Last Father’s Day at 6 A.M. in Missoula, when Aki was home in Juneau, I checked the progress of the sunrise. Yet to climb above the Garnett Mountains, the sun still managed to paint the underside of broken clouds pink and pearl. Each subsequent second intensified the colors of a yellow and green field of blooming wild mustard. A single blue heron flied toward me as I straddled my folding bicycle. The bird’s wings beat a slow, full rhythm as if all the souls of those who had died during the night rode burrowed under its feathers. The heron, its body almost as thin as a paper airplane, flied toward the Blackfoot River and disappeared into a wall of still-gray clouds.
I rode toward the town of Lolo to watch a herd of bison graze near the edge of Highway 93. Traffic was light, but I still took the unfinished bike trail rather than the highway for the views it offered of the Blackfoot River a quarter of a mile below. The slight sound of my brakes disturbed to flight another heron feeding along the river. Later, I watched it fly over my head when I pedaled back to Missoula.
The rancher was irrigating the field where the bison herd grazed. Some stood in the spray like city kids on a hot day. Most fed on the drier grass along the old rail line that once served the Bitter Root Valley. One large bull watched my every move. He had a lot to protect. At least a half-a-dozen young bison, horn-less and with fur still reddish-brown, wandered among the bulls and cows. One butt his mother, like a dairy calf wanting to suckle. Getting no response, he returned his attention to the grass. While most of the young feed, one gave me a long hard stare until I remounted my bike.
Back in Juneau and reunited with Aki, I follow the little dog down one of our favorite beachside forests. Rain, rather than irrigation spray wets the ground. I think of the Lolo bison and the mule and whitetail deer that I saw on my recent family visit to Montana. Funny that I haven’t see many our Sitka black tail deer on my walks with Aki. Then, I spot the young male deer, hock deep in shallows of a little pond, starring at me. I’m not carrying a camera, which allows me to extend the eye lock without the distractions of focusing and framing. I broke before the deer, which held its ground even after I continued down the trail.
This is not a day for visual treats. Winter beauty has melted from the rain forest. Clouds block mountain views. Wind shatters the reflective surfaces of a river diminished by the ebbing tide. Only a landing raven provides something to photograph. This doesn’t bother the little dog as she sniffs a pile of fresh wolf scat textured by snowshoe hare fur. I concentrate on the sound of the wind muscling through the old growth canopy that could be a song sung by baritone ghosts. Aki, a poodle-mix known to bark at empty places, might see the ghosts I miss but she doesn’t react to this song. Instead, she dashes ahead to a junction and stands a few feet up the Yankee Basin trail. She wants to follow the wolf into wilder woods, maybe taste snowshoe hare meat.
The second time in as many days, I am walking in wet footgear. Yesterday, rainwater clinging to grass on the Lewiston Montana labyrinth washed off Rocky Mountains dirt and soil from our family wheat ranch. Today, low bush blueberry brush cleans Alaska river mud from my boots.
During my Montana visit, I squinted at sun soaked prairie or mountains by day and read Thomas McGuane’s Some Horses before I fell asleep at night. With Aki back home in Alaska, I had enough distance from her to ponder out relationship. McGuane inspired this reflection. He writes that when anyone goes forth with an animal—hunting dog, cutting horse, or poodle—the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Does the little dog make me greater and I do the same for her? She accomplishes more on this walk on a soaked mountain meadow. When we return the car she will know the local history—who passed through, whether there was violence or a mating or consumption of a meal. She will know she has done her duty, stood by my side when I made water, scanned the muskeg for a bear that she would have chase away if it came near. The ten pound dog takes on much.
I just muse and wander and call her back if she heads towards danger. I add little substance, but McGuane is right. Our whole exceeds the sum of our individual contributions. Without me, the dog would be stuck at home, posed to bark the mailman. Without her I would spend this cool, wet day inside, maybe listening again to Corelli’s Concerti Grossi and finishing up Some Horses.
I tell myself to remember the way the pebbles, frozen together by last might’s freeze, slowly give way beneath my boots. Otherwise the memory of the sensation will disappear under the deluge of Technicolor images I see every time I look out to sea.
Aki and I walk toward Camping Cove over sunny beaches and through dappled, forested headlands. Inshore barrier islands, thick with old growth spruce and hemlock trees, frame views of Lynn Canal and the snow covered Chilkat Mountains.
Aki flushes a grouse, her first. I watch it fly into a snag where it seems to disappear into the rough bark. Later we will hear the slow hammering sound of a woodpecker. More surprising, I hear the long tones of a varied thrush. The thrush song, heard on a sunny day, while standing on bare trail, might be the final confirmation of winter’s end. The bird might have been fooled by the swelling leaf buds on spring-green blue berry brush. We might have more ice and snow. Winter can’t be over. There is still more three weeks before the spring equinox.
The golden retriever wants to continue down the thin strip of gravel that momentarily links Douglas Island with Shaman. With our access to tide tables, the retriever’s owner and I know that the tide turned a half and hour ago. We can see that the waves hitting from both sides of the path are about to meet to swamp the trail and close the road to Shaman Island until the next minus tide. The old dog would push on after the trail floods, perhaps because she doesn’t remember how winter water chills after it soaks her fine, long hair. Aki, who only swims when caught unawares by a beach drop off, stands content at my side. When the retriever returns we walk across the exposed beach, happy that for the moment that rain had stopped and we can see a blue strip of glacier framed in Payne’s gray and spruce green.
After yesterday’s snowstorm, the riverside forest looks its age. Most of its trees thrived here before statehood, some when the British and French battled for ownership of the Atlantic shores. We ski along the skirt of the forest’s high-necked gown of grandmother green, the white of day old snow, and pearl gray. When a shaft of sun powers through the marine layer, a small section of the forest glows with the rich colors of first light after a storm—a once stunning dowager reclaiming her beauty with a young woman’s smile.
In a hiatus between rainsqualls, Aki and I cobble together an outing along Mendenhall Lake. Fall has finally buried the summer that recently lingered along the lakeshore. Gray, not falling leaf yellow is the color of the day. We’d find winter’s snow by climbing halfway up Mt. McGinnis.
While we walk along the paved access road to the West Glacier Trail, just past where a pothole reflects the top of Mt. McGinnis, Aki breaks after a deer mouse. In seconds she has it in her mouth but drops it as soon as asked. The little mouse trots away, apparently unharmed. Aki has chased squirrels but stopped, nose down, tail up and wagging, when one turned to face her on the trail. She used the same tactics to get a porcupine to play and never received a punishing quill. I wonder why she let loose the wild poodle on this little mouse.
Black bears and porcupines are common yard pests on Chicken Ridge but Aki has never had a chance to bark at a deer walking past the house. I saw at least one deer each day of my visit to Montana wheat country.
A fine-boned whitetail doe spied on my sister and I while we wandered the ruins of an old brick factory, now pottery center, near Helena. I biked past a grazing mule deer and her sister near Missoula. On our last evening at the family ranch near Geraldine, we finally saw the little doe that had broken trails through the ranch’s shelter belt of Russian olives and other draught resistant plants.
The Montana prairie, so yielding to a wide sky, provides a good retreat place for rain forest dwellers but you have to dress in layers. It can rain hard or burn you during a heat wave.
In August, after harvest time, it’s all monochrome, stiff stubble. But last week we had sunny, warm days spiced up with afternoon thunderstorms. The still green wheat pushed to harvest height and the leaders of a tribe of prong horn antelope shepherded their young across the summer fallow.
In Fort Benton the old cottonwood trees along the Missouri River released down that floated across the red brick facade of the Grand Union Hotel, then gathered into drifts when the wind dropped. We saw deer there and along the two lane roads that climbed from the river to rolling wheat lands that appear to break like surf around Square and Round Buttes.
A porcupine scurried along the road as we drove away from the ranch our last day. I expected him to rise up and ask for a ride to Juneau, where the water rich plants in our yard would offer him a welcome break from the August drought to come.
After packing the bicycle panniers for a seven day ride, I drive Aki out to North Douglas Island for a walk through the old growth forest. We are still rich in warm sunshine. It’s the middle of the day so open areas like beaches and meadows have all detail washed away by bright light. Not so in the forest where sun penetrates to illuminate hidden spider webs in sparkling light, turns the thorny devil club leaves into translucent green plates.
Warmth weather following a few wet days had triggered an eruption of fungus growth in the forest. My favorite are the orange waves of Chicken of the Woods (Polyporus) that just formed on broken tree fragments. Aki peed on this one, which is acceptable only if seen as a mark of respect. I never sure with dogs.
Almost 100 years ago my Irish grandfather had this farmhouse built on land he transformed from cattle range to wheat fields. While he plowed behind a brace of strong horses, an itinerant carpenter fashioned the basement then raised the walls. As grandfather tilled under weeds in the summer fallow, the carpenter affixed a roof and installed the big dormer window through which his grandson enjoys the view of Square Butte across fields of rising winter wheat. By harvest the four Greece inspired porch pillars stood, shinning with newly applied white paint, to tell all who ride by that our family’s escape from poverty is complete.
This Spring brought a blessing of rain, hard on the old house but a gift for the wheat, how green and tall in the fields surrounding the farm stead. A Meadow Lark on one of the pasture fence posts constantly repeats a lovely 6 note song, broken occasionally by the disharmony of a male pheasant, the more welcome music of curlews. I watch a small herd of Pronghorn Antelopes move cautiously from a stubble field toward a wheat fields across the road. Beyond the pronghorns, Square Butte rises above the fertile, flat bench, a giant’s cowboy hat with crown smashed down.
Later we wait for the sun to set, battling mosquitos–Montana’s creatures of the night. This being summer the sun lingers above the horizon then paints the clouds and vapor trails in pastels while falling off the Square Butte Bench.