Nature’s timing is off this weekend. Rather than prolong the wet, gray storm that washed though the rain forest for much of the last week, the sun returned on this last morning of 2016. At 8:30 it started a low arc over the Douglas Island ridge and plunged behind the mountains about 2 P.M. Even through a playwright would have scheduled sun’s reappearance tomorrow, when the New Year begins, I’d rather end the year with a day of crisp light rather than one dominated by flat gray. It reminds me that 2016 had sparkle as well as darkness.
Before the sun can disappear, the little dog and I climb to Gastineau Meadows where we look from shadow at the bright-white flanks of Sheep Mountain and Mt. Juneau. The meadow crossing gives Aki a chance to demonstrate her ability to scoot across the top of the snow pack even though as one of my legs plunges through the crust every four or five steps. Early this morning several deer and many snowshoe hares had crisscrossed the meadow, leaving tracks on last night’s snow. The deer had the roughest passage but even their slender legs didn’t pierce as deep as my size 10.5 boots.
The snow stopped but soon we will have rain. Aki and I walk the crescent-shaped beach in front of the old Auk Village site. Blaise gulls crowd the deltas of small steams draining into Auk Bay. Just off shore a knot of harlequin ducks bob in small surf. Further out, between Point Louisa and us a small pod of Dahl Porpoise dance along the water surface. But is it the light breaking out above the Chilkat Range that holds my attention. After days of wet, gray skies, fingers of light reach through the marine layer to explode on the surface of Lynn Canal. Each seems to promise a better day or two of weather, maybe a better year than the one just ending.
Aki is already wet from the snow. It falls in fat flakes that soften the edges of the glacial moraine. But the storm that delivers the snow has grounded planes and apparently discouraged the guys at the firing range. It brings silence that lasts until we are within 30 yards of the Mendenhall River when a raven croaks twice. At this point I am tired from a mile of slogging along the soft trail and ducking under trailside alders bent over with snow and ice. So, I am unprepared for the cloud of ravcns, bald eagles, and magpies that form on my right as I tried to photograph the river.
Around the corner I spot blood on the snow and a deer skeleton. Its rumpled skin is nearby. The eagles escape across the river but the cabal of ravens hold station in some nearby trees. Only two magpies return to the carrion, picking the deer bones while the presence of Aki and I keep the bigger birds away. In this time of famine along the river, I can’t justify remaining near the bones. When we pass the raven sentry on our way home, it croaks the all clear.
It’s raining. We are walking around Auk Lake. The trail takes us through the little university campus where totem poles and a large raven sculpture carry burdens of snow. The lake looks like a Nordic skiers ideal. No tracks mar the lake’s thick snow covering except those made by a passing deer and, of course, the ravens. I don’t dare Aki to leave her paw prints on the clean white sheet. Even she might fall through the hidden spots made soft by current or warm water up swells.
It’s not raining when we reach the spruce forest that crowds the lake’s southern shore. But snow flakes falling from overhead tree limbs flutter onto the little dog and I. The snow that still clings to the trees and covers the ground brightens the woods with a gentle light.
Aki and I are trying to get in a rain forest walk before the promised Christmas blizzard. A gentle breeze caries the scent of snow but otherwise it is just another flat-gray December day. I stop to photograph muskeg water over white ice on the beaver pond. Light filling the space between standing spruce animates the tea-colored water and brightens moss clumping on the limbs of a half-submerged deadfall.
When we reach the beach, the little dog and I find the birds jumpy. Harlequin ducks are quick to flight. The ever-present raft of surf scoters paddles close to the beach rocks. I suspect the eagle that flies towards us from Shaman Island. But the big bird veers off course when it spots us. Even in its absence the birds remain alert. I watch the scoters as the wind rises, looking hunting sea lions. None appear. Beyond, a band of darkness slides over the Chilkat Mountains and moves down channel toward Juneau. I know it is already snowing heavy in Hoonah. Soon we will have the permission to be lazy always granted by a storm.
We probably should not have taken the Mt. Roberts trail today. Ice formed since the last thaw has made it treacherous. We don’t have any problem on the climb up but I know there will be some falls during the descent. Trusting my old ice grippers, I follow Aki until we reach the place where winter still survives. While last week’s storm washed away snow from the lower mountain, it covered the upper shoulder with a couple of feet of snow. My little dog softens some with her paws so she can rub her muzzle in it.
A thick icing of snow weighs down the branches of the spruce at the tree line. Each twig is further stressed by small icicles that form prisms in the late afternoon sun. The life we temporarily left behind along Gastineau Channel rushes on. People crowd Foodland, making last minute purchases for their Christmas Dinner. Some haunt the downtown stores in hopes of rescuing their holiday morning with the perfect present. Here, on the snowy shoulder of Mt. Roberts, is the peace promised, but often not delivered by the holiday season. All we have to worry about is trail ice and the dying light.
Today could be a holiday for the two sea lions surfing off this rocky beach. While we stand in shade, slipping on frost-slick rocks, they glisten in sun. Were they resting on nearby rocks when we broke through a screen of devil’s club plants and onto the beach? Maybe they would rather be dry and asleep. Maybe they see surfing as a chore that burns off calories they need to survive another winter’s day. After a few quick glances in our direction they move around a rocky point to where they might make a bed with sun-warmed stones.
Two ducks, harlequins I guess, also surf a breaking wave. Rather then bob, letting the swell lift and drop them, these birds knife down the face of a small wave like dudes in board shorts. What possible purpose can this serve birds that must work for their living? Party on dudes.
According to the calendar, winter started yesterday but it is spring in this beachside forest. It’s not a Wordsworth spring with its daffodil icons or even a Southeast Alaska spring marked by rising crocuses. This feels like a true northern spring when a hard nightly freeze follows each day of thaw. Like it would during an arctic spring, our snow pack has shrunken to an ice-crusted carpet that makes walking treacherous, even for Aki with her sharp nails.
The little dog and I walk in darkness but sunlight explodes off the mountains. Shaman and the other islands dotting Lynn Canal seem to be sun bathing. But there are few animals to enjoy the view. A cabal of gulls search the tidelands for chow but only four ducks, all local harlequins, fish the bay.
We are between lows, a time of busted weather that comes after the latest low has exhausted itself against our mountains. Soon, maybe tonight, a new storm will bring us snow and the return of winter.
Aki and I walk along the Mendenhall River where it slips into Fritz Cove. None of the local birds or animals show signs that they celebrate the Solstice. A harbor seal sulks in the river and we can hear but not see a trio of bald eagles. They complain from perches deep in the woods, sounding like hung over parents telling their kids to shut up. On the sand bar that forms the south border of the river mallard ducks waddle, stopping occasionally to belt out one of their maniac laughs. The gulls, being gulls, scream at each other. Solstice began early this morning. Maybe the birds and seals are partied out.
Aki looks edgy, keeping above the high-tide line. Confident that tomorrow the earth will turn its face back to the north, I enjoy the gray. I wish we still had snow but settle for the ice stalactites that decorate a sheltered cove. Soon even they will be gone unless winter returns.
Light is precious this close to the winter solstice. Even during last week’s stretch of clear weather, dusk settled over Juneau before 3 P.M. Now the clouds are back as is the rain. Aki and I move with caution down a Treadwell trail covered with sloppy snow and ice. When the marine layer shatters over Gastineau Channel to let in light, I understand why my Celtic ancestors honored the winter sun.
The forest that hides the old mining ruins still retains snow from the last storm. It brightens the reflection of the twisted alders growing along a shallow pond. One triangle of pond ice juts into the air but the rain is already eroding its sharp corners. Tiny waves, the concentric rings radiating out from each rain strike, crash against the ice—wing strikes on softening marble.