Author Archives: Dan Branch

Waiting

The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage. 

           Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds. 

       We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore. 

         On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream. 

        Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot. 

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Aki’s Library

       From a distance, the meadow seems as moist as ever. But it is easy to find evidence of drought.  A rim of straw colored grass rings some of the meadow ponds, as if it were already autumn.  The normally sweet blueberries taste bitter. Worse, at least one lily pad ponds now has a wide beach of mud. Last summer a foot of water covered the stuff.

        Aki is too short sighted to care about the shrinking ponds or drying muskeg meadows. For a day I would like to sense the world as the little dog does. She can find as much depth in a urine stained blade of grass as I can in a Tolstoy novel. The poodle-mix’s library is scatter along her trails.

Is Attitude More Important Than Size?

As Aki and I took the switchback trail that drops into the Treadwell Woods, something brushed by me and leaped in Aki’s direction. The little poodle-mix knew what was coming. She wasn’t surprised when a large bird dog puppy, all legs and grin, dropped into a crouch in front of her. The two yipped and circled each other until the bird dog, easily four times Aki’s weight, got a little too exuberant. Aki snapped out a reproach and the puppy dropped her head down in submission.  It amazes me how Aki gets away with bossing around bigger dogs.  

       After the puppy’s owner dragged his dog away on a lead, we wandered among the ruins of old Treadwell and dropped onto Sandy Beach. I was not surprised to see two bald eagles roosting on the roof of the old ventilation tower. The waters of Gastineau channel had cut the tower off from the beach. From their island tower the eagles watched a murder of crows that had taken up station of the tops of old wharf pilings or beach rocks. After Aki and I entered the scene two of the crows descended on a fresh salmon carcass to feed. 

           The eagles just watched the crows tearing into in fish they probably desired. Did the feisty, but much smaller birds intimidate them like my 10-pound poodle-mix intimated the puppy? Or were the eagles just worried about the man who was pointing a suspiciously gun-like object at them? 

       Shouldering my camera, I moved down the beach to let the crows and eagles work things out for themselves. After a gap of fifty meters had opened up I watched all the crows take to the air. Only one eagle roosted on the roof of the ventilation shaft.         

Where Did the Grownups Go?

Wanting a better view of the beaver pond, I walk out onto board walkway that crosses a small bay. Aki dinks around on the gravel trail while I stray. She has no need for an unfiltered view of reedy water. A meter or two away a juvenile mallard is curled up on a tiny island. She doesn’t stir when even after I walk a few more steps on the boardwalk. I feel pretty stealthy. Later, when I look at a picture of the duck on my computer I’ll learn that the little duck’ was staring me down. 

      Leaving behind the duck to soak in the sun, Aki and I walk toward through the old growth forest to the beach. On our way we pass an acrobatic pair of young sapsuckers. I would not have seen them if they hadn’t started squealing. One flits onto a branch a sun-bleached snag, hammers away at it, then summersaults its way through the air in a large circle. In seconds the other young woodpecker copies its buddy. 

        Gulls loiter on the beach when we reach it. They scatter into flight when an adult bald eagle does a fly over. After the eagle lands in a beach side spruce the gulls flutter back to their places and mutter among themselves.  Aki encourages me back into the forest where we run into a young sapsucker. This one revealed its presence by pounding its beak into a middle-aged spruce. No goof off he. After seeing all these juveniles and no adults I wonder why the mature birds have left this portion of the rain forest to the kids. 

Red Velvet Berries

Why are people so noisy? Aki doesn’t answer. Somehow she is twenty meters away, sniffing her way along a hedge of thimbleberry bushes that line the beach. I am close to the water, where the sounds of a small surf blocks out the voices of the other people walking along the Auk Rec beach. 

          Aki shows no sign of joining me at the surf line so I walk at an angle toward a spot she will be in a minute or two. I pick a few thimbleberries while waiting for the little dog. Only the wine-red ones are ripe. To eat one you have to carefully lift the thin berry portion from it’s thimble-shaped seed pod. The berry portion likes like red velvet cake but retains a tart, wild taste. 

        The berry plants cover the old village site. The ones providing me a snack cover a spot where large, ocean going canoes, each hallowed out from a single red cedar log, were beached. Even though the village has been abandoned for over a hundred years, not tree, not even an aggressive alder, grows among the berry plants. 

A Quiet Time

          Opting for solitude over spectacle, I drive Aki out to the False Outer Point trailhead. It sunny and the temperature has climbed above 70 degrees F.—beach weather in the rain forest. Our favorite trails are already clogged with sun worshipers. 

           We approach the point on a crescent-shaped beach. It offers filtered views of the glacier and smooth gravel that seems perfect for sunbathing. I am the only human here, Aki the only dog. There are no bathing beauties or families roasting hot dogs over an open fire. Tiny sparrows hop in and out of the beachside grass but no eagles roost in nearby trees. Just offshore a solo gull does a touch and go on the surface of Fritz Cove. But no whales will surface for air as we walk around the point. 

           After watching hermit crabs skittering across the bottom of a tide pool, the little dog leads me into the forest. Red Huckleberry bushes line an informal trail up and over the headland. Aki finds a spot on the forest floor dappled by sun. If we stay in this spot much longer, she will collapse into a nap. It’s not a bad idea. I could join her on the mossy spot and listen to the sound of diminutive surf until we are both asleep. 

Living With Ignorance

          The trail from Skater’ Cabin to Mendenhall Lake is flooded. Aki saunters to the edge of the water, sniffs and then hops straight onto the top of a two-foot high concrete barrier. In seconds she has walked onto a pocket beach. I don’t know what amazes me more—that she figured out the workaround on her own or that at 12 years of age, she can still manage such a vertical leap. 

        While the little dog conducts a nose survey of the beach, I try to enjoy the view of Mendenhall Glacier reflected in the calm waters of the lake. In winter light, the mountains surrounding the glacier would cut a crisp, jagged line across the blue sky. Today forest fire haze blurs their rocky details. The glacial ice manages to catch and refract light to reduce the dullness. It’s still a beautiful thing, but one robbed of drama.

          Glacier melt water has swollen the lake so we are forced to use the informal paths made by animals in the lakeside forest. I coax Aki onto tiny beaches when we find them. One is occupied by a juvenile semipalmated plover. It takes no notice of Aki. The little dog returns the favor. I wonder why one of the normally nervous plovers is content to stretch and flex in the morning sun while we watch.

          Leaving the plover, Aki and I cross a small beaver dam and reenter the forest. In minutes we are walking around a small pond. Dragonflies battle each other over the pond water. We spook a small flock of winter wrens and dark-eyed juncos. Instead of flying off to safety, the birds fly down the trail a few meters and stare at us from the trailside spruce. I can make no more sense of this behavior than I could that of the mellow plover. I have to accept my ignorance, like I have to accept the dulling effect of forest fire smoke blown here from the Yukon by prevailing winds.