Aki, you’d think I’ve been too spoiled by natural beauty to be wowed by a borrow pit.The little dog gives me one of her “don’t stop gushing again” looks.
The poodle-mix and I are walking on top of a dike pushed up by men miring for gravel. The “U” shaped dike has captured a small pond by connecting to a length of gently sloping meadow. A beaver family has already colonized the pond. The big rodents’ earthworks killed a small copse of spruce trees on the opposite shore of the pond. It’s the reflection of these skeletons on the pond’s surface that’s gob smacked me.
Alder trees, gilded by backlighting morning light add to the show as does the dissipating globs of mist that hover just above the pond’s surface. When I walk without taking my eyes off the scene, I slip and fall where river otters have installed one of their “U” shaped slides. It’s pretty clear that nature and its wild children have claimed ownership of the old barrow pit. Tough skinned spruce roots snake over the top of the dike. Cow parsnip, fireweed, and the other aggressive forest plants color the dike with whites, yellows and reds.
Little dog, let’s hope that nature never loses the power to repair our messes.
We are deep in beaver country, walking on a strip of high ground between two ponds. Cottonwood trees felled by the energetic rodents crisscross the ground. Paths beaten smooth by beaver feet drop off the trail to the ponds. Aki follows me down a path that leads to their den. Made of sticks stripped of bark, the beaver house looks like a Inuit igloo—a rough dome with a round-topped tunnel that allows underwater access to the den. I’m surprised to find an above water entrance. More surprising, Aki doesn’t drop into it to visit the beavers.
Near the beaver house, a lichen colony grows on the tip of a rotting spruce branch. The top branches of the little lichen trees have formed a tangled canopy around their dead host. Next January, while the beavers sleep away the long, cold days, snow might collect in the lichen canopy, turning the lichen forest into a snow-glove sized metaphor for winter. But by spring, the rotting base of the forest will give way and the tangle of lichen will fall to the mossy forest floor.
What are you doing little dog? Aki is too busy to answer as she dashes into the woods on one side of the trail, stops for a second, and then charges to the other side of the trail. Are we surrounded by bears, beavers, or ghosts? I’m guessing it’s ghosts because I can’t see anything but plant life in the trail margins.
There is plenty of evidence that bears and beavers have recently occupied the area. We pass many piles of bear poop and a myriad of cottonwood trees felled by beavers. But we don’t hear trees crashing to earth or bears crashing through the undergrowth. Aki leads me off the main trail and onto a narrow path. Even if they were here, I wouldn’t see bears or beavers through the tangle of hardwood brush that closes in on the trail.
When the trail widens I spot flowering Nagoon berry plants, not bears. Later in the summer, the berries will draw a crowd to this trail. The berries have a cult following in Juneau whose members will race the birds and bears to harvest this patch.
The ducks and geese are gone, leaving the tidal meadow looking deceptively empty. But Aki and I flush warblers and sparrows with each step we take along an earthen dike that borders it. In the pond formed by the dike a young beaver swims back and forth, stopping only to slap its tail on the water. I tell it not to worry, that neither the dog nor I have any intention of taking up residence on the pond.
Minutes before, two Sitka black tail deer had walked across the North Douglas Highway as we slowed to turn into the trailhead parking lot. One, a young male with nascent antler buds took the lead. The female deer followed, more interested in eating new growth grass than our car. The male took up station at the tree line and stared at me. I knew he would break into the woods if I left the car so I didn’t move.
After circling the beaver pond, the little dog and I push on and round the tip of a peninsula where we have seen so many mallards in winter. Eagle cries and crow cackles come from inside the old growth spruce forest on the peninsula but I can’t see one of the noisemakers. On the backside of the peninsula a mature bald eagle stands behind a flat-topped rock that is covered with barnacles. Bright sunlight makes its head painfully white. Even though there is food to find on the surrounding wetlands, the eagle stands still behind the rock, as if it were a pastor practicing for the Sabbath homily. As we approach the eagle, a whale surfaces and exhales.
Another bald eagle flies, with talon’s extended, toward the preacher, which screams at the late arriver. I expect a fight but am treated to an apparent offer and acceptance of forgiveness. The newcomer bows its head low and approaches. In seconds it’s lowered beak is almost touching the preacher’s talons. After the other eagle lightly touches the supplicant they separate.
If I were in a more skeptical mood, I might have described the scene as the reunion of an unfaithful husband and longsuffering wife. I could have portrayed a hungry eagle scolding its mate for not delivering some food. But it is early summer and we are enjoying the fourth day of warm sunshine after a long, wet spell. The meadow grass will never shine as green. Purple lupine flowers show near the tree line and the columbines can’t be too far behind. I shouldn’t be surprised that I saw love and forgiveness in an eagle’s actions.
Without snowshoes I’d soon wear myself out walking over this field of new snow. Even with them it is a job reaching a place that offers a nice view of the glacier reflected in a partially frozen eddy. No little dog follows behind. She waits on the beaten path giving me her “are you crazy” look. Is she wise or lazy? It could be either given her age of eleven and a half years.
She didn’t act her age as she leapt the car and galloped down the trail. When I caught with her, she was rolling on her back, a look of bliss showing on her snow-covered face. Yesterday’s storm added five inches of snow to that already coating the trailside trees and the ground. The added weight forced the alders over the trail where they form temporary barriers to me but not the low-slung Aki.
The sun floats like a pearly disk in a flat gray sky and then muscles through briefly to throw cast shadows in the woods. We are alone on the moraine, having missing the morning rush of dog walkers who level the snowy trail for Aki. She sniffs the tracks left last night by the local beavers but we see no other sign of wildlife. The recent cold snap has all but silenced the river. There should be black-capped chickadees or juncos hunting for food but I hear nothing but faint airplane noise and the scraping of Aki’s paws as she digs in the new snow.
I’m moving down a path covered with more snow than tracks. Aki and I have just left a well-trampled trail, one that she has used often in the past. Flooding by the moraine beavers makes the new trail impassible on all but the coldest days. Today—windless, and 14 degrees—is one those Goldilocks days when we can transit beaver-controlled country in relative comfort. After thinking this I look around and realize that I am using the wrong pronoun.
Aki stands statue straight near the trail junction. Her stare is also statue-like. It could be the product of several emotions: anger, impatience, disbelief, and even disappointment. This is a power grab or maybe even a simple effort to keep me from making a stupid mistake. The latter explanation has some merit.
Aki once watched me tightrope my way across a fallen cottonwood log that almost spanned a beaver-flooded portion of the tail. I soaked one boot while trying to leap to dry ground. The fact that I splashed her in the process might have riveted her memory in place.
I turn back down the questionable trail knowing that the invisible rubber band connecting us will eventually pull her in my direction. She follows, but at a distance. Each time I stop she turns back into a statue. After we pass through the scene of my misjudgment, Aki dashes ahead. Two minutes later we reach a junction with another well used dog walker trail. From now until we reach the car she will only stop to check pee mail or to allow me to catch up.
Aki ran into the woods as soon as a guy on the next beach opened up with a small caliber weapon. She entreats me to join her in the forest’s safety as the gun’s “pop, pop, pop, pop, pop” reaches us over the sound of surf. Is that is why the crows settled so near our trail on that rocky point? A murder of the birds were squatting just above the surf line when we broke onto the beach. Others were migrating to Shaman Island after rising from the rocks like Tolkien’s wraighs.
Ignorant of Hobbits and rings, Aki could ignore the crows but not the shots. I don’t know when she first connected danger with gunshots. She does have a cautious nature. Early in the walk she refused to leave the trail to follow me onto the frozen beaver pond. Did she know that beavers chew away at the under portions of the ice covering their pond so they can always reach their den after the pond ice thickens. A Yup’ik elder told me that years ago in another part of Alaska, but that was long before Aki arrived in my life. Maybe she intuits it.
I hadn’t planned on walking down beach to the shooter’s position so I muttered the bird hunting season ended a month ago you Yahoo and joined the little dog in the woods.