I am still at writer’s school in sub-zero Talkeetna. If I am not careful, every photo I take will have Denali in it. They call it the great one for a reason. Denali and its big buddies in the Alaska Range distract me from the clarity of near-arctic light. The sun rises late, cruises low over the southern horizon, and drops like an orange basketball into a basket of riverside willows.
At the sun’s rising and setting, it underlines a transient blue sky with tropical yellows and oranges. In the hours between, its ;eight bounces on painfully white snow and throws strong shadows from the town’s birches and aspens.
Like most dwellers of lands closer to the poles than the equator, people in Juneau tend to paint their homes in bright colors. Walking past a rose-colored Craftsman house on a stormy day, like this one, can lift your spirits. I’m thankful, this morning, for all those in Juneau who paint their homes or businesses in pastel colors. I am grateful to those who long ago planted the trees of fall color, like maples and birch, that seem to give off light on this gray day.
Aki and I are conducting her standard downtown patrol. As usual, she is all business. It’s been weeks since she has checked the trail of scent left on the streets by other dogs. Other than a trio of house dogs allowed out for a quick pee on their lawn, my poodle-mix will have no opportunity to sniff other dogs on this walk. We will pass a scattering of homeless in donated raingear. One, already smelling of stale smoke, will ask me for light. Others will pass head down as if to avoid getting rain in their eyes.
It’s 6:30 A.M. and a gang of Canada geese are blocking my access to the Campbell Creek bike path. Most are sleeping on the grass verge but two are firmly planted on the path itself. A clutch of downy goslings have formed a puppy pile under a nearby birch tree. Even when I slow walk the bike toward them, the two adults on the pavement refuse to budge but four or five of the large birds trot out to meet me. When I swing wide to avoid the two on the pavement, their apparent protectors move aside for me to pass.
That was weird. After clearing the avian traffic jam, I peddle through goose scat and over the Tudor Road bridge. In five minutes I brake again, this time to read a muddy set of tracks the forms a brown diagonal line across the pavement. Very recently a single moose trotted through a bog hole and then over the path. But, I can’t see far enough into the trailside birch forest to see him. For a minute I wonder if the geese jam was designed to buy time for the moose to pass unmolested over the path. But, only for a minute.
Aki isn’t allowed in Juneau’s graveyard. No dog is. So, we walked the parameter streets. Small stone rectangles reset into the ground mark most of the new graves. Modest marble markers stand at the head of the older ones. Darkened with age, most of these gravestones lean toward the ground. A stone angel prays at the foot of a maple, like it is giving thanks for the fall color.
Aki delays our progress by checking pee mail left on this unfamiliar ground. One of the messages must have been rude because she sulks as we walk along the waterfront and turn up Main Street. The little dog strains at her lead as I try to photograph a raven preening in a birch tree. The raven looks smug, like it just won a bundle by betting against the Seattle Seahawks. That American football team was winning when we left the house. Three young guys walk toward us from the Viking Bar with booze breath and somber faces. The raven makes a sound that I would find offensive if I’d just lost money betting on the Seahawks.
I’m back in Anchorage for writer’s school. While I am gone Aki is living large with friends at their waterside property. Last summer I saw many moose on my morning bike rides but this week I’ve only spotted homeless folks and grim faced commuters on the Chester Creek bike path. Until reaching Winchester Lagoon, I ride through light filtered by birch leaves. But the fireweed-covered islands in the lagoon almost glow thanks to the unencumbered early morning sun. The resident Canada geese have already formed lines of battle, each five birds long. When I stop riding, they move slowly past me, just a few yards from the bike path.
I’m awed but also a little sad to see this calm reaction of once wild birds to my presence. Swerving to avoid goose scat, I pedal toward the coastal trail where two days before I heard and saw a pair of sandhill cranes. They have always been an icon of wildness since I first watched they fly low over tundra near Bethel during their Spring migration. In the thirty something years since that day, I always savor the sound of their ratcheting cry.
I won’t see the sandhills on this ride but a flock of yellow legs mitigates the loss. They explode from the beach when the engineer of a Fairbanks-bound train releases a mournful warning whistle. I am near a woman with face hidden by a high-end DSLR camera. The shorebirds circle around us, instantly change directions and fly another circle in the opposite direction. Lowering her camera she gives me a stunned look. “Did you get a good shot of the birds?” I ask. “I don’t know,” is her reply. Unencumbered by camera, I cached a memory of the flight, how they instantly transformed from creatures of shadow into those of light when they snapped off their coordinated turns.
Before Aki. Before moving from Western to Southeastern Alaska. I drove a sled pulled by huskies. In Aniak, the dogs spent the summer along a wind swept section of slough while we fished and gardened. Most springs, the Kuskokwim River flooded our garden plot, soaking it in water made rich with nutrients from decomposing salmon. Hundreds of thousands of the fish spawned and died upriver from us.
On the long subarctic days of early summer we could almost hear our transplanted cole crops grow. But frost stayed late up there so, on advice from village elders, we waited to plant until emerging birch leaves were the size of squirrel ears. Frost never touched things planted after that point, which left me with an article of faith: wild plants never leaf until out until it is safe. On today’s walk with Aki I found reason to doubt.
During our recent thaw mountain ferns, like our foolish Dutch iris, pushed out new growth. The mild frost that hit them last night flattened out the ferns. They will lose all the stored nutrients invested in the new growth when real winter returns. Maybe this is why our elders in Juneau look to moon and won’t plant until the first high tide in May.
These birch trees retain beauty even though surrounded by Alaska’s largest city. Aki, only knowing the Southeast rain forest, has never lifted her leg to a paper birch. Even if she had walked many times through birch woods, the little poodle mix wouldn’t miss their parchment like bark, rough to the touch, that can peel back to a paper thin strip that glows when backlit by low angled sunlight. She might long for the perfume smoke of burning birch wood. I do.
Walking on a summer evening among birch and their taller cousin the aspen on trails crisscrossing the University of Alaska campus, I hear barking dogs, laughing children, the chimes of a clock tower, airplane noise, bicycle tires skidding on gravel, conversation carried out without reference to the birch. No one appears to notice the yellow green leaves dance under blue skies or the puzzle of cast shadows on the paths they walk. I wish I was so rich in birch trees, blue skies, and sun.