This morning broke clear with blue skies dotted with scattered islands of small clouds. After breakfast the little dog and I head out to the mountains. We rush to the catch of the Mediterranean-like light that will fade as the sun arcs toward noon. The sound of excited children greet us. It seems like every school child in Juneau is berry picking on the mountain meadows.
There are many berries and many meadows so we will rarely run into any of the kids. A pleasant surprise did wait for us when we crest a mountain shoulder and drop into a pocket meadow—frost. It is the fragile first mountain frost, soon turned to dew after a few seconds in sun.
I find a patch of frosted blueberry plants, none standing more than six inches above the meadow muskeg, each leaf a calico of reds, yellows, and oranges. The sun climbs above a protecting stand of mountain hemlock trees to turn each berry into a Christmas ornament dangling on a party-colored tree. I filled my hand with blues and offer them to Aki. The little poodle mix lifts each into her mouth with her clever tongue.
This morning a porcupine watched the little dog and I leave for a hike. This American version of a hedgehog had tucked itself away among the limbs of our apple tree. I probably should have used a water hose to drive it away. But the little guy looked so peaceful, almost saint-like. Besides, at the moment it wasn’t breaking branches or eating twigs. Porky would leave on its own time, before Aki and I returned from today’s adventure.
We drove out the North Douglas Highway to Fish Creek. No salmon fought for spawning space beneath the walking bridge. None could hold their own against the rain-swollen creek current. The high water had flushed the gravel bars clean of decaying fish. There was nothing to attract eagles or ravens. When we moved toward the pond I could hear an eagle scream but saw only clouds reflected in the surface waters.
A strong tide flooded the creek side meadow, creating a temporary reflecting pond that captured clouds trying to block out the run above the Douglas Island ridge. Two eagles sulked in creek-side trees. One turned its head, as if to ignore us. The other dropped low over the inundated meadow and flew off toward the glacier.
Aki is snoozing, worn out from herding another human and myself around the Treadwell Ruins. She was much less opinionated than when the two of us walk the ruins alone. She didn’t stall and stare, as she normally would, when I started up a trail that leads to a junkyard of gold mining stuff. She dutifully dogged at the heals of our human friend, waiting without complaint when we stopped to take photographs of an ore car in its rusting glory.
Sunshine powered through the forest canopy, raising the candlepower of yellowing devil’s club leaves beyond what my old DSLR could handle. Aki must has been squinting her eyes. We moved to an overlook where through a double chain link fence we watched a stream plunge several hundred feet into the flooded glory hole. Anywhere but here, where every mountain hosts at least one waterfall, this one would be mentioned in tourist material. Only locals can find this waterfall, and only those willing to climb the fence can see it’s entire length.
When Aki herded us onto Sandy Beach it seems packed with dog walkers, each smiling as their border collie or husky dog trotted along the water line. Forgetting her duties, my little poodle-mix dashed toward them. When they ignored her, Aki ran full speed down the beach, turned a wide arc and dashed back to her human charges. Break over, she dropped behind my human friend’s heals and monitored our progress back to the car.
Aki looks upset. It could be the rain that pounds down on the little dog. She might be uncomfortable in the extra clothes I pulled over her head to keep her warm on this cool fall day. Perhaps she is having an existential crisis, wondering whether there is a point to her daily walks in the rain.The 12-year-old could quickly relieve herself in the side yard and be back in the house before the rain could darkened her curls.
I move on down the Outer Point Trail, one of her favorites. Aki stalls and then shuffles slowing towards me, head down. She spends little time checking the pee mail. Maybe the rain has managed to wash even the persistent dog urine away. I can feel water working its way down my collar and seep through my jacket fabric to soak into the sleeves of my pull over. Now of one mind with the poodle-mix, I speed up the pace, looking to be back at the car before rain washes the trail and us away.
We stall for a few minutes where the trail touches the beach. A half-a-dozen eagles sulk in the trees or along the shore of Peterson Creek. They show no interest in us. Nor do a mixed flock of dark-eyed juncos and swallows. An abundance of rain does that even to those that earn their living in the wild.
On our return through the forest we learn that our concern over wash outs is justified. Water backed up by a beaver dam has closed over sections of the boardwalk trail. Aki and I splash through, emerging with wet feet. A top-notched Steller’s jay watches while perched on a partially submerged skunk cabbage leaf. Normally a jumpy bird, the jay looks more puzzled than alarmed at our presence.
There is beauty this morning in the Troll Woods. I can see it after wiping rain from my glasses. It comes from the rain that coats the reddening leaves with shimmering shellac and forms crystal globes of light on the bottom of high bush cranberries. Aki, a more than willing participant in this adventure, shivers as I study the leopard pattern of a cottonwood leaf that has lodged itself in a tangle of tree moss. She is fine as long as we keep moving, so I try not to stop often.
We cross a young forest, visiting a series of lakes that were formed by men removing gravel from raw glacial moraine. Nature eventually repaired most of the damage. Now salmon smolt and trout hide from merganser ducks in lake reeds and grass. Cottonwoods, alders, and stunted spruce fill the spaces between lakes. We have to keep an eye out for wandering black bears.
The flat light of this gray day dampens the beauty of the yellowing cottonwoods that line the north end of Crystal Lake. They will stun when seen on the next sunny day, as long as an October storm doesn’t strip them bare first.
Aki is staying at home today. It’s a good thing. She wouldn’t have liked this porcupine. She hasn’t liked porcupines since one of them flung a shower of needles into her face. I can’t blame the porky. It didn’t know that Aki wasn’t a mean spirited predator.
A friend and I are above the timberline on Mt. Roberts. We took the tram up from salt water and then climbed up through a thin line of timber before reaching the alpine. On a clear day we could see up and down Gastineau Channel and across the Douglas Island ridge to Admiralty Island. This afternoon, obscuring mist opens and closes off views from the mountain. Any disappointment from the lack of views is made up by this chance for a close up observation of a baby porcupine.
It hangs from a tangle of alder branches like a jungle sloth, nibbling on tender shoots. A cruise ship tourist joins us and expresses intent to stroke the porky’s spiny back. We move on before the disaster happens and in minutes stumble on a willow ptarmigan in its chestnut summer plumage. It freezes in place until startled to flight by two tourists who never knew the bird was there.
Fisherman have displaced heron on the Sheep Creek Delta. A line of humans with fishing poles lines Gastineau Channel. A cloud of gulls surrounds the successful ones that are already cleaning their catch. Scattered across the delta, eagles watch the action like judgmental policemen.
Silver salmon are powering their way against the creek current, driven toward their spawning ground. Aki wants nothing to do with the fish or the fishermen. She dashes down the beach toward a golden retriever. The golden breaks off from playing catch with its owner to run circles around our little poodle-mix. Aki leans into each turn, like a Formula One racer, throwing up sand in her wake.
For a second or two, sunshine breaks through the cloud cover that has darkened Juneau skies for a week. When it disappears, I lookdown the channel, to where the southern tip of Douglas Island pushes into Taku Inlet. The forest there is almost painfully bright as sunshine sparkles on the needles of rain-soaked trees.
On the drive from town we saw the Chilkat Mountains for the first time in a week. We meant to walk around the Troll Woods but the northern break in the clouds encouraged me to change plans and head to Auk Bay. I wanted to get a better view of the mountains from Point Louisa.
Aki was happy with the change of plans. The Auk trail is a dog rich environment. She would see and smell more than six dogs on the trail. Only one would growl at her. From the trail I would search a crescent-shaped bay for the raft of harlequin ducks that usually winter there. I’d strain to see the black triangle dorsal fins of the little Dall porpoise that are often see there this time of year, chasing late returning salmon. There’d be no porpoise sign but a raft of harlequins would appear on the bay’s surface in quick succession of plops and the return to the water in a snappy group dive. We would stop often to check on the transition of the fireweed and dogwood plants from summer green to autumn reds.
After listening to the morning’s forecast for high winds and heavy rain, I gather Aki from a cozy corner of the living room and lead her to the car. Outside. the trees in our yard dance awkwardly in a twenty knot wind. Rain obscures the car’s windshield. We must rush to get in a walk before the bad weather hits.
I choose the Rainforest Trail this morning for the storm protection it offers. But we must be out of the forest before the wind becomes strong enough to snap the trailside hemlock trees. The forecast only called for forty-knot gusts, which shouldn’t have to power to down old growth trees. But the grey morning light has made me a little paranoid. Sometimes weather forecasts are proven wrong.
The forest seems to absorb the storm’s power, we walk down to the beach unbothered by wind but still soaked by the persistent rain. The water between the beach and Shaman Island is empty of birds. I assume that the resident ducks are still feeding in the open water sections of our rain forest archipelago. Then a man fires his shotgun twice, flushing an eagle and several gulls into the air. The eagle joins two other eagles circling the treetops of Shaman Island. Aki whines and crouches close to the soaked ground. We return to the woods, hoping that the gunner is blown off the beach by the storm.
We reached Sandy Beach this morning at low tide. A bedraggled eagle hunches on the roof of the mine ventilator shaft. When I look away, distracted by a silver salmon splashing off shore, the eagle flies down the beach and over a resting murder of crows. Since the eagle is heading in the direction of its nest, I assume it is just returning home, tired of roosting in the rain.
Four other eagles are bickering with crows when we reach the little bay formed by the collapse of subsea mining tunnels a hundred years ago. Dive-bombing crows forced one of the eagles off the beach and onto the top of a splintered piling.
Apparently menaced by a crow a fraction of its size, the eagle takes off. The crow, a much more agile flyer that the eagle, grabs at the eagle’s tail and wing feathers as the eagle makes for a spruce tree roost just over my head. I look around for Aki and find her tucked away safely in the woods.