Monthly Archives: January 2011

Drunk on Sun, Space, and Beauty

The day breaks cloudless blue so the popular trails around Juneau will be crowded.  Hoping to enjoy sun in solitude, Aki and I start up the ice covered Lake Creek snowmachine trail. It leads to Auk Nu Meadow where the few scattered trees can’t block the sun.

With my ice cheaters we make good progress through some muskeg meadows, their stunted pines decorated with frost feathers. Then, the climbing begins through a thick evergreen forest. They made the trail for snow machines so its all long steep climbs and has no sharp turns to challenge a snow go’s primitive steering system. The first steep sections, offering only slick ice, rock and dirt, should force any machine to turn back. We never see one.

Aki patrols ahead. Falling into a climbing rhythm, I think about the men who made this trail just so they could drive snow machines to the meadow. While I was out fishing they firmed up the muskeg stretches with gravel and cut a path though these steep woods. Each winter they have  to wait for enough snow to open the trail and suffer through each thaw that melts it. Even on good days it takes hard work to drive their machines all the way to Auk Nu.

After climbing a series of false summits we break through to the meadow, now an undulating sea of snow broken by islands of stunted spruce trees. Frost feathers on the snow sparkle in the unrestrained sun.  The recent thaw followed by hard freeze firmed up the surface, making for easy passage. We exploit this chance to stretch out our strides, no longer worried about slipping on ice.

Snowmachine trails are everywhere and we follow one to meadows edge and look down upon the glacier flowing through the rugged Mendenhall Towers. There is no wind to complete with the bird song drifting up from the forest below. Drunk on sun, space and heartbreaking beauty I begin to understand why those guys built this trail.

A Price to Pay

Basin Road supports a tendril of Craftsman houses along the flank of Mt. Maria. There’s a high wooden trestle at road’s end that forms our portal to the woods. From here you can see Mt. Juneau quickly rise from Gold Creek to the sky.  Arms of the spruce forest reach high up the mountain’s flanks, separated by avalanche chutes and now frozen waterfalls.

The plan was to walk from Chicken Ridge to Basin Road and take the old mining road to Ebner Falls. A strong morning wind pinned Aki’s ears back when we left the house. Smelling ice in the wind, she threw on the brakes so we reversed course and dropped into Evergreen Bowl and took the Christopher trail across Gold Creek to the Flume Trail. While I was pulling ice cheaters on to my boots Aki alerted and a group of animals broke into the brush uphill of the trail. Later we learned they were 7 mountain goats apparently sheltering by the creek. There is always a price to pay for companionship.

Ice covered the trail from creek to flume trail and it took all my remembered rock climbing moves to make it up the steep path to the flume. This wooden rectangular shaped pipe feeds water to a small hydro electric plant at the edge of the Indian Village. It passes under some major avalanche chutes so we moved quickly and soon joined the trail to the Ebner Falls and the Perseverance mining district.

There is no hope for winter sunlight on this canyon trail, even today with its cloudless blue sky.   It’s all on the mountains above us. With eyes on the icy trail I think of the ghosts of man’s works now collapsed by weather and buried by new growth. Down below some mine buildings survive through the hand of man. The rest is long gone like the ore stamping mill that once thundered day and night at the head of Ebner Falls.

I think of other ghosts like the ones that Aki appears to see on the trail ahead or the soul of the high school student who fell to his death from this trail. We stop and think of him while looking at the ice locked falls.

The Wetlands

This morning breaks gray but dry.  Wanting to avoid another slog through soft snow I park the Subaru next to Egan’s Expressway and head onto the wetlands. We walk over thawing grass lands drained by narrow channels. One channel is decorated with red rocks as if just visited by Andy Goldsworthy. The tide is out so we could walk all the way to Douglas Island but stop at the edge of a diminished Gasteneau Channel.

In one day users of these wetlands may enjoy wide spaces created by a minus 3.7 foot low tide but would have to protect themselves from the effects of a high tide of over 19 feet. Aki loves the broad stretches of dry sand exposed at low tide, running circles at top speed. She doesn’t know that if we stayed six hours she would drown under the 17 feet of salt water that will cover almost all the land we crossed to reached her sandy playground.

Others exploit low tide today.  Hundreds of Canada Geese, chased from Lemon Creek fly noisily over our heads. Shortly after a big flock of mallards stirs and a handful of Rock Sandpipers flies close by. Aki watches all but does not chase.

We explore two islands of old moraine thick with spruce, that form battlements above the wetlands. During high tide land animals find refuge here while eagles rest on the trees. A single coyote track shows recent passage through the spruce.

The islands also provide a refuge from the muted wetland colors by offering the dark tones of Sitka Spruce and the fresher greens of low growing broad leafed plants emerging from melting snow. More strong greens shine from the mosses that break down stranded drift wood and cover dwarfed alder trees.

Checking my watch and the water level we head back to the car. On our way three adult bald eagles form one circle of flight while an immature one flies alone. The now rising wind that bothers Aki just adds to their dance.

The tide is out and the table set for wolf

Every day offers gifts from nature, even if they are soaked by winter rain. Otherwise we would never leave the house on such a damp day. Now, wrapped in fleece and pack cloth Aki gallops ahead of me in soft deep snow. It’s her Tigger moment but I’m determined not to play the Eeyore. On snow shoes I follow behind my randomly bounding dog until we cross the fresh tracks of a wolf leading to the beach.

The tide is out so the table is set for wolf. Here, where a glacier river enters the sea it would take half an hour to reach salt water. I scan the beach and river banks with binoculars but find only drift wood and gulls.

Last night’s high tide left much of the river bank bare so I take off the snow shoes and walk up river on sand and meadow grass. The signs of a great thaw are everywhere. Polygon slabs of ice are stacked  far from the river, some glacier blue and others as clear as window glass.  One  releases egg shaped rocks as it melts.

Aki and I are use to finding things carried high by the tide to this meadow. Last summer she tried to play with dog salmon caught in shallow holes by the retreating tide. Today there is only ice, drift wood and an eagle transiting over the beach in a series of slow circles. I pick up Aki and envy the owners of black labs as the eagle circles twice over our heads.

Fellini Dreams in a Pocket Wilderness

We are alone on the Under Thunder Trail, skiing through very tame woods. The evenly spaced trees remind me of Sweden and I wonder if the ground here will whiten with blooming anemone flowers in Spring. There is no thunder, just soft snow falling.

The trail sees heavy use by dog walkers and their tracks leave no hope for wild animal sign. This is raven country. One lets Aki chase him.

A mile in we stumble into a scene written by Fellini. A party colored poodle leads twelve large dogs towards us. Some of the dogs are tethered to beautiful young women. Thin web fastening strips decorate the dogs’ muzzles while their attendants wear Carhart canvas overalls and hard hat liners. One of the women flings blood colored dog treats toward the pack while chanting a nonsense word.  We ski on, never to see them or anyone else again.

The tracks end where the trail offers a gentle descent to the base of a granite cliff.  Aki dives forward, sinking completely under deep snow and I follow into a pocket wilderness where no one disturbs the snow shoe hare that appears to own the place.  Thin stalactites of ice cross lines carved by a glacier into rock. Here it is all deep snow and rabbit tracks.

Did We Fall Off Martin’s Mountain Top?

We slide off the uneven trail for the lake where 6 inches of new snow covers smooth ice.    Now the glide kick glide of nordic skiing comes easy. A fairy tale snow falls without disturbing wind. Aki dives and rolls and runs on.

It’s a funny place to think of Memphis bullets but I do.  Am I the only one who believed that Martin and his friends buried blatant discrimination and we saw his mountain top dream come true during the 2008 presidential election? Has the dream melted like spring snow? Time to pray that Americans will realize they are better than this.


The Return of Good Snow

The real snow has returned in clouds from the Gulf of Alaska. This is the snow of promise not like the stuff that snaked just above the surface of 7th Street this morning. That could have been ripped from Mr. Juneau by the yesterday’s Taku winds.

The new snow hide patches of ice on the Rain Forest Trail so I watch Aki’s footsteps for places where even she lost traction. This works until she breaks into the woods after a red squirrel. We have time and soon she is back on point. I stop often anyway to look into the old growth forest that lines the trail. The new whiteness on spruce and hemlock needles emphasizes each tree as an individual.  Now I can see the lines they have formed like soldiers going into battle, perhaps against the pounding surf a narrow beach width away.

Snow covers all on the beach except that recently uncovered by the ebbing tide. In minutes even that whitens. Beautifully formed waves hit exposed glacier erratics, sending up spectacular spray. It is a rare sight on the shores of this fjord where we expect only the gentle rise and fall of tide.

An eagle cry drives us back into the forest. This is their time of famine and already neighborhood cats are disappearing into eagle nests. Aki could be next.

Walking with Michio and Lynn

We’ve reached the Breadlines Bluffs after passing through some old growth and a muskeg meadow. It’s 5 degrees. A fierce north wind works against the flooding tide. The resulting waves break beneath the bluffs. The sea’s pounding music comforts one who won’t need a kayak to return home.

Gulls hover over the breakers, dipping down to snatch food that was been ripped up by the undertow. I want to take a picture but my right index finger is numb from shooting photos of questionable value in this cold weather. “Michio Hoshino would make something from the ultramarine and grey colors mixing in the surf,” I think.  That now deceased Japanese photographer inspired the play, “Blue Bear,” which premiered last night at Perseverance Theater. I watched the play and today scenes from it float along with Aki and I on this wind blown trail.

Blue Bear is about an Alaskan and a Japanese man who become friends by sharing our animals, sea, and land.  Both have things the other needs; a good basis for any friendship. Lynn Schooler, the Alaskan, had a boat, curiosity, and local knowledge. Michio offered patience, charm, and an artist’s eye.  Together they hoped to find a rare blue colored black bear.

Lynn could tell me why frost feathers have formed at the portal of these hobbit holes. One’s in this stump and another peaks out from that tangle of spruce roots along the trail. Could I be looking at the frozen breath of an animal in torpor? If he were here today, Michio would save the warmth in his fingers until a gull lifted something from the sea or the sun broke free to send rich shafts of light to this violent sea. He might have the patience to watch, camera on tripod, for something to emerge from this hobbit hole.

Brutally Beautiful Light

Aki lays next to the kitchen kick heater with that far away look that dogs affect when in bliss. Up here on the second floor invidious tendrils of cold air snake around my ankles and I need a significant amount of wool and fleece to hold out until this is  done.

Sadly there’s only weather to write about, cold as it is. Every morning as high winds drive down the windchill I pull on my “February in Bethel” clothes (Beaver Hat/Muffler/Snow Pants/Heavy Coat) and lean into the wind scouring down 7th Street. Aki dives under the covers and dreams of the South of France.

The dog misses the brutally beautiful light that only shows on cold winter days. It’s just for me and Raven who skulks for handouts at the bottom of the Seward Street Steps.  I call his name and the bird stirs into flight. gifting me with the ripping sound of a raven in flight.