The weather removed any views we could have from this stream delta, lowering its gray blanket to within a few hundred feet of the channel waters, thickening the air beneath with freezing rain, as if directing our attention to the snow whiten beach. Last night’s high tide washed away yesterday’s snow load below the high water line then rolled smooth pebbles and severed sea weed into new designs on the rippled sand. Now an eighth inch sheet of ice firmed snow covers the tide’s work, bringing a veiled beauty to the beach.
Normally able to move in silence, Aki crushes the gray silent with diminutive steps on the crunchy snow. Her foot falls and mine produce the only sound, so different from last summer. Then spawning dog salmon fought for space in this stream then expired on the flats, carried here by the retreating tide setting table for clouds of noisy gulls and a dozen cautious eagles. Today only a handful of fish ducks and one silent raven share our gray world.
The north wind that numbs my exposed hands drive moderate surf onto this Douglas Island beach but doesn’t perturb the gulls. Forming a loose little raft of gray and white bodies, they surrender to wind and tide pushing them onto a cresting line of waves. One having dropped into a quiet dip in the wave line watches Aki and I while the rest calmly turn and paddle away from the beach.
Dry and clothed in fleece, Aki and I suffer a little from the wind driven cold, feeling disinclined to linger on the open beach, willing to give only a quick study to the beauty of freshly dusted islands and the mix of greens, whites, and grays churning in an unsettled sea, shamed by surfing gulls apparently above discomfort.
Turning into the old growth forest we place the wind and open beach light behind us and find each tall spruce and hemlock sporting a thin white stripe of snow that climbs from bell to crown. Most days the stand of countless trees overwhelm, each competing for my attention, drawing the eye to the horizon and exhaustion. The snow stripes unify the scene, bring harmony, order, reveal forest beauty.
Aki loves the bouquet of dog poop newly revealed by melting snow. This is a taste we do not share, nor do I care for walking on this heavily used trail, now greasy from boot and paw tracks pounded into rain softened snow. Making an executive decision I veer us off the main track and onto a back way into the beaver village.
The light boned dog trots over the top of the three feet of snow covering the trail, ducking under willows dent double by winter storms, making good time. I plod along, driving booted legs up to the knee in soft snow, still savoring the clean solitude, willing to pay the price charged for manageable pain like a masochist handing a charge card to his hired tormentor.
When discomfort drains off the fun I cut back to the main trail, enjoying solid tread, avoiding piles of dog poo pockmarking the dense snow all the way to the beaver’s dam complex. There Aki checks out the slide they have fashioned for access to the lake over dam number one. The beavers recently dined on a downed cottonwood tree, ripping off dark brown rippled bark, leaving us a view of shinning light colored wood beneath, scattering the snow beneath with their woody crumbs like messy toddlers left alone with a box of Cherrios.
Thousands of miles away an African American president inaugurates his second term. Across the country we remember a slain civil rights leader who fractured the back of American racism. Here in this old growth forest capped by low gray clouds, carpeted by still skiable snow, I carry Dr. Kings’ remembered words down the trail.
He had a dream that became ours 50 years ago. A dream still unfulfilled except for moments when we forget our prejudices in a wash of communal love that fades into self interest at crisis end.
“Will we ever reach Dr. King’s mountain top Aki?” The little dog looks up from a wolf’s recent tracks. giving me the puzzled look I deserve.
The forces of destruction in these mountains sometimes build stages for beauty. The forces, in the form of runoff from last week’s rain filled dormant stream drains until they overflowed their banks and blasted narrow but deep ditches in snow, ice and frozen soil. Silenced when the rain stopped and the temperature dropped, the wild water courses are now raw scars in the steep mountainside, a monster returned to sleep. A dusting of snow covers some of the damage as do these paper thin ice crystals reaching out in beauty to each other until translucent dome covers destroyed ground.
Other things should be also be asleep in this hillside forest. One of our neighborhood black bears appears to have woken during the thaw for its winter months den. Aki find an unusual set of animal tracks crossing the trail—roundish depressions separated by those mimicking the prints of a human child with narrow heels. Only a bear makes such tracks.
We follow the tracks to a snow covered ravine where their maker entered and then used the open water course to move up mountain. After having a look around the bruin must have headed back to bed.
There are other sleeping dangers in these mountains like the avalanche chutes we crossed to get here. This year’s snow storms have already loaded the Mt. Juneau snow fields to near capacity. Someday soon they will release their loads to roar down the avalanche chutes in a white tsunami, crossing the trail before collapsing where the creek valley flattens out. But, not today.
Purity of air brings many benefits — crisp views of mountain peaks, ease of breathing, confidence that the fresh snow decorating this spruce branch will melt safely in my mouth. It carries the pitchy flavor of spruce and the freshness of mountain water. I worked up a thirst skiing with Aki on a large meadow broken up by islands of spruce trees.
One section of the meadow, drained by a small stream, houses a gang of river otters. Aki found their slide first, charging down the deep “U” shaped trail, stopping just before gravity would have thrown her into the tannic stained water of the stream bed. The little dog ignores all the otter tracks leading from the slide into some small tree woods Agreeing to leave them at peace I follow Aki up stream to the beavers’ dam and their house now covered with snow except for a small shaft apparently providing air to the resting inhabitants below.
We find many small animal tracks while transiting the meadow—weasel, snowshoe hare, troops of mice, those of a struggling deer. Last week the temperature climbed well above freezing while heavy rain softened the meadow snow. Only yesterday did snow replace rain and heavy frost firmed up the snow enough for us to move freely over it. Before that a large deer wound his way across the meadow, hooves sometimes plunging 2 feet into the soft, wet snow. I look for fresher tracks of deer, made after the temperature drop facilitated travel, relieved to find them in a small thicket of trees and brush at the meadow’s edge.
Somewhere in Afghanistan
the covering power of snow restores
beauty to scarred ground.
Drifting down through thickening skies
flakes loiter on frozen earth but
undone by pumping hearts
bare skin of the new widow
entwined hands of generous lovers
cooling coffin wood.
Bad weather doesn’t discourage Aki or prevent us from taking an adventure each weekend day. When the ice or snow make the roads impassible we walk up the Gold Creek drainage toward the old glory hole mine in Perseverance Basin. Today the soft rain drifting onto the Chicken Ridge snow pack won’t keep us from driving. The rain falls from clouds so low they block our view of the mountains, so thick we can’t see Douglas Island across Gasteneau Channel. Driven more by smells than sights, Aki happy charges through the mist and into the car while I fill the car top carrier with skis.
The temperature climbs to 37 then 39 degrees as we drive North to Eagle River on icy roads. We see few cars on the way so I am not surprised to find the trailhead empty but pleased that a well defined ski track leads into the old growth
The house’s other resident human skis ahead of me. Aki dashes between us before taking up station behind our leader. With wet packed track we move easily into the forest and then onto a muskeg meadow. At the edge a single file wolf track arcs down onto a small snow cover stream. Someone is still thinning out the local snowshoe hare population.
I think of the almost tame black wolf that hunted our glacial moraine and the time he accompanied Aki and I on a ski to Mendenhall Lake. Seeking canine companionship the wolf would hang around the lake, sometimes playing like a puppy with local dogs. He would howl over the lake on moonlit nights. Once we skied to the sound, Aki searching for clues with her nose and me trying to keep down the primal fear that rises when a predator howls.
Someone shot the wolf, not far from where we ski today. The police seized the pelt, as black as the Mendenhall Lake wolf. When it didn’t return to the moraine we knew it was dead. I miss the black wolf and the chance to see it frolicking on the lake but its end was inevitable. I pray that the creature single tracking this meadow won’t try to bridge the world between his kind and man.
The world would be white or grey if not for this morning’s tidal surge. It swept the beach clean of snow to the high water line, revealing flat stones moist from rain, gentling rotting seaweed, the iron bones of a failed mining effort. Ninety years ago seawater broke through the Ready Bullion and Mexican mine tunnels here to end forty years of gold mining, forty years of transforming old growth forest into a miniature Manchester England.
Nature still works to heal the land. Trees—alders mostly, fill in the spaces between the stout roofless buildings and cover the abandoned ironworker art with shed leaves. Graceless monuments of hand hewn rock squat near the tree line with iron forged rings which must have once provided tie offs for ship lines.
Snow now covers the impressive gears, baffles and pipes made to order at the Treadwell foundry. Here on the beach they lay naked to twice daily seawater baths, rust and rot giving them a twisted beauty. An oversized piston rod transforms into a monster’s leg bone, a drive shaft mimics a giant’s fractured backbone.