Summer is late to come on in this part of the rain forest. We are only 30 miles as the raven flies north of home, where the ferns long ago unfurled and blue berry bushes are already setting fruit. Here, along the Eagle River, tightly wrapped scrolls still top the bracken-like ferns. Wild cucumber plants have yet to flower.
Aki leads me through an old growth spruce forest to a wooden bridge that crosses a swollen slough. In a month or so, the slough water will churn with spawning salmon. If we visit then, we will have to take care not to startle a fishing bear. Today all we have to worry about is slipping on the rain-slick boards that provide the only trail across a swampy meadow.
Near the end of the meadow, sprays of elderberry and service berry plant form a low canopy over the trail. A days’ worth of rain clings the green leaves and white flowers of both bushes. The little poodle-mix passes under the obstruction without disturbing a drop. Aki passing beneath the arbor without dislodging a drop. It all falls on me when I stoop to pass through.
After shaking off water like a wet Aki, I follow her back to the car, hurrying past shooting stars, buttercups, wild rhododendrons, Canada geese, and a red breasted sap sucker very intent on its work.
While holding Aki, I move a couple of meters off the Marriott Trail and stand in shallow marsh water. Seconds before we were walking on a dry gravel trail that cuts like a pencil line across a swampy meadow. A minute ago, I left the trail to photograph a clump of wild rhododendrons, returning to see a family of four approached us down the narrow trail.
The parents wanted to move quickly past the little dog and I. But their four-year-old son stopped when he saw Aki. He stood like a statue with right hand pointed at the poodle-mix, grin affixed to his face. Nothing, not his parents’ orders or my pleas moved the little guy to action. The mosquitoes did. He finally trotted off toward his parents as the biting bugs swarmed around the little dog and I.
Wanting to avoid another traffic jam, we move into the woods on a trail that winds through a series of forest clear cuts. Each as stark as a battlefield. Ferns and blueberry bushes flourished in the oldest clear cut. Thin trunks of spruce trees rise above the green flour to support a thinning canopy. But nothing grows on the ground of the youngest cut, which was logged in 1962.
Before passing through the first clear cut, we meet a Tlingit man sitting beside a small smudge fire. He looks happy, if a little disappointed in the fire, which doesn’t produce enough smoke to the keep the mosquitos away. Still. he has found himself a quiet island in a forest surrounded by low income housing, the state prison, and our town dump.
The trail takes us down a steep hillside to an unlogged creek valley. Spruce trees older than America grow along the stream. I once found the carcass of a bald eagle in this almost-untouched place.
Aki has no problem climbing out of the old growth valley. We circle back to Switzer Creek and walk along it toward the car. On the last bridge before the trailhead we meet an old man wearing a painter’s billed cap. His tired-looking mountain bike leans against a spruce tree. He tells us that he comes here every day for the squirrels. “They’re back after months of being gone,” he says and them shares a crooked-tooth smile. I imagine him riding his old bike here every day that ice didn’t make the trail impassible just to check on the squirrels. He came to visit them when red-bodied salmon swirled beneath the bridge, and when trout flashed through the creek waters after salmon smolt. He came when rain muddied the trail or wind threatened to knock him from his bike. All for squirrels.
It’s only eight in the morning but already the sun has defused the glacier’s beauty. I still race out to the mouth of Fish Creek, hurrying past a brace of mergansers on the pond and a heron feeding at the edge of a meadow. There is still a chance that I will catch the reflection of the glacier and surrounding peaks in the still waters of Fritz Cove before the wind starts working against the tide.
Aki tries to slow me down. She hangs back to investigate every smell. When I can no longer see her, I stop and wait, investigating the small things that I would otherwise rush past: backlit lupine, the head of a crow moving above the blades of newly green grass, a mosquito perched on a still-intact globe of dandelion seeds.
Crows announce my progress to the mouth with harsh calls. Across the creek, one of the resident bald eagles calls back. A slight breeze tosses about Aki’s fur when we reach the creek mouth. The little dog wades into the brackish water and sips. Behind her, a rising wind turns the glacier’s reflection into an Impressionist painting.
This morning, Gastineau Meadow seems more city park than a place where wolves run down deer. In part it’s the sun flooding the place with warmth and light, which makes me want to lie down on the meadow and watch the movement of clouds. It’s also today’s unusual assortment of trail users. Usually, Aki and I have the place to ourselves. On busy days we might pass one or two dog walkers.
I knew things were going to be different today day when we were passed by a man keeping his child on a tether followed by a woman and a man who could barely maintain control over his German Shepard dog. The man used the dog’s leash to keep its front legs off the ground.
Two moms with small children and a dog named Indiana Jones came next. Indy broke away from his owner and charged down the trail at Aki. But Indy’s heart was only full of love so Aki enjoyed the interaction.
On the way back to the car we passed a young couple standing on opposite sides of the wide trail. The woman sorted through clothes in a duffle bag. The man used his cell phone to register for the $1200 stimulus payment the federal government is sending out to Americans as the woman shouted out advice. They reminded me of the two Steller’s jays that we saw earlier calling to each other from the branches of meadow pines.
Aki and I drove through a rain storm to reach this mountain meadow. The rain stopped as we pulled up at the empty trailhead parking lot. At least it would be dry and we wouldn’t have to share the views with other dog walkers.
A shaft of sun powers through the clouds, illuminating Aki as she marks a spot with pee. The shaft seems to erode the cloud, opening up a hole large enough for blue sky to show through. In a few seconds the sun and blue sky disappear. It’s going to be a peak-a-boo day, one for sudden sucker holes that close as quickly as they open.
The sun flashes on and off during the rest of the walk down through meadows to the Fish Creek Bridge. Sometimes it targets yellow skunk cabbage flowers beaded by the rain. Others shafts enrich the green flanks of a north-facing mountain ridge. Once the sun backlit the leaves of a blueberry patch, still showing autumn yellows, reds, and oranges. Without the help of the sun I may not have enjoyed the berry plants flash of fall beauty. Within a week they will transition to summer green.
The last time Aki and I circled Moose Lake, yellows and browns dominated. This morning, all is green. The new leaves display a crayon box worth of green colors. The trail is perfumed by balm of Gilead (cottonwood) sap.
We take a back trail through the troll woods and stop at a break in the trees to admire the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in the lake. It would be perfect if not for the expanding rings made by feeding trout.
Before the trees colonized the moraine, a person tired of owning a 1930’s era sedan abandoned it here. Alders started to pioneer the moraine gravel. Their fallen leaves mulched into soil. Over the years it became rich enough to support the growth of cottonwood trees and spruce. The whole time the old sedan had rusted until now it is only an outline of its original self. But there is enough of its bulbous fender left to provide Aki shelter from the rain.
The pine siskins have spread out over the wetlands. It must be their nesting time. If you hear bird song now, it is either a siskin or the more vocally skillful American robin. The robins hop through the low grass, always trying to seduce you into following them away for their nest. It makes them seem common and uninteresting until you spot one of the males, with a red breast posing in front of butter cup flowers.
I’ve a soft spot in my heart for the pine siskins, the way they sing while swaying in the top of a shaft of impossibly thin dried grass. Since I am confessing, I also have a thin for sandpipers, the way they stand in the shallows on one leg. Are they resting the other one or just showing off?
The trail is crowded today with dog walkers. This pleases Aki, who really enjoys meets and greets. While she and another dog exchange sniffs, we owners walk slowly our of sneezing range of each other. We are practicing social distance, like the birds who fly off if a dog or human gets too close. A belted king fisher buzzes over our heads and hovers over the river while screaming our its discordant call. I will it into one of its patent cannonball plunges. But rather dive in the water, it flies across the river looking for more accessible prey.