Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Point Dog

Last Saturday afternoon my Mountain Boy and I decided to walk to Herbert Glacier.
Even though the trail is a very open and relatively flat gravel trail close to home, it is about 4 1/2 miles to the glacier, and we did not hit the trail head until 3:45pm.
LC is still recovering from a knee injury but wanted to make it to the glacier so we established a fairly fast pace right from the get-go.
I say a fairly fast pace - my Mountain Boy good naturedly accused me of establishing a forced march.
Regardless, we set in determined to make it to the glacier, and then get back off the trail before dark.
Even though we were goal oriented on our walk, we took a minute to take a picture of my favorite old car, that I unexpectedly and excitedly came across during my first solo visit to this trail a few months ago.
My old, rusty, bullet ridden vehicle still continues to facinate me, and studying it brings all kinds of scenarios to mind as to how it ended up 1/2 mile onto the trail.
My possible scenarios usually involve illegal activity......

Jamie first came into my life unexpectedly when I lived on a quiet country road in middle Tennessee about seven years ago.
Even though I did not want a dog, we had adopted a pup from the Humane Society when we first moved to Tennessee - the end result of a promise I had made to my animal adoring youngest son.
I had not wanted a dog originally, but Roxy quickly became a beloved member of our family.  
My son Chris adored her and took her everywhere he went.
A few years later a young dog showed up on our doorstep, having been abandoned in the country by its owner, as many dogs were in rural Tennessee.
I did not want another dog, and told both of the boys not to feed her or give her water. 
I assumed that she would soon move on to someone elses home if we did not give her what she needed.
A day later she was still hanging around, healthy and happily bouncing on all fours around the yard like Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh cartoons.
The boys were wavering, drawn to her energy and very cute ways, and by the end of that day were begging me to let them give her food and water.  I told them no.
The next day the boys and I came home from work and school and the dog was still hanging around the yard. 
Again I told the boys to leave her be, still trying to believe at that point that she would move on.
Chris had a habit when he got home from school of pulling off his winter hat and his Vanderbilt jacket, and throwing them down on the back porch. 
That second night, on a cold January evening, I looked out the window and saw this abandoned dog, who refused to move on, pulling the jacket and hat together into a pile and then resting her head on it.
My heart melted just a bit, watching this unknown and unloved animal trying to make a warm and comfortable place for itself on our back porch.
And then a few hours later I looked out the window again and saw her licking ice off the porch.
I could not take it anymore.
I took her out a bowl of water, and a bowl of food, and she became part of our family in that moment.
A few days later I drove her to the vet and she promptly threw up in the back seat of my car.
But she was a healthy dog, we brought her into our house, and we named her Jamie.
After the boys had grown up and left the house, and after my divorce, Jamie came with me to my new home.
And when she met LC and he became a part of our lives, she welcomed him into our home.
Since she arrived in Juneau Jamie has gone everywhere we go, and whenever we take her for walks on trails she insists on walking in front of both of us.
Whenever she stops to sniff whatever it is she smells along the trails, she always runs to quickly not only catch up but to walk in front of us, leading the way.
We good naturedly have taken to calling her "Point Dog"........
This particular trail begins, during the first two miles or so, as a trail completely covered on both sides with thick undergrowth and an abundance of devils' club.
After those first couple of miles, it quickly changes from a typical rainforest to a more sub-alpine environment - a combination of less undergrowth, thick moss that covers everything, and pine trees.
In the summertime in Juneau, dense undergrowth is a bit unnerving because bears are so difficult to see until they are right on top of you.
I feel more comfortable in moss and pine trees.
It is more open, prettier, quieter, welcoming..........
A short rest stop at a quiet and beautiful pond before moving on again.
We had a glacier to find.........
There is almost no incline on this trail, but as we progressed the air temperature began to drop.
After a very closed in trail at the start, and then a more progressively open trail once we hit pine trees, we finally began to see what I feel such a need to see when I walk - water and mountains.
We were getting closer, and I could feel the excitement.
The glacier was close.  The trail was beautiful.  For a while I felt free..........
The last half mile of the trail, before reaching the glacier, we were walking on a narrow and gnarly trail with a beautiful rock face to our left, and the beautiful and fast moving river to our right.........
And about an hour and 45 minutes from when we started in on the trail, we made it to Herbert Glacier.
This glacier is not as overwhelming beautiful as Mendenhall Glacier is.
But I love it simply because it is beautiful in a quieter and more humble way. 
Because it is not as accessible to the masses as Mendenhall. 
Because you have to really want to see it, to actually see it.  You have to walk to it, or ride a bike to it, and because the helicoptors quickly skip over it as they travel on the way to the "big one"..........
We only stayed at the glacier for 15 minutes.  We were running out of daylight, and although we had headlamps with us, neither one of us wanted to be on the trail after dark.
Pictures of very early Fall in Juneau.
More leaves are turning color here than in most of Juneau, most likely because of the cooler temperatures.
As I stood at Herbert Glacier I wistfully looked at the surrounding mountains and wished I was in them.
But trees all over the hills and mountains are beginning to fade in color, and yellow is becoming more common now than it was just a few short weeks ago.........
We made it out with some daylight still remaining, but not a whole lot.
By the time we arrived back at the car Point Dog was very tired and I think a little sore. 
I think that this may have been the longest walk she has ever taken, and for the next couple of days after our adventure she spent a lot of time sleeping on the couch.
Point Dog was wiped out, but as of today she has finally returned to her normal, bouncing, eager and enthusiastic self again.
A big adventure for an aging now-Alaskan pup..........
Pain reaches the heart with electrical speed, but truth moves to the heart as slowly as a glacier......
Barbara Kingsolver

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rock Towers and Adventurous Ducks

After taking a long walk on a trail yesterday to see Herbert Glacier, my Mountain Boy and I decided to work out the leg kinks today by taking a short walk to the waterfall at Mendenhall Glacier this afternoon.
My dog walked with us yesterday, and nine miles did her in.  As of this writing almost an entire day later she is still sleeping (as she has been for most of the day) on the couch.
"Point Dog" is worn out.
I had a small rubber duck in my pack today  and placed it ceremoniously on top of a small rock alter - one of many we found today - close to the falls......

Before we made our way to Mendenhall Glacier today I dropped LC off at a gun store while I drove down to the Skaters Cabin area.
While I was there I spent some quiet time photographing the glacier from this side of the river, and also watching a rafting outfitter unloading, setting up and getting a good number of excited tourists geared up for a paddling adventure on the lake.
The weather was unsettled, but at least for a short time the mountains and part of the huge icefield behind the glacier were visible........
Although it was interesting to watch the seasonal workers unload and gear up, and interesting to eavesdrop on the crew chief speaking to the large group of tourists his company was preparing for their trip on the water, I continue to realize that I am ready for all of the tourists to leave.
Ready for the seasonal adventure companies to shut down for the summer.
Ready for the float planes and helicoptors to land for the last time.
Ready for the cruise ship tourist stores and the sidewalk vendors to board their doors.
Ready for the giant sidewalk stuffed bears and eagles and other photo ops to be sent into hibernation.
Ready for the coaches and street trolleys to park in long and silent rows in Thane for the winter.
Ready for the traffic to slow, for the people to go, and for quiet to once again consume the town.
I know that Juneau depends so much on tourism to survive and continue to be the vibrant and viable city that it is.  But I am ready for some quiet.
This picture says it all to me - natural beauty, the absence of people and noise, rugged mountains, quiet water and quiet sky.  I like this picture.........
Skaters Cabin from the opposite side of the cove. 
While I was there it was full of people who most likely had reserved it for a birthday party or office party or wedding reception..........
After picking up my Mountain Boy we drove out to the glacier and searched for a few minutes around the two parking lots, looking for a spot.  The place was packed, but eventually we did indeed find a place to park our car.
LC had not walked out to the waterfall before so that was where we were headed.
Mendenhall Glacier has something for everyone.
There are easy-to-travel and accessible pathways and gravel trails designed for a quick walk, in the hopes of viewing either salmon or bears - maybe even both.
It has an interactive, interesting and informative Visitors Center.
It has a very beautiful and accessible glacier and majestic waterfall.
And if you glance deeper and look for more intense (but for me) quieter adventure, there are beautiful and steep back country trails that provide views of mountains in all directions, as well as the wide open and never ending channel.
I have been to the glacier more than a handful of times since I arrived here in Juneau, but my most favorite memories of this place will always be the back country trails that I walked last winter.
I walked with my short-term and slightly nutty room-mate, and while she cursed the entire time we were out there (because the climbs were very long and steep and required a good amount of effort) I loved every minute of it.
While LC and I were standing at an overlook close to the glacier today, a lady asked me if I knew why people were stacking rocks.  At that point I did not realize that there were a number of spontaneous rock alters springing up all over the beach area.
I answered that I did not really know why people felt compelled to build such things.
But I had seen them continually throughout the Juneau area, on rocky beach fronts from one end of the road in Thane to the south, all the way to the other end of the road 40 miles north of town at Echo Cove.
I have both enjoyed them and photographed them continuously ever since I arrived in Juneau. 
And I have built a few of them myself.  A cathartic and relaxing and quietly creative activity.
Juneau the city, spends a lot of time and money doing all manner of creative and useful things with rock.
They blast it, crush it, load it, transport it, store it, and use it on the roads (both in new construction and using it to gravel the snowy and icy roads in winter).
But these rock monuments and alters and towers (some small and simple - some large and highly creative) are quietly and regularly built by random and individual visitors to our beaches and coves.........
This young man, with two or three other young guys, spent about ten minutes creating their tall masterpieces.
Our rubber duck somehow got pulled into the action, sitting precariously on the top..........
On a relatively warm and relatively sunny late-summer Sunday, Mendenhall Glacier was a very busy place.
Hundreds of cruise ship tourists from around the world joined us at the glacier to enjoy this beautiful scene......
If you look closely (click on any picture to enlarge it), it becomes very obvious that large sections of the glacier have calved recently.
It was evident on the body of the glacier proper, and also evident by the surprisingly large and numerous pieces of the glacier that were floating in a variety of blue and white hues in the lake..........
Our cute stupid prolific rubber duck, swimming happily in the glacier-fed, waterfall-fed lake........
I had only walked down to the waterfall once previous to today, on a beautiful and warm sunshiny day before my Mountain Boy and dog arrived in town.
I did not remember all of the rock that was down close to the glacier and the falls.
It looks like this rock slide happened just very recently........
Towers on the rocks.  And towers in the sand......
Our rubber duck greatly enjoyed the short adventure by the glacier.
Fall is coming. 
And I think that I will set our duck free and out into the channel very soon, so he can enjoy duck adventures at sea..............

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fall In Alaska

Fall in Alaska
By K. C. Miller

Sweat pours down my face as I struggle with my pack. Heart pounding and chest rising then falling with each gasped breath, I finally reach the tree line. Opposite my vantage point I see Goat Mountain basking in the cool fall sun. I easily locate a large number of sheep I had hoped were there. I encourage my wife, my son and his friend to hurry because I have spotted our goal.

My wife and the two boys race the last few yards to get a glimpse of the beautiful, almost pure white, mountain dwellers. We stand together whispering quietly to one another, taking turns with the binoculars, awe-struck by their magnificent show. Three separate groups forage for tufts of grass and lichen. One group comprised of three, young looking rams, separate quickly, shuffling from one group to another. They bound over craggy red-tinged tundra and loose shale as if it weren't there. The agility of these amazing animals is astounding.

After living in Alaska for more than 35 years, I've grown accustom to extraordinary happenings, especially during fall. An encounter with thousands of brown and white caribou milling through flat, open tundra on their way to abundant grazing areas for winter, was one of the best experiences. To be close enough to watch the older and wiser animals hold high their majestic antlers, as if in defiance of the oncoming cold and snow, while most of the large mass feeds greedily on the easily accessible lichen, is amazing. Because of this, I understand that they sense it to be their last chance to fatten up before the snow flies.

My son brings me back to the present by indicating that there is another group of sheep further up in the rocks. I look in the direction he is pointing and watch in wonder the daring antics of the white mountaineers as they bound from one craggy outcropping to another. We joke out loud, wondering if they are playing a version of the game known as, "King of the Hill."

They probably invented it.

Shielding my eyes from the Indian summer sun, I just make out a new herd immediately below the mountaineering bunch. That brings the total to fifty sheep, mostly made up of ewes and young born the spring before. Among that group we spot at least ten mature rams, easily picked out as they are larger than the rest and sun themselves separately from the main herd.

To me Dall Sheep are mysterious and fascinating creatures. But their almost totally white coat, and agile ability to gorge on fall's last harvest, fattening up for winter, reminds me of another like colored animal. The Beluga: I just recently encountered a pod of the white whales.

I watched about thirty Beluga chase one of the last schools of silver salmon into the shallows of Turnagain Arm: a last grand feast before winter sets in. Their constant surfacing and rolling while feeding, and the confluent snorts and many geysers of damp air shooting from their blowholes, provided quite a show. But soon after having had their fill they rode the tide out, traveling with purpose, surfacing often as they passed by Beluga Point, their entrance to the Arm.

Watching them swim out to deeper water I wondered if they understood what the yellow and brown leaves signified, floating aimlessly on the breeze that freed them from tree and branch to alight on the cold, slate gray wet surface the sleek and white beluga cut through with ease. Do they know that fall had arrived like the caribou do, or the grizzly? If so, would it matter?

With the sheep, I find it almost impossible to tell if they are aware of the change in seasons either. Watching them feed with my binoculars, the younger adults romping, butting heads between mouthfuls—the loud clank of horn against horn reaching us mere seconds after the sight of collision—I feel that they have to know something is changing. The shorter days, cooler mountain air, and brilliant reds, yellows, and browns have to signal to them that snow is on its way. I wonder can they see the change in color? Do they notice the cooler morning air? Or do they rely on instinct alone? Do the Beluga?

I realize that only a few animals appear to understand the change in season. Take the grizzly or black bear. They intentionally fatten up on salmon, roots, tubers, and ripe berries, and will be lost to hibernation when the snows come. Lost in winter's slumber to dream, I'm sure, of the return of spring, and, most especially, their next meal.

Like the bear, some human beings tend to stay close to home in Alaska. To many people the first signs of fall depicts the onset of inclement weather, layers of ice and snow, cold hands and feet, and high heating bills. Some people unconsciously mimic the bear, cling to their homes, ranging only far enough and long enough to gather and place wood on the fire, or fill their empty bellies, only to fall back into winter's slumbering routine to await the spring thaw.

For me, the signs of fall are a spectacular happening. The sight of a full rainbow formed by falling rain from a single dark gray cloud on an otherwise clear, late autumn afternoon, or the almost perceptible sound of the ever-moving greens, reds, and purples of the Northern Lights at mid-night in October, are two of many reasons I choose to live in this state.

The pungent odor associated with ripening rose-hips, rotting leaves, grasses, and an assortment of over-ripe berries tell me that nature is returning needed nutrients into the soil. That richness in turn provides shoots for new grasses, berries and lichen, providing sustenance for Alaska's animals in spring and summer. So to me, fall is really a new beginning.

The sheep's proximity is enticing, and I wish for a better look, and maybe a nice picture. But, it is not to be during this outing because the sun settles toward the horizon, our signal to turn back. My only consolation, as we ready ourselves for the hike back down, is that we have added another great Alaska experience to a long and ever growing list.

My wife and the two boys head back down the mountainside through the musky smell of ripe, bright red, high-bush cranberries toward the comforts of home, but I am reluctant to follow. Some feeling or force, centered in my chest, pulls me to the sheep. And, only with great effort do I manage to resist.

Alaska and its abundance of animals, land, and sea, can mold a person into something never thought possible, to be more than themselves, to understand this great land: the feeling renewed each fall. That person learns to appreciate the necessities of fall in Alaska, as have its inhabitants, human or animal.

With that feeling still in my chest, I take one last look at the surrounding mountains reflected in the glassy surface of Eklutna Lake, think of my memory of the beluga and glance at the sheep once more, and take note that a few of the higher peaks are dusted with snow, outlined by a deep blue sky.

Sighing quietly, savoring the sharp promise of winter carried on the breeze, I pledge to myself that I will return to this spot in the near future. I must, because Alaska is inside me, has formed me, and is flowing through my veins. It's made me who I am, in spite of myself. Yes, I will definitely be back next fall, and the next after that.