Convenience drove the choice for today’s trail. It starts near town at near the prison and our collection of large box chain stores. An open steady climb up to a ridge dividing two creek drainages, the trail then drops steeply into a brush choked braided stream. A turn left here takes you to Lemon Creek, stained blue-green by glacier silt. Crossing the braided stream and you can pick up the trail to the Juneau ice field — the 20 something mile deep ice sheet that covers our border with British Columbia.
We turn around at the stream because glaciated ice has made the crossing stones too slippery for even Aki to cross. It’s a sad little spot this afternoon. Even the uniform covering of still white snow can’t bring it beauty. The climb out is steep and a little tricky in places where the trail crosses above a steep slope covered with devil’s club and narrows to a boot width.
Aki races through these parts then turns as if to ask, “what is your problem?”My problem little dog is the need to avoid tumbling into the thorny brush below. The trail continues climbing back to the summit ridge through a dense second growth forest, paralleling a noisy stream that covers parts of the path with slick ice. I realize that for the first time all week that I can only hear the the sound of moving water.
Just past the summit we have to work our way through a huge spruce tree that recently crashed across the trail. The force of impact shattered the tree flesh into sharp edged segments that form a complicated structure an abstract artist would have difficultly bettering. I slide through a hole in the art while Aki slips through a tiny space beneath the trunk and ground.
Without this strong north wind we would walk warm and calm down this beach. Gulls would float on flat water just offshore instead of hunkering against a far off protected shoreline. Aki wouldn’t be seeking shelter behind every rock of size. There’d be no music of bending limbs and crashing waves, just the silence of an inactive sea.
I gladly trade comfort and peace for the wind driven drama but worry about the little dog as we head out to the tip of False Outer Point to face the greatest windchill. Aki hugs the cliff side as we turn into the full force of this gale that sends waves slamming into shore. Walking out of the cliff’s lee we enter sunlight offering no warmth. My hands numb quickly while taking pictures.
Underdressed and overwhelmed by cold wind and bright light I lead Aki up a break in the cliffs and into forest. The wind still reaches us here but strikes with less velocity. We find an old unmaintained trail that parallels the beach and offers filtered views of the unsettled Lynn Canal. Often Aki takes the lead where fallen trees have obscured the trail.
The wind and cold are worse than on the open beach when the trail takes us along the cliff edge but the view of familiar waters in turmoil makes me forget the pain. Not a romantic, Aki urges quick passage of these portions of the trail.
Yesterday’s snow is rapidly being washed off Chicken Ridge by rain. Ignoring this unpromising development Aki and I head North out the road to find a sheltered trail. Just beyond the Marine Highway terminal rain changes to snow. We pass guys shoveling out their trucks and dog walkers struggling to break trail through 6 inches of fresh snow.
On impulse I pull into the Breadline Bluffs trail parking area and release a very happy dog to enjoy her favorite thing. After a quick lap around the small car park she joins me where the trail enters a forest of spruce and hemlock. We quickly drop into a diminutive valley cut by stream that must fight its way through downed logs and brush pushed into the water by heavy snow. Through no help from Aki or I one of the taller hemlock trees shrugs off its overburden of snow to send it showering down to the forest floor.
After crossing the stream I lose the trail but Aki leads me to where it climbs out of the valley and onto an open muskeg meadow with a scattering of stunted pines now almost obscured with snow.
Even though a slight rise in temperature could turn it to rain, the snow doesn’t clump in Aki’s fine hair, which saves us both the task of removing snowballs from her legs and chest. Maybe that is why she dashes across the meadow and into the old growth forest tucked just behind the Breadline Bluffs. Here, where downed trees opened up the canopy we can watch now fat snow flakes drift slowly to earth, listen to a small surf wash the beach clean of accumulated snow, appreciate that no other sound reaches this deep into the forest. In minutes we do hear another sound— the call of a chestnut backed chickadee. The apparent owner of this bluff side forest he takes possession of a bush feet away from us and cheeps on our way.
In this deep forest on a dry gray day we look for small islands of beauty. In the film camera days I’d have loaded my old Nikon FM2 with a roll of black and white. As we climb up the Auk Nu Trail toward tree line the small watercourses begin to trickle. Frozen to silence by recent days of hard frost they now ooze water over the board walk trail to make transit tricky.
Aki prances over the ice covered boards but doesn’t show impatience while I slowly find ways to skirt the worst spots. I’d hoped to climb to the John Muir Cabin and enjoy the connected series of terraced mini-ponds in the nearby muskeg. In high summer they provide music, form and color to distract backpackers resting before the final push to the cabin. I am not sure what to expect today.
Glaciated ice covers more and more of the trail as we climb through a series of snow covered meadows. I am head down most of the time, trying to avoid the fall I deserve for taking this risky trail without ice cleats. Several meadows from the cabin I turn us around and begin a slow descent to tree line. Force by conditions to watch the ground I find my pockets of beauty in the ice. Bundles of slender ice pillars force their way through softening mud and water trickling over slender berry bush limbs form frozen candles.
We find the image of a Chihuahua trapped in the surface ice of a pocket pond, its eye a perfect set of concentric circles— iris floating up as if pleading for its owner’s freedom. Given this power to form art out of circumstance I’d have fashioned a wolf in profile not this icon of the dry Mexican plains but I see the humor in the gesture.
Gray sky, gray light, gray ice, gray dog breaking the monochrome monopoly with her bright red jacket. I’m carrying a fishing rod and hope to try for trout or maybe one of the young king salmon Fish and Game released into the moraine pocket lakes.
I’d be meaning to try the lakes since mid-summer but left it too late. Today translucent ice covers the lakes. Water moving into the lake from the inlet stream and that outbound over the beaver dams keeps two small lake sections ice free that I fish without success.
This morning’s low clouds block views of the glacier and its mountain companions until Thunder Mountain manages to break out of the grey, showing off its new snow white coat. Turning into the Troll Woods we immerse ourselves in its world of glowing yellow-green moss. The stuff wraps every tree and branch, covers upright sticks as if it’s cotton candy, blankets the ground to the depth of five inches. Aki bounces over the mossy forest floor, ears flapping, after a scent only she can smell.
Near forest edge we hear a raven fly overhead, each wing beat producing a drumming sound. I see the big black bird often after that until we come upon a grizzly scene. A headless male mallard duck lays on its back, chest feathers scattered behind it along a faint forest trail. The messy eaters who produced this still life sulk above us in a tree. What, I wonder, would Raven do if I carried off his half eaten treasure? Best not tempt fate or the birds.
Apparently bruised by a week of hard frost, these huckleberry bushes glow in maroon tones. You really notice it on the bushes growing on downed hemlock trunks covered with electric green moss. The high bush cranberries put on a similar subtle show but in reddish brown. Aki flies down the forest trail past all this beauty. She only has eyes and nose for the noisy squirrels that taunt her from the safety of high spruce branches.
Even in this flat gray light the forest is a place of contrasts—islands of brittle ice in muddy paths, evergreen moss sprinkled with dead brown leaves, a single raven croaking to break the silence. We find a sheet of stream ice weathered into the shape of a tree fog and along the river an inch deep black bear track, frozen and half full of snow.
Reaching the riverine meadow Aki is startled by a raft of bufflehead ducks sheltering against our near bank. One must have nerves of steel or an attention disorder for it is feeding, feathery rear in the air when the others break into a low flight of escape. Another seems to be water skiing on one leg, the other tucked away for flight.
Aki and I are on a jail break. My weeklong illness kept us off the trails until this morning. She bounces around the car cabin, fuzzy tail a metronome, little pink tongue curling around her chin, emitting annoying yips of excitement. These emotional shows grow as we approach the Peninsula trailhead.
Here we find still yellow maple leaves trying to get on with fall—a task made almost impossible by the recent hard cold snap when braver skaters transited new ice on protected sloughs. I also find a single white eagle’s feather enmeshed in the forest duff. In this dark place the feather, almost 1/3 fluffy down, shines like a ferry light. If Aki were a child we’d cobble together a history of this feather with shared imagination and local knowledge of the big birds.
Tumbling down a trail defined more by tree roots and topography than man’s spades we reach the beach, today a very gray place except for the Mendenhall Glacier ice giving off a dim blue white light. We turn down river toward a beach usually rich with birds. Aki trots ahead with confidence until the first shot gun blast sounds from across the river. Down goes her tail and head, which she turns to me to show a look of controlled fear.
She recovers after a few soft words and walks along, this time slightly behind me, toward our goal. Two deeper blasts from a goose gun ring over the water to drive Aki into the tall beach grass until flushed into the forest by a third gun discharge.
Hoping the hunters are done for the day I walk further down the beach to where the beach side cliffs give way enough to permit a view of the rich beach. Aki stays with me like she did when I was bed bound. Head low, tail wrapped protectively around her privates she walks carefully by me side. “Okay little dog,” we can turn back.
Just before leaving the beach we fine a line of transparent jelly fish bodies spread out on the tide crushed beach grass. Most make circular corpses but one forms a three pointed shield melding into the straw colored grass beneath. In the night a single blade pierced the jelly fish then wrapped itself around the ghostly body in a parody of love.