I don’t realize it is raining until Aki sniffs at something near a small pond. Light drops of precipitation dimple the water, sending water bugs scooting toward the protection of British tobacco plants. It’d be nice to write that I was engrossed in deep thoughts. But the truth is, I had slipped into observation mode, lost to everything except plants exhibiting signs of autumn.
Just a few leaves on a wild crabapple tree have turned fall-time red. The high bush cranberry brush is still summer green. But the broad and fat skunk cabbage leaves are yellowing. The same is true of the trailside ferns. Gastineau’s once green meadow is now a rolling yellow and orange carpet.
Above the meadow gray ropes of rain snake down the flanks of Sheep Mountain. Even when the sun makes a brief appearance, it can only muster a colorless rainbow.
After yesterday’s eagle drama, I drive Aki to a quieter place where narrow trails connect a series of small lakes. Even though we pass many piles of bear scat on the trail, it seems almost cozy and definitely peaceful. The scat is died indigo by the depositing bear’s blueberry diet.
It’s a time for collecting mushrooms and enjoying mottled skies reflected on the surface of calm lakes.
The chance for filling a bucket with berries has past. Already some of the berry foliage darkens to autumn red. Squirrels carry large chunks of fungus up the sides of spruce trees. But most of the trees still cling to their summer-green leaves.
It’s mid-August and most of the trees in the Treadwell ruins retain their leaves. But the beautiful collapse of fall is not far off. Aki’s tiny paws slip on the wet, fallen foliage of cottonwood trees. Once lush leaves of cow parsnips droop as their green color drains down into their plant’ roots. Late summer monkey flowers and white ones of the thistles provide a little color for the forest.
Aki and I leave the forest for Sandy Beach where the usual two mature bald eagles roost on the ridge cap of a mine ventilator shaft. The tide is out so we can walk right up to the brick tower. Aki waits near the edge of the grass. When the eagles turn to stare I stop, take a few photos, and turn back toward the little dog. I don’t want to force the eagles off their perch.
An immature eagle flies over the two senior birds and then lands down the beach. One of the mature birds flies towards it, perhaps to bully the younger bird away from what ever treat enticed it to ground. In seconds both birds are in the air, flying in different directions.
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.