Seconds ago, Aki dropped her orange Frisbee at my feet. Now she barks—her way of asking me to send the toy flying so she can chase it. I want to ignore her and continue picking blueberries. It’s past mid-summer and this is the first time I’ve had to put up berries for the winter.
When I pick up the Frisbee, Aki charges down the trail in the direction I have already thrown the thing five times. I wait until she is well on her way before tossing it another direction. Now I’ll have some time to pick while she searches for her precious.
Bears have already gone over this patch of bushes—cubs judging from the size of their scat. They high-graded: tromping over the lower lying fruit to tongue fat, sweet berries from the topmost branches. It would be very bad to startle the mother of the hungry cubs that wreaked all the damage. Thanks to Aki’s barking, there is no chance of that.
Aki could be riding on my bike as I climb from Tee Harbor to the mouth of Eagle River. But she doesn’t like sitting in the bike basket. So, she is not here to see the cinnamon-colored bear that was asleep next to the bike path when I rode by. Startled, it bolted awake and crashed into the woods. Minutes later I pass a yearly cub chopping on dandelions. It has been a week for seeing animals from the seat of my bicycle. There was the harbor seal that chased dolly varden near the hatchery. Then I spotted two black tail does that continued to graze on grass as I rode past. On the way I stopped at the Arboretum where a blooming cherry tree frames a view of the Shrine.
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.