Walking through this dark, dripping forest makes it hard to look forward to New Year’s Eve. Blame the big spruce and alders that joined the other wind fallen during 2014. I walk by their shattered corpses, wonder at the wind that sent them crashing down and remind myself that future forests will feed on their rotting bodies. I pause and honor the past’s year’s human dead and resolve to read the obituaries of people I never knew.
Aki breaks from the frankly morbid woods onto the beach where many dogs have walked in 2014. She ignores the raft of Barrow golden eye ducks working the off shore shallows and can’t see a pod of Dall porpoise hammering herring in deeper water. The back backs of the small cetaceans form a field of rocks that form and disappear until I try to photograph them. Behind, a bald eagle gives what sounds like a derisive cry before the porpoise disappear for good. If the downed trees caused me to reflection on the past, these harvesting animals encourage a hopeful look to the future. They already prepare for 2015.
It’s 10 A.M. on a cold, windless morning. The sun cleared Douglas Island’s mountainous spine a half and hour ago and is moving like a spotlight down the channel toward Juneau. We have a good view of Mt. Juneau but the sun concentrates on Sheep Mountain. Later, Mt. Juneau will sparkle when nothing blocks our view of Sheep Mountain. We walk over a meadow in dusk, tucked against the island’s spine. I walk slowly, waiting for the sun light to make the frost feathers sparkle. Aki is bored and doesn’t appreciate my lingering. Does she know the sun won’t reach this meadow until the New Year? I poke about, run through my Tai Chi exercises then find a tiny pond bordered by a band of pale, magenta plants. I think, “heather” and look for flowers; find frost feathers serving the same purpose. Aki can’t tell me why the plants circled this pond. She is moving down the two opaque ribbons of ice that mark a cross-country ski trail off the meadow.
Aki squints into the low angle sunlight and muscles ahead in spite of the wind gusts that sweep over the frozen sand of the Sheep Creek delta. I lean into both wind and light until stopped by a forty-knot blast. When the sun reached the ice field peaks, it drove this cold air down the Sheep Creek valley to hammer us. When the gust ends, the little dog runs full speed into an Aki-sized forest of dead beach grass stalks.
Other dogs and their walkers pass us on their way down beach. They smile, and stroll, not feeling the bite of the wind because it is at their backs. When a father with two toddlers walks past, I am tempted to warn him about the cold his kids will face when they turn into the wind. But dad wears well-used winter gear and the kids are encased in down snowsuits. This is Alaska, between tourist seasons. Most know that it is best to begin each journey by facing into the wind.
After a holiday season spent under gray skies, trying to dig beauty out of low contrast grays, this cloudless, sunny day is an appreciated gift. Even better, the rain that damped Chicken Ridge on Christmas fell as snow on the lands drained by Eagle River. Aki explodes out of the car after we drop out of the river of cars heading out Juneau’s only real road. I am not sure where, on the remaining fourteen miles of it, they are going to park. Maybe they are driven by people brought here to work for a legislator from one of those car-centered cultures like Los Angeles or Anchorage. Maybe they just need to drive somewhere, if only to feel their right foot on the gas pedal, their hands on a steering wheel.
A stiff crust covers the snow so we can explore off the usual paths. Aki sniffs at recent trails left by a porcupine, a fox, and a coyote. No human or dog has come this way since the last snow. Shafts of sunlight spotlight the beardlike lichen that almost covers the meadow’s mountain hemlocks but mostly we walk in the shade. At the head of a tiny iced over stream, sunlight turns a free standing spruce into a candle. Aki and I approach it like two wise men. The little poodle mix is on the coyote’s trail but loses it where her wild cousin crossed the stream ice. Up close, I understand that even with its halo, our oracle is only a dying tree. Suddenly I realize that I have been breaking through the crust and abrasive snow has worked its way into my new waterproof boots. I’m 100 meters from the packed trail and face a hard job getting off the softening meadow. I turn toward the tree when I reach the trail and am pleased to see that it still shines like the Spirit of Christmas.
Aki stares at me as we share this North Douglas Island beach. She wants someone to throw her orange Frisbee but it is not here. There are lots of flat rocks that one her humans is very adept at skimming over the water. We have perfect conditions for it—flat calm water pushed high onto the beach by a solstice high tide. When the rock skimmer was a toddler, Ester, a Tlingit elder told me that children should not skim rocks because the ocean, like all things deserve the respect due to those with souls. But I couldn’t resist the chance to teach my child how to hold a flat rock and fling it across the sea. I never wanted to prevent her from enjoying the simple game.
After my daughter runs out of good skimmers, a young seal lifts its head so that only its eyes are above the water. It’s close in, closer to the beach than I have ever seen a seal. It rises up a bit higher when we wish it a merry Christmas and then disappears beneath the waters of an ocean wave free to the horizon. Ester, was that you?
Aki and I are working our way over ice toward the glacier. My daughter, who now lives on the East Coast walks with us. In a Juneau convergence moment, she spots two people from her college days in Los Angeles. Neither of them lives in Juneau. Beneath their feet Aki has a noisy argument with two Chihuahuas that they brought with them from LA. Across the frozen lake, an apricot and gray sky backdrops Mt. McGinnis. When the fight ends I walk over to a frosted rose at the tip of a humble willow branch. It too represents a convergence but one made by nature, not man. Last summer an insect infested the willow, causing a mutation shaped like a delicately petaled rose bud. On this mid-winter day, we won’t find another rose bud outside of a florist’s cold safe. It is our Christmas rose so I am pleased to find a field of tiny frost crowns formed on the bud. Does anyone know the words to “Lo how a rose e’er blooming?”
It’s Christmas Eve in Sweden. I wonder if they have snow. We don’t except on the ice field and the mountains that separate us from it. The weather is balmy but a stiff wind blows across Chicken ridge toward the state capitol building downtown. From the old Perseverance Basin mining road I watch long white plumes of snow fly from the top of Mount Roberts, reaching like baby’s fists for the blue sky above town. Aki, who cares naught about baby fists of snow, plays grab ass with the other dogs as their minders exchange holiday greetings. In Sweden they already feel the joy of Christmas. I hope that all our friends will feel a similar joy, no matter which book contains their spiritual rules.
(Note, this photo was taken another day at another place)
Aki and I walk under a canopy of cottonwood branches too bare of leaves to block the rain. When there is a break in the noise of children playing tag, I hear raindrops plopping into a drainage pond. It’s great that the kids, all weighed down in slickers and rubber knee boots, take such joy from playing in the rain. But, their presence adds tension to the walk. If she can, Aki will chase and bark at them in the same way she does with other dogs. Kids often take this the wrong way.
We manage to skirt the knot of kids and walk over to the deep-water remains of the collapsed glory hole. Six mallards float together like a raft on the other side of the hole and then burst into the air. A land otter abandons his stealth mode to watch the ducks land on the beach. A sea duck leaves the same beach and floats onto the waters of the glory hole. I stop and watch, no longer hearing the sound of kids, not noticing that the rain has stopped. I’m waiting for the otter to strike. I wait a long time during which the sea duck dives down and returns to the surface several times. During one dive, when he is under for more than a minute, I think he is lunch until I spot the otter, fifty feet away, still eying the mallards. The duck dips under again and doesn’t come up. The head of seal does, scoping the glory hole waters like a submarine periscope until spotting Aki and I.
Walking away, I feel the clam and peace that had been settling over me since I first spotted the otter. The worry stress from a possible Aki-kid encounter is gone and so, I suspect, are the agitations of this pre-Christmas day
Today, winter solstice should be the northern new year’s eve. We all look forward to the lengthening of days that starts tomorrow. In Aki’s human home holiday lights keep the darkness at bay. Floors and clothes have been cleaned in preparation for the New Year. Here, on the Fish Creek delta, an 18.8 foot high tide washes the marshes clean and floods over the trail. In Gastineau Channel, a salmon gill-netter takes advantage of the high water to motor across the bar to downtown Juneau.
On our last visit an otter coxed Aki out onto the ice and I felt fortunate to get the little dog back in one piece. Today, only small chunks of ice float on the flooded pond so I relax and let Aki wander. While she sniffs a nearby alder, I spot the bright purple interior of a recently harvested sea urchin—the leavings of an otter’s new year’s meal. Like a whale’s plume or even a steaming pile of bear scat, the broken purple shells remind me who will share the rain forest with us during the next year. I am humble by the thought, humbled by these scattered shells, but also happy to have such interesting neighbors.
It was coming for a while now, this soaked boot, this wet pant leg; something to expect when wandering during a thaw. My right leg broke through an ice bridge that thinly covered a moraine creek. Aki watched me attempt the crossing and then used information gained to make it warm and dry to the other side. On this above freezing day it is an inconvenience. Thirty degrees colder and I would be stuffing dried glass between my pant leg and skin. If we had to camp out tonight, I’d be sleeping with a boot in my bag. But winter is still on retreat.
We are happy to have a thin dusting of snow to brighten a gray day. The show looks best on the young spruce died in a fire. In summer their black trunks stand like skeletons over a scattering of flowering lupine. Today, covered in fresh snow, the fire blacking works to their advantage.