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.
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.