We can’t escape the wind and rain, even in this beachside forest. But the trees take most of the gale and protect us from sideways rain. As often happens, the adverse weather conditions discouraged other hikers and have apparently grounded the helicopters and other machines of Juneau’s tourism industry. So instead of airplane noise, we hear the surf-like roar of wind through the old growth canopy and hollow pops of raindrops hitting broadleaf devil’s club and skunk cabbage. In between gusts, raven’s clucks carry over the forest.
Approaching the beach during a break in the windstorm, I look forward to a chance to do some bird watching—maybe spot an oystercatcher or one of the belted king fishers diving on a fish. But the bay is empty of birds and even waves. Rather than disappointment, I feel peace—the calm that only an empty, quiet, wild place can deliver.
Aki and I are way out the road, visiting a riverside forest for the first time in months. It’s sunny, hot, and windy. The sun brings drama to the poor cousins of the woods, illuminating with back light spruce-bough moss and spotlighting a flowering twisted stalk. Wind articulates the broad, thorny leaves of devil’s club in slow movements of the Bon Odori.
Unfortunately, the wind doesn’t cool Aki, who pants as she trots through the old growth.
Like ravens, gulls, and eagles, you can hear middle school boys in the woods long before you see them. A coven of them spreads out from a fire ring. All but the one sitting by a weak fire are soon out bouncing around the old growth, shouting at each other as the last of the crows and gulls abandon the nearby beach. The boys in the woods all wear bright colored rain gear and, to be honest, smiles.
Aki and I came early to this forest for a quiet, if wet walk through forest and bird song to the beach. I also hoped to bird watch. On our last visit I spotted a small raft of northern shoveler ducks swimming past a stalking heron and godwit. When we break out of the woods today a formation of goldeneye ducks flies away in a panic, leaving the near in waters empty.
I think of the Tlingit elder that once taught me how to make an octopus bag. She also taught my five-year-old daughter the raven and canoe dances. She told the young dancers to keep a respectful silence on our beaches and in our woods. “Don’t even skip rocks,” she said. Even that shows disrespect to wild things.
Aki and return to the North Douglas trail head and, thankfully, find it empty of cars. Ten minutes into the beachside forest, I realize that my boots are the nosiest things in the woods. No airplane, boat, or car noise reaches us. We can hear a cranky set of Stellar jays and the long trill of a thrush. A goose calls out in panic and flies over our heads. The solitude is not appreciated by my little dog, who loves company of all kinds. She must settle for the smells of scent left by dogs who passed through here yesterday.
With the uneasiness I always feel when walking over exposed tidelands, I lead Aki onto a flat, sandy plain dotted with shallow tide pools. She hangs back, like she knows in a few hours almost twenty feet of water will cover the ground where we walk. In minutes we are on the now-exposed causeway that offers a dry path to Shaman Island. A large murder of crows stirs on a rocky point at the end of the causeway and breaks into the trees in the interior of the island. Two bald eagles roost in trees on the edge of the island. Another eagle, bound from Admiralty Island, joins them.
A small raft of harlequin ducks swims away as if to distract us from a small family of their kind that remain huddled against the point. Near the family an orange beaked oystercatcher whistles as if to attract our attention away from its nest. Aki and I wander around the tiny island and start back across the causeway. The crows abandon their island hideout and land in front of us on the trail. When we get within forty feet of them, they burst in the air in a big noisy show and circle back to join the harlequin family and the oystercatcher on the rocky point. A flock of gulls drops in to join them. All will be happy when the tide buries the causeway.
Aki and I wander around a now-empty Mendenhall Campground. In a normal, snowy winter, cross-country skiers would be whipping past us. But this is not a normal winter. In a few months the place will be jammed with motor homes and tent campers. Today, even through it offers a chance to walk under full sun in spring-like temperatures, the campground is empty of all but the little dog and I.
Aki hunts for scent and snacks dropped by other dog walkers. I philosophize. Aki, there are two kinds of people—clumpers and loners. The clumpers gather with their kind, like those that form an ant-like line on the trail to the glacial ice cave. Loners, we like to stroll alone through beauty. Neither clumper nor loner she, the little dog ignores me. She is happy when alone with me and happy when surrounded by other dogs.
Rain and slick-ice trails must be keeping everyone else out of the Gold Creek valley. Aki doesn’t appear to notice the solitude. For a dog with sensitive nose and an inquisitive nature like her, this mid-winter thaw is magic—as stimulating as Disneyland or an overturned meat truck. Nose impaired and cocooned in waterproofs against the rain, I look inward, rather than out today.
We cross a young forest growing over the rubble of hydraulic mining. A century ago, I couldn’t walk over the wasteland created here by men moiling for gold. The old growth forest they destroyed fed hunters and gathers and offered a peaceful place for the rest. But the gold extraction efforts that destroyed it provided jobs for the people in the nescient Juneau town. Without them, there would be no Juneau. Without them, I might still be living in California. I guess I owe them a debt but refuse to share responsibility for their destructive acts.
This morning the sun popped unencumbered by clouds from the waters of Gastineau Channel. In minutes the marine layer swallowed it. I watched from Chicken Ridge, smug in my modern-man knowledge that today’s winter solstice will end the time of diminishing light. Men without that knowledge once prayed to their pagan gods to stop the disappearance of light. On this day they’d be kneeling next to me in the snow. I can almost hear their beggar’s voices call down channel to the newly risen sun.
I call down channel with excited praise for the sunrise’s beauty. Later I take the little dog north of Juneau where fresh snow covers one of our favorite ski trails. We start skiing just after noon and find sunset colors already streaking clouds above the Eagle River. We don’t need sunshine to brighten the forest—the new fallen snow that covers the forest floor and weighs down the trees seems to radiate peace and mild light. Such peace in the forest almost makes you believe that there can be peace on earth.
What calms me has the opposite effect on the little poodle mix. Lacking the patience to trot by my side, Aki tears out and back, sometimes leaping so high that no feet touch the snow.