It’s almost too late in the season for harvesting wild berries. Already the leaves of blue berries and high bush cranberries have turned red, yellow, or orange. We can’t expect to find berries on any of these plants. In the past years, on ground drained by Fish Creek, we have discovered ripen low bush cranberries this time of year. This morning, as Aki catalogues meadow scents, her other owner and I hunt the creek muskeg for bitter-sweet cranberries.
It should be pouring down rain on the muskeg. But the weather is dry. There is a pale, high layer of marine clouds above the mountain ranges. This would usually wipe out the detail of clouds and sky. Today, we can enjoy a subtle grey patchwork in the sky.
We hunt the muskeg but can only find a dozen cranberries on the meadow’s surface scattered like forgotten waste.
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.
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.
The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
While Aki dashes off to investigate a pee mail message, I stop to study what looks like a red rose growing at the end of a willow branch. The rose is formed by willow leaves, not flower pedals, changing from green to an autumn red.
Last spring, after the winter snow melted but before willow buds burst, a female willow gall midge laid an egg at the tip of the willow branch. A wormy little grub emerged from the egg and burrowed into a willow bug and started feasting on the new green bud. Rather than unfurling,, leaves from the bud morphed into the shape of a rose flower.
Shafts of sun break through cloud cover to brighten the reds in the willow rosette and the rosette growing at the tips of the surrounding willow branches. I feel like we are in a rose garden, not standing at the edge of a willow-lined pond that was formed when beavers dammed a small stream.
By turning around, I could see a reflection of a glacier in Mendenhall Lake. I could watch a merganser sunning itself on an offshore rock. I could study Nugget Falls or take in the flight of a kingfisher. Those are natural things. Their presence doesn’t surprise anyone. So I can’t turn my back on these red, red willow rosettes.
It is hard this morning to find a parking place near the Sheep Creek delta. The tiny parking lot is full. Both sides of the road are lined with parked trucks. We find a place to put our car on the southern side of the creek. The guys who parked the trucks are fishing for silver salmon on the Gastineau Channel shore. They are only outnumbered by gulls.
The last time we visited the delta, eagles greatly outnumbered humans. Only two guys tried their luck at fishing. Dozens of eagles ripped flesh from spawned out salmon. This morning there is only one eagle perched above thousands of gulls. The birds wade in the stream or hover on the exposed gravel, all waiting for pink salmon to die.
One gull screams at a small female pink salmon as the fish rolls on the beach. After minutes of flopping, it goes still, letting the gull start its feast. Newly arrived pink salmon power their way up the stream. Some males with grotesque humps, try to shove each other off the spawning ground. The gulls keep watching. They will watch until the spawning is done and the dying begins.
This morning, the weather offered little promise for good photographs or even a decent walk. Wind whipped raindrops around the yard as the little dog and I headed to the car. We drove out to the old Tlingit village site where an old growth forest offered some protection from the storm.
It was almost cozy in the woods but inclement on the spit we had to pass over to reach Point Louisa. Three guys in heavy weather gear fished for silver salmon on the spit. Just off shore several harbor seals had more success harvesting salmon.
At the end of the spit we ducked into a sparce forest before reaching the point. On the other side of the woods we watched a trio of harlequin ducks sped across the water, heading toward Favorite Passage. A minute later they reversed course and returned to Auk Bay.
A loud croak made me look away from the ducks to where two Stellar sea lions seemed to be cuddling in the small waves. Another sea lion shot its head out of the water with a salmon in its jaws. It flung its head back and forth, trying to break the fish’s spine. Several gulls soon arrived to pick up the scraps flying from the sea lion’s mouth. They know that sea mammals are messy eaters.