It’s 13 degrees. The cold is messing up my camera. I am skiing alone, asking other cross-country skiers if they have seen a toy poodle in a knit sweater. Where has that little dog gone? We were together just minutes ago at the base of a small hill. She was inclined to take our usual trail, the one that loops around the hill. But, I have grown used to winning such battles so I started up the slope, figuring that she would pout a minute and trot after me. At the top I was alone.
We had already been skiing for more than an hour. Most of that time was spent on a back- country-style trail. Aki stopped often to roll or dig into the fine-grained snow. I worked out a way to take pictures without removing my mittens. Unlike yesterday, where the tracks of snowshoe hares, squirrels, and a fox crisscrossed our trail, we don’t spot any evidence that dog or wild animal had passed this way.
At the end of the back-country portion of our ski we crossed Glacier Highway and slipped onto a groomed, tracked trail that winds through a dormant campground. Aki stopped often to roll in the snow, check scent or chase about with another dog. Then, while I was on the hill, she disappeared.
A bit dehydrated. I can barely manage the whistle I use to call her home. She must have heard, because she sprints toward me from the opposite side of the hill, looking putout. At the same time we silently ask the same question: “Where have you been?”
Aki and I are deep in the Troll Woods. All four of her legs are encased in snow. She stops every minute or so to shake her head to dislodge the snowballs attached to her muzzle and forehead. She wouldn’t have snowballs on her face if she didn’t plunge it into the fresh snow. But loves to plunge.
Yesterday’s storm dumped a foot of new snow in the woods. The resulting white blanket undulates over the forest floor. It collects in a thick layer over snags. Some of the busted trees now look like dragons or eels. The snow also obscures the beaver logging trails we usually follow through the woods. So, we are lost in the sense that I can only speculate on the direct route to Chrystal Lake and the main trail back to the car. But we have the tracks my skis made at the start of this adventure. When I start to turn around, Aki dashes around me and heads back down the trail my skis made on the way to getting lost.
Aki turns 11 today. That’s the equivalent to 77 in big dog years. Thankfully, little guys like Aki have a smaller multiplier. So, she is more middle-aged than elderly. This morning, while I shoveled 5 inches of new snow off the driveway, the poodle-mix was inside, chowing down on her birthday surprise—a can of high-end steak-flavored dog food. Rather than charge her up, the heavy meal seemed to have made her sluggish. Two blocks into our walk she stops in the middle of the street.
Aki doesn’t follow when I continue on up Basin Road. She throws on the break and digs her paws into the new snow. It’s like she is saying dude, its my birthday and I get to do whatever I want. On a normal snowy day, a walk up the Perseverance Trail would be exactly what Aki would want. She probably plans to head home in case another can of tasty food has been plopped into her dish. It’s hard to believe that a 10-pound dog could make a god of her stomach, but it’s the most likely explanation for her behavior.
We walk back down to house, passing a crab apple trees with red fruit covered in new snow. At our driveway, Aki starts to turn toward our door and looks up at me. When I take another step down the street she drops her head and leads me toward Cope Park. It is a favorite with dogs and their walkers so it is a mother lode of rich smells. At the park, we take as long as Aki needs to read the extensive pee mail. When done, she spots two big dogs running free in the snow. After the birthday girl is properly introduced I unclip her lead. Aki yips and entices the other dogs to chase her. Just before they catch her, she throws on the breaks and watches her pursuers slide past. Then she chases them. Happy birthday little dog. It looks like you are going to enjoy many more.
This morning Aki and I stay in the neighborhood, walking the icy streets of Downtown Juneau. The little dog leads the way. She chooses routes with the best smells rather than safe footing. Her toenails give her fine purchase on the ice. Since my boot don’t offer the same, I am constantly rejecting her navigational choices. Soon we are both grumpy. The sunlight doesn’t help.
On this last clear morning before a five-day snowstorm, the sun shines with a harsh intensity on the town. It’s the kind of light that can make beautiful woman look plain. But it sets off the colors of Gastineau Avenue Craftsman homes and gives Aki a monster’s shadow. It also makes the little dog squint, which doesn’t help improve her mood.
Our battle over direction increases when we turn back toward home. I want to walk on the docks from where we can get a better view of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. But she wants to glean the vacant lot on which food vendors park their shacks during tourist season. Rather than carry her, I give in and let her chase after the ghost smells of dropped fish tacos, barbeque, and pork adobo.
Aki is ready to leave. It’s the wind blowing across Fish Creek Pond. She turns to stare at the pond each time a gust lifts her ears. The combination of wind and cold has numbed my face and hands but I want to push on a little further just in case. If the little dog asked what I expect to see when we reach the Fritz Cove overlook , I’d tell her I just have a feeling that we will find beauty if not a little excitement.
Aki follows me up over a rise just in time to watch a trio of sandpipers flying low over the beach with what looks like a peregrine falcon flying ten feet above them. The falcon breaks off its hunt when it spots me and turns into the wind, which carries it high and away from us. The pilgrim hunter flies off to find better luck on the other side of the creek.
The wind blows harder here, raising white caps on even small patches of open water. We are in shade but the sun shines like a search light on the side of Bullard Mountain so that it casts a wavy shadow onto the glacier. It also illuminates a tall, thin house on the opposite bank of the creek. Aki would love be in that house curled up on a patch of sunshine warming the floor. I’d be there too, if I could, maybe drinking a coffee and admiring the view.
I follow Aki back to the car, thinking about this morning’s sunrise over Gastineau Channel. The minute the sun struck the top of Sheep Mountain fierce winds flew down its valleys to whip up dervishes of spray that raced across the channel. Above, the sky glowed red, apricot, orange, and blue—a mix of warm and cold beauty.
We are squandering petro this morning driving out the road. But it’s blowing 40 in Downtown and the forest drained by the Eagle River has 8 inches of skiable snow. If she could speak, Aki would tell me to ignore the expense and punch it. The little dog loves to run on snow. Since the road is icy I ignore Aki’s excited stance and drive slow.
It’s hard to hold anyone’s attention with a description of cross-country skiing. But that is what makes it so great for the skier. You slide the right ski forward and bring it back while shooting forward the left. That’s it. But, when the conditions are good, like this morning, you’re heart beat sets the rhythm, dropping you into a meditative state. For the first half hour the little dog dashes ahead of me and charges back. Out and back she goes until I find her trotting behind me. I suspect that in these quiet times she mediates on her next meal.
When the trail takes us along the river, now swollen by a 16-foot high tide, I look for the heads of seals taking advantage of the flood to hunt for late arriving salmon. But we won’t see seals, ducks, or even gulls during the ski.
Later, while I listening to a podcast of Everton fans arguing about who should be the next team coach, I drive up to a Sitka black tail deer running alongside the road. I stop. The deer leaps the guardrail and crosses the road in front of the car. Without thinking to turn off the podcast, I lower the window. The deer stops and turns to stare at us. I half expect her to utter “Don’t let them hire Allardyce.”
Besides me, only the dogs seem to be enjoying this cold, breezy day. Their owners act like they are satisfying a burdensome obligation rather than sharing quality time with their pets. Aki finds two guys willing to chase and be chased by her. But even the little optimist cringes when hit by wind gusts.
This evening 65 mile-an-hour winds will sweep down Taku Inlet and up the channel to hammer the Treadwell beach where Aki and I now walk. They will make the expected 21 degrees F. feel like minus 4. The wind will drive any sand not held in place by snow or ice into exposed persons or animals. Already devils created by wind gusting down the Sheep Creek Valley dance across the inlet. They don’t seem to bother the mallards and gulls that float in the surf line as lethargic as children rising from a nap. Aki and the birds ignore each other. The little dog will be snug at home when the winds peak. I wonder about the birds.
It’s not terribly cold. The temperature hovers somewhere in the mid-twenties Fahrenheit. No breeze ruffles the surface of the Mendenhall River. But the little dog and I are not designed for the conditions. So we adapt. Aki wears a knitted sweater with front sleeves that reach almost to her paws. She’ll shiver if she stops but she never does. Me, I am wearing gloves, knit hat, and heavy parka. My trigger figure numbs if I take too many pictures before returning finger and hand to their glove.
I wouldn’t have given any of this a thought if not for the great blue heron. He stands, still as one of the queen’s guards, in an ice-free portion of the river. He’s puffed out his chest feathers to trap warm air leaving his body but that’s all he can do to adapt to the cold. Around him mallards and golden eye ducks paddle, sometimes diving down to catch lunch. In the air above the edge of the wetlands, an extended formation of Canada geese flies noisily away. No warm parkas for them. I wonder if their kin provided the down that is keeping me warm.
A naturalist could explain all the things given to the wetland birds to help them tough out the winter. She could also solve the mystery of salt-water ice. Last night at slack high tide, when the beach we walk on was covered by seawater, a skim of ice formed. As the river dropped during the ebb the ice skim draped itself over tuffs of beach grass and beach pebbles. Brittle freshwater ice would have cracked and split when left by the tide to bear its own weight. But this paper-thin sea ice lays like a lover over the bent grass until the next high tide.
It’s late in the morning. The earth has rotated enough to let the sun shine full on Lynn Canal and the mountains that line it. Waves whipped by yesterday’s storm slam onto the False Outer Point beach. Fresh snow flocks the tall evergreens that form the foreground for the mountains. The scene is stunning and as romantic as a Christmas card.
Romance is not something on Aki’s mind today. She dashes up and down the trail using her nose to read recent history. A young couple drops to the beach. Apparently unaware of anything other than each other, they almost walk into the frame of a picture I am taking of Spuhn Island. He wears jeans and a light jacket in a drab color popular with young men in Juneau. The wind tousles his hair as he points with a bare hand at the rocky point where people fish for king salmon each Spring.
The man’s date walks uncertainly on the uneven beach rocks, taking as much care not to fall as she did assembling her outfit. A pony tail of washed hair escapes from a hole in the center of her knit cap, bouncing on the back of her flattering jacket as she slips and slides over a patch of icy trail. Neither looks up as a mated pair of bald eagles flies over their heads. They do briefly stop to take a selfie with the glacier and its cohort. Then, they slip back into the tight little world they maintain with their smiles.
This morning snow has made Juneau’s streets slick so the little dog and I are leaving the car parked. Instead of a trip out the road, we walk down to salt water and catalogue how many plants have been caught out by the storm. All the ones in our yard have gone to ground except the Sitka rose. The rugosa, developed in the Southeast Alaska town of the same name, still has some green leaves to catch the new snow.
Aki is a bit frantic in her sniffing, as if she fears the snow will wipe out the pee mail system before she has time to check it for messages. This slows our progress down to the channel. There the snow obscures our view of Douglas Island but not the bronze statue of a breaching humpback whale. It looks like is about to leap onto the Douglas Island Bridge.
Aki throws on the breaks when I try to lead her onto the new tidelands walkway. So I carry the little poodle, a pathetic bundle wrapped in a red sweater, under one arm and soldier on. Her strike ends after I set her back on ground on a sidewalk we have used before many times. Just below us, a bald eagle with the white head and tail of a mature bird seems to sulk as snow whitens the brown feathers on its back.