I was prepared to walk through heavy rain. It seemed the only way to reach Gastineau Channel. It could be like yesterday when strong winds drove heavy wain into the rain forest. You see such things a lot in September. But this morning, no rain fell. I left behind my rain pants but made sure that Aki wore a rain-safe wrap. She tends to shiver during heavy storms.
We dropped off of Chicken Ridge toward Gastineau Channel through a dense, but dry fog. I wore a facemask but would never come close to another walker during the trip. As she always does during the first part of a walk, Aki stopped often to catalogue other dog smells. This gives me a chance to study leaves fading from summer green to autumn reds or oranges, then pulls me away just after I snap a picture of it.
The little dog and I stumble on a small birthday party being carefully celebrated near the humpback whale sculpture. A handful of senior citizens have formed a circle that leaves six feet between each of them. They all wear high quality rain gear and masks they made at home from scrapes of cloth. The little dog and I keep the whale between ourselves and the party and stumble on a seal fishing the channel. Ravens, gulls, and ducks watch the seal do its thing and then fly away.
Further down the beach, the little dog and I find an eagle. It’s perched on top of a bare tree, watching a Stellar’s jay land in an adjacent tree. The jay stays for a few seconds and is then replaced by a large raven. The new pair of big birds stare at each other and then fly off in opposite directions.
Yesterday afternoon, our plane could barely land on the Juneau Airstrip. Clouds from a heavy fall storm almost force us to fly on to Anchorage. But we bounced and slowed on the runway and were soon deplaning at the airport. Forty-five minutes later we left the airport while calming down the nerves in our nostrils after being tested for Covid. Then we started a mandatory quarantine.
This morning, while the town was enjoying a brief brake between heavy rain storms, Aki and I took the car out to a remote trail where we could walk without risking any contact with other humans. As it turned out, we would have lots of contact with wild birds. The dog and I fell into the old ways—watching out for each other.
Most of the action took place along a little creek, where it crossed it’s tidal meadow. More than a dozen bald eagles huddled together along the creek bank, eating salmon scraps. Ducks and gulls hung about them, ready to grab anything that floated away from the eagles.
Suddenly, a pair of belted kingfishers dashed over the eagle’s hangout, chanting intimidations before diving for food in the creek. A raven drove off one of eagles. Two merganser ducks sulked off. The other eagles fled. When the kingfishers flew to another section of the stream, Aki and spotted a black-billed magpie, acting like it had just driven off the other pesky birds.
Back in the rain forest, two thousand miles away, Aki and her dog buddy Cedar are probably cuddled in a corner of Cedar’s house. A storm soaked them both during their morning walk, but it won’t prevent them from dozing. Down here, while I follow a trail offering views of Puget Sound, I can’t help thinking about the little poodle-mix. We will meet up tomorrow afternoon in Juneau.
She will panic with excitement at the Juneau Airport when we meet. She’ll wait impatiently for my wife and I to submit to mandatory Covid tests and then grab our suitcases. Aki will lean against me as we get a ride back to the house. She’ll follow us as we unpack while a pot of tea brews in the kitchen. Then, as happens each time we reunite with her in the house, she will slink in her little cage and hide.
Normally, Aki and I can work things out during our next daily hike. But tomorrow Aki’s humans will be quarantined for at least a week. I pray that we can find another way to make up with the tiny, if also powerful little dog.
Back home in Alaska, rain is glistening the remaining leaves. Most are dull and will soon be roting on the ground. There will be maple leaves yellowing in the rain. A few surviving ash tree leaves will provide islands of red in the dark air.
Here, on the Southern Puget Sound, early sunshine brings out bright colors in the surviving flowers. I want to concentrate on a companion’s story while we walk through a suburban neighborhood. But time and again, I’ve drawn to flowers or fall-colored leaves almost overwhelmed by intense morning light. My camera can barely capture all this beauty.
The shape of a healthy of Snake Lake dominates the public map of Tacoma Nature Center. But this summer’s drought has reduced the lake to mud. At the lake’s center, only a small pond remains. Dozens of turtles sleep there on drift wood logs. Several dash into the pond when we approach. Minutes later they pull themselves back onto the logs.
Leaves turning yellow, red or orange add a tiny bit of beauty to the day. But the lines of drying turtles provide the only drama. Then an old Japanese American man approaches the pond and stops to stare toward the edge of the pond. In a minute we realize that he is watching a great blue heron frozen at the edge of the pond.
The heron panics from the water, struggling to fly away. It twists and rolls until it has enough space to stretch its wings enough to lift him into the sky. In seconds he can glide over the tiny pond and into a tree covered by crisp, orange leaves.
After the Second World War, most brave Japanese Americans left the army. Their family members had just been freed from unjust prison camps. They worked their way back into American society. They told no one the history of their poor treatment with their new neighbors or their own children. In 1970 I first discovered the history of the Japanese American internment camp at college museum. Later I discovered that my Japanese American friends were learning the sad story at the same time.
I remembered this history yesterday while visiting a bonsai garden in Tacoma. All of the plants had been started after World War II. Some stood in front of photographs of Japanese Americans entering guarded internment camps, where bonsai artists would teach the interned how to create new bonsai trees. Only one tree had recently been plucked from a mountainside. Nearby, a thousand year old bristle pine looked like it was still growing on the slope of a 13 thousand foot Californian peak.
People often visit this bonsai garden. Few are Asian. All are drawn to the trees’ beauty. They collect little stories of how Japanese Americans protected that beauty from racism, transformed common American trees into symbols of an ancient culture adapting to cultural change.
Just after I flew down to Seattle for surgery, sunshine skies arrived above the rain forest, letting the stormy fall colors follow me south. The clouds polluted the Puget Sound skies with fire smoke. They thickened over San Francisco, Vancouver, and most of the West Coast. Huge swaths of its forests were burning.
But yesterday the winds shifted. The temperature dropped so sunshine could finally highlight a clear, blue sky. I pulled on a parka and headed toward a shade-free section of street where late-afternoon sunlight backlit the branches of everyday maples. It took little effort to discover a flash of maple leaves—clashes of reds, oranges, yellows, greens and browns. On a normal fall day, I’d probably accept the scene as the usual pre-winter portrait that such leaves paint each year before falling dry and brown to the ground.
It took me a long time to finish my little tour of the neighborhood. Rich, green grape leaves brightened some gardens. Fruits that I couldn’t recognize glowed red with blossoms. Just before turning back toward home I stumbled on a tiny, lime green insect scrambling up the outside of a clump of red berries. The stink bug froze on top of the clump, gave me a hard stare and returned to feed. If I had found a feeding insect while harvesting low bush cranberries back home, I would have crushed it like an enemy. But down here, where I don’t even know if the berries contain poison, I let the bug return to its work.
He would be up early, drinking rich expresso at the cabin window as a strengthening sunshine sparkled the frosted meadow grass and the usual hometown deer worked his latest attempt at kale.
He would turn on the radio and listen to morning’s new complaints about followed politics and the latest baseball scores. He would be bored but he would be free to putter and push for change.
He’s up but there is no bear to search for, no sun melting a satisfied frost, no desire to do anything than monitor the fire, the smoke that thickens and soaks the morning air like a sarcastic joke as it has for the last week.
The kale still grows as if it cannot feel the gray heat. He passed it while carrying survival things to his car, an older Toyota almost filled with stuff he can’t abandon or burn, like fresh ground coffee. He now drinks instant.
Will the fancy cut street houses catch first, or will the abandon old growth forests burn? A northerly gust rips across the meadow, driving away smoke, turning the air crisp and clear, letting the sun pierce and reveal.
The survival road clears. He starts to return his coffee maker from the car, plans on re-furnishing the cabin with needed gear. Then the thick smoke returns, a nearby forest fire renders the air almost impossible to breath so he repacks the car and waits.
Aki stays just ahead, sweeping the trail for problems. She doesn’t shoot ahead or stop to monitored a ply of recipient poop. I walk with an old friend and his dog, sharing a bit of information—the desk drawer to open if my medical treatment in Seattle goes south.
A week later, after the treatment worked, my friend and I can think about the approach of fall weather and decide when to pull the old fishing boat for winter. He is still in Juneau while I recover with family in Tacoma, Aki stays in Juneau with her best friend, Cedar. They head on adventures each day and curl together for sleep each night. But she will squeal like a puppy when we return to our rainforest town.
In Alaska, like the rest of the United States, Labor Day signifies an end to summer. Before the pandemic closed our border with Canada, we often spent the Labor Day Weekend riding the ferry to Skagway and then camping in the Yukon Territory. It was a time for enjoying the fall colors of poplar leaves and drinking morning coffee next to a campfire as the northern sun warmed your face.
I am warming my face in the sun on this Labor Day while Aki and I stand in the center of Gastineau Meadow. Meadow ferns and the leaves of miners’ cabbage are already fading from green to yellow. In another month the leaves will become dry brown crusts being reduced to mud by autumn rains.
Tomorrow the rain will return and low clouds will cover the surrounding mountains in a grey gauze. The weather man prefects more of the same for the next week. Today is one for creating sustaining memories of crisp autumn leaves and sun-warmed skin.