Author Archives: Dan Branch

Finally Getting Her Way

     Aki, why do you want to stay in the woods? It’s not a fair question to ask the little dog. The woods and the campground road just beyond them are rich with dog smells. She can almost make out the scent left by one of her dog buddies, maybe Cedar. Aki doesn’t care if the lakeshore trail offers wonderful, if misty, mountain views. Besides, it has started to rain. The woods will provide her some shelter from the wet. 

      The poodle-mix might also be deterred by the crunch of ice that follows each of my steps along the snow-covered shore. A two-inch thick sheet of ice is buried beneath snow. An irregular surface of beach rocks stretch beneath the ice. I fracture the ice with every step. 

         I crunch my way around and between a set of small islands. Aki has planted herself at the forest edge. Only when I disappear around a point of land does the little dog trot after me. We repeat this pattern all the way to the place where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. Then we re-entered the forest and walk on an icy road through the campground and back to the car. Now a happy Aki is free to catalogue the passage of other dogs that recently left their mark on the snow.    

Passive Man

Beavers own this forest. Their castle is tucked safely away under a pond-sized tree. Aki and I are walking along the base of their major dam. The beavers have anchored the walls of it to a curving line of 100-year-old spruce trees that grew out of another beaver dam. Off and on, beavers have held this forest for more than a century. The little dog would have had to swim along the base of the dam if not for some trail work done last spring. Thanks to loads of gravel and bridges fashioned from peeled and split spruce trunks we can keep our feet dry. But during the last dumping of rain, even the new trail flooded. 

          Every night the beavers try to plug leaks in their dam with severed alder limbs and blue berry twigs. Water still pours over their works and makes its way down a small stream to another dam, this one five feet high. Downstream from that another dam backs water up and over the trail we will use to return to the car. 

           We round the pond and walk over icy trails to the beach where we surprise five bufflehead ducks. Rather than panicking into flight the little white-headed guys paddle a few meters further off shore and resume fishing. Further out, a young Pacific loon shoots onto the surface and quickly dives back under the water. A powerful underwater swimmer, the loon could be behind Shaman Island before it returns to the surface. 

           I try to remember when I became so passive—a walking man content just to see. Years ago, I hunted ducks and would have been tempted to destroy beaver dams that flooded beloved trails. Now I carry a camera and wear waterproof boots. 

Calling The Otters Out

        Aki waits in the woods as I scramble over some rocks to the outfall of a salt chuck. At extreme high tide, salt water flows over the outfall and into the small lake that it drains. That’s why it’s called a salt chuck. Steel head trout and three different types of salmon climb the outfall rocks on their way to the spawning grounds. This morning here might be some fall run steel head moving into the lake. 

         Turning, I scan the lake and spot a heron on the far shore. From here it could be a piece of driftwood. But my camera lens confirms it to be a great blue heron. While I spy on the heron with the camera, a river otter pokes it head into the frame. It acts as surprised as I feel, rising high into the air and then crash diving beneath the lake’s surface.  By now Aki is standing by my side. The little dog starts barking and wagging her tail.

          The otter returns, this time with a friend for back up. Now two otters swirl nearby in the lake, occasionally lifting their heads high above the large. They make a chuffing sound. Aki responds with more barking. In the past, when trying to coax Aki into the water, otters had made a chirping sound. Today’s chuffing seems designed to intimidate rather than seduce. 

         Otters are at home on land as well as in water. As they slowly close the distance between themselves and Aki, I snatch up the little poodle-mix and carry her away. She may have meant her barks to be inviting. The otters were acting as if she was challenging them to a fight. Since they outweighed the little dog by at least two to one, it would be a fight that the poodle could not win. 

Chased by the Sun

Aki and I are driving North, chasing the sun. That’s not quite right. We are looking for an end run around fog. When we left downtown, it blocked any view across Gastineau Channel. It seemed like the mountains had all been taken away for cleaning. Maybe we could find some relief out the road.

       Twenty miles from home the fog grew worse. I had to slow down due to reduced visibility. When we passed the Shrine of St. Therese and parted for a moment, revealing the white peak of Lion Mountain.  We drove on to the Eagle River flats, which normally offer views of the Chilkat Mountains and Admiralty Island. A wall of white rose up out of Lynn Canal so we couldn’t even see the edge of the flats.

            The sun eventually burned through the clouds, not enough to reveal itself or any blue sky, but enough to brighten the canal water. Aki and walked along the flats, spying on a resting eagle and some nonplussed mallard ducks. One hundred meters out, a hundred gulls gathered together on barely exposed sand bar. The eagle, which had been ignoring the ducks, flew low over the gulls’ resort, flushing them into the air. Minutes later, the gulls resettled on the bar. 

           The fog closed over the sun so we headed home. I stopped when it reappeared above a muskeg meadow and lit up the feathers of a raven. The raven croaked, as if bothered by the sudden spotlight, and flew into some nearby woods.   

Darkening Downtown

It’s just gone past two in the afternoon. Full darkness is less than an hour away. Two hours ago the marine layer descended on downtown Juneau, enclosing us in mist. Aki is dragging me up Gastineau Avenue. She pours over sidewalk smells like a accountant on tax day. In her mind, where the nose is king, our walk through Downtown Juneau is stimulating. 

          Visual stimulation appeals more to me. There is little of that now. In the growing darkness, parked cars with new paint jobs look as bright as Christmas candy. Within a few minutes, the electric blue of this new Subaru will fade into the gray. 

           I have to carry the little dog down a set of metal stairs to South Franklin where light glares out from the Red Dog Saloon. With strings of white lights spiraling up their posts, the street lamps look like stale candy canes. Around the corner customers in Pel Meni study their screens while finishing their orders of Russian dumplings.

         A homeless couple, profiles thickened with layers of warm clothes, share a bench under the Marine Park shelter. They ignore a lighted Christmas tree a few feet away. Across the street, the colors in a mural depicting the appearance of man on earth sparkle under twin spotlights. Rainwater trapped in the tire ruts on Marine Way reflect totem animals watching the first man emerging from a clam shell.    


          Aki and I have just left the forest for a graveled beach. It was easy walking in the woods. Last night’s snow never penetrated the forest’s canopy. There is little snow on the beach. Most of it has been wiped away by the last high tide. Above a thick line of seaweed that marks the tide line, snow still occupies the hollows between gravel, dead beach grass and abandoned mussel shells. 

          The water offshore is clam, as if weighed down by low clouds that seem to touch the water’s surface. A few meters away from us a dozen gulls work to ignore the little dog and I. Twenty meters out, an equal number of harlequin ducks hunt for fish. After diving, one of the ducks calls out with a cry that could have been made by excited toddler on the playground. 

            Aki gives me a hard look, like she might to discourage me from musing about birds and the sounds they make. She doesn’t want to hear me ponder out loud why crows croak, eagles scream, gulls keen, and harlequins cry out with childish joy. 

Winter Beachhead

           Winter is holding its beachhead on the moraine. Aki and I are walking on a snow-covered glacial trail when an eagle lifts off the ground and lands in a nearby cottonwood tree. I search the ground for what drew the eagle. All I find is fresh blood on the snow.  

           A low layer of clouds hid the mountains when we first arrived. Now the sun is trying to burn it off. I can just barely make out the shoulder of Mt. McGinnis rising above the Troll Woods. Then the peak appears underlined with a thin strip of grey cloud. The air brightens when patches of blue appear in the eastern sky. It is reflected in a small beaver pond that almost touches the tree where the eagle waits for us to leave. 

          We move on to visit the beaver village. There thin ice barely covers the pond. Aki holds back at the edge of village. I wonder why. She normally loves to explore near beaver dens and always smiles when she rolls in their scat. I turn around after reaching the hole the beavers use to slip in and out of the pond. There is Aki, giving me her “Are You Crazy!!!” look. We seen no tracks of bears or wolves so I have no idea what has the little dog on edge.