Statistics about human/killer whale interactions will tell you that none of the big porpoises have ever attacked a human. But you still worry that you might be first. Maybe it’s the name or the times you’ve watched one grab 1000 pounds of sea lion and toss it back to it’s children to finish off. I try not to think about that when Aki’s other human and I launch our canoe onto the waters of Tee Harbor where a killer whale has just surfaces a half a kilometer away.
Aki whines and paces around the canoe. Her humans paddle and scan the water for another whale sighting. But only a pair of marble murrlets show on the surface. From the mouth of the harbor I spot the killer whale. It is miles away on the other side of Favorite Passage. But water sparkling on its back makes it easy to spot.
Aki plants all four paws in the Basin Road pavement, drops her head, and gives me her “I am not going another step in that direction” look. A dog that she likes trots ahead toward the Gold Creek valley but my little guy refuses to follow. She must smell recent sign left by a black bear. Seeing her point, I lead her back down the road with a plan to walk through Downtown Juneau.
It’s early morning, too early for today’s tourists to have moved beyond the trap lines of South Franklin Street and into our tiny residential zone where primroses, tulips, and magenta bleeding hearts will provide targets for their cell phone cameras. We pass the odd office worker trotting with purpose toward the capital or another worksite. The MV Amsterdam, one of the older generation cruise ships is tied up to the new Panamax dock, belching blue smoke into our air. But it is not enough to obscure the clear sky between us and the Douglas Island mountain ridge.
Just minutes from the car, Aki and I are already soaked. Without interference from the wind, steady rain falls straight onto the glacial moraine. The Irish guide that once drove me around the Dingle Peninsula would call this a soft day, as if sunshine cuts like a knife. The description was accurate in one way: that day’s wet grayness softened away the visual contrasts that could have given the Irish farmland pop.
Today’s rains falls from clouds low enough to hide surrounding mountains and the glacier. Later we will see a slice of mountains and ice as the clouds lift. But, when we pass it on our way onto the moraine, the Mendenhall River appears to come out of a cloud. Raindrops bead up on blueberry and poplar leaves as well as in the border of segments of horsetail shoots. But the robins still sing, the kingfisher scolds, beavers tail slap lake water, and the little dog manages to enjoy herself.
Like a magician tracing a ley line, Aki confidently trots a straight path through wetland grass too tall for her to see over. An eagle does a fly over and two others perch. One of these occupies a stump in the middle of Lemon Creek. The other rests on a light standard that arcs over two lanes of traffic on Egan Expressway. Without knowing it, Aki is heading in the right direction—toward one of the odd little islands that seem to float on a tidal grass sea.
Fall and spring, foliage on the islands’ balsam poplars work like gold leaf on an icon to draw the eye. Spruce, alders, and elderberry bush squeeze onto the islands with the poplars. They all send roots into a mix of glacial silt and gravel carried there by the creek. Savannah sparrows nest in the grass bordering the islands. One of those diminutive birds flies to the top of an elderberry bush to watch us pass. I wonder what the tiny thing would do if we came near its nest. The severe look it flashes me as I pass within a few feet could not form on the face of a timid beast.
A raven plays with Aki on a beach made from Treadwell mine tailings. The beach was empty when we started the walk. Then the raven and a buddy flew over and landed on the beach in our path. One of them roosts on a piling but the other one flies a few feet ahead of my little dog, lands, and takes off again. In seconds the big bird lands on another piling and watches Aki wag her tail in anticipation.Down the beach two bald eagles scan the scene from a top a metal-roofed tower that once provided air to miners working the Ready Bullion tunnels. One spots food on the beach and glides down to investigate. It crashes chest deep into the water and splashes about until waddling onto an island of dry beach.
Overhead an immature bald eagle circles the scene, maybe planning in crowding in on the wet eagle’s find. But the one still on the mine tower flies up in a challenge and drives off the young one. It manages a more graceful return to its perch.
Aki and I shelter from a nasty rainstorm in an old growth forest. Earlier storms toppled a score of middle-aged hemlocks within our view shed. But the forest can’t protect our car from the guy stealing one of its fog light assemblies. The thief, probably a heroin addict, might be able to covert it into a fix. But it will cost me much more in cash and bother.
Happy in our ignorance, the little dog and I cross a pocket meadow decorated with cloudberry blossoms. If the summer dries out and brings enough sun, we will be back in July to harvest the succulent berries that are already forming in the heart of the dying blossoms. Cloudberries are fixtures of the tundra. Before last year, we never harvested many of them. Our summers were never hot enough for their ripening. Now global warming has given us a gift that I’d gladly turn down if the glaciers would stop retreating.
I’m impatient to see if the shooting stars are out on Gastineau Meadow. But Aki won’t be hurried. A scent stops her dead, makes her back track, turn ninety degrees and trot back on a path inscribing a right triangle. When a different smell sends her on another geometric path, I study the red alders that bow out toward the trail. Their wood is almost perfect for carving portrait masks. This makes me think of my father and the alder mask I carved after his death.
Done with her investigations, Aki slips around me and takes point on our walk onto the meadow. When I stop to photograph a wild rhododendron or meat-eating sundew, the little dog stares at me, apparently forgetting who slowed our earlier progress. Brat.
We push on and find the small section of meadow where shooting stars grow and find them in bloom. My dad learned to love the shooting stars that grew on meadows near his Montana home. Maybe he passed this love on to me, They are one of my favorite wild flowers.
As we back track to the car, I think again about dad’s alder mask and how carving it helped me grieve his death. Writing an essay about it help further. If you have the time, can read the essay, which was published in the fourth edition of Twisted Vine Literary Journal. ( http://show.wnmu.edu/twistedvine/category/issue-4/ ).