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.
Taking advantage of the ebbing tide, I lead Aki onto the expansive Eagle River flats. My little dog is reluctant to follow. If she could understand English, I’d tell her that there is still more than thirty minutes before low tide. We will have plenty of time to explore the flats before the flood cuts off retreat.
Eagle River formed the flats with gravel and silt carried from the terminus of the Herbert and Eagle glaciers. The silt sections are covered with tiny clamshells, pink and splayed open. I suspect that the Canada geese and other waterfowl that hunt the flats during low tide made meals of the clams. We walk over the shells toward Lynn Canal and the low, forested hills that separate salt water from the Chilkat Mountains. Last night’s fast moving storm flocked the hills with snow that sparkles in the morning sun.
Feeling it is time to retreat, I turn around and spot the blue ice of the Herbert Glacier winding between Ernest Gruening and McGinnis Mountains. The little dog and I head over to the river and approach a small squadron of Canada geese that had been flushed from the Boy Scout Beach meadow by hikers. The adaptable birds have made themselves as common as rats in many populated areas but I still love to see them fly with out stretched necks and the characteristic white patch wrapped around the bottom of their heads.
Before we can approach near enough to the geese for a good view, a happy, chatty couple follow their two bird dogs onto the flats. The geese explode into the air and cross the river. The couple might be new to town, maybe only in Juneau for the four-month legislative session. This might be their first chance to explore on a sunny day. We exchange greetings and Aki plays tag with their dogs. Then, they continue out onto the flats. Later I will wish that I had made sure that they knew about the tides. They might not have realized that in three hours the place where we had met would be underwater. They will probably figure it out before the path of their retreat is covered with water deep enough to spill over the tops of their shinny new rain boots.
Normally the trailbreaker, today Aki trots close behind me when as we walk toward the mouth of the Mendenhall River. Maybe she remembers the sound of shotgun blasts thqat carried over the river water when we passed this way during hunting season. The more likely cause of her concern is a mature bald eagle that cocks its white head when we pass so it can examine my little dog with one of its lemon-yellow eyes.
In two hours it will be low tide. Already the channel has narrowed and much of the beach is exposed. Herring gulls feed like barnyard chickens in the exposed rockweed. A few mallard ducks burst into the air when we near then join a raft of their kind down at the river’s mouth.
Minutes later, the raft of mallards panics into the air and drops back onto river fifty feet away. The two eagles that drove then into the air fight over carrion. One lands and immediately starts ripping away at a carcass. The other one makes a series of imitating dives, coming closer and closer to the feeding eagle until it miscalculates and lands in the water. By hinging its wings before beating them, the soggy bird manages to lift off and return to its spruce tree roost. The other eagle never stopped eating.
Before we leave Chicken Ridge for the Gastineau Meadows trail, I’m forced to destroy art: the bas-relief baroque frost feathers that obscure the rear window of our Subaru. From inside the car Aki watches the blade of our scraper plough through frost as thick as Victorian wallpaper. In seconds it is gone.
We see so many manifestations of frozen water during our visit to the meadows that I wonder why the English language has so few words to describe it’s many states. There’s the snow that still covers most of the meadow. Corse from repeated freezes and thaws, it can hold even my weight until the day’s sun softens away its crust. Thin sheets of opaque ice cover the ponds with abstract etchings that could have been by Joan Miro. On the main trail, many boots have pounded the snow covering into dense and smooth ice the color of milk. Aki and I avoid sections where a thin sheet of water the color of Irish breakfast tea has seeped over the trail ice.
Air bubbles are still trapped in meadow ponds where last summer we watched water striders dimple the water. Beneath the ice their progeny wait with the water lilies for spring. Aki and I follow the trail of an adult deer that took advantage of the crusty snow last night. While I stop to photograph Mr. Roberts, the little dog starts racing up and down a solid stretch of snow, ears flapping. Often all four of her feet leave the ground at the same time like she is trying to fly. The little poodle-mix does love snow.
The city just adopted a new ordinance that allows police to roust homeless people from make shift campsites in the doors of downtown tourist businesses. The rousted will be told they must move into the residential area above Fourth Street and Gastineau Avenue. This morning three ravens have taken up station along the Fourth Street line. Others eye us when we walk toward the end of Gastineau. Border patrol?