The sun shines on this damp forest as Aki muddies her paws on the rain soaked trail. Streaks of light turn fall-yellow leaves almost transparent. We can hear the Eagle River moving at near flood stage after a long stretch of heavy rain. We can feel a light wind that sends fragile leaves twirling. After our summer of storms, there is no place I’d rather be than in this riverine forest.
I want to share my happiness with the little dog but she is not in the mood. She has assumed two roles today—-chronicler of smells, and guardian of her human. In past Septembers she has chased bears from this trail into the river or up a tree. I’ve scolded her after each action but know she would do it again if given a chance.
This morning, we won’t see a bear trundling down the trail. We will have to step around half-eaten dog salmon carcasses on a gravel bar but no bear will show itself near the salmon stream. Later we will watch a single black bear digging up chocolate lily roots in a meadow. One time, the bear will lift is head to look at me as it munches on a root. Then, it will turn its back and attack another root.
Even though it is too late in the year for flowers, we will pass a lupine covered in new blossoms. Nearby, a few yellow paint brush flowers will bend back and forth in a light breeze. I will wonder whether these are my rewards for surviving a record-wet summer.
Yesterday Aki’s other human and I stumbled upon a moose and her two calves. We were walking along a trail near Anchorage. I was thankful that Aki was back in Juneau, getting the royal treatment from our friends. A momma moose once killed a man in Anchorage for coming too close to her calf. After we took a wide swing around the moose family, they returned to their wild, grassy feast.
I am thinking about our near-moose experience while picking berries near Juneau. We are harvesting this patch because it has not been visited by bears this summer. The berries are plump and plentiful, just as a hungry bear might prefer. The place is remote. The bear could expect privacy while he ate.
I sit on the moss-covered floor to pick, bringing my berry bucket into Aki’s range. The little dog take advantage by stealing berries or a few seconds. She only does it once, even though I did nothing to discourage her. A half-an-hour later I learn the reason for her reticence. A small army of tiny worms crawls out of the berries on which they recently fed. When we get home, we will wash the berries in salt water, which will drive out the remaining worms.
The rain stopped this morning but the forest is still soaked. The leaves of blue berry bushes glisten. They darken the fabric of my rain pants when I brush against them. We take a meandering forest trail to reach the berry patch.
These are not Aki’s favorite kind of adventures. She has to get her exercise on the walks in and out of the forest. For more than an hour she is reduced to guard duty, ready to chase away ravens, squirrels or bears. Every few minutes I let her nuzzle a few berries from my palm.
The bushes bordering the patch are weighed down with fruit. But those further in have been stripped clean. Recently, a bear dropped a huge, blue pile of scat. I turn around and head for another patch.
“Aki come back here.” The little dog ignores her person’s warning and continues charging the bear. It’s a little bear, born last year, just out on its own. The bear was sniffing around our wheelie bin when Aki charged. If we are going to see a bear in our neighborhood this time of year, it will be on garbage day. The little bear lopes over to our neighbor’s yard where it shelters behind a kayak. For a few seconds the poodle is well within the bear’s reach. With one swipe, the bear could cancel out Aki’s day, if not her life. But it just gives the poodle-mix a puzzled look and walks behind our neighbor’s house. Aki trots back to her people so we can drive out to the wetlands’ trail.
Wild iris, paintbrush, lupine, shooting stars, and buttercups provide little islands of color on the green grassy plain. If that weren’t proof that we are in high summer, the height of the grass would confirm it. The grass forms a thick jungle for Aki to explore. Her humans break trail for her so she has plenty of energy when we return to a well-used gravel trail.
A Savannah sparrow moves in a parallel course while we walk toward the Mendenhall River. It flits ahead a few meters and then lands on a stem of grass, driftwood log, or lupine, holding station until it can confirm our heading. Then it launches itself down the trail to its next observation post. Even though it gives me fierce looks, I can’t imagine what the sparrow would do if I left the path. Maybe it’s a one-bird honor guard, rather than a cop ready to call in back up if the poodle gets out of hand.
When the bear and her two cubs wander out of heavy brush, I’m pulling off my sweatshirt. The plop-like sound of the hoodie releasing its hold on my head causes momma bear to look across the stream that separates Aki and I from her and hers. As I fumble through switching the telephoto for my wide angle lens, the bear family slips back into the brush. I manage to spot mom moving between two large spruce and the teddy bear face of one of the cubs poking out from a tangle of alders.
If Aki tumbled to the bears’ presence, she didn’t let me know. We start down a trail the troll woods away from the bear family. I didn’t want to enter the woods on this blue-sky day. It would have been better to circle around Crystal, Moose or Moraine Lake, watching transient ducks, like blue wing teals, paddle across the reflections of the glacier or one its mountain consorts.
The bear’s was the only family we would see on the moraine. That was my plan. We had to avoid the beaches because it is Sea Week. Today’s minus 4.4 foot low tide will drawn every family with grade school children to our beach trails. For the past 49 years the kids would have ridden school buses to the beaches exposed by big spring tides to celebrate Sea Week. Naturalists pointed out cool things found in tide pools and helped them understand the power of the tides. This year, thanks to the virus, parents must take on the naturalists’ role, like they have to be their kids teachers after the schools closed, like mother bear does for her cubs.
Aki and I are using an elevated boardwalk near the glacier visitor center. It has heavy wire sides designed to keep the local bears safe from the tourists. During bear season you have to pass through gates to enter the boardwalk. They have been removed for the season so I assumed that it is safe for the little dog and I to use the boardwalk as a shortcut to the car.
A yearling bear cub ambles under the boardwalk. Its mother walks closely behind. I grab Aki but there is no danger for either of us. The bears are old pros as at this. All summer tourists have watched them fish for salmon in a nearby creek or dig for chocolate lily roots in the meadow. It has become their habit to ignore the smelly creatures trapped behind the boardwalk fences, which form a people zoo.
Two days ago I watched another habituated bear gorging itself on my neighbor’s garbage. It has learned to identity people with food. That bear now knows that it can ignore our efforts to scare it away from garbage. As much as I enjoy watching a fat bear sauntering along a salmon stream, I’d give up any chance of seeing one again if it meant that bears would never lose their distrust of humans. But now many Juneau bear have.
It’s trash-pick-up day. A black bear ambles toward our wheelie bin. Because I am standing near the bin it looks like the bear is strolling up to me. It’s a yearling, taught last summer by its mother how to pry open the bins so he can pull out plastic bags full of food waste. He ignores me when I tell him to go away, just keeps sauntering toward the bin. When I drop my voice and raise my hands he changes direction and grabs a neighbor’s bin.
The bear holds the bin with its from legs, like it is hugging a child, and pries open the locked lid with its teeth. Now nothing I can do will stop him from ripping open garbage bags and supping on out neighbors’ discards. Now totally habituated to man, the bear is doomed. Soon a police officer or fish and game official will have to shoot it.
Bringing frustration with me, I drive Aki out to North Douglas. Last night a storm from the Gulf of Alaska muscled through the Inside Passage and slammed into town. It brought heavy rain and a wind strong enough to strip leaves from trees and raise waves on the waters of Fritz Cove. We find shelter on a trail to old growth woods. I brace for a resumption of the wind when we reach the beach but there is not even a breeze to bend the beach grass. Off shore several rafts of harlequin ducks compete for access to a bait ball. They are still wild, still know enough to keep their distance from the little dog and I.
Aki and I are walking along the edge of the Troll Woods. Mosquitoes buzz around us but can’t land if we keep moving. I pay for each photograph with a bug bite. Aki doesn’t seem to be bothered by the mossies.
When the little dog stops to sniff some pee mail I spot a line of tracks recently made in a muddy ditch. Stopping long enough to learn that a bear left them, I let a mosquito nip the back of my right thumb. It is a small price for priming my imagination with the image of a two hundred pound black bear waddling along in the mud. It could easily have chosen the firmer trail that the little dog and I are using to get back to the car.
Did the bear, which never has to worry about tracking mud onto a recently cleaned kitchen floor, chose to walk in the ditch just so it could feel mud oozing up between its paw pads? Given their size and power, it is hard to think of bears as more than scary eating machines. The one that just left here with muddy paws is also a bit of a hedonist.
Bears share other things in common with humans like the ability to have fun. Several springs ago, Aki and I watched a sow and her two cubs slide down a snow covered mountain meadow, climb back up and slide down again. The mom eventually stretched out on a rock in the sun while her kids continued to play in the snow.
Yesterday, rising trout in one of the troll woods’ lakes surprised me. A couple of the active fish appeared to have some shoulders, maybe enough body to fill a frying pan. Early this morning Aki I re-entered the woods. I carried a fishing pole. The little dog was armed only with her sharp noise and bravery too large for her 10-pound body. I tried to ignore a premonition that we would run into a bear.
Aki doddled behind as I quick walked toward the promising lake. Morning sunshine shone through translucent grass blades and made the little dog little squint. She was forty meters behind me when the bear appeared. Thankfully it was a boar, not a sow with cubs. It was, as seems to be the case in almost every Alaska bear story, the largest black bear male seen in some time.
Showing the considerate caution of its breed, the bear left the trail to shelter in a strip of alders that bordered the lake. I was about to trot back to retrieve the still ignorant poodle-mix when the bear started moving in her direction. If the boar continued it would soon find Aki blocking the way into the troll woods. I dropped the fishing pole and ran to grab my dog. The bear reversed direction and skulked to the very spot where I had dropped the fishing gear. Aki spotted the bear as it emerged onto the trail. She growled and barked, sending the bear rushing across the trail and into the woods.
On the theory that no bear would appreciate my performance, I sang an off key version of “Super Trooper” by ABBA on our return to the car. If Aki’s growling hadn’t been enough, my singing must have driven the bear deep into the Troll Woods.
Fog wraps around Chicken Ridge when the little dog and I climb into the car. It thickens as we drop down to the channel. If the fog could burn off in a half and hour this would be a great morning for a tidewater walk. Rather than rely on the gloom doing a quick disappearance act, I steer the car across the Douglas Bridge and drive into the mountains.
I just make out the tops of the Douglas Island ridge as the car climbs up Fish Creek Road. Aki starts squeaking when we crest a small hill and near the parking lot for a trail that crosses three meadows. But the meadows’ stunted pines are as vague as ghosts in a grey cloud. Letting Aki know that we will stop soon, I push on to the road’s end where the fog is melting away like ferry vapor.
We climb the service road to a mountain shoulder. Below us fog still obscures the three meadows trail. By the time we reach the shoulder, the grey is gone. If I could have seen the future, I would have taken the meadows trail. But then, I wouldn’t have smelled or seen or heard the high country coming to life.
Melting snow has charged the mountain streams until they overflow their banks. Nesting robins twill loudly, as if to be overheard about the shushing streams. The shrill piping of a mountain marmot startles the little dog and me. I look for the large guinea pig that gave the alarm but it has already dived in a hidey-hole. The air fills with the smell of sweet resin each time we pass near a pine tree.
Somewhere on the mountain bears are breakfasting on roots but we see none. Peak views and the tall, yellow blossoms of skunk cabbage provide all the visual drama until we stumble on our first true wildflower of the year: a mountain marigold. All of its white petals lay flat except one. It uncurls as we watch. The sun will soon make short work of the dewdrops clinging to its petals. For the marigold’s sake, I pray that true summer has arrived. There is no turning back for the flower now.