Writer’s school is a noisy place. The necessary noise of craft being shared and stories told provides the sound track for each UAA MFA summer residency. But even beneficiaries of this cacophony such as myself need quiet time. That’s why I rode my bicycle this gray morning deep inside a birch forest. It would be winter quiet but for the distant commuter traffic mimicking a slow moving stream. I could stand here until it is time for the morning talk if not for the biting mosquitoes. Even they are considerate enough not to buzz.
It’s the last day of writer’s school in Skagway. Students and teachers, including Paul Theroux are in a White Pass narrow gauge railway carriage that rattles toward the Laughton Glacier trailhead. The conductor has stuffed all the writers into one carriage where the sound of thirty or forty conversations competes with the grumbles of the old carriage and the disembodied voice of a tour guide giving the railroad’s history.
Last night rain soaked the trailside forest but now we have to squint to the morning’s sunshine while disembarking. Conversations began on the train continue as teachers and students start up the trail, joined by a couple from Galway who decided to follow us to the glacier rather than continue on the train to it’s terminus at Fraiser, British Columbia.
I hang back, letting everyone pass, until all conversation is being drowned out by a glacial river in a hurry to reach saltwater. The river also blocks out all birdsong. If a raven is scolding me, I can’t hear it. The forest plants aren’t steaming in the sun. That time has passed. But fat raindrops still cling to plantain plants and dead-brown foliage of last year’s bracken glows.
After a mile the trail leaves the river and leads me up through wind-stunted spruce and cottonwood plants. Still alone, I follow it onto a flat valley formed by twin walls of naked moraine. Only tough plants grow here. Ahead the Laughton Glacier curves up into clouds that obscure a mountain ridge. The clouds also block my sun. Ahead one of the writers, in long skit and windblown hair, walks towards toward the glacier with the help of a tall trekking pole. She turns the scene into a black and white photo of a pilgrim approaching her ashram.
I’ll pass the pilgrim and climb onto the shrinking toe of the glacier. The sun will return. I will hold sharp edged rocks just being released from glacial ice that carried them from mountaintop to my feet. “Look at these rocks,” I will shout to a much younger writer wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. But magic will be in their history, not their appearance so she will probably thinks me weird. Higher up the toe, I will fall into a conversation about wolverines: whether the grumpy loners are magic or just thugs. “Magic” will become my favorite word for the day.
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.