Monthly Archives: August 2013

It’s Best During a Storm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAki trots ahead along a wet, 12 inch wide plank trail that crosses this mountain meadow. Still wearing her red waterproof wrap, she ignores the wind driven rain. I fall behind while trying to photograph ancient, twisted pines in front of tendrils of mountain clouds. As usual, capturing the most seductive view would require pointing my camera into the wind and rain but I can capture Aki trotting in the other direction.

I don’t know about the little dog but I am drawn to mountain meadows on these last days of summer. They are best during the drama of a storm when rain water glistens on plants in fall color and on sweet blue berries suspended inches from the wet meadow by tough little plants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFeet encased in Extra Tuff boots and the rest of me in rain gear, I move away from the boardwalk and harvest the low bush blue berries. Aki wanders about then returns without her rain wrap. Snapping out of the zen like berry picking state, I search for the wrap, finding it on the boardwalk. Stuffing it my jacket pocket I lead the little dog on to a less visited portion of the meadow and fall upon a forest of miniature blue berry bushes, all bearing ripe fruit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAForgetting about Aki’s wrap and the weather I reduce the world to this field of blues. As I pick the wind blows back my rain jacket hood. Rain soaks my hat and Aki. I don’t notice until standing up for a stretch. Shivering, Aki fixes me with a “this isn’t so much fun anymore” look. Leaving behind unharvested wealth, I head back to the car with a wet dog and several cups of berries.

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Remnant of Summer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen sunshines here in late August, on a day designated for rain by the weatherman, you do something special.  Aki sensing something is up, follows me around the house. Her little toe nails click on the floor as she traces my steps around the kitchen. Her other human and I assemble a picnic lunch and collect canoeing supplies. We also pack the cut down soy sauce jugs used for berry picking. The little dog’s excitement grows with the pile building near the front door.

After securing the canoe to the car we head out to Mendenhall Lake then paddle over to a spot known for its crop of low bush blueberries. Aki paces back and forth in the canoe as we move across the lake, squeaking now and then with excitement.  With the air clear from the recent rain storm, everything sparkles from deep blue sky to dirty white glacial ice to metal gray lake water. Yellowing leaves of shoreside willows add some balance from the warmer side of the color wheel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile looking for the best blue berry patches I find this dragonfly with beautiful turquoise and black body but dull transparent wings. The left edges of both sets are damaged by what looks like bite marks. We harvest a litre of sweet blues. Aki eats some from our hands but refuses to pick her own, lazy thing. I feel lazy too and nap for a bit on the beach while the little dog stands guard.

The sun still yields it’s summer strength in protected areas but the wind now flowing over glacier ice is autumnal. Already clouds obscure the Mendenhall Towers and dapple glacial ice with shadow. Fall is almost here but now we have a litre of summer to carry us through the first few weeks.

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Bears and Dive Bombing Ravens

L1210438Head down, feet a shuffle, I carefully follow Aki onto a slime-slick boardwalk. For the first time on this hike through a riverine wood, I act on concern, even fear; not of animals but of falling hard on the boardwalk. I can almost hear the snap of bone, feel the pain of a break. Just minutes ago we passed without much thought through an area heavily used by bears. Remains of their salmon dinners rotted on the trail near great piles of disorganized bear scat and trails from the river recently pounded flat by their large flat paws. Then I only worried that Aki, overcome by attraction, would roll in something foul. When did fear of my own frailty supplant that of the wild?

We successfully negotiate the board walk onto a large muskeg meadow, a swamp really, where ravens are holding a noisy confab. I’ve heard the big black birds make the strangest sounds, mimick the music of power line transformers or water dropping into a pond, imitate a crying cat or the song of another bird. I’ve never before heard them make these sounds. One dive bombs Aki when she wanders onto the meadow. Heads down we move under an angry raven’s escort to the road. He and a couple of companions watch until we almost reach the river. In the distance I hear a higher pitch raven cry and wonder if they were having a naming ceremony. Much I do not know about ravens.

L1210457Thinking we have have enough drama for the day I walk to river, now swollen by a big high tide and watch spawned out chum salmon swim aimlessly along the beach. Toward the mountains a moving line of smoke-like fog traces the river course. Turning upriver we a find a young adult bear fishing for salmon on a tributary. Standing among at least 20 carcasses, he harvests the richest bits from one–stomach, eggs, brains—then ambles over to the stream to pluck out a fresh victim. L1210458

Thinking all other bears will be targeting this food rich stream, I take Aki off her lead and head toward the car.  When we reach a spot where the trail comes very close to the river, another adult bear, river water pouring off thick black fur, pulls itself onto the trail, spots me, and bolts at full speed away. I am inclined to treat this as ratification of my realignment of fear when Aki take off after the bear.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (first respectable source I could find on the internet), a black bear can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Aki is faster than this bear and gains on him as I call out for her return. Bear corners well enough to make a tight turn on a steep trail leading into a small copse of riverside trees. Aki overshoots the trail then makes her own way into the wood. In the silence that follows I move slowly toward the ittle patch of trees listening for the patter of Aki’s paws on gravel or, the worst, her death cry.  Eventually she trots up as if nothing had happened. The bear must have returned to the river before she found him.

L1210466(While writing about bears and dive bombing ravens, I received an automated phone call from the University of Alaska informing me and other students of a non-fatal shooting on the Anchorage on campus and that the shooter was still at large.)

Bruises of Stress or Early Fall?

P1110185Walking with Aki up the Perseverance Trail, I silently ask why this small stand of devil’s club is yellowing up. “Aki, what about those currents growing along that protected drainage, why are their still perfect leaves already cadmium red?” Under today’s gray skies it is easy to forget the many bright days of this sun rich summer. Maybe the currents and this precocious devil’s club are early harvesters, rushing to secure their riches before the onset of autumn storms. More likely I’m misreading bruises of stress; ignoring ragged brown edges of insect damage to enjoy an early taste of Fall.  P1110172

End of Summer Blues

P1110162Aki and I walk the ghost trails of Treadwell. The once vibrant mining community was abandoned after a 1917 collapse flooded the tunnels it sent out into Gasteneau Channel. Today it’s ruled by deciduous trees: alders and cottonwoods. In summer they and the understory plants almost cover up the ruins.  At summer’s end the cover slips away, revealing twisted rails and pipes that appear to grow out or through tree trunks.  Weird machine parts, made beautiful by eroding rust appear leaning against spruce trunks.

P1110156Hard brown seeds of Cow Parsnip manage a tiny glow of beauty in the soft rain. The inverted pyramid assemblages contrast the droopy brown leaves of the mother plant. They  have already sent a season’s worth of nutrients to the roots.  So begins the end game of summer.

I look for floral color but only find the remains of Touch-Me-Not flowers—little cornucopias still hanging from mother by impossibly thin strands. Filling in for the real thing, yellow and green cottonwood leaves have fallen into interesting shapes on still green Elderberry brush.

P1110158Treadwell, with it’s “all good things must come to an end” message, is a good place to adjust to summer’s end. It is coming. Already the fireweed are heading out with seeds they soon will release in a storm of white.  Those berries not harvested by animal or man drop in ripeness, silver salmon color up in their natal streams, and bears build blankets of fat to take them through winter. In weeks Treadwell and other collections of leaf trees will be a celebration of shapes and we will look through them to the channel, our bringer of autumn storms.  P1110153

Mountain Berry Picking

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAki, her back to me and the berry patch, watches a nearby path. I’d like to think she is on guard duty. She never has to prove herself as only mosquitos threaten on this mountain meadow.

Perhaps it’s the result of a high summer of sunshine and warmth, or just luck. but big blue globes hang from many of these dwarf blueberry bushes. They taste sweet, unlike their cousins that grow on larger plants under old growth forest canopies. Mixed in I find the segmented, orange fruit of cloudberries. We once picked them and the low bush blues on the Kuskokwim River tundra. These mountain berries taste almost as good.

I pick for an hour before moving on, boots soaked by the saturated muskeg meadow, mind suffused with the peace that comes from meditation, effortless playing of music, and picking berries.  My harvest will work its magic again in the morning, making a feast out of Scottish oatmeal and milk.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Riding with Pedro

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy biking partner and I are being taken to the alpine in one of the older White Pass Yukon rail carriages—the one set aside for hikers and German tourists. We could be riding the section of the Klondike Highway that climbs 12 miles from Skagway, Alaska to White Pass, sometimes at a 12 percent grade. Instead we relax, listening to a Yukon gold rush lesson from a disembodied voice generated several cars back as the train clunks over narrow gauge track. In its bowels rest Pedro and Side Meat, the weighed down touring bicycles we will ride 328 miles of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to Haines, Alaska.  I should be reflecting on the challenges ahead — steep grades, old legs, bears, bad weather, trouble finding drinking water or even beer. Instead I gawk at beauty as we climb from coastal rainforest to a place of glacier scraped granite and alpine lakes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter claiming our touring bikes from the baggage car at Fraiser B.C. we roll up to Canadian customs where the agent asks the usual questions about money, guns, liquor, and tobacco. (He doesn’t care about fruit.) Since both bikes sport a set of large panniers affixed to front and back wheel racks, these are fair questions. When we answer in the negative, the agent wants to know how we are going to deal with bears or that wolf that recently chased a cyclist on our route. I want to tell him, “good luck and common sense,” but only smile to avoid a pannier search for bear spray.

With a waive of the custom agent’s hand we are released onto the Klondike Highway to pilot the heavily laden bikes into Carcross, YT.  Pedro, my 30 old Trek 520 soon settles down. We milk a tail wind for much needed help while climbing endless steep bumps that make hard work out of the descent from White Pass into Carcross. It’s hot for the mountains and sunny. We are always thirsty. The sun and deep blue sky bring out the beauty of the landscape—at first a broad flat valley of granite and shallow lakes boxed in by steep peaks, then walls of trembling poplar leaves until we reach the long blue waters of Tutshi Lake. For the rest of the day its all light brown scree slopes plunging into lake waters.

We camp night one at Carcross, hauling water from the gas station/cafe/store which also provides us beer and an excellent meatloaf dinner. We eat while watching the Toronto Bluejays game on TV. Outside the sun sparkles on Nares and Bennett Lake and the railroad trestle separating the two.  We we are too tired and thirsty to mind missing the show. Not normally a big beer drinker, the day’s dry heat, the sun, the exertion make me mad for brew.

Day two we break camp and ride into Whitehorse, receiving an unexpected blessing at the Emerald Lake overlook.  An Anglican priest, stopping on his way to his mission church in Carcross to admire the product of shafts of morning sunlight striking the milky green lake waters, offers a prayer after watching me slide through loose gravel in the parking area. It’ a fine blessing that washes away some of the concerns about aging bodies and bad drivers that had been bubbling up on the morning’s ride.

Our good weather continues in Whitehorse, where we stay two days, sharing the Robert Service Campground with Germans and other world travelers. I have a flat tire on the bike path running along the Yukon River. A nice rider stops and helps me patch it. After finding several deep cuts in it, he advises that I replace the failing tire with one I purchased that day at a local shop. I think of the blessing and recognize today’s minor miracles: that I thought to buy the tire, that the shop had a quality touring one that fits Pedro’s outdated 27 inch wheels, that the helpful rider stopped by, that the homeless guy emerging from a riverbank nap didn’t manage to take my bike for a ride. Another miracle was the discovery of a rich patch of wild raspberries which yielded enough fruit to make memorable the next morning’s breakfast.

It’s 100 miles on the Alaska Highway from Whitehorse to Haines Junction, YT. We hope to cover 50 of it on day three of riding. Lack of good camping opportunities force us to pedal 70 miles to Cracker Creek where we cook Indian food on the center line of a redundant section of the highway before collapsing into sleep. We wouldn’t have made it that far if not for Irene, who served us hamburgers, french fries and a Canadian Beer at her restaurant along the the way.

On the short ride from Cracker Creek into Haines Junction. YT we run into a solo biker from Ottawa who wants to make sure we know the Village Bakery is still open. This is good news indeed for which we thank him before he proceeds to announce all the good bakeries he had exploited on his two week ride through the Northland.  After visiting a local farmer’s market in Haines Junction we suck down steamed but ungarnished Swiss Chard in our motel room and prepare for the 148 miles of mountain road we must ride to the ferry terminal in Haines, Alaska.

Facing a headwind and rain, we climb out of Haines Junction for 3.5 miles to where the road takes on a rolling personality, dropping only to rise a little higher as low clouds appear to chew on the surrounding mountain tops. This is our hometown weather so we push more on than 50 miles to the Million Dollar Falls Campground where, we were told earlier by another group of Juneau bikers, cold beer would be on offer. Those 18 were riding naked bikes behind support vehicles that haul their clothing, camping gear, and food. They delivered. The beer refreshed and the company’s kindness reaffirmed the power of our Emerald Lake blessing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe leave Million Dollar Falls with the group of 18, who soon disappear into  fog covering the long incline of road leading toward Alaska. This becomes a special day as fog gives way to broken cloud conditions, sunshine illuminates retreating glaciers and broad flat river valleys full of clucking ptarmigan, nervous ground squirrels, golden eagles, swan pairs, and at least one grizzly bear sow and cub. We see the later fairly near the road on a treeless river plain. We stop. You have to, through if she thought we endangered her child, the mother bear could easily run us to ground. We are nothing but slow moving caribou to her. She is simply lovely with still wet golden brown fur glistening in the mountain sun, watching over a miniature version of her self in a darker brown coat.  We leave when she and her charge start moving towards our spot on the road.

My affection for Pedro always grows on days like this when it takes me to a top of the world place then lets me ride it down from it on steep descents to the familiar tidewater forests of home.

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