The weatherman promised partly cloudy skies for this morning. A gray versus blue battle rages over Gastineau Meadow. Earlier this morning the blue forces seemed about to win the day for the sun. Then fog patches rose from the forested mountainsides. The marine layer solidified and dropped down to connect up with its grey allies. Disappointed for not being able to see sun lighted mountainsides, I feel like a victim of the war. Aki, of course, couldn’t care less. Before we return to the car she will have checked her pee mail and made at least six new dog friends.
This morning Aki will meet a scary looking but nice dog and a nice looking dog that will act scary. Both interactions will have peaceful outcomes. We won’t meet anyone else on our walk along the shore of Mendenhall Lake.
I am surprised to have the spectacular scenery to ourselves this morning. The low clouds that had been obscuring the glacier and its mountains have lifted. No wind prevents the lake from making perfect reflections of them. Only sunshine would ramp up the beauty. But that would also raise a wind to shatter the crisp reflections.
As usual when taking this walk, I am moving down a mucky beach while Aki parallels me on a mossy forest trail. Suddenly she is at my side being chased by a hulking American bulldog. Aki ducks between my legs and then burst out to chase the bulldog. In seconds I know the new arrival is a sweet guy. In distance we hear his owner’s voice. She will tell us how she lives nearby and will display a local’s knowledge of the beavers that raise their young near where she raises her’s.
I envy the relationship the bulldog owner has with this dramatic slice of the rain forest. Except for the neighborhood ravens, wild animals only transit through our Chicken Ridge neighborhood. We encourage the porcupines to move on before they devour more of our fruit trees. We pray that black bears will spend more time on the salmon streams than knocking over neighborhood trash bins. I’d like the song birds to spend longer in our trees but they are too busy to comply. Mostly we see cars and dog walkers.
Feeling a little sorry for myself, I lead Aki onto a road through an empty campground. Around the corner a nuclear family of three approaches accompanied by a border collie. The dog drops it head and tail and pads towards us like we are rebellious sheep. It growls and barks when Aki moves toward it. Aki looks shocked but soon recovers. We will never see the collie or her human charges again. But the dog’s bark will reach us from across the forest many times before we return to the car.
The tide is out so the table is set for the scavengers of the Fish Creek Delta. Aki and I startle a bald eagle into flight when we break out of the woods. It flies towards us and then makes a panicked turn toward the safety of a spruce tree. I wonder if Aki took heart in this show of vulnerability from a bird that normally would make him seek shelter.
Cotton-ball fog hangs over the spruce-covered islands and obscures our view of glaciers and mountains. Hundreds of mallards fish, head buried in water, just off the beach. Three red-breasted mergansers plow the waters a hundred feet further out. None of the ducks take any notice of the little dog and I until the curving trail brings us too close. Even then they only fly out to a nearby sand bar.
The mallards make a lot of noise as they relocate. Aki appears to take no notice. I once had a terrier that loved to flush ducks off a beach. I am thankful that the poodle-mix is so reserved around waterfowl.\
The ducks stir a large flock of shore birds (semipamated plovers?) into flight but soon they return to feeding. The delta gulls seem immune to panic. But one flies over to a pair of its kind to see if they have found something to fight over. It glides with the grace of a well-bred princess and then crashes into the water. On a windy day it would have dropped, helicopter-like, onto the water. Today it lands like a student failing his first flight test.
Standing at our living room window, I spent some time this morning cataloguing the Alaska words for the action of rain. It can drizzle, fall, shower, obscure, soak, pour, spit, depress, rinse, wash away, flood, and sluice. That’s the word for this morning’s stormy offering—sluice. Even though the rain was sluicing down on Chicken Ridge, I wrapped Aki and myself in rain gear and drove out to North Douglas Island. The microclimate there often offers drier days.
Rain obscured our view of the road. But it did not discourage several bald eagles from circling a roadside beach. A hunter must have dumped a deer carcass there. This has become a thanksgiving tradition for scavengers like eagles, crows and ravens.
I drove on to the trailhead but planned on looking for the deer carcass on the way home. While a strong wind played through the forest canopy, Aki and I walked to the beach. We had the Rainforest Trail to ourselves. It seems emptier than usual. We didn’t even hear the sound of gull bickering as we left the forest. Only a small raft of fish ducks worked the offshore waters.
On the way home I stopped where we had earlier spotted the eagles. While Aki waited in the car, I found the expected deer carcass surrounded by eagles and ravens. Most of the birds flew off. One raven and an eagle stood their ground. They faced each other over the carcass and then took to the air. As I started back to the car, the birds settled back on the beach to continue their battle over the deer remains.
On this rainy morning, Aki and I are going old school. Rather than drive to some remote trailhead, we will start an exploration of Downtown Juneau from the house. On the way we will visit some sculptures and watch ravens fool around. There will be an eagle, only one, but it will sulk on a light standard with it’s back to us. Aki will refresh her pee mail trap line. Her stubborn streak will appear and she will throw on the brakes to keep us from exploring new paths. We will pass a great bronze whale and life-sized bear made from the same material, each glistening with rain. When we return home, I will need extra time to dry the little dog with a towel.
Recently I watched a reporter ask people in a grocery store, “If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would you choose?” As if they were deciding which of their children to put up for adoption, they hemmed and hawed before answering. One man said he would give up his sight. A few opted to sacrifice their sense of taste. Most, however, said they would give up their ability to hear. I’d hate to be unable to hear, especially on this gray day in the mountains when wind music and bird song provide most of the drama.
Aki and I have just dropped off a frozen muskeg meadow that was a study in low contrast colors. The red color of four bog cranberries sang out for my attention. I popped the plumpest one in my mouth, enjoying its powerful tartness until Aki have me a hard look. Last summer she developed a taste for sweet blueberries. Knowing her taste preferences, I didn’t offer her a cranberry.
We enter a hemlock forest where the sounds of a stream break the silence. The pitch and tone of the stream changes as the trail moves us closer to it. The monotony of forest green would soon grow boring if we couldn’t hear the hard-working watercourse.
So much depends on the sun this time of year. This morning, it appeared early over Gastineau Channel and then moved behind a band of clouds. They were too thin to totally obscure the sun, but they did reduce its candle power to that of a full moon. Aki and I could postpone our morning walk to see if the sun will rise about the clouds. But I don’t trust the clouds not to eventually block the entire sky. So the little dog and I head out to the Sheep Creek delta in semi-darkness.
Three or four eagles glide over the channel. One stands next to the creek facing the rising sun. Nearby gulls ignore the eagle. But when it takes flight, it flushes a raft of mallards into half-hearted flight.
The rising sun brings a wind that blows the little dog and I off the delta. Aki doesn’t mind. It means we have more time for her favorite walk in front of the old ore house. On the beach a man messes about with a thrown-together gold dredging operation while his pit bull invites Aki over for a sniff.
When the sun finally muscles its way to the upper edge of the clouds it brings clarity to the stream, allowing me to make out individual ducks and gulls. Just before the sun breaks into the clear, the circle of light that it formed in the clouds expands and a rainbow-like sundog forms above the Douglas Mountain Ridge.
Aki and I are sloshing down a trail that circles the Outer Point beaver pond. The beavers worked hard last night to build up the dam. But their edifice leaks water that floods part of the trail and erodes other sections of it. For the first time I feel a little fear that the dam may give way. If it failed now, the little dog and I would be washed away.
Aki is so low to the ground that she has never seen the water on the other side of the dam. Even if she could see it, I doubt if she would care until a cascade of water swept toward her.
We move to safer ground and follow the trail to the beach. The tide has covered the beach, leaving us only a narrow strip of gravel on which to pass. Even this is encroached on by waves slapping the beach. Aki pushes on ahead until a wave splashes her with water. In a micro-second the little poodle mix whirls around to face her nemeses. A frightened dog would have dashed down the beach where the trail cuts into the forest. But Aki stands her ground, ready to take on the sea.
I wonder if Aki ever feels thankful. Don’t get me wrong. I am not calling her an ungrateful brat. Since she seems to take everything, the good and the bad, as it comes, I wonder if she has the capacity to be thankful for the good.
This morning we crossed the glacial moraine to reach the Mendenhall River. I carry a fishing pole but that is not what the trip is about. This thanksgiving celebration is about the sun burning off lake fog and the raft of common mergansers that dove beneath the waters of Moose Lake when an eagle flew over. I am thankful for those things and the other moraine beauties. I am also thankful for the little dog’s companionship—the way she stands without apparent judgment, while I cast into the river for trout.
If she could, Aki would feel thankful for the sunshine that warms her grey curls as she watches my back. She’d be thankful for the grated cheese that somehow landed in her bowl last night and even the dried kibble she had to make do with this morning. She’d even be thankful for the chance she had yesterday to hunt for scents in the rain.
This morning’s steady downpour has bought Aki and I some solitude. It’s just us, a handful of eagles and one soaking wet raven. The eagles are waiting for the late arrival of silver salmon. One dries its wings in a bare cottonwood tree. The raven looked bored and skeptical before it turned its back on us, defecated and then flew away.
It’s still warm—-well above freezing. This seems to have confused the alders. Some have set spring-green pollen cones that will blacken and die in the next hard frost. Bright green blades of grass poke up through this years dead growth. The sights shakes my faith in the ability of nature to adjust to changes in the season. When we lived in the Yup’k village of Aniak, one of the elders warned me not to transplant garden starts until the birch leaves were as big as squirrel ears. The wise trees could be trusted not to leaf out before the last spring frost. Today’s overly optimistic plant behavior makes me wonder if the old wisdoms are still valid.