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 6:30 A.M. and a gang of Canada geese are blocking my access to the Campbell Creek bike path. Most are sleeping on the grass verge but two are firmly planted on the path itself. A clutch of downy goslings have formed a puppy pile under a nearby birch tree. Even when I slow walk the bike toward them, the two adults on the pavement refuse to budge but four or five of the large birds trot out to meet me. When I swing wide to avoid the two on the pavement, their apparent protectors move aside for me to pass.
That was weird. After clearing the avian traffic jam, I peddle through goose scat and over the Tudor Road bridge. In five minutes I brake again, this time to read a muddy set of tracks the forms a brown diagonal line across the pavement. Very recently a single moose trotted through a bog hole and then over the path. But, I can’t see far enough into the trailside birch forest to see him. For a minute I wonder if the geese jam was designed to buy time for the moose to pass unmolested over the path. But, only for a minute.
The whole writing school changed venue for the day. A chartered bus delivered writers and professors to Hatcher Pass, an old mining zone a few miles north of Wasilla. We are above the tree zone in alpine pocked here and there by mining rubble. As if we are back in Aki’s rain forest, clouds fragment against sharp edged peaks.
The writers and staff soon spread out. Some poke around the remains of an old gold mine. Others go to ground along mountain streams. Me, I follow some writers up to Gold Line Lake, a tern filing the depression left by a melted glacier. The writers are gone by the time I reach the lake, disappeared as if raptured into the clouds. But a family, complete with beagle, infant, and chocolate guzzling pre-teen taking blocks the trail. The baby cries. The daddy promises to bring food as soon as he has messaged off his selfie. The pre-teen whines because there is only trail mix. But the beagle isn’t barking.
Hoping that there really is strength in numbers, I ride with another guy along single- track trails that winds through a paper birch forest. We are heading toward the red salmon spawning reids of Campbell Creek. I am comforted by the lack of fresh bear scat on the trail but worried by the absence of human activity in the area. We will be alone when we reach the stream.
I sing a Bob Dylan song badly as we weave around trees and up tiny rises in the trail. No one has ever reported enticing the approach of a brown bear with a Dylan song so I figure my performance will encourage the privacy-loving bears to scatter. No bears wait for us at the stream. Maybe my signing worked or maybe the bears are all down stream to intercept salmon moving upstream.
The difficult transition from salt to fresh water robs most species of salmon of their beauty. They enter their home streams fat and ocean-bright silver. By time they spawn, all have faded to mottled colors. The males form battle faces—nasty teeth and hooked noses. But red salmon change into lovely red and green creatures, showing off colors that sparkle when touched by forest light.
It’s six a.m. I’m riding through the internationally-mixed neighborhood of Mt. View, passing Pho shops and a Hawaiian plate lunch place. The restaurants are closed and I can’t find anyone on the street to ask for directions to the Ship Creek bike path. Ignoring my instinct to head toward Downtown Anchorage, I veer onto a side street. A woman of Indian origin stands in the middle of the pavement. She wears a sari covered by robes as white in the strong morning sun as a J.C. Penny’s sheet. One hand gestures toward a road dropping sharply to my right. Seeing no clues that it will connect to the bike path and wanting to avoid the sharp climb out up the street if I have misread her message, I peddle forward until she gestures again. This time I take the drop and find the bike path entrance.
I am not surprised that she knows her way around the neighborhood. But how did she know my intent. Was she an apparition or fakir? I pass a sign, decorated by street art hearts, that warns of a narrowing path. It does constrict before climbing over train tracks and creek gravel bars covered with sulking gulls. The path corkscrews off the bridge and takes me into a land of factories and junkyards. Bordered by a covered pile of crushed cars and other industrial waste, a tribe of beavers have made their home. One of the toothy rodents swims across the pond to a den constructed of sticks stripped clean of bark. To make this passage, it must cross the reflection of an excavator parked above the den.
Pearly-gray has replaced blue as the prominent color in Anchorage skies today. I ride away from the Inlet toward the Campbell Creek trail system, vowing to keep away from the salmon spawning stream because it draws brown bears this time of year. At first I ride against the flow of morning commuter traffic on Elmore and then swing into the woods. A single-track trail allows me to meander among white-trunked paper birch that might be hiding moose. If they do, none of the big, horse-like guys show themselves.
I take another trail that offers more open views and spot, a half-a-mile ahead, something that looks like a wobbly billboard. As I approach it resolves itself into a young male moose with tiny antlers covered in velvet. When I stop, he stares for a second and walks elegantly toward the woods. I will have to pass him if I continue down the trail. I’ll see how it goes. Remounting, I ride closer, which causes him to freeze again. I remember my dad’s warning amount never approaching a deer or elk while they are in velvet and stop again. The moose resumes his walk toward the woods. When he reaches the forest edge, leaving a good chunk of land between him and the trail, I restart my ride.
Wow, my first moose of the year. I didn’t see any during last summer’ writer’s school residency.
The trail brings me back to Elmore where I watch a late-model Corvette speed by before crossing over to the bike lane. I briefly ponder whether a moose or sports car would cause me the most damage and am thankful to the government that funded this ride-alone bike path.
A mile down Elmore, a cow moose and two calves feed next to the road. Workers listening to talk radio or silently planning a pattern of attack at work wiz by the family scene. Honey, stop gorging yourself and look after your babies, I think. While the mom turns her butt to the road, her two calves dance along the verge. The aggressive one bucks like a bareback bronc and drives its sibling away from food and mom. In running away, shy one almost enters the rushing traffic stream. I’m close enough to see the startled look in the shy moose’s eyes when it freezes just before it would have been crushed by a northbound SUV. Unable to watch any more, I ride back to campus.
The sun returned to Anchorage yesterday afternoon. Last night, as it softened towards sunset, low angled light transformed the normally nondescript Chugiak Mountains into Swiss Alps. The drama continues this morning as I ride from the university past University Lake. With no wind to whiff it, the lake forms a polished mirror for the rising sun.
When the sun breaks open a blue-sky day like this one, Alaskans tend to turn their faces to the light. Some have to resist using overblown adjectives to describe the resulting beauty. The bike path keeps me in wood shade during most of the ride toward Cook Inlet but, I am able to turn my face to the sun at the spot where Fish Creek flows under the Coastal Trail. Then, I scan the wetlands for the Sandhill Cranes that fed on these flats every day of last summer’s writing school. But only gulls cruise for food. Out on Cook Inlet, a powerful tug pulls a loaded barge to the Gulf of Alaska. It might be heading for the Bering Sea to deliver fishing skiffs, trucks, can goods or house building materials to Unalaska or Nome. I remember watching similar, if smaller barges slowly moving up the Kuskokwim River, wondering what lucky guy was getting the Hewescraft boat perched on top of a stack of orange or yellow freight containers. Maybe this Cook Inlet barge will deliver happiness to someone on St. Lawrence Island or Dillingham.