Juneau is between snowstorms. Tonight, a big low will move over us, dropping five inches of snow in twelve hours. But now we have sun that sparkles off on the Mendenhall Wetlands. It’s Botticelli beautiful. The tide-swollen river reflects the Mendenhall Towers until a hunting seal shatters the reflection with a messy dive.
Dog walkers start pouring onto the access trail. Most talk with their companions or with a distant relative on their cell phone. When he sees me take a photograph of the glacier, a passing dog walker says with surprised in his voice, “It is a nice day, isn’t it.” He looks, as if for the first time, at the white, glaciated mountain wall that rises above the flocked meadow. Then, his cell phone rings.
Do the whales notice the snow? Does the thin curtain of white grant the five humpbacks in Fritz Cove a sense of privacy? They ignore us like the little dog ignores them. Aki is too busying plunging her face into a snowdrift. On the other side of False Outer Point, we find a raft of gulls close to the shore. Even they don’t react to our presence. Only a brace of sea ducks show a willingness to fly. They break in a panic from the water, flushed by a seal.
It’s day of chill and frustration on the Douglas Island side of Gastineau Channel. By 9 a.m. the sun already flood Chicken Ridge with light. It made the snow on Mt. Juneau look light rich cake frosting. It sent low angle light bouncing off the channel but could not banish the gloam that will hang over Douglas town until replaced by night-darkness at 3 p.m. Almost cold on this gray mountain meadow, I have the purgatory experience offered by Douglas in Solstice of witnessing bright beauty from a dark place, knowing the sun will never warm me or drive the frost feathers from the meadow’s stunted pines. If there is a digital camera capable of capturing what I see, I don’t one it. You have to take my word that the sky is cerulean blue above the painfully white wall of mountains on the channel’s Juneau side.
“This is not a good thing.” That’s what a marine biologist told my friend as he ogled sea lions hammering herring in Auk Bay. A phenomenon named by someone with little imagination as “The Blob” is denying herring and other prey fish of their normal feeding areas by raising the ocean temperature. Now they collect in Auk Bay where they can’t escape the seals, sea lions, and sea birds. Some herring must have moved into nearby Fritz Cove. A dozen sea loins wander its waters for feed. Three humpback whales have joined them. Aki and I watch for a bit, then head over to False Outer Point. There we find a skeleton crew of gulls and a large murder of crows. From a distance, over the gull complaints, we hear a sea lion growl and a whale’s breath. “Little Dog, We need to enjoy while it lasts.”
Herring have drawn a circus of flying and swimming animals to Auk Bay. Aki and I watch large rafts of mergansers, murres, marble murrelets and gulls charge across the bay towards huge balls of panicked herring. A gang of at least forty or fifty stellar sea lions surge after the same fish. On the edge of the chaos, harbor seals timidly hunt through lesser concentrations of feed. We spot a seal and pup that show more interest in my little dog than the herring.
Even a solitude-loving great blue heron is here, forgoing the peace of the solo hunt for a chance to gorge in the harbor. He stands on a walkway next to a line of hungry gulls. He peers into water made dark with herring, lifting his wings to the take off position whenever the sea lion gang explodes out of the water to roil and bark.
The little dog watches intently, but in silence. I inventory my emotions—wonder at so many sea birds too busy to notice us, joy shared with the raucous sea lions, pity for the sad faced seals, admiration for the heron with whom I share an ironic need for solitude.
Today I envy Aki. If I had her sense of and interest in smell I wouldn’t mind the slushiness of Downtown Juneau today. Our walk along Gastineau Avenue, down the crooked steel steps to Lower Franklin Street and home along the docks is not without visual interest. There’s a seal eye-hopping near Taku Smokeries that makes me wonder if they are processing black cod in the old steel sided factory. There’s dripping wet Patsy Ann, a bronze rendering of a bull terrier that once greeted home passengers from the Alaska Steamship boats. There’s a small Christmas tree that works with a bare maple across the street to frame the mural, Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell.” I only wish that the time and temperature display above the mural reported a sudden drop in temperature. Then we could look forward to snow.
Aki freezes as a nearby shotgun blast echoes over Gastineau Channel. The second shot sends her skulking into the woods. We have to cut short this walk down Fish Creek. It’s too bad. Hoar frost that clings to the pale yellow grass brings beauty to the place.
After a quick look around, we head back to the car and drive into the mountains to where the muskeg has frozen to firmness. Aki still cringes when the sound of now-distant shotgun blasts reaches us. Sometimes a smell distracts her but most of the time she moves like a cautious cat.
Thinking that the ground might be frozen enough for a dry crossing of the swamp of misery, I follow Aki onto it. The little poodle-mix flits down the boot-chewed trail, her frame too slight to break through the icy crust. Distracted by the way frost feathers brightened the swamp’s stunted trees, I let my right boot crunch through to wet slurry. She looks back when I say something impolite but keeps a straight face.
An informal trail leads into the old growth forest that covers a line of ocean bluffs. We drop down onto the beach, now being hammered by two-foot surf. A humpback whale spouts off shore in Favorite Channel. I’m thinking that is it the same stay-at-home guy we spotted a couple of weeks ago in Fritz Cove. Then two more whales appear. Why aren’t they in Hawaii procreating?
Farther across the channel than the humpback, I can’t see whether the new guys have the tall dorsal fins of killer whales. Their spouts are rounder than the humpbacks so maybe they are part of the transient “wolf pack” that preys on marine mammals. That could explain the presence of the five sea lions that now hang in the surf just off shore of this beach.
Screams of two bald eagles draws my attention to the edge of the bluff where they race each other to a spruce tree perch. When I look back to the channel, the sea lions are gone. But I can still see the lone humpback whale, now working the closer-in channel waters.
People laugh at Aki—out loud. It has already happened on this walk up the old Perseverance mining road. I understand that the little sweater she wears on frosty days like this might bring on some chuckles. Then, there’s the way she dashes toward bigger dogs, tail keeping time for her barking. I laugh every time she lets loose with an Ewock growl that she might have learned from watching Return of the Jedi. I was too far away to hear if the large porcupine laughed when Aki dashed up to her, tail wagging, and appeared to plant a kiss on her snout.
For our first hike after a 10-day separation, Aki and I head out to the moraine. Two weeks ago, the little dog jogged behind as I skied this trail to a lake that reflected the Mendenhall Glacier. Today I hike over bare ground, past cottonwoods and spruce that pierce a thick fog. The opaque stuff prevents any mountain or glacier views and softens the outline of the forest. Across one of the lakes, a circus of Canada geese explodes into the air, hurling curses at whatever forced them off their feed. The fog hides their escape route. We do manage to spot an immature bald eagle before he flies low over the river to a safer perch.
Living in the rain forest of Southeast Alaska tests a person’s tolerance for moist, grey days. A quarter century of it can produce hunger for sunlight that is sated by a just few days of bright weather. It also teaches a person how to mine the grey for peace. When fog hides post card beauty you marvel at the humblest pond reflection. When the sky fills with goose calls and one startled eagle, the memory of it will carry you through December’s rain.