Aki is home on Chicken Ridge, watching the lilacs and Apple tree shed their burdens of snow as the temperature rise into the mid-thirties. Here, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, it is barely above zero. Snow slows pedestrians and several hundred Canada geese crowd a small section of open water.
On the inner bank of the flood control dike, a great blue herron stands motionless. It isn’t fishing. A coat of ice on the pond makes that impossible. No, the Hunter is just trying to survive. I wonder if this is the same herron that watched me last October when I pedaled after him on the trail to Asotin. I wonder if he will survive this rare cold snap.
It’s two degrees Fahrenheit. There’s little breeze to produce a lower wind chill. But the warming sun is at our backs as we ski over lake ice toward the glacier. The bare-pawed Aki doesn’t seem to notice the cold. But her people worry that their hands will never regain feeling. Even though they are encased in my heaviest gauntlet gloves, I can’t warm my fingers without pulling them into the gloves’ palm area where they form a numb ball.
The little dog dashes back and forth between her humans after we reach the apex of a looped trail and turn into the sun. Thanks to the perfect snow conditions, I manage to pull ahead of Aki’s other human. Confused, for this never happens, the little dog turns back the way we had come and runs at full speed toward the glacier where she expects to find me doddling along. Eventually Aki’s other human catches her and together they head toward the trailhead. Only when she hears my whistle, does the poodle-mix stop looking over her shoulder.
Fresh, foot-deep snow forces us onto a narrow trail that winds along the edge of Mendenhall Lake. It never leads us out of the shade. When I look out at the sun soaked glacier and Mt. McGinnis I feel trapped, like I am in Plato’s cave. Aki sticks to the trail too, keeping station behind an old human friend. But she can’t resist taking a few exuberant dashes out onto the sunny portions of the lake.
The glom trail provides a good metaphor for the mood that has taken possession of the other human and I. During our drive to the trailhead, he received a call from a mutual friend with news of another death. This makes the third death notice received this week. I haven’t the words to cheer my friend. I’ll be heading south in a few days to attend my cousin’s funeral. Turning to the mountain, a white pyramid against the azure blue sky, we acknowledge that death is a part of life, which brightens our moods so we can appreciate Aki ability to make us laugh.
When we stop, Aki lifts her front right paw off the snow, drops it down and lifts up her rear left one. She alternates feet like this, doing a slow motion cold weather dance, until I switch off the camera and head down the trail. It’s cold, nine degrees Fahrenheit but there is no wind to riffle the incoming tide. I press as though rising waters ooze our escape path.
Aki and I slip on the thick layer of salt-water ice that formed over the trail during the last high tide. The tide must have rinsed away any interesting animal smells but the little poodle-mix doesn’t hold back. When the sound of rising water cracking ice encourages our retreat, I take a trail that parallels the channel’s edge. But, Aki doesn’t join me. Instead, she moves quickly onto the alder-lined path that leads to the car. I follow, walking hunched over to pass under a tunnel of alders themselves bent over by loads of frost and snow.
I don’t have to encourage Aki to hop into the car. But she doesn’t object when I drive to the Fish Creek trailhead and ask he to join me on another walk down to salt water. Here, at least, the tide hasn’t washed away the smells.
The sun is teasing us today, appearing as a fuzzy ball above the Douglas Island ridge. It casts Gastineau Channel in an arctic light even though the temperature has already reached 22 degrees and there is no wind. Welcome to fjord country, little dog.
Aki knows about fjords, having spent her life on or near several of them. She loves climbing up trails that start at salt water and allow us to reach alpine-like meadows in twenty minutes. But she has learned the hard way about deep snow and today she refuses to follow me onto a trackless Gastineau Meadow. She waits, a statue of concern, on the packed path as I wear myself out breaking trail in a 15-inch deep covering of soft snow. It doesn’t take much to read her thoughts: Have you finally lost it, man of mine?
Wind blown snow, like that swirling around Chicken Ridge today, narrows your world. It limits us to views of the neighborhood, denies any chance to see Gastineau Channel or Mt. Juneau. I worry that it will discourage Aki from venturing much beyond her yard. But the little dog leans into the wind, walking quicker than usual to reach Basin Road where craftsmen houses provide us a windbreak. Even though it means facing into the wind again, she pulls me across the old trestle bridge that leads to the Perseverance Trail. When I let her off lead, she charges ahead then looks back to make sure I am still following my poodle-mix lead dog.
We pass the old wooden chute that releases overflow from the flume carrying water to a small hydro plant behind the Salvation Army store downtown, head up a trail covered in drifted snow. Aki pushes on, porpoising in and out of the six-in-deep stuff. Soon she is plunging her muzzle in soft drifts and twisting her head when she comes up to cast off the flakes that stick to her gray fur. Most hangs on to give her a white mask.
It’s cold, cold enough to turn water seeping from mineral rich rocks on False Outer Point into frozen brown streams. Drips from exposed tree roots build up like candle wax on exposed grass blades. But the eagles still work the tidelands for food left behind by the ebbing tide. My old friend, the kingfisher looks for baitfish near the rocky shore. Even the simple sparrow flits among stalks of dried cow parsnip made stiffer by the freezing temperatures.
Aki, wearing a felted covering, seems oblivious to the cold and wind. Other than taking extra care to avoid any water over ice, she acts like we are out for a summer outing. Am I the only one affected by the storm that has already obscured the mountains and glacier and carries snowflakes in its onshore wind? Technically, the answer to that question is, “no.” My digital camera turns on its self timer as I set up a shot of an eagle so I have to watch it glide with talons extended through my viewfinder while the camera counts to ten.
The neighborhood ravens, glued in place by a nearby tasty morsel, try to stare down Aki. Knowing she is tethered by a leash, the birds don’t fly away. Such complacence shows wisdom and, I’d like to think, trust in me. I wonder what makes the ravens’ feather coat so glossy. After we move off Chicken Ridge, they return to their morning meal. They aren’t bothered by the wind that dropped the effective temperature to zero.
Aki isn’t bothered by the wind and cold. She keeps her nose down, leaves her marks, approaches homeless people with expectations of a friendly word, maybe a pat on the head. We mostly pass homeless as we walk through Juneau’s downtown core and up past the capital. They walk, head down, on alert for slick ice, wrapped in hand-me-down winter gear. They don’t acknowledge Aki or I. One carries a thick chunk of driftwood, too short for a walking stick but heavy enough to make a good club. Like a man no longer inhibited by pain, he chooses to walk into a wind that quickens our pace.
This morning sun brightens the new snow covering on Chicken Ridge and the flanks of Mt. Juneau. When such a convergence of white and light comes at the end of a week dominated by grays, I wonder why everyone in the world doesn’t shop for a house in this Alaskan town. Then, when Aki and I start up the Perseverance Trail, the wind will rise. And, before we return home, the sun will make an early afternoon exit.
Back home, Aki will remember all the dogs she just chased and those who chased her on the snow-slick trail surface. I’ll tell myself that I have the clothes to deal with the wind and faith that the sun will return tomorrow—if not tomorrow, then some time before the Apocalypse. I’ll know that the little dog and I have the patience required to make it to next spring.
The snow is a pleasant surprise. We expected wind driven rain on the moraine. But fat flakes meander down onto the wet trail. Three inches of new snow will cover the ground by the time we finish the walk. Is winter finally strong enough to push away the wet fall weather? The temperature drops enough to allow a snow slurry to form over the moraine ponds as flakes collect in Aki’s gray fur. Minutes later, the ground snow is cold enough to squeak.
Three bald eagles, apparently unaffected by the weather change, strike patriotic poses on the bare branches of cottonwood trees. One throws us a nasty look and flies off.