Across Norton Lake a plume of snow rises from a wooded valley high into the air. When its animating gust dies, the plume disintegrates. According to the weather service, the strength of the wind will grow to something like a gale. Then half-a-kilometer long plumes of snow will fly from the mountain ridges.
Aki and I are an hour into our walk with plans to continue a circle route back to the car. But the promised winds and the chance we would have to walk over thin trail ice convince me to turn back.
We have to walk across the tops of three beaver dams to reach home. Not quite ready for the long winter, the beavers have broken open channels in their pond ice from the dams to their wood lots. Seeing how the ice is just forming over these channels makes me even more comfortable with the idea of returning home over known ground.
I wonder if seals are the ravens of the ocean. Aki, who has never interacted with seals but has a grudging respect for ravens, is uncomfortable responding to my musing. It might be different if we were talking beavers or river otters. She has been lured out onto thin ice twice by their kind. Two otters called for her to join them on thin ice over this very Fish Creek Pond. She broke through pond ice twice near the glacier while answering the call of a young beaver.
My little dog may be wondering why I bring up harbor seals where we are walking along a fresh water stream. But then she cannot see one of them twirling and diving in Fish Creek. It must have followed the high tide surge up the creek seeking something to eat or just to alleviate boredom. More than once while kayaking I have turned in my seat to see a harbor seal a few feet from my rudder, looking at me with the saddest eyes in the world.
I wonder if the little dog knows about what is about to happen. We are transiting the glacier moraine, rounding a still unfrozen lake. Water from melting snow drips from shoreline trees onto the lake’s surface. Wet snow was falling when we started this walk. It has been replaced by light rain, which speeds up the snowmelt. The early November assertion of winter is about to end. Fall is not finished with us.
Aki tries to rub her face on the trail snow but finds it is still too thin. Undeterred, she trots on to a place where fresh beaver tracks cross the trail. They seem to soften as we look at them.
The snow disappears from the trail when we enter the troll woods. Aki has to skirt the muddy stretches. I am thankful for the volunteers that have bridges the worst parts with assemblages of scrap lumber.
On the drive back home, I want to tell Aki to look up at Mt. Juneau where snow, rain falls on the mountains flanks. But she has curled herself on the car seat, dozing as her curls begin to dry.
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.