Trust is fragile in the heart of a dog. I fear I’ve broken Aki’s. She stands defiant at the trailhead watching me walk with snow shoes toward the outlet of a salt chuck. From there she only sees me and deep snow. She must remember yesterday with its snow laden meadows and tangled stream side trails. I return, lift her over the snow berm and drop her onto a packed trail. Bursting forward she gallops a few steps and turns with tail wagging. Trust restored.
The chuck looks like another spruce lined lake but I know salt water mixes with it on flood tides. This calls for caution on warmer days but it’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit and no overflow of water marks the snowy surface. At the outlet open water flows onto a cascade then to the ocean. Small waves slap the rocks beneath our feet. Aki watches gulls and eagles patrol the air over off shore net pens full of infant salmon. Those that survive until summer will start their perilous life in deep seas.
Backtracking we bend into the wind until the trail breaks into the woods and loops back over a hill to a pocket beach. I forgot to dry out the snow shoes after yesterday’s dunking and the now frozen bindings won’t fasten properly on my boots. The snow free beach offers a welcome chance to kick them off.
The salmon nets are just off shore so resting eagles perch on the spruce lining the beach occasionally calling warnings to their competitors. We walk with caution to a near headland formed by a tumble of rectangular rocks. Those rocks near the high tide line are treacherous with thick glazes of frozen sea spray. Above we find an Aki sized world beneath wind stunned spruce. Aki refuses to follow me from her hidey hole onto the next beach until I walk out of her line of sight.
While waiting for her to yield I find the trail of a large river otter and wonder that Aki wasn’t drawn to the smell. She appears above me, having found the better way home through another pocket forest. This one is decorated by squirrel and otter tracks. From there we drop onto the salt chuck and slog to the car.
None of it worked out the way I planned. First there was the Subaru parked next to the Peterson Lake Trailhead, disgorging two women and a spotted dog. Etiquette prevented me from joining them. Then our car got stuck in new snow at another trailhead. By the time I dug it out the spotted dog had had time to get far up the trail so I backtrack, park the car and strap on snow shoes.
Aki wants to follow the spotted dog because she doesn’t have my need for solitude. We turn away from the main trail. Being a loyal thing, Aki ploughs along behind as I break trail on the meadow leading to Peterson Creek. Last night’s storm added six or eight more inches of snow to an already well endowed land so its a tough go.
Big gray alders line the meadow, their limbs carrying a heavy load of snow. A stir of wind turns day into night by lifting clouds of snow from the trees. We reach the creek, only lightly covered with snow. It ran free before last week’s cold snap. Thin gaps in the stream ice reveal open water and we hear it gurgling over gravel under the ice we stand on. Any colder or warmer and I would stick to the meadow but I’ve fished this stream and know we could survive a mild dunking if we broke through.
We move easily at first and spot a water ousel bobbing next to some open water. Aki shoots ahead, trotting carefully around any ice breaks. Sometimes the ice cracks beneath a snow shoe soaking boot and binding. After a good submersion I abandon the ice and start working through the mixed devil’s club and elder berry brush lining the stream. It’s slow going. Seeking easier passage through a spruce thicket I move behind a wall of snow bent limbs wrapped in Spanish moss and backlit to beauty by morning sun. Minutes later Aki throws on the breaks and gives me a hard look and I wonder if she remembers our slog through this same mess last fall. That also ended with wet feet and exhaustion.
Thick, tall spruce now surround Aki. Some are real monsters. A woodpecker pounds out a tattoo on one. Taking this as a sufficient award, I concede and we retrace our steps to the car, crossing fresh tracks of a small deer on the way.
It’s my morning commute down the Seward Street Steps. I’m brooding about my just ended struggles on the guitar with Bach when a raven call sounds from behind. There’s no raven there, only Mt. Juneau underscored by the line of remodeled miner’s cabins on 6th Street.
Standing in dusk I watch the first morning light reach the mountain’s summit and the ice fields behind it. The light delivers enough warmth to heat the peak’s supercool air, driving plumes of snow drift over our town. If it stays clear the same sun will warm my face this afternoon. Not that far removed from my pre-Christian ancestors, I still need these affirmations that the sun really will rise higher in the sky each day ‘till the solstice.
The morning breaks clear after a night that brought five more inches of dry snow. I’m shoveling out the driveway when the first light reaches chicken ridge. With a sun soaked Mt. Juneau as backdrop the rich highlights on the snow whitened trees are too rich to ignore. Dropping the shovel I dash into the house for Cumming’s camera — the big Panasonic with a Leica lens. Each resulting click of the shutter is like a bite of good chocolate. Instead of promising to cut back I pledge not to spare the delete key. Am I a binge and purge photographer?
After spending 2 minutes trying to photograph the highlights on the snow shovel I load Aki and the big Panasonic into the car and head for the North Douglas trail system. Last night’s high tide stripped much of the False Outer Point beach of snow so we start there. Aki charges in leaps down the trail to reach the beach well before me. We stand in the shade and watch the low angled light from behind us catch the front of waves and light up the backs of harlequin ducks rafted up just off shore. Above them we see the channel, spruce covered islands and the glacier flowing through its Mendenhall Towers
Moving around the point we pass under two eagles warming themselves in the fresh sunlight. I find the olive green birth sack of a shark around the corner and carry it to a sunny place to appreciate its amber highlights and pleasing shape. A more animated eagle calls out so we move into the forest where there are more rich displays of sunlit new snow.
We return to the car on little used trails and are rewarded with flying squirrel tracks. The last half mile is on an unplowed road where Aki dives and rolls in the new snow. She disappears when we reach the car and I find her back on the beach trail, apparently wanting to do it all again.
Aki bolts from the car for some wild circles through new snow followed by several face plants. Only after a blinding amount of snow adheres to her muzzle and face does she follow me down the trail along the Eagle River.
Thank you, the small group of folks that did such a wonderful job setting the ski track we follow. You turned a potential slog through wet deep snow into a glide. The army of chanting birds that greeted us last time are absent from the old growth along the river. I look for the electric green blankets of tree moss and find it muted by caps of white snow.
Deeper into the forest we hear bird song that seems to express the muted joy of a community still intact following a storm. I find their emotion valid, after experiencing yesterday’s dumping. A card carrying member of the Audubon Society would quietly explain away their behavior by listing the species of my choir members and the purpose of each one’s song. Aki leaves me the magic and I thank her for that and the birds for the sharing.
Can I find enough in a winter sunrise to replace the joy mountains give to those who approach on snowshoes? There is much joy in this sunrise that pales the deep blue of the night sky. It lights the highest mountain ridges as I sit at the computer listening to Hendrix, waiting for Susan’s croissants to cool.
Thirty years ago I would have been breaking camp on a morning like this; our eight honest dogs watching with anticipation the loading of the sled. It would have been Beethoven’s Sixth, not Hendrix playing on my walkman as the dogs pulled me down the Kuskokwim River ice toward home. Hoar frost greased the trail.
Today Aki and I will ski on ten inches of fresh snow. If God wills we’ll be doing the same in thirty years.
We are six inches into a ten inch snow storm. There are no hard lines on Chicken Ridge. It’s all snow and softness. With the car trapped in the carport I strap on snowshoes at the front door and head up 7th Street toward Basin Road. Aki acts like a three year old on Christmas.
Moving three feet forward with each leap, Aki sets the pace. She stops often to read messages written in yellow by her passing canine buddies. Once past Basin Road I free her from the leash and we both fall into the steady rhythm of the snow shoe.
We cross Gold Creek where it flows between snow covered banks and boulders and climb toward Perseverance Basin. A trail runner passes once but most of the time there is only snow falling on snow, spruce, and the arthritic limbs of windblown alders.
Looping back toward home we follow a steep track down to the creek. A Mr. Natural lean back and let them slide walk works best. Thank you Art Crumb. Then we wind through tall balsam popular on a trail bordered by short segmented reeds. Close up they resemble small bamboo forests. When the trail turns to offer a view of the creek filtered by the fine skeleton limbs of popular I half expect to find shelter from the snow in a Japanese tea house. We do find tracks of the resident deer who passed through here at first morning light. The storm has almost filed its tracks with snow.
Shaking Off the Snow
Blessed with free time on this cold but sunny day we drive out north of town to a maze of unnamed meadows and forest. It’s 5 degrees when I step into snowshoes and move through some scrub spruce to the first meadow. Aki hesitates before leaping her way to me through 8 inches of new snow. Did she think we would find summer here?
We are in shadow but sunlight is reaching most of this long thin field of snow. Tall spruce trees border one side of the meadow while alders and stunted spruce run along the other side. More stunted trees form scatted islands of green on the sea of white. Even though it hasn’t snowed for days, we are the first to break trail. Aki follows in the wake of my snowshoes, saving her strength.
A half mile in we cross a fresh ski track. Aki exploits the long packed trail to speed ahead of me. She has to backtrack when I veer away to follow a stream that promises access to another meadow I’ve been wanting to explore. Here we see a strange thing. There’s an otter slide on the steep stream bank that ends abruptly at a small circle of snow free stream ice. I can’t find any otter tracks on the surrounding snow. It’s as if the otters played a game of pain; sliding on their belly in their slick slide to crash headlong on the frozen stream. I imagine the concussed otters climbing slow back up to slide to try again.
Later we find the answer where another well used otter trail leads from stream to woods. It starts at a circle of snow cleared area on the stream ice. The surrounding snow shows the efforts of otters digging open a hole in the ice. Mystery solved. The otters first made a hole in the ice being using the slide to fly down the stream bank and into open water. Our local fraternity
Aki wants to follow the otter trail into the woods but I convince her that no good would come of it. Just before beginning our return to the car we break into the woods and find deep inside a stream no wider than my snowshoe. Having frozen after the snow it is still the rich color of amber, today made spectacular by a single shaft of sun light reaching it from the meadow. Unexpected beauty always provides the richest feast.
The Fish Creek Pond offers little for the eye on this soft February morning. Years ago a mother and child drown here on a colder February day. The boy and his friend walked out onto the ice while she watched from the beach, an infant son in her arms. When the ice broke the mother faced Sofie’s choice. She choose to rescue her older boy, leaving the infant swaddled on the snow covered beach. The mother and child died but the infant lives.
A light snow softens the man made hardness of Fish Creek Pond. Its’ black and white loveliness, crowned with his overcast sky threatens to bring more melancholy. Aki and I escape into the old growth woods bordering the east of the pond and are reminded of why we live in Juneau.
Here are big spruce and Hemlock trees that have fed for decades on spent salmon. Aki dashes about reading the rich smells left by a passing deer. A week stream of sun forces its way through clouds to light electric green moss jacketing the trees. As if responding to my emotional upswing two song birds (Varied Thrust?) sing to each other high in the canopy. It’s as old as the Biblical psalms but joy after sorrow is still sweet.
Wednesday’s beautiful snow is gone. Subsequent rain turned it first into a messy barrier and then runoff for the storm drain. Today the apple tree’s bare limbs flex softly in a warm breeze that brings a false promise of spring. The tree is a fool about winter and will start unfurling leaves soon if the cold does not return.
Expecting better out the road we drive north to hike near Eagle River. This is tall spruce country where any sunlight reaching the understory brings drama. We expect little drama on this high overcast day but the birds surprise. Thick flocks block out the sound of running river water with their high pitched chant — chit-chit-chit-chit. Bird song follows us deep into the woods where tree limbs wear unruly blankets of green moss. Two very upright hemlocks face each other with moss draped middle limbs forking out like the arms of lovers beginning a dance.The moss’ rich yellow green color seduces in this flat light. Much to Aki’s annoyance, I stop often to admire.
Warm temperatures and rain reduced the snow pack to reveal the broken tree branches and squirrel ravaged cones now littering the trail. I pick up a severed balsam limb and crush its sticky leaf bud with finger and thumb to release a smell like Chrism oil or the balm of Gilead. After, I smell this promise of spring each time I remove my glove.
We follow the trail to the river. On our last visit polygon blocks of river ice lay neatly stacked on meadow grass. Reduce in mass by warm rain, the fused together ice has exchanged hard edges for flowing Dali curves.
Common Mergansers float downstream in a small flotilla and then break formation to dive for food. On the near bank four Canada Geese walk slowly away from us with a nervous casualness. One sings a low monotone song. “You don’t scare me, dog in the fancy red coat.” Aki, nose buried into an interesting piece of meadow doesn’t even notice.