We are lost. Well, at least I am. Aki might know exactly where we are but she won’t share. It happens each time we try to find this meadow trail. To reach it, we must pass through a thicket of alders and shore pines. Deer paths crisscross each other in the tree tangle. Only one delivers you to a trail that cuts across the meadow to a small, rocky rise.
Passing through the thicket is like being spun while blindfolded at the beginning of pin the tail on the donkey. When the spinning stops, you have no idea of where you stand in regards to your goal. For Aki and I, our goal is the cross meadow trail. After emerging from the thicket, I have no idea of how to find it.
The little dog and I wander over an unfamiliar section of the meadow. It gives like a sponge. When Aki tries to find more stable ground, she ends up having to splash through a pond covered with floating moss. After that, she takes charge. Following her powerful nose, she starts off in a direction that I would never take. Every few meters, she looks over her shoulder to make sure I am following her.
Relieved to have some direction, I follow her lead. In a few minutes we reach the good trail and follow it to the rocky rise. After a brief rest, Aki leads me off the rise and down the meadow trail. When she veers onto a faint deer trail, I follow to the end, where a deer had died. Time has reduced the carcass to fur and bones. Aki reluctantly agrees to follow me back to the main trail. Believing, probably falsely, that the balance of power in our relationship has shifted back to me, I lead the little dog back to portal thicket.
We travel to the Eagle River this morning, not because of the to snow geese, the deer, the four herons or the two merganser ducks we will see along the way, but to deliver an apple pie. The pie was made last September with apples picked a little before peak ripeness so the neighborhood bear wouldn’t damage the tree trying to reach them.
We will look for bears on the way to the river. They like to eat dandelion flowers that are now blooming in the road verge. But no bear will appear. One deer will cross the road in front of us. Another, so intent on the spring-fresh grass growing in a roadside ditch, will ignore us when we drive past.
Near the mouth of the river we will join a handful of bird watchers trying to photograph snow geese. The mostly white birds will look as common as feeding barnyard birds until one of the bird watchers gets too close. Then, they will burst into the air, swing low over the beach and crash land near a small band of Canada geese. Because the little dog and I will be standing 15 meters away from the Canadians, I’ll have no problem seeing them land.
That leaves the four heron and the two mergansers. We will surprise the two ducks as they are cuddling on a beach rock. Then they will swim away, head hairs all ahoo. The four heron will be feeding on tidal flats near the ferry terminal. All four will keep their backs to the little dog and I. We will only see the head of one when it uses its beak to preen some wing feathers.
At beginning of this walk to Gastineau Meadows, a raven supervised me as I captured Aki’s scat in a plastic bag. From its post in a nearby spruce tree, it squawked with apparent disapproval when I dropped the bag on the ground and continued up the trail. I don’t think it trusted me to pick up the bag on the return trip to the car. It is one of those “at least it is not raining” days. The sunrise provided a little drama at daybreak but now gray skies seem to suck the color out of the rain forest.
A crust of snow covers the frozen meadow. It doesn’t deter the little poodle-mix from following me off the gravel trail and onto the muskeg. Someone with a fat tire bike has crushed his way across the south section of meadow. Worried that the thin snow covering is not enough to protect the fragile muskeg, I mutter curses to heap on the bike rider if he appears. But he is gone. After leaving the portion of the meadow marked by his tracks, we won’t see any other human tracks.
We follow the tiny tracks of a first-year fawn, hoping to find those left by its mother. But the little deer appears to have walked alone. Later we find the tracks of an adult deer moving in the direct we need to take to reach the trail to the car. A few yards later we see the tracks of a stalking wolf. I wonder if a single wolf could run down a deer impeded only by a thin crust of snow over frozen ground. Aki and I will find no sign of a kill.
The raven will still be in its post when I bend to pick up the poop bag that I had dropped at the beginning of this walk. It flies off only after I carry the smelling bag a few feet down the trail.
This morning fog hides the sun and blocks the view sheds of the Fish Creek Delta. Cruise ship fog horns mix with the panic honks of unseen Canada geese. Aki is nervous. The high-pitched screams of eagles hidden in nearby spruce trees put her on guard.
The sun breaks through the marine layer and starts to deconstruct fog covering Fritz Cove and the surrounding mountains. That touching forested hills seems to tear itself apart on the old growth trees. Ocean fog moves up and down the bay like a hunting animal.
While focusing my camera on a patch of fog flowing up and over a clutch of spruce, I spot two male deer on the foreground. One stands guard while the other one lies on meadow grass. The trailside grass prevents Aki from seeing the two deer. She will never know they were so close. Both deer are grazing in the meadow when we leave their view shed.
Any dog trainer watching Aki and I this morning would be shaking her head in disgust. Rather than exerting dominance over the little poodle-mix, I let her set the pace. A dog whisperer of kind words rather than commands I even yield to her choice of direction. When I put up a fuss, she lets me drag her across Gastineau Avenue so I can take a picture of today’s collection of cruise ships. Otherwise I follower her zigzagging pee trail.
Yielding responsibility to the ten-pound dog frees up my mind for wandering. I’m daydreaming about the cats that use to live in the nearby ruins of the old stamp mill when two deer does spring out from behind a screen of salmon berry bushes and hop down Gastineau like kangaroos. They sprong past a low-income apartment complex and up the hillside.
Aki, so intent on cataloguing scent, never sees the deer. She leads me down to the docks and then up Lower Franklin Street past the Red Dog Saloon, Pilipino Hall, and the homeless shelter. She drags me away from a young man rapping out a poem. We climb up toward Chicken Ridge and into Capital School Park. A bronze chair in the park commemorates the forced internment of the high school valedictorian just before graduation just because his grandparents came to Alaska from Japan. Rain beads up on the bronze chair and a small string of origami cranes formed, out of necessity in the rain forest, with waterproof materials. Aki waits for me photograph them.
One of Aki’s human friends paddles from the front seat of my Holy Cow Canoe. I’m in the back, steering the canoe in what I hope is the direction of the Sarkar Lake cabin. The lake, itself on an island of old growth forest in a sea of recovering clearcuts on Prince of Wales Island, is dotted with tree-covered islands. Aki would have liked the ride but not the day-and-a-half long ferry voyage we took to reach the island. She is snug back home.
The boat it full of gear and an ice chest of food but we carry no tent. We have been exploring and wandering on the lake for several hours but haven’t found the cabin. I’m starting to wish we had brought the tent.
Before the government subsidized large scale logging in Southeast Alaska, Prince of Wales Island was covered with old growth cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees. By sinking their roots into the limestone karst of the island, many of the trees had grown massive. It was land of big trees, salmon, and over six hundred caves before we outsiders joined the Tlingit and Haida people on the island. In the Sixties the clearcutting began.
I last paddled Sakar Lake thirty years ago when many of the clearcuts were still raw slash and Coffman Cove was a company town. Now nature is healing the wounds. Sockeye salmon climb up rapids to spawn in the lake’s inlet streams. Eagles gather near the rapids to wait for the dying to begin.
To stop worrying about finding the cabin, I ponder of the power of nature to heal human inflicted wounds and remember the twenty or thirty deer, many with new fawns, that we passed to the get to the lake from the ferry terminal. All will work out, I tell myself just as the nose of the canoe rounds a point hiding the cabin.
The forest should be greening up. Normally by early May green shoots of bracken, with tips curled like the head of a violin, would be forcing their way through last year’s dead growth. But today only the ever-present tree moss shows green.
The tidal meadow, when the little dog and I reach it, looks as dead as November. But the presence of nattering Canada geese confirm the onset of Spring. Those not chuckling graze on new shoots of meadow grass. In less accessible meadows black bears are filling their winter-empty stomachs with shoots of similar grass.
While Aki sniffs at a seemingly random spot on the trail, I lean down to inspect wolf scat that is chock full of tan colored fur. I’ve seen similar colored fur on our Sitka black tail deer. Winter’s winners and losers, little dog, now fueling this spring’s new growth.
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.
We are squandering petro this morning driving out the road. But it’s blowing 40 in Downtown and the forest drained by the Eagle River has 8 inches of skiable snow. If she could speak, Aki would tell me to ignore the expense and punch it. The little dog loves to run on snow. Since the road is icy I ignore Aki’s excited stance and drive slow.
It’s hard to hold anyone’s attention with a description of cross-country skiing. But that is what makes it so great for the skier. You slide the right ski forward and bring it back while shooting forward the left. That’s it. But, when the conditions are good, like this morning, you’re heart beat sets the rhythm, dropping you into a meditative state. For the first half hour the little dog dashes ahead of me and charges back. Out and back she goes until I find her trotting behind me. I suspect that in these quiet times she mediates on her next meal.
When the trail takes us along the river, now swollen by a 16-foot high tide, I look for the heads of seals taking advantage of the flood to hunt for late arriving salmon. But we won’t see seals, ducks, or even gulls during the ski.
Later, while I listening to a podcast of Everton fans arguing about who should be the next team coach, I drive up to a Sitka black tail deer running alongside the road. I stop. The deer leaps the guardrail and crosses the road in front of the car. Without thinking to turn off the podcast, I lower the window. The deer stops and turns to stare at us. I half expect her to utter “Don’t let them hire Allardyce.”
Fifty feet ahead an immature bald eagle rises from the creek, a twelve–inch-long fish dangling from its talon. The fish drops as the bird wings skyward. I know the scene took only seconds but when I play it back in my head, the bird and prey moved in slow motion, like I could have dashed over and caught the fish before it hit the meadow grass.
Aki clung to my side during the walk. She was spooked by the sound of 10-20 pound king salmon splashing in the creek pond and the off-key symphony performed by ravens and crows in the creek side alders. I was spooked too by the angry sounding splashes and the smell of dead salmon, both of which draw bears.
It was low tide when we reached the creek delta. Clutches of six or more eagles loitered on the exposed wetlands. One burst out of the tree just above my head when I stopped to count its cousins. Any peace the eagles and gulls had reached was broken when an immature eagle flew over a gull-feeding zone. The little white birds dived bombed the eagles and drove them into a nearby spruce forest.
Now Aki and I prepare to pass again through the salmon zone. Just ahead a Sitka black tail deer feeds among a thick patch of flowering fireweed. Aki will never see it or its companion. In a fluid series of jumps, the deer reach mid-meadow and turn to look at me until I lower my camera, walk beneath two roosting bald eagles, and enter the spawning zone.