Hoping to spot the river otters that hunt the Fish Creek Pond I lead Aki onto the downstream path rather than head directly into the old growth forest that starts just above the North Douglas Highway bridge. Many feet and animal paws have stomped the snow on the path into a thin slick surface. Only the track of a traveling beaver scout marks the snow covered creek—a narrow trough that could have been made by a tiny man pulling a tiny toboggan sled. He explored each small section of open water before making a purposed march upstream.
Not seeing otter or otter sign we backtrack to the trailhead and move onto the upstream trail. Recent snow still flocks the stream side willows some of which block the trail. We soon find deer tracks and follow them past the urban style graffiti covering the bridge pillars and into the old growth.
Here ice replaces snow on the trail so I pull on boot cleats while Aki dashes up and down the trail to read the sign. The deer stopped here recently, digging about in the softer snow before continuing up the trail. To our right Fish Creek runs under diminishing ice, ever widening the patches of open water.
Snow high in the canopy loosens as the temperature rises then falls like a new storm when a breeze rises. It falls with beauty but still soaks Aki’s fur and darkens my rain gear. In minutes we hear a collection of chickadees chirping out their winter work song and I wonder if they are hunting insects recently hidden under the snow.
The trail moves us away from the creek and deeper into the forest where only the sound of plopping wet snow breaks the silence. Preferring the rushing of a moving stream I take a shortcut back to the creek and find a Water Ousel bobbing up and down on a small rock above open water. The bird can walk under water on stream beds but flies away today when it spots us.
The beaver scout must have turned around before Ousel rock because the snow covering this part of the creek remains unblemished except for the tracks of a river otter that recently emerged from a open water pool and climbed to the high spot on a drift before returning to the stream. We have to figure out a way to move with some silence through the woods.
We approach every river with caution this time of year when ice thinned by mid-winter thaws may or not may not hold our weight. Today no ice covers this portion of the Mendenhall River where greenish water runs almost free of glacier silt, sliding around snowcapped boulders before entering a channel still covered with ice. Sticky snow slowed our progress across the moraine so I am surprised when just a few feet from the river’s bank it suddenly releases my skis to glide quickly toward the water on a downward slope. Aki watches passively as I manage to just stop in time.
Turning up river I use the now cooperative snow to slide along the bank and drop down onto firm ice covering a calm portion of the river. Knowing that only inches of water separate the river bottom from ice I enjoy skiing over the smooth surface with its thin covering of last night’s snow. Aki skirts the ice, trotting through the deeper snow above the river bank. I soon join her and move along a portion of the river where the current boils and sings out a warning.
We reach a place where the trail offers a narrow and uneasy passage between fast water and an impenetrable willow thicket. Even though a confusion of small boulders fills this tiny space between river and forest we could ski through it on a quickly disappearing blanket of snow. Twenty minutes more would take us to the lake, now covered with thick fog. Looking down I see that Aki has no heart for it today’ so we return to the moraine to find that the skis now slide easier in warming snow.
I don’t long for sun on these gray days until light breaks through to ramp up the contrast and amp up the earth tone colors of winter. When it happens at day’s end the sun can flood our cloud cover with warm pastels before letting night settle things back to winter normal.
I’ve been waiting until bird hunting season closed to walk this trail because the sound of shotgun blasts make Aki nervous. Except for floatplanes on their way to the villages this beach along the lower stretches of the Mendenhall River is quiet. Gone the bird hunters and the birds from this beach and the sand bar across river which provided a refuge during hunting season. Now they can spread out on the wetlands without risking an unnatural death.
We hear an eagle complain, not from the top of a nearby spruce but from out over the salt water bay between here and Douglas Island. A raft of Mallard ducks occupies the river shallows while gulls half heartedly search the recently exposed beach for scrapes. Only cliff rocks decorated with party colored lichen and frozen seepage the color of a tea shop’s run off offer interesting subjects for a photograph in this flat gray light.
Far off comes the sound of Canada geese taking off in panic from the wetlands. We would have witnessed it had I chosen the wetlands trail. Hundreds of geese fly across the Douglas Island side of the wetlands and splash down half a mile away from us where they form a noisy community along a sandbar. A Stellar Sea Lion begins to complain in a bass voice. The powerful if a little impolite sound carries easily across the water from Douglas Island. “We could have watched the sea lion sing if we had walked around the False Outer Point.” I tell Aki.
In minutes the sounds of surfacing humpbacks join the chorus of geese and sea lions and by straining I can make out whale spray off Shaman Island as well as a seal swimming in mid channel apparently ignoring a tasty brace of laughing ducks cruising just behind him. All these things heard and barely seen. It produces wonder rather than frustration, a chance to appreciate the sounds of things without being blinded by their beauty.
Aki loves this trail for the abundance of scent left on it by other dogs. What enhances the experience for her diminishes it for me—-soft snow melted down by rain to reveal dog droppings and yellow stains. She rushes about, tail stiffly pointed at a 60 degree angle to sink her nose into the richness of dung.
I brought snowshoes and plan to take the lesser traveled path that leads deeper into Gasteneau Meadows, forking off the main trail just before it enters the hillside spruce forest. Finding it untracked I veer onto the path when Aki is already 25 meters up the main trail. Usually happy to join me in any adventure the little dog forms a statute of disbelief on the well traveled route as I move deeper onto the meadow.
Its like snowshoeing on well cooked oatmeal but I push on. Without me breaking trail Aki would have a hard time making progress in the stuff but she has me making a way for her majestic self. In minutes she is following close behind as I climb the gently rising meadow to a ridge that provides my favorite view of Mt. Juneau.
The ridge, covered with a scattering of stunted pines blocks the view of Juneau Town and Gasteneau Channel so the mountain appears to rise from a windswept plateau. It’s a place accessible only in winter when the meadow ridge and Mt. Juneau both carry burdens of snow. Aki stands by patiently in this place too clean to interest her as I take a picture of the mountain.
We drop down the backside of the ridge and follow the fresh tracks of a walking wolf on top of the older ones left by a lone skier. Aki leaves both a message that yellows the snow. “Happy New Year?”