Wondering if we can ski all the way to the river, I lead Aki past Skater’s Cabin and onto the still-snow-covered beach of Mendenhall Lake. The snow is softer than yesterday but still firm enough for skiing. Like yesterday, we have the place to ourselves.
Aki rolls in the snow and then plants her face in it. Holding a handful of the coarse-grained stuff is like holding a handful of cold sand. Crush it and you have an ice cube rather than a snow ball.
I ski parallel to yesterday’s tracks, surprised to see the tops of rocks poking up through them. On the way to the river, my skis break through a snow bridge over a narrow stream. Thanks to expanding bare spots along the river, I will have to carry my skis a longer distance than yesterday.
We pass divots in the snow formed by light, fallen objects rather than rocks. Sun heated things leaves, feathers, and tangles of tree lichen have melted the snow where they came to rest. I remember visit I made this time of year to Grayling on the Alaskan portion of the Yukon River. An Athabaskan man was scattering wood stove ash onto a bulldozer sized patch of snow. When I asked him why, he dug down until he struck the yellow-colored cab of a small Caterpillar earth mover.
It’s already 10 degrees Celsius and the sun’s been up for hours. Good thing I can hike in these ski boots, little dog. Aki, who knows she will get in a walk one way or another, doesn’t care what kind of boots I pull on this morning. After securing her in the car and fasten skis and poles on the roof top carrier, I drive out to Mendenhall Lake. A lot of snow covered the shore two days ago. Maybe we can still ski along the beach.
The warm, sunny weather has drawn people away from their home shelters. Cars fill the Fred Meyers parking lot. More head out Glacier Highway to drive thirty miles to the end of the road system and return. I expect to find the lake shore crowded with people escaping quarantine. But the Skater’s Cabin lot is empty as is the lake. This is almost as surprising as trail conditions. The temperature dropped below freezing last night long enough for a thick crust to form on the beach snow.
The little dog trots behind as I sneak onto the lake ice to skirt a bare spot in the beach. It holds, even offers good skiing. I think, for a few seconds, of leaving the safe, solid shore for the freedom offered on the lake ice. We could ski all the way to the glacier free from people and virus worries—establishing a social distance of six kilometers rather than the two meters we must struggle to maintain at the grocery store. But breaking through the lake ice far from help could create a social distance I could not close without becoming a ghost.
We return to shore and ski again to the river where mallards sunbathe on the snowy banks. Some fly further downstream when we approach. Most just ignore the little dog and I. The even ignore the martial sound of an avalanche crashing down the flank of Bullard Mountain.
There are no other humans or dogs in the forest but we are not alone. Like a lost explorer about to be snake bit in a equatorial jungle, I am almost deafened by the racket made by unseen birds. Varied thrush whistle, three-toed woodpeckers tap, Stellar’s jays and kingfishers scold. I search for a glimpse of a bird but have to settle for a spider web weighed down with rain.
Aki leads me around the now ice-free beaver pond. Was it just last week that we walked on ice across it to the beavers’ lodge? Rotting ice still covers parts of the pond but it will be gone soon. The green cones of skunk cabbage places poke up from the waters of a nearby stream. New blossoms hang like Japanese lanterns from blue berry plants. Spring has finally arrived in the woods.
I have better bird watching when we reach the beach. Mallards feed, heads plunged under the water, near the mouth of Peterson Creek. A raft of frisky golden eye ducks work water further off shore. I almost missed the American robin searching for food among dried stalks of beach grass. Aki never spotted the robin even though the bird and I stared at each other for more than a minute. I’m the first to look away.
Wanting at least one more chance to ski, I drive through the rain to Mendenhall Lake. We have it to ourselves. Fog and clouds obscure the glacier and mountains. Spruce covered peninsulas appear and disappear in the moving gloam. Aki breaks through the snow crust every fourth step while my skis keep me on top of it. For the first time all winter, I have it easier than the little dog.
At first, I am disappointed with the views. Then the glacier ghosts into view for a moment. The ice color deepens then fades. The glacier disappears. I can briefly make out the silhouette of a Canada goose and those of a raft of Canada geese. Then the soft power of the day returns.
We ski over to the river and follow it to a section broken into channels by rocky islands. It’s a place of eddies that trap food for mallards and swans. I count 9 trumpeter and (I think) 2 tundra swans. They must be new arrivals, taking a break from their northern migration. The trumpeters have formed a community on one of the islands. Resident mallard ducks crowd up close to them. Downriver, the two tundra swans cuddle off a snowy point.
Yesterday, after the fog burned off, Aki’s other human and I rode our bicycles to Sheep Creek. We enjoyed blue skies and a summer time temperature of 16 degrees Celsius. After his one-day visit, summer left with the sun, driven south by rain. The temperature dropped 12 degrees. We are back on skis with Aki in tow.
Only one car occupies the Skater’s Cabin parking lot when we arrive. It belongs to a dog walker that leaves as we carry our skis to the lake. We felt lucky to find a parking place on our last visit. We find Mendenhall Lake covered with turquoise colored ice. Snow, in some places more than 30 cm thick, still blankets the beach. Made just soft enough by the rain, the snow provides us great skiing.
After taking a few snow baths, Aki falls in behind me as we head toward the river. We visited with a family of swans several times on the river this spring. As I search for them, a northern harrier drops from the top of a spruce and glides across the river. Other than the resident mallards, the harrier will be the only bird we will see until just before we leave the river for the woods. Then our thee swans will appear from behind a downriver bend and fly away to the north.
Thick fog slowed our drive to the Fish Creek trailhead. But I am not hurry.I want to arrive at the creek mouth just as the fog lifts like a curtain. I’d settle for a chance to watch it tear itself apart on the spruce-covered Douglas Island Ridge.
Through a screen of alders, we can hear mallards cackling on meadow of dead grass. Wisps of fog rise up from around the ducks. A large raft of male golden-eye duck have taken over the pond. The most aggressive drakes try to drive the others away from a huddle of hens. On a quieter edge of the pond, two other golden-eyes paddle with the tranquility of an old married couple.
The fog thickens when we leave the pond. I start slow-walking my way toward the mouth, doddling often, seeing little. Several song sparrows cheer us with their short, but sweet melodies. Aki shows me the patience of a care giver at a senior citizen center.
The fog defeats my attempts to photograph with its gray cloak. Two eagles appear out of the muck, then disappear into a tangle of spruce limbs. Then the wind rises, stirring the occluding ground layer as the sun burns away fog that seconds before had blocked out view of the Mendenhall Towers.
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.
American painter Andrew Wyeth
For winter lovers like Wyeth and I, April can be the cruelest month. Not, as T.S. Elliot suggests, because we feel out of sync with the joyful explosion of spring. Elliot’s spirits apparently fell as the sap rose in the English countryside. It is because April begins by melting the simplifying snow and ends by hiding the bone structure of the land with new leaves.
This morning, while I struggle across softening snow on Gastineau Meadow, Aki stops often to discover smells hidden all winter. The whole meadow has become an antique store of smells. She stops, sniffs, digs a bit with her right paw, sniffs again, pees. Just yesterday I could have strolled across the meadow on frozen crust. No clouds would have complicated the simple lines of the surrounding mountains. No rain collected in the tracks of deer that crossed just before we arrived. We were free to move across the uncomplicated landscape over snow that protected the cores of wildflowers, berries, and sun dews from winter winds.
This post describes a walk yesterday, Easter Sunday.
This meadow was not my first venue choice. I wanted to walk with the dog along a beach offering views of the Chilkat Mountains and maybe the Mendenhall Glacier. But cars overflowed the beach trails parking lots. On a normal Easter Sunday, many trail users would be sitting in church, looking pretty in pastel ties or dresses. The pandemic closed our churches. This morning broke with springtime blue skies and strong sun. Are people worshipping with families under open skies?
Now we walk alone on an unnamed meadow. It offers mountain views. From the top of a mound of glacial erratics (large boulders dropped haphazardly by a retreating glacier) I can make out the tips of the Chilkats poking above a line of spruce trees. The meadows also offers solitude. At first we only share it with eagles, ravens, and blue jays. Then the sound of squealing children floats over the snow-covered ground from the eastern edge of the meadow.
Aki is searching for her Frisbee, which, thanks to an errant throw, is hiding in a tangle of pines. The children must be searching for Easter eggs hidden by parents. I hope they find them all before the ravens do.
This meadow would be almost quiet if not for a nearby Glacier Highway. During breaks in traffic, Aki and I can hear siskins and junkos busy hunting in alders and damaged pines. A jagged line of mountain peaks show above the tops of a spruce forest that starts on the other side of the highway.
Dense snow covers the muskeg even though the temperature is already well above freezing. Aki rolls in the sugary snow as I study a straight line of tracks left by a large canine this morning. Should we follow what could be wolf tracks or pass through a screen of alders to visit a watercourse controlled by beavers?
Remembering the large beaver dam on the other side of the alders, I lead the little dog to a narrow but deep creek. Upstream is otter country. But recent warm weather has destroyed the otter’s slides.
A few meters downstream is a beaver lodge mostly hidden by snow. Water cascading over the beaver dam blocks the road noise. I’m struck with the parallel of this meadow visit to a walk across land bordering a train line. When on trains in Europe, Britain, Scandinavia, or Japan, I find myself staring at these waste lands. Some look wild enough to shelter otters or badgers. On a ride through the Sami country of Sweden, a small herd of reindeer raced my train. Around cities, the railroad border lands have been divided into garden allotments. I imagine siting in the doorway of one of the little allotment shacks, sipping coffee from a thermos mug, watching tomatoes swell in the summer sun.
Does the noise of rushing trains annoy an allotment gardener like today’s traffic noise bothered me, or does it carry away urban stress like a river, like spring melt rushing over a beaver dam?
Aki has the sense to shelter behind a driftwood windbreak. Wanting to photograph a group of exhausted looking waterfowl, I let the wind chill me and shake my camera as I point it at the birds. One stands on one leg. The rest have flattened themselves against a mid-channel gravel bar. All, even the standing one, have tucked their beaks into their back feathers. The birds don’t flinch when a dog barrels down the beach on the opposite shore of the river.
The photos I take will be too blurry for me to identify the tired birds. I know that they are not part of the Canada goose gang that winters in the rain forest. They are nattering just upriver from the sleeping geese. I see a slash of white on one bird. Maybe they are brants. Rest while you can travelers. The flood tide will flush you off the gravelbar in a few hours.
The local Canadians huddle fifty meters away. Their watchman honks out an alarm when another dog bursts out of the opposite shore woods and gall lumps toward the river. The locals form a single file line behind the watchman and trot away from the dog.
Two other Canada geese linger on their own in the middle of a different gravel bar. When spooked by a pair of hikers, the geese flee. I expect them to join their cousins. But they spiral up until high above the river, then fly up river to a quieter place.