Valley vistas change, but memories still remain

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2004

One of the benefits of aging is to understand that when you live long enough, and keep an open mind and heart, there are positive things to learn every day.

I can remember one of the most thrilling and sustaining experiences in my life back in 1962 was the simple drive from Loop Road to my new job in the Capitol. The drive was so beautiful year-round that I would sometimes leave early just to be able to stop along the way to focus more fully on some particular scene of dynamic beauty. In summer hundreds of acres of wild Iris spread out like an undulating, purple blanket. Cavorting above the purple, countless swallows zoomed and darted. Ever vigilant eagles and hawks rode the thermals above the wetlands. Occasionally a small group of deer grazed amongst the dairy cows. Almost any place you stopped from Red Mason's gas station at the intersection of Loop Road and Glacier Highway to the then city limits, bird song filled the air. In spring, the hills literally echoed with the drumming of two different species of grouse. From late summer through to the following late spring, ricks of waterfowl and shorebirds, sometimes leisurely, often nervously, moved over the wetlands from Salmon Creek back to Engineer's Cutoff. Salmon Creek Delta once had such a rich and varied bird life that it was the focus of advertised bird watching tours one could book with the Alaska Steamship Line. As I reflect on these images I am reminded the whole is truly more than the sum of its' parts.

Individually and collectively each of us daily make decisions that do and will determine what we view as we drive from Mendenhall Valley to town. Of course what I see now is different than what I viewed 38 years ago. And of course I still on occasion compare what I no longer have the opportunity to see and hear, to the sight of a landfill, shopping malls and car dealerships; the sounds of tandem truck Jake brakes, helicopters and jet planes. It was all inevitable; my cognitive side explains and rationalizes.

Even without being conscious of choosing to do so, the updated version of the Mendenhall Wetlands settles over me as I come and go over the limited access freeway that now links the Valley to modern Juneau. And I still feel a connection when I notice the 2004 version of the pairs of mallards loafing in the scant remnants of wetlands left north of the freeway. Those remnants continue to attract the invincible hen mallards to nest alongside them; raise their ducklings to a movable stage of growth, and then every year run the gantlet. The hens can't wait too long to do that or the ducklings can't squeeze through the openings in the fence. Once in a long while they all apparently make it across. I've pulled off and witnessed a few successful crossings. More often than not the toll is high. Some years even the hen is hit. I don't have to see the broods every day as I drive by, but there is a strong need in me to at least glimpse those wetland remnants as a way of being inspired by the drama that those surviving wet places still attract. The mere glimpses somehow help me to put my travails into perspective. Even as a pale remnant of the beauty and wonder that the Mendenhall wetlands once were, the whole that remains can still nourish us, sustain us, still teach us something wonderful if we are willing to choose to let it.

• Members of the Mendenhall Wetlands Refuge Advisory Group contributed to this essay.



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