We’d be alone on the Gastineau Meadows if not for the Stellar’s jays. Aki could enjoy the touch of morning sunshine that warms her curls if the birds would just shut up. Two of the birds follow us like private security guards on a gated estate. The little poodle-mix and I are persons of interest.
Turn about being fair play, I switch my attention from the glowing meadow grasses to the jays; watch their pump and glide flight along the trailside trees. They are too beautiful to be so grumpy. When we have demonstrated our harmlessness, the jays fly to another section of the meadow where one chases the other out of a tree, chattering abuse the whole time.
We will soon be facing seven months of winter so why and I taking Aki into the mountains. We could have taken a sea level hike, maybe even taken a nap in the late summer sun. But ice and cold bring beauty. That is certainly true of this mountain meadow.
Frost had whitened the entire meadow before the sun climbed above the Douglas Island ridge. But it has softened to dew everywhere the sun touched. In their fall colors of red, yellow and order, most of the meadow plants still sparkle with moisture. But their dramatic display will end when they dry out in the sun.
Last night’s temperatures froze over the meadow ponds. The new ice grips the long legs of a water strider that was trapped by the sudden freeze. I wonder if it will be alive when the ice melts.
Hoping to locate some ripe lingonberries, I leave the gravel trail and walk on to the meadow. The muskeg is crunchy with ice and seems to break underfoot. I can’t find any lingonberries. Just one low-bush blueberry. After eating it, I look for Aki and find her planted near the gravel trail. She makes me feel guilty for damaging the fragile muskeg with my boot prints. I try to ignore her distain but, as is often the case, she will win the battle.
We are going to pay for this sometime. That’s what I’d tell Aki if she wasn’t charging after her Frisbee. Normally the Rain Forest monsoon season starts in September and continues until the first winter high-pressure system settles over the ice field. But we have only had a few drops of rain since August. Aki doesn’t complain. She lives in the moment and right now the moment is providing her with sunshine.
The little dog, her other human and I are walking along the southwest shore of Mendenhall Lake. The lake is flat calm, its surface broken only by incoming silver salmon. The sun enhances the yellow of cottonwood leaves and lightens the British racing green color of the surrounding spruce trees.
For the first time since last spring, Aki slips on ice. Shaded puddles are cover with a thick skim of it. When the sun first touches the beach pebbles, they sparkle with new-formed ice. But in minutes they dull to normal.
The birds are back little dog. Looking up from a scent spot that has occupied her attention for the last minute, Aki gives me a “Dah” look. She might think I am referring to the adult bald eagle that had been feeding a few feet away when we reached the Shaman Island beach. The big bird flew off to a glacier erratic on the other side of Peterson Creek and landed. From that vantage point and safe from poodles, it waits for us to leave so it can return to its feast.
No Aki, I am not referring to that eagle or the other one roosting nearby. Look there. I point toward the island where a small raft of harlequin ducks are performing the synchronized swimming routine their kind performs when feeding. All summer the harlequins have been hanging out on the outer coast with red-breasted mergansers and the other fish ducks. The little bay has been lonely in their absence. It’s good to have them back. Closer to the beach, a smaller raft of widgeons have their heads in the water feeding. These guys must be heading south.
We passed other signs of fall along the forest trail that we used to get to this beach. The leaves of wild crabapple trees and blueberry bushes were in high autumn colors. Some of the devil’s club and skunk cabbage were yellowing. And the downy woodpeckers that seem to only appear at the change of seasons, were hammering away at old growth spruce and hemlock trees.
We are more than thirty miles away from home. Within a few miles on either side of us, bears are chasing spawning salmon along our favorite hiking trails. Not wanting them to chase the little dog, I chose this walk along the beaches of Bridget Cove. Strong sun makes Aki squint as we walk along the first beach, giving her a skeptical look. Maybe she can’t accept the apparent lack of waterfowl and gulls that normally bounce along the cove’s waters.
The trail takes us up and over a series of headlands and then across a broad beach. Here a family enjoys a picnic so I put Aki on her leash. Otherwise she will try to make friends with the family’s snarly-sounding dog and beg for food. We move past the family and through another headland forest before dropping down to our lunch spot—a pocket beach rarely visited by other trail users. Today’s strong north wind is driving lines of waves into the cove that sparkle in the strong light. We could be in Cinque Terra nursing an afternoon expresso if not for the two bickering eagles, the lack of terra cota colored buildings, and the bodies of jelly fish that have grounded themselves on the beach during the last high tide.
The jellies are compressed wonders. The image of this one could be of a far off nebula captured by the Hubble Telescope.
Looks like our recent drought is going to deny us a colorful fall, at least along the banks of Gold Creek. The heart-shaped cottonwood trees have gone directly from green to dead brown. Many are covering this little used spur trail. In a normal September, any leaf that falls to the ground turns to soft mush. Today our feet crunch through the recently fallen.
I try not to worry about our rainless rain forest and just enjoy the noise. Why should the kids in New England have all the fun. Shafts of sunlight enrich the red of a few of the forest’s dogwood leaves. When one of the thirty-mile-an-hour gusts stirs the forest, the dogwood leaves flash their pink undersides.
Looks like the party is over little dog. Aki and I just crossed Fish Creek , which now appears to be empty of salmon. No eagles roost in creek side trees. We can’t even spot the pair of squabbling ravens that usually patrol the creek’s gravel bars.
The kingfisher that guards the pond is still here. When it spots us, the little bird flies off to give the alarm. It is time, I think, for the land to go to rest for winter. Then two silver salmon, sides spawning-red, leap about the surface of the pond. An eagle screams. The party is still on.
The eagle doesn’t bother Aki. She stares at the water as if willing the salmon to jump again. When they don’t she trots around the pond to where the trail climbs onto a low dike. There, a great blue heron surprises both of us by flying out of a nearby tree and settling onto the limb of a spruce just twenty feet away.
Aki seems glued to the spot on the trail where she first spotted the heron. When I call her she looks in the big bird’s direction as if to say, are you crazy, that thing is ten times my size. I could tell her that the heron hunts small fish, not small dogs. But from past experience I know that she won’t move. I’ll have to carry her to the perceived safety of the woods.