Exploring land recently released by ice (geologically speaking)
Monthly Archives: March 2018
Nervous clouds cringe above Gastineau Channel as Aki and I drive out toward the glacier. Ignoring the little dog’s whining, I take us on a detour to Sandy Beach where the sun is about to move into a patch of blue sky. An optimist would describe the scene as “storm ‘s end” or “the first day of spring.” Being more a realist, I think it is a sucker hole. That’s what lost pilots call temporary breaks in clouds that could close over the plane the minute it drops into the hole. The sun disappears behind a wall of clouds as we return to the car.
Gray dominate the sky over Mendenhall Lake when we pull up to the trailhead. But shafts of sunlight are illuminating the glacier. The sun appears to melt the clouds obscuring Mendenhall Towers. We might be able to ski across the lake but after the recent stretch of warmish weather, I don’t want to chance it. I follow Aki onto the ski track that winds around the campground.
On a sunny day the trail would be full of skiers and their dogs. But not today. The little dog and I will only see four skater skiers and, disappointingly for Aki, no other dogs. The clouds will disperse and coalesce. Light snow, soon to be rain, will splatter on my windshield as I drive back to town.
Aki and I start the Ides of March on the Douglas Island Bridge. Normally she drags her paws on to the bridge. But today she tries to bully me into letting her walk across it. A murder of loud-mouthed crows watches our battle of wills. I know I shouldn’t care what these dudes think about the little dog or me. But I am still bothered by the attention. Aki eventually backs down and we return to the car. It’s time to check out Peterson Creek.
At first glance the creek looks to be ice-free. Over a foot of golden brown water runs between the creek banks, reflecting the mottled bark of the creek side alders. But ice stills covers the creek bed, providing a white background for the golden water. It’s still a winter scene but spring can’t be far away.
We cross over the creek and walk down to a beach bordering Stephens Passage and climb a small rocky headland. Aki gives me her “This is so boring” look. I will accommodate her but first I want to study something that looks like an animal’s backbone trapped in rock. It could be fossil, evidence of life from a time long past.
In summer this parking lot is full of cars and buses ready to take river rafters back to their cruise ships. Today it is empty except for an abandoned Buick and one pickup truck. When Aki and I start down the brotherhood bridge trail, we run into a disheveled young man struggling to push a bicycle through the soft snow covering the trail. “Sir, I hate to ask, but do you happen to have $5. I have a terrible headache and could really use a drink.” I almost complied to reward his honesty.
We pass through a small copse of spruce and move onto to a meadow dotted with alders. Disintegrating ground fog partially obscures the alders. As it lifts I can see the alders, which appear to be leafing out, something unexpected in late winter. But close up I can see that the yellowish green “foliage” are really lichen.
The lichen hang from every branch and twig. I’ve been told that lichen can’t tolerate polluted air. So their colonies in the meadow alders gives proof of our clean air. But the way that they have spread to almost every part of the tree makes me wonder whether the alders would consider them an infection.
Aki, my little guardian walks three or four meters behind me. She looks concerned each time I turn around. She has reason to be. We are crossing a snow-covered meadow, something only made possible by a firm foot wide track. Each time I step off it my leg sinks into soft snow to mid-calf. I must look like a drunk trying to walk home after closing time. Aki acts like a faithful wingman, acting like she is ready to stop me from falling each time I lurch.
To keep the slippage to a minimum, I rivet my eyes on the trail. While this denies me views of the surrounding mountains, it lets me search for animal tracks crossing the trail. Right off I spot fresh tracks of a small Sitka black tail deer. The deer must have been drawn to the firm trail for the same reasons I am using it. But it broke off the trail and into soft snow. Wondering if we had scared it off the trail, I look through the scattering of shore pines in case it is hiding beside one of them. When I return my gaze to the trail I notice a line of canine prints covering the deer’s tracks.
The canine’s prints are too small for a wolf and too deliberate for a wolf. That leaves Coyote. I realize that I’ve never seen one in Alaska. They were common enough on the California high desert where, as a boy, I’d lie next to my dad and listen to them sing. The mid-sized predator (10-15 kilos) moved into the rain forest over a hundred years ago. But I’ve seen wolves in the woods but never a coyote. Could the coyote that tracked the deer be watching my little dog right now?
Aki flinches at the sound of the first gunshot. She keeps her tail curved down and looks up at me as four more booms block out the sound of nearby Montana Creek. When I stop skiing she starts to shake. What was I thinking choosing this trail?
I know what I was thinking. After two days of rain, most of the other cross country ski trails are deteriorating. This one runs along Montana Creek where winter comes early and leaves late. I am not sure why. Maybe it’s the proximity to the glacier just a kilometer or so away. The trouble, as far as Aki is concerned, is that the trailhead is next to an outdoor gun range. The range’s parking lot was empty when we arrived so we had a peaceful time covering the first two kilometers of the trail. Then the gunshots began.
The little dog skitters along behind me on the trail. We would never hear another gun discharge but Aki will still cringe and shake each time I stop to look at the thick snow and ice that covers the still moving creek. There could be weeks more of skiing at Montana Creek but not for Aki.
The rain doesn’t bother Aki. Nor does it discourage the other dogs and their walkers on the Perseverance Trail. We all carry on, our paws or boots slowly soaking up moisture from the rain sodden snow. Greenish-brown run off from melting snow fills the trailside ditches, providing the strongest color contrast to the grey sky.
Stark skeletons of naked cottonwood trees seem to writhe in pain. Above them the Mt. Juneau waterfalls are still frozen. Snow, not rain falls on the mountain’s upper slopes. Rather than take the upper trail that cuts across an avalanche chute, we walk on the main trail and then take a narrow path over to Gold Creek. Aki alerts and then dashes thirty meters down the trail and buries her nose in the snow. When I reach her, she is sniffing the fresh tracks of a deer.
Having survived hunting season and all but the tail end of winter, the deer still must make it through the early spring famine time before fatting up on fresh greens. The other rain forest locals will have to make do until salmon start their annual invasion of our streams and rivers. Aki doesn’t have to worry. Her people just bought a 20-pound bag of dog food—more than enough to last her until king salmon season.
Aki and I drove over twenty miles to reach this trail. This may be my last chance this year to use my skis on it. Wet snow fell during the entire drive. “Wet” is the operative word here. The thick flakes melted on contact with the road, our car, and the bare branches of roadside trees. Rather than thickening the ground snow layer, the flakes soften it. Our days for skiing are numbered as the winter of 2017-18 begins to die.
Aki squeals as I park the car and leaps onto the snow as I open the car door. If it were a few degrees colder, the snow would clump on the little dog’s fur. But it is too wet for clumping so she can run down the trail unhampered. I follow her into the old growth. It’s not bad skiing except where the forest canopy blocks the sky over the trail. The snow in those places is thin and icy and very close to melting away.
I will have good skiing for most of the visit. Aki will challenge my decision to take a soft side trail. After that she will run and sniff and run some more. I will have to carry my skis and poles over dry sections of the trail. The wet snow will not stop falling. I will feel like a relative on deathwatch, hoping that the treating physician is too pessimistic about our loved one’s chances. But the forest snow is melting and rain is on the way.
I crunch along behind Aki as she trots down an icy trail through old growth woods. If snow still falls outside the forest, we wouldn’t know thanks to the trees’ thick canopy. This morning the weather service issued another winter storm advisory, predicting heavy snow tonight. But the snowfall was easing when we left the car for the woods.
Aki sniffs at the stump of a thin hemlock tree that had been growing on the shore of their pond. Recently, beavers chewed through it’s trunk until it fell and then stripped it of bark. Believing that they prefer cottonwood bark for eating, I wonder if the naked hemlock is a sign of famine in beaver country.
The sky is brightening when we reach the beach. Across Stephens Passage, sun shines on Admiralty Island. Named by Tlingits “The Fortress of the Bears,”
Admiralty has the most brown bears per acre in the world. The big grizzlies are still hibernating. Brown bears are rarely seen in our section of the rain forest but their smaller cousins the black bears often wander Juneau streets. Last summer I watched standing on out lawn to better reach an apple on our tree. Aki has chased one or two of them out of her yard.
Snow covers the parked cars on Gastineau Street. Some are so hemmed in by snow berms that they won’t be freed without some shovel work. I have a lot of time to study the snowed-in cars as Aki inspects every yellow spot in the snow.
We are between snowstorms. Yesterday’s left the cottonwoods and alders branches with white highlights. Already the temperature is well above freezing and the snow on trees will soon soften and fall to ground.
Aki throws on the brakes after we drop down to South Franklin Street. In an effort to keep the sidewalks free of ice and snow, the merchants have spread rock salt on them. At first my little dog ignores the crystals but then stops. She gives me that “what have you gotten me into” look. I end up carrying her in my arms through the salted zone. Unfortunately, it is lunch hour for the downtown office workers, several of whom make teasing comments about my unique style of dog walking.
Aki and I are hunkering into a sharp wind. It arrived with the snowstorm last night. Now the wind blows the snow sideways, perpendicular to the frozen surface of Fish Creek Pond. Neither the little dog nor I have much interest in this adventure. The storm hides the beauty that we normally find here.
With a reluctant Aki, I climb a little rise and follow an icy trail that usually offers views of the Chilkat Mountains, the glacier, and Fritz Cove. We can just make out the cove through the screen of falling snow but it is low tide so most of the birds are too far away to see. I can just make out two bald eagles skulk on a muddy bar a kilometer away.
When Aki starts to whine, I give up my search for beauty and return to the car. The just ended string of sunny days raised my expectations. Today’s obscuring snowstorm has brought me back to earth.