We found ourselves knee-deep in water, feeling for the solid caress of the boardwalk beneath our feet. Apparently, the heavy summer rains in Southeast Alaska during June and July had left the trails of Point Bridget State Park flooded and unrecognizable. I already felt my fingers shriveling into raisins and my toes starting to grow webs after only a few days in Juneau. The day before, we had walked two miles through rainforest and marsh, arriving at Cowee Meadow mid-afternoon. We stayed the night at the charming Cowee Meadow Cabin, warming ourselves with candlelight, hot dogs, whiskey, and beer. We felt the solidity of the wooden walls around us, impervious to the bears and coyotes and other warm-blooded mammals with claws that wandered the forested lands of our isolated retreat.
It seems to be a Juneau thing, cabin-hopping, regularly reserving public use cabins on weekends or days off and collecting a group of friends to hike out for the night. Joe had prepared for our arrival in Juneau from far-flung Anchorage, Vancouver, and Portland by sending us pictures of rustic wooden cabins in meadows and by the ocean, reminding us to not forget our sleeping bags and pads. I was happy to oblige, despite the images of bears lumbering by these rustic spots in my imagination.
And so here we were, Day 2, clambering over huge black roots of Sitka Spruce, sinking knee-deep in water or sludgy, bark-filled mud, our bodies slowly becoming soggy with rain. We were continuing our trudging pace to the next cabin on the trail: Blue Mussel. As we communed with perpetual wetness, I began to not dwell on water droplets inching their way down my arms from my soggy wrists, but instead on the delicious green lushness that surrounded us. Five-foot Devil’s Club towered over the group and jutted its spiky stems into the trail, reminiscent of a prehistoric plant almost larger than life. Images of the show Cosmos filled my brain: herbivorous dinosaurs ripping gargantuan shrubs out of the ground from their roots, unearthing foot-long insects that frantically slithered on to the next willing virescent shelter. All around us, lichens of every color: white and bright green and soft leaf color, yellow and neon orange and blood-red, hung off the black trunks of Spruce that lined the path. They clung to rocks and roots and any hard surface they could find. Eye-height, foot-height, hand height, lichens painted themselves across the bright splash of the forest canvas. As I admired one close-up, Joe told me that the Tongass National Forest, where we hiked, is the site of immense lichen diversity!
Juneau, AK is a meandering, narrow city settled along approximately 50 miles of highway. I had arrived from Portland a few days earlier, as did Nate and Alex from Vancouver, WA and Ernie from Anchorage. The 50 miles of road surrounding downtown is the only way in and out of the small metropolitan center, but eventually this road ends as well. Bordered on the East by tall mountains, glaciers, and ice fields and on the West by the Gastineau Channel, you’re pretty much stuck unless you can fly, swim, or walk over hundreds of miles of ice, snow, or water to the next nearby borough. Despite being isolated, cabin fever is not an option for Juneau-ites. They ferry to other towns in Southeast Alaska, fish salmon and halibut, and walk their way up and down every fuzzy, forested mountain peak that can be seen from downtown. The majestic beauty of the landscape in Juneau seems to trump the 230 days of precipitation per year that blankets the town in perpetual misty intrigue and makes the few days of sun seem so much more of a miracle.
Blue Mussel Cabin was within our grasp. Bolstered by warm oatmeal and coffee, impervious to the wet weather, tromping through dripping forests and turning our faces up to catch the rain while at the same time trying not to slip on the muddy path, we ascended a small hill of grasses until…yes! The telltale sign of the ocean: the way it peacefully laps at rocky shores and smells of salty brine and rotting seaweed. We emerged onto a bluff overlooking the shore, Point Bridget just around the next point. The cloud line was so low and so white that we had to squint to see where the swirling, misty sky ended and the ocean began. Which reflected the other, so white were both shades of white, cloud and ocean.
Skirting the coastline through more dense rainforest, we eventually made it to Blue Mussel, a cozy but simple rustic structure tucked in front of a rushing waterfall and looking out onto the ocean still mostly obscured by low clouds. After a quick nip of tea, we seized a moment of dry skies to clamber about on the rocks of Point Bridget and peer in still tide pools. Sitting up on the point, watching the coastline, we slowly began to see dark shapes appear in the mist as the clouds began to dance back and forth gracefully in the wind. Dark shapes that appeared to be…mountains? They revealed themselves slowly, lumbering landforms revealed in ghostly shapes one moment and then obscured by whiteness again the next. We were transfixed by their shapeshifting, restless at not being able to see the whole picture quite yet. That night, we watched the sky turn navy and then black, the mountains still cloaked in clouds, our cabin cozy with whiskey and candles.
But the next morning, we woke to perfectly still water and sun. Sun! Can you believe it? SUN! And there, finally, was our reward after two days of wet feet and dripping hair: 180 degrees of mountains, shining brown and green and blue and white, reflected in the still ocean as it wound its way north up the channel. We sat for so long on plastic bags laid out over the sodden picnic table just looking at those mountains. We hoped to understand them and their secrets and their wisdom, tall solid shapes that know so much, hunks of uplifted rock that have seen so much. We watched, we loved in gratitude, but we knew we’d never understand.