(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.
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.