Aki and I are heading to Nugget Falls. Deep snow covers the trail. We do okay as long as we stay in the trough pounded into the soft snow by the boots of other hikers. The trail offers some lovely views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. But reaching the best vantage points would require tramping through fifty meters of soft, wet snow.
The soft snow hinders Aki. She can’t reach bushes peed on my other dogs before the snow crust melted away. The little dog takes station behind me in the trench. We pass several willow shrubs that have pussy willows (catkins) decorating their upper branches. I want to get close enough to photograph these premature signs of spring but not if it means coming home with snow in my boots. Then I think, what would be so bad about that.
While Aki watches from the packed trail, I plod several meters to some catkins, each boot sinking forty centimeters into snow, until reaching the willow. The catkins have shed their protective shells and are already expanded as if summer was just around the corner.
Two adult bald eagles watch Aki and I walk out of old growth woods and onto a snow-covered beach. Before we appeared they were probably watching ducks. There must be over a thousand of them just offshore: scoters, golden eyes, mallards, and my favorites—the harlequins. The golden eyes seem the most jumpy. In twos and threes they fly away, their wings imitating the maniacal call of Curley, one of the Three Stooges. The scoters are the most organized. Their large raft forms and reforms shapes like a American high school band at a football game. A half-dozen mallards watch all this from the beach. A few feet away, harlequins paddle with their heads plunged into the water.
I’m thankful for the chance to watch the ducks being ducks, not waterfowl made tense by eagle dives or aggressive dogs. But it is puzzling that the eagles haven’t tried pluck one of the unsuspecting harlequins from the water.
Aki’s having fun porpoising through the beach snow. She even ignores the siskins and thrush bouncing from limb to limb in the beachside alders. The little dog doesn’t object when we drop down onto bare section of the beach. The last flood tide has carried away the snow, leaving behind piles of severed seaweed.
Just after we find a set of fresh deer tracks, the first of 11 large dogs charges up to me. They are loose, but relatively well behaved. The dogs’ human handler carries a half-gallon sized bag for collecting their poop so he is not a yob. But any chance of spotting the deer is now gone. In seconds the dogs will be charging down the beach, stirring ducks, and maybe eagles to flight. We move on, saddened that the trail ahead, the one just transited by the dog pack, will have been swept clean of wild things.
I was in the mood for solitude so I drove Aki to the Mendenhall Peninsula trailhead. Falling snow slowed traffic and deadened the view from Egan Highway. Only one car was parked near the trailhead. No tracks led from it. The scent of marijuana smoke hung in the air. The driver of the parked car was putting his solitude to use.
The little dog and I followed an informal trail across a forested side hill. The trail is tricky on a dry sunny day. This morning’s thin screen of snow made it worse. The nimble Aki had no problems reaching the water. She waited a long time to me to join her. We spooked a raft of mallards and watched them fly over the Mendenhall River. If the sun were shinning, the ducks’ shadows would have touched a cruising seal.
We saw two other seals and a sea lion before returning the forest. Seals normally slip quietly beneath the water’s surface. One we spotted today crash dived, like it was in a hurry to catch prey. It reappeared near the far shore of the river. I wondered if it had been day dreaming when it looked over and spotted the poodle mix and I on the beach.
An eagle scream diverted my attention away from the seals. We watched an eagle join its noisy mate in the top of a spruce tree. No food hung from the talons of the new arrival. I suspect that it’s mate’s scream was a scold, not a welcome home greeting.
The weather folks have predicted eight more days of snow, except for Wednesday and Thursday, when there should be rain. But we’re enjoying partly cloudy skies. Most of the mountains along Gastineau Channel are lit up with sun. We get these little gifts during the unsettled times between Pacific storms.
Aki and I head out to Skater’s Cabin for a ski along the edge of Mendenhall Lake. The little dog lets me break trail over snow that seems perfect for the task. On our right, snow-burdened spruce trees poke into a brindled-blue sky. To our left the glacier and Mts. McGinnis and Stroller White glow with filtered sunlight. No else is around to share the view.
I feel a little sorry for Aki at times like this. The snow has covered all the interesting scents. No dog is around to greet or sniff. She can’t even find a squirrel to chase.
I ski over to the river and then down it, passing two merganser ducks asleep in a wide eddy. They bob across the river reflection of Mt. Stroller White. We cross fresh tracks of a river otter from the woods to the water. It might have just dived into the river. I expected Aki to at least sniff the tracks but she keeps her nose up as she trots over them.
The little dog and I just left the main moraine trail for an informal one that winds through blue berry bushes and spruce trees. Poor soil has stunted the spruce. They allow more snow to reach the ground than old growth trees. Some of snowflakes have formed a small cylinder at the end of a single strand of spider silk.
Aki is thirty meters down the trail. She gives me her “time’s a wasting” look. She’ll be back at my feet soon if I don’t press to join her. But I have to steal some time to ponder. Was this spider tread created last summer when there was a good chance it would snare flying insects? Or is the spider that made it hiding now, just out of sight? If I could find her, I’d ask if there are mosquitos are out there dodging snowflakes. If not, is she an artist with a cache still full of last summer’s harvest?
Sunshine lights up our street just as Aki and I pass out the front door. We walk onto our unploughed street and into a very confused weather situation. The sun’s appearance didn’t end a snow shower that began a couple of hours. Newly-whitened Mt. Juneau shines bright in the sunshine while snow clouds darken the skies over Gastineau Channel. A croaking raven flies over our heads, snowflakes softening its silhouette against the blue sky. Before we reach the end of the block, the gray returns.
We drop down the hill, passing the grounds of the Catholic church where a sparrow, nestled into a nest of snow, sings its spring song. The lilting melody cannot end winter, or even stop the falling snow. But I take a little time to enjoy it.
Later, while climbing up Gastineau Avenue, we hear a more seasonal bird song—the complaints of two eagles perched in a cottonwood tree.
The beach is empty and so is the little cove the beach fronts. Aki and I are only ones making tracks on the snow-covered beach. While I search for the raft of golden eye ducks that usually fish these waters, an eagle flies from the top of a spruce tree and flies across the cove. It flushes to flight hundreds of gulls that had been resting on the opposite shore.
During the food-rich summer, gulls ignore an eagle flying overhead. But this is famine time for the big birds. This one must have already tried to snatch one of the gulls. I imagine the eagle also tried for one of the ducks.
We take a trail off the beach and over a headland to another bay. A raft of nervous golden eye ducks fishes offshore. Other ducks, in groups of twos and threes fly over to join them. When something spooks them, all the golden eyes panic into flight and soon disappear. Where Outer Point pushes out into Stephens Passage, a couple hundred scoters burst into brief flight and then regroup back on the water. I wonder if his is all the work of the one eagle.
After our hike, I look for the golden eye ducks while driving home. They must have turned north into Lynn Canal. But we do spot the Fritz Cove pod of Stellar sea lions growling and lounging. An adult male sea lion can be 11 feet long and weigh over a ton. Females weigh 800 pounds. The eagle that flushed to birds poses no threat to them. Only killer whales can interfere with their leisure time.