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?
I used to think that a willingness to lean into the winter wind was the primary requisite for surviving an Alaskan winter. After today, I wonder if you really need is the capacity to surrender.
Aki and I slip and slide over the paths through the Mendenhall Campground. It’s raining, like it has rained for a couple of days. Before that we had heavy, wet snow. My jacket is already soaked through and water drips off Aki’s fur. We don’t turn back to the car, just take extra care not to slip on the water-skimmed ice. We surrender to the rain.
This must be what it would be like post apocalypse if you and I were the sole survivors little dog. We are alone, maybe even a little lonely. No one comes out of the bathrooms or carries firewood to their campsite. No children play, no dogs bark, no cars purr as their driver looks for the perfect campsite. With this weather, we have no reason to expect help or even company.
While I’m checking out a spruce tree that now leans over the trail thanks to the last windstorm, Aki darts down the trail and out of view. When she squeaks, I trot around the corner and see her groveling before a matched pair of Australian shepherds. The dogs’ owner apologizes but I assure him that my little poodle-mix is just inviting the shepherds to play. With that cleared up, he tells me about the orcas. “You should see the whales the minute you break through the trees,” he says, “and with that telephoto you might get good pictures of them.”
I hustle toward the beach, scan the water, but only find a small raft of ducks near the surf line. Further out, near the northern edge of Shaman Island I briefly spot a splash of white water like that caused when swells strike against a partially submerged rock. But there is no rock there so maybe it was a killer whale roiling in the water. Encouraged, I scan for the plumes formed when an orca exhales or the sail-like dorsal fin of a mature male. But wind-blown rain clouds my glasses. The wind would wipe away any ocra plumes as they formed.
It should be enough to know that I am close to a pod of killer whales, but I want to see them fin, maybe even spy hop.
They must be the wolf pack—the meat eaters that hunt down seals and sea lions—not the larger pod we see each summer chasing down king salmon. I’ve kayaked near the summer pod several times, never felt threatened, even when a mature female swam to within twenty feet and rolled on her side to eyeball me. But even on a calm, warm day, I wouldn’t launch my boat into waters where the wolf pack hunts other mammals.
At the south edge of the Treadwell ruins an avalanche control team fires shells from a cannon-like recoilless rifle across Gastineau Channel and into the south flank of Mt. Roberts. Worried by the buildup of snow at higher elevation of the Slide Creek avalanche chute, the team hopes that each shell will trigger a small snow slide. Otherwise, a major avalanche will crash down the mountain and bury the only road to the settlement of Thane. Even through we walk along the mountain’s north flank, the cannon booms fill the valley where we walk. At each report I hold still to listen for the heavy-surf sound of an avalanche. Aki stiffens into a cringe. When I smile and resume walking up the snowy trail, Aki dashes off to investigate interesting smells.
We are going through one of the dozen false springs the rain forest will suffer from until the bursting of cottonwood buds announces the death of winter. Most thaws increase avalanche danger, soften the snow cover, and flood mountain trails. The soft snow doesn’t slow down Aki as she dashes ahead to greet a couple of human friends. One asks me what thing impressed me the most during my recent visit to Cuba. “It was a handshake,” I answer. Not the handshake of a person or power for fame but that of a long line fisherman.
A local had introduced the man as the best fisherman in their village where every fishing day involves the setting and pulling by hand of a long line baited with hundreds of hooks. The highliner extended his hand and took mine. He didn’t crush it but I would have been unable to break the handshake against his will. His hand felt like leather from being repeatedly wounded by fishhooks and grooved by the daily pulling up of long lines. After I shared this with my friend on a snowy Juneau trail, she wondered, out loud, how my hand felt to him. “Soft and helpless,” I thought to myself.
It’s snowing outside, fat wet flakes twirling in the wind, soaking the surfaces where they land. The flakes land everywhere. I am listening to The Cuban All Star Band and thinking about a kind woman that I had recently met in Havana. Another person present in the room had just asked the question all traveling Alaskans expect: Do you get a lot of snow up there? She had smiled at the mention of snow. “I saw snow just once, on a trip to Madrid,” she said and then smiled like the memory was one of her favorites. She had made snow angels.
When the snow is dry and gathered in deep drifts, Aki makes her own version of a snow angel. But this morning, during our walk on outer point beach, what snow that survived last night’s flood tide couldn’t even hide the whorls of driftwood that lie among the severed rockweed above the high tide line.
Aki can’t appreciate the swirling white beauty of snow carried on the wind. She doesn’t acknowledge the silence delivered by the storm. Thanks to the low cloud layer and lower visibility no airplane or boat can break the silence. Only the two resident eagles complain, and then only for a few seconds. My traitorous mind backfills the vacuum with memory of a song sung by a Cuban peanut vendor’s that had silenced a crowd of Canadian tourists on Brazil Street. A Spanish speaker would have recognized an artfully delivered sales pitch for the peanuts that filled the paper cones she clutched in one hand. In my ignorance, I heard a lover’s song of longing.
I’m back in Juneau walking with Aki through the Treadwell ruins. The weather forms a sharp contrast with that I had in Cuba, where I spent the last 10 days. There, we had lots of sunshine and temperature in the 80’s. Here, it’s hovering just below freezing and soft snow settles on the little dog’s gray curls as she trots past the bones of the hospital.
I spent most of my Cuba time in the old section of Havana, where narrow, cobblestone streets separate rows of houses with half-ruined marble staircases and still-beautiful courtyards. Folk in Havana treated me and the others in my people-to-people group with kindness and sometimes, bemusement. Just before sunrise we would head into the city, cameras clicking away at students and their parents making their way to jobs or school. Rather than swat us away like the mosquitoes we were, they smiled or just ignored us. After several photographers took pictures of an elderly woman on a second story balcony as she pulled up a rope to which a friend on the sidewalk had attached a bag filled with flour or rice, she shouted out that they owed her a dollar.
Another morning, while walking alone, I watched a man with only one good leg limp around the Plaza Vieja to feed stray dogs with restaurant leftovers. At least one of the strays had a sign around its neck, placed there by the government, that provided the name of the dog (P-9) and a request that people be gentle with it. Aki would like Havana.