Needing to have the afternoon free so I can prepare for writing school, I leave the house early this morning. Aki has had her cheese so she doesn’t mind the pre-sunrise departure. We stop at the whale sculpture to watch the sun crack the darkness over Gastineau Channel. Our presence encourages a raft of mallards to slip into the cold water. They work their way over to a patch of water colored yellow by the sunrise. After relieving herself, Aki is ready to go. But she doesn’t complain when I linger to watch the ducks.
In a dusk-like gloam we drive out to North Douglas Island where it is calm and 15 degrees F. Last night’s wind knocked the frost from the trees in Downtown Juneau. But frost feathers that still cling to the roadside brush near the trailhead.
I have to carry the little dog over portions of the trail flooded by the water pouring over the tops of the beaver dams. It’s too cold for wet paws. The sun has reached a dead spruce in the middle of the pond. It draws my eye like a Las Vegas marquee. Whether suffering from the indignity of being carried, or just uncomfortable with cold, Aki refuses to follow me on the trail to the beach. I press on, knowing that she will soon end her strike. She does, flying by me to take the lead.
We are too early to see the sun light up the beach. But it does illuminate the mountains above the icefield. It also warms some offshore rocks and the gulls resting on them. Two golden eye ducks, lit by the same streak of sunlight, splash down near the rocks. It is so cold that I expect them to paddle over to the gulls’ rocks. But they are content to bob up and down in the surf. I, hands cold from handling the camera, body chilled in spite of multiple layers of clothing, feel very much the winter outsider.
Ravens flocked to Chicken Ridge this morning, drawn by a neighbor’s carelessly secured garbage bin. The messy eaters pierced plastic trash bags with their beaks and tossed kitchen waste everywhere in search for things rich in fat or protein. They ignored the vegetables.
No ravens greet Aki and I when we arrive at Skater’s Cabin. The song of a winter bird, perhaps a red poll, drifted across the ice of Mendenhall Lake. Otherwise it was quiet. No wind blew to knock frost feathers from the lakeside alders.
Even through we had the place to ourselves, Aki found plenty of smells to catalogue. While I photographed the glacier and his mountains, the little dog wandered onto the moss-covered floor of a new forest. She reappeared a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself as we walked along the lake edge to the Mendenhall River.
Since there was no chance that Aki could wander into a road or be carried off by eagles, I didn’t worry. But I still wonder at the meaning of her behavior. After 12 years of walks, is she looking to assert more independence? Or has she finally learned to trust my judgment. Until recently, she always acted like a careful nanny watching over a flighty three-year-old.
Rain is falling, dimpling Auk Lake and melting the remains of last week’s snowfall. Mt. McGinnis stands above the lake against a featureless sky. These rain doesn’t bother Aki or I. The little dog is excited to be out of the car and free to sniff and pee. While I’d prefer sunshine on snow, the soft grayness of the scene offers a calm alternative to the noisy world of man.
Just before leaving the lake, I spot a common merganser paddling away from the little dog and I. He moves fast enough to raise a wake. Calm on top, frenzy underneath. We drive out the road and take the Breadline Bluffs trail. The path crosses a small stream with snow-covered banks and then rises to a small muskeg meadow. In minutes we follow it into an old growth spruce forest.
The noise of airplanes and road noise ceases. After an eagle calls out to its mate from a nearby tree, the only sound we will hear will be that made by a small surf collapsing into the base of the bluffs.
The sun was fighting a winning battle against the marine layer when we left home on this expedition to collect seaweed for the garden.The temperature dropped last night. It’s still above freezing but feels like an Alaskan Autumn day.
Aki would rather go on a regular walk than keep me company while I collect severed rockweed. Staying close, she acts as lookout while, bent over, I grabbed rock weed with gloved hands and dump it into a five gallon bucket. I have to shake from the seaweed crab shells, eagle feathers, and pieces of a deer’s backbone. When she was a puppy, Aki might have snatched some of this wild trash and carried it down the beach.
Taking a break from collecting, I let the little dog lead me off the beach and around False Outer Point. It’s good to see that the resident raft of golden eye ducks have returned to the crescent-shaped bay. Something spooks a gang of scoters as we round the point and they dot our view of Upper Lynn Canal with their dark silhouettes.
Just before climbing over a low headland to return to work, Aki stiffens and holds her nose in the direction of a screen of alders. We circle around the screen and peek behind it. Instead of the expected deer or bear, I spot the remains of an abandoned homeless camp. At the change of seasons, the occupant must have moved closer to the downtown homeless shelter.
It’s peaceful in the rain forest this morning. No sun threatens the clouds. No wind challenges the calm. It is so different from yesterday’s whale watching tour. Aki would have loved the attention she would have received from the other passengers when they were not photographing orcas. When they were distracted by whales, the little dog would have hunted around lower deck for dropped food. But I think Aki enjoys these mild days with me, alone on a trail, more than a party.
It takes little to shatter a calm, even one as profound as this one. Like a drop of accumulated rain falling from tree branch onto the beaver pond, a small thing can send out disruptive ripples.
As we pass the pond on the way to the beach, a tour guide walks up. He speaks in the quiet tone of a person who prefers silence. I am waiting for my crew to arrive. Thinking a crew of soft-spoken people would almost go unnoticed, I wish him well. The little poodle-mix and I walk on, reaching the beach as the tide starts to cover the Shaman Island causeway. The usual eagle guards the causeway from his usual rock. Two gulls bicker than settle into silence. Even the waves seem careful to hit the beach with a whisper. Then a child cries out like a tattletale gull as the guide leads a group of cruise ship tourists onto the beach.
It rained all last night. This morning only a light shower dimples Crystal Lake. But soon the real drama will begin. A storm is moving over Sitka. It is scheduled to drop four inches of rain on the Troll Woods and raise the lake’s level. Tomorrow the trails may be muddy and in places flooded. But now Aki and I should have no problem exploring the woods.
I lead the little dog off the main trail and onto one of the beavers’ logging roads. We follow it to a little lake we seldom are able to visit. For the last few years the access trail has been flooded by water backed up behind the beaver dams. Now it is dry.
Less than a mile away, a string of tourist buses unloads in front of the glacier visitor center. People crowd the bear-watching platform searching for inbound sockeye salmon and the bears that feed on them. A few miles in the other direction, planes and helicopters take off and land. When the wind drops we can hear airplane and bus noise. But the wind is rising in anticipation of the storm, letting me pretend we are thirty miles deep in wilderness.
Aki and I emerge from a tunnel of alders to access the wetlands. Overhead a bushel basket of clouds mute the sun. Mist clings to Aki’s grey curls and soaks into my cotton sweatshirt. The clouds also mute the magenta of fireweed blooms and the normally intense yellows of dying beach grass. It’s a soft, subtle day.
Sparrows flit through the trailside grass, stopping in dead stalks of cow parsnip where they can watch our passage. Across the Mendenhall River two bald eagles break from their spruce tree roosts. One swings so low over the river that its left wing tip slips into the water. It rights itself and slams its talons beneath the surface twice but comes up empty. I wonder how many more times its will have to sink its talons before snatching away a meal.
The little dog and I push on down river to where the trail ends at the edge of a backwater slough. Just across the slough two other bald eagles perch on the root wads of driftwood logs. Rain soaks into their ruffled feathers, giving them an “I just woke up” look. But their eyes are clear and hard as jewel stones. They are ready to race for the first food revealed by the outgoing tide.