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.
The air seems different today—colder and carrying more dampness than a sunny summer day. Aki and I are climbing up toward Gastineau Meadows. Dew clings to everything with texture. Tiny drops of it even hold on to the slick surface of ripe berries. Chasing a scent, the little dog waded chest deep into trailside grass. Now her curly fur is dark with dew.
Large skunk cabbage leaves are on their last legs. Soon they will collapse into brown mush. But this morning they still retain a yellowing beauty. The time of oranges and reds are here. Orange highlights brighten the dying meadow grass. Wine red leaves shelter red high-bush cranberries. In the green top of a pine, a scolding blue jay records our movement toward the Treadwell Ditch Trail.
This is a sad day for Aki, not because we failed to find many berries to pick but because her beloved Frisbee floated away. She has lost five other Frisbees in the same manner. Today, while we walked from the berry patch toward the trailhead, the little dog shot off the trail and down a steep path to Montana Creek. Not realizing the danger, she dropped her Frisbee into the water for cleaning. In seconds it floated away down stream. Her other human slid down the trail in hopes of retrieving the toy. But it was already out of reach.
Aki refused to accept her loss. She urged her other human to go get the saucer-shaped toy. She had to be carried halfway up the stream bank before she agreed to join me on the trail. Even after we started back to the car, she would look with expectation at the little shoulder pouch that once housed her special, plastic friend.
A week shy of August and it’s time to gather food before the fall. Aki and her humans head into a wood thick with blue berry brush. While the little dog chases her Frisbee, her humans range around the woods but find very few berries to harvest. Our search leads us to the edge of a stream that should contain spawning silver salmon. But like the blue berries, the salmon are hard to find.
We leave the forest to search another, crossing on the way an open muskeg meadow. Cloudberries the color of birch or maple leaves in fall dot the wet ground. I pluck a ripe one up, pleased that it tastes like the salmon berries we once harvested on the tundra of Southwest Alaska. Like its tundra cousin, this muskeg cloudberry (hjortron) tastes sweet and sour with a bitterness that you’d expect from something grown in ground dominated by winter.
Even though she was born in Missouri of mix parentage, Aki looks like a French Poodle. I am tempted to wish her “Happy Bastille Day.” But we are out on the glacial moraine under gray, rain-filled clouds. She demands, not a parade, but for her humans to send her Frisbee spinning down the trail. While chasing the flying disk she growls like a wolf chasing down prey. She is no one’s poodle.
While the little dog is content with chasing her Frisbee, I am looking to pick enough blue berries for next Saturday’s pancakes. We recently used up last summer’s berries. Domestic blue berries for the store don’t work. They are overpowered by the sourdough pancake batter.
Water from the Mendenhall River is all but covering the trail and we have to press up against a hedge of alders in order to skirt a flooded out section. Aki dashes through the detour and waits for her two humans, Frisbee in her mouth. Later she will wait for us to pick a pint of blues and then walk back to the car in the rain.
Aki doesn’t know it but we are on a scouting trip. As usual, she thinks the outing is about her and her orange Frisbee. But her other human and I are here to measure this year’s blueberry crop. We only have one small plastic bag of blues left in the freezer.
While the little dog roars after her beloved flying disk I gauge the river’s level to determine if it has left us enough trail to negotiate. By detouring into the riverside willows we can make it. Across the river the Mendenhall Glacier appears to snake out of the clouds to devour the spruce forest at its foot.
Only a few small berries show through the leaves of the trailside bushes. Last year large berries weighed down the branches of the blue berry plants. It might be a bad berry year for us and a worst one for the bears, who also must deal with a low salmon return. The high bush cranberry bushes are setting large numbers of berries. Maybe the bears can substitute sour cranberries for the sweeter blues. But Aki’s family prefers blueberries in their Saturday morning pancakes. We’ll look higher in the mountains for our winter’s allotment of fruit.
Last night Aki and her other human waited for me to deplane at the Juneau Airport. When a puppy, she would have squealed and squirmed when I walked out of the TSA waiting area. Now she just lets me lift her into my arms. This morning we walk through a rain forest that would be quiet if not for the songs of thrush and wren. Hard, green berries hang from the blue berry brush and the white buds of crabapple flowers swell with rainwater. It’s good to be home.
As Aki puzzles over newly deposited scent, I sneak onto a beach that borders the forest. In close there is only a robin trying to lead us away from its nest with moves designed to give a predator false hope of an easy meal. From a spruce tree behind us an eagle screams. Otherwise the skies are as empty as the little bay. Far off shore a kayaker has come to rest on the flat-calm water. I wish we could trade places with him. Sun shines on a valley on Admiralty Island, giving me reason to hope for at least a partial suspension of the rain.
We are about to break back into the woods when three eagles drop from perches on Shaman Island and dive toward the same spot in Lynn Canal. When one looks ready to snatch some food from the water, the other two eagles dive on it. In seconds all three birds are flying at each other like fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. The eagle that we heard earlier does a flyby at a safe distance and settles onto a spruce branch of the island to watch the show, which now has shifted from a dogfight into a loosely scripted ballet. Ravens, with their cleaver efforts to harvest man’s excesses, I understand. But eagles, I just don’t get.