It’s sunrise on Gastineau Meadow. There are no clouds to block the light so it illuminates the meadow’s frozen surface, hitting the golden grass at an oblique angle. In less than a minute I’m 30 meters in, camera clicking, looking for Aki. If the sunlight weren’t highlighting the fur on her raised ears I wouldn’t be able to spot the little dog. She is still on the gravel trail waiting for me to come to my senses.
She has been burned twice metaphorically by following me onto the meadow. Once she trotted after me in early fall and dropped chest-deep into meadow mire. The other time was after a winter storm when the little dog floundered in deep snow until I rescued her. Today, when I whistle, Aki runs to a spot halfway between the trail and me and stops, perhaps giving a chance to reconsider my rash decision. When I don’t she catches up and we both enjoy a meander over the rock-hard meadow muskeg.
The strong sunlight softens the images of the mountains it backlights, like Jumbo, Sheep, and Gastineau Peak. But the sun gives Mt. Juneau the position of pride like it is Hamlet reciting a soliloquy. Most of my early photos feature the mountain.
At the northern edge of the meadow I take a well-used animal trail that would allow a deer or wolf to view activity of the meadow without being seen. Aki follows close at my heals, like she does when nervous or uncertain. She calms down after we spot the fresh scat of a deer buck. The green-colored poop does not steam like it did when just dropped by the deer but it hasn’t been here long enough to earn a coating of frost.
Aki pulls ahead and tries to lead me toward a human trail we have used many times to drop off the meadow. But I want to follow animal paths marked by broken blades of grass and crushed moss. Aki doesn’t mind. Her tiny frame can slip between narrow openings between alders like a deer and slide under windfalls that I have to struggle over. She reaches the human trail while I am eating frozen blue berries in the middle of an alder thicket. The sun has awakened the local birds—a grumpy bluejay, industrious red-breasted sap sucker, and a cloud of black-capped chickadees that chit and chirp as they feed.
It’s 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Aki and I fast walk around the Fish Creek Pond. The little dog stops very briefly from time to time to check the pee mail. I slip off my right hand glove to photograph the moon reflected in the new pond ice. We are still a half-an-hour away from true sunrise but the Chilkat Mountains are already brightening from pink alpenglow to white.
If she took the time to listen, I’d tell Aki I was a little moonstruck this morning. Southeast Alaska’s stubborn marine layer of clouds seldom lets us see the moon. This morning, it hangs fairly low in sky, letting my camera frame it with mountains, tidelands or pond. I stop to search its surface for cheese, rabbits, or a man. But, I only see dark continents on a white sea of reflected light.
Aki and I have just reached a beach on the backside of Douglas Island. Across Stephens Passage, morning sunlight floods the beaches of Admiralty Island. We are still in shadow. A bald eagle flies over us and lands near its mate on a spruce tree. They greet each other in their complaining way. Just offshore a harbor seal works through a line of small surf. It’s round head slips above water once, twice, and then disappears. We won’t see it again.
A flew white clouds float above Admiralty but otherwise the sky is clear and blue. I scan the channel in hopes of spotting a whale but none spouts. Without sunlight to warm us, the little dog and I are starting to feel the cold. But, I can’t make myself leave the beach and the comforting sound of small surf hitting the rocks.
Frosted brush lines the trail back to the car. Unseen spiders have recently woven basket-shaped webs in the crotches of hemlock or willow twigs. The morning’s rising temperature is melting the frost that had settled on the net webbing during the night, leaving tiny drops of water to cling to the silk.
In half-an-hour, the sun will be high enough to reach the spider webs. It will make the little drops of water sparkle until they fall to the ground. But neither Aki nor I have the patience to wait.
This morning dense fog hides the Douglas Mountain ridge and Gastineau Channel from those of us on Chicken Ridge. I think of last night’s cloudless sky that offered the first views of stars for weeks. Aki, if a person and his little dog climb up that steep service road at the ski area, they might walk in sunshine above these clouds. Aki sighs, as if she knows that we will never reach sunshine on that road. But she trots to the front door when called.
At the ski area the motionless chairs of the lifts hang empty from their cable. Most of the chairs hide in the fog. No man or dog breaks out of the gloom to join us. The tear and rattle sound of a landslide reaches us from the flank of Mt. Troy. I feel like the first victim in a horror movie filmed in an abandoned amusement park.
It seems that Aki is always lagging behind me on the climb. But she is just reading the pee mail. I am heartened by the appearance of the sun’s glowing globe trying to break through the cloud that we walk through. I imagine Troy and Ben Stewart suddenly poking out of the ground fog as the marine layer yields to the blue sky. I think, for a moment, that I was foolish to leave my sunglasses at home. But I will never need them.
The fog has settled into gaps between the mountain spruce and pines. We will have to settle for what beauty it can provide as it.
Writer’s school is a noisy place. The necessary noise of craft being shared and stories told provides the sound track for each UAA MFA summer residency. But even beneficiaries of this cacophony such as myself need quiet time. That’s why I rode my bicycle this gray morning deep inside a birch forest. It would be winter quiet but for the distant commuter traffic mimicking a slow moving stream. I could stand here until it is time for the morning talk if not for the biting mosquitoes. Even they are considerate enough not to buzz.
It’s the last day of writer’s school in Skagway. Students and teachers, including Paul Theroux are in a White Pass narrow gauge railway carriage that rattles toward the Laughton Glacier trailhead. The conductor has stuffed all the writers into one carriage where the sound of thirty or forty conversations competes with the grumbles of the old carriage and the disembodied voice of a tour guide giving the railroad’s history.
Last night rain soaked the trailside forest but now we have to squint to the morning’s sunshine while disembarking. Conversations began on the train continue as teachers and students start up the trail, joined by a couple from Galway who decided to follow us to the glacier rather than continue on the train to it’s terminus at Fraiser, British Columbia.
I hang back, letting everyone pass, until all conversation is being drowned out by a glacial river in a hurry to reach saltwater. The river also blocks out all birdsong. If a raven is scolding me, I can’t hear it. The forest plants aren’t steaming in the sun. That time has passed. But fat raindrops still cling to plantain plants and dead-brown foliage of last year’s bracken glows.
After a mile the trail leaves the river and leads me up through wind-stunted spruce and cottonwood plants. Still alone, I follow it onto a flat valley formed by twin walls of naked moraine. Only tough plants grow here. Ahead the Laughton Glacier curves up into clouds that obscure a mountain ridge. The clouds also block my sun. Ahead one of the writers, in long skit and windblown hair, walks towards toward the glacier with the help of a tall trekking pole. She turns the scene into a black and white photo of a pilgrim approaching her ashram.
I’ll pass the pilgrim and climb onto the shrinking toe of the glacier. The sun will return. I will hold sharp edged rocks just being released from glacial ice that carried them from mountaintop to my feet. “Look at these rocks,” I will shout to a much younger writer wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. But magic will be in their history, not their appearance so she will probably thinks me weird. Higher up the toe, I will fall into a conversation about wolverines: whether the grumpy loners are magic or just thugs. “Magic” will become my favorite word for the day.
We can’t escape the wind and rain, even in this beachside forest. But the trees take most of the gale and protect us from sideways rain. As often happens, the adverse weather conditions discouraged other hikers and have apparently grounded the helicopters and other machines of Juneau’s tourism industry. So instead of airplane noise, we hear the surf-like roar of wind through the old growth canopy and hollow pops of raindrops hitting broadleaf devil’s club and skunk cabbage. In between gusts, raven’s clucks carry over the forest.
Approaching the beach during a break in the windstorm, I look forward to a chance to do some bird watching—maybe spot an oystercatcher or one of the belted king fishers diving on a fish. But the bay is empty of birds and even waves. Rather than disappointment, I feel peace—the calm that only an empty, quiet, wild place can deliver.