While Aki dashes off to investigate a pee mail message, I stop to study what looks like a red rose growing at the end of a willow branch. The rose is formed by willow leaves, not flower pedals, changing from green to an autumn red.
Last spring, after the winter snow melted but before willow buds burst, a female willow gall midge laid an egg at the tip of the willow branch. A wormy little grub emerged from the egg and burrowed into a willow bug and started feasting on the new green bud. Rather than unfurling,, leaves from the bud morphed into the shape of a rose flower.
Shafts of sun break through cloud cover to brighten the reds in the willow rosette and the rosette growing at the tips of the surrounding willow branches. I feel like we are in a rose garden, not standing at the edge of a willow-lined pond that was formed when beavers dammed a small stream.
By turning around, I could see a reflection of a glacier in Mendenhall Lake. I could watch a merganser sunning itself on an offshore rock. I could study Nugget Falls or take in the flight of a kingfisher. Those are natural things. Their presence doesn’t surprise anyone. So I can’t turn my back on these red, red willow rosettes.
Aki shepherded her other human and I off the main moraine trail and onto a faint one leading into the Troll Woods. It’s a good choice for this flat-gray day. Without invasive sunshine reaching into the woods, it feels like the place has lifted far away and taken us with it.
With its ground cushioned by thick moss, which also decorate the trees, we could be on another planet. Only when the trail brings us to a lake shore, can we find mountain landmarks that let us know we are still in an earthly rain forest.
It is a very quiet place. The moss sees to that. When we see ducks, they are moving quietly across the water. The resident beavers sleep in their dens. No thrush or jay sings or squawks. You can almost hear the sounds of your own thoughts.
It might be the largest porcupine I’ve ever seen. Just a few meters away, it waddles towards the protection of an alder thicket. I’ve just passed through a similar thicket. Luckily, Aki has stayed back to check out a smell, probably the scent of this huge porkie.
The last time Aki ran into a porcupine, it decorated her face with quills. This time, Aki’s luck holds. After giving the porcupine’s hideout a wide birth, we continue on towards Nugget Falls. Shafts of sunlight slide from the cloud cover to illuminate parts of the glacier or Mt. McGinnis.
When a shaft of light hits the ground where we walk, stop, closes my eyes, and wait for the sun to warm my face. But it’s too late in the summer for that to happen. Now is the time for sunlight to strengthen the colors of fall.
We would have passed the beaver pond without seeing the mallard hen if she hadn’t been flapping her wings. The lady was tucked deep in the reeds, invisible to old eyes like Aki’s and mine if she hadn’t moved. We had already seen a lot of wing flapping this morning.
On the drive to the trailhead we stopped at Three Mile to count eagles. More than a half-a-dozen crowded around a small pool in the creek. Most stood in the steam, flapping their wings in the water like song birds do in a bird bath. Other eagles powered down their wings for lift as they climbed from wetlands crowded by the incoming tide.
As we moved down the beach a juvenile varied thrush flit off the trail to land on top of some driftwood roots. If it was its cousin the American robin, I’d suspect that it was trying to draw us away for its young. But that is not the thrush’s way. Sometimes they are just stupid-brave.
Most folks would never call deer does brave. But the one we passed this morning held its ground as it stared at the little dog and I. It must have been enjoying something tasty when we disturbed its meal. I hope it shows more discretion than valor when doe hunting season starts.
Rain can bring beauty as well as misery. Today it brings beauty with just a littler misery for the little dog and I. We are walking with another dog and her human along the Mendenhall River. Whips of fog curve around wooded islands and lay like a soft blanket over the grasslands.
Two great blue herons fly over our heads, cross the river, and land in a red bed on the other side. In seconds they are hunting the water for fish. Downstream two eagles are hunched on top of a tangle of driftwood roots. They look at each other, as companions, not competitors.
Later we spot a solitary eagle standing a top of a broken piling. It stares at the hillside until we come along. Then it looks at me, evaluating the way I shed water in the rain. Rain drops bead and bounce on its feathers. My rain coat stopped keeping me dry an hour ago.
After yesterday’s pond walk, I decided to camp the night nearby. After driving home, I assembled the usual pile of camping gear near the front door: tent, sleeping bags and pads, gas stove and kettle for morning coffee, food for Aki and I, and warm clothes. An hour later the tent was up and the little dog and I were taking an evening walk. A beaver swam near us on the reedy pond. Pale, almost imitation sunset colors showed through clouds above the pond. Tomorrow, little dog, we may have sunshine.
Aki started the curled up in her own little sleeping pad inside the tent. When the temperatures dropped to September cold, she crawled into my sleeping bag. We slept well, even though the nearby Mendenhall roared like a jet engine all night.
The sun broke over a mountain ridge in early morning, flooding the campground with light. I made a coffee and carried it to the shore of Mendenhall Lake just in time to see and a beaver swim right at me. I tried to imitate one of the lake-side alders as the beaver continued its approach. I must have twitched when it was right in front of me because it slapped the water with its tail and dived.
The beaver popped up seconds later and continued its patrol along the shore. After it disappeared around a nearby little point, I went back to the campsite to build the morning fire. Fog had been thickening on the lake’s surface while I watched the beaver. After the fire took hold, I returned to see whether the fog had survived the strengthening sunshine. Instead of fog, I saw the beaver doing one last patrol along the lake shore before tucking into its den for the day.
Today’s plan called for the little dog and I to walk along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. But, thanks to glacier flooding, there is no exposed lake shore. Instead we must explore the nearby forest grounds.
Aki is fine with the detour. For some reason, she doesn’t enjoy our lakeside walks. While she sniffs and pees on some trailside brush, I notice that rose-shaped growths have formed on the ends of some of the willow wands. Most are green. One is managing a reddish blush. Somewhere deep inside these willow roses burrows an insect. Like sand in an oyster, the little critter irritates the willow into folding its leaves until they mimic a flower. Aki has no interest in this small wonder so we move onto a trail that circles a small pond.
We can hear a mallard quacking that is hiding in a jungle of reeds. Current from small watercourses entering the pond has formed narrow paths through the reeds. What fun Water Rat, from Wind in the Willows, would have paddling his little boat along these reedy paths. I wish that I could find a human sized path through giant reeds. There is nothing–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
We are deep in the Troll Woods when Aki alerts, stiffening as she points her noise in the direction of recent motion. Then she barks. I stop berry picking and look where she is looking. Expecting a bear, I spot a gang of thrush, maybe ten of them, dive bombing blueberry bushes. The bushes bounce up and down as each bird flies away. They bounce again each time another thrush flies into them.
After thinning out the fruit on their targeted bush, thee birds fly over our heads and attack another one. I had suspected bears or people had plucked most of the bushes clean. But the bear poop we passed to get here was grass green, not berry blue. It must be the work of the tenacious thrush.
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.
There is nothing special about the Troll Woods this morning, certainly not the Payne’s gray skies. Mushrooms have to provide the highlights now that the wildflowers have gone to seed. But I am still happy to walk on the soft ground between moss-covered trees.
I don’t need a mask on the moraine. We won’t see another Covid spreader until we return to the car. Aki patrols out ahead to make sure we don’t surprise a momma bear and her cubs. One does crash through the woods but it moves away, not toward us. The peace floating between the trees can be felt on the skin.
In a good, quiet mood, I follow the little dog to the shore of Crystal Lake, surprised by a clutch of mallards feeding a few feet away. They plunge their heads into the water until their rear ends point toward sky. Thick strands of grass encircle their beaks when they re-emerge.