While holding Aki, I move a couple of meters off the Marriott Trail and stand in shallow marsh water. Seconds before we were walking on a dry gravel trail that cuts like a pencil line across a swampy meadow. A minute ago, I left the trail to photograph a clump of wild rhododendrons, returning to see a family of four approached us down the narrow trail.
The parents wanted to move quickly past the little dog and I. But their four-year-old son stopped when he saw Aki. He stood like a statue with right hand pointed at the poodle-mix, grin affixed to his face. Nothing, not his parents’ orders or my pleas moved the little guy to action. The mosquitoes did. He finally trotted off toward his parents as the biting bugs swarmed around the little dog and I.
Wanting to avoid another traffic jam, we move into the woods on a trail that winds through a series of forest clear cuts. Each as stark as a battlefield. Ferns and blueberry bushes flourished in the oldest clear cut. Thin trunks of spruce trees rise above the green flour to support a thinning canopy. But nothing grows on the ground of the youngest cut, which was logged in 1962.
Before passing through the first clear cut, we meet a Tlingit man sitting beside a small smudge fire. He looks happy, if a little disappointed in the fire, which doesn’t produce enough smoke to the keep the mosquitos away. Still. he has found himself a quiet island in a forest surrounded by low income housing, the state prison, and our town dump.
The trail takes us down a steep hillside to an unlogged creek valley. Spruce trees older than America grow along the stream. I once found the carcass of a bald eagle in this almost-untouched place.
Aki has no problem climbing out of the old growth valley. We circle back to Switzer Creek and walk along it toward the car. On the last bridge before the trailhead we meet an old man wearing a painter’s billed cap. His tired-looking mountain bike leans against a spruce tree. He tells us that he comes here every day for the squirrels. “They’re back after months of being gone,” he says and them shares a crooked-tooth smile. I imagine him riding his old bike here every day that ice didn’t make the trail impassible just to check on the squirrels. He came to visit them when red-bodied salmon swirled beneath the bridge, and when trout flashed through the creek waters after salmon smolt. He came when rain muddied the trail or wind threatened to knock him from his bike. All for squirrels.
Aki and I drove through a rain storm to reach this mountain meadow. The rain stopped as we pulled up at the empty trailhead parking lot. At least it would be dry and we wouldn’t have to share the views with other dog walkers.
A shaft of sun powers through the clouds, illuminating Aki as she marks a spot with pee. The shaft seems to erode the cloud, opening up a hole large enough for blue sky to show through. In a few seconds the sun and blue sky disappear. It’s going to be a peak-a-boo day, one for sudden sucker holes that close as quickly as they open.
The sun flashes on and off during the rest of the walk down through meadows to the Fish Creek Bridge. Sometimes it targets yellow skunk cabbage flowers beaded by the rain. Others shafts enrich the green flanks of a north-facing mountain ridge. Once the sun backlit the leaves of a blueberry patch, still showing autumn yellows, reds, and oranges. Without the help of the sun I may not have enjoyed the berry plants flash of fall beauty. Within a week they will transition to summer green.
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.
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.