We spend today’s tiny allotment of sunshine at the Glacier. Tomorrow our rains return, possibly with enough strength to melt away winter’s beauty. A line of Juneauites stretches out toward a giant ice river. The little dog and her three humans join the line, feeling like theatre goers trying to catch a popular play before it closes. Some of us might be able to memorize a play’s plot, maybe even retain some of the actor’s lines. None of today’s visitors to the glacier will be able to recite the mountains’ crisp lines, the rich confusion of Nugget Falls, the dark blue of a patch of ancient ice set to collapse into ice bergs during next spring’s thaw, or the cloud dervishes that dance around the rising sun.
Winter is loosing its grip on Chicken Ridge. Spring doesn’t assault his position. It’s autumn, the stubborn dude, who, in an effort to roll back the clock, invited in a Central Pacific storm to Southeast Alaska. It took several days of warming to turn our snowy beauty to a slushy bother. Some snow still brightens the spruce and alders but much of the overburden has already fallen to the ground. I’d stay inside today if not for the little dog. She charges out of the house, drawn by the smells released in the snowmelt. We wander up Basin Road, cross the old wooden trestle bridge and plod up the old mine trail. I lead Aki onto an almost hidden trail that parallels Gold Creek. Sharp tracks of a small deer pock the path. Snow must have driven it down the mountain to the protection of the woods. “Hang in there little doe,” I say in Aki’s direction, “Only two more days until the end of hunting season.” The little dog ignores me as she sniffs the tracks.
First appearance of sunshine after days of snow. Aki and I spend the best part of it wandering over the moraine. Normally, I wonder why hikers block out natural sounds with ear buds. But today, I wish the air would fill with a Townes Van Zandt song, maybe “For the Sake of The Song” or “Tecumseh Valley,” and then a Corelli concerto. Aki dances down the snowy trail like she hears her own rich sound track.
We edge around Moose Lake and then take a spur trail to the Mendenhall River. It’s a narrow way, today partially blocked every 100 feet by trailside alders that lean over the path under a burden of fresh snow. At first, Aki lets me break trail for her. Then I hook one of the overhanging alders and it releases it burden on the little dog and I. After she shakes off the result, Aki takes point.
We reach the river a little damp from melting snow. With the 14 mm lens that I usually bring to the moraine, I could share a picture of the scene at the end of the trail: the snow-banked river making a sharp, green-colored bend beneath the forested slope of Mt. McGinnis. Pearl-colored clouds obscure a swatch of the mountain while a blade of sunlight outlines one of the mountain’s sharp-edged ridges. I have a telephoto zoom that only allows me to pull chunks of beauty from the scene. But, if not for the lens problem, I might not have noticed a little world of forest and sky trapped in a shrinking patch of open water on the fast moving river.
Juneau looks as it should this time of year—a tourist town at rest. Aki, my daughter and I walk past the state capitol that will soon fill with legislators. But no one will open the Franklin Street tourist traps until the first Princess boat next May. Our boots make little noise punching into the snow that covers streets and sidewalks.
At first, it’s too cold for the snow to adhere to the little poodle-mix so she walks unencumbered by snowballs. This changes when we reach to the Steamship Dock and watch a cormorant float down onto Gastineau Channel. It joins six others that already bob on the water. I think they are loons because loons show are common here in winter. But each of these birds has a cormorant’s pencil thin beak.
Snow starts to cling to Aki’s fur, not through some mystical power of the cormorants, but because it is warmer here near the ocean than up on Chicken Ridge. Falling snow blurs the outline of the birds and obscures our view of Mt. Juneau. Ravens glide across the downtown streets to catch an uplifting wind or chase others off their territory. They act like football fans in need of exercise after hours in front of a TV. Maybe they just left the Viking Bar after the end of the Arsenal game.
I should take a picture of Aki, who looks pretty cute in her Christmas-red sweater. Instead, I am drawn to the new ice formed last night on the beaver pond and the frost/snow mixture that brightens the bare alder limbs. A layer of snow clouds with a table-flat top and bottom, as if being squeezed by invisible presses, pulls my camera lens away from the little dog and my daughter, whose boots crunch on snow-covered beach gravel.
Mallard ducks search for food, apparently unaware of us or that it is Christmas Day. I should tell them, because it is Christmas, thank you for spicing up winter gray with their party-colored feathered coat. Because it is Christmas, I should thank God for His gifts of nature and Love.
The best symbol of Christmas in Juneau may be this stunted spruce. It survives on the top of a boulder dropped by the retreating glacier in the middle of Gold Creek. To live, the little tree forced its root into the boulder cracks. Today, with new snow flocking its green boughs, it is a combination of the beauty and hopeful earnestness of the season.
This morning the sun popped unencumbered by clouds from the waters of Gastineau Channel. In minutes the marine layer swallowed it. I watched from Chicken Ridge, smug in my modern-man knowledge that today’s winter solstice will end the time of diminishing light. Men without that knowledge once prayed to their pagan gods to stop the disappearance of light. On this day they’d be kneeling next to me in the snow. I can almost hear their beggar’s voices call down channel to the newly risen sun.
I call down channel with excited praise for the sunrise’s beauty. Later I take the little dog north of Juneau where fresh snow covers one of our favorite ski trails. We start skiing just after noon and find sunset colors already streaking clouds above the Eagle River. We don’t need sunshine to brighten the forest—the new fallen snow that covers the forest floor and weighs down the trees seems to radiate peace and mild light. Such peace in the forest almost makes you believe that there can be peace on earth.
What calms me has the opposite effect on the little poodle mix. Lacking the patience to trot by my side, Aki tears out and back, sometimes leaping so high that no feet touch the snow.