Aki and I walk with an old friend along the Auk Village beach. Yielding to her herding instinct, the little poodle works to keep us together. Our friend is gentle and has spent his life helping others. I sometimes wonder if Aki senses this and it makes her protective.
Remnants of yesterday’s storm move toward us from across Lynn Canal. But for the moment there are blue rents in the gray skies over Stephens’ Passage. The sun, trying to burn through the marine layer, spotlights a rocky island sometimes used as a haul out by marine mammals. Near shore a loon pops up, gives us a look, and slides beneath the surface.
The loon appears to follow us down the beach, moving quickly underwater then popping like a cork near our position. When we reach the canoe haul out area of the old Auk Village my friend wonders out loud if the loon is a spirit animal. I’ve learned not to discount these things but think it is more likely that the loon is just following the fish it hunts in the waters of the bay. That’s when the clouds of the squall block out sun and blue skies and the first of its snow load begins to fall on the little dog and her charges.
At first Aki didn’t seem bothered by our late start. Much snow from a new storm had to be cleared before we could leave the yard. She announced her presence on the street with the usual bark and then got down to checking the pee mail. Since the roads were still a mess, I decided to take Aki on the usual tour of downtown Juneau. But rather than climbing the gentle Gastineau Avenue grade, which would have meant a visit with the resident ravens perched above the channel, she insisted that we swing over the Lower Franklin Street.
We passed small knots of homeless folks sheltering from the tail end of the storm and later the Glory Hole homeless shelter. Two right turns and one left, all at her direction, brought us to a snowed-in Marine Park. Three ravens bickered in the bare branches of shade trees. A single pigeon perched on a rail and looked out at the channel. Perhaps the ravens were trying to decide which one could grab the city bird.
Aki had no interest in any of the birds. She led me up Seward Street and then stopped in front of the state’s social worker office. When I urged her to continue on toward home she gave me a hard look and pointed her noise at the door. They only protect abused children, not disappointed canines, little dog. After a little more urging, Aki trotted on up the hill after her unsuccessful attempt to drop a dime on her humans.
When you write about nature, you can’t avoid mentioning the weather. It opens and closes doors of opportunity in the rain forest. Since she has no access to the Internet (that I know of) and cannot read, Aki has no weather expectations while she waits at the door for me to pull on my boots. I know that the temperature is a little below freezing and the sun is alone in the blue sky. I know because I spent hours yesterday moving it with a shovel, that at least of six inches of new snow covers the ground. My little dog will be pleased.
We head out to the faint trail that rounds False Outer Point and continues along the beach to the trail we took yesterday. The tide is out when we reach the trailhead, which means we should have no trouble completing the circuit. Aki jumps out the car and immediately plants her head into a snow bank. All I can see of her face when she emerges are her two dark eyes. A bald eagle cruises over the trailhead and then soars out over Fritz Cove.
The trail is in shadow but the sun lights up the snow covered spruce trees across the cove. A small raft of fish ducks float up and over a series of two-foot high swells about to slam onto the beach. The last high tide washed the lower half of the beach clean of snow, leaving up a choice of walking on sand or snow. I choose sand but Aki lingers on the snow for a few rolls before she joins me on the easier trail.
Sun shine washes the beach on the other side of the point. It also softens the snow, frustrating Aki’s efforts to keep up with me. I can tell where this will go so I lead the little poodle-mix into the woods where we find a forest trail leading back to the car.
Two days ago, a strip of ice made it possible for Aki and I to safely reach the face of Mendenhall Glacier. It formed a bridged for us over a mire of overflow. The next morning, our local radio station broadcasted a warning against crossing the lake to the glacier in the present conditions. This morning, the little dog and I walk down another ribbon of ice. This one wanders through an old growth forest to the beach. It’d be dangerous for anyone not using ice cleats.
Perhaps because of the icy trail, we are alone in the woods. There’s a small-scale blizzard blowing outside but no wind and little snow make it through the forest canopy. No wonder deer shelter from storms among the big trees. It’s cozy-quiet—a good place for a deer to graze and rest.
The beach, when we reach it, would be quiet if not for a family of ravens bickering above us in a spruce tree. Just offshore a raft of surf scoters practice their drill team maneuvers—expanding from a compact raft to form the letter “C.” A small group leaves formation to huddle over a ball of baitfish. Several of the birds sound their “three stooges” goofy call. Soon, all of the scoters are going after the fish.
Aki and I are walking in slop. Last night’s wet snow was supercharged with water by the rain that followed. Now my boots plop into shallow lakes that have formed on Juneau’s sidewalks and streets. Aki manages to skirt most of the wet areas as she searches the melting snow for hidden scents.
The Gastineau Avenue ravens seem grouchy, croaking at us from the top branches of the avenue’s cottonwood trees. When the sun breaks through the marine layer, it sparkles off the new snow covering Mt. Jumbo across the channel. If my feet were dry and Aki wasn’t tugging on her lead, I’d stop and enjoy the scene.
Many feet and paws have beaten this path into the snow covering Mendenhall Lake. It leads to the glacier’s face. The weatherman is calling for a snowstorm to start in a few hours but nothing falls from the sky now. More surprising, I can’t see anyone between the glacier and us.
During the summer, the edge of the lake is crowded with cruise ship tourists. Hundreds a day paddle or canoe across its waters. Helicopters full of tourists fly overhead to land on the ice field. Eagles hang in the lakeside cottonwoods and arctic terns defend their nesting grounds. On the rocky point near the glacial, a large colony of gulls raises a new generation.
The birds and tourists are gone by the time the lake freezes and the skaters slide onto it. When enough snow falls, cross-country skiers course around in set tracks. As long as the ice is safe, a line of people and dogs can usually be seen walking to or from the glacier. Today, I see no one. The narrow trail changes from snow to ice when are within a kilometer of the glacier. When I step off it to frame a photograph, my boots sink past the covering snow into a five-centimeter deep pool of overflow. The trail is a bridge over a lake that has formed between the ice and snow covering.
Last summer, when one of Aki’s other humans and I kayaked to the glacier’s face, we had a fairly long walk to reach the ice. Now dense, blue glacier covers the trail we used. With the help of my micro spikes, I manage to scramble over some small icebergs and reach the mouth of a very shallow ice cave. The ice is losing its grip on rocks that it has carried for hundreds of years. Half of one the size of my head sticks out of the ceiling of the cave. By next summer it will be free.
Even though she followed me up to the ice cave, Aki is not happy to be here. The sound of falling ice and stones makes her nervous. Such sounds disturb the peace of the moment for me too so I head back down after taking a few pictures. The little dog gets stuck on a false route and I have to drop down to rescue her. But she has no problem following me to the lake on the route we used to reach the cave mouth. Don’t worry little dog, we won’t speak of this again.
It’s low tide on the Fish Creek delta. Aki and I could walk at least one half mile to where the Mendenhall River enters Fritz Cove. But the complaints of nearby bald eagles make her nervous. She would be looking over her shoulder the whole time we were in the tidal zone. I’d be nervous too.
The tide, not the eagles would keep me on edge. We would have to drop down into several shallow channels to reach the land bordering the river. Distracted by the need to monitor the incoming tide, I’d have a hard time spotting interesting birds or the deer that left such crisp prints on the snowy trail.
The Tlingit elders teach that when the tide is out, the table is set. We must be between the breakfast and lunch rushes. Only mallards, gulls, and crows occupy the exposed wetlands. While the mallards hunt the diminished watercourse for food, the gulls and crows seem to be sunning themselves.
When an eagle leaves it’s beachside roost and flies in their direction, a large murder of crows, a hundred plus, stir into the air and then return to the tidelands. Three Canada geese burst into a noisy flight, drawing the attention of another eagle. The predator doesn’t bother to follow the geese after they bank into a tight U-turn and fly toward the river.
Aki trots ahead on a trail with just enough traction to allow me to safely follow. We are moving up the old mining road that starts at an old trestle bridge and leads to the ruins of the old Perseverance Mining District. I am enjoying the gray beauty when I am not daydreaming. The little dog must sense my detachment because she is acting more like a bodyguard than a pet.
If I stop to photograph something, she backtracks and stands guard until I’m done. When my feet slip on the trail, she looks back as if to make sure I am okay.
Aki and I start the short climb to Gastineau Meadows, skirting a serpentine of frozen runoff that covers most of the access road. I take a picture of Mt. Jumbo knowing that it will end up in the digital trash. It’s a mountain best seen on a summer afternoon from somewhere on the Juneau side of Gastineau Channel. The meadow and its access trail are too close to offer much of a view.
I stop to admire the alders lining the road. Normally I ignore them like I do all alders. They are ubiquitous, too common for us to really appreciate. Alders and willows are nature’s band-aids. They stabilize disturbed land like rockslides or unused gravel roads with soil too poor to support spruce or hemlocks. After these pioneers have enriched the ground with their fallen leaves, they are pushed out by the evergreens. The indigenous people of the rain forest carve many of their haunting masks from alder wood. But it is hard not to think of them as weeds.
Some of last week’s snow is still draped over the alder branches and trunks. With early morning light shinning on them, the grey-trunked trees look beautiful. But it isn’t a beauty I can capture with my camera. I forget about the alder thickets after we reach the meadow where snow has formed white wigs in the tops of the sparely needled bull pines. Above the pines Juneau, Roberts, and sheep mountains stand white against a blue sky.
The trail is icy and I’ve left my grippers in the car. Aki is in hog heaven thanks to all the other dogs around. We can hear some of them barking on the first beach we will visit. It makes sense given all the cars we saw in the parking lot. I would be hurrying through the walk if not for the ice.
Aki and I avoid the busy beach by walking a parallel trail through the woods. It leads us to another beach. As I slip and slide out of the woods, we hear the nattering of ducks. A small raft of mergansers swims just off shore while a larger grouping of surf scoters fishes the deeper water. This beach is a quiet as the other one was noisy.
Prior walkers have pounded down a good trail for us to use. But for the ducks, there would be no sound. But for the little dog and I, the beach would be empty. Two ducks blow past the headland that separate the two beaches and make sloppy landings near the scoters, reminding us of what we just escaped.