Author Archives: Dan Branch

Dethroned Raven Princes

If that baby raven would quiet down we might be able to hear the sparrows and robins. Recently fledged from its nest in the Troll Woods, the raven sits in a cottonwood tree, demanding that his parents bring him food. The parents roost in another cottonwood tree, acting like they don’t know their child. 

            On the other side of the moraine, another raven prince squawks for service from its parents. Soon, hunger will force the newly launched to get their own food. I and the raven parents can’t wait for that day. 

            Except for the ravens and a bear sow and cub, the moraine seems empty. After leaving the trailhead parking lot, the little dog and I haven’t seen another human or dog. People must be spending this holiday weekend elsewhere—maybe at home or the beach. 

On our return to the car, we approach a human family—mom, dad, two toddlers. The trail’s wide here so we can easily maintain two meter social distance. The little family forms a line with their towhead daughter in front. The kids and mom wave like the Queen on Coronation Day. The dad brings up the rear. Instead of a hand, he waves a tiny American flag. That, little day, is what a parade looks like in the time of Covid 19. 

Cowee Meadows

Aki and I are driving north to the end of the Juneau highway system. It’s a holiday weekend so the side of the road is lined with parked cars at each beach. I hadn’t intended on driving far. But each trailhead parking lot is jammed. Thirty-eight miles out, we reach the Cowee Meadows trailhead. Even though the trail leads to three forest service cabins, there are only two cars in the parking area. 

            After pulling on my mosquito repelling shirt, I lead Aki onto the boardwalk trail. Not wanting to overstress her injured leg, I tell myself that we will only walk a mile or so, to where the trail swings out of the forest and onto a flower-covered meadow. The little dog seems fine when we reach the meadow so I continue on, hoping to reach the section dominated by will iris. While there, I think about the marmots. 

            Just a mile more and we will reach the mouth of Cowee Creek where a colony of marmots hang out. Looking like oversized Guinea pigs, the marmots stand as rigid as bowling pins on the tops of glacier erratics (boulders) to watch us pass. 

            No clouds block the sun and its calm. The little dog starts to pant. I divert over to a small stream so she can help herself to water. She wades in chest deep, letting the stream cool her down. I forgot to bring a water bottle and could use a drink. But the marmot village is only a kilometer away. 

            A shrill warning whistle lets us know the marmots are near. But they don’t show themselves. I search each time we hear another whistle, but see nothing but wild flowers and sparrows trying to draw us away from their nests. 

            On the return trip to the car, I carry Aki over awkward sections of the trail. She acts surprised at first but then stops and waits to be picked up each time the trail is complicated by exposed tree roots and mud.

Wicked Wind

Aki is a hot dog. Not the kind you eat, the kind that pants to keep from overheating. The temperature would be considered moderate in places beneath the 49th parallel. But it is making us miserable. Hoping to find cooler temperatures on North Douglas Island, we drive out to the Rainforest Trail.

            A strong north wind rattles the car as we approach the trailhead. It raises three foot surf that slams the beach at False Outer Point. The waves release salt that flavors the air, mixing with the odor of spruce resin. 

            The wind can’t reach deep into the forest, which swarms with mosquitoes. They seemed too confused to bite. Closer to the beach, the strong breeze bends devil’s club and blue berry plants. On the beach, Aki keeps plants and driftwood between her and the wind. I wish I had brought a warmer shirt. The wind seems to have swept the beach clean of birds. The resident sparrows must be sheltering in the tall grass. 

It Was Only a Little Bear

“Aki come back here.” The little dog ignores her person’s warning and continues charging the bear. It’s a little bear, born last year, just out on its own. The bear was sniffing around our wheelie bin when Aki charged. If we are going to see a bear in our neighborhood this time of year, it will be on garbage day. The little bear lopes over to our neighbor’s yard where it shelters behind a kayak. For a few seconds the poodle is well within the bear’s reach. With one swipe, the bear could cancel out Aki’s day, if not her life. But it just gives the poodle-mix a puzzled look and walks behind our neighbor’s house. Aki trots back to her people so we can drive out to the wetlands’ trail.

            Wild iris, paintbrush, lupine, shooting stars, and buttercups provide little islands of color on the green grassy plain. If that weren’t proof that we are in high summer, the height of the grass would confirm it. The grass forms a thick jungle for Aki to explore. Her humans break trail for her so she has plenty of energy when we return to a well-used gravel trail.

            A Savannah sparrow moves in a parallel course while we walk toward the Mendenhall River. It flits ahead a few meters and then lands on a stem of grass, driftwood log, or lupine, holding station until it can confirm our heading. Then it launches itself down the trail to its next observation post. Even though it gives me fierce looks, I can’t imagine what the sparrow would do if I left the path. Maybe it’s a one-bird honor guard, rather than a cop ready to call in back up if the poodle gets out of hand. 

Annihilator

The waters of Sheep Creek look empty this morning. In a week or two, pink or chum salmon fight here for spawning space. Eagles and gulls will watch from the beach or while perched in nearby trees. Aki won’t be able to hear me over the sounds of gull shrieks. Now she can hear a whisper. 

            At the edge of the creek delta, fishermen stand where we have sometimes seen herons. They try to catch king salmon moving up Gastineau Channel to the hatchery. But the main pulse of kings is already queuing up at the foot of the hatchery fish ladder.

            The little dog and I walk down the beach along a dune covered with tall, thick grass. Except for patches of yellow paintbrush flowers, the scene is green. Just offshore the fishing boat “Annihilator” floats at anchor. It’s a surprise that the manager of our fisheries so they will be sustainable, would allow an annihilator anyway near the fish. 

Early Salmon

Aki and I have just walked into the rain forest. I swear that my blood pressure dropped the instant we stepped under the canopy. Maybe it’s the muted light or the sound of a downy woodpecker tapping on a spruce trunk. It might be the lush green colors that dominate this time of year. Aki does her business and stares up at me, like she is considering calling an ambulance if I don’t come out of my trance. 

            After assuring her that all is if fine, she leads me down to the beaver pond and where the mallard family lurk in a blind of reeds. Later I’ll spot a rambunctious bird dog splashing into water near Shaman Island and assume that he did the same on the beaver pond. 

            Not wanting to contribute to the mallard hen’s stress, I follow Aki down the beach trail. A seal swims just offshore, hunting for silver salmon about to leave salt water for their spawning stream. Yesterday, I hunted salmon in Lynn Canal, boating a silver-bright chum salmon. Last night, while Aki chowed down a scrap of the salmon’s ski mixed with rice, her humans enjoyed what the seal sought.  

This is Only a Test

It’s been more than a week since Aki strained a leg muscle. She shows no sign of soreness this morning. Keeping her leash in my pocket. I join the little dog on a gravel trail that crosses one of our mountain meadows. I slow my pace, like I had to when tethered to the poodle-mix. 

            Clouds hid the surrounding mountains when we started the walk. Now they lift to reveal peaks and ridges and let shafts of sunlight reach the meadow. This is a good wildflower meadow in a normal year. This one is exceptional. Magenta-colored shooting stars, bog laurel and rosemary for islands on the green muskeg. Yellow avens flowers surround the skeleton of a downed Douglas pine. Clusters of white Labrador tea blossoms line the trail. 

            Aki and I ignore each other, she mapping scents and me counting wildflowers. She ignores the robins dragging their skirts along the trail. But when something, maybe an ermine or mink slinks across the trail, she charges after it. Now I feel bad for not keeping her leashed. But she trots back, tail wagging, showing no signs of aggravating her injury.  

Benefits of Slowing Down

            Aki is quite pleased with the situation. She has her human under control. He had to hold on end of her leash while she sniffs and pees her way around the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Her human, me, would like to speed up the walk. Aki won’t let that happen. 

            Once I accept the situation, I can relax and look at things I would normally overlook. I can inventory the number of blossoms on ground hugging low bush blueberry plants. I see tiny white flowers that I might have stepped on if Aki hadn’t slowed me down.

            Now completely soaked, I enough Aki to leave the lake shore and move onto a trail that provides access to a series of small ponds. A common golden eye, raising a brood of chicks on a reed-choked pond, doesn’t reach to our presence until I stop to admire her chicks. Then the chicks surround their mon even though they would be safer if they sheltered in the reeds. 

Everyone’s Wet

The eagle, Aki and I—we are all wet. Aki seems the least disturbed by the rain. I feel sympathy for the eagle, which is hunched over on top of the old mine ventilation shaft with feathers ahoo. Then it bursts off its roost and glides onto the beach.

            A sandy ridge blocks my view so I don’t know if the eagle secured something to eat until I climb up the small rise of beach. The big scavenger is on the beach, ripping at something with his beak. While balancing on a small rock, it screams out something to its mate, which is feeding a little further down the beach. 

            To make sure that she doesn’t further injure her leg muscle, I carry Aki over the loose-sand portions of the beach. When she starts to shiver, I carry her into the Treadwell Woods, which offers a little shelter from the rain and wind. 

Sulking in the Rain

Two teenagers, each weighed down by a large backpack, sulk at the junction of Dan Mollar Trail and the Treadwell Ditch. They must have spent the night at the Forest Service cabin with family members who are still up the trail. Aki usually draws “ooooo’s” and “ahs” from woman of this age. They ignore the little poodle-mix and her humans. I have to ask them to move so we can have two meters of space when are pass. 

            While walking up the plank trail that leads to the cabin, I wonder whether the backpackers were upset about the rain currently soaking into their fashionably bare heads or were going through no-phone withdrawal. They seemed happy to move out of our way and weren’t worried when I told them about the fresh pile of bear scat steaming nearby. Perhaps we had just crashed a counseling session. 

            Aki normally takes point on this trail. Today, she is content to follow at a slow pace. We cross wildflower meadows that look like threadbare carpets due to damage done last winter by snowmachines. A dark-eyed junko hops between magenta-colored clumps of bog rosemary and the yellow blossoms of large-leaved avens.