Simple things—a cooling breeze, sunlight on flowers, interesting shapes of everyday objects—can lift a person’s mood. Aki keeps it simple in her life. She examines every faint smell. The little dog follows the straightforward social rules of her kind, showing submission at the first meeting with a larger dog and then joy when submission is not required. Often my tendency toward complexity leads me to ignore the plain things.
This morning I am standing at a trail junction waiting for Aki to catch up. Mosquitoes are storming around. I want to move before the one buzzing my right ear sinks its drill-bit like proboscis into the tender flesh at my temple. When the little dog breaks into a run in my direction I make my escape. We continue on to Gastineau Meadows in a cloud of bugs. A ten-knot breeze reaches the meadow the same time as us, carrying away the mosquitoes. In the unexpected quiet that follows, I slowly focus on how the wind ripples through the meadow grass. I notice, too, the early morning sunlight elevating the beauty of simple objects like dead trees limbs and live pinecones.
Aki showed indifference while I pulled on my bike gear and left the house this morning. I didn’t hear her howl when I rode out of the yard and down the steep hill into downtown Juneau. She seemed calm when I took a post-ride shower. But her patience and understanding ran out when I filled a mug with coffee. Okay little dog, we’re going.
I crack open a window to distract Aki and drive over to muskeg meadow. It should be empty of people. No one I know would spend a sunny afternoon hunting and pecking on the muskeg for ripe cloudberries. Only expats from tundra towns or Scandinavia seek them out.
At first Aki refuses to follow me off the gravel trail. She has learned to avoid the normally wet muskeg. But thanks to our recent drought the meadow is dry. She can spring over it in search of interesting smells. After plopping a cloudberry into the container, I look up and spot my little poodle-mix legs up on the muskeg. With the look on her face of an aficionado with a mouthful of perfect ice cream, she rubs her back on something that must smell like doggy heaven.
This is why I choose to ride my bike to Sheep Creek this morning rather than take you there in the car.
That morning, I had heard the scream of gulls before reaching the creek. They fought for position on gravel bars and places in the stream full of holding salmon. A dozen bald eagles held a meeting on the Gastineau Channel beach. Already dead salmon—the kind that dogs love to squirm in—were pilling up on the beach.
In mid-stream, a lone Bonaparte gull landed on a partially submerged rock. While she screeched from her rock, a dog salmon slapped her pulpit with its tail. The little gull flew off and dive-bombed an eagle as it ripped flesh off a dead salmon. Tiny but fierce bird. Kind of like Aki.
We are deep in beaver country, walking on a strip of high ground between two ponds. Cottonwood trees felled by the energetic rodents crisscross the ground. Paths beaten smooth by beaver feet drop off the trail to the ponds. Aki follows me down a path that leads to their den. Made of sticks stripped of bark, the beaver house looks like a Inuit igloo—a rough dome with a round-topped tunnel that allows underwater access to the den. I’m surprised to find an above water entrance. More surprising, Aki doesn’t drop into it to visit the beavers.
Near the beaver house, a lichen colony grows on the tip of a rotting spruce branch. The top branches of the little lichen trees have formed a tangled canopy around their dead host. Next January, while the beavers sleep away the long, cold days, snow might collect in the lichen canopy, turning the lichen forest into a snow-glove sized metaphor for winter. But by spring, the rotting base of the forest will give way and the tangle of lichen will fall to the mossy forest floor.
When she was a puppy, Aki would carry a book around in her mouth. I’d find her tooth marks on volumes left by the bed. She gave up books when she figured out she couldn’t eat words. But she still likes to visit our local college.
I also like to walk across the tiny campus with its Tlingit totem poles and sheet metal raven sculpture. The campus abuts against Auk Lake, which we circumnavigated after our college visit. It’s a trail better suited for someone hearing impaired who wouldn’t have to listen to the constant noise from nearby Glacier Highway.
After I tune out the road roar, I notice a face formed by the reflection of sedge by small wind-driven swells. It looks grumpy, even menacing in a James Thurber sort of way. Nearby a small floatplane appears to be sinking in shoreline vegetation. But I know it is tied safely to a hidden dock, ready to fly its owner over the glacier and onto a quiet mountain lake.
Since this is the first overcast morning we have had in a week, I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of hikers on Perseverance Trail. But it seems weird to have the trail to ourselves. Thanks to her powerful nose, Aki can never experience true solitude. Her world is always full of scent messages. She can never know and would probably hate the sense of being alone in the rain forest.
Today’s flat light robs much of the beauty from the mountains but there is plenty of interest at my feet: heart-shaped cotton woods leaves stressed into displays of fall colors, canary yellow monkey flowers (aka touch-me-nots) framed by their own green leaves, and a judgmental little poodle-mix urging me to get a move on.
The Outer Point woods are quiet. I’ve come to expect silence when we enter them early in the morning. Aki is the most animated thing in the forest. She winds on and off the trail tracking something of great interest. The sun has yet to reach the beaver dam as we pass it but I can still make out the pale reflection of blue sky among the pond reeds.
Eagle screams break the silence as one of the big birds flies over our heads. I hear a doleful song that sounds like a loon calling for its missing mate. Another eagle screams outs and flies away. Aki and I head toward the beach and closer to the source of the despondent call. When it sounds again, I realize it is a woman calling for her missing dog. A male voice joins the woman’s but he is calling out to a different dog.
The couple had camped at the edge of the forest. Sometime during the night, their dogs disappeared. They spread out into the woods and called for their missing pets. It takes five of their shouts to disturb to flight two eagles that had been feeding on the tidal flats. Two more shouts force a roosting eagle to fly over to Shaman Island.
Until we stumble across the squirrel, we will hear the people searching for their dogs. I will want their calls to stop or at least figure out a way to ignore them. But I am a dog owner aware of the many ways harm can come to a dog in these woods. I keep Aki close as we loop back to the car. A few hundred meters from the trail’s end something that sounds like a congested rodent scolds us. When I stop to investigate, a squirrel climbs out on a nearby branch and continues its lecture.
We would have never have know of this guy’s presence if it had kept quiet. I wonder what evolutionary edge squirrels gain by revealing their position by chittering. Knowing I will not get an answer to that question, I wonder if the squirrel is trying to tell us where to find the missing dogs. More likely, it is just complaining about all the noise.
This is a sad day for Aki, not because we failed to find many berries to pick but because her beloved Frisbee floated away. She has lost five other Frisbees in the same manner. Today, while we walked from the berry patch toward the trailhead, the little dog shot off the trail and down a steep path to Montana Creek. Not realizing the danger, she dropped her Frisbee into the water for cleaning. In seconds it floated away down stream. Her other human slid down the trail in hopes of retrieving the toy. But it was already out of reach.
Aki refused to accept her loss. She urged her other human to go get the saucer-shaped toy. She had to be carried halfway up the stream bank before she agreed to join me on the trail. Even after we started back to the car, she would look with expectation at the little shoulder pouch that once housed her special, plastic friend.
From inside the Troll Woods the river sounds angry. It sounds hungry for land. I wonder briefly whether it is also hungry for Aki and me. Then I realize that rivers swollen to near flood stage must be indifferent to the bodies that fall into their grasp. They just carry them away like fallen trees or glacial silt.
Days ago an ice dam in Suicide Basin crumbled, releasing a reservoir of melt water. The water streamed down the glacier and poured into Mendenhall Lake. As the lake waters rose, they destroyed the nests of arctic terns and closed off popular trails. The floodwaters swelled the river, helping it escape its traditional channel and make a new one down the middle of the trail we used to access the woods.
The river doesn’t have to so all this to remind me that the glacier is melting. I have been witnessing its retreat for the last twenty years.
A week shy of August and it’s time to gather food before the fall. Aki and her humans head into a wood thick with blue berry brush. While the little dog chases her Frisbee, her humans range around the woods but find very few berries to harvest. Our search leads us to the edge of a stream that should contain spawning silver salmon. But like the blue berries, the salmon are hard to find.
We leave the forest to search another, crossing on the way an open muskeg meadow. Cloudberries the color of birch or maple leaves in fall dot the wet ground. I pluck a ripe one up, pleased that it tastes like the salmon berries we once harvested on the tundra of Southwest Alaska. Like its tundra cousin, this muskeg cloudberry (hjortron) tastes sweet and sour with a bitterness that you’d expect from something grown in ground dominated by winter.
We see the four eagles before spotting a salmon. One of the eagles is tearing flesh from the flopping fish. The other three have spread themselves out on the gravel bar. Each of these is hoping to snag the next salmon that moves out of the current to rest in the lee of the gravel bar.
Down river, another quartet of bald eagles bickered over a different salmon. Eight eagles and one only two salmon might indicate a problem. There should be hundreds, if not thousands of dog salmon moving up the river now to their spawning grounds. I pray that the fish are just late.
If they have any spiritual beliefs, the Eagle River black bears might be appealing to their deities. They need lots of fish to get through the winter. None of the eight piles of fresh scat that we skirted on the river trail contained remains of fish. They were spotted with unripe high-bush cranberries.
Aki, the health of everything along the river depends on good salmon returns, even the trees. The salmon could fit in my hand when they first left the river. They need to spend at least a year wandering and feeding in the ocean before coming home to spawn. Some might be five or ten kilos when they arrive. Something or a combination of things—warming sea temperatures, pollution, new ocean predators able to take advantage to climate change—might be threatening the fish upon which so much of rain forest life depends.