Monthly Archives: February 2014

Skiing at First Light

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo one but Aki and I can hear the bass gurgle of settling lake ice. The sun is only a sliver of irritating light; it’s main body held beneath the Thunder Mountain Ridge by a deep blue sky. The sun quickly replace dusk with day on Mendenhall Lake as I slip into the skiing rhythm.  Wondering whether Aki is disappointed by the absence of other dogs and their people, I ask, “Are you bored with me, little dog?” She ignores the question.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe ski several kilometers toward the glacier.  As is true of movie stars, the river of ice looks best when viewed from a distance when the early morning light can not reveal its pitted, dirty surface. It slowly creeps behind a low peninsula of rock on our approach.  Aki breaks from the trail when we are within 50 meters of the peninsula. She did the same when at this place on our last circumnavigation of the lake. This time I follow her even though my movement sends deep linear cracks radiating through the ice. While the little dog samples the smell that drew her, I look at a willow, reaching into a blue sky with branches covered in snow white catkins.  Should this blooming pussy willow raise my spirits with its promise of spring or serve as a warning of deteriorating ice conditions?  The Juneau temperature will climb into the high 30’s today as it did yesterday.  Only the nightly drop into the teens keeps the lake skiable. If a Pacific low pushes our high pressure back to the Yukon, rain bearing clouds will turn it into a soupy mess. Then, the willow will leaf out in privacy, while Aki and I look for other signs of spring in the old growth. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Skiing through Sunlight, Shadow, and the Sound of Guns

L1220376This morning Aki and I ski along Montana Creek through shadows pierced by random shafts of sunlight; silence shattered by rifle shots. At the start, the little dog handles the patterned blasts better than I, her attention distracted by a group of young women skiing with a oversized Labrador.  Aki has alway foundL1220337 solace in the arms of my daughter’s friends. Thinking it is the kind thing to do, I push past the ladies to put some distance between us and the outdoor range that shares a cul-de-sac with the trail head. She hangs back, waiting for her new girl gang to catch up. They manage it two kilos up the trail, while I try to capture the now silent river on a media card.

L1220333 Skiing along the bottom of a steep sided valley means skiing in shadow occasionally brightened by sunlit snow on bare branches and the now frozen over river.  When the tall stream side trees allow it, mountain peaks appear in full sun like a Puritan’s city on the hill. My old digital won’t give fair play to the darks and lights of this mottled scene. It either washes our the lights or reduces the shadows to black spaces. Aki tires of my snapping routine—stop, ogle, plant the poles, slip off the mittens, pull the camera from under my jacket, point, focus, click, and repeat in reverse. She dreams of running with the women and their big happy dog, hoping that their spirited chatter will block the sound of gun fire.  L1220337

Ambiguous Travel

P1130722I like being lost in the mixed forest between Peterson Creek and Stephens Passage. Calmed by knowledge that I’ll eventually stumble onto the ocean shore if I keep the sun over my left shoulder, I follow Aki down ill defined deer paths, somethings choosing my own way when her’s leads into impenetrable brush.

P1130734I felt overdressed when we left the car, warmed by the sun shinning down from another cloudless blue sky. It’s light sparkled on hoar frosted limbs of otherwise naked shrubs when we crossed open swamps. In the deep forest it can only glitter circles of ground.  Excited by the soft snow in the woods and the scents of four legged critters that passed through it during the night, Aki porpoises along, then dives head first into larger drifts. Driven into the forest by the sun, last night’s cold settles around me as I watch the little dog.

P1130749We cross the ice covered creek above a beaver dam and plunge into the manageable chaos of confusing ground. A deer wanders with us. We follow her tracks to where she sheltered in a snow free hollow and return to the open meadows. I post hole across them. Soon my jeans are soaked to the knee and I have to remind myself that soon we shall be on the beach. We make it there, a quiet place this time of year. A crisp wolf track points a way through some drift wood to the water. Aki follows on my heals as I wander among the beach rocks, stopping to photograph the white peaks of Admiralty island rising just across Stephens Passage. I find a hollow, carved out of the flat side of a rock in the shape of a modernist’s candy dish. Inside, a new generation of mussels line the lower side, sleeping (if mussels sleep) in the sun.

P1130775Remembering an afternoon appointment, I leave the beach, no longer having the time to indulge in ambiguous travel.

Pre-dawn on the Wetlands

P1130676After dropping Aki’s other resident human at the airport, the little dog and I take a pre-dawn walk on the wetlands.  The day will break clear, free of clouds. With the rising sun still blocked behind mountains, the sky can only manage a pale pastel blue. 30 or 40 Canada geese huddle in a patch of open water surrounded by river ice. They cluck and complain. It won’t take much to scare them to flight.

P1130695Aki runs up and down the empty trail, reading the pee mail. Feeling my gloved hands going numb, I wonder how she thrives in the cold (11 degrees) and wind. I want to photograph a line of mountains on Admiralty Island, now pink with alpine glow. It will mean cold fingers that could become temporarily useless if exposed to the wind for more than a quick snapshot. I risk it. The beauty is too seductive. My index finger loses feeling until it can no longer depress the shutter trigger.

P1130692While my right hand warms up in its glove, I’m forced to simply watch the mountains’ faint pink glow brighten and whiten. Aki sniffs at lines of tiny rodent tracks in the snow as I move along the river’s bluff, both. After looking down at the thin river ice to my right, I take extra care not to slip. Behind us, the top half of  McGinnis and a companion mountain stand in full sun above the shadowed glacier.   A seal riding up the river on the flood tide ripples the mountain’s reflection when it surfaces. Now partially thawed, my index finger returns to work.

Skiing Below the Wind

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpend 35 winters in Alaska and you stop taking good weather for granted. When, as it did this morning, the sun floods the narrows with light, Seamus, the weather ikon, tells you it will be a pleasant, windless morning with the temperature  sidling around in the upper 20‘s, and you know of a recently set ski track offering a view of mountains and glacier; you eat a quick breakfast and drive out to that track in a car carrying Aki, skiers, and their skis. Tarry and risk punishment by our fickle  weather.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking up from the trailhead, you see long tendrils of frozen spindrift fly from the tops of nearby peaks. No wind blows on you when step into your skis and drop into the classic track that winds through protecting trees. It’s colder here, close to the glacier, a cold that soon numbs your hands. Skiing warms them up but they cool off quickly each time you stop to watch morning light throw shadows on the snow. New snow plumes form on peaks to the south. You push on to finish the ski before the wind blasts down the slopes to blow you home.


You finish the circuit, should drive home, but new snow covers the glacial lake and someone had set a track on it that points toward the exposed glacier. Slipping onto the ice, for just a minute, you find yourself sliding toward that river of ice, hoping that when the wind comes, it will flow down the glacier and push you when you turn toward the car.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Thankful but a Little Frustrated

P1130886Aki loves this kind of snow—loose, cold, and just deep enough for burying her head. We found it covering all the ground in this meadow home of stunted spruce trees. I am willing to wait, hand cold by inaction, as she indulges herself.

P1130897In spite of the discomforted hands, I’m thankful today—

for the cold air, blue skies, full sun, no wind

that my new ski boots fit over my ever widening feet

that the little dog takes joy from simple things and I try to do the same

for having enough gas money to fund the drive to this forest trail

having the health to ski down it

I am also frustrated—

that my heavy gloves fail my hands

that a prop plane drones overhead

that we might never see a world at peace.

P1130906Skiing on, we enter an old growth forest. I stop where the forest floor is spotlighted by an off stage art director, What story does she illustrate with such backlit beauty?  I ski on before my ignorance leads to more frustration.  P1130925

Prayer Flags

P1130616The sun surprised Chicken Ridge this morning, by appearing without clouds in a very blue sky. It heated roofs and the bare branches of our apple tree until the snow deposited on them by last night’s storm slipped to the ground. After digging out the driveway, I hitched Aki to a lead and we went exploring Downtown Juneau.

Built in the first half of the 20th Century for mine workers, the craftsmen style houses of Juneau look best dressed in fresh snow. So does the ancient, for Alaska,  Russian Orthodox. I admire the silhouette of its golden dome against blue sky and the Mount Juneau ridge line while Aki catalogues the smells left by careless humans and purposeful dogs. P1130639

Moving up Gasteneau Avenue, I spot lines of tattered prayer flags stretched between  alders.  They flutter over mounds of snow covered dregs of garbage feasts left by pre-hibernating bears. They didn’t treat the hillside as holy ground. Nearer to tidewater, we pass an old mine tunnel. A pillar of ice partially covers the entrance. I am tempted to duck around the pillar just to appreciate the morning sun that must penetrate it’s thick translucence. But I remember seeing a sleeping bag in the little cave, marking it as shelter for a homeless person— another form of holy ground.    P1130651

Rising Glacier

P1130591Like the moon rising over a mountain ridge, the Mendenhall Glacier’s intense white mass grew as Aki and I approached the tip of the Fish Creek Peninsula.  It reached its zenith after we rounded the point, where with us now standing in shade, the glacier became our sun.P1130596

I wouldn’t have seen the glacial reveal if not for a seal. It drew me to the beach from the trail that runs along along the peninsula’s forest.  Thanks to him, I had stood in unexpected sunshine on snow covered beach rocks, watching the seal watch me and the little dog.  After it lost interest, the seal corkscrewed across the water surface and slipped beneath it.  Rather than return to the trail, I walked along the water’s edge as the glacier appeared to move past the peninsula tip. If we had stayed on the trail, the glacier and its mountain consorts would have jump at us when we rounded the point.

P1130577I am glad that the glacier appeared toward the end of the hike. After seeing it, I would not have been able to appreciate the beauty of the wetlands and forests we passed through to view it. After yesterday’s ski through the glacier’s rain drenched moraine, shoveling last night’s snowfall off our Chicken Ridge driveway, the sudden appearance of an ambulance and fire truck at our neighbor’s house, the threat of more rain, it was a joy to emerge from the gray and see sunshine light up trees newly flocked by snow, watch that beauty eclipsed by the rising glacier.  P1130588

Warm Weather Symphony

P1130559The clean, quieting cold left yesterday, apparently to evade the rain now melting recent snow. Aki and I patrol the glacial moraine forest. The softening snow still supports her light frame but I would be post holing without my cross country skis.  I miss winter’s quiet and the freedom of travel offered by firm ice and snow. Aki loves these thaws, which uncovers favorite smells laid down before the last snow storm. She doesn’t mind the rain soaking her fine poodle hair. It might be different if she walked by a mirror, vain creature that she is.

P1130552Strong wind gusts blow across the open lake and above the forest. Each gust mimics the sound of an accelerating electric bus. I hear it easily above rain drops that maintain a staccato beat as they strike my rain parka. It’s a long, uncomplicated composition that builds to a series of thunder-like cracks followed quickly by a deep rumble as avalanches slide down Thunder Mountain.

P1130553As the avalanche chutes quiet, I leave the trail for a small, still frozen stream and find recent tracks of a river otter. The tracks seem out of place so close to the beaver village. Nearby, the severed branch of a balsam popular lays in the snow. It’s sticky buds still smell of sweet incense. Clutching it to grip of a ski pole, I carry it to the car. In the house, in water, it will scent to kitchen with balsam before its expanding leaf buds burst to reveal the green of spring.

Old Souls

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday’s high winds, some gusting 65 miles an hour, scoured this meadow of the lovely frost I enjoyed during our last visit. The winds also blasted the trail to a porcelain  smoothness. Even Aki slips and slides on the steeper sections. I expected to be pushed quickly off the meadow by more strong winds but they haven’t appeared. Perhaps they wait for the sun to stop hiding behind a cloud bank the color of dirty fleece.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANothing in the gray invites us to linger on the meadow so I take a faint trail into a sheltered valley. On rock hard snow we drop into onto a gentle plain dotted with old growth mountain OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhemlock trees, some a foot across at their base. I would have passed through without much thought if this morning I hadn’t read a chapter of  Lynn Schooler’ “Walking Home.” By counting its growth rings of a 12 inch thick mountain hemlock, Mr. Schooler discovered that the tree was 299 years old. Standing before two similar sized mountain hemlocks, I realize that they started their struggle in this weak, poorly drained soil before europeans discovered Alaska, before Russian started decimating its sea otter population, before England’s Capt. Vancouver had his first violent run-in with Tlingit warriors, when the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier touched the salt water of Gasteneau Channel.  One tree still thrives but its neighbor is bare except for a unkept cap of green still pulling energy from the sun. I wonder which I should honor more—-the damaged older soul, or it’s thriving neighbor? I chose the damaged one for its optimistic green bonnet.