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I Used to Like Leaning Into the Wind

Aki moves along a low berm, just high enough to protect her from the storm. I walk behind her, feeling the full force of the wind. It rushes along soft particles of snow that stream across the trail. I used to love leaning into the wind, little dog. Aki can’t hear me over the sound of wind and the surf hitting the Eagle River bar.

            Off shore, beyond the surf line, a dozen gulls harass a harbor seal. It gives the noisy crowd a classic stunned-seal expression. Three other seals ride up and down a standing wave in the middle of the river. They must be searching for the salmon smolt that slip down Eagle River to the sea this time of year. I hope to find geese or ducks sheltering from the storm along the river bank. Four mallard drakes do waddle into the river and fly a wide arc around us. 

            Feeling cold, and a little cheated, I lead Aki back to the car, leaning into the wind the whole way. We drive over the Peterson Lake salt chuck where Aki and I saw a trio of river otters last fall. The otters have a dugout condo on the north side of the chuck. But none show themselves while Aki and I explore. 

            A small raft of mergansers dive on salmon smolt in the ocean just off the chuck. They remind me of the importance of salmon to nature’s economy. In a few months the first of three waves of adult salmon will leap and power their way up the rocky salt chuck and into Peterson Lake. They will be the lucky ones. Many others will have already ended up as food for seals and sea lions, orcas and human fishermen. Once they have rested in the lake, the salmon will move into Peterson Creek to spawn or be eaten by bears. The bodies of those who manage to spawn will feed eagles, ravens, crows, and gulls or serve as fertilizer for the rain forest. 

Sheltering Raven

I heard a raven croaking disapproval as I walked home from Downtown Juneau. I am used to negative ravens, who usually pronounce judgment from exposed roof tops. But, this morning’s raven sheltered from wind and flurries of wet snow under an overhanging roof. I, bent into the wind, squinting to protect my eyes from driven snow, socks soaked by sidewalk slush, agreed with raven. This was a day to take shelter from the storm.

            Unfortunately, Aki still needed her walk. The little dog was all innocent excitement while being dressed. She charged out the door, took a few steps in slushy snow. 7 cm deep, and stopped dead. She would have gone back inside if I didn’t coax her out into the street. There she could walk in wet, but not slushy tire tracks. 

            Street traffic increased as we moved toward downtown. We could no longer walk in tire tracks. Aki minced her way along, lifting her soaked paws in and out of the slush. She even gave a feeble protest when I turned back. After being dried off at home, the little dog got an extra-large treat.

Rainy Day Gifts

During my recent visit to Talkeetna, Alaska for a writer’s workshop, KTNA, the local public radio station was kind enough to record me reading of “Dirty Work,” an essay that first appeared in Gravel, a literary journal of the University of Arkansas. Here is the link to the radio website if you would like to listen to the reading. https://ktna.org/2020/02/susitna-writers-voice-2-2-2020-dirty-work-by-daniel-branch/

Aki and I returned home wet from this morning’s walk. She sleeps curled up near one of our radiators. Before we left, the sound of rain drops hitting our kitchen window discouraged her for leaving the house. Eventually she agreed to join me in the car. Seeking a sheltered hike, we drove out to North Douglas and stopped in the Rainforest Trail parking lot. But first we had driven past a pod of sleeping Stellar sea lions. 

            Most of the pod huddled around one of their brothers who floated on his side with a pectoral fin in the air. These had their eyes closed. One sea lion swam in front of his sleeping brothers, eye wide open. He must have been the one that croaked out a warning. The pod didn’t panic and dive. They just slept on. That’s how we left then as we drove on to the trailhead. 

            The trail provided us with a lesson on the value of old growth forests in winter. Snow still covered the trail and ground where it cut through alders and blueberry bushes. There was less snow after we entered a newish hemlock and spruce forest. The ground was bare under the big old growth trees. We looked for the deer that seek out such areas of old growth in winter. Saw none. 

The rain was flooding beaver creek, pushing muskeg brown water over the top of white ice. The ice seemed to be lit from behind like a stain glass window. Water running over the ice glowed with the ice light. In the rain-drab forest, the creek scene was a miracle of bright colors, as pleasant a surprise as the sleeping sea lions.   

Aki’s Edge

Aki wants to use the campground trail—the one jammed with noisy school kids. From the racket they make, they must be as charged up by the sudden appearance of the sun as me. We try to avoid little kids. The little dog tends to treat them as puppies. She loves to dash up to them barking a “hey how are you guys doing” bark. 

Since they don’t speak dog, the kids usually mistake her exuberance for aggression. I lead her away from the packed campground trail for one covered with soft snow. It follows the contours of the lake shore. 

            Last night’s freeze formed a light crust on the snow, just enough to allow the 10-pound poodle-mix to trot across its surface. My boot crash through after every step. Aki flies over the snow, rooming far and wide in search of interesting smells. I plod on, my boots soaking up moisture from the wet snow beneath the crust. 

            I had planned to follow the lake shore to where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. But it takes a lot of energy to pull my boot free from the snow after each step. I may not make it all the way the river. Aki must sense this. I spot her waiting for me at the start of a path that will offer quick access to the campground trail. In seconds both us are walking comfortably on the top of the firm trail. 

No So Wild

I heard their snuffling behind me before I saw them. Two golden retrievers, each wearing a cowboy-style bandana instead of a collar, surprise Aki while she is sniffing some pee mail. It makes me wonder about my little dog’s hearing. I could hear the retrievers even over the sound of my skis. 

            The campground trail, where Aki and I are traveling, is covered with firm snow. After she plays with the two goldens, the poodle-mix tears ahead. She manages to run in one of the set ski tracks. She disappears around the corner, leaving me to wonder how she manages not to trip up in the narrow track.

            This is not one of my favorite places to visit. With its groomed trails that wind through a thick spruce forest, it feels more like an athletic field than a wild place. I can glimpse the river when the trees thin out. Each time I do I want to step out of my skis and walk down the river bank where a brace of mergansers or a nervous deer might be seen. But the glide and slide rhythm of skiing is addictive. And Aki is always just ahead, drawn down the trail by lingering smells.

Raven Vandels

A mess awaited me when I step outside this morning. Ripped paper packaging covered the front porch. A trail of it led to a box that contained a coffee pot that I had ordered. Through holes in the box I could see that the coffee pot was still intact. This was the work of a raven. Only one of their powerful beaks could make such holes. 

            Our neighborhood ravens mess with more delivered packages than a heroin addict. If I don’t grab a package off the porch as soon as the mailman places it there, it is likely to end up with raven beak holes. Last year I chased two ravens away from a package just delivered to our neighbor. It contained homemade fudge. I was too late to save another box containing Sees Candy. When I arrived nothing remained of the chocolates but the little brown paper wrappers they originally sat in. While trying figure out why a raven would attack a package that didn’t contain any food, just my coffee pot package, I took Aki on a walk to the Juneau waterfront. We passed a raven strolling down the sidewalk like it owned it. 

First Snow

I am in Anchorage, on the hillside above town, watching the first snow of the year whiten the ground. Aki is in a Juneau, in the rain. I wish I were on skis or even wearing boots, getting ready to explore one of the hillside trails. But I’m inside, drinking coffee and listening to the words of fellow writers. As the snow falls, the ideas build one upon another.