This morning, before the start of writer’s school classes, I walked down Seaside’s 1stAvenue to the promenade. At the end of the avenue a man, bareheaded and wearing a heavy plaid shirt, slumped on a bench. He faced in the opposite direction from a gull perched on a nearby railing. They both looked like they were disgusted with each other.
After I used my phone to take a picture of them, the man rose and stared at me. I walked up to him and admitted that I had taken a picture of him and that I’d happily delete the photo is he wanted that. He didn’t. We chatted for a minute, him probably trying to figure out my deal, me thinking that he looked like an aged version of rocker David Crosby with his salt and pepper hair and walrus mustache.
A 20-knot wind swept up the beach. It explained why the man and bird faced away from each other. The man wanted to let his back take the cold impact of the wind. The bird, like all gulls would, was weather veining into it. The wind couldn’t explain the expression I saw in the man’s face. He was probably just focusing on the sound of heavy surf or maybe dreading what the dark clouds collecting over the ocean would bring us later in the day. But after spending a week at writer’s school, I couldn’t stop myself from mentally writing him a script—one where he revives a memory of loss or mistake.
Perhaps because of the insistent surf hammering Seaside Beach this afternoon, the air here is filled with water vapor. It occludes the view of Tillamook Head and even makes it possible to photograph the sun. While the ground fog back home in Juneau is animated—likely to crawl like a pre-toddler along Gastineau Channel or climb up the slope of Mt. Juneau—the Seaside vapor is lazy. It haunts the beach like a bored teenager.
The fog doesn’t interfere with the ability of the local dogs to enjoy their beach walks. I miss Aki when I see little dogs sniffing the beach grass or trotting with their owner near the surf line. One calls my attention to a line of beach grass that someone has transplanted below the high tide line. Is this art or a doomed effort to expand the range of the tough grass?
December 25th is one of the days on which I wish Aki could speak. What does the little dog make of Christmas, with its gifts and extra visitors? Does she hate holiday music? She shows her appreciation during Christmas dinner for scraps of meat secreted to her under the table. But does she wish everyone would leave the house as soon as the turkey or lamb is put away?
If she could understand, I’d tell her that humans need something to celebrate during this, the darkest time of the year. People living closer to the equator may not get this. But since last summer we northerners have had to wait longer and longer for the daily sunrise. Those of us wintering in Juneau suffer even greater reductions in daylight because of the Douglas Mountain Ridge. Five days ago on the solstice, the earth began slowly rotating its north pole to the south. Merry Christmas little poodle, spring is just three or four months away.
This chance to ski is an unexpected holiday gift. Everywhere but along Montana Creek is bare of snow. Thanks to Montana Creek’s microclimate, it received snow while the rest of town saw only rain. But the recent string of warm days and freezing nights have iced over sections of the trail and exposed rocks. This might be the only chance for the little dog and I to get in a ski until we receive a new blanketing of snow.
Aki and I sneak by the gun range, thankful that no one is blasting away. The sound of a shotgun or rifle can send the poodle-mix into a panic. We won’t hear gunshots until two kilometers up the creek. Mostly we listen to the sound of skis shushing on the trail and water pouring over creek boulders and windfalls that have fallen into the stream. At first Aki dashes ahead as we climb up the creek valley. When she tires, the little dog trots just ahead of me on the set classic ski tracks.
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.
When Aki barks. I look up and see two large dogs muzzle to muzzle. They growl at each and soon might fight. My little dog wants to investigate. With tail wagging, she approaches the two combatants. We are in the Treadwell Ruins near a side trail I have been wanting to take. I do now and ask Aki to follow. To my relief, she does. The trail leads to a 100-year-old junkyard.
When the waters of Gastineau Channel flooded the Treadwell mine tunnels in 1917, all mining on Douglas Island stopped with the exception of that carried out in the Ready Bullion Mine. That too closed in 1922. We are heading toward a small train of ore cars that were abandoned here when the mining stopped.
Most of the cars have already rusted into components. Aki sniffs at the one intact car. It looks fit enough to haul ore. The sight of the car triggers conflicting feelings about the ruins. Without human intervention the forest will eventually reclaim the land. In a few generations, old growth spruce and hemlock trees could replace the cottonwoods and alders that are now repairing the ground. But I find a beauty in the steel rails that lay rusting on the forest floor, the giant iron gears disappearing under moss, and this one intact ore car.
The forest plants seem confused. Skunk cabbage must think it is already spring. They have sent up fragile green shoots through the bog waters. The next freeze will turn them dead brown. On the trunks of rotting spruce trees, still green sorrel plants try to shake off yesterday’s snow. Only the berry plants have gotten the weather memo.
The blueberry and huckleberry plants have gone to rest for winter. They dropped their berries and leaves last fall. Here and there bright red spheres cling to the dead sprigs of the famine berry plants. But, as their name suggests, they are suppose to make themselves available until the hardscrabble time of late winter.
Nothing on the exposed beach suggests an early spring. No green shows on the brittle beach grass or cow parsnip plants. The dull-green sea and a raft of party-color harlequin ducks riding the swells provide the only natural color. Aki, in her yellow wrap, looks as overdressed as a tuxedoed groom at a baseball game.