In like a lion, out like a lamb. So much for folk wisdom. This March, which started with a wind whipping snowstorm ends today with a dump of rain. No fleecy air caresses Aki and I as we walk through snow slop on the Treadwell ruins trails. The little dog minces along, cringing each time a paw punches through wet snow and into the melt water pooling beneath. Robins shake water from their wings in parts of Juneau where dark eyed juncos search in packs for food. But today, the Treadwell forest is a bird-barren place.
There is more action on the beach, now exposed by a very low tide. A handful of gulls gabble along the steam that drains the collapsed glory hole. But it’s the trio of mallard ducks that attract my attention. I usually see their kind floating together, even in shallow water. Today two hens and a drake stroll together along the bottom of a shallow rivulet, as if this were a fine spring day, as if to prove the truth of another piece of folk wisdom: rain makes lovely weather for ducks.
I’ve almost forgotten how much Aki loves running on snow, even after it has been softened by rain and warm temperatures. She dashes in front as if a child at an amusement park. I still enjoy skiing but am ready for spring. But Aki might morn the end of this snowy winter.
The trail takes us to the junction of the Eagle and Herbert Rivers. Both are swollen with tide and snow melt. Weakening pans of ice float past. One thinning sheet carries several rocks that each must weigh more than Aki. They float like offering to the hungry waters of spring.
Back in the rain forest, back with Aki, and it is raining. The little dog and I slip and slide over the wet trail snow, working our way through the coastal woods. While her humans were in the Yukon Territory, Aki enjoyed five sleepovers at a good friend’s house. We fall back into the familiar pattern. She scoots ahead, drawn by an intriguing smell while I search the woods for beauty. Today, she has more luck than me.
In this awkward time, when winter drags its feet, I wish for spring—the white, lantern-shaped blueberry flowers, balsam popular incense, and even the appearance of the common skunk cabbage flowers.
The pounding of a sapsucker rings like hammer blows when we reach the beach. Aki refuses to venture below the high tide line. It’s the eagles. Two chatter in the top of a beachside spruce. When did that happen? Did the little watch from her perch on the couch one of the neighborhood eagles carry away a cat? “Missing Cat” signs have recently been attached to power poles on our street. Or does the little dog just sense the danger?
I’m back in Alaska and on the MV Le Conte—six and a half hours from home. We are waiting for last southbound vehicles to drive onto the car deck so we can depart. Onshore, the tourist town of Skagway awakens from its winter hibernation. Outside, gulls wheel over balls of herring. The Edgar Oldenhdroff waits for a load of Yukon ore.
Surviving the drive to here from Whitehorse always seems a bit of a miracle this avalanche-prone time of the year. During our last March visit to the Yukon, we had to drive through a small avalanche. It bent our front license plate but otherwise did no damage. Today we pass over pavement recently cleared from snow slides but had no close calls.
Before the drop down White Pass and into Alaska, we skied at the northern terminus of the Chilkoot Trail. Pushing our boards through newly drifted snow, we waddled to the snow-walled aid station that volunteered had crated for last Saturday’s Buckwheat ski race. Three days ago, the place was noisy with skiers. Today, we had the place to ourselves. I wanted to push on even though sticky snow slowed our progress. Just over a low set of hills lay the way to Lake Bennett, where more than 100 years ago stampeders built rafts and DIY boats for the Yukon River float to the Dawson City gold fields. Then, axes and saws would have shattered the late-winter silence. Today, it is only diminished by our creaky skis.
The grouse is a surprise, as was the pair of lynx that crossed languidly across the Klondike Highway in front of us a few says ago. The bird appears to nest in snow on the forest floor near a Chadburn Lake ski trail. I test the extent of its privacy zone by skiing closer and closer until it flies into a nearby pine tree.
We ski on through the mixed aspen/pine forest to a Yukon River overlook. Not too many years ago, I paddled a canoe under this bluff with a Swedish friend. The Yukon was a source of fear then as it is today. In the canoe, I entertained a little fear of the river’s power that moved us forward as the glacier silt it carried scraped against the canoe’s submerged skin. Today, I fear that the ice beneath the river’s snow covering would be too weak to hold my weight. It is a silly fear. I only touch the river with my eyes.
Later in the day we ski do on the river near the Moss Lake dam, reassured by the presence of newly laid ski tracks. The tracks keep us close to the shore. Across the river, dark clouds block out the sun, bringing drama before the next snow squall.
Mt. MacIntyre is Whitehorse is a world class cross country ski area. On a sunny day like today, when the temperature is near freezing, it provides a ski experience that justifies the effort to get here from Juneau.
Stopping to enjoy the sunlight bouncing off the heavy layer of trailside snow, I spot a large squirrel drop down from a white spruce tree and pose on an upturned tree root wad. Unlike the red squirrels in Juneau who can’t tolerate Aki or I, this guy seems to enjoy my attention. He doesn’t chit a challenge or toss down an empty spruce cone. He just strikes a series of ten second poses, like a life drawing model.
Aki wouldn’t be allowed on this ski trail near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. No dogs may trot loose along side us through this poplar forest. The trail has lay dormant since last week’s storms but a classic track set by a snow machine still dimples the snow.
We are only 270 kilometers from our usual ski trails around Juneau but it feels far away from home. Even the snow, dry and fly away, would be out of place on the lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. But we travel to experience new country and enjoy interactions with the people that live in it. Fortunately for us, the Yukon is only a short drive and ferry ride away.
Leaving Aki at home with friends this morning, her other human and I board an Alaska ferry for Skagway, Alaska. Many tourists, international and otherwise, ride the ferries up and down the inside passage. But this time of year, the boat carries only locals. Some are heading home to Whitehorse. Most, from Juneau, will ski tomorrow on the Buckwheat cross-country ski race.
During the six hour boat ride from Juneau to Skagway I spot few people looking out the window even through winter sun sparkles off the waters of Lynn Canal and makes the beautiful Chilkat Mountains even more lovely. In summer, on days when low clouds hide the mountains and flat light turn the canal waters leaden, the ferry windows will still be lined with gawking visitors. The locals could take a lesson.
After spending so much time recently at the glacier, today I opt for a more homey trip. Aki trots behind the tails of my skis as I move easily down a moraine trail. It’s raining, which makes the packed trail snow almost friction-free. Maybe that is why we get so close to the northern harrier before it flies off with a beak full of rabbit entrails. The grey bird loses most of them by the time it reaches a nearby tree roost.
I as pleased that Aki doesn’t bark or bother the big bird. The harrier isn’t pleased that I stop to take a few pictures. When it flies off, we head down the trail, passing over sections of the moraine that will soon be flooded by water backed up behind one of the beavers’ many dams. We probably won’t reach this deep into the troll woods until next winter.
The harrier is back when we returned, standing over a mostly-eaten hare. He is only a few feet from the trail. If not for the deep snow and heavy brush surrounding us, I’d lead Aki in a wide arc around the hunter and his prey. But there is nothing for it so I lead the little dog slowly toward the harrier. It flies off to a nearby tree, ready to finish his feast after we are gone.
At the end of each recent day, I expected that the next would offer the last chance to ski in front of the glacier. For the past week, the weatherman has predicted rain and higher temperatures—rain that would turn the snow to useless mush and weaken lake ice so it could no longer support even Aki’s weight. But we start this trip around Mendenhall Lake in sunshine. My boards slide smoothly down the track while Aki chases after her other human, who flies down the trail on skate skis. The little dog will sleep well tonight.
Left alone, I have plenty of time to take in the glacier. It’s size and beauty has always discouraged my previous attempts to study it. Today, I might have found a way in, inspired by The Great British Baking Show. (Aki is the only one in the house without a crush on Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.) Falling back on what they know, P and M would tell me to turn the glacier into a dessert. In my mind I build a glacial confection using chocolate wafers and vanilla ice cream to form the surrounding mountains and the rocky hill that underlines the river of ice. Hand carved marzipan, soaked in a teal-turquoise food coloring could represent the ice with sprinkled powdered sugar for snow.