Today we look down for beauty but up for sound. Wet snow the consistency of stiff oatmeal covers the moraine trail. Snow shoeing over it tires. Even Aki plods behind in my tracks. What moisture falling from the sky arrives as rain. From their tracks in the snow the beavers, with their nifty waterproof coats, are not bothered by the slop.
After crossing a flooded portion of the trail we head over to the big beaver damn and find a hole in the lake ice near it. No tracks show in the surrounding snow, just a C shaped gap in the low white wall bordering the hole. River otters? There are juvenile king salmon wintering in the lake.
Aki jumps a bit when we hear an avalanche rumbling down Thunder Mountain. This is not the roar made by Mt. Juneau avalanches but a manufacturer sound like that used to mimic thunder during a stage production of the Tempest. No Prospero here.
The trail deteriorates when we leave the damn. In places my snowshoes sink into water under the snow that soaks my boots. Aki manages to prance around this wet zones. The warm weather has flooded trail side watercourses which reflect spectral shapes of bare alder branches. Dripping water shatters these deep mirrors with rings of concentric waves. On a day stripped bare of sun and most color the effect is stunning.
Fresh snow this morning followed by sunshine drives us to the open spaces of the wetlands. Three or four inches of new snow almost covers everything, Enough straw colored grass and mud show through to provide an interesting contrast. A few weeks ago we tried to reach Gasteneau Channel from here only to be blocked by Duck Creek. Today I hope to cross the creek where it is still narrow.
Nothing has passed over this land since the last snow though we do spot the gull tracks in a tiny mud bar. Brightly colored plastic objects — buckets and bottles mostly, poke out from under the snow. I count myself lucky that I haven’t seen such flotsam on other parts of the wetlands.
The weather changes as we reach Duck Creek, which unfortunately is still impassible without rubber boots. An east wind rises, pushing clouds down channel to close over the diminishing blue sky. Aki takes shelter in my lee but I am exposed on this flat white plane. Ducks complain on the far side of the creek then take flight for more remote country. In minutes we received a replacement flight of Canada Geese fleeing from the direction that drew the ducks. Some form the traditional “V” shape while the rest fly as an organized gang.
On our retreat to the car we cross through a large patch of Fireweed plants that presented a brilliant magenta show late last summer. The dead stalks bent almost to the snowy ground by weather offer a sad beauty. As a cold wind rises and snow begins to fall I join the stalks, as pathetic as the remnants of Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow, shouldering into the wind and make for the comfort of the car.
This could be a story about the spirits that animate these trail side alders in the privacy of night. Each morning they leave the trees frozen in twisted last dance poses. Aki, with more common sense than imagination would not like that. For her even the arthritic swellings of the older alders are best explained by external forces of nature. She’d rather me tell a tale of her heroic efforts to clear the trail of red squirrels.
We start down this river side trail between snow flurries. Even this far from the sea an onshore wind carries the echo of nervous geese chatter. They must be feeding on exposed sand bars near the surf line. The incoming tide should flood the bars and drive the geese to the big meadow on this side of the river. I pick up speed to be on the meadow when the geese take flight.
Reaching tidewater we find a big gang of stubborn Canada Geese holding on a shrinking sand bar across the river. Hundreds of gulls share the ground with them. All locals, they intend to feed on the bar until the last second. Hoping we can witness the exodus from the flooded bar I walk toward the beach. Just as we reach it, a cloud of gulls explode off the geese’s sand bar and fly over to our side of the river. Many pass just in front of where we stand. Perhaps better judges of the sea, the geese hold fast as the tide begins to retreat. With no hope to see them fly, Aki and I turn to walk down the beach as the wind drives snow in our faces.
Aki hits my leg with a paw and looks up with a longing look. When I pick up a throwable stick she makes a small sound of excitement. Turning so my back is to the wind I toss the stick for her to retrieve. For a few minutes only me and the sand and stick exist. When the stick suddenly loses its charm, Aki turns into the wind and we continue down the beach. Curtains of wind driven snow partially obscure the islands and waters of Favorite Passage and force us to leave the beach for a more protected meadow trail leading back to the river.
The meadow forms a yellow brown plain bordered on the far end by a scruffy collection of spruce and one bare cottonwood tree. Grey black snow clouds, shredded by wind, fill the sky above the tree line. It could be a fallow Montana wheat field and the line of trees could be the farmer’s windrow for providing a windbreak for the house and barn. Aki and I have cross this meadow often. Sometimes geese or crows or eagles hunt for food here. Even then my eye is drawn to the lone cottonwood tree.
Thinking of the old cottonwood dominating the meadow I lead Aki back to the river where a single Canvasback Duck, beak tucked into his back feathers, floats close to the far bank. His kind is rarely spotted in Southeast Alaska, especially in Winter. The big bird must be taking a break from his long compute to the Northern Tundra. I can’t spot any other transit birds. Did he drop out of a northbound group or does he just seek solitude? Not a very ducky thing to do.