Aki stays just ahead, sweeping the trail for problems. She doesn’t shoot ahead or stop to monitored a ply of recipient poop. I walk with an old friend and his dog, sharing a bit of information—the desk drawer to open if my medical treatment in Seattle goes south.
A week later, after the treatment worked, my friend and I can think about the approach of fall weather and decide when to pull the old fishing boat for winter. He is still in Juneau while I recover with family in Tacoma, Aki stays in Juneau with her best friend, Cedar. They head on adventures each day and curl together for sleep each night. But she will squeal like a puppy when we return to our rainforest town.
The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
While Aki dashes off to investigate a pee mail message, I stop to study what looks like a red rose growing at the end of a willow branch. The rose is formed by willow leaves, not flower pedals, changing from green to an autumn red.
Last spring, after the winter snow melted but before willow buds burst, a female willow gall midge laid an egg at the tip of the willow branch. A wormy little grub emerged from the egg and burrowed into a willow bug and started feasting on the new green bud. Rather than unfurling,, leaves from the bud morphed into the shape of a rose flower.
Shafts of sun break through cloud cover to brighten the reds in the willow rosette and the rosette growing at the tips of the surrounding willow branches. I feel like we are in a rose garden, not standing at the edge of a willow-lined pond that was formed when beavers dammed a small stream.
By turning around, I could see a reflection of a glacier in Mendenhall Lake. I could watch a merganser sunning itself on an offshore rock. I could study Nugget Falls or take in the flight of a kingfisher. Those are natural things. Their presence doesn’t surprise anyone. So I can’t turn my back on these red, red willow rosettes.
There is no question that we have begun the annual slide into autumn. While walking across a Mendenhall wetland, we pass many plants gone to seed. Gray-black seed pods contrast with late flowering paintbrush and stalks of yellow chicken and egg blossoms.
An immature dark-eyed junco pulls seeds from a dead-dry grass stalk and then turns to stare down the little dog. Beyond the junco, a field of magenta-colored fireweed flowers underline the Mendenhall glacier.
The time for the fireweed and the other late blooming flowers will soon end. Grass and broad leafed foliage will fade from rich green to soft reds and yellows. In their dying, they will provide the beauty on the wetlands.
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.