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.
We hoped to purchase some solitude and views of Canada Geese by taking this ice covered trail during a rain storm. As expected rain water covers the ice in a glistening clear blanket that would have made the trail unusable but for the winter’s worth of dropped hemlock needles allowing my boots purchase.
Getting it at a bargain price Aki and I find solitude here broken only by the snuffling of her searching nose, the sound of rain drops hitting my parka hood, mallard chuckles, eagle complaints, and the near hysterical song of geese being driven off shrinking sand bars by a rising tide.
Reaching an open meadow we find a clump of the calming geese feeding alongside the trail ahead. They are all business at first but then one of their unit stops feeding to watch our approach. Aki, no fool she, is not interested in messing with these big wild birds. Even though we try skirting them at a distance, the geese eventually take flight and move on to the next tidal meadow. Now we hear geese warning calls coming from across the river, giving advanced warning of the approach of several formations of Canada Geese that fly overhead to join their just departed buddies 300 meters away on the other meadow.
Moving across the meadow we reach a gently sloping beach of sand bordering the perfectly still waters of Lynn Canal now reflecting a murder of crows flying toward the river. A smaller gang of the black birds have assumed station at the top of a beach side spruce to wait for the abundance of low tide.
This is March at its best—day long sun, long days, little wind, comfortable temperatures. Looking across to Douglas Island from our kitchen window I can see where Aki and I will spend part of it. Just below the ridge line lies a mountain bowl drained by Kowee Creek, now flooded with afternoon light, that we haven’t visited for some time. That must change today.
In minutes we reach the trailhead and start up a trail packed down by snow machines. I’m carrying snow shoes but soon stash them along side the trail. They are not needed on this well set trail that takes us past dark forests and slanting meadows covered with sensuous mounds of snow crystals that sparkle like rock candy. I grab and hold Aki when two snow machines approach from down trail. They whine as they move towards us driven by riders dressed in sleek jumpsuits, dark goggles, and molded helmets with mouth protectors—-high tech insects passing over old ground.
Aki gives a light hearted chase to the machines as they move up trail. I feel the same way about them on this perfect day; reminded by the sound and smell of their half consumed hydrocarbons of our old life in Western Alaska when we used snow machines to gather food and firewood. As their sound fades I hear for the first time the open waters of Kowee Creek mix with songs of birds sheltering in the belt of trees that hide it from view. Two college aged woman approach and begin gushing about Aki in her bright red wrap. She is such a chick magnet, one that thankfully came into my life after I could use her as a bridge to loveliness.
Seamus, the digital display on our electronic thermometer, has dressed himself in shorts and sunglasses and promises an outside temperature of 45(f). Seamus sometimes lies but not today. From our kitchen window on Chicken Ridge I can see sunlight bouncing off the waters of Gasteneau Channel, bringing the whitest highlights out of the snow covering Douglas Island.
Aki, who has spent her morning inside contemplating the unfairness of a poodle’s life, throws all sadness aside to bounce around the living room as I collect the paraphernalia of adventure—water bottle. camera, dog leash. In a half and hour we are dropping through the old growth forest on one of her favorite trails— the one leading to a wide curving beach between False and True Outer Point.
Sun may be driving cold from beach and ridge but beneath the thick forest canopy winter holds on making me wish I had worn a wool rather than cotton hat. Shafts of light do penetrate down, mottling the forest understory like the floor of an old barn. In the beaver manufactured swamp one shaft spotlights a yellow knot of emerging skunk cabbage plants while the surrounding dark water forms a mirror for the surrounding trees.
The beach is empty of dog, man and bird when we emerge onto it. There is sun light to stand in and to bring a rich mixture of lights and darks to the snow covered Chilkat Mountains across Lynn Canal. Aki wants to keep to the beach with its sun and promise of dog encounters but follows without protect when I return to the cool forest drama.
This morning’s sun has strength enough to warm my face and soften the meadow snow at my feet. We stand next to a open creek with waters dark enough to hide the young salmon heading to sea and the few sea trout (steelheads) that make a propagation pilgrimage here each spring. All we see today is the reflection of Lion Head Mountain and a few Golden Eye ducks fishing downstream.
Later we will spot Canada Geese skulking under a spruce growing near the creek bed. For now the sun is enough as we follow the stream to where it cuts through a meadow on which spruce trees form evergreen islands.
The snow cover ends at meadow’s edge where Aki finds some interesting smells to investigate. Here the adventurous plants, no longer cut off from light by snow and ice swell in size and color, turning a rich yellow-green. They draw the eye as does the wine red berries that survived the winter, still attached to the stems that sustained them last summer—a sweet late winter treat.
Last Fall a sudden freeze trapped gas bubbling up from this shallow stream bed to form little ice bound globes. Today they escape as sunlight melts away their transparent prison.