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.
The wind blowing off the glacier has a familiar bite, as familiar as the feel of these boots moving through soft wet snow, as comfortable as this trail bisecting a young willow thicket. I could be in Bethel on the trail to Steamboat Slough. It would have to be Spring there because of the warm temperature and I would be pumping along behind a small team of sled dogs, not following a poodle mix in a red coat. Somehow the memories power through all the differences between then and now and I ignore the negative of this place, pushing aside the beep beep beep of machines clearing the runway and the dominating noise of the Coast Guard rescue helicopter landing in a snow storm.
If I could I would dial back my color receptors until all becomes gray, black and white and fall into the richness of a black and white movie made just before Technicolor. This stormy day is about values, not colors, and the push and pull of snow pasted on dark tree bark by a persistent wind.
Aki, for whom everything is black and white, cringes when the wind lifts her ears so I take a shortcut back to the car and drive over to the old Thlinght village site. There we walk in the lee of old growth spruce and listen to waves on the beach. Once I follow Aki through the trees, and across a foot thick blanket of snow to the beach. Here again is a time to dial back the color and concentrate of the stark lines between sea, gravel beach and snow that converge together in my mind where the point pushes out to sea.
We return to the woods along Eagle River with skis rather than snowshoes. Yesterday’s heavy snow fall followed by equally heavy rain transformed the trail. A weak crust covers 2 feet of heavy wet snow. Aki tries her luck on the crust but it is too weak to support even her diminutive frame. Soon she takes up station behind my skis as I slog along.
Sections of the trail are craters as if shelled by tiny mortars and I wonder if the beavers are escalating their battle with the U.S. Forest Service. I dismiss the silly notice but can’t ignore the carters, some 10 inches deep and 2 feet across. Looking up I find the answer in the now bare spruce branches above the trail. The weekend storm loaded down the branches with snow which was released in great masses by the heavy rain. It must have been frightening for any wandering these woods during that wet storm—snow release, violent upward snap of the newly freed tree branches, explosion of snow on snow.
This morning as nature regroups from the storm, the gray marine layer fragments into irregular shaped clouds willing to show us a little sun and blue sky. Still, at 11 AM the colors of sunrise are all we see until reaching the tidal meadow. There the full rich tones of our winter sun make us squint but we can’t resist keeping our faces turned toward the source of irritation.
Tired of breaking trail I lead Aki onto the beach to where tide has washed away the snow. As I empty my boot of snow an eagle cries out and five Canada Geese fly over our heads. Aki (proud dog owner speaking) doesn’t bark or break down the beach as they fly over.
Two puzzling terraces of snow border the frozen beach. I reject the first explanation that comes to mind—that the last high tide overrode snow forming the lower terrance but left a three inch blanket of it intact. Then I remembered the intensity of yesterday’s storm that covered footprints leading to our house in minutes. Rain must have given way to snow in the early morning as the tide receded, leaving behind this fine white blanket glistening in the sun.
Since the tide was out I had hoped to walk around the meadow on the bare river bank but it was too steep so we return to the meadow where I break new trail for Aki until we find one set by other skiers. For the first time since May I enjoy the kick, glide, kick of classic skiing.
I am excited this morning to use the cross country skis. The trail should be perfect. Yesterday someone with impeccable style skied a perfect parallel trail through the moraine woods. Now it is just discernible under three inches of newly fallen snow. I move onto the trail, Aki close behind but after a few glides my skis slow and then stop, glued to the trail by sticky snow.
This happens in Southeast Alaska where snow can turn to rain on a slight shift in the wind. They call it “icing.” In an hour or maybe minutes a temperature change will erase the problem but that won’t help me now. Aki has her own icing problems as snow balls form in seconds on her fine hair.
Last year I would have pushed on, forcing my skis down the trail, pouring all energy into movement until sweat mixes with new fallen snow on my bare head. But wisdom arrived in the first hours of this new year so I remove the skis then realize we are on a snow covered beaver house. Falling snow fills the sky from here to the Ice Fields several miles away. It transforms in silence,
I walk back stopping to see the things missed while skiing— thin alders arching over the trail by snow and a shapely bolder that has caught moisture on its concave top since dropped here by the retreating glacier. Aki, perhaps no longer worried by the sliding skis, dashes through the woods along the trail.