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.
Snow falls on the little dog and I from a blue sky. The flakes glitter from sunlight reaching them through the old growth forest. It’s really last night’s frost being blown out of the canopy by a rising wind. The temperature is also rising. Soon it will allow the sunlight to melt the canopy’s snow load into droplets that will punch little holes into the snow covering the forest floor. I am glad that Aki and I will be out on the wetlands before that happens.
It’s quiet in the forest. Aki might be bored. But I appreciate the ability of a thick forest to filter out all but the loudest sounds.
We walk along side a set of cross country ski tracks made by someone willing to deal with thin snow cover and bare spots of ice. When we pass the junction for the Yankee Basin trail, I think of Romeo, the black wolf who hunted rabbits in these woods before it was killed by a poacher. While not tame, the wolf had learned to tolerate people and enjoyed playing with their dogs. Romero once followed Aki and I through the glacial moraine until two other dog walkers came along to distract it. One night while I skied with Aki around Mendenhall Lake, we listened to Romeo howling under a full moon.
I always had mixed feeling about Romeo. It seemed wrong to name an iconic animal of the woods. It was exciting to know that we might see Romeo any time we were on a local trail. It bothered me that the wolf was so comfortable with our very dangerous species. It saddened me that this led to his death.
The quiet time for contemplation ends when we leave the forest and find the meadow crowded with people and their dogs. I thought my little poodle-mix would be ecstatic. But she seems standoffish when we pass other canines. Maybe she, like I, feels like we had abandoned the solitude of the woods too soon.
Without snowshoes I’d soon wear myself out walking over this field of new snow. Even with them it is a job reaching a place that offers a nice view of the glacier reflected in a partially frozen eddy. No little dog follows behind. She waits on the beaten path giving me her “are you crazy” look. Is she wise or lazy? It could be either given her age of eleven and a half years.
She didn’t act her age as she leapt the car and galloped down the trail. When I caught with her, she was rolling on her back, a look of bliss showing on her snow-covered face. Yesterday’s storm added five inches of snow to that already coating the trailside trees and the ground. The added weight forced the alders over the trail where they form temporary barriers to me but not the low-slung Aki.
The sun floats like a pearly disk in a flat gray sky and then muscles through briefly to throw cast shadows in the woods. We are alone on the moraine, having missing the morning rush of dog walkers who level the snowy trail for Aki. She sniffs the tracks left last night by the local beavers but we see no other sign of wildlife. The recent cold snap has all but silenced the river. There should be black-capped chickadees or juncos hunting for food but I hear nothing but faint airplane noise and the scraping of Aki’s paws as she digs in the new snow.
Aki growls her way down our home street. I look around and can find no dog close enough to hear her trash talk. Then a furry black blur tears past us, gives Aki a ferocious snarl and ducks down a set of stairs. My little dog continues on, pulling like a sled dog down the street. I have to do a shuffle-slide to keep from falling. I wonder if the snow is energizing her.
Quarter-sizes flakes drift down on us, melting on Aki’s back as soon as they touch it. It accumulates on the leafless limbs of alders and cottonwoods, making each tree look like an Escher print. We power up Gastineau Avenue, passing the owners of a jeep being helped by two garbage truck guys to free it from a snow bank.
Further along the avenue an unkindness of ravens forms around an abandoned package of meat. One sits nearby on a sidewalk railing, plucking snowflakes out of the air with its beak. Over on Sixth Street the faces on a totem pole have new, white beards.
Aki slips on the icy trail that hugs an oxbow curve of the Mendenhall River. The little dog barely notices her misstep. She is too interested in the scents left behind on this heavy-use dog-walking trail. The dogs that scented the trail have all gone. If not for the shouts of men tending the salmon smolt pens and the airplane noise, we might have some solitude.
I am drawn to this trail on calm, sunny days when, as now, the river is at flood tide. Hungry seals might pop up at any time. Ducks could land any second. I look and find the great blue heron along the river shore. At first it stands tall and then curls back it’s long neck into a heat-conserving crouch. Backlit by the morning sun, it is only a black silhouette on the snowy beach.
Last night’s hard freeze has preserved the prints of boots and paws left during yesterday’s thaw. Aki is light enough to trot across the crust without breaking through. But for me, it’s “crunch, crunch, crunch” or slip, slip, slip. The tide forces the river into low spots on the trail. We would be blocked by one if it not for a homespun bridge fashioned from driftwood. I use it to make a successful crossing but Aki stays put. I have to re-cross, pick up the little poodle-mix, and carry her across.
We drop down to the river’s edge so I can enjoy views of the glacier and mountains reflected in the water. Aki is not impressed. We must be beyond the prime dog use area. After I carry her back across the little driftwood bridge, she dashes back the way we came.