The Juneau Church of Powder and Shot has gathered with their weapons this morning at the gun range. They share a parking lot with users of the Montana Creek cross-country ski trails. Aki and her two humans, unbelievers all, walk away from the gun range. Each shot makes the little dog jump, as if they were aimed at one of us. She will calm down as soon as we start skiing. But I still wonder if it was mistake to bring her along.
We have to walk for a quarter of a kilometer on bare pavement or ice before we can ski. Just after clipping in my skis, I spot a man and woman slowly walking towards us. A makeshift sling immobilizes the woman’s left arm. She thinks that she separated her shoulder when her skis slipped and she fell. The grimace of pain on her face confirms her prognosis. The man holds her close to prevent another fall, like he might escort a wounded soldier from the battlefield. They walk toward the sound of booms and bangs of rifle shots.
I ski on until we reach a little hill covered with gray ice. Thinking about the woman, I take off my boards and walk to the bottom of the hill. We ski just past the three-kilometer sign and return to the car. The noisy creek obscures the gun sounds, the sun softens the snow. We can relax now that the ice has been turned into corn snow by the day’s growing warmth. But this is definitely the last time we will ski Montana Creek until next winter.
I was hoping to spot mountain goats on their daily search for food on the south-facing slope of Mt. Juneau, had to settle for a magic show put on by the sun. Aki didn’t try to console me. The little dog didn’t want make this walk up the Perseverance Trail. She wanted to hang around the house in case some cheese dropped from the breakfast plate of her other human. She didn’t accept my assurance that it was an oatmeal day.
Aki exhibited her bad mood by barking the minute I opened the door. She barked at every car, person, or raven that moved as we walked toward the mountains. She tried to drop a pile of scat in someone’s yard rather than wait the seconds it would take to reach a more socially acceptable spot. The little poodle-mix stopped more often than usual to sniff and pee. When I tried to photograph the bright line painted by the rising sun across Mt. Juneau, she jerked at her leash. Only when we made a turn for home did she show any enthusiasm for the walk or civility toward me.
Aki and left the house early today. We wanted to see Gastineau Meadows in the clarifying light that only lasts an hour after sunrise. Thinking, “you never know” I slipped my ice cleats into a jacket pocket. Now I am leaning against a bull pine trunk, attaching the cleats to my boots. Aki, who hasn’t slipped yet looks back at me with impatience. She starts back up the trail after hearing the crunch of my cleats on the dense snow cover.
In minutes we reach bare trail. The surrounding meadow is bare as well. I step off the gravel trail and find the meadow still firm from last night’s freeze. The sun has already burned away most of last night’s frost. I search for little depressions in the grass that still sparkle and find one dotted with wine-red cranberries. They ripened last fall and remained firm in spite of cycles of freeze and thaw. They are unaffected by the heavy snow that just last week covered them.
I pick a cranberry, find it firm but without the shinny surface it had just after ripening. It tastes complicated: mostly bitter, a little sweet with a musky base that reminds me of the meadow’s smell in fall time. I could fill my hand with cranberries and eat them during the meadow crossing but decide to leave them for berry eating birds and just awakening bears.
A harsh, almost equatorial sunlight bounced off the surface of the Treadwell glory hole. I tried to stare across that bay formed by the collapse of a mine tunnel, hoping to spot the belted kingfisher that was squawking out his territorial claim. Above and close, an unseen bald eagle screamed. After checking to make sure Aki was close and safe I spoted the eagle tucked into a crotch of prickly spruce branches. I wondered for the hundredth time at the fierce aggressiveness of the tiny kingfishers and the apparent cowardness of the powerful eagles.
Earlier, just after Aki and I dropped onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell woods, three kingfishers dog fought over Gastineau Channel, their chitterling calls as rapid as machine gun fire. A bald eagle roosting on top of the old mine ventilation shaft watched without concern. Perhaps the eagle knew it was not the kingfisher’s target.
Other birds made low flights over the little dog and I today. Early morning sun lit up the white patches on Canada geese as their “V” shaped formation moved toward the Mendenhall wetlands. Minutes later we watched the underside of a great blue heron as it flew close to my head, looking more dinosaur than bird.
Aki stops twenty feet behind me. A few days ago she would have been standing on ice. But that is gone, melted by the string of warm, sunny days that followed our last visit. “Why,” she seems to be saying, “are we back on the Fish Creek Delta?” If she were a human, I’d explain my intent to make many visits here so we can take an informal bird census. Because she would be that kind of human, she would press me until I admitted that I’d take any excuse to return to the rich and beautiful place.
I was pleased to find the trailhead parking lot empty when we arrived. As if to confirm that we were the day’s first human visitors, two braces of mallard ducks rested on a pond right next to the trail. They paddled without haste to edge of the pond and stepped onto the meadow grass.
The ebb tide provided ducks with exposed grassland for resting. A small raft of mallards slept on a nearby patch of grass, their necks buried into their back feathers. Another gathering of their cousins walked the shallows along the Fritz Cove beach, their heads plunged into the water. They ignored a gang of American Widgeons that splash down onto nearby water after being spooked by an eagle.
The still-hungry eagle screeched out a complaint and flew into the top of a beachside spruce. It clamped its talons tight around the springy branch, hunched its shoulders, and held on like a rodeo bull rider as the branch bounced up and down. After the movement stopped, the eagle raised its beak into the air and announced victory.
That’s it, I tell the little dog while sliding my skis into the car’s ski carrier. Aki looks puzzled. Perhaps I’ve chosen words with too many possible meanings. “That’s it” could mean, “that’s the skiing experience I have awaiting since first buying skis.” Since we are parked near the gun range, I could have meant, “the just concluded chorus of high powered rifle discharges precisely mimics the 1814 Battle of New Orleans.” I don’t have the heart to tell Aki that my words signal intent to put away the skis until winter’s return.
We just completed the 6-kilometer Montana Creek Trail. This time we didn’t have to dodge deep ruts made by a fool on his or her four wheel all terrain vehicle. The groomer did a great job leveling out the snow. But he wiped out the classic track in the process. I wouldn’t have minded skiing without a track. But the snow was icy-slick except where it had been softened by the strong spring sunshine.
I shouldn’t whine. We had solitude and a chance to listen to the creek chuckling and singing it’s way to sea, drowning out the sound from the gun range.
This morning broke sunny and blue. Three mountain goats grazed above us on Mt. Juneau as Aki and I headed out for a cruise around downtown I needed a light jacket at first but soon found myself carrying it. Crocuses opened to the sun in south facing yards. I silently thanked the gardeners who squatted down to plant bulbs in the rain last November.
We pass the tiny Russian church, thankful for the person who refreshed the gold paint on its onion dome. I seem to be giving thanks often this morning. Aki looks thankful for the sunshine warming her curls and the chance to check the trap line of scents she maintains on the downtown streets.
On South Franklin Street, a man carries a Styrofoam container from the homeless shelter to the stoop of the Red Dog Saloon. After taking a seat, he raises his face to the sun. His takeaway breakfast sits uneaten beside him. It will fill his stomach even when it loses its heat. Then he will have at least two things to be thankful for.
The snow is gone from the rain forest, washed away by rain and spring-like temperatures. It left behind bare ground covered with dead hemlock leaves and dissolving piles of dog poop. I tend not to look down this time of year unless necessary to avoid smearing my boots. For the nose-driven dog, the opposite is true.
While Aki sniffs and pees, I scan the woods surrounding the Outer Point Trail, looking and listening for signs of spring. No thrush or robin or chickadee sings or even flits away at our approach. Only my boot taps on the trail boards breaks the silence. Buds on the red-limbed blue berry bushes are swelling. In a week or two, if the weather holds, pink or white blossoms, each a tiny Japanese lantern, will dangle from each branch. They will draw rufus hummingbirds when they arrived from the south. In a swampy area near the beach, skunk cabbage shoots, battered by their efforts to break through softening pond ice, provide the strongest evidence of spring.
Aki has to squint her eyes when we leave the woods. A newly arrived sunlight brings a spring-like clarity to the scene. Alders still wet from this morning rain glimmer, naked drift wood logs look as white as desert bones.
At least a foot snow still covers the Montana Creek Trail. Thanks to the recent stint of spring weather the snow is soft but still skiable. Ahead, Aki’s other human starts down the chicane of three hills that starts the trail. The little dog chases her, charging down a deep grove cut by the wheel of an all terrain vehicle.
Early this morning some yob drove his or her four-wheeler up the trail, ripping it up. The anger I initially felt at having to ski in the resulting mess fades, calmed by the sounds of the creek and the Zen rhythm of skiing. By time we reach the turn around point I am no longer wishing great bodily harm on the person that chewed up the trail out of boredom or a desire to destroy something that provides an entry into the woods for those willing to make the effort.
On days like this, when the sky looks like dirty sheep’s wool and there is no wind to create drama, my mind wanders. I forget for moments to monitor Aki. There is little to endanger the poodle on this trail to Nugget Falls. When she finishes her most recent exploration, she will catch up.
Even though fuzzy catkins decorate bare willow branches, it doesn’t feel like spring. There is no sign that bears have stirred from their winter dens. No wolf tracks mark the remaining snow. No eagles bicker in the nearby spruce trees. Only the falls, now unfrozen, makes any sound.
Across the lake Mendenhall Glacier snakes down through rocky cliffs. We walk toward the falls in gray light until the sun breaks through the marine layer to give the dog and I crisp shadows. It forms faint rainbow prisms on the falls for a second and then disappears. High above the glacier a large mountain goat rests on a ledge. It appears to be looking at Aki and I rather than the glacier or the shafts of light glistening the lake ice. It appears to be in a philosophical mood.