It might be the largest porcupine I’ve ever seen. Just a few meters away, it waddles towards the protection of an alder thicket. I’ve just passed through a similar thicket. Luckily, Aki has stayed back to check out a smell, probably the scent of this huge porkie.
The last time Aki ran into a porcupine, it decorated her face with quills. This time, Aki’s luck holds. After giving the porcupine’s hideout a wide birth, we continue on towards Nugget Falls. Shafts of sunlight slide from the cloud cover to illuminate parts of the glacier or Mt. McGinnis.
When a shaft of light hits the ground where we walk, stop, closes my eyes, and wait for the sun to warm my face. But it’s too late in the summer for that to happen. Now is the time for sunlight to strengthen the colors of fall.
Clouds took the sun away yesterday. But they won’t deliver the rain until tomorrow. Without rain gear, Aki and I are searching a narrow muskeg meadow for berries. This is a scouting, not a harvesting mission. Although I manage to find a handful of ripe berries to feed the little dog.
Birds, as obvious as mosquitos, flit and fly through the surrounding bushes. A dark-eyed junko and two juvenile robins land on the trail itself. The fly off when we approach to nearby trees. Some of the birds must be eating blues berries. The trail boards are spotted with blue-covered scat.
The trail leads to a beach, which is as empty as the sky is gray. Something starts slapping the water. When the slapping stops, a harbor seal swims past. It must be herding silver salmon heading toward the mouth of their spawning stream. Later we will cross the stream and spot a swirl in the water caused by a salmon’s dorsal fin. At one salmon escape the hunting seals.
The rain forest is enjoying a civilized summer. We get good soakings of rain followed by days of party cloudy skies. Gastineau Meadows is benefiting from the Goldilocks weather. The humble willows and alders lining the meadow trail exhibit greens and yellows so rich they could give Aki a stomach ache if she consumed colors.
I click my camera’s shutter button and click again, as if each click is a spoon of chocolate gelato heading toward my mouth. Normally Aki would object to the delays caused when I stop to take just another picture. But today, she shows great patience.
The little dog even joins me when I walk off the gravel trail to get an up close view of the meadow wildflowers. Charged with sun and rain, Labrador tea plant have pushed their blossom balls over a foot in the air. Chocolate lilies and British tobacco (buckbeans) do the same.
The last time Aki and I circled Moose Lake, yellows and browns dominated. This morning, all is green. The new leaves display a crayon box worth of green colors. The trail is perfumed by balm of Gilead (cottonwood) sap.
We take a back trail through the troll woods and stop at a break in the trees to admire the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in the lake. It would be perfect if not for the expanding rings made by feeding trout.
Before the trees colonized the moraine, a person tired of owning a 1930’s era sedan abandoned it here. Alders started to pioneer the moraine gravel. Their fallen leaves mulched into soil. Over the years it became rich enough to support the growth of cottonwood trees and spruce. The whole time the old sedan had rusted until now it is only an outline of its original self. But there is enough of its bulbous fender left to provide Aki shelter from the rain.
A porcupine the size of a small pig waddles through trailside alders. The top of its tail and a large patch of its rear are bare. Before being attacked by a dog or the other predator sharp-tipped quills covered the bald spots. What ever attacked the porcupine is still trying to rid its muzzle of quills.
Aki starts to wander toward the porcupine, nose to the ground. In a few seconds she will spot movement and dash over to the Alaskan hedgehog. Seconds after that I’ll be pulling quills from her face. Sacrificing a chance for a great photo, I drop the camera and grab the dog. Together we watch the porcupine force itself into a blue berry thicket. The color of its quills is an exact match to the branches of the still-bare blue berry bushes, so it appears to disappear.
We are on a mountain meadow. Snow still covers much of the trail. That’s why I brought the little dog here. It’s one of our rites of spring that requires a warm day after a cold night that sets up the snow for walking. When we reach the snow, the poodle-mix does a few donuts and then rubs her face in the white stuff. She shakes her face, sending wet snow flying. Some of it ends up on my pants, which is a small price to pay. As my pants dry, I enjoy the meadow ponds capture the surrounding snow-covered mountains.
Bird song has dropped in the Troll Woods. The wrens are still going to town. But I haven’t heard a thrush’s blurry whistle since we left the car. Our sunny streak is continuing so I feel like singing, even if the birds had gone silent.
Aki and I circle several small lakes, seeing no one. Since the Covid crisis, I tend to choose the lesser used trails. The little loyal little dog doesn’t object, even though it means she rarely can do a meet and greet with another dog. She still stops often to check out interesting scents. I had to wait a minute for her to finish checking out a smell near the beavers’ lodge.
Usually sunny weather brings the wind to riffle the Troll Woods lakes. But today, only the faintest breeze flows through the woods. Each lake is a crystal mirror reflecting mountains and glaciers.
Clusters of emerging water lily leaves look like whales breaching on the surface of the beaver pond. Some leaves have already flattened out on the water to gather the summer’s energy. Strong morning light makes the others translucent.
The tail slap of a nervous beaver sounds on the other side of the pond. Above the pond, a male woodpecker hops erratically up and down an overhanging alder tree. It’s a red-breasted sapsucker, not the three-toed woodpecker I was expecting. Last summer the three-toed raised a brood of chicks in a nearby spruce snag. I saw the male feeding near where the sapsucker is staring at me. Each season has its winners and losers.
We’ve been enjoying an early stretch of sunny, warm weather, which has drawn campers to beaches, like the one that Aki and I will soon reach on the trail. When a family of campers approaches, I grab Aki and retreat a few meters off the trail. In a few minutes the little dog and I reach their campsite and find an eagle and raven checking it out for scraps.
These campers had totally extinguished their fire before leaving. Two days ago, sixteen acres of forest and grass-covered dunes burned near Boy Scout Beach, a place Aki and I like to visit. We have seen bears digging up the meadow grass there to harvest chocolate lily roots. The place was crowded with Canada geese the last time we walked over the dunes. Now the geese and bears will have to find somewhere else to feed.
Wind-driven rain slammed into the car as we drove out to the northern end of Douglas Island. The rain but not the wind stopped when we arrived at the trailhead. When a few minutes down the trail we flushed a varied thrush from the trail. It landed on a nearby alder branch and gave the little dog and I a hard stare. That’s when I notice the total absence of bird song. On our last visit, varied thrush, like the one looking at us, filled the air with their blurry whistles. Wrens and kinglets added their signature songs. This morning, not one bird, or even a squirrel tried to be heard over the sound of the wind. I normally savor silence. It’s hard to come by, even in the rain forest. But this absence of bird song is chilling. Trying not to think about Carson’s Silent Spring, I follow Aki down the switchback trail that leads the beach.
At forest’s edge, we hear a thrush whistle and then the sweet song of a robin. The resident rafts of golden eye ducks and surf scoters work the offshore waters. Two eagles fly interlocking circles over Shaman Island. A song sparrow searches clumps of greening beach grass for food. Another sparrow sings out from inside an alder thicket.
Everything seems normal on the beach until a red breasted sap sucker lands on an exposed alder trunk. With jerky movements it moves up the tree, not stopping to hammer it with its powerful beak. It’s the first time I’ve seen any woodpecker land on an alder, let alone one so exposed.
Aki stands staring at two trumpeter swans that feed in a sliver of open water on Moose Lake. Her tail is up but she doesn’t bark. The swans, only a meter away from her, continue to search for food in the calm manner they showed when we first spotted them.
A screen of alders prevented me from seeing Aki approach the swans or I would never have let her go so close to the tired looking birds. I would have kept closer tabs on the little poodle-mix if not distracted by a stream of water drops pouring off the beak of a third swan that swam a few meters away from Aki’s brace.
Because of their massive size, few animals prey on swans. Trumpeters are the largest waterfowl in North America. Their wingspan exceeds two meters. Humans could bring them down with a well-aimed shotgun but that would break federal law. This might explain why the much-hunted mallards usually fly off in a panic when we approach but swans just ignore us.
This morning a brace of mallards paddle tight circles around one of the feeding swans. The mallard hen gives me a hard stare, then returns her attention to the swan. The ducks must be feeding on scraps that fall from the swans’ beaks or eating food stirred up as the swans dredge the lake bottom with their massive beaks.
This meadow would be almost quiet if not for a nearby Glacier Highway. During breaks in traffic, Aki and I can hear siskins and junkos busy hunting in alders and damaged pines. A jagged line of mountain peaks show above the tops of a spruce forest that starts on the other side of the highway.
Dense snow covers the muskeg even though the temperature is already well above freezing. Aki rolls in the sugary snow as I study a straight line of tracks left by a large canine this morning. Should we follow what could be wolf tracks or pass through a screen of alders to visit a watercourse controlled by beavers?
Remembering the large beaver dam on the other side of the alders, I lead the little dog to a narrow but deep creek. Upstream is otter country. But recent warm weather has destroyed the otter’s slides.
A few meters downstream is a beaver lodge mostly hidden by snow. Water cascading over the beaver dam blocks the road noise. I’m struck with the parallel of this meadow visit to a walk across land bordering a train line. When on trains in Europe, Britain, Scandinavia, or Japan, I find myself staring at these waste lands. Some look wild enough to shelter otters or badgers. On a ride through the Sami country of Sweden, a small herd of reindeer raced my train. Around cities, the railroad border lands have been divided into garden allotments. I imagine siting in the doorway of one of the little allotment shacks, sipping coffee from a thermos mug, watching tomatoes swell in the summer sun.
Does the noise of rushing trains annoy an allotment gardener like today’s traffic noise bothered me, or does it carry away urban stress like a river, like spring melt rushing over a beaver dam?