Aki is excited to walk with an old friend this morning. She doesn’t mind that he is wearing a pandemic mask. Not understanding the need for social distancing, the little dog tries to keep us close together as we walk through the rain forest to the sea. Her two charges talk loudly through their masks, catching each other up with happenings since our last walk. When we stop for a moment, the little dog can hear the sound of swollen streams and rain drops bouncing off of devil’s club leaves.
An eagle flies close overhead when we reach the beach. It cruises over to a little bay, circles and then drops with claws extended. After rising skyward with empty talons, it sets down on a rocky point, scattering a dozen gulls that had been lingering there. Eagles in groups of threes fly out to Shaman Island. Others find perches on recently exposed rocks. A raft of ducks fly between us and the island, over the head of two hunting seals. The salmon must be back.
Just after we reach Gastineau Meadow, a snowshoe hare breaks from a shelter in trailside alders. It gallops away from us down the trail and freezes. Aki must not see it. If she does, she doesn’t bother to react. After throwing us a quick glance, the hare leaps off the trail and out of sight.
I wonder again, whether the little dog’s eyes are failing. She will be 14 this November. But she was frisky enough last month to chase a bear down the street. She had no problem climbing with me to the meadow.
Aki refuses to leave the gravel trail when I do. But she has always preferred dry ground to wet muskeg. Some dogs might go on their walkabout when their masters give them this much freedom. Mine stands at attention on the trail at a spot where she can watch me watch water bugs skittering across the surface of a tiny pond. Her eyes tell me that she is ready to chase off any bear or wolf that places me in danger.
We are deep in the Troll Woods when Aki alerts, stiffening as she points her noise in the direction of recent motion. Then she barks. I stop berry picking and look where she is looking. Expecting a bear, I spot a gang of thrush, maybe ten of them, dive bombing blueberry bushes. The bushes bounce up and down as each bird flies away. They bounce again each time another thrush flies into them.
After thinning out the fruit on their targeted bush, thee birds fly over our heads and attack another one. I had suspected bears or people had plucked most of the bushes clean. But the bear poop we passed to get here was grass green, not berry blue. It must be the work of the tenacious thrush.
A short waterfall connects Peterson Lake with salt water. That makes the lake a salt chuck. This morning Aki and I watched dog salmon power their way up the waterfall’s cascades and into the chuck. Two eagles and a handful of crows watched as well. One of the eagles had just feasted on a salmon not quite up to the climb.
Later we move to where a stream enters the lake. Soon the salmon we watched in the waterfall will swim across the lake and up the stream to their spawning grounds. It will be a one way trip. There will be more eagles and corvids there, as well as wading black bears. We take a casual trail that leads down the stream and hopefully away from the bears.
We drop down onto a tidal meadow covered with six-foot-high grass. Neither Aki nor I can see over the grass but are able to follow a faint path that ends at a bear’s sleeping area. I would have taken another path if I had known where it would lead. The bears have crushed flat a section of meadow grass large enough for a small office. An eagle feather lays on one edge of the bear bed.
I should be worried that the bears will come back or that we may startled one of them when we walk further into the meadow. But Aki doesn’t act like she does when she smells bears. A half-a-dozen electric-blue dragon flies, called “darning needles” fly around the bear bed. Wouldn’t it be cool, little dog, if one of the darning needles landed on the eagle feather? As Aki gives me her, “you have got to be kidding stare” a darning needle alights on the feather just long enough for me to take its picture.
Aki is banned from the house. She isn’t being punished for a sin. All she did was lower herself into a muskeg mudhole on a very warm morning. She and I were hot, exposed on an open berry picking meadow. Our bodies had been generating heat by helping us bounce over the soggy surface of the meadow.
Before she sought relief in the mud, I tried to cool Aki off by feeding her cloudberries. I chose the overripe ones because they dissolved easily on her tongue.
Juneau is enjoying our annual mid-summer sun spell. The clouds broke early in the week, after dumping near-record levels of rain on us. The weather folks are threatening a return of rain tonight. I’d have welcomed a brief rain shower when the little dog and I were picking cloudberries. Aki’s glad that we still have clear skies. After trying to sneak into the house, she curled herself on a patch of sun-warmed bricks and fell asleep.
The rain stopped this morning but the forest is still soaked. The leaves of blue berry bushes glisten. They darken the fabric of my rain pants when I brush against them. We take a meandering forest trail to reach the berry patch.
These are not Aki’s favorite kind of adventures. She has to get her exercise on the walks in and out of the forest. For more than an hour she is reduced to guard duty, ready to chase away ravens, squirrels or bears. Every few minutes I let her nuzzle a few berries from my palm.
The bushes bordering the patch are weighed down with fruit. But those further in have been stripped clean. Recently, a bear dropped a huge, blue pile of scat. I turn around and head for another patch.
There is nothing special about the Troll Woods this morning, certainly not the Payne’s gray skies. Mushrooms have to provide the highlights now that the wildflowers have gone to seed. But I am still happy to walk on the soft ground between moss-covered trees.
I don’t need a mask on the moraine. We won’t see another Covid spreader until we return to the car. Aki patrols out ahead to make sure we don’t surprise a momma bear and her cubs. One does crash through the woods but it moves away, not toward us. The peace floating between the trees can be felt on the skin.
In a good, quiet mood, I follow the little dog to the shore of Crystal Lake, surprised by a clutch of mallards feeding a few feet away. They plunge their heads into the water until their rear ends point toward sky. Thick strands of grass encircle their beaks when they re-emerge.
Cloudberries struggle to grow in this Southern Alaskan meadow. When Aki’s other human and I lived on the Tundra in Western Alaska, the locals called named them, “salmonberries.” Harvested by Yup’ik families, salmonberries provided essential vitamins and nutrients all winter long. We pick them this morning, to enjoy their tundra flavors in our rain forest home.
Aki trots between his humans, stopping long enough for one of us to feed her before moving over to the other one. Sometimes, she harvests one herself. Yesterday, after eating lots of blueberries, her poop turned blue. Tonight, it may take on the yellow tundra colors of cloudberries.
This morning Aki heard rain splattering against the bedroom window as she sulked under the bed. From her hiding place, she watched me pull on rain pants and slip into a waterproof parka. She went limp as I fastened on her best rain wrap. Then, as if she was just testing my resolve, the poodle-mix did a downward-dog stretch, yawned, and beat me to the front door.
The forest was silent, except for the sound of rain drops plunking onto devil’s club leaves. The only birds not waiting out the storm were ducks. A mallard hen and her surviving chicks swam near the trail where it ran parallel to the beaver dam. They weren’t bothered by the sound of water pouring over the beaver’s dam.
Raindrops made normally dull things, like cow parsnip blossoms, sparkle. Other than the parsnips and a scattering of flowering sorel plants, the forest plants had already gone to seed. Yellow blooms of chicken and egg plants provided the only bright spots on the beach verge when we reached it. We could make out Shaman Island in the gloam, but nothing beyond it. There must be whales a little further out, but we wouldn’t be able to spot them until the weather cleared.
Aki and I pushed through heavy rain to this headland. I came for a chance to see whales or sea lions. The little dog is here out of loyalty. We are both soaked. Just off shore, the purse seiner Challenger is its net on a school of chum salmon.
The mechanical noise of the fishing boat makes it impossible to hear bird song or even eagle screams. It might have driven feeding humpback whales to divert to quieter waters. We won’t see whales or sea lions today. One harbor seal will cruise along the edge of the seine net as it closes on protentional prey.
The Challenger has a contract with the hatchery to recover chum salmon that started their lives in net pens and have spent the last two years in the North Pacific. Their eggs and milt will be used to start a new generation of chums. Because of adverse ocean conditions, fewer and fewer salmon are returning to the hatchery. For the same reason, the number of wild chums to reach their home streams is way down.
After watching the Challenger finish its set, now cold as well as wet, we head back into the forest as the power skiff of another seine boat begins to stretch out its net.