This rim of rime frost explains why the woods are so quiet. Frozen breath of the squirrel within formed the thick, white border. On a warmer day, the little guy would be scolding Aki as we moved up the trail.
Similar frost borders mark the sleeping places of the other squirrels in the woods. Up near the forest canopy, a wood pecker climbs an old growth hemlock but does not make a noise. Two Steller’s jays land on a close-in tree limb to silently watch us pass.
One gull keens when we reach the beach but the rest of the birds on the beach are silent. So is the raven that cruises overhead. A smart breeze riffles the off shore water but there are no leaves in the beachside alders to break the silence.
This morning, after a night of mixed snow and rain, clouds descended on this mountain meadow. Rather than curse the obscuring wall of white for hiding the surrounding mountains, I smile. Aki, this must what it is like to walk in a cloud.
Aki, already moist from the dewy air, trots away without responding to my romantic statement. She has no interest in spinning the day into something other than what it is—wet and gray. The little dog is nose down, her body tense with anticipation as she walks a crooked path across the muskeg. Near one of the pothole ponds she slams to a stop and buries her nose into a clump of lichen. Then she whirls around and marks the spot with urine.
Once again I envy Aki’s powerful nose and the excitement she feels when tracking scent left my animals she will never meet. Bending down to harvest a few bog cranberries, I imagine sniffing out the trail left by a passing wolf, coyote or lynx. How great it would be to read nature without my eyes. But my sight is all I have so I scan the meadow for the animal that my dog just identified with her nose. All I see are the shapes of scattered pine trees made grotesque by wind and winter.
On the way home we stop at mile three of the North Douglas Highway. I park and watch a flock of siskins explode out of a leafless alder and fly toward the mountains on the other side of Gastineau Channel. If Aki saw the birds, she showed no interested in them. Perhaps they were too far away to smell.
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.