Aki just threw on her brakes. After sniffing the air over this mountain meadow she stopped and planted her four paws at the edge of the gravel trail. Now she refuses to take another step. I want to walk far enough into the meadow to get good views of the surrounding mountains. Remembering something that happened during a recent berry-picking trip, I pick two high bush blue berries and pop them in my mouth. Then I pick two more and offer them to the little dog. Out shoots her tongue and the berries are gone.
Aki wags her tail and trots along behind me, strike apparently over. She freezes ten minutes later and again refuses to move. I offer her two more high bush berries but she refuses them. I offer her some low bush blue berries, which she snatches out of my hand. As long as I can offer her more of the sweeter low bush berries, she will follow me to trail’s end.
With Aki’s cooperation secured, I can think about the little sculpture we passed on the way to the meadow—.a small yellow flag planted in a pile of dog poop. The name and face of Alaska’s current governor was printed on the flag. I guess that since he is trying to cut the university budget almost in half, end funding to programs that provide basic services to kids, the poor and elderly, and make deep cuts to the ferries that service our roadless communities, the governor is about as popular right now as dog poop.
Nothing goes to waste in the rainforest little dog, not even your poop. Aki, who watches me daily gather her bowel movements into a plastic bag and then deposit it a bear-proof garbage can, might argue. Without my intervention, her poop could fertilize the forest.
In the next few weeks birds and bears will eat the forest’s still ripening berries. They will scatter the indigestible seeds around the forest wrapped in their scat. Overripe berries will drop to the ground to provide more nutrients for their mother plant. Spent leaves will soon follow. Everything, even fallen old growth trees support forest life after their deaths.
The trail Aki and I take this morning leads past the decaying trunks of fallen giants. Hundreds of hemlock or spruce sprigs grown on these nursery logs. In a hundred years, two or three of these babies will grow toward the sky until their tops form part of the forest canopy.
The path we take to the Mendenhall Wetlands is lined with blooming fireweed stalks, some six feet tall. Almost a month ago magenta colored followers only circled the lower parts of each stalk. After blooming, the lower flowers went to seed. Just above them, a new set of blooms opened. The upward progress continued until now all but the top five inches of the stalks have bloomed. When the topmost flower bud opens it will mark the end of our Alaskan summer.
A gray quilt of clouds hangs over the wetlands when Aki and I emerge from a tunnel of willows. Fireweeds grow here as well, forming thick magenta patches on a grassy plain. Drab-colored sparrows watch us while perched in dried cow parsnip stalks. Shafts of sunlight break through the cloud canopy to brighten the yellowing grass and the surface of the Mendenhall River. It just reaches a bald eagle keeping lookout on a driftwood log.
The storm light promises downpours, rainbows, or clear blue skies. Then the cloud coalesce and we are again dominated by gray. I look for waterfowl or more eagles and only find sparrows. The bigger birds have already been flushed away by groups of Labradors and other waterdogs stretching their legs on the wetlands.
Three miles north of the Douglas Island Bridge a regiment of bald eagles waits. They will wait until the tide crests and then ebbs. Then they will search the exposed flats for salmon alive or dead. From the top of a grass-covered bank I watch the eagles preen, argue, or sleep while Aki wanders around sniffing and leaving scents for other dogs to sniff. She must becoming deaf to eagle screams.
Later, we will hike down a rain forest trail to the beach, seeing evidence of a dying summer along the way. Fruit will still pull at the branches of berry bushes but many of the surrounding leaves will be fading to fall colors. The leaves of other plants will bare wounds from months of insect attacks.
We will take a beach trail lined with stalks of dead-brown cow parsnip. I will look, without success, for splashes of color among the beach grass. Gulls will sleep on offshore rocks. They, like the eagles will be waiting for the big salmon die off.
When she was a puppy, Aki would travel at least twice the distance as I on our daily walks. I would stick to the trail. She would wander back and forth across it, usually at a run. The little dog, now the age of a granddame and I have switched roles.
This morning Aki sticks to the trail across this mountain meadow as I wander its margins looking for cloudberries. She doesn’t follow me until the distance between us exceeds her comfort level. Nearing that point, I turn around and see her, four paws planted firmly on the proper trail, giving me a look of incongruity. She doesn’t flinch even though heavy rain is soaking into her fur. Seconds later she trots up to me just as a gang of six large dogs run head on into a family with their own dog.
Through the rain I watch the confused, very loud meeting. There is yelling, barking, more yelling, and then apologies. When things calm down, I realize that Aki has kept her eyes on me the whole time. Was she worried that I would join the fray?
Something has drawn a cabal of ravens to Sandy Beach. A dozen of the grouchy birds sulk on the sand or on top of broken wharf pilings. The usual eagle sits on its perch on the roof of the old ventilation shaft. The eagle isn’t watching the ravens. It stares down the beach toward Marmion Island.
I follow the eagle’s gaze and spot what looks like a giant bald eagle walking along the edge of the collapsed glory hole. In the rainforest, ravens are credited in legend with having magical powers, not eagles. Are the little dog and I witnessing the start of a new legend.
As we approach a dog climbs out of the water and runs up to the big eagle. The “eagle” is only a white-haired woman wearing a coat that hangs off her body like a bell. For some reason I don’t want to approach any further. Maybe it is because with each step the woman becomes more human than bird-like. Feeling foolish, I lead Aki back into the Treadwell Woods. Then I wonder if the real eagle, sitting on top of the ventilator shaft, was also fooled.
Aki was angry with me this morning. It was my fault. I slipped out of the house for an early coffee date with a friend. She stayed behind. My sin only postponed our walk for 90 minutes but, for her, it was unpardonable. Aki’s other human had to pull her out of her kennel so we could leave for the Outer Point Trail.
Aki’s anger gave way to excitement by the time we pulled into the empty trailhead parking area. I am pleased to know no one will be in front of us. Aki might feel disappointment by the lack of possible dog encounters. The forest is a silent place until a pair of Stellar’s jays scold us. Then an eagle, perched just above in an old growth spruce, screams.
I wonder why the eagle is here when salmon are staging at the mouth of nearby Peterson Creek. Then we see the duck. It’s the same mallard hen that weeks ago had defended her chicks from an eagle and a heron. She’s alone this morning, paddling near an elevated walkway. There is no sign of her chicks.
Normally I don’t take sides in the violent encounters that happen in the woods. Animals have to die so that others can live. But I find myself hoping that the at least some of the mallard’s kids survive.