It stops me dead in my tracks. Aki trots off to catch up with her doggie guest. As she disappears around the corner, I stare at the source of my distraction—a leafed-out blueberry bush. It’s almost January, you little fool. The lush, green plant doesn’t look out of place. At the bush’s base sorrel plants are yet to turn red. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s 40 degrees. Winter seems like a legend for old men to share with their grandkids.
In a week the little dog and I might be struggling down this same North Douglas trail through deep snow. Then the precocious blueberry plant will suffer like a Dickensian orphan. Now, its roots are drinking in the rain.
Raindrops dimple the surface of glacial stream. Some hit an expanding bull’s eye formed by a salmon’s leap. The rain glistens spruce needles and yellow cottonwood leaves. It soaks into the feathers of two bald eagles that watch the salmon’s antics from their usual perches. A week ago, busloads of noisy tourists would have been taking selfies with one of the eagles in the background. This morning only a silver-haired Juneauite pays the birds any attention.
When one of the eagles flies out and over Mendenhall Lake, the Juneau resident turns to share a memory of an October day where there were salmon in the pond and bears on the trail. This could be such a day.
The little dog and I say our goodbyes and take a roundabout way to Nugget Falls. It seems like every tree and bush along the way is in full fall color. Water drips off yellowing willow leaves into cups made of pink and red blueberry leaves. Above, tall cottonwoods seem to tear apart low-lying clouds. It is easier to capture such beauty with a camera when it rains than when it shines.
Aki gives me a cynical stare, as if she disapproves of the flowery descriptors running through my brain like a tickertape. Give me a break little dog. It’s been a noisy summer.
Yesterday I was surprised at the lack of waterfowl on the Fish Creek Delta. Today, I was more surprised to see mix rafts of mallards and Canada geese feeding in the shallows near the mouth of Peterson Creek. Further down the beach four harlequin ducks plucked young mussels from barely-submerged rocks. Soon they will be joined by golden eyes and the other winter residents of Fritz Cove.
I have mixed feelings about these developments. It means a richer fall and winter for fans of water birds like the parti-colored harlequins. It also means a ramping up of the fall bird hunting season. The sound of shotgun blasts will once again mix with the sarcastic cackles of mallards and eagle screams.
The return of the winter birds usually accompanies the fading of fall colors in beachside woods. Yellow devil’s club leaves now brighten the dark under the forest canopy like reading lamps in a college library. I don’t look forward to the day in a week or two, when those lights go out.
This morning broke clear with blue skies dotted with scattered islands of small clouds. After breakfast the little dog and I head out to the mountains. We rush to the catch of the Mediterranean-like light that will fade as the sun arcs toward noon. The sound of excited children greet us. It seems like every school child in Juneau is berry picking on the mountain meadows.
There are many berries and many meadows so we will rarely run into any of the kids. A pleasant surprise did wait for us when we crest a mountain shoulder and drop into a pocket meadow—frost. It is the fragile first mountain frost, soon turned to dew after a few seconds in sun.
I find a patch of frosted blueberry plants, none standing more than six inches above the meadow muskeg, each leaf a calico of reds, yellows, and oranges. The sun climbs above a protecting stand of mountain hemlock trees to turn each berry into a Christmas ornament dangling on a party-colored tree. I filled my hand with blues and offer them to Aki. The little poodle mix lifts each into her mouth with her clever tongue.
After the channel fog burns off this morning, I drive the little dog out to Mendenhall Lake. While she uses her nose to investigate I plan on searching for late blueberries. I’ll find less than a handful. This may be one of the last color-rich days we will have until the monsoon season begins. Then we will have to wait for winter to bring clarity.
The lake is swollen with rain and glacial melt water, covering the beach path we normally use. Instead we use the little path between camp ground and lake that the little dog prefers With the temperature holding at 60 degrees F. I find myself sitting often in the sun to enjoy the glacier reflection on the lake’s surface. I take a few pictures of it, aware that I have many similar shots on my computer. It still thrills to capture the image with a click.
Displays of fall color could divert me from glacier gazing. But most of the lake foliage is still summer green. Only where the Mendenhall River escapes from the lake do I find a cottonwood in fall yellow. It stands out like an unnecessary candle on this warm, bright day.
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.