It has just pulled in behind two other cruise ships that have already docked. Their emissions are the only visible, man-made pollutants that poison our clean air.
After seeing the smoke lines from the Douglas Island Bridge, I drive with Aki to the Gastineau Meadows trailhead. The pollution is also visible from the meadow, showing a kind of industrial beauty in the way it coalesces on the slopes of Sheep Mountain.
I resent the cruise industry’s decision to use the cheaper fuel in their Alaska bound ships and wonder whether they could reduce their emissions by using city power rather than that produced by their boilers when tied up to our docks. They won’t change so I spend the rest of the walk looking for small shows of beauty, finding it backlit flowers and the orange needles of damaged pine trees.
The number of cars with bike racks in the trailhead parking lot makes me nervous. I’ll have to keep an eye out for mountain bikes as we climb the graveled portion of the trail. The morning sun has burned off most of the marine layer and is flooding the Dan Moller Trail with light.
We could hear the songs of forest birds if not for the sound of a truck dumping gravel at a new construction site. Someone with money and little luck is going burden the hillside with a new subdivision.
No bikes whiz down the trail as we climb toward the Treadwell ditch. We are alone until we reach the boardwalk portion when a young woman and her old Labrador retriever join us. The woman continues to climb toward the Dan Moller cabin. Her dog stays with us. Even though they have never met before, Aki and the lab act like two friends who have shared much in their long lives.
I was drawn here by the meadow’s promise of a little solitude. Cars clogged the parking areas for the trails I would have preferred on this Father’s Day. But this meadow has few summer visitors.
With silence broken only by robin song, Aki and I fall into our usually routine. She sniffs and pees, updating her message system with a plain-faced concentration. I stroll past the low growing wild flowers, stopping occasionally to enjoy the way water droplets cling to colorful blossoms.
Each flower displays the complexity and beauty of great paintings. But I am the only human in attendance at this outdoor art museum. There are art critics here, insects that show their appreciation for a flower’s form or color by landing on it. The flowers getting the best reviews will soon reproduce.
The rain doesn’t bother Aki. I’m not surprised because it falls like a gentle cloth onto the wild flowers of Kowee Meadows. Remembering past sunny days on the meadow, I do wish for a shaft of sunlight to break through the marine layer. But that might wash out the purples of the iris and the magenta color of the river of shooting stars we skirt.
We continue walking over the meadow and then drop down onto a gravel beach where iris and the purple flowers of beach peas color the bordering grass. While we eat lunch a doe deer approaches. It stops when thirty meters off, gives us a hard look, and continues in our direction. Could it be curious or is it just foolish with trust.
I grab Aki and hold her in my lap as the deer approaches. When it reaches the ten-meter line that marks the border of my little dog’s comfort zone, Aki growls. The deer slowly walks into grass and disappears.
We won’t see another deer but will hear the warning scream of marmots and step carefully over countless piles of bear scat. The scat and holes in the meadow dug by foraging bears will keep us aware that we are in a wild, maybe dangerous place and not a tame flower garden.
What are you doing little dog? Aki is too busy to answer as she dashes into the woods on one side of the trail, stops for a second, and then charges to the other side of the trail. Are we surrounded by bears, beavers, or ghosts? I’m guessing it’s ghosts because I can’t see anything but plant life in the trail margins.
There is plenty of evidence that bears and beavers have recently occupied the area. We pass many piles of bear poop and a myriad of cottonwood trees felled by beavers. But we don’t hear trees crashing to earth or bears crashing through the undergrowth. Aki leads me off the main trail and onto a narrow path. Even if they were here, I wouldn’t see bears or beavers through the tangle of hardwood brush that closes in on the trail.
When the trail widens I spot flowering Nagoon berry plants, not bears. Later in the summer, the berries will draw a crowd to this trail. The berries have a cult following in Juneau whose members will race the birds and bears to harvest this patch.