This morning Aki is at home with her other human. I’m out the road, twenty-some miles from home at writer’s camp. At least that what I am calling it. Ten other writers share the same cabin. When not eating, walking, or talking we write.
I wake early, down a cup of instant coffee, and leave the cabin. The beach in front of the cabin is still in dusky shadow but across Favorite Channel, the Chilkats are warming with Mediterranean light. In a half-an-hour I might be able to warm myself in sunlight but view across the channel will be too soft to impress. Birds that are just silhouettes bounce through the splash zone. Close in to the beach, a sea lion rumbles up for a breath and then splashes back into the water. Across the channel, the mountains are losing their buttery color.
Because there might be bears there, I have been waiting to return to the Eagle River until Aki is otherwise occupied. Now is my chance so I drive from the writer’s camp cabin to trailhead and find the river diminished by drought and a very low tide. Side streams that might otherwise be filled with spawning salmon are dry. I have to step carefully around and over desiccated chunks of salmon and great piles of bear scat. There are fresh brown bear tracks but I will not see a bear today. They may already be heading upriver to the salmon spawning grounds. Soon we can return to this spot, one of Aki’s favorites.
Hoping that there really is strength in numbers, I ride with another guy along single- track trails that winds through a paper birch forest. We are heading toward the red salmon spawning reids of Campbell Creek. I am comforted by the lack of fresh bear scat on the trail but worried by the absence of human activity in the area. We will be alone when we reach the stream.
I sing a Bob Dylan song badly as we weave around trees and up tiny rises in the trail. No one has ever reported enticing the approach of a brown bear with a Dylan song so I figure my performance will encourage the privacy-loving bears to scatter. No bears wait for us at the stream. Maybe my signing worked or maybe the bears are all down stream to intercept salmon moving upstream.
The difficult transition from salt to fresh water robs most species of salmon of their beauty. They enter their home streams fat and ocean-bright silver. By time they spawn, all have faded to mottled colors. The males form battle faces—nasty teeth and hooked noses. But red salmon change into lovely red and green creatures, showing off colors that sparkle when touched by forest light.
Aki and I climb a gravel road that passes above Sitka’s Fortress of the Bears. I hold up the little dog so she can see into the topless tanks that once contained caustic chemicals for breaking down wood into paper. Large brown bears splash in a pond that covers the middle portion of one of the tanks. Memorize that smell, Aki, and let me know if you ever smell it during one of our walks.
Earlier, the little dog had stayed in the car while her other human and I stood on a gantry above the tanks and watched four brown bears that would have been killed if not taken in by the fortress’s owner. Eagles and ravens roost in surrounding trees, waiting to pick up scraps left by the big carnivores. As much as I try, I cannot belittle the experience. While denied the hundred-mile range enjoyed by a wild brown bear, they don’t lay about with the nervous or dull look of a zoo animal. In minutes I relaxed, for the first time, in the presence of bears.
Last week, while Aki chased her Frisbee over Juneau trails, I explored lands drained by the Innoko River area in Western Alaska. Some of the area I passed through has been designated wilderness. But we saw as many or even more animals in the non-wilderness areas. The flying predators we spotted—eagles, peregrine falcons, owls (great grey and great horned), and even a raven—seemed more interested in keeping near their food source than fleeing us. On each beach we sampled we added our boot tracks to those of geese, wolves, moose, beaver, porcupine, and grizzly bears. Twice we watched moose swim the width of the Innoko River.
Today, now back with Aki in Juneau, I spent part of this Fourth of July picking blue berries near the Mendenhall River. While we walked on trails beaten through the patch by black bears, none appeared. Even one did appear it would not make the moraine a wild place, not when rubber rafts full of cruise ship customers constantly float past the berry patch.
Back from Sitka. Picked up Aki from a friend’s house last night and returned to Chicken Ridge surprised at what a few sunny days can do for the garden. The lilac blossoms have popped open and even the conservative apple tree leafed out.
Aki would have like part of our visit to Sitka—the hanging out with our friends’ two dogs and the walks we took with them each day.
She wouldn’t have noticed the changing sky, capable in three days of emptying itself self of clouds then giving into to a Pacific front that brought, rain, Turner skies, and rainbows.
She would have moved with caution under eagles roosting on hemlock trees or the cross tower of St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Aki would have had nothing to do with the brown bears that played in the huge red liquor tanks of the now-abandoned pulp mill.
Walking where the moraine touches Mendenhall Lake, the little dog and I find a landscape newly trapped in ice. A sheet of it stretches over the lake to the glacier. Last summer’s ice bergs and shoreline rocks form islands in the translucent gray covering. Hoar frost gathers in deep boot prints in lake bottom recently exposed by dropping water levels. River pebbles appear to hide in steep sided holes formed when freezing water in the surrounding soil expanded. This pushed the soil up into canyon walls an inch higher than the pebbles. The little rocks appear to seek shelter from winter.
Along the slough we used last September to canoe to a berry picking patch, we find a bear print made just before the freeze. I can make out pad, toes and indentations made by the tips of claws. Brown bear? All summer the place is thick with the smaller black bears, drawn to the nearby salmon spawning stream but brown (grizzly) bears rarely visit. They prefer wilder places but a young one was seen last week roaming the moraine.
Not wanting to see how Aki would deal with a brown bear, I reverse direction and head back to the car. It’s time anyway. The sun finally crests Thunder Mountain so its rays can reach the upper glacier. This brings new beauty but also a rising wind chilled by its run over the ice field. On the way we visit a frost covered beaver dam, ice sculptures forming where water flows through a minor breach. Behind the dam, a glacier erratic mimics the beaver house in shape and placement.
Resurrection Bay, like the rest of maritime Alaska is lovely on a sunny day. Today the sun shone down on the boat taking me down the bay and into the Kenai Fjords. In five and half hours we saw Sea Otters snack and float, Dall Porpoise explode from beneath the boat, lazying sea lons, a Peregrine Falcon dive on a roosting eagle, several tidewater glaciers, clouds of Kittiwakes, escaping puffins, auklets, and a mother and baby Humpback whales. But it was the tall islands of granite guarding the entrance to the bay—some all knife sharp angles, others mimicking in hard stone the swirling mounds produced by soft ice cream machines —they appeared to the special things today. Then, on the drive home, we saw a double rainbow form over fireweed and a mountain lake.