The sun has shone on Juneau since we woke up this morning. Knowing the temperature would climb into the high 40’s later in the morning. I delayed leaving with Aki for a morning walk. At 11 am I attached a collar around the little poodle-mix’s neck and sat on the steps to pull on my mountain boots. The sun warmed my face and baseball cap. Then, it disappeared behind a wall of clouds.
Hoping for the sun’s return we drove over to the Gastineau Meadow trailhead and parked. The sun had relit Mt. Juneau and the other peaks on the mainland side of Gastineau Channel. But all of Douglas Island was clouded over. Aki didn’t care. She liked to scout for scent in sun or shade. I plowed up the hill to the meadow, hoping for the clouds to part. When that didn’t happen, I tried to enjoy the soften beauty of the meadow trees. I was almost convinced when the clouds drifted off, allowing the dog and I to be warmed by the sun.
Aki is in a sulk. Whether tired from yesterday’s forest hike or just disinterested in another walk in the rain, the little dog drags behind as I try to hurry up Basin Road. I want to reach the Perseverance Trail before the mountain goats move too far up the flanks of Mt. Juneau. Each spring morning they work their way up the mountain side so they can be far away by the time most dog walkers start up the trail. We should be early enough to spot them fairly close to the trail.
I also hope to see two yearly bear cubs that were playing in an avalanche runout two days ago. Close to fully grown, the cubs spent the afternoon climbing up a snow field and sliding down on their rear ends. Apparently not interested in bears or goats, Aki is content to sniff every inch of the road. After an extensive examination, she throws me one of her significant looks. It could mean that she is tired and bored and I am a fool to be out here in the rain to early in the day for encounters with other dogs. I suspect she is trying to tell me that a bear waddling down the road last night and she has no interest in meeting it today.
On days like this, when the sky looks like dirty sheep’s wool and there is no wind to create drama, my mind wanders. I forget for moments to monitor Aki. There is little to endanger the poodle on this trail to Nugget Falls. When she finishes her most recent exploration, she will catch up.
Even though fuzzy catkins decorate bare willow branches, it doesn’t feel like spring. There is no sign that bears have stirred from their winter dens. No wolf tracks mark the remaining snow. No eagles bicker in the nearby spruce trees. Only the falls, now unfrozen, makes any sound.
Across the lake Mendenhall Glacier snakes down through rocky cliffs. We walk toward the falls in gray light until the sun breaks through the marine layer to give the dog and I crisp shadows. It forms faint rainbow prisms on the falls for a second and then disappears. High above the glacier a large mountain goat rests on a ledge. It appears to be looking at Aki and I rather than the glacier or the shafts of light glistening the lake ice. It appears to be in a philosophical mood.
Aki rarely gets that look on her face—big eyes, pulled back ears and lips—the one I get after smelling something just dead. We had been cruising down the Basin Road trestle bridge. She had just finished a game of tag with two Labradors. I was excited after watching mountain goats foraging on the lower slopes of Mt. Juneau. We were both pleased to have snuck in a hike up the Perseverance Trail before an expected windstorm. It will bring 75 mile-an-hour gusts, turning the Gold Creek valley into a place where exposed flesh will freeze in thirty minutes.
After throwing on the brakes and looking horrified, Aki dropped onto the surface of the trestle bridge and moved backwards, one paw at a time. Then she stood normally, except for her eyes. They continued to stare at the horrifying spot. When she finally agreed to move, she walked as far away from the spot as she could without rubbing the bridge railing.
I remembered the time Aki and I had stumbled on a crowd of mountain goats under this very portion of the trestle. It was sunrise. We were trying to get in a walk before the wind rose with the sun. A sixty-mile-an-hour slammed us when we were only fifty feet from the house. We had to retreat to a more protected trail that ran along the bottom of the Gold Creek Valley. Just before we crossed the creek, Aki barked. Above us, a dozen mountain goats huddled together beneath the trestle.
Aki and I are heading up Basin Road on this soft and sunny morning. As we left home, Rufus hummingbirds worked our neighbor’s feeder. Other neighborhood birds—dark eyed juncos, robins, warblers, and the rest of the songbird gang—ate and sang. It’s a morning that can make you believe that the sun will always shine, birds never stop mating and singing, and the cottonwood leaves will never lose their translucent luster.
A realist, the little dog knows what is coming for us from across the Pacific Ocean. Another rainstorm will be here in a few days, washing away interesting scents and mudding the trail. While I am content to dawdle, Aki carefully catalogues message left her by other dogs.
On the southern slope of Mt. Juneau, mountain goats are making the most of the weather, chomping down succulent new growth of the tough trees and scrubs clinging to the steep hillside. Like migrant workers following the harvest, the goats will move higher and higher up the mountain until spring reaches the summit.
A group of gowned men and women stand two by two in a line. I’m at the end. Outside our waiting room comes the sound of deer hide drums and chanting in Tlingit. Members of the Auk Kwan Tribe are drumming us into the auditorium with their welcoming song. In an hour or two I will be a graduate of the UAA writer’s school.
Aki isn’t here but she had a good walk earlier up the Perseverance Trail. It was dry but overcast for our walk. White mountain goats gorged themselves on new growth on the flanks of Mt. Juneau. Alders and cottonwood trees along Gold Creek were yellow-green with new growth. For the first time this year, it felt like spring.
Chief Kowee of the Auk Kwan once lead Joe Juneau and Richard Harris up the creek in a search that would lead to the discovery of a rich vein of gold. Someone named our town after Mr. Juneau. But most public events in our town still begin with a thank you to the Auk Kwan people, usually in Tlingit, to recognize them as the traditional owners and caretakers of the land upon which we live.
We process into the auditorium and take our seats. As the last drum beat fades, the college chancellor opens the proceedings by introducing himself in Tlingit and then formally thanking the Auk Kwan for their permission to proceed. I should do that now. Gunalchéesh Gunalchéesh hó hó Auk Kwan people and my writing school mentors.
Aki and I walk the shore of Mendenhall Lake to Nugget Falls. We seem to have the place to ourselves. Two days ago, when it was all blue skies and sunshine, half of Juneau might have been here, skiing or hiking on the trail or on the lake. Even on a normal weekday, we would be sharing this popular trail with other dog walkers. But today is the first cloudy day we’ve had after a long string of blue-sky one. People must be recovering from sun stimulus syndrome.
Nugget Falls roars its way down to the lake under a bumpy coating of ultramarine colored ice. The places where concentrated current is keeping the falls ice free are fringed with leaf-shaped formations of ice crystals. All this bores my little dog. She follows close at my heals, trying to make eye contact. While I enjoy the solitude of empty spaces, the little dog prefers a crowd.
She is happy when we start back to the car. I don’t know why I turn around but I do. There, on s snow-covered section of glaciated rock, stands a large mountain goat. He looks directly at Aki and me for a minute, then slowing turns away his head. A minute later, he moves slowly away.
In a gray interlude between yesterday’s sunshine and today’s predicted rain, Aki and I sneak in a visit to the Last Chance Basin. The trail we use suffered from the effects of Typhoon Lan. Thick tracks of fresh mud line both sides of the trail. At one point we have to climb up and over a ten-foot high hill of rock and mud washed down the side of Mt. Juneau during the typhoon.
As if we are the only folks in Juneau that didn’t get the memo, Aki and are alone on the normally popular trail. Even the animals seemed to have abandoned it. No squirrels chatter at the little dog. No birds flit between the yellowing thimbleberry brush. There are the cloven tracks of a mountain goat that had recently struggled through a muddy stretch. But Aki’s lack of interest confirms my suspicion that the goat is long gone.
I work hard to dig out some beauty on this flat-light day. But the fall color is fading and the normally red high bush cranberries are drifting to black husks. A white eruption of plum agaric mushrooms does provide a pleasant surprise deep in a mossy wood.
When I look up from the field of pink pumpkins, I spot a mountain goat feeding on the Southern slope of Mt. Juneau. Later, at home, I will enlarge the photo I took of the goat and realize that it is starring down at Aki and me. We are doing a circuit through Downtown Juneau. Already I followed the little dog up the gentle Gastineau Avenue grade to where we could look down on the docks, now cruise ship free. Then we dropped to South Franklin Street with its shuttered tee shirt and jewelry shops.
A line of gulls lined the superstructure of the cruise ship docks, dozing in the sun. A handful of smokers had spaced themselves along the dock. Some stood alone looking without much interest at the Douglas Mountain Ridge. Two talked, heads almost touching, as steam rose from their take-away coffee cups. One man, dressed in the business casual shirt and slacks of our commercial classes, lit up a long, smooth Cuban cigar. In short, the goat had plenty to look at from its mountain perch. But it broke off feeding to study a little poodle-mix sniff among a field of pink pumpkins. I suppose it makes sense. The man who painted and planted the pumpkins must have hoped to draw attention to his little field.
Pearly-gray has replaced blue as the prominent color in Anchorage skies today. I ride away from the Inlet toward the Campbell Creek trail system, vowing to keep away from the salmon spawning stream because it draws brown bears this time of year. At first I ride against the flow of morning commuter traffic on Elmore and then swing into the woods. A single-track trail allows me to meander among white-trunked paper birch that might be hiding moose. If they do, none of the big, horse-like guys show themselves.
I take another trail that offers more open views and spot, a half-a-mile ahead, something that looks like a wobbly billboard. As I approach it resolves itself into a young male moose with tiny antlers covered in velvet. When I stop, he stares for a second and walks elegantly toward the woods. I will have to pass him if I continue down the trail. I’ll see how it goes. Remounting, I ride closer, which causes him to freeze again. I remember my dad’s warning amount never approaching a deer or elk while they are in velvet and stop again. The moose resumes his walk toward the woods. When he reaches the forest edge, leaving a good chunk of land between him and the trail, I restart my ride.
Wow, my first moose of the year. I didn’t see any during last summer’ writer’s school residency.
The trail brings me back to Elmore where I watch a late-model Corvette speed by before crossing over to the bike lane. I briefly ponder whether a moose or sports car would cause me the most damage and am thankful to the government that funded this ride-alone bike path.
A mile down Elmore, a cow moose and two calves feed next to the road. Workers listening to talk radio or silently planning a pattern of attack at work wiz by the family scene. Honey, stop gorging yourself and look after your babies, I think. While the mom turns her butt to the road, her two calves dance along the verge. The aggressive one bucks like a bareback bronc and drives its sibling away from food and mom. In running away, shy one almost enters the rushing traffic stream. I’m close enough to see the startled look in the shy moose’s eyes when it freezes just before it would have been crushed by a northbound SUV. Unable to watch any more, I ride back to campus.