Alders dominate this morning’s walk across the moraine. They line almost every trail we take. If left alone, the tough shrubs would colonize the trail gravel, leaving us nowhere to walk. Grumpy sounding Stellar’s jays jump around inside the trailside alders as if to get a better view of Aki in case she is about to break some law. I’d like to ignore these forest police but the alders provide little to divert my attention.
Aki loves these alder lanes because they offer the best chance of dog contacts. But I need a different view shed. Reluctantly, the little dog follows me down a lesser-used trail to the edge of a beaver pond that is rapidly transforming into a grassy wetland. Before the beavers built the pond dam, spruce and cottonwoods thrived in the flooded area. Now their dead-gray trunks rise from beds of reeds transforming into fall colors.
On the way back to the car, I spot a blueberry growing alone on a bush. That’s right little dog; we have to stop at the store on the way home. Aki’s other human needs domestic blue berries for a low-sugar pie. We pass a great blue heron sulking in the rain. When I stop the car to take a better look, the big bird stretches out its neck and uses its long wings to lift up and away across a field of grass already the color of straw.
Aki and I are the only ones on this normally popular beach. While she wolfs down something dropped yesterday by a child, I wait for the reappearance of a marbled murrelet. The pudgy little bird just plopped below the water. As ripples from the bird’s dive spread, a knot of herring explode onto the surface. Something has scared the little fish out of the water. I suspect the murrelet but the herring continue to panic out of the water even after the bird pops up. I look without success, for the wake of an unseen object, the fin of a hunting Dolly Varden.
The rainfall intensified while I watched the flying fish and Aki ate. It drives us down beach and into the protection of an old growth forest. The time for thimble berries has past but I manage to find a few handfuls of red huckleberries. Aki has to make do with the smells left by passing dogs.
At the forest edge we can spy on a clutch of gulls grooming themselves on some waterside rocks, Off shore a harbor seal cruises back and forth near the birds. It affects the studied indifference of a hunter and is careful not to make eye contact with its prey. If the birds are aware of the hungry seal, they don’t seem scared.
I don’t realize it is raining until Aki sniffs at something near a small pond. Light drops of precipitation dimple the water, sending water bugs scooting toward the protection of British tobacco plants. It’d be nice to write that I was engrossed in deep thoughts. But the truth is, I had slipped into observation mode, lost to everything except plants exhibiting signs of autumn.
Just a few leaves on a wild crabapple tree have turned fall-time red. The high bush cranberry brush is still summer green. But the broad and fat skunk cabbage leaves are yellowing. The same is true of the trailside ferns. Gastineau’s once green meadow is now a rolling yellow and orange carpet.
Above the meadow gray ropes of rain snake down the flanks of Sheep Mountain. Even when the sun makes a brief appearance, it can only muster a colorless rainbow.
Last night’s storm broke its back on the spine of Douglas Island and the mainland mountains. Its heavy rain has swollen Fish Creek and turned the water the color of molasses. Salmon too weak from spawning have already been swept back into Fritz Cove. Those still waiting their turn to bred are hunkered down in eddies or behind drift wood barriers.
Aki doddles behind until we reach Fish Creek where four eagles and kingfisher watch us approach from spruce tree roosts. One, an immature eagle, has cruciformed its wings so they can dry. The little dog hesitates and then moves close to me. No one dives on her as we round the pond and head out to the creek mouth.
A big ebb tide has lowered the creek’s level and exposed a wide swath of wetlands. But the dozen or so eagles that we can spot are either feeding along side the stream or watching us from spruce roosts. Aki relaxes on a part of the trail almost enclosed by tall fireweed and wild rose shafts. I stop where that stretch ends and count six eagles watching us from trailside trees. Aki doesn’t follow me out onto the exposed meadow.
I figure that the eagles must have sated themselves on dead salmon and other goodies exposed by the ebb tide. They won’t be interested in my ten-pound poodle. But Aki doesn’t share my confidence so I have to carry her until we reach a more protected stretch of trail.
While we circumnavigate a small island covered with tall spruce, I lose count of the number of eagles, mature and immature, that fly over out heads and out over the wetlands. White puffs of eagle down drift onto the trail in their wake.
I chose this route through Downtown Juneau for its convenience, not its beauty. Aki’s other human and I have an appointment at 10 A.M. Aki lead me out the door at 8:30 this morning. We should have finished in be done in an hour. But even though rain sluices down on us, Aki insists on taking her time. Each scent mark must be smelt from different angles. No pee spot may be passed by without a full nasal inspection.
She slows down ever further when we reach the South Franklin Street tourist stores. I have to discourage her from peeing on a full-length coat on display outside of a fur shop. Otherwise she is well behaved. She trots by friendly cruise ship tourists but stops to accept pets from clerks standing like barkers outside their jewelry shops. Aki pays the most attention to homeless people sheltering from the rain in the doorways of closed shops. My frustration with the little poodle fades when I see the smiles on those she favors.
The forest is silent except for the plunking of raindrops hitting skunk cabbage leaves. No thrush sings it’s claiming song of love. No flock of chickadees chit their hunting chant. Even the normally bossy Steller’s jay is keeping its beak shut.
I picked this trail for the protection it offers from the rain. The not silence and solitude are a bonus. The trail also grants us access to the beach where there will always be an eagle. We hear its scolding screech first then spot it. The eagle sits on a small rock in the flooded tidal zone where it had been enjoying some me-time before we broke out of the woods.
Beyond the eagle’s perch, fog partially obscures our view of Admiralty Island. I look without success for the fog-like exhale flumes of humpback whales and return to the eagle. From behind Shaman Island comes the huffing sound of surfacing sea lions. While I wait for them to round the island into view, I realize that the sounds could have come from the forest, not the sea. Bear sows huff out warnings to their cubs. I’ve heard a nearby brown bear mother huff as her cub approached me on a Misty Fjord beach. But the huffs this morning, which sound like moist air being expelled through a tube, couldn’t have been made by a land mammal, no matter how large.
While Aki sniffs at a spot back up the trail, I watch drops of water fall onto the surface of a beaver pond. Minutes ago, before the rising wind shook droplets from an overhanging tree, the pond surface was still. Grey clouds clogged the sky. Rain fell. The forest showed only muted earth colors. But the sun broke through as the wind started to shake loose the raindrops.
If not for the working songs of birds and the creaking of wind-animated trees, I could hear the spat of drops hitting the pond. It’s too early in the day for the start up of the industrial tourism machinery. Aki and I are alone on the trail.
I should be at Tai Chi class. But Aki gave me a hard look each time I tried to explain the need to postpone this morning’s walk. She held the moral high ground. I had gone fishing for salmon yesterday rather than take her for a walk. In order to shift things to a more equal footing, I reminded her of how, last night, she had enjoyed eating the crisp skin of one of the salmons that I had caught while she stayed home. I wasn’t surprised when she rejected the argument. The little poodle-mix tends to remember her disappointments better than her happy moments.
What started as an enterprise driven by guilt turned into one of wonderment after the sun broke through the clouds. Aki, who never seems to raise her noise more than three inches above the ground during our walks, probably doesn’t even recognize the power of the sun to turn rain soaked leaves into jewelry as it is doing this morning on the False Outer Point Trail.