I am slipping and sliding through lakeside mud. Aki, no fool she, stays on a nice mossy path that parallels the beach. I could join her on the easier trail. But the views of mountains, waterfalls, and a glacier keep me on the beach.
The morning mist has melted away so nothing blocks my view of mountains McGinnis and Stroller White reflected on the lake’s surface. The lake also mirrors lines of cottonwood trees, each bearing a load of leaves fading from yellow to rust. The glacier slices between the mountains like a blue snake.
On our last visit to the lake, I was forced by high lake levels to use Aki’s forest path. Now, in spite of all the recent rain, those levels have dropped, revealing a wide strip of gravel for walking. It offers a variety of mud. Some of the yucky stuff is as greasy as lard. In other places the mud forms a thin patina over beach gravel. In one spot my boots making a sucking sound each time I take a step. Forced off her forest trail by a beaver pond, Aki joined me just before the sucking mud. She convinces me to carry her the mess.
We seem to have all the beauty to ourselves. No ducks or geese ripple the lake surface. No eagles, ravens, or even jays comment on our passage from lakeside tree roosts. There might be mountain goats on the high flanks of McGinnis or bears in woods. A deer could be peaking out from the Troll Woods. But only the sun shows itself just long enough to reverse for a few minutes, the cottonwoods’ autumn fade.
An immature eagle lands on a midstream gravel bar and eyes a chunk of something pink and fleshy. In seconds a raven joins him. The eagle takes possession of the goody with a talon and starts ripping off a bite sized piece. Raven uses a bowing little dance to get the eagle to share. When that doesn’t work, it squawks out a coarse protest song. The song goes on and on until the raven lifts off toward another source of food.
Aki was back in the car before the eagle landed. We are both soaked with rain that just stopped pounding the Sheep Creek Delta. The clouds now drift up against the flanks of Sheep Mountain to be shredded by tall spruce. I brought the dog here so I could search for heron. We found none. Aki tried to keep me from crossing exposed sections of the beach. She prefers to sniff along the grassy dune that separates the beach from the old ore house. There she can hide from eagles.
We walked to dune’s end where gold miners park their sluice boxes. The sluices sit in boats made of salvaged wrecks, foam blocks, and scrap wood. Soft delta sand is shoveled into the sluice box, which extracts the gold. The miners are driven to stand in cold water in the rain for hours by dreams of wealth or perhaps the simple desire to get something for nothing, like the eagle-bothering raven.
Like the miners, the eagles and other delta birds are always on the make. When not searching the riverbank and beach for carcass scraps, they make half-hearted passes over rafts of ducks, driving most into flight. Even the tiny swallows are always working an angle. This morning one gave me the stink eye for distracting it from harvesting beach grass seeds.
It froze hard last night. Early this morning frost covered the wetlands. Aki and I missed the show while we waited for the fog to burn off. Now only pockets of frost meadow remain. The sun has already reduced the frost to dew on most of the wetlands. As it thaws, the trail mud turns greasy.
Patches of fog still cling to the surrounding hills. Otherwise we have blue skies. The little dog and I squint when the trail makes us face the sun. Maybe this is why she throws on the brakes when we reach a trail that would take us back to the car. Maybe the almost 13 year-old is feeling her age.
After Aki sends her brief strike we walk along the Mendenhall River. I had been scanning the river for herons without success. We’ve yet to see any water birds or land birds. A gang of waterdogs approaches from downriver and I wonder if they are responsible for the bird apocalypse.
Looking for another source of beauty, I lead the little dog down onto the beach and find my self five meters from a heron. It looks as awkward and I feel. It is airborne before Aki even realizes it was there.
Thunder Mountain still hides the sun when we approach Crystal Lake. Aki, who moved out in front a few minutes ago, turns her head to watch me peering through the lake mist. I can just make out a stand of yellowing cottonwood trees that line a marshy shore. On the lake a herd of canvasback ducks could be conferring over a map of their southern migration route and I wouldn’t be able to see them.
Feeling Aki’s impatience, I follow her toward the beaver village at the opposite end of the lake. The sun catches us just before we reach the village, it’s reflection in the water looking like a narrow spotlight being eased above the mountain’s silhouette. The sudden blast of sunlight destroys the lake mist and deepens the fall colors. It makes Mt. Stroller White stand out against the blue sky.
I want to take a trail through the Troll Woods pioneered by tree cutting beavers. It winds around three small lakes before returning its users to Crystal Lake. Aki, who loves beaver scent, is already trotting down it. I hesitate, thinking about the Forest Service sign posted at the trailhead. It warns walkers to beware of the local bears, who have a recent history of hostile interactions with dogs.
I table my concerns and follow the little dog. The trail she selected leads away from salmon streams and into an area that would offer little to a hungry bear.
After the sun climbs above channel fog, Aki joins her other human and I on a muskeg meadow in full fall color. While her humans picked cranberries, the little poodle-mix ran back and forth between us, frustrated that we won’t respond to her urging to herd up. She doesn’t understand that berry picking is a solitary pursuit. Keeping our eyes on the muskeg, we must wander where the berries take us.
I can understand Aki’s confusion. Stooped low with hands plucking berries from their mossy beds, we could be mistaken for grazers.
After an hour, Aki relaxes and investigates interesting smells. I stop thinking about the little dog until four eagles appear in the sky above us. They join a pair of ravens circling the meadow. Soon a magpie flies over our heads and lands a few hundred yards away. I look down and spot the naked leg bone of a deer. It’s the clue needed to solve the mystery of the birds. A hunter butchered a deer on the meadow, leaving enough on the ground to drawn in the birds.
The weatherman promised Aki and I a
sun break this morning but warned of heavy rain arriving just after the dinner
hour. After that it will be rain and rain for days. How should we squander the promised light, little dog? Thinking
that the sun will arrive at the higher mountain meadows first, I drive Aki up
to one of our favorites. Fog-like clouds obscured the mountaintops when we
arrive, threatening to make the weatherman a liar. Then a perfect circle of
silver light begins to burn through the clouds. Maybe the man told us the truth.
week the meadow was a carpet of bright yellows, reds, and oranges. It now looks
faded in the gray light but starts to brighten as the sun burns its way through
the cloud cover.
refuses to follow me off a gravel trail and onto the wet muskeg. She’d rather keep her paws dry, thank
you very much. Ignoring the little anchor, I squelch my way deeper onto the
meadow, pull a small plastic container from my pocket, and begin dropping bog
cranberries into it. Each firm little berry makes a plopping sound when it hits
the bottom of the container. Having developed a taste for wild cranberries, Aki
is drawn onto the meadow by the sound. Soon she is nuzzling berries from my
palm. By the time the sun has driven off the clouds I am picking to fill her
stomach, not the little plastic container.
This morning broke clear with blue skies dotted with scattered islands of small clouds. After breakfast the little dog and I head out to the mountains. We rush to the catch of the Mediterranean-like light that will fade as the sun arcs toward noon. The sound of excited children greet us. It seems like every school child in Juneau is berry picking on the mountain meadows.
There are many berries and many meadows so we will rarely run into any of the kids. A pleasant surprise did wait for us when we crest a mountain shoulder and drop into a pocket meadow—frost. It is the fragile first mountain frost, soon turned to dew after a few seconds in sun.
I find a patch of frosted blueberry plants, none standing more than six inches above the meadow muskeg, each leaf a calico of reds, yellows, and oranges. The sun climbs above a protecting stand of mountain hemlock trees to turn each berry into a Christmas ornament dangling on a party-colored tree. I filled my hand with blues and offer them to Aki. The little poodle mix lifts each into her mouth with her clever tongue.