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.
It’s 55 degrees F. The recent series of dry, sunny days has dried out the meadow muskeg so Aki and I are taking a trail that would be impassible during the monsoon season. I mention the moderate temperature because Aki grabs some shade each time she rests.
In spite of the summer-like conditions, the meadow grass is still brown. Magenta-colored wild rhododendron buds are just starting to form. But there are no other signs of summer except bird song. If the muskeg were a little drier, I’d lie down next to Aki and enjoy the light breeze.
The little dog and I drop off the edge of the meadow and take a trail down to the Fish Creek bridge. The trail is lined with yellow skunk cabbage blooms and blue berry brush heavy with white blossoms. A Steller’s jay flies over our heads and lands on a spruce branch and scolds us for having the nerve to walk through its forest.
Aki begs to be picked up every time I lower her to the floor. We’ve been separated for the past three weeks. She spent most of that time hanging out with an English lab and her humans. I’ve just returned from a hike and bicycle excursion in northern Italy and the Low Countries.
After reuniting with the little dog, I drive with her out to our favorite trail where there are few signs of spring. A few skunk cabbage leaves have climbed above the surface of the beaver’s pond and thankfully, many of the forest’s blueberry plants are setting blossoms.
The beach is still exposed when we reach it, but the tide is on the flood. We walk out to the end of a spit that will soon be covered with water. Normally Aki, always cautious in eagle country, would sulk at the forest edge when an on the spit. But today she trots along beside me. An eagle flies just off shore, making nervous a large raft of scooters that swims between Shaman Island and us. It’s good to be home.
Yesterday, the clouds that pounded the little dog and me with rain decorated this mountain meadow with snow. We are here to enjoy the resulting white blanket. While Aki catches up on weeks worth of pee mail, I watch ghosts of fog climb the whitened mountain ridges. A scattering of tiny ponds reflect the scene, breaking up the mountains’ image with still-green lily pads. There are other signs that winter’s snow caught out the meadow plants.
Islands of strong, still green clumps of grass dot the snowy meadow. Many plants, like the sparse-leafed Labrador tea and blue berry bushes are still in fall color. At least they aren’t being crushed by the heavy snow like the low-growing sorrel.
A friend recently saw a hummingbird and a warbler, both summer visitors to the rain forest. Are they delaying their southern migration to avoid the current heat wave in California? It is 100 degrees in Los Angeles today and the Santa Anna winds are pushing wild fire through bird habitat. If things don’t change soon the birds will be caught between fire and ice.