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.
Summer is late to come on in this part of the rain forest. We are only 30 miles as the raven flies north of home, where the ferns long ago unfurled and blue berry bushes are already setting fruit. Here, along the Eagle River, tightly wrapped scrolls still top the bracken-like ferns. Wild cucumber plants have yet to flower.
Aki leads me through an old growth spruce forest to a wooden bridge that crosses a swollen slough. In a month or so, the slough water will churn with spawning salmon. If we visit then, we will have to take care not to startle a fishing bear. Today all we have to worry about is slipping on the rain-slick boards that provide the only trail across a swampy meadow.
Near the end of the meadow, sprays of elderberry and service berry plant form a low canopy over the trail. A days’ worth of rain clings the green leaves and white flowers of both bushes. The little poodle-mix passes under the obstruction without disturbing a drop. Aki passing beneath the arbor without dislodging a drop. It all falls on me when I stoop to pass through.
After shaking off water like a wet Aki, I follow her back to the car, hurrying past shooting stars, buttercups, wild rhododendrons, Canada geese, and a red breasted sap sucker very intent on its work.
Rain seems to have driven the old growth birds to ground, or at least to the nests. Only the Stellar’s Jay, the forest’s policeman, shows himself. He throws a hard stare at me from between branches of a spruce tree.
The heavy rain drops hammering the beaver pond have little effect on the pond lily flowers and their broad leaves. Some of the flowers float on the surface like lotus blossoms. Most have risen a few inches into the air where they sway in the wind.
The beach, when we reach it, is empty of birds. You’d think a guy could find some crows or gulls skulking around a tidepool. But nothing swims off the beach or walks the tide line. I spot a bald eagle flying out over Lynn Canal. It is too far away for me to see if it still has its chestnut feathers of youth.
This morning started being about the rain and ended up being about eagles. Rain beat a tattoo on the house roof as I pulled on my parka. Reminding her that the weather is never as bad as it appears from inside a snug house, I secured a wrap on the poodle-mix and led her to the car. We drove out the North Douglas Island Road. The rain stopped by the time we arrived at the trailhead. What did I tell you, little dog?
We crossed over a stream that will host spawning silver salmon in July. Oversized skunk cabbage plants lined both sides if it. Aki stops to sniff at a print made when a large canine planted one of its paws in the muddy bank and lept in or over the narrow stream. She keeps at my heals after that.
After passing many flowering cloudberry plants, we reach the beach in time to watch a line of seven bald eagles flying down Stephen’s Passage to Admiralty Island. The first eagle hovers and then dives toward the water. The rest continue south. I go back and forth between watching the diving eagle and keeping track of the rest of them until I misplace them all.
Aki, who is not comfortable around eagles or wolves, hangs back at the forest’s edge until the last eagle disappears. She leads me off the beach and up to a muskeg meadow where three of the eagles fly over low our heads. One clasps a small fish in its talons. It heads into the woods, maybe to deliver the fish to its nest-minding mate.
Aki barely stirs when I walk up to her, harness and rain coat in hand. She raises up her head when I call her name then curls up on the bed where she spent the night. I know she can hear me. The sound of heavy rain drops hitting the house’s metal roof isn’t loud enough to block the sound of my voice. I ask her to get up. With some reluctance the little poodle-mix stands, does a downward dog yoga stretch, and lets me dress her.
I’m not looking forward to this walk in the rain. But I know that Aki will be squealing with anticipation when I park the car near the Treadwell Woods trailhead. After she leaps out of the car, I’ll climb out to join her, pull up the hood on my rain parka, and realize that it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.
We will walk into woods full of bird song, including the sweet-as-candy call of the American robin. Thrush and flycatchers, grown tame by the absence of other dog walkers, will ignore us as they go about their business.
Aki will investigate seductive smells. I will look down, not up for things to photograph, find an iron mine car railing emerging from the bell of a spruce tree. I will be surprised by other things that I passed by in the past without recognizing their beauty. It’s an unexpected benefit of having to bend down to the rain.
This morning we have wind-driven rain and a sky full of swarming scavengers. Just a few meters above the tree tops ravens and eagles juke away from and dive on each other. The ravens are making all the noise. Hampered by my rain-spotted glasses I first assume that a raven gang is trying to drive one eagle away from the forest and the river beach it fronts. After wiping the glasses down with a handkerchief, I can see more than one eagle.
In less than a month, king salmon will rest in nearby river eddies before making their final push to the spawning grounds. Pink, chum, and silver salmons will follow. For most of the summer, the nutrient-rich carcasses of spawned out salmon will drift up onto the beach. Ravens and eagles tough enough to establish nests along the beach will have more than enough food for their chicks.
Eagles are doing most of the nest building. One eagle tries to keep a clump of old man’s beard lichen in its beak as it barrel rolls to escape two ravens. A third eagles takes advantage of the distraction to carry a cottonwood twig to its nest site. The members of the two bird clans are having a free-for-all fight over nest building materials.
Wanting at least one more chance to ski, I drive through the rain to Mendenhall Lake. We have it to ourselves. Fog and clouds obscure the glacier and mountains. Spruce covered peninsulas appear and disappear in the moving gloam. Aki breaks through the snow crust every fourth step while my skis keep me on top of it. For the first time all winter, I have it easier than the little dog.
At first, I am disappointed with the views. Then the glacier ghosts into view for a moment. The ice color deepens then fades. The glacier disappears. I can briefly make out the silhouette of a Canada goose and those of a raft of Canada geese. Then the soft power of the day returns.
We ski over to the river and follow it to a section broken into channels by rocky islands. It’s a place of eddies that trap food for mallards and swans. I count 9 trumpeter and (I think) 2 tundra swans. They must be new arrivals, taking a break from their northern migration. The trumpeters have formed a community on one of the islands. Resident mallard ducks crowd up close to them. Downriver, the two tundra swans cuddle off a snowy point.
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.
American painter Andrew Wyeth
For winter lovers like Wyeth and I, April can be the cruelest month. Not, as T.S. Elliot suggests, because we feel out of sync with the joyful explosion of spring. Elliot’s spirits apparently fell as the sap rose in the English countryside. It is because April begins by melting the simplifying snow and ends by hiding the bone structure of the land with new leaves.
This morning, while I struggle across softening snow on Gastineau Meadow, Aki stops often to discover smells hidden all winter. The whole meadow has become an antique store of smells. She stops, sniffs, digs a bit with her right paw, sniffs again, pees. Just yesterday I could have strolled across the meadow on frozen crust. No clouds would have complicated the simple lines of the surrounding mountains. No rain collected in the tracks of deer that crossed just before we arrived. We were free to move across the uncomplicated landscape over snow that protected the cores of wildflowers, berries, and sun dews from winter winds.
Aki and I are out on Mendenhall Lake. The temperature is above freezing and it is raining. I’ve stopped after crossing over two long linear cracks in the snow-covered ice. I’ve stopped to avoid skiing over an area covered with blue-green blotches. They will be puddles soon if the rain keeps up. Time to turn back to shore.
The little dog doesn’t mind retreating as long it doesn’t require returning to the car. She trots along behind until we almost reach the shore when she rushes off the ice. The skiing is better on the lake ice than shore so I don’t join Aki. She keeps to the snow-covered ground. Her hearing is superior to mine. Maybe she can hear the ice settling.
Our paths converge where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. The trail is still hard and fast from last night’s hard freeze. I’m so preoccupied with staying upright that I don’t notice six swans in the river until we are only ten or fifteen meters away from them. The big birds look as surprised as I feel.
I take off my skis so I won’t startle the swans more by falling. At first, they relax. While one keeps watch the others go back to sleep. As I take swan portraits, a large human family walks out of the woods downriver from us. They have a large dog that entertains the family’s preschoolers by splashing in and out of the river.
Even though they are several hundred meters from the family, the swans start paddling up river to increase the distance, moving nearer to us in the process. Aki and the swans ignore each other. But I feel like I might be placing the birds under stress. The little dog and I move on, leaving at least this part of the river to the swans.