Minutes after we leave the Treadwell woods, two border collies start stalking Aki. They look so similar that I wonder if a sheep dog factory stamped them out. One of the collies is stretched out on the snow, head down, front legs stretched out, ready to charge forward. The other one creeps forward slowly, head down, using mincing steps. Now I know how a lost sheep must feel.
We are not in New Zealand and Aki is a poodle, not a lamb. As if to make that point two eagles roosting on the roof of the mine ventilation shaft let out their keening calls. I check the eyes of the collie dogs and then those of their owner. Finding no meanness, I relax and enjoy my little dog’s reaction.
Aki stands as tall as she can, tail a metronome. When one of the collies breaks toward her, she dashes forward to meet him. They sniff and then Aki runs a circle around me, her tail now an invitation for the collies to chase her. When they do, she yips and drops low onto the sand. Normally the poodle-mix can always win this game. But these two sheep dogs work together to herd her, like seals driving pink salmon into a trap. Aki has met her match.
Aki and I are paying a visit to the harlequins and the other ducks that winter at the old Auk Village site. It snowed last night and will snow again before the sun sets. An 18 foot high tide covers the beach and erodes the snow blanket covering the grass lands between the forest and the beach. Our duck friends take advantage of the tide to hunt close the snow for food. Offshore two western grebes fish deeper waters. Filtered sunlight strikes the harlequins, placing the clownish ducks on the center stage of this snowy circus.
Aki and I are enjoying the Rain Forest Trail. She got to play with a German Sheppard who was nosing around the parking lot when we arrived at the trailhead. Energized, she runs over the packed snow of the trail. I try to keep pace, ignoring the beauty of the forest.
Even though only 5% of the forest trail offers a beach view, I rarely stop to photograph anything in the woods. It has all the stately beauty of an old growth forest: thick trunked spruce and hemlock, displays of old man’s beard lichen, a roof-like canopy and moss covered floor. If I stopped to compare, I am sure I’d find each tree has its own character.
Following the impatient poodle-mix onto the beach, I learn that we are the first visitors of the day. Gulls lounge on beach rocks just cleared of snow by the tide. Golden eye and mallard ducks slip into the water but stay close to the shore. Eight more golden eye ducks drop onto the water to join the others. The ducks are too busy earning a living to acknowledge our presence.
I always feel a little guilt when snowshoeing over an untouched snow cover. Until the next snowfall, no one else will see this snowy meadow free of human tracks.
The place is not pristine. Non-human animals have marked the snow. Two hundred meters in we will find a single set of canine tracks, wolf or coyote, dimpling the snow. Last night a snowshoe hare left evidence of its passing. Parallel lines of tiny tracks, as close together as the stitches on a baseball lead toward the trunk of bull pine.
The carnage caused by three sets of snowshoes and a small poodle will memorialize our passage until the next storm arrives tomorrow night. Then wind and snow will erase the evidence of our passage.
When the winter wind blows in a normally calm place like Mendenhall Lake, it can sting. Aki knows this. If she didn’t before, she is learning it now. She trots just behind one of her humans as he skis into a thirty-knot wind. The skier takes the brunt of the wind. It flows over his unprotected face, making the 22-degree air feel like zero. Cleaver Aki uses him like a windbreak.
It’s not all beer and skittles for the little dog. When her humans spread out she must leave her wind shadow and run back to round up someone who has stopped to photograph the glacier. Then she squints her eyes into the wind, spots her other charge and runs full tilt to him. In a minute she is back urging the photographer not to doddle.
This was to be an easy walk through the Treadwell woods. The sun had managed to break through mottled sky. With the temperature just above freezing we expected a walk in the park.
We had it easy at first. Previous dog walkers had broken a trail through the foot of new snow that covered the forest floor. Aki bounced ahead, stopping often to pee or sniff. I unzipped my jacket and shoved my mittens into a pocket.
I walked toward the beach, attracted by what sounded like a series of express trains moving through a tunnel. Aki reluctantly followed me until the trail disappeared.
I carried the little dog across a drifted-over streambed and then onto a snow-covered dune. Aki made to turned back when she felt the first strong gust of wind blow snow into her fur. But she perked up when we reached the frozen sand of the beach.
The poodle-mix charged down the beach as if in a race with the streams of windblown snow that skidded over the sand. She disappeared for a moment in a whiteout. Seconds later I spotted her sheltering behind a weathered piling. When the wind dropped she charged back to me and then took a trail off the beach. That’s the smart move little dog, I said as I followed her into the sheltering woods.
Because the skiing is still good here, the little dog and I have returned to Mendenhall Lake. Last night a half-a-foot of snow fell. But thanks to the ski club groomers, we have a well-packed trail. Otherwise Aki’d be wallowing in soft snow.
A flat light dominates the lake and the mountains that surround it. I miss the sunshine and blue skies that we enjoyed during our last visit. But the new snow that clings to spruce trees and bare-branched alders provides its own bright beauty.
The rain forest sees more cloudy days than sunny ones. When a day breaks clear after a storm, the scenes enjoyed during the sunny hours that follow can seem as rich as a North Douglas Chocolate Cake. We ignore the shapes and sights that moved us on soft, gray days. This afternoon, I’m relieved that the recently sunny spell didn’t rob me of the rain forest knack of recognizing beauty in the simplest things.