Monthly Archives: March 2012

Winter Giving Way to Spring

Aki would have loved this sun soaked meadow of snow. She might have shown concern or distain when I broke through a snow bridge and plunged into a foot deep stream. I am glad she missed that part. It is enough that I must ski all the way to the car with one very wet foot.

The taste of spring hangs in the air over Amalga Meadows. One big rain storm will push it into spring. Now mud and snow fight it out for the high ground while watercourse ice rots to liquid. Even now a long tongue of open water reaches halfway across the salt chuck. Pushing past the stream of my rude baptism and deeper into the meadow, I find only silence.  Expecting the chatter of chickadees I only hear melting snow drops  hitting gentling moving water. It pleases rather than disappoints.

Later I ski over over a little hill to a pocket beach to test a theory. Without Aki will the ducks and birds relax around me? No. A small gang of mergansers relaxing on the beach re-enter the water when I am still in the woods and paddle to the middle of the bay. They leave me with a woodpecker pounding out food from a beach side spruce. Without seal lions or seals to keep them pinned to the beach the mergansers form an raft with a mix group other of ducks. Their muttering mixes with the sound of the woodpecker’s impact drill and periodic splashing by something I can’t make out.  A photograph shows something like a duck doing the iron cross. I’s guessing cormorant. 

Turning back from the beach I search for the woodpecker and notice a rising half moon emerging from behind a spruce. It wears a toupee of clouds. He is bald before I can snap a picture.  

Wednesday in Ordinary Time

I should be disappointed that clouds have replaced the sunny blue skies that blessed Juneau this morning. But overcast often hangs over our rain forest. The clouds raised the temperature to near 50 degrees so I leave my jacket in the car and join Aki for a skiing investigation of this great open meadow. After dashing about and rolling in the snow Aki settles into a patience pace by my side.

Almost two feet of compressed snow still cover the meadow promising a late Spring for the wild flowers below. It easily supports our weight making skiing a matter to be done without stress or thought. We have the place to ourselves. No recent animal or people tracks dimple the snow. Finding that solid ice still covers the meadows’ watercourses I drop down into one and ski over to the beaver housing complex. The ice ends there and stream water sings a calming song by flowing over a dam made of gnawed tree limbs and sticks. The beaver’s huge pile of feed wood sits at one end of the dam and a snow covered den at the other.

Near here three or four shafts, maybe 12 inches across, drop to the meadow surface. I probe one with a ski pole and find a small tunnel entrance at the shaft’s center. Small concave shelves have been fashioned just beneath the snow’s surface, which makes me suspect it to the be the work of land otters. I can just see then nose out of their home tunnel, place front paws on the shelves and launch themselves onto the snow. There should be a rutted trail of tracks leading from the escape shafts to an otter slide down to the steam ice. There should be an otter sized hole chewed into the ice. We have seen slides and opens holes in the ice here before. Maybe the otter clan has moved over to the salt chuck to fatten up on last Fall’s salmon fry migrating to Favorite Passage.

Many willow bushes dot the meadow. Some mimic English tea roses with objects looking like fully formed flowers that might draw a second look from a florist. These miracles were not produced with the wave of a wand but rather the invasion of the willows by a parasite. Midges formed the flowers or gall for shelter for their larva. Green in summer these galls have now dried to a convincing rose shape the color of dried blood.


Prayer Flags over the Gold Rush Trail

The quiet peace on this late winter day makes me suspect history. Again we ski between the famous White Pass and Lake Bennett — both reputed choke points during the Klondike Gold Rush. Later we will cross the US Canada border and drop the precipitous 14 miles to Skagway, which tries hard for the summer tourists, to look like its 1898 self. Only these battered railroad buildings, just managing under great caps of snow, even hint of the famous rail tracks beneath.

During other visits here I could almost hear the stampeders’ cross cut saws reducing the forest. Today, perhaps stunned by the warm windless day and the cloudless ski, I think of little but the ski. Two days ago a couple hundred skiers raced each other on these trails. You can still enjoy the dragon crested replica of China’s Forbidden City they made of snow blocks. Tibetan pray flags still flutter their colorful warning at the summit of the steeper drops. We ignore caution and fly down under the flapping prayer then glide onto a large flat meadow to gaze at a nearby string of mountains. Concentrating on the mountains I ignore the single set of tracks made by a large running animal that marks the meadow.

After settling into the ski rhythm I start thinking of all the beauty we had seen on this trip but run out of time before cataloging more than today’s experiences. There was the Yukon River now being drained by open water that steamed in the morning sun. Later there were the mountains between the Alaska Highway and here, each dappled with shadow and light. We stopped briefly at Carcross with its views of Lake Bennett and Nares Lake. Open water on the later reflected a great hill that is spotted like an Appaloosa horse. Now there are this series of meadows decorated with the weathered skeletons of tall spruce.

Later we will board the ferry for the 6.5 hour ride along a mountain lined fjord to home. Without wind we can expect to see the reflection of each mountain lit up by spring sun.


This Whitehorse ski area is an intersect area where man and wild things coexist. Men move most freely in daylight but the abundance of animal tracks show that they own the night. I choose the smaller, less used tracks that meander through a mixed forest of hard and soft woods. White spruce, some showing the red bark of mature trees space themselves between well formed alders. Yesterday’s overcast skies remain but let though enough sunlight to cast shadows on the snow.

Deep in the woods I watch a squirrel wait by the side of the trail like a homeless person timing the crossing of  an expressway. Forming a question mark with its tail, it tenses then springs across the ski tracks to the safety of the bordering trees. Minutes later I reach a disturbed meadow where large standing spruce, needless and black, dominates the surrounding willows. A small bird of prey flies from the top of a spruce with a quick flutter, then a glide, and another flutter. I’m surprised to see that the willows have already formed fuzzy catkins which are dropping seeds.

Back in the heavy woods a raven waits by the side of the trail until I stop. Then he waddles into the middle  of it and nests down next to the ski tracks.  He knows I am coming for I am the train. The train stops and reverses, leaving the bird stranded at the station.

Someone has hung an eagle feather at the junction of two trails. It dangles by an almost invisible thread, a tired thing of cinnamon white and brown. The eagle discarded it. Man hung it here where no decoration is needed.

A Whitehorse Day in Black and White.

We feel a little betrayed by the promising pink sunrise that started the day. Since then a thin gray cloud layer has blocked the sun from Whitehorse Yukon Territory. Thin as  it is this overcast is made edgy by the sunlight filtering through and offers none of the comfort or drama offered by cloudy days in Juneau. Our hotel is full of Asian tourists here for the Northern Lights. They may have to wait a day or two to see them.

With plans to visit the Canadian Tire store on the way home we drive 35 kilometers north to a hot springs complex where cross country ski trails snake through a poplar forest. It’s good skiing but we miss the drama of yesterday’s ski near Lake Bennett.  Moose tracks cross the ski tracks many times but none of the big animals has walked on the tracks themselves. With the forest floor covered with deep soft snow you would expect them to use the packed trails. At one point we passed nearby a moose, which startled us when he broke nosily away. Every though they look like some kind of farm animal moose scare me more than bears. When they take it into their mind to stomp you they persist until you either escape or feel pain. It is worst if you get between a cow moose and her calf.

While the gray ski offers little beauty, that of the gray barked poplar forest has all the romantic beauty of a black and white film from the 40’s.  The trees have a Scandinavian sense of personal space, leaving a couple of feet between each neighbor. Thin, tall, and always just a little crooked, their trunks rise ten or fifteen feet above the snowy ground before sending out branches. Even then they grow upward like saints in prayer rather than out like an apple tree.

Ferry Rides and a Raven’s Snow Angel

On the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferries always depart at inconvenient times. Today we left Juneau on the MV LeConte at 7 am. While that hour may seem reasonable, we still had to leave the house at 5:30 in order to get the car in the proper loading line. It’s sunny but cold making it bard to spend much time on the deck. I make an exception for the Eldridge Rock Lighthouse, so isolated in the middle of Lynn Canal. The little block house structure sit on the apex of a rock bare but for a small spruce, probably planted by a previous lighthouse keeper. Today it can hardly compete with the sunlit peaks of the Chilkat Range that rise skyward behind it.

It takes six and a half hours to make the trip from Juneau to Skagway, Alaska — all of it beautiful in the sun. I don’t bother looking for whales who are still in transit from Hawaii. We do see one lively Dall Porpoise streaking down the waterfront nears Haines.

From Skagway we drive up the steep road from sea level to the Canadian border, passing through several active avalanche areas with signs warning drivers not to stop, With heavy snow loads above the road and warming temperatures I feel like a gambler. Just past Canadian Custom we stop near the terminus of the Chilkoot Trail and ski on rolling trails through a lodgepole pine forest. Some times we drop onto flat pocket meadows which offer views of pure white peaks. Some have captured their own cloud, which rides low over their summits as if pulled down to guard against the harsh sun. Many of the pines lining the trail have big patches of red needles, usually a sign of victimization by bark beetles. Will this whole forest die in the coming years? In 1898 men hungry for gold slayed the trees’ ancestors by the thousands to keep them warm while waiting for Lake Bennett to break up. Then they journeyed down the Yukon River to the Klondike Gold Fields. They cut down many other pines to form the rafts they used for the trip. From the looks of the needles on these trees I wonder if the insects will destroy what the avarice gold seekers could not.

Near the end of our ski I spot strange tracks in the snow. They must have been made by a bird, perhaps a raven, who strolled through the soft snow, made a sharp turn and pressed his breast in the snow. So secured, he reached out gently with his winds and made a light scratch with each of the four or five feathers at the tips of his wings. Susan called it a raven’s snow angel. It just confuses me.

Wild Barnyard of Geese

The hike starts with a strange sound heard in a familiar place. An angry little sound, hawk like, breaks the silence of morning followed quickly by that of a song bird. The thick forest hides both singers so we move up river. Afterwards I stop often to listen for more bird song but only hear Aki’s paw-falls on the crusty snow.

This morning’s low sun backlights the moss covering the big spruce and cottonwoods lining the trail making the moss grow with yellow green tones. I try again to capture a tenth of the beauty with my camera and fail. The place rewards physical, not virtual visitors.  

Leaving the boreal forest for a muskeg meadow we begin to hear the geese. We have been through this before — hearing a big flock of Canada Geese from this meadow but never seeing them when we reach the beach.  Today, the sound stirs Aki to explode down the trail. I find out why when we reach the river with its big meadow covered with geese.

Aki has driven at least one bear up a tree but has never before acknowledged the presence of waterfowl. Even today, when they strut openly on the dead grass land and shout out random warnings, Aki acts as if they do not exist. I see this as a sign of sensible caution, not arrogance.  Our mere presence, a couple of hundred yards away, seems to set the geese on edge so we keep our distance. Downriver a ringing geese alarm sounds, something like the amplified dithering of the Three Stooges, and a set of geese flies overhead. This is repeated several times — the die hard feeders being driven off their sand bars by a flooding tide.

Soon the meadow becomes an untidy barnyard of geese, heads down, looking for a meal. Above them snow whitened mountains rise into a darkening sky. Then it begins to snow.     

The Pocket Grove

This morning the mountains circling downtown Juneau stand as dowagers with shawls of snow melting under the morning sun. We stay close to home, choosing to explore lands drained by a nearby creek rather than head out to wilder places. It’s an odd choice on this warm sunny morning but, as it turns out, a good one.

We start across a broad meadow still covered with compressed snow. The sounds of fire crackers being set off at the nearby land fill compete with the roar of highway noise. Someone sets off the fireworks to chase eagles and raven from our decomposing garbage. The big birds now circle above us as we cross the meadow and enter into a hill side forest.

It’s a rich place with moderate sized spruce and hemlock trees rising straight as grain stalks above the stumps of their ancestors. No snow litters the ground in this well managed wood lot. Already blue berry leaf buds swell, looking lovely when backlit by shafts of sun light. The refugee eagles and ravens are settling into the trees above us. We hear the ravens sound out what may be a love song. It’s their time of year. The eagles just sound perturbed.  

We follow the trail as it climbs up the steep hillside to crest on a false summit that offers a view of more second growth forest. Rather than follow it over the hill we move on a diagonal line down the hill toward a promising splash of white snow showing through the trees. The chance to walk back all the way on a sun splashed field of snow draws me through patches of thorny devil’s club stalks and over countless fallen trees. We pass one hemlock with military posture and a two inch thick root climbing straight up the length of the trunk rather diving into the earth. The tree’s bark now partially encloses the errant root.

Just before our breakout we must cross a thick belt of devil’s club. In a few weeks when these nasty plants send out their prickly leaves we would have to turn around. Today it only requires caution to pass through. We find a stand of massive spruce on the other side. Here within ear shot of traffic and the dump we stumble on a pocket grove of majesty bordering a small snow covered meadow. A tiny stream drains the grove. Yellow shoots of skunk cabbage push up from the stream bed. I am not sure which is more surprising — the pocket grove of ancient trees or finding the first sign of spring in such an unexpected place. 

Aki ignores these wonders to concentrate on the snowy meadow where she dashes about before rolling in the sun softened snow. Looking beyond her I expect to see the meadow continuing along the base of the hill to offer an easy stroll to the car. I find a small pond backed by a rising hill.

Expecting another battle with devil club and windfalls we cross the meadow and entered an area still recovering from clear cutting. Here there is darkness and thin trees with reddish trunks. It’s lack of understory plants allows us to move quickly up the hill and then down through some old growth forest to where the big meadow begins. Compared to the complex forest, the meadow offers a simple beauty — a plane of white dotted with the twisted shapes of bare brush.

Hunting Moments in Time

If not for an old mine, no one would have cut this trail above Peterson Creek. Horses once dragged ore carts down it to tidewater. Did they, I wonder, start the journey deep inside a tunnel maze, moving from darkness into light?  Thankful I am not a horse, I plan on walking with Aki up this trail until it almost touches a big waterfall. Continuing on from there would take us along the creek to it’s source lake, which might finally be ice free given the warm weather.

It froze hard last night, which firmed up the trail. In early morning a brief storm dusted everything with a half inch of snow.  Now the sun shines above the forest. We look for tracks in the fresh snow and enjoy sunlight breaking through it through the forest canopy. Aki checks the pee mail messages left by passing wild things while I look at the prisms of light created by shafts of sunlight hitting the new snow.  Taking many pictures I try to capture these moments in time before they die with the movement of the sun.

Hoping to see the waterfall flooded with spring light I stash the camera and move up the trail. We hear it before seeing it, while crossing brightly lit ground. A minute later I down on the creek in deep shadow. We have missed the convergence of light, snow, and falling water.

I think about continuing on to the lake. A guy with a fly rod might catch some of the stunted rainbow trout that managed to eke out an existence in it. Fish and Game planted their ancestors in the lake years ago. With the waterfall blocking passage for the salmon that spawn in the lower stream, the trout can’t fatten themselves on salmon eggs and young like their native cousins, the cutthroat trout. Down at the fly fishing shop, the guys will tell you that some of the rainbows, swept over the falls, managed to make it to salt water and then return as massive steelheads — ocean going trout that can reach the size of salmon.  Legends of Peterson Creek.

We leave the trail near the falls and walk without guidance or hinderance over the snow covered ground. In summer we would be blocked by soft wet ground and thick stands of the thorny devil’s club brush.

Moving away from the creek I realize that it has produced the only sound we have heard since leaving the car. This late in winter, the forest should be almost burdened by bird song. Hope we don’t have a silent spring.

I continue taking pictures to catch the perfect moment in time. Most will die under the delete key but several taken at the end of hike catch some beauty. They show Lower Peterson Creek winding through a small grass land.  One photograph captures creek water reflecting Lion Mountain as it dominates the horizon.  Another features the reflection of bare alders. The last shows a ball of ice, still dusted with new snow that clings to a stick rising out of the moving stream. We watch its snow cover  shrink under the sun while being rocked by the current. I turn away before it can stand nude above the water where steelhead and salmon will soon travel.

Second Growth

Aki and I spend an hour walking this familiar trail from forest to the beach where a minus 2.6 foot low tide exposes a great expanse of sand and rock. Coming on a sunday morning, the event draws many people here for the chance to walk a now expose ribbon of rock to Shaman Island. Feeling anti social Aki and I head for a place that seldom receives visitors.

The early morning rain had given way to snow. Fat flakes, some an inch across, fall straight to the ground to whiten the forest through brakes in its canopy. I waste space on my camera’s memory card trying to capture their journey. In this low light they show as white streaks on the resulting photographs. 

We enter in area of second growth timber. Many years ago man or nature removed at once the large spruce and hemlocks that once grew here. This opened the way for their seedlings to take root. Brother shouldered out brother in the following fight for sunlight. Those trees able to form part of the new canopy lived. The others withered in the dark. We find these second growth survivors twisted and pale. Nothing grows in the shadow to feed the deer.

In minutes we pass through the mutant forest to a small grove of old growth hemlock trees. Here berry brush thrives along with other understory plants. Here in the past we have found many animal tracks. It will take at least 50 years for the second growth to reach this level of peace and abundance.