Aki and I are back in the woods where only a dusting of snow covers the trail. It lies, like powdered sugar on the wintering plants. I am struck with the power of white to bring light, clarity, and interest to the rain forest. Is this how, back even before the big Sitka spruce trees we pass first sprouted in the trunk of deadfalls, an innovative artist discovered the illuminating power of white chalk? Did some charcoal portraitist return from a snowy walk inspired to highlight his subject’s eyes with small squares of light?
More snow has reached the beach, now exposed by the ebb tide. Here the dark tones of rock and stone demark forms of snowy white. An eagle flies over an almost empty bay, talons extended back, perhaps to balance out the weight of a fish that wriggles in its beak. I can’t make out its white head or tail in the gray light.
It’s almost March. Tomorrow or the next day a Pacific storm will likely hammer Juneau with heavy snow or worse—rain. But this morning, on Mendenhall Lake, it’s almost desert-warm. Someone has set a five-kilometer track on the ice, which we follow toward the glacier. Aki dashes from her other human and I, stopping occasionally to take a cooling snow bath.
It’s hard to concentrate on anything but sparkling snow, the blue-green glacier ice, and the saw tooth ridge of mountains that rise out of the Juneau ice field. I think about To Make A Poem by Alberta Turner, a book that urges poets to tap into the subconscious for inspiration. But my subconscious can’t complete with all the natural beauty. Only when I complete the apex of the track loop and turn my back to the glacier, can I yield to the meditative slide and slide rhythm of Nordic skiing. But I sense the glacier leering behind me, ready to strike a stunning pose if I turn around. On a rising north wind, I can almost hear the river of ice taunt, “I’ve calved more metaphors than your sad little subconscious will produce in your lifetime.”
Taking advantage of the new snow, Aki and I circle the Peterson Creek Salt Chuck (lake). She porpoises in and out of the snow, upright tail beating back and forth like a metronome. I ski behind her, listening to the ice crack under my skis. The center of the lake would provide a smoother path but I don’t feel like getting wet to the waist if I cross a soft section of ice.
When we near the waterfall that drains the lake Aki bolts toward the woods, barking at something in the trees. I am guessing that she has spotted the river otters that had made the tracks in the snow I now cross. The headland I move towards is one of their handouts. Aki has had a strange relationship with otters. One called her out onto thin ice. Another tempted her to join an otter family in the Mendenhall River. But today, they can’t tempt the little poodle-mix into their woods.
Aki porpoises through the five-inch layer of new snow covering Mendenhall Lake. She doesn’t smile, like some dogs, but her body language—ears flapping, front legs extended—conveys joy. Me too, I think. The lake extends for miles from Skater’s Cabin to the glacier. The handful of skiers already on the ice are lost in dissipating fog. I can almost believe that we are the first to use a new borne land.
Usually the weather or crowds punish us when we ski on the lake. Cold, often assisted by wind, numbs my hand and face, fogs my glasses. On sunny, windless days, the ski trails can fill up like ride lines at Disneyland. But, when we start today’s ski, it 32 degrees. No wind makes it feel colder or banishes the fog that glistens in morning sun. The temperature climbs as we approach the glacier. The snow starts clumping on my skis. The fog fades.
In an hour, after they have enjoyed a good Saturday sleep in and a fry up breakfast, Juneauites will fill up the parking spaces near the campground and skater’s cabin. There will be squeals and shouts of appreciation. There will be lots of selfies. None of them will capture my little dog flying over five inches of still-crisp snow.
Aki is home not here with me. Dogs aren’t allowed on this climb. I’m on the east summit of Mt. Troy looking down on Seymour Canal, a fjord I’ve used several times to gain kayak access to the heart of Admiralty Island. A line of gnome-like spruce marks the edge of cliff that we must skirt before dropping down in the Dan Mollar trail. Maybe it’s the storm clouds building over Admiralty or just a primitive need to be less exposed, but I want to be closer to sea level.
This morning over coffee, I dreaded the climb through forest and then open bowls to the summit. But, I found myself enjoying the slow and steady tromp up the steep slopes. It helped that each place we stopped for a break offered a better view than the last one. It’s didn’t hurt that we had sunshine without wind, and moderate temperatures. I also had good company. Now I must get out my heavy-duty plastic bag and use it to slide off the summit.
All the birds we see during this walk on the wetlands are jumpy except this eagle. I hear, rather than see a gathering of Canada geese after something flushed them into the air. Every golden eye or mallard duck flies across the Mendenhall River when I point the camera in its direction. But the eagle remains roosted on the top of a driftwood stump, even when a brace of bird dogs runs toward it. Even after the Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle slices across the face of the glacier behind it.
Earlier I lead Aki away from the dog walker trail toward a little-visited slough. Snow from last night’s storm covered the ground. Bent over strands of beach glass formed golden swells on the sea of while. Behind us, the glacier towered above the Pepsi bottling plants. It back-dropped the body shops, boat yards, and the other blue color businesses along Industrial Boulevard. Only in Alaska would a welder’s shop have such a place of pride.
I bring a digital recorder along on this walk to record descriptions of the sounds we hear while rounding the False Outer Point headland. But, the day’s calm, gray skies provide no wind to rattle the spruce boughs or drive surf onto the shore. Early on we pass an eagle but it never belts out its usual high-pitched cry of annoyance. Red Squirrels eat spruce seeds on the headland cliff without chitterling at Aki. Only discarded seed casings spiraling to the beach give evidence of their presence.
A scattering of scoters floating between us and Shaman Island mutter when we enter their privacy range but stop after they paddle ten meters further into Lynn Canal. The faint crow of a crow floats to us from the island where a raven is imitating a barking dog. Soon both fall into silence.
I waste the gifted silence by crunching through a midden of empty mussel shells and then a frozen drift of severed rockweed. Most of the steps the little dog and I take dislodge beach rocks or pebbles. They produce a bottom-of-the-well sound when they strike each other. When we stop walking, we can hear a stream flow down the headland bluff and over beach gravel to salt water. In the stream, ice has formed an inverted bass clef at the edge of a tiny waterfall. I’d like to ask the little dog why the sound of sparkling water rushing over gravel calms. Aki drinks the clear water and then calmly looks to me.
In fifteen minutes blasting will start at a nearby barrow site. I have to get Aki to the car before the first explosion. Otherwise the little dog will panic and hide herself in the thick woods on the ridge of False Outer Point. That would be a sad end to this walk of silence.
The little stretch of cold weather we’ve enjoyed has opened up trails normally thanks to the beavers. Flooded sections and those usually sticky with sucking mud are firm. A few nights worth of frost on the glass slick trail ice allows traction. Only the sound of moving water will draw the beavers from their mud and stick dens. All is frozen and quiet on the moraine.
We work our way from Crystal Lake to Mendenhall through a forest of stark-white trees, all killed by flooding after the beavers built their series of fifty foot dams on one of the moraine streams. The dead trunks barely diminish our view of Mt. McGinnis.
Before arriving at Mendenhall Lake with its unimpeded view of the glacier, I vow not to take any more pictures of the river of ice. But seeing it underlined by the lake sparkling with undisturbed frost and backed by mountains and blue sky, I click away, driven as if a shot of happiness is being released in my brain each time I depress the shutter button.
One of our neighbors saw a hummingbird yesterday hovering over her garden patch. It’s rufus-red breast feathers must have sparkled in the winter sun. Before this news, I had expected another month and a half of waiting for the migrates to show up on the wetlands—longer until we hear the first robin sing. Wild animals, especially those that will starve if they mistime their migrations, must have some fine insight into seasons and weather patterns. Aki and I are walking toward the mouth of Fish Creek, looking for confirmation of the hummingbird’s prediction that winter is dead.
We get little help from the wild rose and berry bushes covered with frost and still bare of spring growth. Ice covers the pond and much of the slower-moving portions of the creek. At the creek mouth, where transient ducks and geese often rest on their way north, we only find the usual crowd. There’s a cabal of crows hanging out with bored looking gulls. Just offshore, resident mallards grumble about our presence. In the middle of Fritz Cove, two mature bald eagles roost on the Number 21 channel marker.
Another eagle pair watches us emerge from the trail. One seems to be lecturing the other one, who slowly moves away from its noisy companion, like a guy getting yelled out for doing nothing when the nest needs mending. Eagles mate for life. Maybe the one yelling also saw the hummingbird.
Bribery might work but I haven’t brought any dog treats. Aki has planted herself on the access road to the Perseverance Trail, front paws dug in against any effort to move her away from Cedar and her dog owner. They have just taken a spur trail home. Being a herder, she knows it is wrong for us to separate. She likes her people grouped together like sheep in a corral.
Aki has staked out her moral ground. It’s all black and white. The only gray she will recognize is the color of her fur. My only choice is to pick her up and carry her toward home. In her defense, it is a day where everything is either in light or shadow—black or white. The February sunshine hammers the bare-branched trees and shrubs along the trail to a dessert like clarity. Snow and ice patches are painfully bright. Strong light produces strong shadows. It’s heady stuff for us rain forest dwellers, so comfortable with soft gray light.