We are heading into the brown time that falls between fall color and snow. Aki, we have watched most of the leaves in this forest mature from spring buds to limp, drained things. The little dog, acting as if she didn’t hear me, slinks off to sniff a tree trunk. Poodle, I know it is ridiculous to mourn the leaves. She flashes me her “duh’ look.
Maybe because this has been such a good year for fall color, I am saddened by single leaves, now faded from red to pink, hanging from otherwise empty trees. If the time of snow and hard freezes holds off for a week or two more, we will have more color in the forest. Some of the low growing sorrels are still green while the leaves of their neighbors are mottled red and orange. But the wind has torn the yellow leaves off most of the cottonwoods and the alders are fading to brown.
Soon we will be reduced to earth tones except for the party colors of the harlequin ducks.
What are you doing here? I ask this of a lone, white daisy. One of the flower’s petals is folded over it’s yellow-green center, like it fell asleep at the end-of-summer party and missed the last bus.
The daisy is the only sign of summer along this mountainside trail. Months ago the its lupine neighbors dropped their purple flowers. Now their armored seed pods sling to dead stalks. Grass leaves have turned to straw. Willows, poplars, and even the lowly alders show fall color.
The rain forest animals are also in autumn mode. Red squirrels carry giant chunks of mushrooms up trees and into their winter stashes. Tundra swans have already refueled on our lakes and beaches and continued south. Just now Aki and I watched a black bear root in a riverside meadow for roots. With summer berries and the salmon spawn now just memories, the wild bear’s menu is severely limited.
Some swirling in the lake waters during my last visit encouraged me to take along a fishing rod on this visit to the Troll Woods. We are close to the glacier, walking on moraine recently colonized by fast growing poplars, willows, and alders. It must ten degree colder here than at home in Downtown Juneau. The little dog and I are underdressed.
Gray mist crawls over the lake surface, which is yet to feel the morning light. I make a few half-hearted casts but stop when I notice that Aki is shivering. I can see the promise of warmth in the sunlight that brings out the fall color in the shoreline cottonwoods and makes Mt. McGinnis stand out against the blue morning sky.
Silver salmon splash and roll in the smallest lake on the moraine. They are waiting for the next storm to raise the water level of their spawning stream so they can get on with their deadly mating rituals. At least one salmon has paid a stiff price for waiting. We found it’s severed head on the trail. Last night a bear ate the fish’s body.
Fortunately for the salmon, rain is forecasted for next Thursday. We will miss the sun but are willing to walk in the rain—a small price for living in a rain forest drained by salmon streams.
The rain stopped early this morning and the wind has shaken the beach grass dry. As I slow walk down the Outer Point Beach, watching two eagles do an aerial dance with steps known only to them, I realize that I have never just sat and watched the sea from here. Without giving Aki warning, I plop down on a beach log.
A strong breeze tears through the canopy of the forest that borders the beach. But the trees prevent it from reaching the little dog or me. The wind rips leaves from the beach-side alders, carries them over our heads, then releases them to float down onto the water. Microbursts of wind slam into the surface of the bay driving tiny by intense waves out in concentric circles. Out in a Lynn Canal a boat idles, waiting for a whale to surface.
The rain starts up, falling in thick drops that form grey circles on the beach pebbles when they hit home. I am still inclined to doddle but Aki is not. She stands thirty meters away where the trail through the woods begins, showing me her “are you crazy” look. Perhaps I am, little dog, to let you bully me away from all this turbulent beauty.
The sun gives and it takes beauty this morning on Gastineau Meadows. It backlights the plain Jane alder leaves, making they sparkle it costume jewelry. It creates patterns of shadows and light on already mottled alder bark and makes the bones of dead pine trees glow. But under the sun’s harsh glare, south facing mountains on the other side of Gastineau Channel lose definition. Only Mt. Juneau holds it beauty in the morning light.
Last winter I had to cajole Aki into crossing through an area of the meadow frequented by coyotes. Today she trots over the trails of her wild cousins, more interested in a spot of dog urine than their whereabouts. I again marvel at the capacity of the little dog to forget the unpleasant details of her recent past.
Aki remembers the important things like the approaches to our favorite trailheads and the scent signature of dog friends. She can never forget her feeding schedule or the sound of cheese being sliced on a cutting board. But thankfully, the warning ghosts of her past never appear to trouble her.
Just as Aki and I move out of the alder thicket and onto the beach, a common loon sings. I haven’t heard that melancholic call for years. The loon, with it’s ring of white vertical neck stripes, hurries on the water toward another loon. I think one of the birds called again but can’t be sure because of the arrival of two teenage girls. Weighed down by backpacks and looking at the screens of their phones, the young women’s conversation, a typical adolescent combination of judgmental slur and insecurity, obscures that of the reuniting loons. Aki agrees to wait until the back packers reenter the forest where the old growth trees will absorb their noise.
While waiting, I watch the original loon and two others swim in formation and then dive on fish. All are adult birds. None sing but I welcome the silence. After giving the backpackers some space, I lead my little dog into the forest and then climb a headland covered with bog forest of alder and mountain hemlock. It leads to another beach where, from the sounds, I believe that scooters hover just off shore, large dogs bark and play, and young boys scream out their joy of being alive in the woods.
Aki and I hike to the edge of this new beach and watch two border collies swim in the bay while a coven of small boys runs about on the gravel. Someone is chopping wood for the campfire that sends a large plume of gray smoke skyward. Aki doesn’t argue with my decision to turn back.
After re-crossing the headland we leave the trail and drop down onto a pocket beach. Magically, no noise beyond the headland reaches us. The beach fronts on a small channel. At one end of the channel, eagles dry their wings while perched at the top of evergreens. Another eagle flies toward them from the other end of the channel, then executes a wide turn and returns to its perch. One of the eagles it was heading for starts to screech. Aki and I leave.
“Oh,” is all I said. But it was enough to spook a great blue heron to flight. The bird and I surprised each other. It was wading in a small pond. I had just climbed onto a dike that bordered its fishing waters. For a few seconds I could see the surprisingly large swell of its belly before the heron’s big wings lifted it into the air. In several more seconds, the bird was more than halfway across the meadow.
Three eagles that had been bickering over someone in the meadow grass also took to air. But a robin froze like a statute at the top of a young spruce. Later a swallow, after bouncing it chest five or six times on the pond surface, gazed at me from a perch on the thinnest branch of a bare alder tree.
This morning only small birds posed for us. But shooting stars and lupines made up for it.