It’s been a remarkably white December on Chicken Ridge. The big spruce trees marching up Mt. Maria retain snowy highlights. Snow shovels come out every day, building our sense of community as neighbors work together to open paths for people and cars. It’s the best time for neighbors to visit during the busy holiday season.
Aki, the snow lover, thrives here and on the more remote places where we cross country ski. With me, she hunts exciting smells and the odd chance to charge after a scolding squirrel. She changes when as on recent trips out the road, we ski with people with various skill levels. A good sized gap can open between the fastest and the slower skier. Aki becomes the herder she was born to be, dashing back and forth between the alpha and the omega; trying to encourage by example, the slowest to close the gap. After these outings, she spends the car ride home collapsed into the arms of one of the passengers.
Aki can’t consult a calendar so she doesn’t know that this is the last day of the year. She can sense emotions in her humans but I wonder if her skill is finely enough tuned to detect our communal optimism that next year will be better than 2013. The closing one brought joy and contentment to the house with the purple door on Chicken Ridge. Its occupants reasonably look forward to more of the same in 2014. We pray for the same for friends and family in the USA, France, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada. We have more desperate prayers for the rest of the world, inspired by the optimism of the season to ask for peace and an end to starvation, hatred, and bigotry.
It’s amazing the different 20 miles of driving can make. Yesterday tromp through the moraine involved rain and heavy, wet snow. Today, out the road pointed north, we skied on good smooth track. Off trail, 18 inches of snow covered the ground, forming the sides of a deep, but skiable ditch. I gripped my poles halfway down the shafts to avoid skiing with my hands high in the air. Aki dashed up and down the ditch, ears flying up and down to the rhythm of her bouncing gate. At trails end she rolled in a stain of deer’s blood on snow as she has in beaver scent, bear scat, and even dead salmon; her face a mask of ecstasy until someone shouted, “Aki EEUUU.” The little dog looked shocked, a gourmet of smells wrongly condemned by her pedestrian people.
If not for the dog, I wouldn’t be walking this exposed beach in the rain. We used a snow covered trail through the old growth to get here, me sliding with each step in mushy snow. I should find the wet grayness out of keeping with the eve of Christmas. My Northern European soul longs for crisp whiteness on the birthday of our Lord. But the innate sadness of rain washing away the Christmas snow fits this day before believers celebrate Christ’s birth. His birth brought the hope and happiness symbolized by snow globes, carols, and Santa Claus.
As if to encourage my musings, a glaucous-winged gull lifts off the beach, flies a few feet over the water, then uses her arched white-tipped wings to settle onto its surface. I see not a seabird but a child practicing for the angel’s part in the Christmas Play—the who gets to say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 13-14)
Merry Christmas from Chicken Ridge
Even with the six extra seconds of daylight added this day after Winter Solstice, I have to strain in the faint light to make out a large, black back breaking the surface near Spuhn Island. I expected the flat heads of sea lions, who had been carrying on a conversation just before I heard something large exhale followed by their warning call and crash dives. The whale-like shape slips beneath the water then reappears farther into Favorite Passage after I hear another exhale.
I would have been happy with the white arc of this beach, its edge being refined by the incoming tide; the still bay reflecting a point thick with snow loaded spruce. It would have been enough that the rain stopped, that Aki and I found shallower snow to track along the water’s edge, that a small seal rises to watch our struggles from just offshore. We came to False Outer Point to confirm today’s gift of six seconds of extra light; accept the promise of 16 more seconds tomorrow, 25 the next, and 44 more on Christmas. The whale’s presence is a bonus.
With the tidal door slowly swinging closed, Aki the poodle-mix, my daughter and I round the little point that forms its door stop on the lower Mendenhall River. Six to eight feet of sloping beach still separate ocean water from rocky barrier. We walk quickly down beach on pebbles glued in place by ice. Full sun blankets the glacier and its mountain consorts but we are in shade. So is a mid-river sandbar covered by noisy ducks and Canada geese. Some float away on cold water, lifted off the bar by the rising sea.
It’s only 1140 but the sun appears to have already set for us behind a ridge of Douglass Island mountains. Then it slides into a notch from where its rays can reach our beach. “What a beautiful place we live,” says the daughter to the dog. She reminds me about the tide. We turn back, finding the beach around the point underwater but not a gap in the rocks through which we make good our escape.
Back on Chicken Ridge, a raven stands atop the utility pole outside our kitchen window, sun lighting a slice of beak and feathers, leaving the rest in shadow. He chants, sending out little puffs of clouds from his beak. Water filling the tea kettle prevents me from hearing the actual song so I make up my own words:
Raven brought the first light
Raven brings this light
be sharing on the solstice
or Raven will fly the light away
Now, a few days shy of winter solstice, little sun reaches the depths of Gold Creek Canyon. It can’t touch the creek itself, stubbornly liquid on this 14 degree day. I watch slices of light move across the snow covered ridges above the old A.J. Mine. Other slices light short segments of the flume carrying water to the hydro plant near the Indian Village. As if spooked by the bright light, Aki resists crossing these portions of the flume. I carry her until finding a section of mountain side where squiggles of ice formed from rock seepage sparkle. In seconds dusk replaces day, leaving us in the comforting grey.
Located on the east shore of Mendenhall Lake, the Skater’s Cabin has offered shelter and a view of the the glacier since built in 1936. The Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) constructed it from stones gathered from the surrounding moraine. That year my father built roads in Montana as a member of the CCC. Funded by the federal government to put men, like my dad, back to work during the depression, the CCC enriched Alaska with shelters, campgrounds, and even totem poles. The men’s work product showed pride and care. You can see that in the still straight walls of Skater’s Cabin. After skiing this morning, I took this picture of the cabin, a little proud of myself for using it to frame the lake and glacier. Back on Chicken Ridge, I found almost the exact content in a better photograph taken by Trevor Davis shortly after the cabin was built. You can see the crisp and beautiful photo here: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg21/id/2354/rec/10 Mr. Davis’ picture shows a strip of cleared ice for skating to the face of a much larger Mendenhall Glacier. It reminds us of the beauty of black and white photography, and how much ice we’ve lost in 70 some years.
Unwelcome rain washes our city streets. It started last night when the temperature climbed above freezing. The rain fell and the temperature rose in the night; working to soften the snow pack along Eagle River. We skied there anyway, me and Aki’s other human packing a trail for the little dog. Things went her way until I left our little pack to ski down a lesser used trail. When wallowing in deep snow to frame this photograph, I fell. Aki, watching on the other side of a wide stretch of bottomless snow started toward me. Struggling from the start, she stopped often to rest between stints of dog paddling her way to me. Above, a bald eagle circled over the tired poodle-mix. Fortunately for everyone but the hunting bird, Aki turned back, using her packed trail to climb to safety offered by the other skier.
Somebody’s luck is bad, I think as the melancholy sound of a siren arrives on the wind. No other town noise reaches here; nothing to complete with a raven’s harsh chants. With snowshoes, I pack a trail over deep snow for Aki. The little poodle mix processes with calm dignity behind, letting the fox that recently tracked the snow know who reigns over Chicken Ridge. I’m working for the fox too, and maybe some nervous snowshoe hares. Even a wolf could exploit me, using the packed trail to run down prey.