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.
The forest should be greening up. Normally by early May green shoots of bracken, with tips curled like the head of a violin, would be forcing their way through last year’s dead growth. But today only the ever-present tree moss shows green.
The tidal meadow, when the little dog and I reach it, looks as dead as November. But the presence of nattering Canada geese confirm the onset of Spring. Those not chuckling graze on new shoots of meadow grass. In less accessible meadows black bears are filling their winter-empty stomachs with shoots of similar grass.
While Aki sniffs at a seemingly random spot on the trail, I lean down to inspect wolf scat that is chock full of tan colored fur. I’ve seen similar colored fur on our Sitka black tail deer. Winter’s winners and losers, little dog, now fueling this spring’s new growth.
Normally Aki refuses to follow me onto Gastineau, giving me her “are you crazy, I am just a little dog with short legs and tiny feet who will just flounder out there” look. But it is still morning and the sun has not had time to soften the frozen surface of the snow. We are free to roam.
On the far edge of the meadow, where we can enjoy an unfiltered view of Mt. Juneau, Aki goes on alert. I can’t find anything among the stubby Douglas pines to merit her attention. Twice more during our walk across the meadow, the little poodle-mix will bark and stare into the woods. Twice more I will fail to spot anything worth barking at. I will hear a hawk whistle, see two bald eagles circle over our heads, and trace the track of a black bear made yesterday afternoon in softening snow.
I crunch along behind Aki as she trots down an icy trail through old growth woods. If snow still falls outside the forest, we wouldn’t know thanks to the trees’ thick canopy. This morning the weather service issued another winter storm advisory, predicting heavy snow tonight. But the snowfall was easing when we left the car for the woods.
Aki sniffs at the stump of a thin hemlock tree that had been growing on the shore of their pond. Recently, beavers chewed through it’s trunk until it fell and then stripped it of bark. Believing that they prefer cottonwood bark for eating, I wonder if the naked hemlock is a sign of famine in beaver country.
The sky is brightening when we reach the beach. Across Stephens Passage, sun shines on Admiralty Island. Named by Tlingits “The Fortress of the Bears,”
Admiralty has the most brown bears per acre in the world. The big grizzlies are still hibernating. Brown bears are rarely seen in our section of the rain forest but their smaller cousins the black bears often wander Juneau streets. Last summer I watched standing on out lawn to better reach an apple on our tree. Aki has chased one or two of them out of her yard.
The salmon are returning to the Eagle River. I have to take care not to step on their desiccating bodies as we cross a riverside meadow. There are no bears or their scat just see a cranky pair of ravens, so I decide to continue our walk along the river. Just in case, I place the little dog on her leash.
The dead salmon smell blends with the others of fall—the sweet and sour smell of ripe cranberries, leaf mold, and the sharp tang of grass. I wonder if the strong bouquet threatens to overwhelm Aki’s sensitive nose. But the poodle-mix shows her usual keen interest in, for me, unremarkable spots along the trail.
We pass a family with small children picnicking along the river. One of their members operates a drone, which gives off an annoying hum. I’m thinking about letting Aki loose when she gives out a little growl. Two people just up the trail point to a bear munching away on a salmon it had carried up from a nearby stream.
I’m holding Aki now. We watch the bear saunter over to an alder tree and bury her nose in tree moss. Then it moves into the forest. I carry Aki a little further and then let her walk. She stays on the lead. We pass gravel bars covered with gulls, crows, and ravens and, just seconds before I can focus the camera on it, a fishing bear.
On the drive home, near a different salmon stream, I have to stop the car to let a black bear waddle across the road. Just after Aki gives another low growl, the bear turns, for the first time, to look in our direction. Who knew that bears had such sensitive hearing?