This is our first return to the Troll Woods since the bear incident. That ended with a curious black bear peering down at us from atop a spruce tree. Now, hopefully, the cold that has iced over the ponds and flooded the moraine trails has also driven the bears into hibernation.
The rising sun can’t reach the first section we cross but its reflected power brightens the frost feathers from gray to a subtle white color. Ahead, Aki trots towards a sun-washed portion of the trail. But I want to linger in the calm dusk knowing that I won’t be able to appreciate its beauty after seeing the woods in full sun
Aki and I slog up the Fish Creek Trail, entering a land gone to rest after the salmon runs. In late summer, pink and chum salmon fought for space and mates on the creek’s shallow stretches. They mated and died, providing food for bears, eagles and herons. Thick brush lined the trail, hiding the presence of bears until a black mass darts away when you round a corner or you narrowly miss stepping in a half eaten salmon.
In summer this creek valley is an exciting, dangerous place, especially for a ten-pound poodle mix with a Napoleon complex. But today, with old growth canopy providing some protection from the rain, and the creek waters humming their calming song, I can relax and pretend that the creek is carrying away my blues.
Aki is not relaxed. She stations herself a few feet in front of me as we wind around hundred foot high spruce trees, checking back often to make sure I am not about to do something stupid. Thinking that she smells danger, I look for the tracks of bears or wolves but only find one made this morning by a deer pivoting off the trail.
I wonder what it would be like to spend your whole life in this little creek valley, smoking and drying salmon and deer meat to carry you through to next summer. After years of watching the creek bring salmon to your camp would you claim it as your god?
Once a week, when Aki and I walk a route through downtown Juneau, the little dog transforms into a policewoman patrolling her beat. This morning, as sunlight brightens the clouds over Douglas Island, she insists on a full investigation of a patch of pavement on Chicken Ridge. It could be urine spread by a favorite dog friend, or scent left by the bear that raided a neighbor’s garbage. It might even be the aroma of popcorn crumbs scattered by one of the neighborhood’s raven or the faint musk of a passing deer. Is this town, the state’s capital, uniquely blessed to have so many wild animals within its urban core? Or do the little dog and I just have more time than other city dwellers to notice?
Aki and I are back on the glacial moraine. It’s early in the day—too early for wind to raise a ruffle on the Dredge Lakes. It’s also too early for other dog walkers to appear. On our last visit my little dog discouraged a black bear that must have been attracted by the herring scent floating off my coat. But since then I’ve washed the coat and we are on a different section of the moraine.
We drop off a raised trail to where we have an unobstructed view of Moose Lake. A white strip of fog separates lakeside cottonwoods in full fall yellow from a spruce-green mountainside. Reflected in the lake, the fog underlines the cottonwood trees. I take several photos of the scene and look at them on the camera view screen as we return to the trail. “This is why we are here, little dog,” I tell Aki and then say, “Uh-oh.” Aki, who apparently knows the meaning of “Uh-oh,” goes on alert and looks down the trail where a 100-pound-plus-pound black bear has just stopped walking toward us. With fluffy, shinny back fur and round belly, he has the just-moussed look of a bear full of fish fat. When Aki growls, it slowly turns around and trots away from us down the trail. “That’s it, little dog, I tell the ten-pound poodle mix, we are not coming back to the moraine until hibernation time.”
Aki and I head out to the moraines, trying to squeeze in a visit before a promised Pacific storm slams us with high wind and heavy rain. Already the leaves of our cottonwoods weaken from green to yellow to brown. This afternoon’s storm could strip some of the moraine’s trees bare.
On the drive out I think briefly about bears. A sow and cubs have been feeding on salmon spawning near the glacier. We should be ok, a half-a-mile away on the moraine trail. Even if we come near bears, they shouldn’t be interested in a little dog and her scruffy master. But, I haven’t factored in my fishy coat.
Without thinking about anything other than convenience as we left the house, I pulled on the coat I used on yesterday’s fishing trip. A person with a sensitive nose might detect the faint odor of herring rising off its sleeves. But to a bear in autumn, the jacket must smell like an unguarded fish market.
Ten minutes into the hike, Aki growls and makes a faint into the woods. The branch of a trailside alder quivers above her head. Suspecting she is flushing a bird, I call her back. We walk on, enjoying reflections of yellowing leaves of willows and cottonwoods in the moraine’s pocket lakes. Far from the quivering branch, Aki growls again and breaks into the woods. Another branch quivers. After I call her back, a bear lets out three huffs and climbs ten feet up a spruce tree.
We divert into the troll woods and swing a wide arc around the bear visitation spots. At home, I drop the herring coat into the washer.
Today, before a Pacific storm can hammer Juneau with high wind and up to eight inches of rain, I take the little poodle mix out to one of our favorite trails. It runs through the cottonwoods and spruce that border Eagle River and then swings north toward an open meadow. The untended-outhouse smell of dead salmon dominates the woods. Through a screen of alders I see gulls and ravens feeding on salmon flesh. They don’t worry me but a crashing sound that silences the bickering gulls—that cause concern. It could only be a bear. I start singing the Aki song to keep the little dog focused on me and to warn any bears of our presence. If we don’t startle one or come between it and it’s young, we should be ok.
We reach the meadow without seeing any bears and cross it to reach the Glacier Highway. From there it is a short walk to a riverside meadow that is fertilized each year with salmon flesh. The big fish swim up small tidal streams during a flood tide and die after being stranded by the ebb. Here too, is the smell of death.
On an Eagle River gravel bar, an immature bald eagle feeds on a salmon carcass. After ripping off a portable piece the bird flies across the river to finish its meal on a driftwood stump. This is the first of many eagles we see feeding or roosting along the river. After passing one just before reaching the parking lot I think of the Haines, Alaska bald eagle confab that happens at the beginning of winter. Thousands of bald eagles gather there to feast on the participants in a late salmon run. Hundreds of people shiver in the cold to watch eagles bicker with each other over dying salmon flesh. As the first drops of promised rain fall, I think how much better we have it today. We only have to put up with a little rain and the constant smell of death.
“Just to let you know. There’s a bear hanging around down there,” the nice sounding dog walker in expensive casuals says while pointing at a field of flowering fireweed that seems to stretch to the Mendenhall Glacier. I smile back, thank her, and walk onto the meadow. A bear is never far from you anywhere in Juneau this time of year.
An electric-orange plastic fence blocks the trail but the note stuck to it warns of erosion, not bears. Last week the ice dam that backed up water on the glacier at suicide basin broke, flooding the lake and raising the river to a record flood stage. Charged with fast water, the river undercut the trail, making it unsafe for travel. The little dog and I move onto a gravel “work around” trail and spot matted vegetation where a bear had slept and many bear sized trails through the five foot tall fireweed plants. Panting from the heat, Aki collapses in a patch of shade near some fireweed stalks and pants. I think of the cool forest the trail would take us through if we preserve, if we risk the bear. It’s not worth it. We turn back to the trailhead, arriving as a family with small children, all on bicycles, pedals to their car.