City wilds




Months had passed since my last visit to see an old friend, far too long.

The Turnagain Arm Trail has long been my favorite forest path, but I don’t go there nearly as often as I once did. When I lived on Anchorage’s Hillside, I regularly walked this woodland trail above Turnagain Arm (hence its name), sometimes several times a week, and I carry many rich memories from those visits. Now weeks—and yes, even months—may pass between visits, particularly during the winter.

The last time I’d come here was in mid-December, accompanied by Jan Myers and our two dogs, Denali and Guido. Jan and I brought holiday ornaments to decorate two spruce trees in celebration of the Solstice-Christmas season.

Now it was late February, Jan’s favorite month. The day’s weather helped to explain why: the sun gleamed brightly in a largely blue sky, temperatures ranged from the upper teens into the low 20s, and the air was mostly calm, with intermittent breezes. In short, it was a glorious late-winter day that held a rich brightness, which (for me, at least) hinted of spring’s approach.

One of the things that both Jan and I greatly appreciate about this trail is that it crosses a southwest-facing hill. Even in winter, afternoon sunshine lights up the woods.

A foot or more of powdery snow covered the forest floor, more than usual for this area, but the trail’s popularity with walkers presented us with a hard-packed trail of dry, compacted snow that made for easy, pleasurable walking

We were surprised to find the parking lot empty, but delighted to have the trail to ourselves. Over the course of our 2½-hour hike we would see seven other people (and two dogs), four of those in one group. But for the most part, we had abundant solitude.

After walking a while, we were both struck by the forest’s quiet. During our first hour, the only woodland sounds suggesting the presence of wild creatures were the chattering of squirrels and chickadees. We did have to wait a while for a young moose, browsing along the trail, to slowly move uphill before we could pass, but its presence added to our pleasure.

Upon reaching the Mile 2 marker, we decided to make it our turnaround point. But first Jan and I would have some hot mint tea and the dogs would share a chicken-flavored chew stick.

While standing there, a squirrel’s loud voice caught our attention. When I looked toward some nearby spruces for its location, I noticed another animal moving behind the trees. A canid. Something about its gait, its easy, flowing movement through the woods, suggested it to be wild, not a dog.

The color that stood out, or at least that I noticed first, was reddish brown, almost orange, and the thought that first popped into my mind was “fox.” Quickly pulling binoculars from pack and putting them to my eyes, I saw the animal more clearly.

“It’s a coyote!” I told Jan. The animal’s mottled coat did have some patches of orange-brown among the more common beiges and grays. The tail was long and bushy, the body lean (but appearing healthy), the ears and snout sharp and pointed. Classic coyote.

Perhaps it was the reason the squirrel had become so excited.

The coyote had to be aware of us, but while I watched, it didn’t turn our way or show any other sign of either interest or alarm. It simply continued its steady but unhurried pace.

Whether they saw or smelled or otherwise sensed the coyote, and perhaps also sensed our excitement, Denali and Guido too became excited. Suddenly they rushed down the trail in the coyote’s direction.

“NO! NO! Come back here!” I shouted, then I too bolted down the trail in pursuit of the dogs. I knew that if they met the coyote, it could end badly.

Guido immediately turned back. Denali stopped, but kept sniffing around. At one point, she started to climb the slope above the trail.

“Denali, NO. Come here.”

Soon enough, she did.

By now, with all my shouting and charge down the trail, the coyote was likely long gone. But I didn’t feel complete relief until all four of us were reunited.

Enlivened by the encounter with coyote, we began our return. And the forest that had earlier seemed so quiet now too seemed to grow livelier with animal energy. Along one short stretch we met a flock of a dozen or so bohemian waxwings, likely birds that had spent part of their winter in Anchorage, then we spotted a downy woodpecker and a pair of pine grosbeaks in the same trees. Later, we met two hairy woodpeckers and a large flock of common redpolls; the latter picked seeds from alder cones, some of the small songbirds hanging upside down to do so. And we saw three more moose, a cow-calf pair and then a single adult, all calmly sprawled on the forest floor.

Still, this day, this hike, was made most memorable by coyote.

Though our encounter was brief, the coyote’s presence and unexpected passage through our day changed the tenor of our hike.

This was something special, a memory Jan and I would carry back with us, hold inside.

Mile marker 2 would now always be associated with coyote, just as other places along this forest path stir memories of bear and lynx and owl and other wild beings, all of them reminders of the long and meaningful relationship I have with this trail, this forest, a place that so wonderfully blends the reassuring comfort of a lasting friendship with the occasional thrill of surprise.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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