Off the Beaten Path: Wandering through the 'Nature of Southeast'

This January I decided to walk around the roadless section of Douglas Island hoping it might inspire an escape from my writer’s block and winter doldrums. Juneau — wedged between a 1,300 square mile icefield and an archipelago full of brown bears, blacktail deer and bald eagles — is one of the most inspiring places on Earth. I sometimes forget this, cooped up inside, during the lasting gray and darkness of winter. Luckily, all it takes is a few hours out in nature to remind me how lucky I am to live here.

 

My girlfriend, MC, dropped me off at the end of North Douglas Highway at six in the morning.

“Wait for me,” I whispered. “And if I don’t return, listen to the north wind. You’ll feel me then.”

“I’ve heard that line before,” she muttered, then drove off into the darkness, leaving me alone in the soft rain.

I hiked toward the humming of the Greens Creek Mine electrical station, and then weaved between trees along the edge of cliffs. Below, the ocean ebbed its way out. In a half hour the beach would be walkable.

Old deer tracks crisscrossed patches of snow; so far January’s mild weather had been kind to them. I shuddered thinking about the massive die out that occurred in the winter of 2006-2007. I remembered hearing stories of bears on northern Chichagof Island staying awake that winter, feasting on carcasses and weakened deer.

I pushed through guard-timber, and hiked as carefully and quickly as I could over the rocky beach. Eagle Peak and Baldy Mountain of Admiralty Island rose out of the morning gloom across Stephens Passage. At that moment there were well over a 1,000 browns bears asleep in their dens on Admiralty. I tried to imagine their dark hulks lying in the blackness, the wheezing of subterranean air into their lungs, even the images of their dreams.

A flock of harlequin ducks winged along the surface of the ocean toward Young Bay. They’re one of my favorite types of waterfowl, I’m thankful that while most other birds migrate south for the winter, many harlequins remain near Juneau. It’s only been in recent years I’ve opened my eyes to the lives of birds. I was already looking forward to watching the spring migrations (more than 300 species of birds have been identified in Southeast).

An otter ran up on the beach to investigate a pile of seaweed, then scurried back into the ocean and joined another. Soon the two began wrestling.

I passed Middle Point and the beach became easier for traveling. Flocks of seagulls congregated in small coves and perched atop boulders. I tried to avoid walking on mussels and barnacles, but was still conscious that with every step I was squashing multitudes of organisms. Like so much of what I shared this world with, I had no names or real understanding of the processes and lives I was treading on. Lucky for me there are many Juneauites who have spent years observing, studying and writing about the ecosystems in our backyard — naturalists like Bob Armstrong, Rita O’Clair and Richard Carstensen, who authored the invaluable book “The Nature of Southeast Alaska,” amongst several others. I’ve worn through two copies of “The Nature of Southeast Alaska,” and was pleased to hear the trio was releasing a revised edition of their book this year.

I rounded Hilda Point at low tide and was greeted with an expansive tidal flat. I expected to see deer along the forest’s edge, but they must have been grazing at higher elevations with the lack of snow.

For the next several hours, I carefully picked my way along the rocky and cliffy shore, at times being forced to utilize deer trails through the woods. A young sea lion splashed away in horror when I climbed around a rock. A mink carrying a clam shell dove into a rock crevice. A herring gull eyed me skeptically before begrudgingly lifting into flight. In twilight, I sat on the southern tip of Douglas staring at the Coastal Mountain Range rising into slate-gray clouds.

By headlamp I stumbled down the beach, occasionally spooking flocks of ducks.

A few hours later, the distant lights of Juneau lit up the darkness. Exhausted, but feeling good about life, I met MC near Sandy Beach. We stopped by my younger brother’s apartment and had a delicious dinner of venison stroganoff his wife Meghan made. I fell asleep dreaming about harlequin ducks and Admiralty Island, my awe and appreciation of living in Southeast rekindled.

 

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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