I never know what to expect on a winter hike, even one taken on an old friend like this moraine trail. We dressed for cold, Aki and I, but I still feel it numbing hands and feet. Aki shows no pain but seems ready at each trail junction to take the fork offering the quickest passage to the car.
Wishing to take advantage of several days of near zero degree weather we head toward the beaver stronghold, no longer protected by flooding waters. Passing over newly frozen translucent ice we find a scattering of pure white frost flowers. each 2 or 3 inches as if they had been tossed before a processing bride. The flowered path leads to a large square of ice recently trod upon by a congregation of beavers. It would be a lovely spot for a wedding being on the shore of this small lake, which creates enough open space for views of the Mt. McGinnis and its snow covered buddies now just catching the first morning light.
Aki draws me to the clear ice formed between the beaver’s dams. Here the very recently laid tracks of a scurrying beaver mark the lightly frosted surface. The beavers have dropped several large cottonwood trees since our last visit and severely wounded one that now leans toward the ground. It will fall in the next strong wind.
Wanting to use these new ice highways to explore other areas of the moraine we move west to where older beaver activity destroyed a once flourishing copse of woods. Now dead, the tree’s shells still stand at sharp angles to their flooded ground against a backdrop of glacier cut mountains
Aki and I are both cold now so when given the chance to walk on a sunny lake rather than a dark forest trail we take it. White frost covers the lake ice except for isolated places in lake center where tracks suddenly start then stop—the work of ravens. Walking off the lake and out of the sun we circle back to the car through Troll Woods. Green still dominates this dark mossy place but patches of sun light manage to each random spots of forest floor. One illuminates a tiny Hobbit hole mantle of sticks and moss. Tiny frost feathers formed by the breathe of its inhabitants decorate the doorway. We have seen these frosty den doors many times before but this is the first time one has sparkled for us in a single shaft of light. Eight minutes ago, as the earth rolled toward its source, sunlight began its 93 million mile journey through space. It passed over the Douglas Island Mountains then squeezed through an opening in the Troll Woods canopy. All this to give life to tiny white frost feathers trimming a rodent’s home.
A small glacier erratic has pride of place on this pocket beach. Standing alone near the surf line it is blackened by mussels crowding its surface. The shellfish fight for space on the rock like owners of time shares in Heaven’s first condo. I wonder if they have overstayed the season for it is just above zero fahrenheit and even the harsh illumination of the morning sun gives little warmth. Can their thin shells hold off frostbite for the 2 or 3 hours it will take for the flooding tide to cover them over in temperate water? Last night they had to withstand subzero temperatures.
Ducks tucked into a tight raft move past the mussel condo, apparently too stunned by cold to notice Aki and I. Taking off my right glove I fiddle with the camera in an effort to take their picture. When numbing cold renders my index finger useless I try taking pictures with my other three fingers but can’t force them to press the shutter button. Only my fleshy thumb works in the cold.
Aki, double wrapped in felted wool and a puffy pink top (I did not dress her) isn’t affected by cold until we come to a small stream covered with seeping water. Here she waits for me to lift her over to the other side. Entering a forested headland we move along a deer track, recently traveled given the fresh tracks in snow to a small plateau. On the way we pass the entry to small hole in the mossy forest floor, each decorated by frost feathers formed by the breath of its hibernating occupants.
The plateau overlooks another pocket beach and Lynn Canal beyond. Discouraged by cold hands, I’ve tuck the camera into my jacket and take mental inventory of the scene. We can’t walk to the beach for last night’s salt spray covered the plateau rocks with super slick ice. I’d be in the sea in seconds of attempting passage over it. The little point on the beach’s far side is bare so we can easily see the white sawtooth peaks of the Chilkat Mountains to the west and a confusion of spruce covered islands on the channel. A small sea lion breaks the surface 20 feet away but I don’t bother with the camera. Without it I’m free to watch the sea lion pull the length of its grey body onto the surface then roll into a quick dive. Aki stirs at the sound of branch snapping, probably by the passing deer but I stand quietly listening to small surf striking the beach and waiting for the sea lion to show himself again. He does, just before passing behind the far headland. .
Something wonderful happens when a rapid drop in temperature follows wet weather. Its freezing hand transforms open water barriers to ice avenues and firms up soft snow so we can walk where ever it suits us. Last night the temperature dropped to 11 degrees F. on Chicken Ridge and close to zero out at the Glacier. Taking advantage of the resulting firm tread Aki and I pass over hard crusted snow in the moraine and then drop into the slough country that borders Mendenhall Lake.
Here frost feathers decorate each blade of dead grass, every bare willow limb, all newly frozen water courses. They all sparkle in the low angle sunshine that illuminates the glacier and her mountain guards. It sounds as if half of Juneau is on the lake skating past the thin ice warning signs or sledding on the steep sloped sand dune near the visitor center. Like the ravens, I’m attracted to shinny beautiful and click picture after picture with a right hand quickly stiffening in the cold. Aki stiffens too and uses telepathy to convince me to move on. My favorite subject is a tiny backlit block of translucent ice come to rest on a mud bar then decorated by hoar frost.
Eventually hard dog looks and people noise from the lake drive me out of the sun to the young moraine forest. Here we follow a trail winding through willows and cottonwoods thick enough to offer privacy and silence. We find sparkling beauty here too, but in smaller doses. The sudden cold snap caught the moraine moisture unawares—-freezing to crystal little bags of rain about to drop to ground and transforming water on the trail to a solid state as clear as window glass. All glows in the low winter light as does a sagging of Spanish moss caught in the act of drying by the sudden return of winter.
On this rare sunny Juneau day Aki and I walk on the dark side of Douglas Island. We came here for the shelter it provides from the Taku winds now hammering Douglas Town and Southern Gasteneau Channel. The picture above, for which I gave up feeling temporarily in my right hand, provides testament to the power of wind. What looks like fog patches hanging on the mountain sides are actually plumes of snow being blown far over the channel. The winds. borne in the Yukon are strengthened by passage over glaciers.
Even without the wind this creek side trail offers a cold passage, which seems to energize Aki. She dashes ahead 20 or 30 feet, snatches a sniff and dashes back to me. The old growth canopy kept out most of yesterday’s snow fall so the walk is dominated by the green, brown, and gray colors of a resting forest and the deep brown of the creek. Snow capping half submerged stream rocks and downed tree snags bring some brightness. Otherwise we have to look to the tree tops for even a hint of sun. There blue mixed with the colors of sunrise bleed through the trees. I find a perfect reflection of this in the stream but is is gone before I can record it with the camera.
Near our turn around point we pass through an area transformed when the stream jumped its banks to cut new channels through a small plane of old growth hemlock trees. This must have gladdened the local bears who grew fat last summer pulling salmon from the new narrow channels. The flood erosion damages the trees and many of the younger ones, maybe 5 to 8 inches across, later fell in windstorms. One lays across a giant downed ancestor now serving as a nursery log. The wind victim slowly dies as tiny new hemlocks compete to see which one will fill the space it left by falling. Only a human would find sadness in this.
Hoping to catch some sun we follow the stream out of the woods to it’s mouth. We pass a pond now covered with a layer of thin, milky ice. Even here all is gray except for a rose and pearl glow infusing sheets of bending shore ice.
We woke this morning to a promise of cold and wind. The moon confirmed the forecast by hanging bright over Douglas Island during my 8 AM commute. Later at work, the sun muscled its way through morning clouds to turn golden Gasteneau Channel. We braced for it to release the Taku Winds by warming Mt. Juneau’s summit so the winds may can rush to town in rude gusts. Instead of sun, a blanketing snow storm moved up channel to paint mountain and town in white. It still falls but tomorrow they promise the sun.
Pushed up against mountains and an ice field, Juneau enjoys significant micro climates. Downtown gets the wind and 100 inches of rain each year. Douglas receives more of both. Most storms pass over the small area running from North Douglas Island to Smuggler’s Cove, which only receives 60 inches of precipitation. With a strong rain soaked wind hammering the house on Chicken Ridge Aki and I hope to find a sheltered walk in this dessert on North Douglas Island.
Apparently a strong believer in meteorology, Aki is unperturbed by wind that rocks our car on the Douglas Island Bridge and whips up white caps on the usually sedate Gasteneau Channel. She stares down the road with anticipation but does not smirk when the rain and wind drop as we reach False Outer Point.
We have the forest to ourselves but find the beach crowded with water fowl. A small raft of ducks who were tight against the shore when we arrived move slowly into deeper water. A pair of loons feed in the open space between us and Shaman Island. We all enjoy the flat calm sea only occasionally dimpled by rain. An incoming tide shrinks the beach and threatens to force us into the woods. Wanting to walk a while on ice free ground we quicken the pace to round the next point before the tide makes that impossible. We make it just as the tidal door closes, leaving us alone with the birds.
Two eagles in trees just behind us exchange angry words and more of their kind tussle for roosting space on the Outer Point side of this now flooded bay. Some chase each other over the water, talons extended out as if they were about to snatch a herring from the water. Seems too early for their mating dance —-the one where they lock talons and then spin in circles as gravity pulls them to ground. I saw that hookup once but the tangled eagles dropped out of sight behind the tree line before I could see if they broke off before hitting the ground.
We find the fresh carcass of a loon washed into the rocks. Just off shore another one floats aimlessly by. The eagles go quiet and nothing breaks silence except the flutter of gull wings.
The sight of death saddens me as does the loon appearing to morn but the silence is a perfect gift and I remember Slavic (Russian Christmas), which was celebrated yesterday in the Kuskokwim River villages of Western Alaska where we use to live.
Rain is winning the precipitation war today, All winter it battles with snow for control of our lives and forest. The snow creates and the rain reduces until we are left with ice free lakes and muddy trails. Then, with the help of the freezing air, snow reclaims its kingdom. It could happen this afternoon or tomorrow or next week. Until then Aki and I must find enjoyment on forest trails like this one circling Auk Lake.
Aki can handle the icy path but I couldn’t safely get out of the car without pulling ice grippers over my boot soles. Ice made slick by rain offers no purchase for bare lug soles. I bring a camera but have little hope of capturing beauty with it. Days like this turn it into a story telling device. There are hints of stories here like tiny deer tracks recently cut into rain softened ice and those of a dog who foolishly tested the weak lake ice. Along the lake edge branches of half submerged spruce, now freed of snow by the rain, could be vertebrae of dragons soon to be freed from an icy prison.
Snow brings peace to the forest as it softens familiar shapes and brings colder temperatures to silence moving water courses. When snow rules we go deep in the woods, where the wind can’t reach, and enjoy a whitened church. Rain brings movement and energy and, I have to admit, excitement to our rain forests. Today the trail crosses a series of dark rivulets cutting a noisy path through the snow covered ground. Water droplets collect on every tree branch overhanging the lake then weaken the ice when they drop.
Approaching a larger stream crossing I notice that the trail crew used curving spruce trunks for the bridge. The young spruce once grew along the lake where they reached out over the water before turning up to the sun. The trail designer must have harvested them after seeing in their arching bodies the reverse line of the trail where it crossed his creek. Last week’s snow hid the bridge. Today the trees’ gentle beauty and the designer’s genius have been revealed by the rain.