The appearance of bare pavement on Chicken Ridge didn’t surprise me this morning. Yesterday a warm, wet storm melted our beautiful blanket of snow off the ridge. This morning I hung up the snow shovel and took the little dog to one of the North Douglas trails.
The storm hosed off this area too so we had easy walking on a thin layer of melting snow. The fresh tracks of a wolf that had climbed up a seldom-used side trail surprised me. Hunters have been complaining about a wolf pack hammering the deer on Douglas Island. Is this the track of one of their scouts? I can’t find the tracks of a panicked deer or rabbit.
A large raft of goldeneye ducks and scoters move nervously away from shore when as we reach the beach. Behind them a rainbow arcs up and away from Shaman Island and then fades to gray.
The day’s last surprise comes on the ride home when we spot a lone humpback whale feeding near Smuggler’s Cove. It is rare to see any whales this time of year. All the fertile humpbacks are in Maui or on their way to that breeding ground. But on a December day a year or so ago I spotted one in Smuggler’s Cove. Today’s whale is too far away to photograph and only shows itself briefly each time before disappearing like the rainbow into the gray. But like the lone wolf tracks, each plume of vapor it expels provides proof that this place is still pure enough for wild animals.
As Aki sniffs a message left in pee, I talk with one the beaver patrol. She and other patrol volunteers have spent the morning dismantling beaver dams. It’s meant as a temporary fix to open a key stream for homecoming silver salmon. Behind her, the newly released current carries clumps of snow downstream. Somewhere beneath the snowy reflections, silver salmon make their way to their spawning beds. How strange, little dog, that salmon transit this Christmas card of a place, today a perfect venue for our ski.
Juneau is enjoying its first winter storm warning. At least Aki is enjoying it. Yesterday we went cross-country skiing. Today, with the snow shoveled off our driveway, the little dog and I walk from Chicken Ridge to the flume trail. We slip and slide past the Basin Road craftsmen homes, their bright colors muted by eight inches of new snow, and cross the old wooden trestle bridge to Gold Creek valley. After a short walk on the planked-covered water flume, the little dog and I take a tricky trail down to the creek. We meet a man in tourist clothes who just negotiated a flooded section of trail. “Wow. Snow. We don’t see that in San Diego.” I smile and walk on. In minutes I wish I had asked him where he was going. It’s 32 degrees and with the flat light, it is easy to lose your way. Then he’d wished he had never left the sunshine state.
Aki has collapsed on her pillow. Her nose hangs down like it always does when she sleeps. It’s a good way for her to spend her birthday afternoon. This morning the little dog followed her two humans as they skied through spruce woods and across several meadows. She must have worn herself out punching deep paw prints in the soft, new snow.
After an hour, when golf-ball sized chunks of snow clung to her undercarriage and legs, we stopped. She waited with patience as the unwanted decorations were removed. The little dog turns 9 today. For a normal size dog, she’d be the equivalent age of a 63-year-old human. But little poodle dogs live much longer than their standard-size cousins. She will be submitting to snow ball removal for quite a few more winters.
This is a work trip for me. The little dog makes the first part of our adventure a working one by volunteering to keep guard while I collect seaweed on a Douglas Island beach. Wind worked tide left long ropes of severed rockweed from which I quickly fill six buckets. The fractured shell of an abalone sparkled from beneath a covering of seaweed. Nearby Aki cautiously sniffs the thick section of a deer’s vertebrae that has been stripped of flesh by the ocean’s bone cleaners.
After loading the seaweed into the car we drive to a snow covered meadow. Aki tears out of the car and runs up and down the trail. I’m here to indulge her love of snow. She loves it even as large balls of the stuff form on her legs and chest.
The meadow sits in a “V” shaped mountain valley that sees little sun this close to the winter solstice. This morning it floats just above one of the mountain ridges. A gauzy cloud layer had changed it into the moon.
Today’s snow provides a welcomed, if temporary makeover for the moraine. It settles in fine lines along the branches of otherwise bare alders to emphasize their strength and grace. It hides mud and decaying leaves under a thinning white blanket. Aki and I walk to the moraine’s edge where it abuts Mendenhall Lake. Each beach pebble is wrapped in a coating of snow that can’t quite reach the underlying sand.
When we first broke through the trees to the beach sunlight muscled through clouds to shine off some of the glacier. It also reached the top of the surrounding mountains. That changed in minutes as a snow squall moved over the lake to block our view.
Back in the thin moraine woods, we slip and slide on a muddy trail and listen to heavy drops of snowmelt plop onto puddles. After a bad muddy stretch the little dog detours through the snow cover woods to clean her paws. The wet trail reminds me that this is just a taste of winter beauty. One storm off the pacific will wash it all away. One from the Bering Sea will bring the cold and more snow to free us from autumn’s purgatory.
If I had remembered that it was Friday the 13th I may not have planned this tour of the Treadwell ruins with Aki this morning. I am not particularly superstitious and nothing bad has ever happened to me on a Friday when it fell on the 13th day of the month. But, with winds gusting to sixty-two knots and hour through the ruin’s mix-hardwood forest, I might be pushing my luck.
We pass a freshly toppled clump of alder tree and I wonder if how many more are about to fall to the wind. Aki soldiers on as gusts wraps her ears against the side of her head. The wind appears to have swept all birds off the beach. Only two mergansers bob in the shelter of the old mine’s airshaft. Near the old wharf a raven settles out the wind in the lee of a big spruce tree. Not wanting to incur the bird’s ill will or let it curse us with bad luck, Aki and leave him to his thoughts.
When the storm broke this morning, it left Mt. Juneau covered in six inches of new snow. While Chicken Ridge’s streets glistens under gray light, sun seemed to explode off Mt. Juneau’s new snow pack.
I pack the little dog into the car and drive up Douglas Island’s Fish Creek Road. We passed the parked pickup trucks of hunters who hope to shoot one of the deer driven out of the mountains by the new snow.
Unlike the deer, Aki loves snow. She shoots out of the car and onto a newly white meadow. Finding it too deep for walking, she moves across the meadow with a series of leaps. I walk behind her, surprised that my stride roughly equals the distance covered by one of the little dog’s jumps. The new snow clumps up on her hair so she stops often to chew snowballs off her legs. Once she plunges her face into the snow cover and clears her face of it by twisting her head back and forth. I can almost hear her ears snap.
It just Raven, Aki and me on the trail to Boy Scout Beach. Raven, alone and apparently bored before we arrived, passes low over my head and lands in a trailside spruce tree. I expect some verbal abuse from the large bird but he watches in silence as we walk onto a partially flooded meadow. The rain pounds all three of us. Neither bird nor dog appears to mind. Aki dashes around nose the ground, savoring very enticing smells. We cross over two low sand dunes long ago secured by grass and drop onto beach sand, now darkened by charred wood worked in by the tide.
Raven, who followed us from the meadow skulks on the beach as a sea lion claims my attention. The sea mammal stops to look at me and then submerges its dog-like face. It surfaces again when two hundred yards down the beach. Raven moves on too, but not before making one more low pass over my head. The vibrations of wind moving over his feathers hum out a little tune that rises and falls with each beat of his wings.
Sun breaks through clouds over the moraine. Aki and I have to ford a flooded section of the trail to one of our favorite lakes, a sign that the beavers are ahead of their human opponents in the struggle for glacier dominance. The energetic rodents spend each night building up the dams that back up water over the trails. Soon the human beaver patrol will start disassembling the dams. Meanwhile the beavers cut down the few remaining poplar trees and have even started to drop the less nourishing alders.
In school, children learn that beavers are energetic engineers—animals to admire. No one mentioned that they have no off switch. They log until there are no more edible trees standing. Then they must find other hardwood forests to ravage.