Yesterday’s rain storm continues unabated downtown. Here at the glacier it moderates to gentle mist like drops that kiss rather than slap the surface of my rain gear. Just freed from ice, waters from Steep Creek carve an uncertain channel through snow to Mendenhall Lake where they lose cleaving power after escaping the creek channel. Aki and I struggle in the rain softened snow along the creek channel. She’s the first to find the firm track made by earlier visitors.
It’s 2 P.M.—dusk. Soft and grey with a rare touch of solitude granted by the rainy weather that keeps most folks inside, the day offers much to anyone willing to look toward the glacier. There’s the lake ice, thin and grey-blue near the shore and then snow white to the glacier. A dying band of cloud wanders above the lake looking to join the community of its healthier brethren congregating above Nugget Falls. We can’t see the Alp like Mendenhall Towers or Mt. McGinnis through the marine layer but the glacier’s there, snow muting its blue ice.
Aki tears down the trail as if the skiers who made it at the end of storm set the track just for her. As she disappears around a stand of old growth spruce giants I admire how this old forest friend has been made new by 8 inches of new snow. Only a heavy storm could force enough flakes through the canopy to blanket the trail. Such a storm ended last night. Now the temperature rises and gentle rain reaches us in the open spots.
Here my skis glide easily down trail so Aki trots behind, dimpling the trail with tracks somewhere in size between those made by the short tailed weasel and those of the wolf that planted his front paws so deeply in the snow while snatching an unfortunately snowshoe hare. Aki confuses the crime scene by walking over it to sniff at the bloody snow.
The old growth forest is cozy on this grey, warming day. While heavy snow drags down their limbs, the spruce still stand at attention as we pass. It’s different when we cross the muskeg meadow dotted with stunted pines and spruce. Snow wraps over their rounded shoulder and weighs down their tips to turn them into refugees fleeing a winter battlefield. The snow starts sticking to my skis and to Aki, slowing our progress. Picking up the dog, I pluck large snow balls from her fur before scraping the buildup from my skis. Rather than return to good skiing in the old growth we push on to the river meadow and find more sticky snow.
A narrow flood channel cuts across the meadow that fills with river water at high tide. Seeing many exposed sand bars in the river where we enter the meadow I don’t worry that the sticky surface slows our progress toward the channel crossing. I should have taken note when ducks huddling on the bars burst into flight without apparent provocation. They could feel the tide race upriver.
This tiny dead spruce, flocked by sun sparkled frost stands alone in the meadow, holding my eye away from its still green neighbors, the blue sky, and mountains rising above the spruce forest. Dead among so many living things, the diminutive tree stands like a solstice sacrifice, life given up to the sun so it won’t crash to earth in winter exhaustion.
Nearby run the tracks of a loping wolf and those of its prey, the snow shoe hare. Last weekend’s storm coated trees and meadow ground with thick wet snow that hardened in the following temperature drop. Here, where the Taku winds don’t blow, frost feathers form each night on exposed ice, tree and meadow snow. The frost buildup on stiff snow allows me to ski with ease where I please and forms a parchment upon which the forest creatures write their stories of the night.
I’ve already mentioned the wolf and hare. The hare tracks start in willow thickets and pour out onto the meadow in confused trails. One crisp trail made by a least weasel run straight across open ground, while thick concentrations of mice tracks form two foot thick bands between protective spruce trees.
When the sun sets at 2 P.M. Aki whimpers a little from boredom or the growing cold so we turn and I ski away from my tiny spruce, adding our own story in tracks on the meadow.
Cold and the Taku winds bring a harsh beauty to the rain forest and I want to experience it by seeing False Outer Point at first light. Aki is slow to join me at the door this morning where I wait dressed in full winter regalia—insulated overalls, heavy coat, the wool hat with ear flaps that I only put on in times of wind driven cold.
The road takes us through a mixed spruce and hemlock forest then runs along Lynn Canal where the sun, still below our horizon paints the glacier in pink alpine glow but leaves the sea gap between it and Douglas Island in darkness. Sunrise colors dominate breaking clouds to the east at the trail head. Slick compacted snow and ice cover the trail and I’ve left the ice grippers at home.
While Aki charges ahead I move slowly through old growth woods ignoring the beauty being revealed by a rising sun to concentrate on where boots meet ice. It’s 10 degrees but seems colder because of the breeze reaching us here in the forest. With feet already numbing and my right camera hand losing feeling I can’t afford a debilitating slip on the ice. Reverting to the careful tundra walk I learned up north I safely follow Aki to the beach where thick ice covers tide pools and spray delivered in a series of high tides has frozen thick on any rock of size. Little chunks of ice ride ashore on waves, their still sharp angles providing counterpoint to the icy roundness of the beach’s permanent residents.
Rounding a point we find a gang of gulls and two ravens. The gulls ride waves just offshore while the ravens huddle nearby. They and all the beach are in a gloom made darker by the bright whiteness of the glacier and its consort mountains now standing in full sun. This is one of the few places the birds find food during the winter famine.
n days the world of man will indulge in the wonderful excess of Christmas while these birds, like the eagles and deer will continue their annual search for survival scraps. The thought deepens my appreciation of family and the gifts given and my admiration for the creature of sea and forest so well equipped to thrive in this place of cold beauty. I call Aki into the woods, leaving them peace and space to get on with making a living.
While Aki charges in and out of the spruce forest I stand stunned by the sunlight on fresh snow and this tree that never photographs well. Other things evade the camera’s telling—fair surf sounding where this salt chuck drains into Lynn Canal, the absence of others, Aki’s paws pounding the snow crust, a surprising absence of wind. I should approach the tree to determine if it is ash or a homesteader’s maple but that it seems wrong to dimple its surrounding snow with snowshoe prints.
A slough protects the tree’s privacy in other seasons so the recent hard winter freeze offers my only chance to investigate. Thinking that the next good snow shower will cover our tracks I start forward, then ask Aki whether identifying it’s species will rob the tree of its magic. Aki charges back into the woods leaving me to wrestle alone with the question.
Whether motivated by laziness or inspired by wisdom I into the tidal meadow keeping the tree a nameless thing of white and light and pleasing shape.
This close to the solstice, light is fleeting visitor to the salt chuck area. For two short hours a day the sun moves over the chuck and connecting tidal meadow like a spotlight as if providing selected trees with 15 minutes of saturated fame. With no one else around they have an audience of two, one distracted by the scent of otters, mice, and squirrels left in tracks across the meadows.
I enjoy the play of lights and darks then climb a low hill separating salt chuck and a pocket beach where frozen sand makes walking easy. Aki and I sit in the sun trying to conjure up a whale or even a sea lion. The whales are in Hawaii and the sea lion must be sunning on their haul out rock.
We are lost again. I blame the deer, two or three that left this easy to follow trail through this morning’s snow. We came on it while following a poorly marked path through thick woods. Aki scented the deer early on, racing ahead in the deep fresh snow then skidding to a stop to stare with weak eyes into the trail side woods. To her credit she allowed them to work deeper into the woods rather than breaking after them like she would after a bear.
This is a quiet gray place livened up by the dime sized snow flakes floating down through the canopy. It’s the stuff of Christmas magic but it doesn’t change the facts. We are lost. I know we are on the lower edge of the Last Chance Basin and within blocks of Chicken Ridge but without sunlight or noise to guide us we have no choice but to follow the deer trail until it brings us to a place where we can take our bearings. In minutes I hear Gold Creek. A minute more and we stand on its banks, spot where the deer crossed over to the other side then turn right and continue in the direction of the creek’s current.
The snow started falling last night. Now five inches of it rests on the forest floor with more covering each small boulder rising above the creek’s surface. With snow this deep Aki must leap rabbit like to make forward progress even while hindered by large snow balls that cling to her thin poodle hair. I stop often to pull them off.
This is new country to us but with the creek providing guidance I head toward what I hope to be the proper trail. We find an unexpected gift near the creek — three birch trees growing as if one plant —a rare find in the rain forest. Stressed by living on the edge of their natural range, they lack the sheer beauty of the Northern Paper Birch but I take pleasure in the find.
After the birch we luck onto a shallow swale providing an unobstructed path paralleling the creek that leads us onto to the main trail to home.
I chose this hike to avoid using the car, planning to settle for the expected beauty of our neighborhood backyard. Thanks to the deer we met the brave birch on a previously unseen path.
There will be no light this morning. The earth will reach the dawn tipping point at 8:41 and continue to tumble across the sun’s face until theoretical sunset at 15.06. True sunlight won’t penetrate this thick marine layer of clouds. It’s enough for we northern forest dwellers that the dark gray of dawn brightens to a soft white before merging at 3 P.M. with the dark of night.
People in Florida, where we recently completed a bicycle tour are spoiled by the light that arrives like a German train to drive the temperature into the 80’s before fading west into the palm forests. Aki, as grey as this morning sky hunts the trail snow for clues left by other dogs. When crossing an open meadow where even her small paws poke post holes in rain softened snow she allows me to lead. All other places she shoots ahead as if fearing that I will destroy important pee mail messages with my great boots.
We move alone through the glacier moraine, avoiding lake ice weakened by a recent warm spell. Perhaps discouraged by the rain and pall of overcast the other dog walkers keep indoors today, warm and entertained by TV or conversation. Only the faint territorial cry of a song bird and the rude chuckle of a nearby mocking bird rise above the sound of my boot steps and Aki’s breath.
I hope those reading won’t confuse my contentment with sadness.