From a distance, the meadow seems as moist as ever. But it is easy to find evidence of drought. A rim of straw colored grass rings some of the meadow ponds, as if it were already autumn. The normally sweet blueberries taste bitter. Worse, at least one lily pad ponds now has a wide beach of mud. Last summer a foot of water covered the stuff.
Aki is too short sighted to care about the shrinking ponds or drying muskeg meadows. For a day I would like to sense the world as the little dog does. She can find as much depth in a urine stained blade of grass as I can in a Tolstoy novel. The poodle-mix’s library is scatter along her trails.
Nothing goes to waste in the rainforest little dog, not even your poop. Aki, who watches me daily gather her bowel movements into a plastic bag and then deposit it a bear-proof garbage can, might argue. Without my intervention, her poop could fertilize the forest.
In the next few weeks birds and bears will eat the forest’s still ripening berries. They will scatter the indigestible seeds around the forest wrapped in their scat. Overripe berries will drop to the ground to provide more nutrients for their mother plant. Spent leaves will soon follow. Everything, even fallen old growth trees support forest life after their deaths.
The trail Aki and I take this morning leads past the decaying trunks of fallen giants. Hundreds of hemlock or spruce sprigs grown on these nursery logs. In a hundred years, two or three of these babies will grow toward the sky until their tops form part of the forest canopy.
Aki knows that something is not right. She left the house in a car with two of her humans. Before starting this walk to salt water we had dropped off one of her people so she could pick berries. Aki wants to go back for her—-to return her lost human to the family herd.
I coax her down the trail, keeping her on a lead in case she decides to take matters into her own paws. Each time I stop to snatch up a ripe cloudberry, the poodle-mix tries to pull me back toward the car. We cross a meadow of tall grass, some knocked down by a sleeping bear last night. Now Aki has something else to worry about.
The trail to the beach takes us under an eagle’s nest. An adult eagle guarded the nest the last time we passed by. This time it looks to be empty except for bird sounds that could be made by juvenile eagles calling out for food.
Aki tolerates my decision to sit for a bit on the beach. From there we watch two unsuccessful attempts by eagles to pluck fish from Stephen’s Passage. Then a Dahl porpoise makes a rapid transit past us. None of this takes the little dog’s mind off of her other human. The sudden appearance of a deer focuses her attention until it runs into the woods. A frustrated little poodle and I drive back to the berry patch where Aki squeals in delight when her missing human approaches carrying a half-gallon of blueberries.
It’s harvest time in the Rain Forest. Aki was barely awake when we headed out to a promising berry picking spot. The little dog showed great patience as her other human and I slowly filled our recycled buckets with blueberries.
Last year, a hungry sow black bear and her cub hammered the patch that usually satisfied our berry needs for the year. We turned to the mountain meadows as back up but their production was also down. On today’s expedition, which I thought would only be a reconnaissance mission, we picked close a gallon of blueberries in less than two hours. Most were plump and juicy.
When our buckets were almost full, Aki started keening. It was clearly her time for attention and exercise. She led her humans us on a loop through the forest; stopping often to luxuriate in the rich smells left by other four-legged visitors.
Aki and I are on the Outer Point Trail slipping through to the beach before the trail repair work for the day begins. A local nonprofit is trying to fix portions of the trail washed out by water flowing under a beaver dam. The affected path turned into an ice skating rink last winter and is now a muddy mess.
The trail crew cannibalized some of the trailside spruce to make barriers to contain gravel and planks for new bridges. Sawdust from their work clings to Aki’s leg fur. The little dog seems puzzled by the trail work. Something just doesn’t smell right. But it doesn’t take much encouragement for her to trot with me toward the beach.
We pass through a muskeg meadow before reaching the beach. Like they have been scattered like chicken feed, the white blossoms of cloudberry plants form random patterns on the spongy ground. Called “hjortron” in Sweden and “salmon berry” by the Yupik people of Western Alaska, the harvest of cloudberries is an important cultural activity in the Nordic world. They draw Swedish families to mountain meadows to preserve liters of the tangy-sweet fruit so they can taste summer in the heart of winter. Extended families of Yupik people use riverboats to reach traditional berry patches where elders teach the children the important of wild foods. Here in the rain forest years can go by without cloudberry plants setting any fruit. We target the more reliable blueberry crop.
This summer, after enough time has past for the cloudberries to turn soft and ripe, Aki and I might sneak back to this meadow and gather a bowl or two of the salmon-colored fruit. I will lick their juice from my fingers and remember picking in a tundra berry patch on a sunny day when the wind kept the mosquitoes away and cranes flew overhead.
The snow is gone from the rain forest, washed away by rain and spring-like temperatures. It left behind bare ground covered with dead hemlock leaves and dissolving piles of dog poop. I tend not to look down this time of year unless necessary to avoid smearing my boots. For the nose-driven dog, the opposite is true.
While Aki sniffs and pees, I scan the woods surrounding the Outer Point Trail, looking and listening for signs of spring. No thrush or robin or chickadee sings or even flits away at our approach. Only my boot taps on the trail boards breaks the silence. Buds on the red-limbed blue berry bushes are swelling. In a week or two, if the weather holds, pink or white blossoms, each a tiny Japanese lantern, will dangle from each branch. They will draw rufus hummingbirds when they arrived from the south. In a swampy area near the beach, skunk cabbage shoots, battered by their efforts to break through softening pond ice, provide the strongest evidence of spring.
Aki has to squint her eyes when we leave the woods. A newly arrived sunlight brings a spring-like clarity to the scene. Alders still wet from this morning rain glimmer, naked drift wood logs look as white as desert bones.
We will soon be facing seven months of winter so why and I taking Aki into the mountains. We could have taken a sea level hike, maybe even taken a nap in the late summer sun. But ice and cold bring beauty. That is certainly true of this mountain meadow.
Frost had whitened the entire meadow before the sun climbed above the Douglas Island ridge. But it has softened to dew everywhere the sun touched. In their fall colors of red, yellow and order, most of the meadow plants still sparkle with moisture. But their dramatic display will end when they dry out in the sun.
Last night’s temperatures froze over the meadow ponds. The new ice grips the long legs of a water strider that was trapped by the sudden freeze. I wonder if it will be alive when the ice melts.
Hoping to locate some ripe lingonberries, I leave the gravel trail and walk on to the meadow. The muskeg is crunchy with ice and seems to break underfoot. I can’t find any lingonberries. Just one low-bush blueberry. After eating it, I look for Aki and find her planted near the gravel trail. She makes me feel guilty for damaging the fragile muskeg with my boot prints. I try to ignore her distain but, as is often the case, she will win the battle.