T.S. Elliot claimed that April is the cruelest month. But he didn’t live in a rain forest. I nominate October for the title. For Southeast Alaska, October is a month of waves—one North Pacific storm surge after another passes over us. But between the storms, we often enjoy brief breaks of sun that bring out the beauty in the perpetually wet landscape. We have had Octobers full of clear, crisp days. Memories of those Octobers make today’s walk through the rain forest bittersweet.
Today’s storm raised the water levels in the forest beaver ponds to flood stage. Aki and I have to leap across rivulets of overflow. One is so wide and deep that Aki has to wade chest deep to cross it. Even through she has spent many days walking in the rain, the little dog always tries to avoid the wet or muddy portions of the trail. So she hesitated because wading into the half-a-meter wide stream of pond overflow. Then she minced across it slowly, as if testing the gravel bottom. Worried that the current would carry her away, I almost lifted her up. But she was across before I could help.
The large cottonwood trees that screen the glacier have begun their slow autumnal striptease. Aki and I see evidence of their dance along the moraine trail—Valentine-shaped leaves, yellow and orange and green, plastered by rain to the gravel or floating on the many beaver ponds. But only the most patient voyeur could appreciate or even detect the trees’ languid movements.
Evidence of beaver work is everywhere. Their dams back up waters in the trailside ditches so they now flood over parts of the trail. A patient man or dog might spot ripe silver salmon moving up the swollen drains on their way to spawning grounds deeper in the moraine. But I am impatient this morning and Aki is too fixated on fresh beaver scent.
She has an attraction to beavers that would prove fatal if she ever managed to close on one. She rarely passes on an opportunity to roll in their scat, something that brings a look of pure bliss to her face. The little dog has many blissful moments this morning as we pass a trio of cottonwood logs that the beavers had floated together and then stripped bare of bark. I wonder how many it took to reduce the logs to glistening white in one night. Because they work the swing and graveyard shifts, the beavers are probably resting in their dens but I still keep a look out for them. More than once, Aki has followed a moraine beaver into the water, tail wagging, apparently hoping to play.
The rain starts as Aki and I round a cashew-shaped moraine lake, threatening the lake’s mirrored image of cottonwoods transforming into their fall colors. At first the falling drops just soften the reflected image so it mimics an impressionist painting. But then the shower’s violence increases; rendering the lake incapable of any reflection. The storm compensates for the loss of visual beauty with the percussive music of raindrop on leaf. Willow leafs fill the treble rain while the larger cottonwood and devil’s club foliage provide notes in the lower register.
On this walk over the moraine Aki and I have already seen evidence of the wild world’s give and take: mushrooms ripping their way through the trailside moss, bones and berries in bear scat, cottonwood trees fallen by beavers, and moss slowing reducing trees in the troll woods to soil
It rained last night, darkening the bike path pavement to black. In a solemn mood, I turn onto the Campbell Creek trail and find my way once again blocked by Canada geese. Remembering the ride a few days ago when waiting for geese made me miss a moose sighting, I slowly proceed, making the geese part for me. Minutes later, I have to slalom through a line of very fresh moose poop. But there is no moose for me to watch.
In addition to the moose scat line, the trail is marked every mile or so with odd assemblages. A bag of Sun brand corn chips reclines against a plastic container of corn flakes. I wonder if both were left as offerings to the maize god. Farther on I find a waterproof jacket, ball cap, high quality lace up boots, teeth flossing tool, and ice grippers. They lay splayed out as if their owner was raptured skyward while cleaning his teeth.
All these things mean nothing to the beaver that swims without hurry along a trailside lake. Having learned to dodge fishing lures and lunging Labrador retrievers, he is not going to be put off by strange signs or a poetry student on a folding bicycle.
This morning, I drove Aki out to the glacial moraine in hopes of seeing some transient tundra swans. Nothing, not even a merganser breaks the mirror surface of Dredge Lake. But it’s early enough that we have the place to ourselves. Moving through a cloud of bird song we walk a circuit of the other moraine lakes.
Beaver leavings—dams, fallen trees stripped of bark, wood chips, scattered sticks marred by tooth marks—litter the trailside ground. Many of their diminutives logging roads cross the trail. On the eastern shore of Moose Lake I say, It’s funny little dog. We rarely see those responsible for all this mess. Just then, a beaver slips into the lake and paddles toward the glacier.
Minutes later, another beaver scrabbles out from underneath a bridge we are crossing and plops into the lake. Aki paces up and down the bank while I measure the progress of its underwater swim by the trail of breath bubbles. Four meters from the shore, the beaver surfaces, see us, and crashes back under the water with a tremendous splash.
We continued on our search for swans but find only a sole Canada goose. I give up the search after two birders tell me that the swans had left two days ago. Released, I can enjoy the morning light infusing new cottonwood growth and the personality of a yellow-rumped kinglet that shows itself to us.
Aki runs ahead of me with her hind legs splayed out like both are in casts. It’s the only way she can make progress thanks to the collection of snow chunks, some bigger than golf balls, hanging onto the her fur. She has a similar collection on her chest and front legs. I’ve been struggling to make progress thanks to a buildup of snow on my ski bottoms. Were a pair to draw to, little dog, I think when something crashes through thin ice near the edge of Moose Lake.
At first I think that new snow sloughing off overhead branches made the noise. Then I spot a beaver, fur darkened by water, munching alder branches on another section of lake ice. These guys should be snug in their dens, waiting for ice out, if not night. But here they are exposed, eating as snowflakes melt on their backs. Is this a sign of the apocalypse, bad timing, or a failure to make a fall-time wood pile big enough to keep them in alder and cottonwood until spring?
The little stretch of cold weather we’ve enjoyed has opened up trails normally thanks to the beavers. Flooded sections and those usually sticky with sucking mud are firm. A few nights worth of frost on the glass slick trail ice allows traction. Only the sound of moving water will draw the beavers from their mud and stick dens. All is frozen and quiet on the moraine.
We work our way from Crystal Lake to Mendenhall through a forest of stark-white trees, all killed by flooding after the beavers built their series of fifty foot dams on one of the moraine streams. The dead trunks barely diminish our view of Mt. McGinnis.
Before arriving at Mendenhall Lake with its unimpeded view of the glacier, I vow not to take any more pictures of the river of ice. But seeing it underlined by the lake sparkling with undisturbed frost and backed by mountains and blue sky, I click away, driven as if a shot of happiness is being released in my brain each time I depress the shutter button.