On the Kowee Creek its all over but the dying for the pink salmon. Aki and I are looking for Silvers fresh from the sea. We lose hope after passing some nattily dressed fly fishermen on our way downriver who tell us they had no luck.
The trail runs through old growth spruce woods to a large tidal meadow. All drained by the creek. The beautiful woods smell of death. There are no birds and only one set of fresh bear prints crosses the trail just before we make the meadow. Salmon carcasses unmolested by bear or bird hang tangled in the creek’s many log jams. Some hang in neat lines on drift wood as if by a bear preserving meat for the winter. Killed by a recent rain driven flood, the fish ended up on the drift wood when the water receded. The absence of eagle and raven puzzles me. Salmon death camps are usually their scene.
A hunting kestrel flies over us when we break into the meadow. At first we can see well over thigh high grass and wild geraniums, I pick a horse trail heading toward the lower river and soon enter a forest of 6 foot high fireweed stalks, having already flowered and released their down like seeds into the wind. Now they stand flaming red, providing a gift of fall color before dying back to their roots.
Our fireweed forest ends abruptly at the river bank where we stumble on raven chasing a belted kingfisher. The kingfisher lands on a nearby snag, sees us, and flies off with an indignant squawk. In the brief moment before his exit I see the highlights in his oversized eye and stunning blue, white, and black coat. He is the most beautiful bird in our forests. When he flies off I notice piles of freshly chewed salmon carcasses on the trail and bear tracks everywhere. Aki seems relaxed so the bear must be resting. We drop down onto a gravel bar so I can fish.
At first we see only languid pink salmon now drained of color. My footsteps spook one and he swims onto the gravel to our feet. While Aki gives it a cautious sniff as I lift it back into the water. A splash sounds just downriver followed by many more. Sleek silver salmons start leaping around the edge of the eddy I am fishing. Now eagles and ravens join us in the surrounding trees. The ravens try to give me advice on how to catch the salmon but it is no good. The silvers move on upriver as does the raven.
While I fished Aki found some bear poop to roll in. The smell punished me all the way home in the case. Aki paid later by submitting to two baths.
Aki loves this trail for its abundance of robins, thrush, and annoying squirrels. I appreciate its gradual descent through reddening blueberry bushes and the subsequent drop through old growth spruce to the sea.I didn’t expect to make any startling discovery on this walk over well known ground. For some reason I look up just past the blue berry patch and notice for the first time a world of hanging moss just above the trail. Shimmering droplets of rain cling to the tips of the nearest They fill the negative space between tree branch and twig with a lacy screen, like sheer fabric softening the decolletage of a middle aged woman.
I’m surprised again when dropping deeper into the old growth forest where spruce trees rise over a hundred feet above the trail. No moss hangs here. Looking down I begin to appreciate the strange shapes formed where the spruce fasten themselves into the ground. Aki drew my attention to one when she leaped over a thick tree root submerging itself at a gentle angle into moss covered ground.
Some of these spruce rise as straight as a grade schooler’s drawing, swelling only slightly just before entering the ground. Most, having started their life growing out of the trunk of a downed ancestor formed forked trunks. If they also grow up near a glacial erratic they often wrap at least one foot thick branch over the rock before sending it to ground. Of all the organic sculptures scattered around this forest my favorites are the ones where the tree truck frames a large rock with the expose side as vertical as a flat screen television. Aki finds one of these for me but my camera can’t capture its beauty on this dark day. I have to settle for a tree forming a moss covered settee on the forest floor.
This gravel road climbs up from Glacier Highway like it was built for logging. Wide enough for an timber or ore truck it rises past a gravel barrow pit then up through an old growth spruce forest that has never seen professional logging.
At first we are eye level with the forest understory plants, mostly berry brush and devil’s club displaying the reds and yellows of fall. Tall spruce trunks rise naked above the color. Further up the trail we look directly into the thick canopy growth that would block out the sky if we walked beneath it.
The trail flattens out before we rise above the tree tops and then cuts through a muskeg meadow marked by all terrain vehicle tracks. Here, rather than man’s road, we find bear scat darkened with blue berry juice. The bushes lining the meadow have been picked almost clean. I find one berry, late to ripen, that taste as sweet as store bought candy.
After returning to the road we move up to where the cloud cover reaches into the forest to obscure the spruce tops. With Spanish moss drapery distorting their shape the big trees look like ancient Scotch giants about to descend on the Peterson Creek spawning beds.
Aki walks past the giants without concern but stops where the road cuts through thick brush. Like the fool she know me to be, I move ahead. Fifty feet later she joins me at a gallop. Another fifty feet and she discovers something that she practically sucks down into her stomach and then runs large circles around me. Her victory dance.
My glasses fog up each time I try to focus the camera and moisture builds up on my face as we move further into the clouds. The road ends before we are fully enveloped. I’m tempted to follow a rough trail leading to whatever develop that justified construction of the road but turn back just before water logged brush can soak my unprotected jeans.
Looking at this pile of grounded leaves
I wonder why a bear would shake
a fruitless tree
Yesterday its cloak
purple red and orange
offered the only brightness
in a day of gray
Today just a threadbare chasuble
covers its bones
Did he climb it for safety
or jostle just to stand tall
through a colorful shower of leaves?
You never know with bears.
Day three of a heavy rain storm and Aki and I are on a mission to close the circle through these troll woods. We like this mossy place when it rains but the best path through it ends at the Moraine Glacier Trail. The Park Service closed that trail because it crosses Steep Creek, now thick with spawning sockeye salmon. The salmon draw bears who use the moraine trail to get to their meat. With the moraine trail closed we need a new way back to car which doesn’t involve back tracking. Aki hates that.
On the way we pass the patch of burned out forest that yielded unexpected beauty earlier this summer. Lupine now recovered from being burned to the soil line display pale lilac blossoms. Their brothers and sisters on undisturbed ground have long since gone to seed and I wonder if these survivors would have been better off saving root strength for next spring. We’ll know then, if theirs is a foolish or wise choice but for now it’s enough to enjoy their small gift of spring while leaves around them fall.
We enter the true troll woods soon after the burn and discover a well used trail forking right from the one we usually take. A perfectly shaped poplar leaf, its deep green giving way to a wave of yellow marks the junction. We follow a series of these transition leaves up the new trail. I start looking for a witch’s house and remind myself not to let Aki eat the gingerbread if we find it.
The trail leads past trees freshly dropped by beavers and across a narrow but deep channel between two ponds. After that it is marked with mushrooms, not yellowing leaves and peters out when we cross another narrow channel. Aki is willing to go on for she fits easily under the alder brush now blocking the way for me. Turning around I realize that we have been walking on the beaver’s logging roads that cross the channels they prepare for moving wood product to their food pile. I can hear cruise ship buses rounding the visitor center parking area so we have come close to closing the circle but not close enough. “Sorry little dog,” we have to turn back.
Today we drove out the road through serious rain. It’s honest stuff falling hard and straight to earth — a Ketchikan rain. The storm water it produces would drain harmlessly into Ketchikan’s Tongass Narrows but here it overwhelms Juneau’s northern forest. The downpour causes heavy erosion in our tidal creeks and rivers to turn clear waters the color of tea whitened with milk. Now Gasteneau Channel looks like the open drain of an English giant’s tea shop.
The storm must be keeping people in town for we only share this forest trail with birds and the animals drawn here by the tail end of the chum salmon run. Feet from the car Aki steps on a large pile of fresh bear dung, the color and texture of corn mash. I search but find no bones or fresh, just cow parsnip seeds which must taste better to this bear then spawned out salmon. A few crossings of the flooded trail washes Aki’s paw clean. The large leaf devil’s club lining the trail bounce up and down in response to the pounding rain. Aki acts like its a day in high summer, submerging her head in a rodent’s hole then dashing down the trail to sniff out animal sign. I walk without haste behind her like a man comfortable in his rain gear.
Just this side of a muskeg meadow, fast-moving water, this time the color of coffee, floods the trail and soaks my boots and Aki’s fur. Over the meadow fifty or so crows fly in a silent cloud. I look for an eagle or raven among them for crows will unite to drive off bigger birds. Only crows fill the sky, not fighting as I first thought but dancing on gentle airs. It’s complicated choreography but I can make out a few of the steps. Two or three birds climb in a gentle arc. One peals off while the remaining two drop into a shallow dive. The last one to enter the dive catches and then passes the other and then climbs again. On the edge of the meadow Aki finds salmon viscera and the scat of a wolf well fed on salmon. We cross the road and head for the river trail. Two ravens greet us at the trail head, apparently frustrated that we can’t understand their simple directions. They follow us up the trail, stopping every fifty feet to instruct us again. Finally they stop at the door of a new park cabin and stand like dogs waiting to be let in out of the rain. Their house?
On the river a soaked eagle perches on the roots of an upturned drift log. He looks at me as if I brought the rain, spreads his wings then drops them as if too dispirited to fly.
Low clouds and fog obscure the glacier and most of the islands we can see from here on a clear day. Aki runs the beach on a search for clues of those who passed last night but ignores this fierce salmon carcass with its cloudy eye and skin dulled by death. We startle a feeding eagle to flight when rounding False Outer Point but it doesn’t cry out. I listen to the sound of wind move over its flapping wings mix with that of water running through beach gravel.
A whale exhales on breaking the surface near by, drowning out water sounds as it forces air through its blow hole. I turn quickly to the sea but find only disintegrating fog pawing a flat calm channel. Now there is only the sound of the stream, far off eagle complaints and battling gulls’ mews. The low clouds have temporarily grounded the machines of industrial tourism. All I want is for it is continue long enough for a kayak trip to Portland Island on this gentle sea.
My wish cracks the spell and a line of DeHaviland Beavers flies over on their way to the bear viewing concession on Admiralty Island. Their old school radial engines dominate the beach with a deep drone. I imagine myself a dog walker on the Hastings’ shingle cheering on a British squadron of mosquito bombers as they head for danger over the skies of Nazi Germany. I pretend that the planes play a unimagitive bass behind the manic sounds of loons and gulls for the benefit of these two eagles hanging out on the Shaman Island causeway.
Then I turn into the forest to find solace in a recently discovered patch of red huckleberries.
After we move deeper into the forest the skies clear of planes. Here three hemlocks, with deeply furrowed bark line the trail and I wonder why I never noticed their beauty before. Hidden among also rans they took years to discover. That it happened the faint light of this gray day fills me with hope.