Aki is in Sitka. She and I flew here from Juneau yesterday. It was over 80 degrees when we left Juneau and 65 here. The little dog had two firsts today—tasting salmon berries and sniffing brown bear poop. On her home trails in Juneau, she has intimidated black bears. That won’t fly with these Sitka brown bears. Rather than standing tall and yelling, which works with black bears, the only way to survive a brown bear attack is to play dead.
Before the hike, I visited the Fortress of the Bears. Aki stayed in the car. The fortress founder has filled the scoured out mixing tanks of a defunct pulp mill with orphaned black and brown bears. Except for a clownish black bear, the critters in the fortress have retained their natural dignity. From a safe view point above the tanks, you can watch the bears feed and wrestle with driftwood logs. Ravens and eagles skulk in the trees that line the tank enclosures. I enjoy the views but was thankful not to share them with the little poodle-mix.
It’s 31 degrees centigrade. I am riding a mountain bike up the Kettle Valley Trail. But for a washout I would have missed seeing a family of geese tucked against the opposite shore of the river. There are fluffy chicks hanging closely to their mom.
After a wheat truck bounces past the ranch house and the dust that it raised settles, I can hear bird song coming from the shelter belt. Meadow larks and red winged blackbirds, perched on the bare tips of blend in their songs. My grandfather planted the row of Russian olive trees to give the house some protect from storm winds. Today it shelters meadow larks, pheasants, and the occasional deer.
I ride toward the site of the one room schoolhouse that my mother and uncles learned to read and write. The building is gone now. Some of the bench families have buried their dead in a small cemetery near the old school site. It offers a beautiful view of wheat fields and Square Butte beyond.
Even though the road toward Square Butte is just drying out from a recent storm, I take it. Two prong horn antelope trot across a wheat field and seem to pose with the butte as a backdrop. Later I surprise a mule deer reclining in some summer fallow. It will stand up, shake off sleep, spot my bicycle, and run full speed toward the nearest shelter belt.
Aki would not have liked the barn cat that greeted my arrival at my grandfather’s Montana ranch. I still think of it as his even though he died in 1923. He homesteaded the bench land before he passed and left my grandmother with three children under 8 and a crop in the ground. Thanks to her two bachelor brothers, she held on to the ranch through the depression, surviving drops in wheat prices and hail storms that flatted the whole year’s crop in minutes.
Last night I slept alongside the Missouri River in the hotel where my grandparents spent their one night honeymoon. The next day they rode 40 miles to the ranch in an open buckboard. It was well below zero and snowing. They lived in a one room shack until grandpa built the Craftsman style house where I ate dinner. It was ordered from a Sears catalogue and shipped in parts from Chicago.
Meadow larks sang while I visited the family cemetery and later when I walked among the abandoned tractors, harrows, and shacks that have accumulated over a hundred years of farming. I spotted a loaping bear cross the far side of a field of winter wheat. A half an hour later an antelope trotted into view near the same place. Beyond the antelope low rounded hills and a flat topped butte rose above the field. The farmers of my family are responsible for beauty of the ground where the antelope stands. It enhances the natural beauty of the high ground beyond.
Yesterday, an osprey watched me peddled along the Washington shore of the Snake River. I always considered the fish eagles birds that only work clear waters. From it perch in a cottonwood tree, this citified eagle could watch cars and trucks clank over the interstate suspension bridge. Across the river, a factory cranked out bullets. What it did next left no doubt that it was the real deal.
The bird launched from its perch and hung in mid-air above the river, beating its broad wings to tread air like a swimmer can tread water. It dived toward the river. A sceen of trees blocked my view of the osprey until it had pull back above the tree line, its talons empty.
This morning I passed another urban marmot as well as a great blue heron that let me approach much closer than its Alaskan cousins. Later in the day a coyote crossed the road in front of me. I have long known of that trickster’s ability to thrive on a city’s margins. I suspected that herons can handle the stress of suburban living. But the osprey really surprised me.
I am on the dike that protects Lewiston, Idaho from the Clearwater River. Aki would like the sunshine and cool, early morning temperature. She would be intrigued by the marmot that just ran across the bike path. If my little dog were here the marmot have slipped under a rock for protection. Instead the long-tailed rodent is only 7 meters away, enjoying the prairie light.
I’m enjoying the light too. Yesterday heavy rain washed the sky clean. No pollution softens the crisp sunshine or deadens the intense blue sky. It’s as if the marmot and I have been transported back to the time when Lewis and Clark were rescued by the Nez Pierce people: before the car, and grain trucks, and pulp mills.
It’s early morning. Rain spots the windows of a railcar hauling forty writers toward the glacier trailhead. Some of the writers are published. Two are well established. All of us are talking loud enough to be heard over the creaks and grumbles of the White Pass Yukon train car. If each writer were making this trip solo, we would be quiet observers. We’d pay attention to the amplified, chipper voice that calls our attention to the U.S. Custom’s station on the Alaska border and then a great view of Skagway Harbor.
After the trail groans to a stop at Mile 14 we leave our warm, noisy car and watch the other train passengers—who all slept last night on a cruise ship—watch us. We pull on rain gear and start the mile and a half hike to the glacier cabin. The sounds made by a glacier-fed river dominates the walk. We pass a spruce tree scarred by the claws of stretching black bears. I can’t resist placing four fingers into one set of claw marks. Nearby beads of rain water weigh down the leaves of lupines.
After the cabin two friends and I move on toward the glacier on a trail over moraine. Not enough time has passed since the retreating glacier exposed it for a proper forest to form here. In a half-mile the stubby alder and popular woods end. We see, for the first time, the glacier and U-shaped valley of rocky rubble dropped in place by melting ice. Walls of moraine rise a half-mile on both sides of us. In sad realization, I understood just how deep the remnant glacier was just a few hundred years ago.