Monthly Archives: April 2013

Last Storm Breaking?









Over morning coffee Aki and I watch winter and spring’s seasonal war for Chicken Ridge. A north wind blew down Seventh Street all night, demoralizing artillery to soften us up for this morning’s heavy snowfall. Enjoying what each season has to offer I don’t have a dog in the fight. My sculptor’s heart loves the way the storm outlines the strong lines of naked ash limbs and mixes whites with spruce’s somber greens. The gardner worries whether our lilacs and the apple tree will ever flower.

Aki hates the north wind but joyfully exploits the rest of what weather has on offer.  She strains at the leash as we head up Seventh Street for the Perseverance Trail.  A neighbor with dog joins up for a couple of blocks, sharing a recent avalanche warning, agreeing to call for help if we don’t return on time. We both know that avalanche run outs can cover part of my intended trail this time of year. It’s early in the day for avalanches and it takes less than a minute to cross the troubled spot so I don’t change plans.

P1100802The tracks of only one car and one person mark the snow covering Basin Road. We use it to pass a string of craftsman houses clinging to the hill side of Mr. Maria and gain the entrance to the old wooden trestle bridge.  There we meet the homeless man, smoking his hand rolled cigarette cradled in a shaky left hand. He greets Aki with a kind word but only shows me distain–quickly pulling on his street armor while walking between dog and man.

We follow the homeless man’s solitary track across the bridge and up the old mining road toward Perseverance Basin. This evidence of his purposeful stride reassures me as we approach the avalanche chute as does the low hum of drumming grouse. An animal sound. something a coyote might make while laughing rattled my confidence. This portent of disaster only sounds when we walk. It stops when we do. Is the coyote that hunts this canyon sending a warning or just indulging himself at our considerable expense? Assuming it no more than a tease I join Aki as she follows the homeless man’s tracks on approach to the avalanche chute.  There, between battered trees we see a clear trail, find the  mountain above silent as we cross the safety.

P1100812Shortly after the snow stops and its thinning delivery clouds let in weak sunlight. The melt begins immediately, creating local rain storms under each snow burdened tree that soak dog and man but not the birds, robin and thrush, now singing spring’s victory song.


It’s good a deer can’t feel despair


Here we are on the last Saturday in April making deep tracks in 6 inches of new snow. Aki must porpoise to make progress—connecting together a string of leaps that imitate the snow shoe hare or a frisky dolphin. Each leap sends her ears skyward to point in the same direction as her tail.

For the first mile only the tracks of her plunging passage and my post holes of progress mark the snow.  Just past a stream crossing we find recent tracks of a deer. If capable of despair, this hoofed animal must be full of it. A few days ago this forest offered a budding banquet. last night an inadequate shelter, this morning a difficult passage to safety.

L1200620Aki, who ran in front of me until now, drifts casually behind after sniffing the air. Crossing the stream again I notice the zipper pattern of otter tracks fast dissolving on the water’s surface. Only an animal comfortable in and out water in winter could have made such confident passage over weak ice.  Something must have happened to the little dog on one her independent forages into otter country.

This forest and the riverine meadow it borders offers some hospitality for the migrants moving in for the summer.  While watching a Northern Harrier fly across the trail I am startled by a noisy red and orange blur approaching through falling snow.  Apparently realizing that my my red coat was not a mass of columbine flowers, this hungry hummingbird buzzes by my ear then out of site. Another wild thing that can’t welcome winter’s return. What, I wonder out load, could be sustaining such the little nectar feeder then spot what may be the answer—a forest full of blue berry blossoms resisting the weight of new fallen snow.


We all wonder how the hummingbird survives their long migration to our rain forest. An elder in Ketchikan once told me that they ride snuggled in the feathers of north bound geese. She may be right. In the direction from where the hummingbird approached we see Canada geese and a pair of resting swans.

A Soft Day at the Treadwell Ruins



We spend part of this soft day among the Treadwell ruins. It’s all Christmas Day for Aki with her dog’s social interest in who or what has passed before. Rain and grayness force my attention downward and inward like the low marine layer now blocking the view of our smallest mountains. On such walks I expect the profound up but end up settling for discoveries of small beauty.

P1100722There is wonder here where more than 100 years ago men and woman forged a community of craftsmen; building and exploiting turbines and pipes and the power they produced to pummel our native rock until it released hidden gold. It all ended when a mine tunnel under Gasteneau Channel collapsed and sea water flooded the works.  The builders and miners and those that took care of their physical needs all left, abandoning their city of man to the destructive power of alders and the rain.

We find their most resistant constructions scatters about the alder forest—bent rails, ore carts, great iron wheels, even the chassises of cars built before the U.S. entered World War I. Most emerge from blankets of electric green moss but some relics prefer to rust to their death naked on the forest floor.    P1100728

Transforming Light


This still cold morning Fish Creek drains a forest of light. Aki and I walk up stream past where the salmon spawn in August, under eagle roosts, beyond where I watched a bear rush deep into the woods while the little dog sniffed at its abandoned supper.   It is too early in the season for salmon or even to expect this strong light to warm the skin. There is a bear and at least one deer around. The deer left tracks across a gravel bar near where a bear cropped off the tops of emerging skunk cabbage plants.

L1200545Lost in shadow, the wounded skunk cabbage offer little beauty but everything touched by light has it in abundance. A wrist thick stick, too far gone with rot to have bark, glows like polished alabaster but its the green things, moss and hemlock needles, that have me raising the camera again and again. It’s strange but while all this backlit beauty excites it doesn’t warm my hands or face. I am not used to being so underdressed in an art museum, even one as transient as the Fish Creek forest in April. In hours all will be in shadow. Tomorrow it will rain to enrich the greens, soften the browns, and ramp up the volume of the awaking stream.


Would Merton had seen the Koohsdakhaa?



Thomas Merton sought the solitude of a hermitage to enhance his appreciate of man. He would be happy taking this heavily tracked trail as it winds through old growth forest and open meadows. I doubt if Merton ever walked it even though he tested the solitude offered by the Shire of St. Teresa a few months before he died.  Those two grey swans would be at the Shire in minutes if they weren’t resting on this huge beaver pond, floating with distain among a mixed gang of other migrating waterfowl.

P1100661Last night’s hard freeze set up the trail for us, cementing the churned mud, firming the remaining meadow snow into useable bridges for skirtting around flooded portions of the trail.  With nothing to block the strong spring sun it will all turn to muck and mire by late afternoon.

Aki only tolerates solitude. Preferring company of any kind she sniffs the wind and ground for evidence of approaching friends. Near a slough backing up from the big beaver pond the little dog alerts and then dashes to the snowy edge, throws on the brakes but still slides forward, head down, rear in the air, until her nose almost enters the water. Something, probably an otter, splashes down the slough as if calling Aki to follow. She does, charging along the bank with wagging tail until coming to another sliding stop where the slough makes a sharp left turn. Is she chasing a Kooshdakhaa?

I call Aki back, remembering my experience with the Kooshdakhaa—something magical P1100670shaped like a large land otter. It was this time of year. A friend and I were returning by kayaks from Berners Bay, entering the narrow pass between between a large sand spit and the shore.  Something like a small pear shaped black bear ran down the spit toward my kayak then dove into the water. Entering the water like an otter, it allowed itself to be carried into through the pass on a tidal current strong enough to form small whirlpools.  Distracted by the surprising scene, I didn’t see a whirlpool until it grabbed my kayak’s nose with enough strength to twist the boat. With luck and a desperate paddle brace I righted the kayak before it flipped me into the water.

Sunday Morning Ballet


Walking along the final kilometer of the Mendenhall River Aki and I find ourselves uninvited guests at a ballet.  It starts with bored eagles sunning themselves in the lee side of beach side spruce.L1200417 An immature one looks down at Aki with distain, not hungary interest—surprising at the end of the winter famine when cats and small dogs are hunted for their meat.  The little poodle mix doesn’t buy it and walks closely at my heel when we pass under the eagle’s tree.

Ducks, not yet flushed by our presence or the incoming tide sleep tucked up against the beach. They don’t wake even when the first act opens across the river with the shadows of passing eagles setting a huge flock of gulls, all painfully white in the morning light, to flight. They quickly drop to sand bar and sea for better access to the concentration of bait fish (herring or sand lances?) that have drawn them to this exposed place.

L1200438The real show takes place later when a conference of bald eagles lift off from a large sand bar and begin an ariel dance with steps too complicated to follow. None dives to snatch food from the sea; each action a reaction to another dancer. Are they jockeying for good fishing spots for when the income tide delivers the next pulse of fish, showing off for the girls,or simply dancing to welcome in Spring?

Is it time for the kayaks?



I can’t believe myself taking more pictures of these two humungous beaver lodges. They draw me to this small stream draining the edge of a great meadow. We could be out on the flat expanse of white snow with its texture perfect for skiing—firm top layer of corn snow that allows one ski to slide while the other grips in anticipation of its chance to shoot ahead. Each beaver lodge rise above our heads,  collections of gnawed branches formed into an almost perfect domes.

A beaver dam connected the two dens during our last visit. Today the stream runs through unimpeded and I suspect the hand of man. This may explain the new construction site down near the old river otter slide where a dam almost spans the creek.

L1200321We have full sun shinning from a cloudless ski. It would be too hot if not for the breeze coming at us from the North. Out on Lynn canal this wind forms horses out of the flat fjord waters. Here it merely speeds the melting of snow and keeps it cool enough for us to ski in comfort.

With much of the world’s weather turning fickle, if not violent, I have no confidence in predicting whether winter has move north to wait out the threatening warmth of Midsummer. We woke just two mornings ago to four inches of new snow. Today green shoots of gray push up through the meadow snow and widening bare patches threaten to cut off large portions of the meadow from our skis. I think of the berries beneath their dwindling blanket of snow and the kayak waiting for me in the storage unit. I think of the Candle Fish that even now might be charging up the nearby Antler River to spawn even while chased by hungry sea lions, whales, and clouds of birds. Time to gather the gear of summer.


Remembering the Little Avalanche



Today is one for chores and therefore compromises. We manage to squeeze in a quick circuit around the nordic ski track through the Mendenhall Lake Campground. I find it a soulless place and today a little frustrating due to ski conditions. If not for the output of this one in a series of last snow storms of winter we wouldn’t be able to gain a purchase with skis on the icy base.

P1120743Aki dashes back and forth between the faster skier and I, making me wonder whether poodles were once used for herding. She is never happier when all her people are within easy reach. The frankly monotonous scenery at the campground—a young spruce forest that only once offers a snow softened view of the glacier—-sets my mind wandering from present to the recent past. We are in the family Subaru dropping out of a blizzard threatening to close the Canadian side of the Klondike highway.

Easing into Alaska, knowing the ferry terminal at Skagway is less than 15 miles away, I start to relax until a small wall of white snow begins to cross the road in front of us. It’s a beautiful thing, this undulating mass that will win the race we are suddenly in; we would win by passing before it blocks our way, maybe sweeps our little green car into that steep ravine to our right.  We don’t win but tie as the car ploughs into the avalanche. I feel the car hit the wall and slow, go blind as snow blankets the windows, remember to steer straight, forget to pray. In seconds we are through then negotiating the switch backing road as it drops to sea level.

P1120722Cruising the campground these two weeks and some change later I can now ask whether our interaction with the avalanche was a matter of good or bad luck, how many small things coalesced to bring that wall of snow and our car together at that moment of time, that we survived.

Swans, Geese, and Skis

L1200274The frenzied cries of Canada Geese call us away from our cross country skis and over to the river where great rafts of waterfowl float toward us on a strong incoming tide.  Geese for sure and many ducks ride the tide, all forming a guard for the  swans, most with pure white feathers, two still grey— all graceful as the Queen on her balcony.  The swans dwarf the Canada Geese, our hometown giants. They are the travelers, rebuilding strength lost on the long flight to this riverine meadow; storing energy for the final leg to the Alaska tundra.

L1200253An almost magical convergence, we have sun and high water and swans as well the snow buried Chilkat mountains just across Lynn Canal.  There is also the trails and a little gray dog that longs to sprint along as we ski. I hear goose complaints deep in the woods long after we turned our backs on our guests.


Last Gifts of Winter


Judging by their absence from the moraine most residents of our town don’t appreciate this snow storm or its five inch white blanket now beautifying the Troll Woods—a departing gift from cantankerous winter.  Aki, who likes fresh snow best of all, is ecstatic. Me, I’m haunted by the memory of a storm covering subarctic tundra in April.

P1100572It happened when we lived in Bethel on the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska. An April snow storm reopened the snowmachine trail to Akiakchak right after my just widowed father arrived for a visit.  He had arrived on the evening jet from Anchorage, watching the details of the flat Kuskokwim delta soften beneath the descending plane, the sky fade from deep blue to black.

That night it snowed down quarter sized flakes that quickly covered the wet tundra with ten inches of white. Knowing it wouldn’t last ‘till noon, I roused Dad for an early breakfast and, hoping my neighbors would forgive the noise, began the chore of harnessing our team of dogs to the sled. They began to howl the minute I left the house carrying an armful of harnesses. They howled louder when I secured the sled quick release cable to the deadman anchor and laid out the gangline; reached a level of near hysteria while I harnessed Bilbo and clipped him into his lead dog position.

I didn’t hear dad leave the house, didn’t notice him in the dog yard until he shouted an offer of help. “Stand by Bilbo,” I suggested even though the old lead dog needed no help to keep the lines stretched tight. The three of us had been through much. It was time for Bilbo and dad to know each other.

The noisy energy of the dogs, each acting like a spoiled child in fear of being left behind, distracted me from the purpose of the trip— to share something that I love with one who had lost the main source of his.

P1100597Dad took his place in the sled basket when all eight dogs were clipped to the gangline.  I stood behind on the sled runners and pulled the quick release. We never talked about what came next—the sudden silence as the dogs surged forward—my fear of not being able to control the accelerating team or make the tricky turn where the trail dropped off the tundra onto Brown Slough—his blind faith in my ability to bring him home safely.

The dogs pulled us up the trail as the snow melted away under a spring sun.  Only the ribbon of the snow machine compressed snow of the trail remained when we turned back to town.  We were on the crest of the riverside bluffs where Dad would pick blue berries that summer. As the dogs rested we watched the broad Kuskokwim River, still covered with softening ice, take a lazy course through dead brown tundra broken by islands of cottonwood, willows, and stunted black spruce.  You see no mountains or even hills from the place— just a great flatness relieved by occasional undulations and the practical buildings of Bethel.

On the return trip I worried whether the slough ice would hold long enough for our return crossing and whether there would be enough snow for passage over the less used side trail that leads to our dog yard.  I should have spent the time telling him much it meant for me to share this with him—all of it.  I’d like to think the sorrowful man could appreciate the wild beauty of the day and accept this last gift of winter