Aki and I are walking through the ruins of winter. At least that is how it seems. No snow clings to the trailside trees or hides the forest floor. Ice only covers two-thirds of the pond, and that is paper thin. A strip of denser ice covers the trail. It will soon be gone unless the north wind returns our winter.
This is not the spring of fresh growth and bird song—it is the time for mud and dead grass. We will see four eagles on our walk to salt water. All of them will be roosting on mid-channel navigation markers. One Canada goose will fly over calling out for companions. We will never spot its flock.
None of this desolation will bother a merganser drake floating on a disintegrating ice island. True, its red-colored head feathers will be all ahoo. But that’s normal for the fish ducks. It will float by an ice remnant that looks like a sea wolf. I will wonder if the first artist in this area were inspired by such stubborn pieces of dying ice.
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.
Aki and I are in the car, waiting for the left turn arrow to turn green so we can drive onto the Douglas Island Bridge. The light standard sways up and down with the wind. It’s one degree above freezing. Snowflakes swirl around the car. Maybe this is not such a good idea, little dog.
Aki whines, like she does every time we approach a trail head. I drive on even though the wind whistles through the car’s ski rack. After I park nAki leaps out of the car, slides a bit on the snow-covered pavement, and is stunned by wind-driven snow. In seconds she climbs over a snow berm and starts down the trail.
MmThe little dog is too busy checking pee mail to notice two ravens huddled together on the path. They ignore us for a bit, then start sashaying away, sweeping their tails back and forth in a 10-centimeter arc. What a couple of brats.
Even though we are tucked away in the Treadwell Woods, we can hear the wind vibrating through the trees and waves hitting the beach. A duet for wind and water. I should stay in the woods, but can’t resist venturing out onto the beach. A single gull sleeps, standing on one leg, near the water line. Through a veil of blowing snow, we can just make out the remains of an avalanche that crashed down the side of Mt. Roberts after the weather warmed.
The north wind gives, the south wind takes, and the east wind opens the door to both, little dog. Aki doesn’t care which way the wind is blowing today, as long it is mild. She is enjoying the spring-like feel of the warmer air, and the smell of meadow grass just free from its overburden of snow. We are walking along Fish Creek, trying to reach a patch of sun lit meadow before it disappears.
I know that winter is not done with us yet. That’s not a bad thing. I enjoy skiing and snow shoeing under winter-blue skies. Aki likes to follow behind as long as she can stop from time to time and plunge her face into the snow. But spring brings nearer the smells, sights, and excitement of summer. It brings the salmon and all the birds and bears that feed on them.
We reach the patch of sunny meadow just in time to watch it darken into gray. But for a couple of seconds the sun warmed our faces. The murder of crows that raise their young in nearby woods each summer have arrived. Some squawk in the forest. Others crowd gulls on the wetlands hunting for food. In the creek, a half-dozen American widgeons mingle with the resident mallards.
The appearance of the widgeons and crows could signal the onset of spring. Neither are normally seen along the creek in winter. But the wind is blowing from the southeast and could veer north. Then the crows and widgeons might have to shiver through more weeks of winter before true spring.