There is no question that we have begun the annual slide into autumn. While walking across a Mendenhall wetland, we pass many plants gone to seed. Gray-black seed pods contrast with late flowering paintbrush and stalks of yellow chicken and egg blossoms.
An immature dark-eyed junco pulls seeds from a dead-dry grass stalk and then turns to stare down the little dog. Beyond the junco, a field of magenta-colored fireweed flowers underline the Mendenhall glacier.
The time for the fireweed and the other late blooming flowers will soon end. Grass and broad leafed foliage will fade from rich green to soft reds and yellows. In their dying, they will provide the beauty on the wetlands.
Wind and rain rattled the car on the drive out to the Brotherhood Bridge trailhead. It will do the same on the way home. But for this brief moment, Aki can feel the sun warm her fur. She and I are enjoying being in the eye of a mini-hurricane. While she half-squints her eyes against the sudden brightness, I snap pictures of a field of blooming fireweed.
Mendenhall Glacier peaks over the line of cottonwood trees that border the field. We take a trail that winds through the field, passing signs asking hikers to “be kind and wear masks.” Most of the people we pass are so kind. I move away from the one mask-less man.
A half-a-kilometer up the trail Aki throws on the breaks as the sun disappears behind a thick blanket of clouds. She stands tough until I turn back toward the car. Fat rain drops are striking us as we reach it. Maybe the poodle-mix has a future as a weather forecaster.
Not wanting to rush home. I stop the car at the fish hatchery and watch a bald eagle struggle to hold onto to its spruce top roost. Other eagles watch the show from the top of the Juneau Empire Building. While Aki waits, dry inside the car, I stroll around, head up in spite of the rain, watching eagles hover in place above the beach. Most rely only on their wing and tail feathers for control. One has to drop down his talons like a jet on final approach, just to hold his own in the wind.
The magenta blossoms of fireweed glow in the gloom of this rainy morning. Except for the eagles scattered around the gravel, Aki and I have the Sheep Creek delta to ourselves. I’m not counting the swallows perched together like judgmental gossipers on a driftwood tangle. I don’t include the crows crowding one of the eagles. I should acknowledge the greater yellowlegs sandpiper that moves across a shallow pond. That’s enough denial. This place is crowded with life.
This late in summer, the creek should be a turmoil of spawning chum salmon. Only one male powers upstream against the current. There may be others hidden in the muddy water. When the mountain rains let up, the stream will clear enough for a proper survey. I pray that the chums are just late in arriving. So do the eagles and the other animals that rely on them for food.
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.
The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage.
Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds.
We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore.
On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream.
Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot.
The path we take to the Mendenhall Wetlands is lined with blooming fireweed stalks, some six feet tall. Almost a month ago magenta colored followers only circled the lower parts of each stalk. After blooming, the lower flowers went to seed. Just above them, a new set of blooms opened. The upward progress continued until now all but the top five inches of the stalks have bloomed. When the topmost flower bud opens it will mark the end of our Alaskan summer.
A gray quilt of clouds hangs over the wetlands when Aki and I emerge from a tunnel of willows. Fireweeds grow here as well, forming thick magenta patches on a grassy plain. Drab-colored sparrows watch us while perched in dried cow parsnip stalks. Shafts of sunlight break through the cloud canopy to brighten the yellowing grass and the surface of the Mendenhall River. It just reaches a bald eagle keeping lookout on a driftwood log.
The storm light promises downpours, rainbows, or clear blue skies. Then the cloud coalesce and we are again dominated by gray. I look for waterfowl or more eagles and only find sparrows. The bigger birds have already been flushed away by groups of Labradors and other waterdogs stretching their legs on the wetlands.
It’s a flat, gray day, the kind of day when I have to dig out beauty from close in things. Aki is having a great walk along the crescent-shaped beach at Auk Rec. Her joy depends on smells, not sights.
We move into the woods and then to the tip of Point Louisa. A few months ago we watched seal stalk a small raft of harlequin ducks. Those ducks are gone, moved out to the rugged outer coast waters. The seal is still here looking to nail one of the pink salmon leaping in and out of the water.
Turning my back on the seal, I watch honeybees flitting about stalks of magenta fireweed. We won’t see anything more beautiful today.
Aki and I are walking through one of the grittier sections of Downtown Juneau. Most visitors wouldn’t be impressed with its grit. But it is a place of parking lots, gas stations, and resident hotels. Aki isn’t happy walking through this landscape. But we’ve just dropped off the car for servicing and need to pass through here to reach home.
I manage to convince the little dog to accompany me to the waterfront where we find a young woman sleeping rough. Her possessions form a fabric wall around her. She may have fallen into a financial hole, but still appreciates natural beauty. A handful of fireweed blooms, carefully arranged in an empty beer bottle, brightens the scene.
An adult bald eagle perches on top of a driftwood snag a few hundred meters away. The snag was planted by the city next to a new boardwalk. Rain has soak the eagle’s feathers, which makes it look hung over or like a homeless person in need of a cup of coffee. The eagle ignores Aki and I as we walk under its perch, like it can’t be bothered with the diminutive poodle-mix.
It’s another white sky day. Aki and I have just left the Treadwell Woods and dropped onto Sandy Beach. The beach’s “sand” is made up of crushed mine tailings mixed with the detritus abandoned when the Treadwell mines closed almost 100 years ago.
The sun is up but is blocked by the smoke. Light from it manages to power through the haze to sparkle on the surface of Gastineau Channel. We can hear eagles complaining from their beachside roosts. But tiny and feisty belted kingfishers are the only birds to show themselves.
A kingfisher lands on the top of a busted wharf piling, gives Aki and I a careful look, and turns to study the surface of the channel. Spotting movement, it dives beak-first into the water, raising a splash that would knock it out of any human diving competition. No fish dangles for the bird’s beak when it surfaces.
Aki, you’d think I’ve been too spoiled by natural beauty to be wowed by a borrow pit.The little dog gives me one of her “don’t stop gushing again” looks.
The poodle-mix and I are walking on top of a dike pushed up by men miring for gravel. The “U” shaped dike has captured a small pond by connecting to a length of gently sloping meadow. A beaver family has already colonized the pond. The big rodents’ earthworks killed a small copse of spruce trees on the opposite shore of the pond. It’s the reflection of these skeletons on the pond’s surface that’s gob smacked me.
Alder trees, gilded by backlighting morning light add to the show as does the dissipating globs of mist that hover just above the pond’s surface. When I walk without taking my eyes off the scene, I slip and fall where river otters have installed one of their “U” shaped slides. It’s pretty clear that nature and its wild children have claimed ownership of the old barrow pit. Tough skinned spruce roots snake over the top of the dike. Cow parsnip, fireweed, and the other aggressive forest plants color the dike with whites, yellows and reds.
Little dog, let’s hope that nature never loses the power to repair our messes.