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.
Ice 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.
Since 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.
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.