We are enjoying the end of a high energy storm. Just an hour ago it was hammering the Treadwell Woods with rain. Some of it hangs on the leaves of cottonwood trees or drips onto the trail. When Aki and I leave the woods, the wind flings scattered drops of it into our faces.
A merlin, one of our tiniest birds of prey, clings to the roof of the old mine shaft ventilator. As I try to wipe rain drops off my camera lens, the merlin flees down the beach and lands on the top of a ruined wharf piling.
When I raise my camera to photograph the merlin, a plastic poop bag flies out of my pocket and flutters down the beach. If I take my picture of the bird, the bag may fly out into the channel. If the seconds that it takes to grab the bag, the bird moves. I search without success for the merlin and then take pictures of other ruined pilings on the off chance that the bird is perched on top of one.
Sunshine breaks through the clouds hanging over the east end of Gastineau Channel. I give up my search for the merlin and walk towards the drama. When we get home and I check through the photos, I find one of the merlin staring at me from atop a piling.
Offshore, a bald eagle stands with his lowered, as if in prayer. I know this is done in response to a heavy shower that soaking the eagle, Aki and I. But seeing it makes me wonder whether animals have a spiritual component in their lives.
Eagles are too practical for religion. They are always looking for their next meal. But Aki, who never has to worry about food, has the time to reflect on the meaning of life.
Further down the beach, a belted king fisher lands on a rounded rock. Feisty little dudes like him could benefit from a broader perspective. They could be mother nature’s cops. The rain seems to have taken the starch out of this kingfisher. Rather than buzz off the competition, it lowers its head and watches a clutch of gulls snatch baitfish from nearby water.
The rain is trying to wash away all signs of summer from Downtown Juneau. I wonder if it makes Aki worried. She may not finish her catalogue of dog smells before they all wash away.The little poodle-mix keeps her nose to the cement as I wait in the rain.
Most of the flowers have gone to seed. Ruby colored thimble berries have replaced their white flowers. Rain drops hang from purple monkshood and orange nasturtiums. But low clouds block any view of the mountains.
Even on such a dreary day, in a normal August, Downtown Juneau would be packed with cruiseship tourists. It’s empty this morning. There is no one posing outside the Lucky Dog Saloon. No one is queuing up for whale watching tours or helicopter rides to a glacier. Just two downtown workers walk down the cruiseship dock, carrying orders of Philippine barbeque from Bernadettte’s. Last night, someone must have stumbled out of a bar and wrote “Be Happy Again” in a space on the Before I Die sign.
We need at least another liter of blue berries to get through the winter. This late in the season they are becoming hard to find. But two days ago, I received a hot tip from someone with fingers stained blue by berry picking.
To act on the tip, Aki’s other human and I load our bicycles, picking buckets, and the little dog into the car and drive almost to the north end of the Juneau road system. The weather man promised us a dry afternoon. After assembling the bikes, we headed up the trail that cut through salmon berry brush and devil’s club already starting to yellow, just as rain began to fall.
The tipster told us to ride past 1930’s car rusting alongside the trail and the two spots were the trail almost touches the river bank. After that we should cross through a long, long stretch of devil’s club to where a fiddler’s green for berry pickers spreads out from both sides of the trail.
At the start of the berry patch we looked without success for berries. All we saw was wet berry bushes, empty of berries. In a few minutes of riding past barren bushes I spied little blue spheres hanging on a bush six meters off the trail. My cotton pants were soaked through with rain water by the times I reached the patch. Aki’s other human thought to wear her rain pants. Aki and I had to ignore water soaking through to our skin. The little dog was a good sport as long as we feed her berries. But after her two humans had gathered their liter of berries, she was ready to return to the car.
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.
The magenta blossoms of fireweed glow in the gloom of this rainy morning. Except for the eagles scattered around the gravel, Aki and I have the Sheep Creek delta to ourselves. I’m not counting the swallows perched together like judgmental gossipers on a driftwood tangle. I don’t include the crows crowding one of the eagles. I should acknowledge the greater yellowlegs sandpiper that moves across a shallow pond. That’s enough denial. This place is crowded with life.
This late in summer, the creek should be a turmoil of spawning chum salmon. Only one male powers upstream against the current. There may be others hidden in the muddy water. When the mountain rains let up, the stream will clear enough for a proper survey. I pray that the chums are just late in arriving. So do the eagles and the other animals that rely on them for food.
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.
On an otherwise empty beach, Aki snuffles the sand. I watch her even though it means facing an up-channel breeze that throws rain in my face. Two eagles in a nearby tree also watch the little dog. They turn their heads away when I point my camera at them. They are waiting for something editable to wash ashore.
In a week or so, the eagles will be pulling flesh from salmon carcasses marooned on the beach by the ebbing tide. For now, they must watch and wait for lesser fare. At least three more eagles roost in the beachside trees. Just down the beach, a belted kingfisher watches the glory hole bay while perched on a glacier erratic.
The kingfisher won’t fly away unless I get really close. I don’t, choosing to watch it watching me through a curtain of rain. Inside the Treadwell Woods, I have a similar stare down with a pine siskin. It and the other song birds show no fear of Aki nor I, which surprises me given all the goof ball dogs that galumph through the woods. Then I realize that this is their harvest time.
Two teenagers, each weighed down by a large backpack, sulk at the junction of Dan Mollar Trail and the Treadwell Ditch. They must have spent the night at the Forest Service cabin with family members who are still up the trail. Aki usually draws “ooooo’s” and “ahs” from woman of this age. They ignore the little poodle-mix and her humans. I have to ask them to move so we can have two meters of space when are pass.
While walking up the plank trail that leads to the cabin, I wonder whether the backpackers were upset about the rain currently soaking into their fashionably bare heads or were going through no-phone withdrawal. They seemed happy to move out of our way and weren’t worried when I told them about the fresh pile of bear scat steaming nearby. Perhaps we had just crashed a counseling session.
Aki normally takes point on this trail. Today, she is content to follow at a slow pace. We cross wildflower meadows that look like threadbare carpets due to damage done last winter by snowmachines. A dark-eyed junko hops between magenta-colored clumps of bog rosemary and the yellow blossoms of large-leaved avens.
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.