Author Archives: Dan Branch

A Magic View

We are enjoying the end of a high energy storm. Just an hour ago it was hammering the Treadwell Woods with rain. Some of it hangs on the leaves of cottonwood trees or drips onto the trail. When Aki and I leave the woods, the wind flings scattered drops of it into our faces. 

            A merlin, one of our tiniest birds of prey, clings to the roof of the old mine shaft ventilator. As I try to wipe rain drops off my camera lens, the merlin flees down the beach and lands on the top of a ruined wharf piling. 

            When I raise my camera to photograph the merlin, a plastic poop bag flies out of my pocket and flutters down the beach. If I take my picture of the bird, the bag may fly out into the channel. If the seconds that it takes to grab the bag, the bird moves. I search without success for the merlin and then take pictures of other ruined pilings on the off chance that the bird is perched on top of one.

 Sunshine breaks through the clouds hanging over the east end of Gastineau Channel. I give up my search for the merlin and walk towards the drama. When we get home and I check through the photos, I find one of the merlin staring at me from atop a piling.   

Spiritual Beings?

Offshore, a bald eagle stands with his lowered, as if in prayer. I know this is done in response to a heavy shower that soaking the eagle, Aki and I. But seeing it makes me wonder whether animals have a spiritual component in their lives. 

            Eagles are too practical for religion. They are always looking for their next meal. But Aki, who never has to worry about food, has the time to reflect on the meaning of life. 

            Further down the beach, a belted king fisher lands on a rounded rock. Feisty little dudes like him could benefit from a broader perspective. They could be mother nature’s cops. The rain seems to have taken the starch out of this kingfisher. Rather than buzz off the competition, it lowers its head and watches a clutch of gulls snatch baitfish from nearby water.  

Repurposing

While Aki pees, I study a collection of rubber boots. Once children wore them for splashing through puddles or crossing shallow streams. Now leaky with rot, they’ve been turned them into flower planters and set in a line on the top of a fence rail. As the little dog drags me toward the next good smell, I wonder if the parents of the booted children couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the used up footwear. Do the purple flowers poking out of the tops of camouflage wellingtons remind them of a four-year-old’s laughter.

            Excited by the unexpected appearance of the sun, Aki and I walk to the shore of Gastineau Channel, were the sculpture of a breaching humpback whale points to the blue sky. Two women with masks circling their necks talk while sitting in chairs six feet apart. A salmon seiner motors past them as it heads down channel to Taku Inlet. 

            We use the sea walk to reach the mouth of Gold Creek, passing a small gathering of homeless men. The men face the sun. No masks circle their necks or hang from one of their ears. But they laugh with the joy of children splashing through puddles or adults whose faces are almost always wet with rain.

Empty Summer

The rain is trying to wash away all signs of summer from Downtown Juneau. I wonder if it makes Aki worried. She may not finish her catalogue of dog smells before they all wash away.The little poodle-mix keeps her nose to the cement as I wait in the rain.

            Most of the flowers have gone to seed. Ruby colored thimble berries have replaced their white flowers. Rain drops hang from purple monkshood and orange nasturtiums. But low clouds block any view of the mountains. 

            Even on such a dreary day, in a normal August, Downtown Juneau would be packed with cruiseship tourists. It’s empty this morning. There is no one posing outside the Lucky Dog Saloon. No one is queuing up for whale watching tours or helicopter rides to a glacier. Just two downtown workers walk down the cruiseship dock, carrying orders of Philippine barbeque from Bernadettte’s.   Last night, someone must have stumbled out of a bar and wrote “Be Happy Again” in a space on the Before I Die sign.

Time for the Little Guys to Shine

Most walks this summer, have offered chances to watch some of the rain forest stars. Today, the little dog and I will see whales and eagles. But the lesser known actors will shine today. 

            We start out crossing a tidal meadow animated with tiny frogs. Each amphibian is less than an inch across. Alaska’s severe winters make the state a discouraging place for amphibians. But, perhaps thanks to global climate change, we are seeing a lot more frogs this summer. 

            The other little guy that got my attention was a huge dragon fly. The insect looked as large as a swallow as it cruised over the meadow grass. Later I will watch an iridescent-blue dragonfly bounce past. But this one looked dulled by camouflage armor. It landed on a stalk of grass and froze in place. I waited for the sun to punch through the clouds and make the dragonfly’s wings sparkle. But it doesn’t cooperate. Still, I am thankful that the dragonfly holds on to the grass stalk long enough for one good photo. 

Mountain Berries

This late in the summer, we need to head into the mountains to find ripe berries. That’s why the little dog and I are searching the edge of a mountain meadow for blues. A pair of Stellers’ jays complain about our presence and them move fifty meters away. When they stop squawking, we can hear the chirp-like call of a ptarmigan. 

            We will never spot the ptarmigan but do find small, but well-endowed caches of blue berries. Most are large and plump with juice. Some are shaped like little balloons. A few are home to worms that will abandon their berries after we dump our harvest into a mixing bowl of salt water.             

            This is one of my favorite times to cross a mountain meadow. Many of the berry plants display the reds and yellows of autumn. A choice few take on an almost lavender shade. It’s easy to spot the blue berries hanging on plants already in the end game that comes before the fall monsoons.

Plato Had it Backwards

Rain drops sparkle like costume jewelry on each blueberry leaf. Blue berries hang among the sparkles like planets in a model solar system. I have to step around red-tinted bear scat to reach the berries. The bears must be ignoring blueberries and concentrating on the red-colored high bush cranberries.

             Before seeing the bear poop, I had been feeling a little guilty about picking berries that the bears might need to get through the winter. I never worried about that in past years when the bears had plenty of salmon and berries to harvest. But the red salmon they usually fatten up on have not returned to their spawning grounds and this has been a bad berry year.

            After picking a quart of berries, I follow Aki onto a bear trail and walk to the edge of a small forest pond. A high bush cranberry bush dominates a small island in the middle of the pond. The limbs of the bush stretch out over the pond ‘s surface, which reflects the red leaves. The reflected leaves are the color of claret. The original ones are as pale as paper mâché. 

Harvest Time

Aki ignores the pink salmon swirling around Fish Creek. So do three great blue heron. The long-necked birds stand like statues in shallow water as salmon boil past them. They must be targeting smaller fry.

            A year or two ago we had to restrain Aki while walking along a salmon stream. Otherwise she would charge into the water, tail wagging, to try to play with the big fish. This year, she just ignores them. This is a relief for me. Now I can relax and watch all the birds drawn to the creek by the salmon or meadow grass bent over by rip seeds. 

            Usually the shore side trees are full of bald eagles. But only one watches us from a nearby spruce today. They might be over at the hatchery, where the first silver salmon of the year are cueing up at the bottom of the fish ladder. 

            After watching a stalking heron, I turn toward the meadow and watch a small flock of sparrows land on the leads of dried plant stalks to harvest seeds. One tried to land on a cow parsnip stalk while flying at top speed. The stalk whips it around like sock toy before throwing it back into the air. 

It’s the Moss

Aki shepherded her other human and I off the main moraine trail and onto a faint one leading into the Troll Woods. It’s a good choice for this flat-gray day. Without invasive sunshine reaching into the woods, it feels like the place has lifted far away and taken us with it. 

            With its ground cushioned by thick moss, which also decorate the trees, we could be on another planet. Only when the trail brings us to a lake shore, can we find mountain landmarks that let us know we are still in an earthly rain forest. 

            It is a very quiet place. The moss sees to that. When we see ducks, they are moving quietly across the water. The resident beavers sleep in their dens. No thrush or jay sings or squawks. You can almost hear the sounds of your own thoughts.

A Little Luck

Aki is still sleeping as I leave the house. She must be worn out from yesterday’s berry picking adventure. It’s been a long time since she has run that far. I am off to chase silver salmon on the back side of Admiralty Island.

            Thin lines of blue sky slice through the grey cloud cover as we leave the harbor. It’s calm, so no waves ripple the reflections in the harbor water. No other boats leave with us. In a half-an-hour our boat is slamming into waves. Just ahead we will face a nasty tide rip if we try to reach Admiralty. 

            Since the fast moving silver salmon seldom pause on their way to their spawning grounds, we won’t know if pounding our way to the back side of Admiralty will gain us a chance to catch one of them. Instead we change course and head to the eastern shore of Douglas Island.

            Within minutes of sinking our baited hooks, my friend lands an ocean-bright silver. We will boat two more before we head back to the harbor. At least one eagle will fly low over the boat while we fish and more will watch while perched in shoreside spruce. But we will see no whales, orca or humpbacks.