There are better trails to take on this rainy morning. Many would offer views of storm clouds over water or mountains. We have no hope of seeing oceans, clouds, whales, eagles or bears along this creek. Even the trail’s surface discourages use. Aki has already become jumpy thanks to the many times I’ve slipped on wet roots or greasy mud. But it’s become an October tradition to hike up the Fish Creek Trail.
Seven Octobers ago I described a trip Aki and I took up this trail in my first blog post. The last of the salmon carcasses had already been washed out to sea by fall storms. With their fishy prey gone the bears, eagles, and herons moved to more likely hunting spots. It was then as it is today, a place gone to rest after the salmon spawn.
Storm flooding and high winds damaged the forest since our last visit. Hundred-year-old trees lay uprooted on dry stream channels. Some blocked the trail until a kind soul with a chain saw cut out a path. A water ouzel (dipper) walks along the creek bottom into the creek’s swift current. It doesn’t stop moving even after it climbs on a midstream rock, bouncing up and down like a child’s toy. Storm floods have wiped away any tracks or scat left along the creek by wild animals. The only signs that eagles ever visited the creek are a few of their dropped feathers in understory plants.
Taking this route was Aki’s idea. I wanted to walk down to the channel, which was sparkling with silver light when we left the house. As we reached the street that offers access to the Perseverance Trail, Aki just broke left. Letting her think it was my plan all along, I followed her.
The little dog trotted past the colorful Craftsmen houses on Basin Road and over the old trestle bridge. The stream, still swollen with rain runoff, ran high and loud beneath us. Only a scattering of yellow leaves clung to their trees. The meadow that slants down the lower flank of Mt. Juneau looked like a faded carpet. I found myself photographing the bare balsam poplar trees that rose above the flume trail on the Mt. Juneau side of Gold Creek. I enjoyed some limp thimbleberry leaves, the yellow color of their leaves enriched by a blink of sunlight. But soon they too will fade and we will have reached the season for admiring shapes and textures instead of color.
There is an apocalyptic feel to this fireweed meadow. The dead stalks retain some beauty thanks to the seed down that still clings to them. But I wonder why the white feathery down hasn’t been carried off in our recent strong winds. Is this a sign? Because she lives in the moment, Aki is never surprised by the things I find surprising. She doesn’t care that the Mendenhall River has eaten away at the meadow and undercut the trail we normally take.
The little dog and I are crossing the meadow where we met a bear on our last visit. The season’s first dusting of snow brightens the surrounding peaks. Six geese, each whiter than the new snow, swing off from Lynn Canal and drift onto the grass. Most of their fellow snow geese passed through here last month on their trip south. These birds should already be with them in the Lower 48 States.
I think about the tiny rufus hummingbird that hovered near our living room window a few days ago, long after the last wild flower went to seed. Elders tell their grandkids that hummingbirds fly south tucked into the feathers of snow geese. I wonder if there is still time for our hummingbird to hitch a ride with these tardy geese.
We have just finished walking the beach that separates the meadow from Lynn Canal. At least I walked. Aki preferred to run out and back, like she did when she was a puppy. There is something about the sand that energizes her. Perhaps it’s the way her paws sink in or the thrill of sending grains fly with every step. At least one raven watched the little dog run.
Fog can bring melancholy when it blocks the sun and mountains for days. It can ground airplanes and make hazardous ship travel. But this morning it seems to have magical powers, turning the sun into the moon, and reducing Mount Jumbo to two dimensions. Aki squints up at me, as if she can read my thoughts and is not pleased with them. True, she might say if she had the power of speech, the fog obscures all but the outlines of mountains and the sun. But that’s down to science, not magic.
The little poodle mix may just be upset that we left the house before she had her morning cheese. Or maybe she is disappointed that no other dog walkers have joined us on the Gastineau Meadows. I also wonder if we mistimed this visit. By delaying long enough for Aki to enjoy her cheese course, we might have been able to walk on the meadows in sunlight and watched the fog melt away.
Aki doesn’t show any impatience after I plant myself on the trail to wait for the sun to burn through the fog. It does manage to punch out a small hole in the gray and shine on the flank of Sheep Mountain. Then the fog thickens and covers the sun and the few patches of blue sky that had formed briefly over Mt. Juneau. Well little dog, time for cheese.
This morning sixty knot gusts knocked over trash bins and ran away with our newspaper. On North Douglas Island it shattered at least one hemlock tree. Enjoying a hike during a storm break, Aki and I have to step over the fallen tree in order to finish the Outer Point Trail.
The storm threw another impediment in our way. Recent rain raised the water level in the beaver pond to the flood stage. Little cascades flow over the beaver’s dams and eat away at the trail. A small portion of the trail is covered with pond water. Aki prances through the flooded parts. I find an alternative route through the woods.
After working around the downed tree, we hear loon song coming from the beach. It continues after we leave the woods, joined by the work songs of sparrows. Our arrival coincides with a break in the storm. One shaft of light strikes Shaman Island and reaches across Lynn Canal to light up Lena Point. The loon continues its operatic chant even after the gray returns. But the sparrows go silent at the first fall of new rain.
Aki and I have reached the edge of Gastineau Channel near the mouth of Sheep Creek. Crows and gulls, scattered over the creek delta like salt and pepper, pay no attention to the little dog and I. Even the normally jumpy mallards ignore us. A small raft of ducks land on the channel waters and paddle our way. What are we little dog, invisible?
I recognize a male golden eye in the newly arrived raft. But I can’t make out the rest of the gang. My best guess is that they are female common golden eyes. Whatever they are, the birds swim towards us as if I held a bucket of grain for them to devour.
I lead the little dog away from the golden eyes to the edge of a small tidal lake where mallards, gulls, and crows feed. The lake reflects the faded fall colors on Sheep Mountain. On a sunny day, the images would be crisper than those of the reflected trees. But in today’s flat light, they are as abstract as Monet ‘s water lilies.
Distracted by a U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter flying down Gastineau Channel, I didn’t notice the raven arrive. When Aki finally looks at the big bird atop the root wad of a driftwood log, she shows little interest. I wonder if the raven is hurt or happy about the slight.
The raven tolerates my efforts to photograph for a minute and then turns it’s beak in my direction. It’s body language communicates a clear message—that’s enough photographs, please. Lacking a paparazzo’s boldness, I turn to look down channel where a Coast Guard rescues boat chases the helicopter toward Admiralty Island.
The low clouds that had been obscuring our view of Taku Inlet move up channel. We watch the rescue vehicles disappear into a wall of white. Minutes later it returns. Was the pilot forced to abandon his mission by weather or is the helicopter no longer needed. Hoping it is the later and that the missing folks have been located safe on a beach, I following Aki into the Treadwell forest.
Aki won’t leave the car. For the first time ever at a trailhead, she doesn’t leap out the door the minute I open it. A light rain is falling but in the past even heavy downpours haven’t deterred her. As if trained in etiquette by an Irishman, she waits for me to ask her three timed before dropping onto the ground.
The little dog stays right on my heals as we cross the Fish Creek Bridge and head toward the pond. She looks back often, even when squatting to defecate. She has smelled a wild animal that might harm us. I know it is not a bear because, unwisely, she has no fear of them. I remember the wolf that hunted here during the salmon spawn. Maybe it is back. Aki calms down after we round the pond.
Even through the tide has covered over the wetlands, which would normally force all the eagles to roost in shoreline spruce trees, none of the big birds announces our approach with screams. We won’t see any eagles, ravens, or crows during the visit. The resident mallards are also gone. A pair of western grebes fish just offshore in Fritz Cove. Behind them a line of harlequin and golden eye ducks fly feet off of the water. Across the horizon, hundreds of migratory birds head south, too far away for me to identify them.
Aki perks up when we turn to head back to car, but stops often to make sure that I am not lagging behind. I feel like a child being escorted down a dangerous city street. We drive home through a downpour, which discourages me from exiting the car when we reach the house. Aki waits for me on the front porch even though the door is already open. She will wait there until I gather everything from the car and walk into the safety of our home.
We are deep in the troll woods, surrounded by moss-covered trees. Aki just froze in place, her twitching nose the only thing on her body that moves. She stares into the woods. But whatever she smells is too far away to see. There is a stream of spawning salmon in direction of her stare. There are probably bears as well.
I am not worried. We have seen no sign of bears—no scat or tracks. We have seen little of anything except bare trees and gray skies. On each of the small lakes we pass, we did see pairs of bufflehead and golden eye ducks. These are the winter guys are back from the outer coast. Their white feather patterns make them easy to spot on the lakes’ dark waters. No wonder they move to the opposite side of their lake when we near.