Snow no longer covers this trail through the old growth. Yesterday it did. Yesterday snow drifted down through the forest canopy. Today it’s rain. The rain forest is once again the venue for the annual fight between fall and winter.
While Aki hangs back to investigate a stain of urine near the trail, I push on to the beaver dam. Water spills over the dam through layers of newly severed tree branches dragged there by beavers. There is still a paper-thin layer of ice covering parts of the pond. But it is already melting as the temperature climbs and the rain falls. Snow still covers the mountain backdrop for the pond. But winter lacks the strength to counterpunch the warmth of fall here where the beavers sleep.
No sun – no moon! No morn – no noon – No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day. No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, No comfortable feel in any member – No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!
I am trying not to let Thomas Hood’s “November” set the tone for this walk through the old growth. It’s hard. I can check off each item on Hood’s whining list. “No sun,” check. “No moon,” we haven’t seen it for months. I am tempted to continue when I spot Aki. The little dog is trotting toward me, tail a metronome, ears flapping, tongue wagging. Something she just smelled has set her afire.
Aki isn’t mad at the beavers, even through it is their earthworks that are flooding the trail. Thanks to them she has to waddle waste deep across inundated sections of the path. She loves the scents that they spread near their half-submerged homes.
The little dog isn’t saddened when we sight the corpse of one a massive spruce tree. The death of the old giant doesn’t bother me either. It’s trunk is shot through with rot. It was time for it to fall. By next summer it will serve as a nursery for the sprouting seeds of hemlocks and spruce. It won’t collapse into earth until a new generation of trees have gotten a fair start at forest life.
Aki may not know it but this is a work trip. We are driving out the North Douglas Highway to a beach with a harvestable amount of seaweed. Thin ropes of it mark the high tide line. This may be a last chance to gather wrack for the garden before snow arrives next week.
Three five-gallon buckets rattle together in the cargo area of the car. Their presence should tip Aki about what I am about. We won’t return home until they are filled with severed rockweed. Before then, Aki and I will walk the Rainforest Trail. We will skirt the flooded trail sections. I’ll photograph what color I can find. We will pass the remains of several wind-fallen hemlock trees, their trunks snapped off a few meters above the forest floor. There will be a downed hundred-year-old spruce lying on the floor with its roots ripped from the ground. I’ll figure out that all these trees were blown down by last week’s windstorm.
The same wind that flatten the old growth trees raised waves on Lynn Canal that carried seaweed onto the Douglas Island beaches. While I fill my buckets with the stuff, a large raft of surf scoters will fish close to the shore. They will ignore the little dog and I. But a lone gull, hiding in the plain sight in the raft, will give us the evil eye.
No birds bounced through the small waves that marched across the Fish Creek Pond. No eagles or herons roosted in the spruce trees. No salmon swirled the pond’s surface, no other people or dogs walked along the shore. This doesn’t bother Aki. The little dog has plenty of scents to sniff. Even though I looked forward to seeing some wildlife, the absence of it this morning doesn’t bother me either. I have the absences created—solitude.
We head out toward the mouth of Fish Creek, blown down the trail by the strengthening wind. No ducks work the close in waters of Fritz Cove. A few gulls keen and then ignore us. We are surprised by a flock of siskins feeding near the terminus of a tidal meadow. They fly into the sky above our heads, turning and diving in tight formation. At the end of each maneuver, their flock forms a different shape. Then they disappear.
I should just enjoy the beauty of the flock in flight, like I am enjoying the changing light on the meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier across Gastineau Channel. But I can’t help wondering if the shapes formed by siskins’ maneuvers were an attempt to communicate—an organic semaphore wasted on the ignorant.
Winter teased us with a few days of snow and cold. Now, like the fickle lover, it has left the rain forest for America’s East Coast. It’s mid-November and we are facing a week’s worth of wet storms. Aki and I suit up and head out to the Sheep Creek Delta.
Just a month ago we had to dodge eagles, step over salmon carcasses, but could tiptoe up to herons. The birds were there to feast on the wealth of wild food brought by the salmon spawn. Now all that has been washed into Gastineau Channel by rain and big autumn tides. This morning, only mallards and gulls remain.
The incoming tide shrinks the beach, creating isolated islands of gravel where the birds rest. The gulls squeal and the mallards cackle but otherwise they seem very comfortable in each other’s presence. It’s like they have formed a seasonal family for company until the salmon return.
Last Fall, when Aki and I took this trail to Boy Scout Beach, we spooked a bear. It had been digging chocolate lily roots in a tidal meadow. We saw two other root digging bears that day. None of them bothered the little dog or I. But the memory makes me cautious as we follow Eagle River to the sea.
We can hear the ocean long before we see it. Strong westerly winds have raised a surf that pounds onto Eagle Beach. Some of the waves move into the river to crash against a steep section of riverbank. Past wave erosion collapsed the prior bank, forcing crews to relocate the trail two times. Just down river living spruce trees, their roots undercut by wave action, have tumbled into the river.
The violent surf and strong wind forced the sea birds inland. A brace of bufflehead ducks plop into a little side slough as Aki and I walk along it. The ducks blast off the water when they spot us but only land thirty meters away. They must be tired of fighting the waves and wind.
A bald eagle cruises across the river to circle over my head. A little panicked, I look for the little dog and find her a few meters away. The eagle stops circling after I closed the distance to Aki. Three seals ride the river surf with their heads pointed toward the sea. They must be waiting for a last wave of salmon to arrive.
The little dog and I are not used to dramatic surf. Up close, it sounds like a hundred Nugget Falls after a week of heavy rain. We turn our backs to it and climb a sand berm then drop onto another tidal meadow. The berm blocks the wind and dampens the sound. As we make our way back to the car I try to catalogue all the sounds that moving water makes—the plop of a water drop, hum of water moving through a culvert; water gurgling, shushing, dripping. There is enough diversity for a D.J. with time and a good ear to make a symphonic mix-tape.
Aki snuffles a patch of trailside grass. After watching her beaver away, I scan the Fish Creek Pond for bird life. Only the severed leaves of cottonwood trees float on the pond’s surface. Heavy raindrops plunk down on fallen leaves covering the trail. As the little poodle-mix finishes her investigation and seals the spot with urine, I try to ignore the chilling rainwater slowly working its way through the fabric of my expensive rain parka to soak the sweatshirt underneath.
My little dog trots down the trail, undeterred by the rain or the hypothermic temperatures. While I was soaking up sun in California and Washington State, Aki went out each day in the rain. It’s as if she has never stretched out in the sun.
While Aki squished down empty rainforest trails, I crunched over a gravel path, passing curated maples, ginko trees, and Henry Moore bronzes. While a North Pacific storm rolled over Aki and Juneau, I strolled along the Tacoma waterfront in crisp, dry weather. When I stepped on fallen leaves, they crunched underfoot.
The little dog and I push on to the mouth of Fish Creek. There gulls and mallards mutter to themselves and swim slowly away from the beach. The resident eagles are elsewhere. Maybe they have already joined the thousands of their kind that assemble north of Haines each November to feed on a late arriving run of chum salmon.
Aki and I are using an elevated boardwalk near the glacier visitor center. It has heavy wire sides designed to keep the local bears safe from the tourists. During bear season you have to pass through gates to enter the boardwalk. They have been removed for the season so I assumed that it is safe for the little dog and I to use the boardwalk as a shortcut to the car.
A yearling bear cub ambles under the boardwalk. Its mother walks closely behind. I grab Aki but there is no danger for either of us. The bears are old pros as at this. All summer tourists have watched them fish for salmon in a nearby creek or dig for chocolate lily roots in the meadow. It has become their habit to ignore the smelly creatures trapped behind the boardwalk fences, which form a people zoo.
Two days ago I watched another habituated bear gorging itself on my neighbor’s garbage. It has learned to identity people with food. That bear now knows that it can ignore our efforts to scare it away from garbage. As much as I enjoy watching a fat bear sauntering along a salmon stream, I’d give up any chance of seeing one again if it meant that bears would never lose their distrust of humans. But now many Juneau bear have.
It’s been three week since the last tour buses released their hordes onto the Mendenhall Lake trails. Aki and I are the only ones using the lake margin this morning, if you don’t count a pair of eagles and one very vocal raven. Last night’s rainstorm ended just before we arrived. The ground, leaves, and eagle feathers are still soaked.
There is no wind to ruffle the lake’s surface so it can’t mirror the glacier. Only the swirls of a school of silver salmon mess with the reflection until the head of a harbor seal appears about the surface. It must have followed the silvers up the river and into the lake. I wait near the salmon to see if the seal can snatch one until Aki begins to keen.
Even after days of heavy rain the lake level has dropped enough for us to beach walk around a peninsula where the arctic tern nest during the summer. The terns have long ago left for their 10,000-mile migration to South America. But the little dog and I still avoid walking over their nesting area, which still feels like holy ground. From the beach I can see scattered feathers, relics of an unfortunate bird who didn’t live long enough to make the long flight south.
A large iceberg has come to ground off the tip of the peninsula. Last winter Aki and I might have walked on its surface when it was still part of the glacier. These days I find myself taking many photographs of icebergs. I will not have an opportunity to do it in a few years after the glacier has completed its retreat from the lake.
Yesterday, Aki and I watched hundreds of mallard ducks feeding in Fritz Cove. On this rainy morning I can only find gulls. Most huddle together in twos and threes on the beach as raindrops bounce off their feathers. Aki sniffs a quick survey of the ground and gives me a nervous look. No eagles sulk in the rain. No mean spirited shiba inu stares at her from the forest’s edge so I continue down the beach.
Still-yellow wild rose bushes, mountain ashes, and cottonwood trees glow like muted lights in the gray gloom. The next windstorm should strip the trees and bushes bare. After that we will have to look for beauty in bark patterns and tangled branches until it snows.
A matched brace of mallards swims out from a weathered piling. They swim slowly away from each other and come back together, tracing the shape of a heart on the water’s surface. A hundred meters away, a large raft of golden eye ducks float on Gastineau Channel. But there are no other mallards within sight. Without looking at the little dog I ask, Aki, do you think these two are on a honeymoon? She is already in the woods, sheltering from the rain.