The weather service issued a heavy-rain advisory for this morning. Mendenhall Lake could rise two feet and Montana Creek is likely to flood. In my mind I measure how high the arctic tern nesting colony is above the normal lake level. The colony just might survive a two-foot rise but not much more. If birds can experience fear and grief the terns, who migrated here from Patagonia to nest and feed, must have heavy hearts.
Knowing that there is nothing we can do for the tern colony, I decided to drive Aki out to the Eagle River. From under a bed the little dog watched me assemble camera and rain gear, showing no interest in joining the expedition. She listened to rain tattooing our roof as I pulled on rain pants and jacket. Just when I was about to walk out the door without the little dog, she stretched and trotted up, tail wagging. Maybe the rainy weather made her sleepy.
The rain stopped by the time we reached Eagle River. But the sky stayed gray. Aki jumped out of the car and headed up the trail. I followed behind. We entered the forest where green understory plants were already taller than me. The time of flowers has passed and that of colorful berries is weeks away. The forest only offered varying shades of green. But envelopment in such a green world calms like a day spa can never do. I must have slowed my pace in response because Aki stopped often to stare back at me with what looked like concern.
Later we crossed a riverside meadow rich in flowers. Blue lupine, magenta shooting stars and nagoon berry flowers, yellow buttercups, red columbines, and wild strawberries thrived. I remembered summers passed, when we watched chum salmon swim up the tiny watercourses that drain the meadow. At high flood tides, the salmon would swim across the meadow and die where the retreating waters left them. That part of their bodies not carried away by carrion birds, stayed to fertilize the meadow flowers and berry brush.
While planning where to hike this morning, I look out at the garden where heavy raindrops make the tough kale leaves bounce. No wind blows them off course. Already the storm is soaking the old growth canopy. But the little dog and I still head to the Outer Point Trailhead.
I am not surprised to find the parking lot empty and pleased that nothing falls from the sky. Ironically, inside the forest that usually protects us from the worst of storms, it is raining. Fat drops drip from the canopy of spruce and hemlock. Storm light, more pearl than gray in color, reaches into the forest and turns the surface of a beaver pond into a fairy tale mirror. It might tell Aki that she is the fairest dog in the forest. That wouldn’t be a lie since the place is empty except for local residents like the red-breasted sapsucker hammering into a 100 year old hemlock. The overdressed bird grips an imperfection in the bark with one foot, which in my mind, makes it look desperate, as it pounds yet another hole into the hemlock. Hell for the hungover must be full of such unrelenting woodpeckers.
Islands protect this crescent-shaped bay. It’s the perfect spot to house people who make their living on the sea. Once it did. The Auk people lived here before the offer of mining jobs ten miles away in Juneau seduced them to move into town. The bay’s graduated gravel beach would still offer easy access to the sea for the Auk people’ big cedar canoes. Now thimbleberry thickets cover ground where they stored their canoes in winter. They left behind a totem pole. But, the happy cries of their children have been replaced by robin songs and thrush trills.
Aki and I are the only ones here to listen to the birds. The beach is empty of people, dogs, and even sea birds. Only the fins of Dahl porpoise mar the bay’s flat-calm surface. In winter harlequin ducks and scoters will fish the bay close to the shore. Gulls will bicker on the beach. But they have no need of shelter today. They are out chasing feed or in the gulls’ case, haunting salmon streams.
Today the ban on king salmon fishing ends. Men around Juneau will troll for what salmon that haven’t already entered their spawning streams. The commercial guys will haul their catches to a processing plant two bays south of here. A white cloud of sea gulls will form over each boat as it unloads kings. In Southeast Alaska, where we still rely on nature directly or indirectly to feed our families, such scenes at a fish plant are metaphors for joy.
Aki and I have climbed this gravel road in all seasons, winter through fall. The calendar tells me it is still spring but I recognize the green of high summer when I see it. The showy summer plants have all leafed out and now crowd the road, turning it into a green tunnel. Feeling slightly claustrophobic, I speed up to reach the proper trail to Gastineau Meadows.
As usual, Aki is all about the smells. She drags her tiny feet to buy time for sniffing. I watch her closely as she smells a fresh explosion of bear scat, ready to grab her if she starts to roll in it. She is fully capable of rubbing her shoulders into the foul stuff as her face relaxes into ecstasy. Today she only gives it a cursory sniff before moving onto the meadow.
Here the time of magenta flowers has passed. With the exception of a scattering of chocolate lilies and yellow blossoms I can’t identify, white flowers dominate the meadow. Around dying pine trees, sorrels bloom as do the tasty Labrador tea plants. The lush greenness of the day emphasizes the dead nature of the countless pine skeletons that crowd together on wet sections of meadow. They lived like anorectics on the shallow, poorly drained ground, while meters away Sitka Spruce thrive on better fare.
Rain or boredom seems to have depressed the Treadwell eagles this morning. Even though it is low tide and therefore the best time to find food or carrion, two mature bald eagles are glued to the tops of splintered pilings. Two more hunker on the beach near the water. The inclement weather doesn’t seem to have bothered the ravens. They fly back and forth over the glory hole, harassing first the piling plunked eagles and then returning to the beach occupied by those squatting on the sand.
Aki finds a cache of dog kibble that has been sprinkled on the top of a foot-high piling. Someone, perhaps the sprinkler, placed a flat stone over the kibble but Aki manages to tongue out a morsels before I convince her to stop. Two ravens land on nearby pilings to watch. I have little doubt that they will have the stone off and the kibble down their beaks before we make it back to the car.
Information posted on a government sign made Aki and I cut short our planned visit to the moraine. It warned of the presence of a black bear sow with two cubs. The bear had lost its patience with dogs and their humans. No one had been hurt, but I didn’t want to put the bear in danger of assassination if it attacked my little dog or I. Instead we head over to the glacier visitor’s center and walk toward Nugget Falls. This turned out to be a good decision.
The glacier this time of year is usually a place to be avoided. Industrial tourism buses rumble to and fro, picking up and dropping off cruise ship tourists. Seasonable government employees work crowd control. You can still see the big river of ice but somehow it seems diminished when viewed from within a crowd. This morning it is too early for the buses or the government minders. Even the wind is absent. Without it to ruffle the water, Mendenhall Lake is a giant mirror. Arctic terns temporality shatter the glacier’s reflection when they slam into the lake’s surface after salmon smolt.
I’m surprised to see the sharp tailed birds. Last week a glacial dam broke, raising the lake to flood stage. In years past, similar floods have covered the tern’s sandy nesting area. But this morning, a half-a-dozen birds fish for young in the lake. The chitty conversation of the terns can be heard over the Nugget Falls’ roar, robin’s sweet song, and the off-key whistle of a territorial thrush.
Last year’s weather was kind to this mountain meadow and its wild flowers. Like the California desert after a wet winter, the meadow is the midst of a super bloom. In some places, wild rhododendrons and bog rosemary form a magenta rash. In other spots they only pox the meadow.
The place is also thick with flowering heather and shooting stars. The later are fading from magenta to lilac as they slide toward their annual death. It’s all summer and promise until I spot young fireweed plants forcing their way skyward. Soon they will set stalks of magenta beauty while continuing to grow new buds. The blooming of these will mark the end of summer and mark the coming of wet weather. But in between summer and fall, the fireweed will fill the sky with feathery seed cases—reminding us of the snows to come.