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.
…Another guard, this one working for the gulls, gives out an alarm when we are still 100 meters from breaking out of the woods and onto the beach. Even though I use no stealth during those 100 meters the gulls, and they are hundreds of them, are still hugging the beach when we arrive. Some are almost painfully bright in the sunlight. They seem sluggish, almost hung over. I consider moving quickly on so they don’t have to expend energy to relocate but choose to linger. The gulls follow a four duck raft of mallards slowing paddling to the mouth of Peterson Creek. The scene produces a cold, penetrating beauty similar to that just found on the beaver’s pond.
The woods we next transit are too dense for the sun to penetrate and block sunlight from the second beach we crunch across. But the forest doesn’t block an east wind that makes our cold passage back even colder. Like the forest, this beach and the waters that touch it are empty of visible wildlife. The resting gulls we watched on the first beach explode past the point that marks the entrance to the little Peterson Creek bay. Some settle on the point or the much larger Outer Point. Most choose to fly to Shaman Island. All three landing locations are bright with sunlight.
Back in the woods I face the consequences for my decision—the wood-planked trail. It’s dry at first but soon I’m mincing over ice-covered treads. Aki would wait for me to pull on my ice grippers. But my right hand is too numb from holding the cold camera to manage it. If we had taken the wooden trail first, when I still worn grippers, I could have enjoyed views, like the one of sunlight shafting trees. Easy to see, but almost impossible to photograph, such filtered sun reminds me of the light that people are pulled toward in near-death-experience stories. Really I’m in little danger. Aki, with her little clawed paws trots over the ice like it was dry concrete. In most places, I can walk on firm dry ground rather than the wooden path.
In the end the little dog and I benefited from my choice not to take first the boarded trail even though for Frost’s speaker in “Road Not Taken” it would have been the route less traveled. But my choice allowed us a chance to see the gulls before they were scared into dispersing and that made all the difference.
After today’s North Douglas walk with Aki I wrote more than normal. So this is the first of a two part post. Thanks for you patience.
Thirty meters into old growth forest, I stall at a trail junction. While Aki catalogues recent dog activity, I think seriously about breaking with tradition and taking first a wood-planked trail rather than continuing on the gravel one that offers a more direct route to salt water. I want to reach the beach while the brief window of daylight is still open. But the ice grippers on my boots would be dulled on the journey. They would ease transit of the icy planked trail. But I can always use the grippers when we return to the car. After trying to remember the lines to Robert’s Frost famous poem about two trails in the woods, I chose the gravel route.
Our cold snap has silenced the forest, even the few remaining ice-free watercourses. No bird chits. No squirrel scolds, but circles of hoarfrost on forest moss betray the entrance to their dens. To survive the coldest days of winter, our squirrels and other smallish rodents climb into chambers dug out from wood stumps or rotting trees. They reduce their heart rate and metabolism and wait for the warmth to return. I wonder if a person could slide a gloved hand into an icy-rimed den and lift out a comatose squirrel without waking it.
The cold weather silence works in the favor of the forest’s largest rodent—the beaver. The sound of running water keeps them awake at night. Too bad they are sleeping in today. Sunlight has just reached their pond making the covering ice glow. Adult alders rise out of the ice looking like trees that have learned to balance on severed trunks.
Feet from one of the pond’s dams, beavers have chewed a hole in the pond ice. They must post a guard here to protect against a breach. Even on a cold night, a sudden dam collapse could lower the pond enough to allow an enemy access to their den. Even with a beaver’s wonderfully insulation, the guard must suffer while on duty.