Sometime during the past century a country and western singer made a lot of money by singing “The girls get prettier at closing time.” Lack of experience prevents me from evaluating the truth of this statement. But I find myself singing the song to Aki as we walk through the Treadwell Ruins.
A fast moving storm slammed into Juneau last night, blowing away the patch of high pressure that had provided us with four warm and sunny days. So we are taking advantage of the shelter from wind and rain offered by the cottonwood forest that has grown up over the ruined town. The Treadweel cottonwoods, alders and willows leafed out during the warm spell. They preshow the beautiful colors the trees will show next fall. Each leaf is unmarred by insect, disease; undarkened by exposure to the elements. For the only time in the year, the cottonwoods fill the air with the smell of balsam.
Ground plants and shrubs won’t ever look as pretty as they do now as they unfurl their tiny leaves. Fiddlehead ferns uncurl their tightly wrapped stems. Even the shaggy cow parsnips look pretty this time of year.
An adult bald eagle, white head feathers damp with rain, perches on a pond-side spruce tree. It appears to study two new additions to the pond—large net pens full of fingerling king salmon. A net covers the pens, placed there to protect the natal fish from eagles and the resident river otters.
It’s low tide so the other resident eagles are out on the exposed tidelands scrabbling for scraps. That’s the higher percentage move for predators on this rain-soaked day. But if the eagle that Aki and I are watching manages to overcome the pens’ protective net, it would be in an avian fiddler’s green.
We won’t see much else of interest during this visit to the Fish Creek delta. A couple of dog walkers driving a herd of large bred canines will have already flushed out the birds. As we walk toward the creek mouth, a yellow lab will break away from its owner and splash over the creek and wetlands to play with Aki. But these dog antics will have no effect on the newly arrived tree swallows, that will arc over and around the little dog and I as they hunt for mosquitoes.
I am walking along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. It just stopped hailing. Now a gentle rain dimples the open sections of water between pans of rotting ice. Aki has disappeared into the woods. For the first time in awhile, I am worried about the little dog. Last week on a nearby trail, another dog walker watched his pup take a one-way trip into the woods. The wolf that killed his dog emerged carrying part of a freshly dead deer. Fish and game investigators reported that the wolf was only protecting its food and would not otherwise have harmed the dog.
When the little poodle-mix fails to answer my whistle call, I start wishing that I had kept her on a lead. Turning my back on the glacier, I head into the woods and find her casually walking toward me.
While spending most of my adult life in semi-wild areas of Alaska, I’ve had to weigh the ups and downs of living in place where bears and wolves might walk past your house in the dark. A recent trip to the Low Countries, where we cycled past swans and a great blue heron flew over the train taking up to the Brussels Airport, reminded me of how well wild animals are able to find their niche in human communities. I hope this is always the case, even it means increasing the risk of a walk in the local woods.
Rain soaks into Aki’s gray fur and makes my parka glisten. It slickens the already traitorous trail ice and softens what snow remains in the forest. It falls from clouds that deny us any mountain views. I’d feel claustrophobic if not the old growth trees that appear to be keeping the heavy, wet skies from collapsing on the little dog and I.
We are in the tweens—between snowy winter and the soft green spring. This year March, not April may be the cruelest month.
The rain doesn’t bother Aki. Nor does it discourage the other dogs and their walkers on the Perseverance Trail. We all carry on, our paws or boots slowly soaking up moisture from the rain sodden snow. Greenish-brown run off from melting snow fills the trailside ditches, providing the strongest color contrast to the grey sky.
Stark skeletons of naked cottonwood trees seem to writhe in pain. Above them the Mt. Juneau waterfalls are still frozen. Snow, not rain falls on the mountain’s upper slopes. Rather than take the upper trail that cuts across an avalanche chute, we walk on the main trail and then take a narrow path over to Gold Creek. Aki alerts and then dashes thirty meters down the trail and buries her nose in the snow. When I reach her, she is sniffing the fresh tracks of a deer.
Having survived hunting season and all but the tail end of winter, the deer still must make it through the early spring famine time before fatting up on fresh greens. The other rain forest locals will have to make do until salmon start their annual invasion of our streams and rivers. Aki doesn’t have to worry. Her people just bought a 20-pound bag of dog food—more than enough to last her until king salmon season.
Aki and I drove over twenty miles to reach this trail. This may be my last chance this year to use my skis on it. Wet snow fell during the entire drive. “Wet” is the operative word here. The thick flakes melted on contact with the road, our car, and the bare branches of roadside trees. Rather than thickening the ground snow layer, the flakes soften it. Our days for skiing are numbered as the winter of 2017-18 begins to die.
Aki squeals as I park the car and leaps onto the snow as I open the car door. If it were a few degrees colder, the snow would clump on the little dog’s fur. But it is too wet for clumping so she can run down the trail unhampered. I follow her into the old growth. It’s not bad skiing except where the forest canopy blocks the sky over the trail. The snow in those places is thin and icy and very close to melting away.
I will have good skiing for most of the visit. Aki will challenge my decision to take a soft side trail. After that she will run and sniff and run some more. I will have to carry my skis and poles over dry sections of the trail. The wet snow will not stop falling. I will feel like a relative on deathwatch, hoping that the treating physician is too pessimistic about our loved one’s chances. But the forest snow is melting and rain is on the way.
Aki shows more enthusiasm for this adventure than I feel as we leave the trailhead. Snow is turning to rain as the little dog and I head into the Treadwell woods. Aki minces down the trail, each step pushing through soaked snow to a thin layer of water beneath. Glad I am wearing waterproof boots, I slosh along behind her.
The poodle-mix dashes toward a urine-yellow Rorschach design in the snow left by the dog of an early morning walker. Similar splotches mark the way to the beach. We slog past roofless ruins and twisted rails of the mining car tracks, all made almost beautiful by mantles of fresh snow. White on rust makes a pleasing combination.
From its perch atop the old ventilation tower, our resident eagle watches us leave the woods and move onto the snow-covered beach. His puffed up chest feathers make me think of Buck Mulligan descending Joyce’s Dublin tower. Aki cares little for literary references so I don’t mention it to her.
When a golden lab approaches, Aki waits in silence rather than barking her usual welcome. You are learning some caution little dog. The meeting goes well and she acts more like her old self when we meet a black-husky-mix. Maybe you are learning to discern rather than to trust that all dogs are potential friends.
After the husky-mix follows its people into the woods, Aki and I have the beach to ourselves. The two ravens that usually greet us have flown. No belted kingfisher chits at us from an overhanging branch. No wind hurries away the loose pans of ice that float around the ruined wharf pilings. If I turn around I could see trucks being loaded at the barge dock across Gastineau Channel and the blocky shapes of the Juneau skyline. But ahead to the south there is only the white-covered beach dotted with broken pilings, Gastineau Channel, and glaciated mountains partially obscured by mist. We move south until we run out of beach.