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.
Aki shows more enthusiasm for this adventure than I feel as we leave the trailhead. Snow is turning to rain as the little dog and I head into the Treadwell woods. Aki minces down the trail, each step pushing through soaked snow to a thin layer of water beneath. Glad I am wearing waterproof boots, I slosh along behind her.
The poodle-mix dashes toward a urine-yellow Rorschach design in the snow left by the dog of an early morning walker. Similar splotches mark the way to the beach. We slog past roofless ruins and twisted rails of the mining car tracks, all made almost beautiful by mantles of fresh snow. White on rust makes a pleasing combination.
From its perch atop the old ventilation tower, our resident eagle watches us leave the woods and move onto the snow-covered beach. His puffed up chest feathers make me think of Buck Mulligan descending Joyce’s Dublin tower. Aki cares little for literary references so I don’t mention it to her.
When a golden lab approaches, Aki waits in silence rather than barking her usual welcome. You are learning some caution little dog. The meeting goes well and she acts more like her old self when we meet a black-husky-mix. Maybe you are learning to discern rather than to trust that all dogs are potential friends.
After the husky-mix follows its people into the woods, Aki and I have the beach to ourselves. The two ravens that usually greet us have flown. No belted kingfisher chits at us from an overhanging branch. No wind hurries away the loose pans of ice that float around the ruined wharf pilings. If I turn around I could see trucks being loaded at the barge dock across Gastineau Channel and the blocky shapes of the Juneau skyline. But ahead to the south there is only the white-covered beach dotted with broken pilings, Gastineau Channel, and glaciated mountains partially obscured by mist. We move south until we run out of beach.
Yesterday the weather service promised that a foot of new snow would fall today. But sometime during the night moist air from the Pacific pushed up the temperature to above freezing. It’s snowing now but rain is not far away—rain that will soften the lake ice and wash away the snow we have been enjoying for the past few weeks. There is only one thing for a little dog and her people to do—try to sneak in one more ski adventure.
We drive out to Mendenhall Lake and park near Skater’s Cabin, which is across the lake from the glacier and its mountain consorts. Low clouds dump snow on the lake and obscure the view of anything more than a kilometer away. The resulting flat light would make it hard for us to see the trail, which is already filling in with soft, wet snow. We opt to ski through the campground. This pleases Aki because it is a popular dog use area.
On a downhill section of the trail, Aki flies by me as she follows her other human. In seconds they are out of sight. I see them again after I round a turn and begin a gentle uphill climb. At the top I learn from Aki’s other human that a goshawk had just flown low across the trail in front of them. Last winter Aki and I had watched a goshawk rip off strips of flesh from a snowshoe hare. I wonder if Aki just saw the bid bird again. I also wonder why the goshawk flew in front of them instead of me. On the Kuskokwim, where we once lived, the elders preached that the second boat always gets the moose. Moose and other animals will often stay hidden in the woods while the first boat or skier passes by. They can often be caught on the trail by a person dawdling along behind. Most of the time the elders are right. I see a lot while dawdling.
Aki has me worried. I’m pulling on my boots near the front door. Normally my little dog would be here, waiting for me to fasten on her harness. Is she worried that a dog will go after here on today’s walk. She appears, tail wagging, when I slip on a warm parka. Relieved, I drive us north on the Douglas Highway, which offers filtered views of Gastineau Channel. Aki groans when I stop the car to watch pans of new ice riding the incoming tide up channel.
The poodle-mix jumps out of the car when we reach the trailhead and trots down to the beaver pond. This time she freely follows me onto the ice and even dashes ahead after I cross the pond and start up a muskeg stream. There is nothing unusual about the scenery. The stream leads us onto a muskeg meadow dotted with small bull pines. We could be on any one of a dozen such meadows. But this one is unreachable until the pond and stream freeze over. In a month, or even a week, the ice will melt, closing off access to the meadow.
While Aki catalogues the smells, I take off my hat and listen. It’s all silence at first and then, from far off float the working songs of wrens and ravens.
This is not Aki’s favorite type of adventure. Few dog walkers use the trail so she finds little scent to sniff. But I am ready for some solitude and a chance to use my skis as exploring tools, not sport’s equipment. From my point of view, we have been spending way too much time lately on the Mendenhall Lake ski tracks. My little dog had treasured every moment of it.
I slide my skis across Peterson Creek and around a salt chuck (lake) to the small waterfall that drains it. To conserve energy, Aki trots in my tracks, darting ahead only once when she spots movement in the spruce forest that borders the salt chuck. It’s probably one of the many otters that den nearby.
Careful not to break through the thin ice covering the waterfall, I lead Aki around a rocky headland to where we can see Lynn Canal. It is empty except for a single golden eye duck, which gives me a hard look before flipping into the water.
After crossing into the forest and over a frosty meadow Aki and I watch a skier being pulled up Peterson Creek by two husky dogs. Aki makes a half-hearted dashed toward the trio but is soon stopped by deep snow. We drop down onto the creek and head for the car and are halfway there when the huskies approach from behind. Aki turns back to bark hello. One of the huskies clamps her in his jaws and then quickly lets go. Aki howls an alarm and runs back to me. Now she is asleep in her house with nothing wounded but her pride.
Seven degrees. It doesn’t seem that cold as Aki and I head out onto the lake. Aki chases after her other human, allowing me to concentrate on my hands as they stiffen under my mittens. They get worse when I have to bare them so I can bag freshly deposited Aki poop.
On the nearside of the lake, strong slanting sunlight makes the freshly frosted spruce trees look like they are made of rock candy. Ahead the glacier ice is in shadow except for a small bright blue island.
I ski around the 7-kilometer loop, watching Aki trot after her other human, who is using the faster skate skis. The temperature rises with the sun. I have to ski without wearing mittens or hat as the sun bleaches the blue out of the glacial ice. When we reach the car, the temperature has risen to 10 degrees.
The wild roses that scented my bicycle rides down this trail last summer are forcing me out of the ski track. I’m in Alaska’s big city while the little dog is back home in the rain forest, resting up from a ski trip with her other human. Morning sun is burning holes in the dense, freezing fog that settled over town last night. It sets the birch trees sparkling.
I’m heading toward the small creek delta where a pair of sandhill cranes hung out last summer. They and the rest of the summer vistors have gone south where there is warmth and food. This is the season of cold and simple clarity. Only the everpresent ravens remain to make noise.
Recent tracks of a moose cross the trail at the creek. I wonder if they were made by the animal I saw yesterday afternoon munching on a birch tree in a suburban yard. Since moose are rare back home, I stopped, gawked, and took photographs. The locals drove on by, ignoring it like they might a homeless person.