Aki is this Wisdom’s gift?
this pleasure taken from watching
another father reach gently
for his infant son
and carry him down the Seward Street Steps
I’ve been waiting for the wisdom
promised to those reaching a certain age
but so far only know that
which comes from love.
Aki will not teach me
how she reduces the world to one thing
a yellow spot on the snow
that she will not leave until it reveals
everything about the dog that made it.
Nor will she share her power
to grow in mass
until I can not shift her even
after we have both grown cold from the winter wind.
Is it wrong to envy her these superpowers
her ability to achieve true clarity
and physical transformation
while all I gain is frustration?
She is, after all, only a dog.
The sun only touches the highest mountain ridges on Douglas Island when we arrive at the the North Douglas forest trailhead. In pre-dawn dusk the forest birds sing their happiest songs. Today their music mixes with the comforting roar of surf on the nearby beach.
Aki leaps from the car into an empty parking lot. We expect calm conditions this time of day and are not disappointed. The trees lost their snow mantles in last weeks wind storm and small leaf buds swell at the tips of blue berry branches. These could be more signs of an early spring.
We find the beach exposed by a minus tide, its frozen sand thawing in the full morning sun. Even the natural causeway to Shaman Island is dry. We take this rare opportunity to cross over, enjoying the iodine sea smells released by small waves breaking on both side of us. Ducks, scooters, gulls, and crows crowd the causeway and Shaman Island until we start down it. Without any encouragement from the dog or I, all but the gulls leave; sea birds into the water, crows rising in a dark cloud of hundreds into the blue sky. The crow cloud splits in two and one half returns to their roost trees on the island.
Always just off shore of well traveled land, Shaman Island holds magic for anyone who has walked on it. On my last visit it was high summer and we watched hummingbirds feed on blood red columbine blossoms. Today it’s the crows, whose tracks complete with those of a river otter for space on the remaining snow cover. The crows complain until we recross a now shrinking causeway and find the rainforest rich in morning light.
The days breaks calm. Later in the morning light snow begins to fall on Chicken Ridge. Aki and I head out to the end of Juneau’s road system and walk some big meadow lands to salt water. In summer the trail is limited by mud and meadow flooding caused by beavers. Today snow and ice cover all so the door to exploration is open.
Aki starts with her usual senseless dashing about punctuated by head dives and side ways slides on the trail. I admire some sawtooth mountains that appear to rise up out of the muskeg meadow we are crossing. A slight breeze grows to a gale as we move thorough a hard bitten forest and out onto the first meadow. We could turn into the forest with its protection from the wind but that would mean skirting the great terraced ponds formed over the meadow lands by generations of beavers. Weeks of wind scoured almost all the snow off the pond ice and Aki can’t resist dashing across it. She returned at my request when an eagle flies near.
A homesteader once grew potatoes here and horses still share the meadows with deer and the occasional bear. We pass a mammoth beaver house while transiting the first pond and then descend a series of their dams to reach the lower meadow. A thick spruce forest forms a wind break for us and an army of birds filling the air with song. Spring must be near.
Shouldering into the wind we reach a public use cabin and find a fire still burning. It’s warm inside but we don’t linger. Like most human structures in the woods, it’s just a dark box to keep nature out.
From the cabin its less than a half mile to a beautiful crescent beach circled with a high sand berm. The wind is fierce now and we both drop our heads into it to make progress. After crossing a deep snow draft we summit the berm and watch Berniers Bay send lines of great waves onto the beach. High white mountain peaks across the bay provide a nice contrast to the dark storm green of the sea.
Aki huddles against my leg as I take pictures of the drama then breaks into a run down the berm after spotting a gull lifting from the beach. Soon we turn away from the sea and descend the berm, enjoying the wind at our backs.
Only three blocks of Main Street separate the office from our house on Chicken Ridge. Winter weather can make the commute home an adventure. Snow and Ice cause most of the problems.
Following a heavy storm, snow plows will bury the side walks in two feet of soft snow, forcing us into the street. That works as long as black ice doesn’t form on the pavement. Aki can find a way up Main in these conditions but I’d just slide down to Gasteneau Channel. Those times we take the Sixth Street Stairs.
A wise man designed the stairs to have metal grid steps that allows the snow to fall into the space below the steps. In winters like this one, they always offer a safe passage home. Last winter a series of big snow storms made even the stairs an adventure by almost burying the steps. One night I could see that my safe route would close on the next promised snow. It felt odd, praying for rain in February.
We confirmed today that the Nordic ski makes a poor snow shoe. Our outing didn’t start out as a deep snow slog. Aki and I began on a groomed trail that meanders through moraine lands just now being transformed by a young forest. In my father’s lifetime glacial ice covered it all.
On this sunny day, protected from the wind by woods, Aki tears down the trail at a joyful pace. I follow and soon fall into the kick slide kick of ski travel. When a squirrel scolds her Aki breaks from the trail and plunges neck deep in new snow. She is too shocked to notice the squirrel bragging to its friends in their chittering language.
The beaver population is exploding here and their homesteading efforts brought forth floods that limit access to much of the moraine. A recent cold snap followed by a generous snowfall opened the door to exploration of these flooded lands so we leave the set ski track and make our way over them to the Mendenhall River. Snow driven by glacier winds have covered over the boulders lining the river, giving us a rare opportunity to ski along the river to the lake.
A brisk wind blows down the river and my skis break through the thin crust of wind packed snow to the soft stuff below. We struggle to make progress. Aki could dance across the crust but keeps in my wake where the wind can’t reach her. A rich blue sky and the river frame in beauty the glacier and its mountain escorts. Another day I wouldn’t turn away but the wind finally drives us up a side slough now choked with deep snow.
It take half an hour and heavy work to break a trail through blueberry meadows and thin forests to reach a series of beaver ponds that lead back to the ski trail. When I stop to rest Aki paws my leg and shivers. I lift her up and tell her we are almost home.
A firm crust covers the pond ice and we move with less effort. I cross animal tracks and Aki quickly follows them to someone’s front door. She answers my call and in a few minute we reach the packed trail.
Again Aki bursts down the trail with me following. I surrender fatigue to the freeing movement of the ski. Aki dashes along too, stopping only to read the signs left by dogs that passed before.
Aki prefers the house to outside on days when the Taku winds slam down 7th street. From her perch on the couch arm she can watch workers struggle toward the Seward Street Steps against 70 mile per hour gusts. I’d be sitting with her today if not for work.
The Taku winds plague Downtown Juneau when high pressure sets up over the Yukon Territory and a big low moves past British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. This engine forces already cold winds across the ice fields bordering Canada and Alaska and then down upon my town. They wander in random directions through the downtown streets, much like the tourists of summer.
Last night, dressed in quilted snow machine clothes and beaver hat I climbed the three vertical blocks from Alaska’s capital building to Chicken Ridge. It was 15 degrees but felt more like 10 below thanks the Taku blowing up the hill. One of the young legislative aides passed me wearing only the business casual uniform of his trade. (No hat, coat, boots, gloves, scarf, sweater). Should he be admired for his toughness or pitied as a fool?
The winds let us taste a northerner’s purgatory but they also bring beauty by stirring Gasteneau Channel with wind spouts and shrouding sunrise in blowing snow.