The younger spruce lining this trail look hammered by new snow that fell in fat moist flakes to quickly reclaimed the forest for winter. The snowshoes sink 6 inches with every step on a trail that was bare last weekend. Everything bends under white weight except the old growth stuff — spruce and hemlock trees that send straight shafts to the canopy. Some second growth trees appear to embrace the storm. Their vestige branches curve upward just feet above our heads to cradle newly fallen snow.
Aki has three more adults to manage today. She runs among us all while wearing a new snow suit that covers her legs in the faint hope of eliminating her snow ball problem. This kind of snow clumps quickly on her fine poodle hair; forming white billiard balls on the inside of her legs that force her into a bow legged gait. Running up to me as we approach a meadow she tilts her head in query as if she wants reassurance that the new snow outfit doesn’t make her look fat.
January 1 was a day for visiting when we lived in Bethel. While people in Anchorage and the Lower 48 were hunkered down around the TV watching football and nursing hangovers those of us without excess money or cable TV would cycle through the houses of friends. On the pretext of wishing them Happy New Year we would appear uninvited. if not unexpected or unwelcome, at the inside door of their arctic entry way. Once inside there would be tea or coffee drunk and stories told of the last year while we waited for someone else to appear. When it was polite to do so we would move on to another house or return home to wait for folks to visit us there.
Now, in Juneau, I’m saved from an American New Year’s Day by the Japanese American Community with an invitation to their Oshogatsu. There we will find a potluck of Japanese food eaten with tea and conversation. There the whole village will gather, some who I only see on this first day of the year. Later Aki and I will explore some trail, me more able to appreciate the wild silence for having been filled at Oshogatsu,
9:00 AM: Sun tries to break through storm clouds over Marmion Island but only manages to color them a remarkable golden yellow. We return to work when it fades to gray.
12:35 PM Sun manages a partial appearance low over Mt. Jumbo while wearing a wreath of blue and white.
12:59 PM Sun disappears leaving a patina of grey and yellow on the channel and the returning storm clouds.
1:30 PM Snow
Aki and I find the moraine a land of contrasts today. I feel it more than she because her light body travels equally well over transitional snow and ice. I struggle to keep on the thin strip of ice running the length of the trail for new snow makes it slick. Only a contraption of small chains held in place with rubber makes passage possible. I feel the contrast of hard and soft each time my boot slips off into the still weak snow bordering the ice path.
The temperature dropped during the night as snow replaced rain over Juneau. The rotten layer of ice covering this lake strengthens by the minute but watercourses draining the lake still run clear and dark. Over all the storm deposits pure white snow flakes. They make their best show on top the charred limbs of cottonwoods still standing after last summer’s fire.
The contrast of thaw and freeze is strongest where the beavers flooded the trail with their dam. Here a thin dark water channel must be crossed unless we back track to the Troll Wood trail. The end of a mid-winter thaw offers great opportunities for foolishness that if indulged can lead to danger. I could carry Aki across the open water but it would means a soaking for my boots. Unless the temperature drops. I could make it back to the car with nothing to regret but wet socks. If it dropped quickly and I become immobilized by a twisted ankle—. Years ago I would have plunged ahead and into unpleasantness that often ended with my frozen clothes thawing by the fire while I promised myself to stop taking stupid chances with my extremities.
We do back track and enter the Troll Wood where the winter storm has yet to breach it’s defenses. All is green except for a patch here or there were a dusting of snow whitens the yellow-green moss. We’ve taken shelter in a poorly maintain barn. When the trail takes us along the edger of another ice covered lake I look out at the snow and wind with smugness happy to have joined the trolls weathering out the storm. Aki relaxes too, apparently happy to have dry feet and no wind stinging her muzzle. Neither of us jump when we hear the bang of an avalanche breaking loose on Thunder Mountain. It will never reach this wood.
Christmas Day with family on a trail that has become an old friend. It snowed here earlier but we see none on the way to the beach, just the familiar shapes of an old growth forest— confusions of moss, dormant understory plants and an impossible number of spruce rising to the sky. It is all brown and green and asleep.
The sky wakes when we reach the beach an hour before official sunset, offering us a mix of grays and blues and yellows. The tide and a northern wind have flooded the shore to the forest edge, leaving Aki without a beach to dash down. She takes it well but does show impatience with my efforts to capture the sin now hitting Shaman Island.
It was a day without drama. Nothing to write or tell about. Just a simple walk with a friend and family on Christmas Day.
Last week’s storm first brought snow and then a cleansing rain that freed the city streets of ice and the forest understory of snow. This trail takes us through a forest on vacation from winter. Sorrel and Dogwoods make the most of it by lifting their still green leaves to the sky. It’s the right place to be on this day before Christmas.
Most of the forest waits for spring, leaves long severed, next spring’s buds wrapped in armor. They preach patience and reassure Aki and I that the world is already tilting our northern land back toward the sun. The dog woods remind us that summer is worth the wait.
Tomorrow most in America will celebrate the birth of Christ, a star of patience and promise that still leads us out of our individual wastelands. Winter may cover the forest with snow tomorrow while rivers freeze over and the landfill overflows with torn wrapping paper. Eventually a strengthening sun will alleviate the need for patience. I pray that even then we will not forget the promise of advent.
Aki and I lean into the wind of a building storm. This morning the weatherman promised it wouldn’t arrive until 3 this afternoon. Yet here it is at 10 am, blocking our view of the valley with its snow thickened clouds. Behind us the glacier and icebergs scattered about the barely frozen lake still glow several shades of azure blue. The storm will dampen the display with inches of new snow.
It’s time to move quickly for I am dressed for the rain, not winter but I stop to inspect a small blot of white on a willow branch closed up in winter brown. It’s a pussy willow soon to be damaged by the return of winter. There is no denying its soft beauty which makes my knowledge of its fate almost painful. With gloves off I can feel its softness and do, forgetting for a moment the fast moving storm. Aki stirs with impatience and and looks up with eyes filled with judgment. She can smell the coming snow.
The pussy willow is a fitting gift on this shortest day when winter reigns so I thank the willow for reminding me of spring. Then I feel foolish for elevating it from plant to sentient being. Better to thank the creator for the promise of sun’s return and for sending the storm that brings us this solitude. Aki and I have the glacier and its lake to ourselves.
Alone we crossed the dormant nesting ground of Arctic Terns, now enjoying summer in another hemisphere. Alone we catch the reflection of cast off icebergs in thin sheets of water on the lake ice. With only Aki I touched spring before it’s covered over again by winter snow.
We walked this trail when sun on fresh snow brought the forest a gilded opulence. At times the wind roars through these woods to rip 100 year old spruce roots from the ground so they crash into the undergrowth. Today it offers a quiet solitude and passage protected from the mixed snow and rain we drove through to reach the trailhead.
As Aki sniffs for clues of animals past I look for old friends now standing bare of snow—trees with twisted trunks supporting branches curving like the arms of ballet dancers. Some look ready to move like Tolkien’s Treebeard. Others have given way to rot and wind. Overhead a moderate wind plays a simple song in the canopy.
We pass a small pond almost entirely covered by thin ice. Four Mallards explode off its open water when I switch on my camera. This is the third or fourth time four mallards have shot into the air at our approach. The other escapes took place along other trails but I still wonder if each time involved the same gang of ducks. With them gone, we tentatively explore edge of the pond ice. It is more opaque than that covering every pond in the moraine last week but no less beautiful. Somehow dime sized ice domes have formed on the pond ice surface. Each manages to sparkle in the gloaming.
Leaving the woods a half a mile from the car we start walking toward it on the North Douglas Highway. Up ahead two cars slow and then stop and I think they have spotted a deer. The occupants hop out with saws, not guns, looking for Christmas trees. It’s raining hard now. As the wind rises, they stand and compare the young growth along the forest edge as if they were shopping in a LA Christmas tree lot. God Blessed them as Alaskans. God bless everyone.
I am thankful that this dry forest trail offers firm footing for the steep descent to the wetlands. Aki, with her soft paws and hard nails doesn’t care. She shoots ahead, encouraged by the conversation of Canada Geese filling the air. The shot of a 10 gauge shotgun silences the geese and dampens Aki’s ardor.
We picked this trail for its lack of hunting opportunities. I’d tell Aki shotgun pellets can not reach us here but she wouldn’t believe me. The geese must understand since 300 of them have hunkered down on a mud bar just offshore.
It’s dead calm with high overcast skies when we reach the beach, A scattering of snow flakes float by on the their way to the beach, now expanding with the ebbing tide. The flakes promise a storm as do the pure white clouds quickly obscuring the glacier and its mountain escorts. It hits faster than I thought possible, covering the beach with potato chip sized flakes. We spot a small skiff floating down on the geese on the outgoing tide. “Somebody is going to bag a Christmas Goose,” I tell my self just before as snow shields the birds from the hunter’s view. Their boat passes by without a shot.
I’m loving the fat flakes of snow and the way they quickly transform familiar beach shapes. This spruce stump, roots facing the sky turns into a frosted Hobbit hole; that plane of sand, a winter stubble field. The snow silences everything but the ocean swell, which produces a surprisingly deep base sound when it hits the beach.
Just offshore a seal moves above the water surface, in this light a body-less head. Closer in a common loon pops to the surface then floats off with the tide. The storm is passing now and the clouds over Douglas Island part enough to reveal a rough patch of pale blue sky. Then, hunters embedded across channel restart their war on birds. This doesn’t bother the geese in their splendid isolation on the mud bar but it does worry Aki. She insists on continuing down the beach, which would mean walking a five mile loop to get back to the car. We reach a compromise that has me carrying her to where the forest trail begins. She looks foolish and I feel the same as 300 geese cackle at our passage.
I should spend December in the dessert waiting for love renewed,
for the promise fulfilled.
There the morning star rises before the moon
as warm wind softly clears the air.
Instead I follow a steep path to happiness
through America’s shopping malls
finding it slick underfoot,
deafened by the economic sirens
blinded by the bling,
disappointed but not knowing why.