When I look up from the field of pink pumpkins, I spot a mountain goat feeding on the Southern slope of Mt. Juneau. Later, at home, I will enlarge the photo I took of the goat and realize that it is starring down at Aki and me. We are doing a circuit through Downtown Juneau. Already I followed the little dog up the gentle Gastineau Avenue grade to where we could look down on the docks, now cruise ship free. Then we dropped to South Franklin Street with its shuttered tee shirt and jewelry shops.
A line of gulls lined the superstructure of the cruise ship docks, dozing in the sun. A handful of smokers had spaced themselves along the dock. Some stood alone looking without much interest at the Douglas Mountain Ridge. Two talked, heads almost touching, as steam rose from their take-away coffee cups. One man, dressed in the business casual shirt and slacks of our commercial classes, lit up a long, smooth Cuban cigar. In short, the goat had plenty to look at from its mountain perch. But it broke off feeding to study a little poodle-mix sniff among a field of pink pumpkins. I suppose it makes sense. The man who painted and planted the pumpkins must have hoped to draw attention to his little field.
Corvids and eagles, mallards and gulls, that’s what dominate the skies above the Fish Creek Delta. For corvids, Aki and I spot the grumpy ones—those without the raven or crow’s sense of humor: Stellar jays and magpies.
Near the pond, four jays rip up chunks of the wet ground and flip them in the air. They make it seem like work, not fun although I can’t imagine what the blue and black birds get out of it. A mature bald eagle perches on a creekside driftwood log, its eyes unfocused. The wind ruffles it rain-damp feathers. Weeks ago salmon thrashed the waters in front of the eagle. Today only rain runoff animates the stream.
Another eagle turns away from us as we approach the spruce tree in which it rests. Two long tailed magpies, black and white, land on the trail ahead of it. Seeing Aki, they fly onto alder branches six feet above the trail. One is shy, but the other magpie lets me approach close enough to recognize the cruelty of its beak.
On gray, flat-light days like this my eye is draw to contrasts. Sometimes I am stopped in my tracks by soft moss crowding over a rough stump. But today, it is the push and pull of color that holds my attention.
The little dog and I are on one of the Gastineau Meadows. She refuses to leave the dry trail to join me out on the spongy meadow where clumps of golden grass grow on fields of their yellow-brown cousins. She isn’t unhappy. There is pee mail to check. But her eyebrows rise with concern if I venture too fare off the trail. So, even when a clump of now-scarlet sorrel would only require a few more steps for a good viewing, I turn my back on it.
It’s hard not to witness the meadow’s fall color without thinking about seasonal death. While people and dogs continue life through the winter, these colorful plants will die back to their parent plant’s roots. It’s a practical way to extend life for the plants but it is hard not to see the end of fall color as a kind of death. I certainly feel its absence during the brown time that comes between colorful autumn and white winter.
Aki and I are climbing the gentle grade of Perseverance Trail being pursued by a gang of day care kids. We have sunshine on a day the weather guys predicted it would rain. Ghosts of fog rise suddenly off the stream only to die quickly in the strengthening sun. I should be ecstatic. But I in frustrated in my efforts to put some distance between the kids and my little dog. I am living out this line from “Listening,” a poem by Jennifer Grotz: “the dog walker vectors from here to there, frustrated by his little lingering inspector.” That’s the little dog and I in spades—she stopping to sniff every few feet while the kids gain.
The kids are cute and relatively well behaved. But I know Aki treats all kids that size as puppies ready to engage in sometimes rough play. They are charming, this assemblage of pre-schoolers dressed in their bright outdoor gear, each gripping a loop that is tied to a long web line. At the head is a teacher, struggling like a lead dog to keep the gangline straight. They climb up a one of the steeper grades on the trail, turn around and run screaming down the hill. When we can only see their abandoned gangline on the road, I am finally able to relax into the hike.
T.S. Elliot claimed that April is the cruelest month. But he didn’t live in a rain forest. I nominate October for the title. For Southeast Alaska, October is a month of waves—one North Pacific storm surge after another passes over us. But between the storms, we often enjoy brief breaks of sun that bring out the beauty in the perpetually wet landscape. We have had Octobers full of clear, crisp days. Memories of those Octobers make today’s walk through the rain forest bittersweet.
Today’s storm raised the water levels in the forest beaver ponds to flood stage. Aki and I have to leap across rivulets of overflow. One is so wide and deep that Aki has to wade chest deep to cross it. Even through she has spent many days walking in the rain, the little dog always tries to avoid the wet or muddy portions of the trail. So she hesitated because wading into the half-a-meter wide stream of pond overflow. Then she minced across it slowly, as if testing the gravel bottom. Worried that the current would carry her away, I almost lifted her up. But she was across before I could help.
On his rainless day that started with full sunshine that faded to gray when a cloud bank moved in off the Pacific, Aki and I have the moraine to ourselves. I suppose that is not quite true. There are squirrels chitterling challenges at the little dog. The silence we would otherwise enjoy is broken by fast fired rifles booming out from the nearby rifle range.
Aki rolls in some fresh beaver scat as we walk through one of their clear-cut areas. Water backing up from one of their larger damns floods the spot that offers the best view of their lake. But we don’t see the big rodents. Two Barrow golden eye ducks, spooked by our presence, burst off of the lake but some return to the surface. In a few moments they calm down and swim slowly in front of where we stand. They clearly intend to claim possession of this lake, at least until the first hard freeze.
The lakeside cottonwood trees and willows still possess most of their leaves but that will change during the next windstorm. Already their leaves are closer to brown than autumn yellow.
On gray days, even the palest yellow draws the eye. At least it draws my eye. The dog’s enjoyment of a rain forest is not dependent on light. We turn a blind corner on the trail and Aki raises her head and cringes back, as if she hit a wall of foul smell. I can’t detect any scents other than the moist leaves filling the gaps between the understory plants.
The poodle mix relaxes, as she has solved the puzzle but moves forward with caution. At a place where a faint game trail intersects the one we are using, she takes a quick sniff and trots on.
While not a great reader of animal tracks, I have spent enough time with Aki to understand her sign language. She smelled a bear when we rounded the blind corner, determined that the bear was fading, then tracked it to where it dropped away into the forest.
Soon we hear the sound of out-of-sort gulls coming from the beach. I imagine a white cloud of them fighting with eagles or waiting for a humpback whale to power through a ball of herring. But when we reach the beach, the gulls are jammed up against the beach by high tide. One stands on a rock just offshore and lectures his flock. I wonder if gulls celebrate their sabbath on Saturday.