This morning, a light shower of snow brings beauty to the Gastineau Meadows. Like chalk in the hand of a charcoal sketch artist, the snow emphasizes the muscular curves of gnarled pine branches by settling into sharp white lines on the limb tops. We are the first man/dog pair to walk over the new snow. Aki dashes over the straight line made by a squirrel crossing the trail. The little poodle mix stops to sniff at some strange marks that could have been made by the stretching of a huge languorous house cat. I imagine a lynx, butt in the air, thrusting out its front paws and dragging them toward him through ice, snow, and frozen mud. Had to be a big cat. No canine could cut these deep little grooves down through snow and ice. This happened before the snow stopped, maybe while I drank morning coffee and read a chapter from Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth. It was her coyote story—the braided one where she writes like she is inside the animal’s head. I briefly fancy myself moving her story from desert to this snowy meadow before being distracted by the sky. The climbing winter sun shatters the monolith of gray that had hung over town for days. We don’t see direct sunshine but I settle for the pales pinks, yellows and whites that infuse the cloud crown settling above Mt. Juneau. This opal in the sky parts to reveal an irregular circle of blue. It’s a gift I can only share in words. My camera can’t capture its subtle beauty.
To escape the wind pounding Chicken Ridge, we drive to the North Douglas trailhead. The microclimate here can feature tree-toppling winds but today it is calm. Without wind there is little drama in the forest we pass through to reach the beach. Aki stops once to stare into the old growth forest and I think, “deer,” but see only a scene painted in the dull pallet of a winter thaw. I hear eagle complaints but none circles the water over fish when we break out of the trees. Only a common merganser rides some small swells before flying away. “Aki, where is the straw to stir the drink?” The little dog, who cares little for baseball, doesn’t know that Reggie Jackson used that phrase to describe his ability to make a difference in a game. She does love a garnishment of cheese in her kibble so I change metaphors. “Where’s the cheese?” Aki perks up at the mention of her favorite treat but is soon back to nosing the tide line.
She passes up a magenta patch of seaweed, a bright island in a sea of frosted rockweed. I do too. Back in the woods, we hear an almost rhythmic rapping like you would expect from a student drummer. I doubt if it’s from a red-breasted sapsucker. Their tree assaults have a jackhammer tempo. It’s a downy woodpecker, rapping away on a spruce. Aki walks down the trail but I move closer. The bird ignores both of us but continues to add audio spice to the gray day.
Always an Alaskan, Aki never shies from rain or even wind but probably prefers calm, sunny weather. We have such an early holiday gift today. While rain washed our streets clean last night, snow frosted Mount Juneau and the Douglas Island spine. We leave the house just as the sun bursts through channel fog to light up the new snow. Aki pulls on the leash while I try to photograph Mt. Juneau. She wants to visit a Scottie dog that casts a long shadow as he enjoys the sun. I walk with my poodle mix over to the Scottie. Normally friendly, the little gray guy snaps at Aki. Does he worry, like the ancient Britons and sometimes me, that the short days of winter will never end; that summer will never come.
Ruby-red berries lay like abandoned marbles on soaked moss, the thin vines that nourished them before freeze up now invisible. Their now absent neighbors, the blueberries, free formed into plump balloons, but the cranberries are all spheres. Aki, who enjoys sweet berries, ignores them. Hoping to taste some summer on this wet mountain meadow, I plop one into my mouth. After I break its skin with a bite, the berry flesh slowly releases flavors that illustrate the meadow in early winter, not summer. Bitterness comes with the bite, as bitter as the rain-soaked wind that makes my little dog shiver. Then I taste the mushroom like flavor of muskeg meadow, now bare after winter rain washed away the snow cove; favor of fruit from a plant that wraps its roots in decay. Muskeg fades away so I can taste the almost neutral flavor of ice melt like I would if I dipped a cup into the water that floats over the milky-white pond ice.
A down channel wind threatens to sweep Aki and I off the wetlands. I wonder if it blew off all the birds. Only a flyby of gulls provides evidence of life on the grasslands. We move to a broad expanse of compact sand exposed by the low tide. With the sea in retreat, we could walk on it to North Douglas Island without getting too wet. But it is only regrouping. In eight hours, 12 feet of water will cover where we stand.
Earlier in the day, a lone canine walked over the sand to a shallow depression now dotted by a series of recently dug holes. He moved in a straight line like most wild animals while domestic dogs leave behind a squiggly track line. I don’t see any human prints. Was the track layer a coyote hunting for clams? Is the wild dog hunkered down in the spruce on a nearby spruce-topped island? It’s probably on Douglass Island. Aki trots off in that direction and seems disappointed when I call her back.
A raven clucks and dives on Aki after we return to the grasslands. While she chases after the tease, I find three rare flashes of color on the dun color wetlands—a bouquet of bright yellow shotgun shells. Now empty of shot and powder, they mimic the tight swirls of yellow pedals pushed up through spring snow by skunk cabbage plants. But the shells have no future and I wonder if they ended the future of some of the wetland ducks.
I honor Santa Lucia during this icy walk on around Auk Lake. It’s high noon on a day with no hope of sun. No blond haired virgin with a candle wreath in her hair greets us with strong Swedish coffee and a tray of saffron buns. She must not have the ice cleats needed to navigate the trail. I honor the patron saint of light by gazing into a reflection of Mt. McGinnis in a shallow pool of melt water that spreads over the lake ice. “Here,” the reflection promises, “is a taste of the long light of June.”
Every time I walk in view of the Mendenhall Glacier, I must resist the urge to take its picture. The world does not need more images the ice river. This morning, Aki and I walk with it at out backs. I keep wanting to turn around to see its violet blue ice reflected in melt water. On an overcast day like this one, the ancient ice absorbs all but blue light.
Aki pays no attention to the glacier and ignores the indigo ice bergs that form islands on Mendenhall Lake even when I command, “Aki, look at that berg—the one shaped like a half empty sack of kibble. I know you can see the color blue. Doesn’t it make you little poodle heart go pitter patter? If she could talk, she would probably respond, “Man who fills the bowl, who eats peanuts in my presence and only shares one with your faithful protector, I can also see brown, the color of my fragrant scat, what you call “poop” or “not again,” but it doesn’t make my heart go pitty pat.” The poodle of my imagination is so long winded.
We start every walk with the pooping ceremony. Aki circles one way and then the other to prepare the snow and loosen her bowels. If a squirrel doesn’t dash through her peripheral vision or a raven doesn’t chant, she does her job. Before the drop, I usually turn away and prepare the plastic bag for capture of her product. This morning, distracted by hundreds of Canada geese fleeing from something on the wetlands, I miss the ceremony. I will also miss the geese. Even though we will hear their cackling complaints during the entire walk on the Fish Creek delta, we won’t see the big fat birds. After the geese flyby, I search the snow for Aki’s scat and end up bagging several piles of poo with the hope that the little dog produced at least one of them.
Fog clogs the air above Gastineau Channel but hasn’t reached delta wetlands. That changes when we reach the creek’s mouth. I spot what looks like a shack walking upstream—a bird hunter packing out his decoys. Did he chase off the geese? Downstream, fog block our view of the glacier. The tide flooding onto the wetlands has driven the gray blanket over Smuggler’s Cove and onto the mountainsides, shrinking our world.
When I stop to photograph a lead in the pond ice Aki slips onto the ice, now only 2 inches thick. I spot her nosing a recently disturbed patch of open water in the lead. The little dog scrambles on shore when I call her. Fifty feet away a river otter eye hops and then slides out of the water by extending its long neck over the ice. When half of his elongated body is on the ice the other half pops out of the water. The wild animal makes a chitterling call and Aki returns to the ice. I call her back but when she starts to respond, the otter chits. I call, the otter chits again and again until the little poodle mix finally slinks up to me, perhaps shocked at the language I used to demand her return. The otter, tail in the water, four paws on the ice, watches her playmate/tasty meal walk away.
There is little to like about today. With its 38 degrees F. temperature and persistent rain, it invites depression. Yesterday was better; colder with no rain. We skied along Montana Creek, perhaps for the last time until winter returns. Only lack of food or friends depresses Aki. She enjoys this walk through Downtown Juneau. We pass the hostel, now housing the residents of the Glory Hole because a burst pipe made the homeless shelter uninhabitable. A man in the warm clothes of the street sits on the porch swing, talking on a cell phone.
I drag Aki up 5th Street. She resists this diversion from our normal route until a dog calls out from his yard up the street. The street climbs up to the forest, now partially hidden by fog. I’m thankful for the guy who painted his house such a beautiful blue and the person who parked the bright red Mini Cooper on the street. Even the blue-lidded recycle bin brings some life to the gray scene. Later we walk by gulls that stand motionless on the Steamship dock supports. They ignore the little dog as they shower in the rain.