Thank you bear, I say while securing Aki to her leash. The black bear had been digging up chocolate lily roots when we approached. It spotted us when we were only 30 meters away and slipped into a nearby copse of spruce. Aki never saw it.
We are on the return leg of the Boy Scout Beach Trail. It was raining when we started toward the beach. Now we walk under full sun. A stiff westerly blows at our backs, stripping yellow leaves from the riverside poplars and pushing waves up Eagle River. The wind has a fall bite to it.
On our way downriver Aki dashed from grass clump to grass clump trying to find relief from the breeze. To make our return trip easier on the little dog I lead her over a beach berm and onto a protected meadow. We bailed on that route after walking through large patches of trampled grass and pot holed ground. Tall grass and the dried stalks of cow parsnip plants prevented me from seeing more than a few meters in any direction. A whole work gang of bears could be within claw reach and we would never know it until it was too late.
To avoid a nasty surprise for bear, dog and man, Aki and I left the meadow to take a trail through the woods where no bruin had reason to occupy. It was just after we walked out of the woods and onto a small meadow that the day’s second bear spotted us.
Earlier, while on the opposite side of Eagle River Aki and I watched a different bear foraging for roots. Reaching to a noise from upriver, the bear sat up and stared toward the disturbance. This got Aki’s attention and she let out with a quiet growl. Now we had the bear’s attention. It was time for our retreat across the river.
Should dogs have spirit animals? If Aki had one, it would be the belted kingfisher. We spot the feisty little birds on many of our rain forest walks. This morning, one burst out of a spruce tree chattering abuse, flew over a moraine lake that I was photographing, did a barrel roll and disappeared into a balsam popular tree in fall color. If you had wings little dog, that would be you.
Aki, who had once chased a black bear up a tree close to the kingfisher’s roost with only her bark and attitude, gave me her “Don’t be Stupid” look.
It had been raining where we started this walk through the glacier moraine but now it has stopped. No drops strike the lake to ruin the reflection of the poplars in high color. I’d expect ducks or even transiting swans to be resting on the lake. But only the kingfisher makes an appearance.
I’m on our highest ladder knocking the last golden delicious apples from our tree. Otherwise a bear will break the tree trying to climb up to get them. Last night Aki chased away one before it could climb after the apples. Even though it outweighs the little dog by a factor of 15 or 20 I felt sorry for the bear. It can’t enjoy having its sensitive hearing assaulted by poodle yapping. I don’t.
This morning, while the sun burned night fog from the surface of Gastineau Channel, Aki and I drove into the mountains. After yesterday’s long boat ride to the lighthouse, we both needed to stretch our legs on the climb to Hilda Meadows. I expected no animal drama. Wolves and bears roam the mountains but in such small numbers there was little chance of an encounter.
There was drama from surprising sources—spiders. Every September our spiders release their children into the world. They young climb stalks of grass and fly off on glistening strands of spider silk. Many spiders must have landed in the meadows.
Spiders had already constructed angular webs between grass stalks and over miner’s cabbage red with fall cover. Some even suspended their silk nets between the banks of narrow watercourses.
Aki, who doesn’t care about spider webs or even fall color, surveyed the meadow for danger while I chased after webs. I wanted to tell the little dog to relax. This time of year the meadow bears must be down in the Fish Creek drainage getting fat on incoming salmon. Then she led me across a patch of shooting stars flattened recently by a sleeping bear.
After yesterday’s eagle drama, I drive Aki to a quieter place where narrow trails connect a series of small lakes. Even though we pass many piles of bear scat on the trail, it seems almost cozy and definitely peaceful. The scat is died indigo by the depositing bear’s blueberry diet.
It’s a time for collecting mushrooms and enjoying mottled skies reflected on the surface of calm lakes.
The chance for filling a bucket with berries has past. Already some of the berry foliage darkens to autumn red. Squirrels carry large chunks of fungus up the sides of spruce trees. But most of the trees still cling to their summer-green leaves.
It rained all last night. This morning only a light shower dimples Crystal Lake. But soon the real drama will begin. A storm is moving over Sitka. It is scheduled to drop four inches of rain on the Troll Woods and raise the lake’s level. Tomorrow the trails may be muddy and in places flooded. But now Aki and I should have no problem exploring the woods.
I lead the little dog off the main trail and onto one of the beavers’ logging roads. We follow it to a little lake we seldom are able to visit. For the last few years the access trail has been flooded by water backed up behind the beaver dams. Now it is dry.
Less than a mile away, a string of tourist buses unloads in front of the glacier visitor center. People crowd the bear-watching platform searching for inbound sockeye salmon and the bears that feed on them. A few miles in the other direction, planes and helicopters take off and land. When the wind drops we can hear airplane and bus noise. But the wind is rising in anticipation of the storm, letting me pretend we are thirty miles deep in wilderness.
Our path is lined with chest-high lupines but I can’t appreciate their purple beauty. Someone at a nearby picnic area is attacking metal with a grinder. When a side path through the lupine appears, I lead Aki out onto the tidal meadow and away from the noise. A heavy malamute dog charges through walls of flowering cow parsnip and leaps at my little dog. The incomer shows no malice but it could hurt Aki if it landed square on the poodle-mix. For the first in a long time I’m called upon to protect Aki—uttering the sounds that Yupik friends used to scare off stray northern dogs. Finally, the malamute’s owner manages to leash his dog.
As we continue across the meadow I realize that, but for the noxious grinder noise, Aki would have never been at risk from the malamute. Aki and I have experienced many but-for moments during her 11 years of life. But for the puppy Aki’s sudden interest in hot dogs cooking in a covered picnic shelter, a diving eagle would have carried her away. If she had not startled an approaching black bear, it would have dispatched Aki with a quick swipe of its paws. Good reactions of a driver saved her, more than once, from being smashed flat by a car tire.
There are many positive but-for stories. If we hadn’t been standing on a shore-side boulder, we wouldn’t have been able to watch a dozen Stellar sea lions swim close enough for me to count their whiskers. If I hadn’t chose to walk down the Mendenhall Peninsula Trail, we wouldn’t have been able to watch a cloud of thirty eagles dive on bait herring.
The sun breaks out from the marine layer, driving away my contemplative mood. We walk up along Eagle River to the place where Aki once chased a black bear into the woods. She sniffs at a recent pile of bear scat and then at a spot where the bear might have spent the night. If this had been an early morning walk…
The sounds of human laughter and conversations ahead cause me to leash Aki. I slow down and hope that the people will walk out of earshot. But, they are in no hurry so I keep my little dog on her lead. When something rattles the trailside brush Aki tries to break towards the sound. I spot a porcupine moving slowing away. But for our noisy neighbors, who forced me to leash Aki, I might be pulling porcupine quills out of the little dog’s nose.
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.