If Aki could choose a spirit animal, it would be the wolf. Today she powers ahead like one, ready to meet any danger or exploit any opportunity to feed. She doesn’t need wolf-like skills on this walk along the Auk Nu beach. We will hear an eagle but not see it. No crows or gulls loiter on the beach. No ducks float offshore.
If I could choose a spirit animal, it would be the great blue heron. Patient and quiet but able to move quickly when needed, the heron would make a good human. No heron has ever shown interest in me.
I’ve locked eyes many times with the song sparrow. Each time I’ve had the impression that the diminutive bird was taking my measure. This morning, I caught one bathing in a shallow stream, just where it curves away from a collection of flowering thimbleberry bushes. It bounced up and down in the water like an ousel and then plunged its head under the surface, filling the air around it with water drops. It stopped to give me a hard stare before splashing some more.
I am having a hard time keeping up with Aki this morning. She is powering ahead, as we walk along the edge of one of the Twin Lakes. It’s a major dog walking trail but the little poodle is the only canine in sight. She must be hoping to run in to a friend.
Much of what we see is either man made or landscaped. An expressway borders the east shores of the lakes. A well-used highway mimics the curves of the other shore. The lovely but stubborn knot weed once dominated the trail. But city gardeners, considering the plant invasive, have almost eradicated it.
The red blooms of hawkweed and white daisy flowers color the areas once dominated by knot weed. Hawkweed is on the local list of invasive species and the cartoon-like daisies probably should be on it. Finding either plant thriving on a wild beach fringe would upset me. But here, on this manufactured park space, they just look pretty.
The rain forest is enjoying a civilized summer. We get good soakings of rain followed by days of party cloudy skies. Gastineau Meadows is benefiting from the Goldilocks weather. The humble willows and alders lining the meadow trail exhibit greens and yellows so rich they could give Aki a stomach ache if she consumed colors.
I click my camera’s shutter button and click again, as if each click is a spoon of chocolate gelato heading toward my mouth. Normally Aki would object to the delays caused when I stop to take just another picture. But today, she shows great patience.
The little dog even joins me when I walk off the gravel trail to get an up close view of the meadow wildflowers. Charged with sun and rain, Labrador tea plant have pushed their blossom balls over a foot in the air. Chocolate lilies and British tobacco (buckbeans) do the same.
Aki is giving me her “Don’t Expect Me to Follow You!!!” look. She intends to finish the Rain Forest Trail loop and be home in time to mooch cheese from her other human. I want to walk down a beach still wet from the retreating tide. We will see more eagles than dogs, little dog, but I’m feeling selfish.
The dawn broke clear and the sun is still low enough in the sky to bathe the ocean in intense light. Bald eagles come and go from their spruce roosts, making sorties over Lynn Canal. Most return with empty talons. Each time an eagle returns to its roost, at least one crow drops onto a nearby limb to harass it. None of the eagles show the least interest in Aki.
The poodle-mix follows closely behind me when we approach False Outer Point. A scattering of crows leave the beachside forest and land on rocks recently revealed by the ebbing tide. One of the black, crow-sized birds has an orange beak. It’s an oyster catcher. I haven’t seen one this year. Even though it is as noticeable on its sun-soaked beach rock as a flashing traffic barrier, the oyster catcher freezes in place as if camouflaged.
Nothing startles the oyster catcher into flight, not a salmon leaping just offshore, the growl of a Steller seal lion, the shadow of a cruising eagle, or two belted kingfishers engaged in aerial combat.
I am rushing to be first today on the Outer Point Trail. It has become crowded later in the day since the pandemic hit the rainforest. This morning I want to share it only with Aki. Telling myself that we soon be at the trailhead, I stop near a boat ramp to allow Aki a chance to relieve herself.
A seal splashes nearby while the little dog does her business. At first, I doubt that it is a seal. Normally, they never make a sound, even when diving on a fast-moving salmon. Just before it crash dives again, I make out the sad dog face of a harbor seal. Every minute or so, the seal surfaces for a second and then makes a splashy dive. When it spots me on the shore, the seal returns to stealth mode and moves quietly towards the little dog and I.
I’ve seen seals drive salmon toward other seals by slapping flippers on the water’s surface. But this guy is working alone. Is he bored, or is he scaring herring into a right ball that will make them easier to eat? After the seal disappears, I hustle Aki into the car and drive to the trailhead parking lot, which is empty. I rush to the pond but find no ducks or geese sheltering the in the reeds. The beach, when we reach it is empty. All the fish ducks must be working the waters of out the outer coast.
The panicked honking of Canada geese breaks morning silence. Coming from the direction of the beaver pond, a wedge of geese skim over the beach and fly toward the Chilkat Mountains on the opposite side of Lynn Canal. I wish that Aki and I had lingered at the pond long enough to have spotted the geese and witnesses the attack that drove them into the air.
Aki and I are racing through the Troll Woods, pursued by mosquitos. Six or eight of the pests buzz around the little dog’s face each time she stops to sniff or pee. She shows no sign of being bit. I wish I could say the same. I have a rosary of bites across my forehead. It’s not surprising, then, that we have the woods almost to ourselves.
The place is full of birds. Robins dare Aki to chase her. She is no mood for the game today. Song birds belt out their nesting tunes in the canopy. Most are hidden in the leaves. But a winter wren settles on an exposed branch and belts out its signature song.
We leave the gravel paths and follow trails in the mossy floor that were pioneered by beavers. They are night workers so none appear outside their log-covered dens. But evidence of their presence is everywhere. Sticks stripped of their bark float in the lakes. Similarly denuded cottonwood tree trucks lie on the forest floor. We even find a wood pile of foot-long logs that were cut up by the beaver’s sharp front teeth, not a saw. I wonder if the beavers are preparing wood for a mid-summer bon fire.
Aki is only a tiny red dot on a gravel road. I’m two hundred meters above her on a bog-covered hillside. I’m heading toward Cropley Lake. Aki is using her mental superpowers to force me off the mountain. It is not going to work today, little dog. I am not going to turn around, not on this sunny day. In less than a minute, Aki joins me. She doesn’t look happy, just determined.
I know Aki will change her attitude when we reach the snow. But first we must climb up a stony stream to a false summit. From there the grade lessens but the trail conditions deteriorate. The little dog and I make our own trail across a meadow just awakening after winter. I stop once to fill my hand with bog cranberries that have wintered under the snow. When I offer Aki some of the berries, she nuzzles then out my palm like a hungry horse.
The little dog trots onto a snow field, which offers an easy way to summit a little hill. While she paws and plays in the snow, I continue up hill, following a line of bear tracks to the summit. Below, the still-frozen lake fills a little mountain basin.
Aki takes charge on the hike back to the car. She finds a gentle slope that would lead back to the rain forest. But to continue, we would have to cross Fish Creek. I worry that Aki would be swept away if she fell into the swollen creek. We back track and find a safe place to cross the stream and take a surer, if longer, route to the car.
No reading person could ignore the sign—a black silhouette of a bear walking across a square of yellow cardboard. Black block letters warn that we are entering bear country. Aki takes no notice. I also try to ignore the warning. We saw no bear sign on the beach. High water levels on the lake forced us off the beach and onto a trail that led into the Mendenhall Campground, a place with signs and federal officers to enforce the rules.
The little dog and I walk down the road that links all the campsites, stopping to watch a mallard hen and her chicks splash around a small pond lined with flowering British tobacco plants. All winter dogs have left pee mail messages along the road. Aki does her best to catch up. She runs free until we reach a bulletin board with another bear warning sign and a poster demanding that all dogs be kept on a six foot long leash. “It’s the Law.”
The normally law abiding Aki submits the leash. It does little to limit her actions. She has the ability to turn herself into a 50 pound rock when she wants to stop and sniff. I can’t shift her once she has exercised this superpower.
We rain forest dwellers take special care with our roofs. Under a good metal roof, you can fall asleep to the sounds of rain drops. Wearing good rain gear allows you to enjoy the sound of heavy rain drumming on broad-leafed plants, like devil’s club and skunk cabbage. This morning the rain is beating a comforting tattoo on the plants that lines the Rainforest Trail.
Aki is taking more than her usual amount of time reading her pee mail. Maybe she is worried that the rain will wash the messages away. I don’t mind. I use the extra time to watch water drops fattening at the end of buttercups and huckleberry blossoms.
We pass two young women on our way to the beach. One is wearing shorts and sandals, the other light canvas shoes. Rain has soaked their bare heads and limbs. One bends down to pet Aki. The other clutches beach greens in her hands. You can tell that both were born in the rain.
We are lost. Well, at least I am. Aki might know exactly where we are but she won’t share. It happens each time we try to find this meadow trail. To reach it, we must pass through a thicket of alders and shore pines. Deer paths crisscross each other in the tree tangle. Only one delivers you to a trail that cuts across the meadow to a small, rocky rise.
Passing through the thicket is like being spun while blindfolded at the beginning of pin the tail on the donkey. When the spinning stops, you have no idea of where you stand in regards to your goal. For Aki and I, our goal is the cross meadow trail. After emerging from the thicket, I have no idea of how to find it.
The little dog and I wander over an unfamiliar section of the meadow. It gives like a sponge. When Aki tries to find more stable ground, she ends up having to splash through a pond covered with floating moss. After that, she takes charge. Following her powerful nose, she starts off in a direction that I would never take. Every few meters, she looks over her shoulder to make sure I am following her.
Relieved to have some direction, I follow her lead. In a few minutes we reach the good trail and follow it to the rocky rise. After a brief rest, Aki leads me off the rise and down the meadow trail. When she veers onto a faint deer trail, I follow to the end, where a deer had died. Time has reduced the carcass to fur and bones. Aki reluctantly agrees to follow me back to the main trail. Believing, probably falsely, that the balance of power in our relationship has shifted back to me, I lead the little dog back to portal thicket.