We are heading into the brown time that falls between fall color and snow. Aki, we have watched most of the leaves in this forest mature from spring buds to limp, drained things. The little dog, acting as if she didn’t hear me, slinks off to sniff a tree trunk. Poodle, I know it is ridiculous to mourn the leaves. She flashes me her “duh’ look.
Maybe because this has been such a good year for fall color, I am saddened by single leaves, now faded from red to pink, hanging from otherwise empty trees. If the time of snow and hard freezes holds off for a week or two more, we will have more color in the forest. Some of the low growing sorrels are still green while the leaves of their neighbors are mottled red and orange. But the wind has torn the yellow leaves off most of the cottonwoods and the alders are fading to brown.
Soon we will be reduced to earth tones except for the party colors of the harlequin ducks.
No rain falls on Aki as we leave the house. It will pound on her when we return. But we will stay dry while on the Sheep Creek Delta.
Less than a month ago the place was crazy loud. Eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls fought over the bodies of spawned out silver salmon. Newly arrived silvers splashed in the stream, digging spawning depressions in the gravel and muscling competitors out of the way. Aki would have liked all the commotion.
Things have calmed to winter quiet. I don’t see any eagles, but Aki still shelters near rocks while waiting for me. A mixed raft of mallards and green winged teals chase bait fish in a small tidal lake. Gulls rest next to the creek. Down channel, clouds mottled with darks and light let shafts of light escape to turn the water silver. These signs of instability give me hope for clearing weather until I turn towards Juneau, where clouds thick with rain have descended on the town.
Before leaving the creek. I walk a little upstream. The water is turbulent with run off from the recent storm. In an eddy, a water ouzel dives into the stream and emerges, not with a tiny fish, but with some weeds torn from the stream bottom.
A map on my weather app shows a pixilated mass of dark greens and grays about to envelop Juneau. The sun has just cleared the shoulder of Mt. Roberts. One our neighborhood ravens perched on top a neighbor’s roof sings up the sun. When the new sunlight hits the raven it joins its mate circling in the gray sky.
I grab Aki and head out to the car. Clouds already obscure the sun but sunset tones color Gastineau Channel. Even though it will mean getting caught by the oncoming wall of rain, I stop on the way to the trailhead. The little dog and I walk onto the Douglas Island Bridge, which offers an unobstructed view of the channel. At the far end, where the Gastineau opens onto Taku Inlet, yellow and peach colored light paints the clouds. In minutes the scene is reduced to gray.
We drive to the nearby Dan Moller Trail and walk through wet evergreens to open muskeg. The meadows have gone to rest for the winter. There are still splotches of sunset colors around the bases of mountain hemlock trees, where low bush blueberry bushes and sorrel plants shelter. The promised rain arrives to soak the little dog and make the sorrel leaves shine.
Aki would probably rather be home. She’d be warm and dry there and not soaking wet as she is now. We have just started down the Rainforest Trail. She has already done her business. She stops each time I look back, ready to return to the car. But she still follows me down the trail toward a wind-hammered beach.
I am wondering why we need to complete this one-mile loop through the woods. I too could home and dry, listening to Hawaiian music and drinking tea. But I know that both the little dog and I would feel incomplete if we shortened our walk.
The accumulation of twelve hours of the heavy rain that has fallen on saturated ground is pouring down the hillside and onto the trail. It shoots out from beneath trees to forms lakes on some portions of the path and fast moving streams on others. Already the beaver dams have been breached even though those guys probably worked all night to save them. After the storm exhausts itself against the Douglas Mountain Ridge, they will repair the damage. The little dog and I will be back to measure their progress.
The storm caught us halfway through the walk. Delivered by an atmospheric stream from the South Pacific, it announced its arrival with a gusty wind. Heavy rain followed to confirm its presence. Aki, who was uncertain about the trip to begin with, turned back toward the car each time I looked in her direction.
There was little reason to continue. It was low tide and all the sea birds were 500 meters away. There was an eagle guarding the Fish Creek Pond. But it and the mallards flew off as soon as the first shotgun blast. Far on the other side of the wetlands, someone was hunting ducks.
We passed wild rose bushes still rich with fall color. But the rain dampened even their beauty. Dead fireweed stalks were pulled toward earth by their water soaked seed down. Only the winter wrens showed any joy. They bounced around the interior of an elderberry bush, singing in the rain.
There is still an hour before the tide crests at 18.7 feet. Already it has turned the Fish Creek delta into a lake. Whether to escape the shrinking beaches where they had been hunting for food, or because they just feel like it, a large murder of crows retreats to the forested island that we are attempting to circumnavigate. Aki ignores the verbal battle that erupts between the crows and a handful of eagles that already occupying the island’s canopy.
On the other side of the temporary lake, a bald eagle swoops over a raft of mallard ducks, flushing them to flight. Failing to snatch one for a meal, the eagle returns to its roost in an old growth spruce tree. One of the crows flies over to flush the eagle from its roost. I wonder if the crow’s squawking speech would translate, “How does that feel tough guy.” The eagle holds to its perch, sending up its own verbal abuse.
None of this ruckus disturbs a local song sparrow. The diminutive singer moves along side of us as we try to reach higher ground before the tide floods out the path back to the trailhead. Even though it could fit comfortably in my breast pocket, the sparrow shows no fear. It lands on an old piling just a few feet and stares us down like a sheriff about to tell two trouble makers to move along.
Aki just growled at another bear. We are on a pocket beach miles away from the meadows we visited yesterday where we watched two back bears digging up chocolate lily bulbs. There were signs that many other bears had been grubbing there. Wanting to keep some space between the meadow bears and ourselves, I chose this quiet beach as today’s destination.
Today’s bear grazes on a late crop of beach grass. It would like to resume his feast but has temporarily abandoned it to keep an eye on us. We backtrack off the beach and take a trail that arcs around the bear. This path eventually leads to the meadows where we spotted the bears yesterday. The pocket beach bear might have walked over from the chocolate lily meadows to get a little variety in his diet.
The bears had a tough time this summer. Most of the salmon runs were small. The Silver salmon showed up in strength but they arrived late. The berry bushes had low yields. To get through the winter the bears need to plump up on roots, grasses, and whatever the sea sends their way. The last thing they need is a little poodle trying to chase them away from food.