Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Ice Holds



The moraine during a late winter thaw like this offers some danger but also some award. A firm crust covers the snow pack to offer easy access to places normally blocked by beaver ponds. The thinning ice covering the ponds injects the danger.  Several times today we chose between safe but cumbersome passage through softwood thickets and sliding freely over ice that may yield over very cold water.

L1190620Ice and men have a complicated relationship. If young and passing in a group near an ice covered lake in spring or fall, they will urge the bravest or weakest willed to test its strength. Aki sniffs the tracks of one who ventured alone 50 meters on thin ice then returned to shore. I, young once, recreate the experience—fear making each step lighter than the last, friends still on safe ground urging speed, the delicious mix of trill and fear that fades to just fear at the ripping sound of a crack forming under foot, radiating out brothers in sisters in every direction you could take.   Sometimes the crack opens to drop you into a lake or slough where the shock warms you enough to crawl onto firmer ice. Most times the ice supports your embarrassed, but dry retreat to shore.

L1190655Since Aki is nonjudgmental, we don’t test the lake ice but move to the river with plans to follow it to the glacier fronted lake.  Others have worn a deep path in the snow cover trail. It’s walls block Aki’s view of the moraine. Rather than dash about as usual she follows in my skis, which find a good balance between slide and grip on the firm surface snow. We make good time to the river but I have to take off my skis to cross where recent washouts denuded the trail.

If true winter doesn’t return, this magic door of firm snow will close. Today we hope to pass through before the frontier closes leaving these wilder parts of the moraine to the wolf and snowshoe hares.

Turning into the moraine I lead us up a snow blown creek bed until Aki finds a wolf track winding through an alder thicket.  We follow it to the edge of a beaver pond. Aki dashes onto its smooth flat surface while I look for a safe but rough passage through the tangle of willows lining the pond. L1190664

It’s above freezing and the pond ice has that milky translucence of still solid covering. I follow the little dog onto the ice and gain easy passage, no fear, no cracking, expecting no swim at the end. Then I remember that spring ice gave no warning when I fell through it in the past. Like that time on the Aniak Slough when I dropped through an invisible trap door into the mild current until only my right hand, gripping a canoe paddle remained above water. There, stretched out to full length, I didn’t feel fear or panic, just a detached appreciation for the lovely light penetrating through thinning ice and the wisdom of the elder that made me always carry a canoe paddle  on spring crossings of the slough. The canoe paddle, extending from my little circle of open water to firm ice made it possible to escape the water and reach the wood stove warmth of our cabin. Today we need no warm place to dry out. The ice holds.

Precious Sun Break


As precious water is to a man in the desert, is sun to dwellers of the February rain forest. Today the gray gave way to sun shine for a half hour, sending brightening beams through the old growth canopy to light up acid green moss, paint sunny pools on the snow covered forest floor, bring the blue and reds out in Aki’s new sweater.  Over a muskeg meadow a smile shape tear in the gray emits a powerful light—as if from a smile of God watching our funny little dog trot along in patterned wool.


A Summer Place in Winter


The sign warns swimmers that they enter the water at their own risk, there being no lifeguard. Only one, and that a labrador retriever, ignores the warning; splashing to chest deep water, finding nothing for his efforts but an unobstructed view of Gasteneau Channel, something easily obtained by standing at the water’s edge. Aki ignores the now soaked bird dog to crisscross Sandy Beach, passing back and forth over the high water line demarking a snaking edge of snow covered sand.   Together we explore a summer place in winter.

P1100237 2Formed by pulverized mine tailings rather then true sand, the beach is salted with mine relics—electrical insulators, weather softened bricks, stumps of wooden pilings. Down beach a windowed concrete

air shaft rises above the channel water— an Alaskan version of a Martello Tower, hard edged, partially covered with rotting tin roofing, surrounded by aging pilings. With no dry place to live or even descend, it offers no hope of hearing a stately plump person mutter church latin. We do hear the pleasing disharmony of complaints from two mature bald eagles guarding opposite ends of the tower’s roof. Their song mixes with small wave noise as a shower of heavy snow flakes partially obscures the horizon.

P1100253Passing beyond the tower we reach the small but deep cove formed by the collapse of the old Mexican Mine. Aki winds around more rotting pilings and over snow covered beach rocks to the cove, barking at ghosts the whole way. There are always ghosts haunting summer places in winter, here where a mine collapse forced the abandonment of a vibrant mining community, we have ghosts all year round.

Silkie or Just a Seal?


I am leading Aki away L1190530from  this shelf with its balcony seating over a productive pocket bay when we hear the harsh sea lion complaint. (Think a string pulled through the small hole in a tin can). Aki is already to escape under the old growth canopy. Her fur and fleece wrap soaked by snow melt, finished with her nosy examination of the shelf, the cold little dog wants out of this steady shower of snow. The strangle sound coming across the water just encourages her.

Before the sea lion announced its presence, we wandered over the little bench, Aki sniffing and scratching over land otter smells, me taking care not to slip on the smooth snow covered L1190533rocks, stopping to honor the beauty produced by happy accidents—-striated rock with rich contrasting colors, hieroglyphs formed by simple erosion, ladle shaped stones carved by tide and harden pebbles. After the sea lion call I take a comfortable if wet rock seat and wait for the singer to appear. Two sea lions swim into view, forcing their pointed noises just above the water, exhaling, then slipping beneath the surface.  All business they don’t take time to pose or even raise their huge bulk out of the watch for a better view of the dog and I.  Taking the hint I lead Aki off the bench, cross a little headland then drop onto a large gravel beach.

L1190581Here the building snow shower wrestles with an emerging sun for weather domination. The battle, soon won by snow, casts the beach in apocalyptic light. Beneath the drama a harbor seal swims slowly toward the dog and I. Unlike her bigger cousins the sweet faced seal acknowledges with with a concentrated stare, a lonely child watching from her bedroom window the neighbor children enjoy a game of hopscotch .  With binoculars I focus in on the seal, recognizing the same intense melancholy offered so freely by my little gray dog. Is this the Silkie of Irish legend, Aki’s water borne soul?

Clouds of Crows Not Snow


I hoped to see snowflakes melting into the sea; was willing to suffer the clinging weight of wet dungarees; was surprised to find Outer Point a dry, gray place. We left behind a squall at Chicken Ridge, fat flakes forming blankets over parked cars, trimming bare limbs of our apple tree. Here away from the storm catching mountains backing Juneau, rocks revealed by the retreating tide slowly dry in the wind.

L1190405Scanning for whales or even ducks, I find an empty channel. With the exception of a nervous cloud of chickadees we see nothing on the crescent shaped beach that forms the approach to False Outer Point.  Around the point a bald eagle scans the same water but flies off when we approach his observation point.  Later I see him streak low over the water targeting something hidden behind a toothy rock formation.

A stony arm thrown seaward then abandoned by nature, False Outer Point must be seen at ebbing tide low enough to open a level path around the line of steep cliffs that form the point’s headlands.  Composed of hard and soft layers of rock twisted 180 degrees by geological forces, the point is most interesting where most exposed to the sea. Wave action breaks awayL1190455 to nothing the soft then sculpts the hard into aggressive teeth.  Around the corner, small dunes of mussel shells collect at the high water mark.  Rounded stones animated by the tide carve impressions into softer rock.

Down beach we find only a lone black crow to share the beauty. He flies away after spotting us. There is a raven in the woods making almost conversational sounds to himself. Great mimics, our ravens copy the sounds of dripping water, cats, and even electrical transformers. This one appears to be practicing lines for the part of Raven in the Tlingit creation story, “The Box of Daylight.” (Here is a link for a video telling of the story:  He reminds me of the time my daughter, when at Sunday School, told her teachers and four year old classmates the Box of Daylight story when asked who created the world.

Leaving raven to rehearse, we move down to a portion of beach offering a good view of Shaman Island from which a cloud of black birds erupts — northwest crows. At first they move toward us but then turn to drop out of our sight behind Outer Point. Instead of the expected wall of snowy white we receive briefly this black specked sky.


Through a Glass Darkly



Judging by the way she streaks across the crisp snow of this big meadow, Aki doesn’t mind living in the gray. The uniform overcast above provides a flat light for the meadow where a fog patch at the far end provides the only distraction for my the human eye. Stretching out I begin skiing to the now free running stream that drains the land of river otter and beaver.

It’s like cheating, moving over the meadow, each glide carrying me forward an extra six inches. When we last visited the meadow surface was covered with the tracks of predators and prey, the sad deep hoof prints of a struggling deer, it’s following wolf, the clueless snowshoe hare. The daily freeze-thaw cycle of last week softened the evidence of battle and reduced my old ski trail to a rounded wound that winds into a grove of spruce, the track of a giant’s finger across the top of a just frosted cake.

L1190329Leaving the meadow I lead Aki through a willow screen to the stream. Without a breath of wind to disturb it, the water course’s surface forms a dark glass reflecting lambs wool clouds and winter bare willows. Someone has dug a vertical two foot deep tunnel that appears to make a 90 degree turn toward to creek. I think river otter club house or escape route.

Up creek water again pours over the little beaver dam but not enough to disturb the almost perfect reflection of their house still insulated by snow.


Small Ball



Trying to dig out beauty from this rump winter day; one washed clean of snow and most ice by a springlike flush of rain, devoid of winter drama or spring promise, Aki and I walk toward the now ice free Fish Creek Pond.  With clouds blocking mountain views and a minus tide revealing the muddy grass underside of the wetlands we move past the pond and toward the mouth of Fish Creek.

We hear but don’t see eagles and complaining fish ducks while walking the spine of a berm that turns a spruce covered island into the tip of a peninsula.   The trail breaks in two at the island to offer alternative ways to circumnavigate the island.  I look without luck for a third path leading into the trees.

P1100179Playing the photographer’s version of small ball (winning at baseball by combining   a series of good but unimpressive plays) I look down rather than across the open tidelands. Freshly revealed by retreating snow is a death scene.  Predominantly gray or white gull feathers lay where scattered without care by scavengers. We find no bones or skin or organs—nothing eatable.

At another rain washed place we find a confusion of porcupine quills spread on dead grass. Nearby just fallen leaves, dead since last fall, lay about on some remaining snow—pushed off the mother tree by swelling buds. (Our first sign of spring).

P1100166After reaching island’s end we enter an opening at its tip formed by a recent windfall.  Where once huge spruce stood we find 70 year old trees growing out of their stumps. Here before the second world war men fell the big trees with whip saws then manuveoured the fallen giants to tidewater where others loaded them on shallow draft ships. The evidence survives here and at the island’s edge where rotting piles from an old wharf stand like drunks waiting for the last bus home.


Holding a Place in Line


Joined by the the other permanent human resident in her her house, Aki and I confine ourselves to the cross country ski track set on a riverside campground. The little dog happily dashes between her humans, one moving faster on skate skis than me on old school gear.

P1120576Skiing on a set track, where you can reduce life to the kick-slide-kick Nordic rhythm, drives thoughts inward during these empty times in the riverine forest. That will change next month when the salmon smolt leave Windfall Lake to start up the big, brutal engine of life, priming it as prey for the fish and animals trying to eek out a living at winter’s end. The game fish, Cutthroat Trout and Dolly Varden Char follow the baby salmon to the river’s mouth, concentrating in such hungry numbers that it is illegal to fish for them there.

At ski’s end Aki and I walk to the edge of a small bluff and look over the river now  swollen by a massive high tide. What normally is a landscape of sand bars decorated by drift wood logs and the occasional fish duck becomes almost indistinct from the sea it feeds. Only the root systems of the largest drift logs rise above its surface. On one a mature bald eagle perches on a root, facing seaward, looking miserable in the rain, as if resenting the feckless friends for whom he saves a place in the line of life.


New England: Please Return Our Winter!


I am tired of writing about rain, not the rain itself, just describing it. Today we decide to ignore the wet wall we walk through on the way to the moraine. This is easy for Aki as long as recent dog dropping distract her; harder for me since my handkerchief is already wet from wiping drops off the UV filter.

P1100125The place is empty of people, as if they got the memo warning of the toxic effects of today’s flood inducing deluge. We travel alone over packed snow through a screen of young alders to the Mendenhall River and a view of the glacier under storm clouds. A tall cottonwood tree leans stiffly over the river, as if righting itself after a near fall. We’ve seen eagles roost there during late summer, scanning the river for a spawned out salmon; hoping to be the first scavenger to greet its arrival on that gravel bar just down river from the tree.   In this time of famine on the moraine, the eagles hunt the tidelands.

The beavers have been busy. We find evidence of their recent logging activity along the shore of Moose Lake, a moss covered willow laid out on wet snow, its stump sculpted by the beaver teeth, the surrounding snow covered with willow chips. Why do they rise from their dens during mid-winter thaws; do they fall trees for food, dam material, or entertainment?

P1100120Near the logging operation, where a small creek keeps part of the lake ice free, a small mud flat has formed. Somethings— dog or beaver or both— have tracked clean snow with the reddish mud from the flat. Dogs, capable of extravagant silliness are the most likely culprits. If it wasn’t raining so hard I’d bend down to inspect the tracks.

Passages into Summer


A Bald Eagle flies by the window as I write. Is it hunting neighborhood cats? We saw no eagles on this morning’s walk through old growth forest on Douglas Island. Wet, gray, warm enough to fill rivulets with snow melt and reveal treasures hidden by last weeks snow storm, the weather discourages trail use.

Yesterday I found peace in the gray but yesterday the rain held off until we finished our hike. Today’s rain tests our mettle but doesn’t seem to inhibit the deer sharing this forest with us. He tracked the trail from beach to a blueberry meadow with crisp hoof prints, punching them through soft snow to a layer of melt water below.  Something or someone spooked him at meadow’s edge where he darted from trail onto the forest’s deep snow cover, which offers safety but tough going.

P1100050Dropping toward the beach we pass a water filled hollow in the snow that shines bright green with plant life, dwarf dogwood pedals stretching out into the water like wings over other tiny forest floor growth, a magic passage to summer. Moisture from captured rain falls into the little transient pond, decorating its surface with expanding ripples.

Nearby water streams over the tops of beaver dams that flooded part of the trail before freezeup.  Fooled by snow cover, I break through thin ice, driving my right leg up to mid-calf in cold water. Aki leaps past me and reaches drier ground without a soaking. I join her on her little rise and admire how snow melt over week ice mimics the granite countertops found in trendy kitchens. Without warning a wild eyed dog bursts out of the forest to join us on the now crowded island.

P1100096I try all the control tricks learned during a decade of driving dog teams in Southwest Alaska. Nothing deters the invader as Aki cowers between my boots. Off in the woods his owner calls and blows a whistle; noise ignored by all.

Lifting my little dog out of reach I look into the eyes of our unwelcome visitor and find kind interest, not malice.  He could be a loyal friend to a person with patience and a little wisdom. Pointing with my unencumbered arm I politely ask him to go home. He does without protest.

We see this big hearted half wild dog several more times during the hike, crashing out of the woods or splashing without concern across a pond’s thin, watery ice. He doesn’t appear after we reach the beach, which he had pockmarked with paw prints. A large raft of ducks, still recovering from the dog’s visit, nervously move into deep water. In minutes they return to hunt the shallows for food.