Yesterday I rode an Alaskan ferry home from Skagway. Aki greeted me at the door. She looked a little sad, like she spent the whole of my absence in an unlit cell. Even though I knew she had enjoyed herself when I was away, I gave her cuddle and promised that after we both slept we would go on an adventure. This morning we are heading for the Troll Woods.
Bird song brightens what otherwise would be a gray day. It helps me to ignore the rain that dimples Moose Lake and slowly soaks into my sweatshirt hood. The rain softens the air but not Aki’s interest in a patch of nagoon berry plants. In August, when ripe fruit weighs down the plants, a berry picker will approach the patch with a combination of greed and fear that a bear or other berry picker will chase them off the patch. He or she won’t know what Aki does—that at least one dog had marked the patch with its pee.
On the path to Crystal Lake, in one of the more remote sections of the woods, we pass shy maiden flowers. Gently I lift one of the white, star-shaped blooms for a proper look. The flower offers less beauty than a shoot star, not as much drama as a lupine stalk, but has no reason to hide its face.
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.
I should be heading back to Skagway. Another day of writing school will start soon and I haven’t had breakfast. I’d be back on the trail if not for the duck.
He and I have a little pocket cove to ourselves now that the eagle and tern have left. The duck keeps repeating a puzzling routine: roll headfirst into the water, pop up a minute later, check behind for predators by doing a 180 degree turn, return to his course.
The eagle is back and the duck just slipped away, trying to keep a rocky point between he and the eagle. Time too for me to go. Soon the helicopters and the other engines of industrial tourism will be firing up.
The rain, the absence of unnatural sounds, and the calming dominance of forest greens are needed this morning. The little dog and I are near worn out by our recent stint of warm and sunny weather. Like the just sprouted seeds in our garden, we needed a little water from the sky.
The flowering forest plants are ahead of schedule. Tiny green balls have already replaced the lantern-shaped flowers on blueberry bushes. Yellow water lily flowers unfold onto the surface of the beaver pond. The fallen petals of cloudberry flowers dot the muskeg meadow we must cross to reach the beach.
No one would call all these small beauties exciting. But I’m fine with that. We had out excitement quota filled for the day when I stopped for a moment at the boat ramp. The old troller boat that had been beached was now afloat just offshore. I wanted to photograph it against a background of the smuggler cove islands softened by low lying clouds. Twenty meters away two eagles fought over a scrap of fish. The winner carried it down the beach, leaving the loser to sulk.
Thinking about the disappointed eagle, I follow Aki onto the Outer Point Beach. A solitary eagle flies from Shaman Island to a beachside spruce. Otherwise, only gulls and gulls animate the grey scene. A puff of vapor forms above the surface of Stephen’s Passage. In seconds I can make out the black back of an exhaling humpback whale. Just behind the surfacing whale, another vapor plume appears.
The whale sightings provide more reassurance than drama. I’ve seen humpbacks breach near my kayak. But reassurance that there are whales is all I need on this gentle morning.
Aki is covered in mud again. It just took seconds for her to sneak past her human family and slip into a pond that is thick with decomposing plant matter. We aren’t worried. Soon we will reach a pocket beach where she will get a quick bath.
It’s Memorial Day in Alaska. For Aki’s family it’s a day to drop out of normal life and spend time with each other. What better way is there to honor the family’s deceased? While Aki chases her Frisbee, I remember my parents and grandparents and the other honored dead. If they retain the love they had for life after joining the dead, they would smile knowing that their living kin were enjoying life, human and wild, on a wild beach rather than standing before their headstones.
We spooked an immature bald eagle to flight when we reached the beach. The crows moved in after the eagle left, teasing mussel shells off exposed rocks. The ones they couldn’t crack with their beaks were carried into the air and then dropped on a flat rock, which served first as an anvil and then a table for the hungry birds.
Aki and I made it to the Fish Creek Delta early enough to catch the clarifying effect of early light. But this morning broke hazy. The air it offers is obscured by forest fire smoke or pollution carried here by the jet stream. It feels like end times rather than a fresh summer morning.
Robin, sparrow, and the other songbirds work hard to lift the mood. It could be worse. We could have to suffer the complaints of the nesting crows. Near the pond an eagle roosts in the top of a spruce, it’s head turned away from the sun.
The little dog and I press on, my spirited lifted by the strong display of wildflowers on the spit that separates the creek from Fritz Cove. Purple lupine stalks dominate but must still compete with older swatches of magenta shooting stars and yellow buttercups. A single chocolate lily opens In the middle of the established flowers.
A single kayaker slides into Fish Creek just as we reach the creek’s mouth. Normally, I would grumble to Aki that the man’s presence has driven away shorebirds and ducks. He couldn’t have this morning. We haven’t seen any waterfowl. Besides, the present of another human is proof that the apocalypse didn’t arrive while we were rounding Fish Creek Pond.