It is with great regret that we announce the passing of Dan Branch, the author of the Walking with Aki blog.
His extraordinary life came to an end last week. He passed peacefully in his sleep.
Dan was diagnosed with glioblastoma in the autumn of 2020. The past 16 months, though punctuated by complicated and draining cancer treatments, were a triumph for Dan. He set to work completing a collection of essays and poems, tirelessly racing against the clock to leave a valedictory statement and pay tribute to the people and land that made his life. The resulting book, titled Someday I’ll Miss This Place Too, was published last year by Cirque Press.
We want to thank you, especially if you are one of his regular readers, from the bottom of our hearts for bringing joy into Dan’s life. He was extremely proud of his community of readers from all over the world, and loved seeing your comments. He enjoyed sharing his thoughts and photos, a dear correspondent whose daily ritual of ambling across Southeast Alaska would not be complete until he rendered the experience in a pithy musing.
He will be dearly missed. May his memory be a blessing to you as it for us.
Fall time in Southeast Alaska arrived a week or so ago. Aka seems to ignore the rain and winds. We trot through an old growth forest. Rain poured on our car on the way to the trail head. But it stopped by the time we arrived at the trail head. Rain drops still make the forest needles sparkle.
Aki and I are walking down the Outer Point Trail toward Shaman Island. It’s a good day for it. The heaving rain that started last night is still hammering the trail. We don’t object. The heavy trees we pass through seem to soften the rain. That helps me think about the return to fall time.
While Aki stops to map out another patch of scent on the ground, I search the sky for returning birds—ducks and geese. There is little to find when we reach the beach until a pair of belted kingfishers flies close. One lands on a tiny beach rock newby. The other does the same a few hundred feet away.
King fishers must have made Frank Soos smile when they landed nearby. A week or so ago, Frank died on one of his daily bike rides. When he lived, Frank, A University Professor, taught people how to write. Now he is gone. Many Alaska writers are his sharing stories. They will continue sharing as the temperatures drop and people prepare to ski. During each of my hikes along the Outer Point Trail, I will remember when Aki and I came upon Frank standing next to a blueberry patch. After a brief smile, Frank slowy plucked a blue berry, gave it a little sniff, and plopped it down. Then he smiled again.
Yesterday no clouds blocked the sun from view. We had rain the day before. It is raining hard today. But yesterday, it was clear. Yesterday, the poodle mix and I wandered around a North Douglas island trail that was still soaked with recent rain. Even in the forest, enhancing sunlight brought rich colors and clarity to the edges of broken limbs, rotting berries, and seaweed.
While on the trail I kept thinking about the deer that watched us park the car new the trail head. It froze in the middle of the road as we approached. Then, it moved slowly in to the forest. It has survived the first two months of deer hunting season. Four month to go.
“Aki, how many times have we rounded this tiny lake?”
My little dog ignores the question. I want to point out the calmness of the lake water. Its surface has turned into a mirror that reflects the the clouds. In past summers, a roosting duck, maybe a golden eye, would swim by us, throwing an investigatory look our way as it passed. Today, there are not ducks. There hasn’t been a duck on this lake since the spring migration. Nothing distracts from the clean, crisp lake water or the spruce force that climbs from the shore up the side of Thunder Mountain.
The tide is over, explosing a beach along the edge of the Fish Creek Pond. If it wasn’t pouring down rain, I’d be tempted to go home and bring back a fishing rod. Even as I stand on the pond’s edge, more and more salmon are moving from Fish Creek into the pond.
To get to the pond, the salmon had to swim past four bald eagles that cluched together on a creek-side willow. I can still hear the salmon make their splashy way past the eagles. The big birds ignore them, like they ignore Aki and I. They must already be full.
We smelled the chum salmon before we saw any of them. Those alive were spawning in the channels of Sheep Creek. Those dead lay scattered like hot dog wrappers on the beach.
The Atlantic salmon climb the fresh water streams of Great Britian, spawn, and then return to the salt water sea. Their Alaskan cousins, King, Red, Silver and Pink, came to our waters to die. But first they fight over spawning space.
The chum salmon have been working the water so thousands of their lifeless bodies, most with eyes removed by gulls, rot and stink on the banks of Sheep Creek. Soon large tidal floods will carry the chums away, making room for the just arriving pink salmon. After that, the tasty silver salmon will take over the creek.
The rain returned. It started accumulating on the willows and alders last night. If the sun appeared, it would make the wet leaves sparkle. But rain, not sun, controls as Aki and I are pass through the ruins of a gold mine city.
In minutes we reach Sandy Beach, empty except for a small clutch of shore birds the fly low over the ocean water. 100 year old bits and pieces of rotting iron muscle out of the beach sand. They will disappear beneath of beach sand during the next storm surge. I spot an otter crossing the collapsed mine. I’d like to take its picture and would if not for a sandpiper that lands nearby and starts squireling at the little poodle and I. It lets us get very close and the flies off a few feet where it continues to complain. In the meantime the otter slips away.
Aki is trotting in front of me, hurrying back to the car. She used a lot of time on the walk to the beach smelling and marking the trail. While she recorded her story, I daydreamed behind her, stopping from time to time to enjoy splashes of color ramping up the summer flowers.
We often spot eagle feathers scattered on beaches, trails, or meadow grass. A smart guy would haul them home. But the federal government makes it illegal to do that. So for over 40 years, I’ve treated them like little splotches of untouchable beauty. Sometimes they look stunning. Other times, they are just boring. This afternoon, I almost stepped on a pure-white tail feather soaking up the sun on a tiny beach. Later I almost asked a fluffy patch of brown and white down to help me fly.
Aki is not here. Since she is a dog she must stay home. Dogs are not allowed to visit the arboretum that blossoms north of Juneau. I am not worried about her absence. She already had a nice little neighborhood walk this morning. At her age, she probably prefers an afternoon snooze on this sunny day to a wander around our town’s beautiful little garden.
We were lucky to find an empty space to use in the arboretum parking lot. Given that crowd of cars, I had expected the little garden to be jammed with drivers. But, it turned out we had no reason to worry. Most of the drivers were being guided around towers of flowering fox gloves by the main gardener. After soaking up sunshine and flowering plants, I walked down to the beach to watch rolling salmon glide in and out of the bay waters.