Aki flies down the snowy trail blown along by a stiff wind. The same wind is chilling the back of my legs like it did my front when we walked into the Treadwell ruins. My nose and right cheek stiffen, heading towards frostbite. We will be back in the car before my skin on those exposed parts turns from pink to white.
This morning a high-pressure zone keeps storm clouds away but also delivers the strong winds. They started blowing when the rising sun lit up the glacial ice sheet. In response cold air roared down the mountain valleys and up Gastineau Channel when they whipped up waters in front of Sandy Beach.
The little dog and I keep to the shelter of the woods. But each time I slip down onto the beach for a photograph, we feel the bite of the wind.
We hear the waves when still deep in the forest. The sound track does not match the calm, quiet place. No wind disturbs the snow covering the forest floor and the old growth trees. No eagle screams, no raven croaks. If the tiny wrens and chickadees feeding in the canopy are sounding their work chants, I can’t hear them over the wind.
Aki trots ahead, sometimes riveted by scent. Her discoveries can’t be recent deposits. No one has tracked the snowy trail today. When we reach the beach, Aki sprints ahead and out of sight, like she does when spotting another dog. Then she charges back toward me with an intense look on her face. When I start to follow her, she sprints ahead again. I’ll find her where the trail cuts back into the woods giving me her “are you crazy” stare.
Aki and I have been following wolf tracks through an old growth forest for most of an hour. The wolf made its tracks while following those of a yearling deer. With her low-to-ground frame, Aki had no problems walking in the animals’ steps. But I’ve had to straddle wind-fallen trees and duck beneath the snow covered branches of spruce and hemlock. The wolf and deer passed under the branches without dislodging their loads of snow. I wish I could say the same.
Just after leaping across a half-frozen watercourse, I spotted two other sets of tracks. Well, those prints looks familiar little dog. They should. Aki and I made them a half-an-hour ago. We would be lost if not for the sun. I lead Aki toward it, hoping to soon hear the soft sound of Fish Creek sliding over and under new ice.
I blame ice for our predicament. Before diverting onto the wolf’s trail, we had been moving comfortably along the creek. Then we reached a section of trail covered with a hazard of ice chunks. They were part of the ice sheet that covered the stream until the last big rainstorm. Runoff from the storm engorged the creek and shattered the ice covering. Most of the chunks flowed down stream to Fritz Cove. But some were caught by an eddy that pushed them onto the trail.
I almost fell several times while crossing the ice chunk zone. To avoid tempting fate, I chose to return through the forest. That’s when we spotted the wolf trail. That’s when the adventure began.
A small, rocky point helps and hinders the little dog and me. The tide covers the path we normally use to round it so we are stuck. A cabal of crows just 10 meters away must realize our situation. They ignore us as they gossip about a different murder of crows occupying a nearby beach.
The rocky point blocking our progress also hides us from a harbor seal sleeping on a rock just offshore. The water around the seal’s rock is colored with the reflection of mountains and the Mendenhall Glacier.
Checking to make sure that we will have a free passage after clearing the point, I search for and find a work-around-path. In a minute we are on the crow’s beach. They explode into the air and join the victims of their gossip 20 meters away. Perhaps disturbed by the escaping crows, the seal wakes up and looks at us. It slips off its rock and into the water as we walk toward the mouth of Fish Creek.
I am surprised by the hysterical cries of the hundreds of mallard ducks sheltering in the creek. In seconds they take flight and move in an arc across the front of the glacier and head out to the beach that Aki and I walked down yesterday. I want to tell the ducks to relax, that Aki won’t charge into the water after them. But like the seal and the crows, the ducks equate dog walkers with danger.
To escape the wind hammering Downtown Juneau, I drive the little dog to the Mendenhall Peninsula beach access trail. She starts squealing and bouncing around when we are more than a mile away from the parking area. The trail leads us through an old growth spruce forest with a canopy thick enough to keep out all but a dusting of snow. We follow the boot prints of a previously hiker, each one an island of red-brown duff in a sea of white.
We usually pass under several eagles on this trail that make themselves known with screeching complaints. Today I can only hear mallards chuckling in nearby wetlands. Aki’s excitement fades when we reach the forest edge. She hangs back as I walk along the beach and under a line of spruce trees that are often used by bald eagles. The presence of eagles or the sound of birdshot booming from hunter’s shotguns make the little dog nervous. There are no eagles today and hunting season is over. But she sulks along behind as if sensing the ghosts of both.
Like Aki, I remember the eagles we’ve seen on this beach, the gunshots from a skiff emerging from the fog in December, and a gang of otters that crunched through the tough skulls of Irish lords (sculpins) on the beach in spring. I tend to remember past dramas on days that lack any.
After we turn back toward the car, Aki perks up and takes the lead. She starts monitoring smells and urine spots as the sun breaks through the marine layer to provide me a little drama.
A strong north wind slams into Aki’s face when we walk out of our front door. In the past the little dog threw on the brakes when pressed like this by the wind. Today she charges ahead, barking. The little dog continues to power down the street and into the wind, growling.
She goes silent when we turn up Basin Road and cross over the wooden trestle bridge that leads to the Gold Creek valley. The constant wind doesn’t slow down Aki as we climb up the old Perseverance Mine access road. It speeds her up when we swing back toward town. She charges down the old mining road, too fast for me to safely keep up. Just when I start to worry, the little guy, now just a dot down on the road, runs back to me at full speed.
We are about to reach a portion of the road that is open to automobile traffic so I place her back on the lead. Aki pulls me all the way home with the help of the wind.
Only two inches of snow cover the lake ice but it is enough for cross-country skiing. Aki is between the Mendenhall Glacier and me. She is chasing her other human who is using her fast skate skis. They’ve left me to shuffle after them on my old classics.
I am not sulking. It’s peaceful back here. I can hear Nugget Falls and enjoy the low contrast vistas of spruce forest, glacier, and snow-covered mountains. I can also spy on our little dog as she runs flat out across the snow, stopping once or twice to roll her face in it. This gives her a macho white beard, which is not something you see on your average 10-pound poodle-mix.
Not matter how hard she scowls or glares, Aki makes people laugh. This morning, a woman pulling into a state-workers’ parking lot looks at her, lets a smile spreads across her face and enjoys a belly laugh. My little dog just trots on across the parking lot, pulled by scents on the air. Nothing is going to slow her—not the three inches of new snow, traffic, or derisive laughter. Aki is on a mission.
At the 12th Street intersection of the Egan Expressway, Aki waits patiently for the light to change. It’s 8 A.M and still dark. We have just dropped the car off for an oil change. The snowy outline of the Douglas Island ridge forms a soft border against light blue sky. It’s the tail end of the morning rush hour so the little dog has a large audience. But few notice the little poodle-mix even though she is wearing her “Elvis in Edinburgh” fleece wrap.
The light changes. Aki pulls me across the intersection and over toward the new sea walk. When we reach the life sized humpback whale statute that marks the north end of the sea walk, Aki throws on the brakes. In the low light the whale is little more than a silhouette. Down channel an arc of sun crests Salisbury Point. I take a picture or two and then carry Aki down the portion of the sea walk that forms a bridge over tidelands. She hates to walk over water. Below, mallards, gulls, and ravens stir from their nighttime resting places. One raven waits for us on a walkway railing. It flits over the other railing when we are within five feet and then flies off. Brave, stupid, or bored, you never know about ravens little dog.
The sun is full up by the time we reach the downtown bus terminal. Low angle light manages to make even that blocky building look like a place you might want to live.
The little dog trots ahead on a faint meadow trail. Snow from this morning’s shower makes it easy to make out the path. I’d be able to spot animal tracks if anyone has passed since the snow fell. But only Aki’s little paws dimple the meadow.
She looks back often and sometimes stops, as if our roles have been reversed and I am now the feckless pet, likely to dash off into danger without a second thought. Maybe she knows that I am distracted. We are surrounded by a low-contrast landscape worthy of an Ansel Adams black and white print and I can’t figure out a way to capture it with my camera.
To take my mind off of my shortcomings, I think of the wolf recently spotted by dog walkers in the Treadwell ruins. Our local paper ran a photograph of the big canine half-hidden by the tree line, looking out with cautious curiosity. We have seen wolf tracks on this meadow, which is located only a few miles from Treadwell. How many times has the Treadwell wolf or another of his kind watched Aki and I cross this meadow? Could he be there, where the meadow gives was to a thick spruce forest, wondering why his cousin would wear an argyle-patterned wrap rendered from pink and gray colored fleece.
A translucent skim of ice covers this trail through an older section of the moraine. Enough time has passed since the glacier’s retreat for cottonwood trees to grow tall. Branches of the trees prevented snow from accumulating on the trail’s surface so I’d expected to be walking on bare gravel. The filmy ice is a surprise.
With her sharp little nails, Aki has no problem trotting down the ice. I’d be slipping and sliding without my ice cleats. Tiny globes of ice have spaced themselves along cotton wood twigs and sprigs of dry grass like stung beads. The ice spheres glow when illuminated by low angle sun then begin to drip. Suddenly, Aki and I are walking through a shower of melted ice falling from overhead tree limbs. This solves the mystery of how a layer of ice formed on the gravel trail.
We drop off the moraine and onto a beach of gravel and glacial flour. I’m hesitant to walk across the beach and onto the frozen lake. But Aki charges onto the ice. I follow and start walking until the ice cracks. I return to the frozen beach. Aki trots back to join me on solid ground. Too early for that, little dog.