While watching Aki’s exuberant dash about this snowy meadow I wonder at how little we understand each other. She reads smells; I English. Still she has trained me to take her to these white open spaces with repeated displays of apparent happiness—-leaps that end in a shoulder plant leading to a long surface slide then the burying of her doggy face in the snow. This always brings a smile to my human face.
Today I look for signs of the resurrection that is spring; she for clues left by those who have gone before. She has better chance of success. Fog still softens the near horizon of the Peterson Salt Chuck leaving me with a view of snow retreating from brown dead grass lands. The snow, which with its brother ice brought on the near death of autumn, now takes away the only clues of light and life on it retreat from the sky’s new warmth. Nothing here speaks of Easter, a holiday scheduled too early in the year for Northern places.
We are not alone. There are Canada Geese feeding along a salt chuck edge just exposed by melting ice. They hold their ground apparently aware that we cannot cross the crumbing barrier of ice between them and us. We hear their grumbling long after passing out of their view.
Islands of good sized spruce trees dot the meadow, each offering bare firm ground on which to walk, a welcome relief from the softening meadow snow. Most hold their health but the bark of one tree has almost been removed by porcupines. (An unfortunately tasty victim or willing sacrifice?). Just past this island Aki dashes ahead. A small dark thing moves across my path at incredible speed. Was this blur a Pine Martin or an evil spirit flushed from sleep by snow melt? Aki puts me at ease on her return, dashing along the same route of the dark presence. Although sometimes she appears to see ghosts, her actions here are those of a dog following freshly laid scent.
We’ve been sent to this rainforest trail on a mission: sever and bring home three blue berry branches—-each the red color of spring, each supporting swelling flower buds. I carry a mercifully sharp knife to do the deed. Aki, a fan of the ripe blueberry refuses to help. She knows, as I do, that while the plants wounded by my hand will survive their severed limbs will never bear fruit. They pay the price for our indulgence; our need to watch their tiny blossoms, each a miniature Japanese lantern open during Easter dinner.
The rain returned last night to wash away much of winter’s snow from the trails. Little bags of rains hang from the blue berry brush, each a misshapen globe of light. With rain hammering my parka hood I can barely hear an eagle complain in the trail side spruce or the percussive rhythms of a woodpecker’s drilling for food. Still, the deluge has freed the trail boards of ice and infused them with a lovely if weak glimmer. There’s beauty here—-shinning trails and bags of rain, melting ice still encasing thin roots of an tumbled tree, this motif delivered by the tide—curves of a partially burned root providing counterpoint for the angular interplay of glowing gray cliff rocks.
The calendar claims that Spring waits outside our door but snow still covers the moraine and ice the beaver ponds. Wrapping Aki in her red fleece coat I grab the skis and head to the glacier. We find a good surface for traveling but no dogs for Aki to greet. She hides her disappointment in a search for clues left by recent visitors and, when we reach their village, the beavers.
Someone has dismantled their large dam, replacing their miniature hockey rink with a sad scene—-mud, fractured pond ice,fallen cottonwoods. We can’t find beaver tracks in the softening snow. Aki heads deeper into their village until I call her back. No sense adding to their stress.
Returning to the main trail we find tracks resembling those left by very large bare human feet but with deformed big toes. These are deep, crisp impressions in the snow with icy sides and bottoms as if made in the heat of the day by something of great bulk. We find them where the trail bisects a grove of trees killed years ago by beaver formed floods. I look around for someone to confirm our find but Mt. McGinnis, with sun in his eyes is the only other presence.
Do I credit it a hoax or confirmation of Big Foot? Wanting a return to firmer ground I lead Aki further into the moraine and then to Mendenhall Lake and a view of it’s glacier dropping out of the clouds. A shaft of light fights its way through the cloud cover to hit a portion of the ice fall, now a translucent light blue under the sudden illumination. This is something man can not duplicate or distort to legend—at least not yet.
This morning we heard the frantic sound of 10 or 12 dog teams being readied for a race. It has been many years since we last hitched up dogs to a sled but the sights and sounds then and now are much the same—crazy canine eyes offering no recognition of anyone but their musher, high pitched yelps—some in silo—others in harmony, the springing leap ending in a lunge of frustration.
The first and perhaps strongest team approaches the starting line, here a path between aspens; musher crushing the sled brake into snow while handlers spaced evenly among the team struggle to control the dogs. While the next team approaches the staging area, a race official releases the dogs with a nod of head. The second team must watch, constrained by men for two minutes, haunted by memories of the just released disappearing around a bend. When we ran dogs this was the magic moment— the released dogs powering forward, almost snapping the sled from your hands. So intent are you in controlling the sled you don’t notice for a second silent replacing pandemonium.
Winter hangs here on the Yukon River but, if the weatherman can be believed, it will soon be pushed upriver by spring. Perhaps that is why we have this beautiful cross country ski complex to ourselves. The sun breaks through filmy overcast but brings wind rather than warmth. It’s a rolling trail and we look forward to hill climbs in hope that heat generated by effort will thaw our faces and fingers. It works but wind chill built up during the following descent removes returns us back to zero.
We return to the car on a sheltered forest trail lined with scrubby spruce and stately aspen, the beauty of both brought out by dappling sun. An enormous train of dogs, adults and children begins to pass us, lead by two large jowled hounds. A tired father dragging along a trailer sled loaded with twins brings up the rear.
Skiing over these Yukon and White Pass Rail tracks is easy since they are covered with several feet of snow. It’s cold here at the interior end of the Chilkoot Trail, plus 5 F, but isn’t uncomfortable until the wind blows up the line. When the sun breaks through a thin cloud layer the greens, whites and grays of the forest wake up.
A quiet place most of the winter (recent wild things tracks confirm) it must brace itself for tomorrow’s cross country ski race. Even now volunteers construct an aid station, Inuit style, from snow blocks but shaped like a pirate ship—skull shaped prow, beetle killed lodge pine masts and booms, Jolly Roger flags festooning the rigging. What must the coyote think-the one that left such purposeful tracks in this now sparkling snow?
St. Patrick’s Day means nothing to Aki. She is only interested in the animal moving with stealth through the woods lining this beach. We are far from the bars where most Americans like to celebrate the saint’s holiday, drinking green colored Budweisers and singing songs not heard in Ireland since it was a British colony. You might find someone there with a Bodhran but no one with a copy of Patrick’s breastplate. Americans have always howled at the moon this time of year—the Irishman’s saint’s day is just an excuse.
My eyes settle on a wooded hill forming a bell curve across Stephen’s Passage. It’s shape might have reminded the Irish crew on Vancouver’s Discovery of Croagh Patrick. A homesick man looks for the familiar in the foreign; perhaps they imagined climbing this mountain without shoes.
We have had our pilgrimage this morning—me in boots not bare feet like Aki—the little zealot. Together we wandered half lost through a thick forest drained by an awakening creek. Snow still frosted trees, bush, and ground. Without a mountain summit to draw us on we chose the easiest paths until reaching a throne-shaped tree stump illuminated by a tiny shaft of sunlight shining through the overcast. Giving this troll’s royal chair a slight nod, I lead Aki out of the woods and onto this beach to take up station on a rock just washed clean of snow by the tide. Now we wait for sun to warm out faces or a whale to breach in Stephen’s Passage, or a line of Trolls to begin the climb up Croagh Patrick.
After allowing us a generous taste of Spring, Winter returned last week on the north wind, driving down temperatures, silencing smaller water courses with ice, covering all in snow. Now he gives us a sunny two hour window to walk through the resulting beauty.
It’s sunrise near the confluence of the Herbert and Eagle Rivers. Aki flies down the trail, bounding over deeper drifts with front and back legs acting as one. This is her favorite snow—fine enough to offer soft landings and disinclined to form snow balls in her fine poodle hair. She leaves me standing, a little in awe of what comes from new morning light striking newly laid snow.
The temperature climbs above freezing as we walk between old growth spruce and hemlock trees that carry heavy burdens of sparkling white. These, they will soon lose in the heat of the day. We find few animal tracks in the forest but many dot the muskeg meadow we must cross to get the river—small stuff mainly: mice,squirrel, hare. A larger animal left a no nonsense trail on the stream forming the meadow’s boundary. There is also the path made by tiny mice feet that ends in a one inch wide hole in the snow. Other than the flight a sparrow, made memorable by streaming sunlight, these tracks are the only found evidence of wild life this side of the river.
Dark clouds blanket out the sun as we finish the walk, lowering the volume of beauty; bringing a surprising sense of relief—maybe just calm. I am thankful that Aki and I aren’t jaded by nature’s generosity, which we abuse with familiarity.
Sunlight floods over Mt. McGinnis but leaves the rest of our view in the dim glow of early morning. Aki and I traverse up a granite cliff shaved flat by the retreating glacier. She moves freely over the ice and packed snow trail with me following cautiously behind. Already one of my ice grippers is broken.
Even without their leaves the trail side brush screen out most of the view, here of frozen lake and the flat moraine that boarders it, now just being touched by early morning light. I spot a mountain goat on the high ground above Nugget Falls, maybe a mile away and look forward to a chance to view him a close.
With their white fleece, curved back horns and prominent brow, our Mountain Goats look like descendants of the pagan god Pan. I can almost hear his pipe music play over the awakening moraine below, looking new and fresh in first light under this crisp blue sky. Recognizing the danger in such a flight of fancy, Aki snaps me out of it with a full speed charge down trail.
Despite her efforts I still feel like the first man to transit this trail to Nugget Falls—the air too clean, colors too rich, light too pure, snow too deep and shapely, the silence too profound for me to accept her well meaning lesson.
Another gray day on the moraine but one spiced up with two inches of pure white snow. A good day to reflect on the humble Sitka Alder and the drab willow. They were the first plants of size to gain a foothold on the moraine, tough witnesses to the the glacier’s retreat. Normally something to cut out of a photograph, with today’s topcoats of fresh snow providing counterpoint to dark bark they make excellent frames for greater beauty.
These pioneers laid the groundwork for Aki’s Troll Woods—building soil for the poplars and spruce even though the big trees would eventually rob them of light and nutrients; force them to carry out a holding action on soggy lake edges and bogs; make them dependent on the bowels of birds to carry their seeds to newly disturbed ground.
On the edge of beaver flooded land we find an alder displaying signs of spring, summer and fall under a coating of winter snow. On one supple twig cling a well formed leaf from last fall, spent cones, and spring bright pollen pods. Almost hidden by snow are this year’s tightly wrapped leaf buds.
Red Alder, the largest of the clan, provides excellent material for carving. I learned to work with it from master carvers at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan. They helped me make the tools—alder handled adzes with blades fashioned from re-tempered car springs, crooked and not-so-crooked knives ground from cross cut saw blades. They taught me to work with wood from a tree freshly fallen and how the adze could be used to quickly transform a piece of firewood into an abstract figure. They encouraged me to cradle the new form in my lap while using crooked knives to mimic my model.
With the help of another master carver, an Italian American from New York City, I used adze, crooked knives, and not-so-crooked knives to carve a mask of my recently deceased father. The intimacy of the experience helped me grieve. Here is the result.