Aki and are back on the moraine, taking a trail that offers filtered views of the glacier. Between frosted spruce tree limbs I can watch a line of worshippers walking on lake ice to or from the glacier. Some drag sleds full of toddlers behind them. Part of me wants to join them. They are walking to the ice cave. But Aki is happy with the company and the many chances given to her this afternoon to chase after her beloved Frisbee.
Thick swirls of frost cling the trailside alders like Monarch butterflies on an eucalyptus trunk. Enjoy your day in the gray frost butterflies, tonight it snows.
It’s 8 degrees F. Aki dashes toward the warm car that we left just a minute ago. She has explored on colder days. I wonder if she is aging out of real winter like some one from the Iron Range who moves to Florida after retirement. Ready to wait for warmer weather, I am about to give up on today’s walk when Aki sniffs a patch of frosted grass, pees, and gallops back to me. False alarm.
Reunited, we join one of Aki’s other human friends to walk down the Eagle River on a trail softened by frost feathers. They slush, rather than crack or snap when stepped on. While some light still reaches the mountains and a slice of meadow we walk in dusk conditions even thought it is only 1:30 P.M. Some water still flows in the river but much of it is covered with ice. Five-inch-thick pans of it, all sharp-sided puzzle pieces, are marooned on sand bars until the next flood tide.
I am glad I am wearing an old beaver hat made for me by a Yupik woman from the Kuskokwim River. The weather’s too cold for wool caps. Today’s harsh winter beauty, the kind produced by mixing cold, light, snow and ice, is rarely formed by the rain forest. These ingredients are as common as ravens during the Kuskokwim winter. But gray skies are more common than blue along the Eagle where the temperature rarely drops this low.
Aki has no problem appreciating today’s rare gift. She patrols along without concern and seems put out when I lift her over sea ice that has yet to set. She must not know that her feet could freeze if they became wet in the slush. I take many pictures, keeping my camera inside my parka between snaps. But this precaution doesn’t prevent the shutter button from stinging my finger each time I push down on it.
…Another guard, this one working for the gulls, gives out an alarm when we are still 100 meters from breaking out of the woods and onto the beach. Even though I use no stealth during those 100 meters the gulls, and they are hundreds of them, are still hugging the beach when we arrive. Some are almost painfully bright in the sunlight. They seem sluggish, almost hung over. I consider moving quickly on so they don’t have to expend energy to relocate but choose to linger. The gulls follow a four duck raft of mallards slowing paddling to the mouth of Peterson Creek. The scene produces a cold, penetrating beauty similar to that just found on the beaver’s pond.
The woods we next transit are too dense for the sun to penetrate and block sunlight from the second beach we crunch across. But the forest doesn’t block an east wind that makes our cold passage back even colder. Like the forest, this beach and the waters that touch it are empty of visible wildlife. The resting gulls we watched on the first beach explode past the point that marks the entrance to the little Peterson Creek bay. Some settle on the point or the much larger Outer Point. Most choose to fly to Shaman Island. All three landing locations are bright with sunlight.
Back in the woods I face the consequences for my decision—the wood-planked trail. It’s dry at first but soon I’m mincing over ice-covered treads. Aki would wait for me to pull on my ice grippers. But my right hand is too numb from holding the cold camera to manage it. If we had taken the wooden trail first, when I still worn grippers, I could have enjoyed views, like the one of sunlight shafting trees. Easy to see, but almost impossible to photograph, such filtered sun reminds me of the light that people are pulled toward in near-death-experience stories. Really I’m in little danger. Aki, with her little clawed paws trots over the ice like it was dry concrete. In most places, I can walk on firm dry ground rather than the wooden path.
In the end the little dog and I benefited from my choice not to take first the boarded trail even though for Frost’s speaker in “Road Not Taken” it would have been the route less traveled. But my choice allowed us a chance to see the gulls before they were scared into dispersing and that made all the difference.
After today’s North Douglas walk with Aki I wrote more than normal. So this is the first of a two part post. Thanks for you patience.
Thirty meters into old growth forest, I stall at a trail junction. While Aki catalogues recent dog activity, I think seriously about breaking with tradition and taking first a wood-planked trail rather than continuing on the gravel one that offers a more direct route to salt water. I want to reach the beach while the brief window of daylight is still open. But the ice grippers on my boots would be dulled on the journey. They would ease transit of the icy planked trail. But I can always use the grippers when we return to the car. After trying to remember the lines to Robert’s Frost famous poem about two trails in the woods, I chose the gravel route.
Our cold snap has silenced the forest, even the few remaining ice-free watercourses. No bird chits. No squirrel scolds, but circles of hoarfrost on forest moss betray the entrance to their dens. To survive the coldest days of winter, our squirrels and other smallish rodents climb into chambers dug out from wood stumps or rotting trees. They reduce their heart rate and metabolism and wait for the warmth to return. I wonder if a person could slide a gloved hand into an icy-rimed den and lift out a comatose squirrel without waking it.
The cold weather silence works in the favor of the forest’s largest rodent—the beaver. The sound of running water keeps them awake at night. Too bad they are sleeping in today. Sunlight has just reached their pond making the covering ice glow. Adult alders rise out of the ice looking like trees that have learned to balance on severed trunks.
Feet from one of the pond’s dams, beavers have chewed a hole in the pond ice. They must post a guard here to protect against a breach. Even on a cold night, a sudden dam collapse could lower the pond enough to allow an enemy access to their den. Even with a beaver’s wonderfully insulation, the guard must suffer while on duty.
Today we went higher up the mountain where Aki could find some snow. I wanted to see if the current stretch of cold weather had finally frozen a favorite mountain stream. We both got what we wanted.
Aki’s snow covered a sloped mountain meadow with a two-inch carpet. Frost butterflies added another five. Even though the trail was empty of dogs and other people to welcome, the little poodle-mix galloped with purpose for 100 meters. Then she turned to run back at top speed.
Once reunited, we dropped down onto my creek. It still ran free. But crystal-ice had turned rounded rocks into grey jellyfish and trolls.
Aki, these deer trails are untrustworthy. The little dog gives me her “you can’t be left alone in the woods” look and leads me through a maze of frosted pines and onto a muskeg meadow. More pines dot the meadow. Unlike their healthy-looking brothers we just walked through, these pines have led a tough life. Some are only skeletons. Wind has carried away their exhaled moisture before it could form into frost crystals. But beneath the trees, fragile frost feathers shaped like butterfly wings, cling to every blade of grass.
Mountains surround the meadow. They are in the light. We are not. That may change soon. The sun is curling around the curl of a southern hill. Already it’s light is flooding the next meadow over where frost butterflies may already be taking flight.
It’s Boxing Day in neighboring Canada, another time to show gratitude to those who have had your back during the year. We did that yesterday in Alaska. Today Aki and I spent the morning binge watching football. Now she is out walking with her two other humans, reading the news with her nose.
I wonder if Aki understands Christmas. There is a present with her name on it under the tree. But it is lost in the pile of those for her other humans. She doesn’t attend church services, has never understood the Christmas story. But she enjoys Christmas dinner when the house filled with friends and the rich smells of roasting lamb.
I think she is too concrete for spiritual life. Her joy must come from smells and tastes and the feel of my hand on her curly head. Merry Christmas, anyway, little dog.
Even though the glacial moraine looks like it is posing for a Christmas card, I would prefer to listen to Irish rather than holiday music while crossing it today. A Carolan harp piece would work best, maybe “Bridget Cruise” played on a hammer dulcimer. That gentle love long would calm down the excited caused by the sparkling beauty driven by sunlight on frost.
Without a quiet waltz we are racing on trails through alder thickets that offer occasional views of mountains or the glacier. Aki trots at the heals of a human friend while I follow close behind.
Our friend stops to touch a willow branch coated with dense crystals and tells me that they are formed from condensed vapor released by the willow. I place the tip of the branch in my mouth and pull off its icy coat. It tastes faintly of willow.
While the vapor crystals are almost clear, like water from a mountain stream, nearby hoar frost feathers are white and striated. They form patterns on dead grass stalks and other things on the moraine that can no longer breathe. Some are scattered on patches of clear ice as if they fell from the wings of a winter bird.
We push on, crossing recently frozen streams, to Mendenhall Lake. Ice covers it and has almost silenced the nearby Nugget Falls. Across the lake, a low hill of rock rounded by the retreating glacier is white with new frost. Above all is a cloudless blue sky offering a simple background for winter’s multifaceted work.
“Boom, boom, boom” and a hunter whistling in his dog interrupt the nattering complaints of Canada geese. Then, the smell of cordite arrives on a light breeze. Aki cringes and moves cautiously ahead, choosing the iciest path. Her little paws slip and then regain a purchase and she is on surer ground. I think about turning back but we are almost to the mouth of Fish Creek. I’ll just peak around the spit to see if the hunter is there. I end my search after spotting gulls strutting along one of the diminutive inlet that drains the wetlands.
The hunter must be working another part of the wetlands, one upwind from our position. Aki returns to her survey of dog sign. It’s 9:30 and the sun is brightening the snow on the Chilkats and Mt. McGinnis. No light will warm the little dog or sparkle the thick, trailside frost today. But we are used to enjoying the sun’s work from afar.
On our return to the car I stop to study a long, thin raft of Canada geese that has formed just off shore in Fritz Cove. Each has its beak tucked into its feathered body. It’s 19 degrees F. and they still chose water over the warmer land for their bed.
We hear a mother and two small boys as we approach the pond. Only a thin layer of ice covers it. The boys, both dressed in heavy winter gear toss rocks onto the ice to hear the sound of it breaking. I think of the admonition of a Tlingit elder I once knew in Ketchikan not to break the stillness of water by skipping stones on it. What would she say to these two boys? They slide down some hinge ice to reach the slanted pond beach. They could slip on the ice and slide into the pond if they edged any further forward. I think of the mother and child who drowned after breaking through ice on this very pond twenty years ago. The boys’ mom saves me using the story as a warning by calling them back from the edge.