Rain is falling, dimpling Auk Lake and melting the remains of last week’s snowfall. Mt. McGinnis stands above the lake against a featureless sky. These rain doesn’t bother Aki or I. The little dog is excited to be out of the car and free to sniff and pee. While I’d prefer sunshine on snow, the soft grayness of the scene offers a calm alternative to the noisy world of man.
Just before leaving the lake, I spot a common merganser paddling away from the little dog and I. He moves fast enough to raise a wake. Calm on top, frenzy underneath. We drive out the road and take the Breadline Bluffs trail. The path crosses a small stream with snow-covered banks and then rises to a small muskeg meadow. In minutes we follow it into an old growth spruce forest.
The noise of airplanes and road noise ceases. After an eagle calls out to its mate from a nearby tree, the only sound we will hear will be that made by a small surf collapsing into the base of the bluffs.
When Aki barks. I look up and see two large dogs muzzle to muzzle. They growl at each and soon might fight. My little dog wants to investigate. With tail wagging, she approaches the two combatants. We are in the Treadwell Ruins near a side trail I have been wanting to take. I do now and ask Aki to follow. To my relief, she does. The trail leads to a 100-year-old junkyard.
When the waters of Gastineau Channel flooded the Treadwell mine tunnels in 1917, all mining on Douglas Island stopped with the exception of that carried out in the Ready Bullion Mine. That too closed in 1922. We are heading toward a small train of ore cars that were abandoned here when the mining stopped.
Most of the cars have already rusted into components. Aki sniffs at the one intact car. It looks fit enough to haul ore. The sight of the car triggers conflicting feelings about the ruins. Without human intervention the forest will eventually reclaim the land. In a few generations, old growth spruce and hemlock trees could replace the cottonwoods and alders that are now repairing the ground. But I find a beauty in the steel rails that lay rusting on the forest floor, the giant iron gears disappearing under moss, and this one intact ore car.
The forest plants seem confused. Skunk cabbage must think it is already spring. They have sent up fragile green shoots through the bog waters. The next freeze will turn them dead brown. On the trunks of rotting spruce trees, still green sorrel plants try to shake off yesterday’s snow. Only the berry plants have gotten the weather memo.
The blueberry and huckleberry plants have gone to rest for winter. They dropped their berries and leaves last fall. Here and there bright red spheres cling to the dead sprigs of the famine berry plants. But, as their name suggests, they are suppose to make themselves available until the hardscrabble time of late winter.
Nothing on the exposed beach suggests an early spring. No green shows on the brittle beach grass or cow parsnip plants. The dull-green sea and a raft of party-color harlequin ducks riding the swells provide the only natural color. Aki, in her yellow wrap, looks as overdressed as a tuxedoed groom at a baseball game.
Across Norton Lake a plume of snow rises from a wooded valley high into the air. When its animating gust dies, the plume disintegrates. According to the weather service, the strength of the wind will grow to something like a gale. Then half-a-kilometer long plumes of snow will fly from the mountain ridges.
Aki and I are an hour into our walk with plans to continue a circle route back to the car. But the promised winds and the chance we would have to walk over thin trail ice convince me to turn back.
We have to walk across the tops of three beaver dams to reach home. Not quite ready for the long winter, the beavers have broken open channels in their pond ice from the dams to their wood lots. Seeing how the ice is just forming over these channels makes me even more comfortable with the idea of returning home over known ground.
Last night, at the end of Aki’s before bedtime walk, the little dog lingered in the cold to smell a spot in the yard crusted over with snow. Before this morning’s sunrise, she asked to let out. It was 24 degrees F. at the time. Since she usually likes to sleep in, I was puzzled. When she didn’t return right away, I went out side and found her munching on a piece of sliced bread. I stopped her half way through the feast and brought her back inside the house. Minutes later one of the neighborhood ravens carried away the remains of Aki’s found meal. I had just been trying to work out how Aki managed to find a slice of bread buried in the snow. Mystery solved. She had raided the raven’s cache. I doubt if the bird will make that mistake again. Too bad for you, Akio.
It’s below freezing. A light wind makes it feel colder. But for the first time in a week, the sun shines down unimpeded on the rain forest. While watching golden eye ducks splash after fish in Gastineau Channel I hear a strange cry. It is faint and very close. It is not a mimicking or sarcastic sound so I rule out ravens. It is far from a mallard’s maniacal cackle, the gull’s tattletale scream, or the eagle’s scolding screech.
I wonder, for a moment, whether a nearby great blue heron is singing the plaintiff song. Then I remember that herons squawk like barnyard chickens.
Looking down, I discover the source of the noise at my feet. Aki, squinting under the unfamiliar sun, is singing to herself.
It’s a blues song. The little dog dislikes walking along Gastineau Channel. I think she only agrees to join me out on the exposed gravel because she knows that we will soon be walking along the edge of a grass-covered dune where many people walk their dogs.
With snow falling down in coin-sized flakes, Aki and I head out to False Outer Point. We started the drive on gray, glistening pavement but by the time we reach the trailhead, several inches of snow cover the road. The little dog bursts out of the car and into the white.
Aki loves snow, loves the way her paws dig in to the stuff when she runs, loves to run the side of her muzzle down a stretch of it. But the snow produced by this morning’s shower offers none of those doggie enjoyments. When she runs down the beach, her paws reach sand and gravel. The new covering the beach is too shallow to muzzle rubbing. But she doesn’t throw in the brakes or try to coax me back to the car. She just ignores the way the flakes into her curls and trots along by my side.
For me, the snow is perfect—not too deep for walking but thick enough to enhance the angles and curves of the rocks that jut out into Lynn Canal.
The outdoor thermometer on Chicken Ridge promised a mild day for this time of year. If not for a brief snow shower that fell while I gathered things for today’s walk, winter would have seemed a long way off. Aki and I headed out to the wetlands to cruise for ducks or eagles. We only saw ravens.
The temperature during the walk never dropped below freezing but the wind chill made Aki shiver and me wish I had brought a heavier coat. At the beginning of the walk, we watched an airborne raven try to drive its brother off a scrap of food. After that it was all windblown grass and muddy trails. Well, that is not entirely true.
On the side of a large driftwood log, I found a little moss and lichen garden. Red lichen flowered among moss with leaves like tiny blades of grass. I would have never found this magic garden if not for the wind, which forced Aki and I behind the big log to warm up.
There is almost always an eagle in that cottonwood this time of year. Aki takes notice of my mumbling. The big birds always make her nervous. The eagle, marked with the white head and tail of an adult, watches us out of the corner of its eye. She is even wetter than my little dog.
From its cottonwood perch, the eagle can see the toe of Mendenhall Glacier poking out from a fog that hides the rest of the river of ice. Ghosts of mist float over Nugget Falls and the spruce covered hills that encroach on the east side of Mendenhall Lake. The resulting beauty helps me ignore the plink and plunk of raindrops hitting the hood of my rain parka.
The eagle can’t pull on a gore-tex coat when the weather worsens. It must endure and hope to scavenge some food to fuel its inter furnace. Is it dreaming of summer when salmon swim past its cottonwood tree on their way to spawn then become eagle and bear food? Or just does it just curse the rain and pray for a chance to dry out in the sun.
Aki wants to leave the Treadwell ruins for the beach even through a forty-mile-an-hour wind is whipping rain over the sand. I follow the little dog into the maelstrom. One of us knows what to expect.
We usually walk north down the beach to the little bay that formed more than 100 years ago when an undersea mine tunnel collapsed. On a calmer day we could expect to see a pair of eagles sulking on top of the old ventilation shaft. Two ravens are usually here looking for mischief. Today there is only a diminished raft of mallards huddling in the lee of a small point. Later we will see the ravens roosting on a pickup truck in the Foodland parking lot. They, will be staring at the Domino’s Pizza store, as if waiting for the cooks to finish the large meat lover’s special they ordered.
While I try to count the ducks, Aki sprints across the beach to take shelter in the border grass. In seconds she is standing at the start of a trail that leads back into the woods. I follow my poodle-mix into the forest. Steel rails that were once used by horse drawn carts to pull ore from the mine now twist and turn along the mossy ground. Some seem to erupt from the trunks of the spruce trees.