Yesterday Aki’s other human and I stumbled upon a moose and her two calves. We were walking along a trail near Anchorage. I was thankful that Aki was back in Juneau, getting the royal treatment from our friends. A momma moose once killed a man in Anchorage for coming too close to her calf. After we took a wide swing around the moose family, they returned to their wild, grassy feast.
I am thinking about our near-moose experience while picking berries near Juneau. We are harvesting this patch because it has not been visited by bears this summer. The berries are plump and plentiful, just as a hungry bear might prefer. The place is remote. The bear could expect privacy while he ate.
I sit on the moss-covered floor to pick, bringing my berry bucket into Aki’s range. The little dog take advantage by stealing berries or a few seconds. She only does it once, even though I did nothing to discourage her. A half-an-hour later I learn the reason for her reticence. A small army of tiny worms crawls out of the berries on which they recently fed. When we get home, we will wash the berries in salt water, which will drive out the remaining worms.
The rain stopped this morning but the forest is still soaked. The leaves of blue berry bushes glisten. They darken the fabric of my rain pants when I brush against them. We take a meandering forest trail to reach the berry patch.
These are not Aki’s favorite kind of adventures. She has to get her exercise on the walks in and out of the forest. For more than an hour she is reduced to guard duty, ready to chase away ravens, squirrels or bears. Every few minutes I let her nuzzle a few berries from my palm.
The bushes bordering the patch are weighed down with fruit. But those further in have been stripped clean. Recently, a bear dropped a huge, blue pile of scat. I turn around and head for another patch.
Wind and rain rattled the car on the drive out to the Brotherhood Bridge trailhead. It will do the same on the way home. But for this brief moment, Aki can feel the sun warm her fur. She and I are enjoying being in the eye of a mini-hurricane. While she half-squints her eyes against the sudden brightness, I snap pictures of a field of blooming fireweed.
Mendenhall Glacier peaks over the line of cottonwood trees that border the field. We take a trail that winds through the field, passing signs asking hikers to “be kind and wear masks.” Most of the people we pass are so kind. I move away from the one mask-less man.
A half-a-kilometer up the trail Aki throws on the breaks as the sun disappears behind a thick blanket of clouds. She stands tough until I turn back toward the car. Fat rain drops are striking us as we reach it. Maybe the poodle-mix has a future as a weather forecaster.
Not wanting to rush home. I stop the car at the fish hatchery and watch a bald eagle struggle to hold onto to its spruce top roost. Other eagles watch the show from the top of the Juneau Empire Building. While Aki waits, dry inside the car, I stroll around, head up in spite of the rain, watching eagles hover in place above the beach. Most rely only on their wing and tail feathers for control. One has to drop down his talons like a jet on final approach, just to hold his own in the wind.
The white-headed eagle sounds as frustrated as I feel. An immature bald eagle has just almost crashed into it. The the chestnut-colored eagle slips into a sulk. Twenty feet away, another immature eagle casually grooms its wing feathers. Aki ignores all the noise.
We are standing on the Fish Creek bridge, maybe thirty meters away from the avian drama. The stream, which is usually jammed with spawning salmon, looks empty. There must be fish somewhere. Minutes ago, one of the eagles dropped the severed head of a pink salmon on the trail just before we reached it.
We had planned on walking to the mouth of the stream. Then a stream of human fishermen passed us. Like the eagles, they are looking to catch some fish. Like the eagles, they are likely to end up frustrated.
I gather the little dog into the car and we head out to a berry picking spot that showed promise a few weeks ago. The place is bare, as if someone or something hoovered up all the blue berries, huckleberries and cloud berries. To make something out of the trip, we continue down the trail until it dumps us out on a beach. We have seen whales, sea lions, eagles, and seals from the beach. Once a northern harrier flew straight at me before dodging into the woods. Today, the sea and sky are empty.
There is nothing special about the Troll Woods this morning, certainly not the Payne’s gray skies. Mushrooms have to provide the highlights now that the wildflowers have gone to seed. But I am still happy to walk on the soft ground between moss-covered trees.
I don’t need a mask on the moraine. We won’t see another Covid spreader until we return to the car. Aki patrols out ahead to make sure we don’t surprise a momma bear and her cubs. One does crash through the woods but it moves away, not toward us. The peace floating between the trees can be felt on the skin.
In a good, quiet mood, I follow the little dog to the shore of Crystal Lake, surprised by a clutch of mallards feeding a few feet away. They plunge their heads into the water until their rear ends point toward sky. Thick strands of grass encircle their beaks when they re-emerge.
Cloudberries struggle to grow in this Southern Alaskan meadow. When Aki’s other human and I lived on the Tundra in Western Alaska, the locals called named them, “salmonberries.” Harvested by Yup’ik families, salmonberries provided essential vitamins and nutrients all winter long. We pick them this morning, to enjoy their tundra flavors in our rain forest home.
Aki trots between his humans, stopping long enough for one of us to feed her before moving over to the other one. Sometimes, she harvests one herself. Yesterday, after eating lots of blueberries, her poop turned blue. Tonight, it may take on the yellow tundra colors of cloudberries.
Today we test Aki’s patience. The moraine blueberries are finally ripe. Aki’s other human and I intend to bring some home.
Last year the bears harvested our favorite patch before we reached it. We had to step around bear scat to pick what was left. Today, we see no evidence of bears but lots of berries.
Aki moves back and forth between her humans. We try to teach her how to pull berries off low lying bushes. Instead of learning, she boops our legs with her nose until we give her a palmful of harvested berries.
This morning Aki heard rain splattering against the bedroom window as she sulked under the bed. From her hiding place, she watched me pull on rain pants and slip into a waterproof parka. She went limp as I fastened on her best rain wrap. Then, as if she was just testing my resolve, the poodle-mix did a downward-dog stretch, yawned, and beat me to the front door.
The forest was silent, except for the sound of rain drops plunking onto devil’s club leaves. The only birds not waiting out the storm were ducks. A mallard hen and her surviving chicks swam near the trail where it ran parallel to the beaver dam. They weren’t bothered by the sound of water pouring over the beaver’s dam.
Raindrops made normally dull things, like cow parsnip blossoms, sparkle. Other than the parsnips and a scattering of flowering sorel plants, the forest plants had already gone to seed. Yellow blooms of chicken and egg plants provided the only bright spots on the beach verge when we reached it. We could make out Shaman Island in the gloam, but nothing beyond it. There must be whales a little further out, but we wouldn’t be able to spot them until the weather cleared.
The magenta blossoms of fireweed glow in the gloom of this rainy morning. Except for the eagles scattered around the gravel, Aki and I have the Sheep Creek delta to ourselves. I’m not counting the swallows perched together like judgmental gossipers on a driftwood tangle. I don’t include the crows crowding one of the eagles. I should acknowledge the greater yellowlegs sandpiper that moves across a shallow pond. That’s enough denial. This place is crowded with life.
This late in summer, the creek should be a turmoil of spawning chum salmon. Only one male powers upstream against the current. There may be others hidden in the muddy water. When the mountain rains let up, the stream will clear enough for a proper survey. I pray that the chums are just late in arriving. So do the eagles and the other animals that rely on them for food.
Aki and I pushed through heavy rain to this headland. I came for a chance to see whales or sea lions. The little dog is here out of loyalty. We are both soaked. Just off shore, the purse seiner Challenger is its net on a school of chum salmon.
The mechanical noise of the fishing boat makes it impossible to hear bird song or even eagle screams. It might have driven feeding humpback whales to divert to quieter waters. We won’t see whales or sea lions today. One harbor seal will cruise along the edge of the seine net as it closes on protentional prey.
The Challenger has a contract with the hatchery to recover chum salmon that started their lives in net pens and have spent the last two years in the North Pacific. Their eggs and milt will be used to start a new generation of chums. Because of adverse ocean conditions, fewer and fewer salmon are returning to the hatchery. For the same reason, the number of wild chums to reach their home streams is way down.
After watching the Challenger finish its set, now cold as well as wet, we head back into the forest as the power skiff of another seine boat begins to stretch out its net.