Knowing that this year’s crop of dog salmon should already be heading up the Mendenhall River to spawn, I drive Aki out to a trail that leads to the river’s mouth. Usually we hear eagle and raven squabbles just after getting out of the car. This morning only robins and sparrows break the silence. The trail winds along a forested hillside, requiring the little dog and I to maneuver around and over exposed spruce roots. At first I worry that the Aki might reinjure her leg jumping over something. But she does fine.
The beach, when we reach it, is as quiet as the woods. No salmon fin in eddies. No ducks or geese gossip on the shore. Here and there beach rocks are decorated with yellow flower petals. We will find these little dots of yellow on over a kilometer stretch of beach. A belted kingfisher scolds us and then lands on a rock near the river. Then we hear the first eagle. It screams from inside a tangle of spruce limbs. Other eagles will call out as we progress down the beach. But will only see one of them.
On the drive back home, I stop at the hatchery where dog salmon wait to swim up a fish ladder to their death. Over a dozen bald eagles watch the salmon from perches in tree tops, pilings, and the top of the Juneau Empire building. Maybe made confident by their number, the eagles don’t seem bothered by our presence. Unlike their hard scrabble Mendenhall River cousins, these urban birds look large and in charge.
Clouds took the sun away yesterday. But they won’t deliver the rain until tomorrow. Without rain gear, Aki and I are searching a narrow muskeg meadow for berries. This is a scouting, not a harvesting mission. Although I manage to find a handful of ripe berries to feed the little dog.
Birds, as obvious as mosquitos, flit and fly through the surrounding bushes. A dark-eyed junko and two juvenile robins land on the trail itself. The fly off when we approach to nearby trees. Some of the birds must be eating blues berries. The trail boards are spotted with blue-covered scat.
The trail leads to a beach, which is as empty as the sky is gray. Something starts slapping the water. When the slapping stops, a harbor seal swims past. It must be herding silver salmon heading toward the mouth of their spawning stream. Later we will cross the stream and spot a swirl in the water caused by a salmon’s dorsal fin. At one salmon escape the hunting seals.
We woke this morning to blue skies. Sunshine reflecting off its surface made it difficult to look down Gastineau Channel. The weather service warned that the clouds would return in two hours. Aki had already had her breakfast so I quickly finished my coffee and we headed for the car. We should just have enough time to hike to the upper Hilda Meadows before the sun disappears.
Nagoon berry blossoms and dwarf fireweed color portions of the lower meadow magenta. Other spots are yellow with buttercups or just a lush, mid-summer green. Aki helps herself to water when the opportunity arises, wading in chest deep to soak her gray curls. I stop worrying about her overheating.
The steep trail brings us quickly to the upper meadows on the steep. I start photographing small fields of bog laurel and shooting stars before the sun disappears. As Aki lingers in a stream of snow melt, I look for yellow avens or white lady tresses orchids. But the place is dominated by the magenta-colored bog laurels.
In years past, Aki has hesitated to follow me onto the meadows. On those trips my boots made a sucking sound each time I lifted one from the boggy ground. Today my boots are quiet and she just trots along. I assume this is because the meadow has dried out. Many of the tiny bog ponds have been reduced to mud. This makes no sense because last month we experienced a near amount of rain. Has the fabric beneath the meadow has lost its ability to keep the water from draining down to bedrock?
If that baby raven would quiet down we might be able to hear the sparrows and robins. Recently fledged from its nest in the Troll Woods, the raven sits in a cottonwood tree, demanding that his parents bring him food. The parents roost in another cottonwood tree, acting like they don’t know their child.
On the other side of the moraine, another raven prince squawks for service from its parents. Soon, hunger will force the newly launched to get their own food. I and the raven parents can’t wait for that day.
Except for the ravens and a bear sow and cub, the moraine seems empty. After leaving the trailhead parking lot, the little dog and I haven’t seen another human or dog. People must be spending this holiday weekend elsewhere—maybe at home or the beach.
On our return to the car, we approach a human family—mom, dad, two toddlers. The trail’s wide here so we can easily maintain two meter social distance. The little family forms a line with their towhead daughter in front. The kids and mom wave like the Queen on Coronation Day. The dad brings up the rear. Instead of a hand, he waves a tiny American flag. That, little day, is what a parade looks like in the time of Covid 19.
Aki and I are driving north to the end of the Juneau highway system. It’s a holiday weekend so the side of the road is lined with parked cars at each beach. I hadn’t intended on driving far. But each trailhead parking lot is jammed. Thirty-eight miles out, we reach the Cowee Meadows trailhead. Even though the trail leads to three forest service cabins, there are only two cars in the parking area.
After pulling on my mosquito repelling shirt, I lead Aki onto the boardwalk trail. Not wanting to overstress her injured leg, I tell myself that we will only walk a mile or so, to where the trail swings out of the forest and onto a flower-covered meadow. The little dog seems fine when we reach the meadow so I continue on, hoping to reach the section dominated by will iris. While there, I think about the marmots.
Just a mile more and we will reach the mouth of Cowee Creek where a colony of marmots hang out. Looking like oversized Guinea pigs, the marmots stand as rigid as bowling pins on the tops of glacier erratics (boulders) to watch us pass.
No clouds block the sun and its calm. The little dog starts to pant. I divert over to a small stream so she can help herself to water. She wades in chest deep, letting the stream cool her down. I forgot to bring a water bottle and could use a drink. But the marmot village is only a kilometer away.
A shrill warning whistle lets us know the marmots are near. But they don’t show themselves. I search each time we hear another whistle, but see nothing but wild flowers and sparrows trying to draw us away from their nests.
On the return trip to the car, I carry Aki over awkward sections of the trail. She acts surprised at first but then stops and waits to be picked up each time the trail is complicated by exposed tree roots and mud.
Aki is a hot dog. Not the kind you eat, the kind that pants to keep from overheating. The temperature would be considered moderate in places beneath the 49th parallel. But it is making us miserable. Hoping to find cooler temperatures on North Douglas Island, we drive out to the Rainforest Trail.
A strong north wind rattles the car as we approach the trailhead. It raises three foot surf that slams the beach at False Outer Point. The waves release salt that flavors the air, mixing with the odor of spruce resin.
The wind can’t reach deep into the forest, which swarms with mosquitoes. They seemed too confused to bite. Closer to the beach, the strong breeze bends devil’s club and blue berry plants. On the beach, Aki keeps plants and driftwood between her and the wind. I wish I had brought a warmer shirt. The wind seems to have swept the beach clean of birds. The resident sparrows must be sheltering in the tall grass.
“Aki come back here.” The little dog ignores her person’s warning and continues charging the bear. It’s a little bear, born last year, just out on its own. The bear was sniffing around our wheelie bin when Aki charged. If we are going to see a bear in our neighborhood this time of year, it will be on garbage day. The little bear lopes over to our neighbor’s yard where it shelters behind a kayak. For a few seconds the poodle is well within the bear’s reach. With one swipe, the bear could cancel out Aki’s day, if not her life. But it just gives the poodle-mix a puzzled look and walks behind our neighbor’s house. Aki trots back to her people so we can drive out to the wetlands’ trail.
Wild iris, paintbrush, lupine, shooting stars, and buttercups provide little islands of color on the green grassy plain. If that weren’t proof that we are in high summer, the height of the grass would confirm it. The grass forms a thick jungle for Aki to explore. Her humans break trail for her so she has plenty of energy when we return to a well-used gravel trail.
A Savannah sparrow moves in a parallel course while we walk toward the Mendenhall River. It flits ahead a few meters and then lands on a stem of grass, driftwood log, or lupine, holding station until it can confirm our heading. Then it launches itself down the trail to its next observation post. Even though it gives me fierce looks, I can’t imagine what the sparrow would do if I left the path. Maybe it’s a one-bird honor guard, rather than a cop ready to call in back up if the poodle gets out of hand.
The waters of Sheep Creek look empty this morning. In a week or two, pink or chum salmon fight here for spawning space. Eagles and gulls will watch from the beach or while perched in nearby trees. Aki won’t be able to hear me over the sounds of gull shrieks. Now she can hear a whisper.
At the edge of the creek delta, fishermen stand where we have sometimes seen herons. They try to catch king salmon moving up Gastineau Channel to the hatchery. But the main pulse of kings is already queuing up at the foot of the hatchery fish ladder.
The little dog and I walk down the beach along a dune covered with tall, thick grass. Except for patches of yellow paintbrush flowers, the scene is green. Just offshore the fishing boat “Annihilator” floats at anchor. It’s a surprise that the manager of our fisheries so they will be sustainable, would allow an annihilator anyway near the fish.
Aki and I have just walked into the rain forest. I swear that my blood pressure dropped the instant we stepped under the canopy. Maybe it’s the muted light or the sound of a downy woodpecker tapping on a spruce trunk. It might be the lush green colors that dominate this time of year. Aki does her business and stares up at me, like she is considering calling an ambulance if I don’t come out of my trance.
After assuring her that all is if fine, she leads me down to the beaver pond and where the mallard family lurk in a blind of reeds. Later I’ll spot a rambunctious bird dog splashing into water near Shaman Island and assume that he did the same on the beaver pond.
Not wanting to contribute to the mallard hen’s stress, I follow Aki down the beach trail. A seal swims just offshore, hunting for silver salmon about to leave salt water for their spawning stream. Yesterday, I hunted salmon in Lynn Canal, boating a silver-bright chum salmon. Last night, while Aki chowed down a scrap of the salmon’s ski mixed with rice, her humans enjoyed what the seal sought.
It’s been more than a week since Aki strained a leg muscle. She shows no sign of soreness this morning. Keeping her leash in my pocket. I join the little dog on a gravel trail that crosses one of our mountain meadows. I slow my pace, like I had to when tethered to the poodle-mix.
Clouds hid the surrounding mountains when we started the walk. Now they lift to reveal peaks and ridges and let shafts of sunlight reach the meadow. This is a good wildflower meadow in a normal year. This one is exceptional. Magenta-colored shooting stars, bog laurel and rosemary for islands on the green muskeg. Yellow avens flowers surround the skeleton of a downed Douglas pine. Clusters of white Labrador tea blossoms line the trail.
Aki and I ignore each other, she mapping scents and me counting wildflowers. She ignores the robins dragging their skirts along the trail. But when something, maybe an ermine or mink slinks across the trail, she charges after it. Now I feel bad for not keeping her leashed. But she trots back, tail wagging, showing no signs of aggravating her injury.