Aki, who had been squealing like child Christmas morning when I parked the car, hesitates when I open the door. She can hear the rain slamming the car windshield and feel wind rocking the car. She stares at the icy ground coated with a thin slick of rainwater. Then she leaps out of the car, waddles without conviction to a patch of snow, and pees.
Water the color of tea streams over the ice still covering Fish Creek. Ice covers the trail too, making it a tricky passage for poodle and her human. Aki gives me her, “Are you sure you want to do this?” look. We are banking Karma, pooch. The big K will owe us if we slip and slide, head into rain and wind, around the pond and down to the creek mouth. What will the pay off be? The orca wolf pack rounding False Outer Point? We are more likely to see a deer sheltering in the old growth.
Aki gets her reward before we reach the pond. A fat golden retriever galumphs up, tries to stop on the slick ice, and goes into a 180 slide. My guy backtracks to facilitate the doggie meet and greet. Perked up, Aki trots around the pond then stalls when wind forces her head down. I lead on, sure that anyone willing to lean into cold and wet wind on such a flat light day is entitled to a special treat. But no killer whales slice through the waters of Fritz Cove, no deer huddles just off the trail. Something spooks a gathering of gulls when we reach the creek mouth. They form a sparce, white cloud in front of the barely discernable glacier. That will have to do little dog.
I heard their snuffling behind me before I saw them. Two golden retrievers, each wearing a cowboy-style bandana instead of a collar, surprise Aki while she is sniffing some pee mail. It makes me wonder about my little dog’s hearing. I could hear the retrievers even over the sound of my skis.
The campground trail, where Aki and I are traveling, is covered with firm snow. After she plays with the two goldens, the poodle-mix tears ahead. She manages to run in one of the set ski tracks. She disappears around the corner, leaving me to wonder how she manages not to trip up in the narrow track.
This is not one of my favorite places to visit. With its groomed trails that wind through a thick spruce forest, it feels more like an athletic field than a wild place. I can glimpse the river when the trees thin out. Each time I do I want to step out of my skis and walk down the river bank where a brace of mergansers or a nervous deer might be seen. But the glide and slide rhythm of skiing is addictive. And Aki is always just ahead, drawn down the trail by lingering smells.
Aki stands on the other side of a thick strip of slick ice. She crossed it with only a minor slip, thanks to the handy nails on her claws. I was trying to figure out the best way to cross the barrier when she moved to the other side with a poodle’s nonchalance. I could call her back but I’d like to join her on the False Outer Point beach trail. All that stands between me and it is the two-meter thick ice stream.
Hunching over like one of my Neanderthal ancestors, I crab across the ice, reaching the relative safety of the snowy trail in time to bag a pile of poop just deposited by the little dog. Fortunately, I only have to leap across an icy section of trail to reach the trash can.
The usual raft of Barrow golden eye ducks float just off the beach. But the usual rope of severed seaweed is absent. Recent storm tides must have carried it away. In exchange, the tide dropped a driftwood log—the corpse of a hemlock that had been twisted by years exposed to the wind. One of the knotholes mimics the eye of a judgmental whale. No human abstractionist could capture the life story of the tree that is there in the tree’s grain for any passerby to see.
I stumble on a barnacled-covered rock while rounding the point. The sound of it startles an eagle to flight. As snow pellets start to fall, the eagle catches an updraft and is soon high over Fritz Cove. As Aki waits patiently by my side, the eagle circle over the water. In seconds its mate joins it. A minute later there are four eagles circling above the cover, then six. Together they climb until lost to use in the snow clouds.
Just where Basin Road curves onto the old trestle bridge that provides access to Perseverance Trail, a colony of ferns grows. Still green in spite of the recent stretch of cold weather, when the temperature dropped to near zero F., they seem unaffected by today’s heavy snow. Aki is no mood to appreciate the ferns’ adaptability. She drags me onto the bridge, drawn no doubt by smells in danger of being obscured by new snow.
Large snowflakes flutter onto the snow-covered trail. The clouds that dropped them obscure the slopes of Mt. Juneau. The hemmed in mountain valley feels cozy rather than claustrophobic. Aki, anxious to find and mark ever piece of pee mail, can’t appreciate the peace of this place.
We linger longer than usual in the valley and take a roundabout trail back home. The trail is untracked except by two deer that used the trail during the night. Aki lets me break trail for her in the six-inch-deep snow.
On the approach to the trestle bridge we discover another colony of green ferns. A thick icicle is forming around one of the ferns, doing it no apparent damage.
The snow, which kept other dog walkers from Sandy Beach, is having no apparent affect on the mallards. They chuckle and float just offshore. The quarter (or Euro) sized snowflakes confuse my camera but not my eye. Seeing the ducks clearly, I say, “What a piece of work is man, little dog.” Aki doesn’t hear me. She is down the beach, peeing on a clump of grass.
What a piece of work is this day, I mutter to myself. The still flooding tide pushes high up the snow-covered beach. It stripped away snow from the old wharf pilings, leaving a coating of white on the piling parts it can’t reach. Pancakes of snow bump into the shore and each other as tiny swells roll into the beach.
We round a point and spot more ducks swimming under alder branches that are bent over with snow. The little dog and I will have to shimmy our way under, over, and around a tangle of alders to reach the trail into Treadwell Woods. The ducks pay us little attention even though we come within a few meters of them during our passage. We are close enough to a drake to see a teardrop of water slip from its beak and plop into the water.
Aki has a perfectly fine sand for walking but she insists on using the snow-covered portion of the Auk Bay Beach. I’m cruising on the bit washed clean by the last flood tide. The Auk people once launched their ocean-going canoes from this crescent-shaped beach.
No rain falls on the little dog or I. That may change soon. Translucent storm clouds hang low over nearby Douglas and Admiralty Islands like a curse. If the temperature doesn’t drop back to winter-normal, we will lose our snow. Maybe that is why the poodle-mix prefers to make her tracks in the remaining white stuff.
Off Point Louisa, something, maybe an eagle, stirs a raft of Barrow goldeneye ducks to flight. They land near the outlet of a small stream and begin splashing about in the surf line. The tiny waves seem made for surfing ducks. They rise and fall with each set as stern-looking gulls watch from the beach.
It took me a few minutes to find Aki so I could invite her on a walk. It was hard. She had hunkered herself far under a bed. The snow stopped an hour ago as did the wind. It was a degree above freezing. I wanted to tell the little dog that she’d enjoy the planned visit to Outer Point Trail.
It was to be our first walk since my return from the north. It blew 90 knots the last time we walked together. Aki must have expected more of the same today. She shivered while we drove out to trailhead even as hot air from the car heater blew on her. Her mood changed when I parked. She squeaked and leaped onto the snow-covered ground. High winds and cold forgotten, she trotted ahead of me down the trail, tail a metronome.
As we moved through the old growth I thought of the almost judgmental light of North Alaska that I had to squint into two days ago. It brought out beauty and clarity but little comfort. Today’s gray’s light is as comforting as a hug.
As a light snow began to fall, we reached the beach. Rafts of ducks, harlequins and golden eyes, dived on feed. Ten meters away from the ducks, a seal surfaced and gave me the saddest stare—as sad as a boy last picked to play ball, a girl betrayed by her best friend.
Last night ninety knot gusts rattled our house windows and kept the little dog and her humans from having a good night sleep. Aki and I needed a wind-free zone for our morning walk. We found one. Not even a breeze touched us as we cross the glacial moraine. The temperature was a balmy 19 F. Snow still weighed down the trailside trees while back home, our trees had long been stripped bare by Taku winds.
We walked, for the first time this winter, on lake ice. The recent freeze up solidified the winter trail across the moraine to Mendenhall Lake. Snow softened the lines of the beavers’ dams and made it almost impossible to make out the shape of their house. We were free to cross their swampy pond and walk between the dead-gray sticks that were once healthy spruce trees.
Aki seemed quite at home on the snow, perhaps because she wore her two heaviest wraps. I would have worn my insulated overalls. If I had, I might not have been able to gauge the cold and its effects on the little dog. When I felt chilled, I turned us back toward the car. I am better suited than Aki to be the canary in the coal mine.
I am still at writer’s school in sub-zero Talkeetna. If I am not careful, every photo I take will have Denali in it. They call it the great one for a reason. Denali and its big buddies in the Alaska Range distract me from the clarity of near-arctic light. The sun rises late, cruises low over the southern horizon, and drops like an orange basketball into a basket of riverside willows.
At the sun’s rising and setting, it underlines a transient blue sky with tropical yellows and oranges. In the hours between, its ;eight bounces on painfully white snow and throws strong shadows from the town’s birches and aspens.
Aki, you wouldn’t like this. It’s 2 degrees F. below zero. Two snowmachines snarl around me on their way to the Talkeetna River. The cold seems to amplify the noise and thicken the snowgos’ exhaust smoke. When the machines drive between the setting sun and me, the exhaust takes on an orange tinge. No, little dog, if here, you’d be begging to be carried back to the Roadhouse.
I shuffle along the snowmachine trail, slipping every fifth step on glazed snow. It’s been twenty years since I’ve approached a frozen river while subzero temperature numbs my cheeks. Remembering previous experiences with minor frostbite, I free a hand from its mitten and warm the affected spots. I came to Talkeetna for writing school, not first aid.
A sign near the riverbank warns against walking on the river. I can hear the sound of current running through patches of open water where the Talkeetna river joins the larger Susitna. On the other side of the rivers rises Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. Seeing it in this clear winter light, you’d think that you could reach its summit in a day.