Aki and I are following the Rainforest Trail to the beach. Dull-brown leaves cover the path. Gray trunks of alder trees frame a wall of yellow berry bushes. It draws me like the first sunshine after a month of rain. Up close, the leaves look more brown than yellow and show the signs of a summer being attacked by insects. Late fall beauty can’t stand close scrutiny.
It isn’t raining when we walk onto the beach. Fog blocks our view of the mainland mountains. But across Lynn Canal, the Chilkat Mountains seem to be showing off their new snow blankets. They were hidden from us by cloud cover the last time we walked the beach. The time before that, they were embarrassingly bare thanks to a summer drought that melted their snow cover.
The beach and bay are empty of birds. I expected to spot at least one small raft of harlequin ducks or maybe some returning Barrow golden-eyes. Until stretching Aki’s patience to the limit, I scan the water to birds, seals, or whales. This time of year we have seen all three off this beach. But I end up settling for the mountains, newly white, cross the canal.
There is beauty this morning in the Troll Woods. I can see it after wiping rain from my glasses. It comes from the rain that coats the reddening leaves with shimmering shellac and forms crystal globes of light on the bottom of high bush cranberries. Aki, a more than willing participant in this adventure, shivers as I study the leopard pattern of a cottonwood leaf that has lodged itself in a tangle of tree moss. She is fine as long as we keep moving, so I try not to stop often.
We cross a young forest, visiting a series of lakes that were formed by men removing gravel from raw glacial moraine. Nature eventually repaired most of the damage. Now salmon smolt and trout hide from merganser ducks in lake reeds and grass. Cottonwoods, alders, and stunted spruce fill the spaces between lakes. We have to keep an eye out for wandering black bears.
The flat light of this gray day dampens the beauty of the yellowing cottonwoods that line the north end of Crystal Lake. They will stun when seen on the next sunny day, as long as an October storm doesn’t strip them bare first.
Aki is staying at home today. It’s a good thing. She wouldn’t have liked this porcupine. She hasn’t liked porcupines since one of them flung a shower of needles into her face. I can’t blame the porky. It didn’t know that Aki wasn’t a mean spirited predator.
A friend and I are above the timberline on Mt. Roberts. We took the tram up from salt water and then climbed up through a thin line of timber before reaching the alpine. On a clear day we could see up and down Gastineau Channel and across the Douglas Island ridge to Admiralty Island. This afternoon, obscuring mist opens and closes off views from the mountain. Any disappointment from the lack of views is made up by this chance for a close up observation of a baby porcupine.
It hangs from a tangle of alder branches like a jungle sloth, nibbling on tender shoots. A cruise ship tourist joins us and expresses intent to stroke the porky’s spiny back. We move on before the disaster happens and in minutes stumble on a willow ptarmigan in its chestnut summer plumage. It freezes in place until startled to flight by two tourists who never knew the bird was there.
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.