As three mountain goats climb the south flank of Mt. Juneau, I bend down to bag Aki’s scat. I want to ignore the steaming pile of poop so I can watch the goats approach a frozen waterfall. But the poop scoop needs to be done.
Aki watches with a look of pride on her face. She trots along to a nearby trashcan where I deposit her morning’s work product.
We are hiking up the Perseverance Trail, which was dusted with snow last night. Gold Creek still runs free but ice covers the creek’s tributaries. Not one leaf clings the trailside trees. It feels like a land waiting for winter.
There is no point in denying it. Today’s flat light robs even this mountain meadow of most of its beauty. Not even the scattering of new snow on the muskeg can brighten the scene. It’s a day to appreciate forms of the meadow’s stunted pines and the bare limbs of willows.
It is also a day to envy Aki’s powerful nose. With it she can read recent stories written by passing animals. Taking a clue from the little dog I ignore the surrounding mountains to concentrate on tracks left on the meadow snow. Here the hoof of a black tail deer cut deep into the muskeg when the deer leaped in panic. Near the deer tracks are the shallower one made by coyote by a predator that knows the conditions favor him.
After we leave the meadow, the little dog and I visit a beautifully made dam that curves across a small, but deep creek valley. It was poured with care long ago and given a fine, concrete finish. The dam was designed to channel the creek into a flume, harnessing the water to run a mill. Aki eyes me while I stand on the top of the dam, amazed that on this flat light day, this industrial fabrication exceeds the beauty of God’s surrounding mountains.
Aki’s on to something. We are thirty miles out the road from Juneau where three inches of hoar frost covers the trail. It collapses under Aki’s paws as she trots toward a line of animal tracks. The thing that made the tracks recently left the old growth forest ten meters from where the little dog stands.
I didn’t notice the tracks right away because I was distracted by the sun-sparkled frost that radiated out from every blade of grass, willow twig, and spruce branch. Like a raven, I’m attracted to shiny things. We are the first visitors to walk on the frosted trail so the tracks are still pristine. Who ever made them stomped down the trail like she owned it.
I quickly rule out canines, wolf or coyote, and lynx. They are too big for marmots or mink, too small for bears. The mysterious animal lacked hooves so I eliminate deer and moose. I can think of only one animal that would makes a line of tracks like the one that Aki is following. Little girl, did you find us a wolverine?
The tracks look fresh and I remember how a few weeks ago Aki’s other human saw a wolverine a few miles from where we are today. Nothing good would come from meeting one of the big weasels here. They one of the few animals fierce enough to back off a bear. I encourage Aki to move on down the trail in the opposite direction from that taken by the wolverine.
Aki looks at me like she might at a dog ignoring a cooling chunk of king salmon. Have you lost your mind, man of mine? I’m squatting close to the meadow grass, trying to aim my camera so that it will capture a picture of the glacier but not the string of airport runway lights that slice across the bottom of the frame. I want to use some driftwood logs in the foreground to cover up the lights.
I want to use some driftwood logs in the foreground to cover up the lights.
I manage to depress the shutter button without falling on my face. But the resulting picture will end up in the deleted files folder. On a gravel bar on the other side of the Mendenhall River, a hundred Canada geese seem to be laughing at me. Standing up, I capture the best view of the scene—the one that includes the airport lights and the reflection of the glacier in the river. It’s a view remarkable for its beauty but also because it demonstrates how close our machines of commerce are to the river of ice.
To get to this wetlands trail, we had to drive past a lumberyard, welding shops, boat storage lots, and a warehouse. Jets flying to Anchorage or Seattle and floatplanes traveling to Angoon or Hoonah flew over our heads during the walk. So did an eagle. A seal broke the surface of the river while the beep-beep-beep sound of a truck backing up reached us from water treatment plant.
I head over to the river to where the salmon pens are anchored. The Mendenhall Towers and boats on blocks for the winter rise above the river. Almost anywhere else in North America, the land under the boat storage lot would be packed with luxury houses that offered river and mountain views. Our city planners realized the value of providing fishing boats easy access to the sea.
The clouds lift this morning, just after sunrise. They revealed Mt. Juneau and the Douglas Mountain Ridge white with new snow. Aki and I drove up to a mountain meadow. From Gastineau Channel we could see the sun burning off the remaining clouds. Some lingered in the valley we drove through to reach the meadow, glowing with backlit sunshine.
Even though it was only 10 A.M. the sun had already drifted between a gap in the ridge and disappeared. This time of year, the sun couldn’t linger more than an hour on the meadow. But sunlight still brightened the jumble of mountains that rose up on the east side of the meadow.
Aki has always loved walks over snowy ground. This morning she seemed more reserved than usual, staying near rather than running orbits around me. Just before we returned to the car she took off, following tracks down the meadow. She still answered my summons, undulating like a porpoise through the fresh snow.
I didn’t expect to find tourists today on the cruise ship docks. The next ship won’t show up until late April. But I am surprised not to see at least one homeless person sheltering in the doorway of one of the closed tee shirt shops. The police must be enforcing the ordinance that banishes them from the tourist areas.
The little dog and I walk up the docks, keeping Gastineau Channel and the Douglas Island ridge on our right across. Ahead, Mt. Juneau just broke is out of the clouds that sugared it with snow. The channel is empty except for on salmon troller motoring toward Taku Inlet. I silently wish the captain luck in his search for winter king salmon. He will need it. Tonight rain will turn into sleet then snow.
No sun – no moon! No morn – no noon – No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day. No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, No comfortable feel in any member – No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!
I am trying not to let Thomas Hood’s “November” set the tone for this walk through the old growth. It’s hard. I can check off each item on Hood’s whining list. “No sun,” check. “No moon,” we haven’t seen it for months. I am tempted to continue when I spot Aki. The little dog is trotting toward me, tail a metronome, ears flapping, tongue wagging. Something she just smelled has set her afire.
Aki isn’t mad at the beavers, even through it is their earthworks that are flooding the trail. Thanks to them she has to waddle waste deep across inundated sections of the path. She loves the scents that they spread near their half-submerged homes.
The little dog isn’t saddened when we sight the corpse of one a massive spruce tree. The death of the old giant doesn’t bother me either. It’s trunk is shot through with rot. It was time for it to fall. By next summer it will serve as a nursery for the sprouting seeds of hemlocks and spruce. It won’t collapse into earth until a new generation of trees have gotten a fair start at forest life.
The heavy rain that is flooding this moraine trail and soaking my pants doesn’t seem to be slowing down the pine siskins. Thirty of the small birds just settled onto an alder. They bounced when they landed on the alder branches then begin attacking something with their small but powerful beaks. They must be after the alder’s tightly wrapped leaf buds.
A bald eagle, its feathers rumpled by the rain, watches the siskins from its perch in a nearby cottonwood tree. Then it turns back toward the river. A few branches away, a long-tailed magpie watches the watcher. Maybe the magpie is hoping that the eagle will lead it to a deer carcass or some other source of food.
The little dog and I walk on. I want to circle Moose Lake and be back in the car before Aki starts to shiver. A few weeks ago some swans rested on the lake before continuing their southern migration. This morning I can only three bufflehead ducks. The black and white head of the male duck makes it the easiest to spot.
We spook two mallards to flight just before leaving the lake. The two drakes had been sheltering from the rain in a tangle of shore side alders. When they took off they filled the air with drops of the rain that had accumulated on their feathers.
Aki may not know it but this is a work trip. We are driving out the North Douglas Highway to a beach with a harvestable amount of seaweed. Thin ropes of it mark the high tide line. This may be a last chance to gather wrack for the garden before snow arrives next week.
Three five-gallon buckets rattle together in the cargo area of the car. Their presence should tip Aki about what I am about. We won’t return home until they are filled with severed rockweed. Before then, Aki and I will walk the Rainforest Trail. We will skirt the flooded trail sections. I’ll photograph what color I can find. We will pass the remains of several wind-fallen hemlock trees, their trunks snapped off a few meters above the forest floor. There will be a downed hundred-year-old spruce lying on the floor with its roots ripped from the ground. I’ll figure out that all these trees were blown down by last week’s windstorm.
The same wind that flatten the old growth trees raised waves on Lynn Canal that carried seaweed onto the Douglas Island beaches. While I fill my buckets with the stuff, a large raft of surf scoters will fish close to the shore. They will ignore the little dog and I. But a lone gull, hiding in the plain sight in the raft, will give us the evil eye.
Rain starts soaking into Aki’s curls as soon as she jumps out of the car. Thanks to the storm, we had our choice of parking places. I expect to have the lake to ourselves. Then we hear someone speaking with a Caribbean accent. He is walking up the steps from the lake with his parka hood up. A white ear bud trails from his ear to the cell phone in his hand. By ease dropping I learn that he has just texted a selfie of himself to person he is talking too. His face beams with the excitement of seeing a glacier snaking through granite to the lake. If the rain can’t dampen the joy of his visit, I can’t let it discourage the little dog or I.
The level of the lake is high but there is enough exposed beach to provide a path to the Nugget Falls Trail. We join the trail where it touches a slanting rock wall that still bears the groves cut into it by sharp stones frozen into the bottom of the retreating glacier. Rainwater brings out the beauty of the grooved rock. Like a pebble plucked from a creek bottom, the beauty of the rock will fade as it dries.
On the way to the falls we detour over to the arctic tern nesting area. The fierce little birds are long gone. Small, white feathers, sodden with rain, cover the green moss of the nesting area. Here and there the moss has been ripped away, exposing a woven mat of willow roots. I stick my finger into a tiny, cave-like opening under the root mat. Is this the work of a hungry bear or a nesting tern?