Aki trots down the narrow boardwalk, passing blueberry bushes in full bloom. For the first time in weeks, the sun muscles its way through the cloud cover. It enriches the pinks of the berry blossoms and warms the little dog’s tight, grey curls. A pair of red-breasted robins hop between bushes. Above them, a chestnut-backed chickadee, its clever toes clinging to a thin alder branch, leans back as if to be better enjoy the sun.
Bird song fills the air and I wonder why this place is so rich. It’s just a swampy yard with soil too poor to support spruce or hemlocks. The stubby Douglas pines are the only evergreen trees that can survive.
A flash of blue startles me out a sun-induced reverie—a sparrow-like bird with bright-yellow patches on its wings and back. It has vertical white and gray stripes on its chest and back that make it look like it is wearing a thrift store vest. I won’t be able to find a picture of it in any of my bird books. The handsome stranger, like the other songbirds along this trail are not shy. They flit and fly often but always seem to land in a spot where I can see them.
Crossing a slow creek lined with blooming skunk cabbage we make our way to the beach. Just before reaching it we pass beneath an eagle’s nest built high in a spruce. Only the white head of an adult eagle shows above the lip of the nest but we can hear the mewing of a chick.
There is little wind to riffle Stephen’s Passage when we reach the beach. I plop down onto a patch of dry gravel and let the little dog explore. A northern harrier flies off the water towards us a few feet off the ground. The nested eagle screams and the harrier swings away and moves south towards Outer Point.
Two eagles, both hunched against a cold wind, cling to the roof of an old mine ventilation tower. The tower rises out of a beach of mine tailings that were crushed to sand over a hundred years ago. Rusting relics of the time when this was a mining town emerge from the sandy tailings, exposed by the ebb tide.
The eagles on the tower have the white head and tail feathers of mature birds. Fifty meters away, an eagle with the mottled brown and whites of an immature predator roosts far back in a tangle of alder branches. It watches one of the mature eagles, maybe a parent, fly out and over Gastineau Channel, circle and then dive toward the water. When the hunter returns with empty talons, its mate gives it a scolding that can be heard all the way from Downtown Juneau to the cabins at Lucky Me. I turn to see what effect the scolding has had on the immature bird and find that it has flown away.
The adult eagles settle into silence sulks allowing me to concentrate on the sound of Aki’s paws pounding on the sand and the songs of nesting birds. In spite of the lingering stretch of cold weather, the inhabitants of the Treadwell woods have committed to spring.
Pollen pods of alders lay empty on the forest floor. Sharp-edged leaves emerge from the dead-looking branches of cow parsnips. Drops of last night’s rain cling to the butter-yellow skunk cabbage flowers. Elderberry leaves slowly relax their grip on their clusters of incipient flowers.
The snow is gone from the rain forest, washed away by rain and spring-like temperatures. It left behind bare ground covered with dead hemlock leaves and dissolving piles of dog poop. I tend not to look down this time of year unless necessary to avoid smearing my boots. For the nose-driven dog, the opposite is true.
While Aki sniffs and pees, I scan the woods surrounding the Outer Point Trail, looking and listening for signs of spring. No thrush or robin or chickadee sings or even flits away at our approach. Only my boot taps on the trail boards breaks the silence. Buds on the red-limbed blue berry bushes are swelling. In a week or two, if the weather holds, pink or white blossoms, each a tiny Japanese lantern, will dangle from each branch. They will draw rufus hummingbirds when they arrived from the south. In a swampy area near the beach, skunk cabbage shoots, battered by their efforts to break through softening pond ice, provide the strongest evidence of spring.
Aki has to squint her eyes when we leave the woods. A newly arrived sunlight brings a spring-like clarity to the scene. Alders still wet from this morning rain glimmer, naked drift wood logs look as white as desert bones.
Because the skiing is still good here, the little dog and I have returned to Mendenhall Lake. Last night a half-a-foot of snow fell. But thanks to the ski club groomers, we have a well-packed trail. Otherwise Aki’d be wallowing in soft snow.
A flat light dominates the lake and the mountains that surround it. I miss the sunshine and blue skies that we enjoyed during our last visit. But the new snow that clings to spruce trees and bare-branched alders provides its own bright beauty.
The rain forest sees more cloudy days than sunny ones. When a day breaks clear after a storm, the scenes enjoyed during the sunny hours that follow can seem as rich as a North Douglas Chocolate Cake. We ignore the shapes and sights that moved us on soft, gray days. This afternoon, I’m relieved that the recently sunny spell didn’t rob me of the rain forest knack of recognizing beauty in the simplest things.
When Aki barks. I look up and see two large dogs muzzle to muzzle. They growl at each and soon might fight. My little dog wants to investigate. With tail wagging, she approaches the two combatants. We are in the Treadwell Ruins near a side trail I have been wanting to take. I do now and ask Aki to follow. To my relief, she does. The trail leads to a 100-year-old junkyard.
When the waters of Gastineau Channel flooded the Treadwell mine tunnels in 1917, all mining on Douglas Island stopped with the exception of that carried out in the Ready Bullion Mine. That too closed in 1922. We are heading toward a small train of ore cars that were abandoned here when the mining stopped.
Most of the cars have already rusted into components. Aki sniffs at the one intact car. It looks fit enough to haul ore. The sight of the car triggers conflicting feelings about the ruins. Without human intervention the forest will eventually reclaim the land. In a few generations, old growth spruce and hemlock trees could replace the cottonwoods and alders that are now repairing the ground. But I find a beauty in the steel rails that lay rusting on the forest floor, the giant iron gears disappearing under moss, and this one intact ore car.
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.