A little sulky, Aki was slow to meet me at the front door this morning. We both squinted against the rain while walking to the car. She was keen enough at the trailhead. But now she starts up every trail that would lead back to the car. The little poodle-mix wants our winter back. Two days ago it rode the jet stream down to the east coast of America where only school children in hope of a snow day welcomed it. Winter’s gray cousin, autumn, has back fill the hole with rain and wind.
We walk through a thin stretch of old growth spruce forest between Auk Bay and the main road out of town. The woods offer filtered views of the bay through which I watch the resident raft of harlequin ducks dive in unison on bait fish. A larger raft of Barrow goldeneyes works nearby waters. Ducks don’t need sunlight or snow to feed.
Down beach a line of gulls work the surf line and the rolls of seaweed formed by the last flood tide. Once in the air, the gulls are the most graceful things on the beach. But they must lumber through their takeoffs and almost always splash their landings.
Aki and I are lost. I don’t mind and the little dog doesn’t seem to care. We’re lost in a box formed by roads, forests and mountains. We are lost on a muskeg meadow, not far from the tidelands. Its normally boggy surface has been frozen into a firm table by the recent cold snap. Later, snow will come to complicate passage over the meadow. But today it is dry and almost glows in the morning’s low angle light.
The sun throws dark shadows off everything, even diminutive blades of yellowing grass. This makes it easy for me to find the shallow trail formed by the passage of deer and the occasional wolf. Aki follows her own trail made of scent. She wanders off, a slave to her nose. When I call her back, she throws me an indignant look and then trots over to my side.
When we reach the spruce forest that form the meadow’s southeast border, I turn to face west and wander along a tree line. On my right, rising high above the meadow’s snarled Douglas pines, Nugget Mountain reflects back the morning light. From the here, the meadow looks primordial, a place for wooly mammoths and ancient bison to graze. But I only see my little poodle-mix when I scan for life.
Halfway back across the meadow I find a deep trail, almost a wound across the muskeg made by human boots. Before the freeze, it would have offered sloppy walking. But today it is almost a hiking superhighway. I follow it blindly until spotting a house, when none should be. We backtrack; take another trail that leads us to a chicken coop far from the trailhead. Aki would follow me back onto the meadow and tolerate even more confusion as I try to retrace our steps back to the car. But I leave our little frozen box for the assurance of the North Douglas Highway and walk the indirect route home.
Aki, I may be suffering from sunshine withdrawals. The little dog and I are on the false outer point beach. She has waited patiently as I collected severed seaweed for the garden. Now we both look out over Fritz Cove. It’s a gray scene: gray beach, ocean, mountains, glacier and sky. Even the spruce and hemlocks on Sphun Island look grayer than green. One gray gull is the only thing beside waves animating the scene.
Work done, we enter the dim woods. Yesterday afternoon’s sunlight would have brought out the colors in the forest floor moss and the scattering of leaves not yet brown. But today, even the frost refuses to sparkle.
Aki is having a great time sniffing for sign and leaving post cards of scent for her dog friends. But I am in bit of a funk until we reach a half-drained pond. Apparently not ready to surrender to winter, green skunk cabbage shoots poke up through the pond’s surface to be gripped by a sheet of newly formed ice. Busted, I think, even as I admire the doomed plants’ spunk.
Aki is sharing the trail today with another dog and that dog’s human. The two canines had a scrap or two in car. But, now they cooperate as scouts, exploring the trailside woods and beaches. After two miles of walking we should be at the Camping Cove cabin.
It’s a great trail for a cold, sunny morning like this one. Lichen-cover rock slabs and wave-rolled beach grass glisten with frost. Strong sunlight invades the headlands between beaches, silhouetting the alders and spruce trees. Even inside the woods we can hear the boom of waves rolling off of Lynn Canal.
We learn from other hikers that a family of river otters is playing near the trail. We won’t see them or the critter that snapped a dry branch near the cabin as we snacked. Hearing the sound, both dogs make a half-hearted survey of the nearby woods but soon return to their humans. It could be a deer, which would look lovely if it wandered into the sunlit patch of grass near the beach. It could also be a bear, looking to snack on our apples. We leave before either shows itself.
Aki and I have just reached a beach on the backside of Douglas Island. Across Stephens Passage, morning sunlight floods the beaches of Admiralty Island. We are still in shadow. A bald eagle flies over us and lands near its mate on a spruce tree. They greet each other in their complaining way. Just offshore a harbor seal works through a line of small surf. It’s round head slips above water once, twice, and then disappears. We won’t see it again.
A flew white clouds float above Admiralty but otherwise the sky is clear and blue. I scan the channel in hopes of spotting a whale but none spouts. Without sunlight to warm us, the little dog and I are starting to feel the cold. But, I can’t make myself leave the beach and the comforting sound of small surf hitting the rocks.
Frosted brush lines the trail back to the car. Unseen spiders have recently woven basket-shaped webs in the crotches of hemlock or willow twigs. The morning’s rising temperature is melting the frost that had settled on the net webbing during the night, leaving tiny drops of water to cling to the silk.
In half-an-hour, the sun will be high enough to reach the spider webs. It will make the little drops of water sparkle until they fall to the ground. But neither Aki nor I have the patience to wait.
In a gray interlude between yesterday’s sunshine and today’s predicted rain, Aki and I sneak in a visit to the Last Chance Basin. The trail we use suffered from the effects of Typhoon Lan. Thick tracks of fresh mud line both sides of the trail. At one point we have to climb up and over a ten-foot high hill of rock and mud washed down the side of Mt. Juneau during the typhoon.
As if we are the only folks in Juneau that didn’t get the memo, Aki and are alone on the normally popular trail. Even the animals seemed to have abandoned it. No squirrels chatter at the little dog. No birds flit between the yellowing thimbleberry brush. There are the cloven tracks of a mountain goat that had recently struggled through a muddy stretch. But Aki’s lack of interest confirms my suspicion that the goat is long gone.
I work hard to dig out some beauty on this flat-light day. But the fall color is fading and the normally red high bush cranberries are drifting to black husks. A white eruption of plum agaric mushrooms does provide a pleasant surprise deep in a mossy wood.
While making morning coffee I am shocked to see sunshine. Without bothering Aki, who is still asleep, I slip outside. A block away, Gold Creek roars at near flood, charged with rainwater from Typhoon Lan. Yesterday the storm lost its fight with Mt. Juneau. During the battle the typhoon dropped eight inches of rain on our town and washed the streets clean. Trees that managed to retain their leaves during the storm sparkle like stream water hit by a sunbeam. Low angled light makes it easy to spot the long lines of spider silk that form thin bridges between plants and fences. Down channel, fog still covers the water but it won’t last long under this morning’s strong sun.