The last time we passed by a beaver pond, Aki trotted out on the ice before I could stop her. This morning, she wants no part of this pond. With her paws firmly planted on solid earth, the little dog watches me ease onto the ice. It holds firm as I creep over to an island where the beavers have their lodge.
The ice formed quickly enough to trap sticks, blades of grass, bubbles of air, and even feathers. The encapsulated sticks look as gray as death. I feel like I am walking on ghosts. Aki joins me when I am only a few meters away from the beavers’ house. Small logs, each stripped of bark, lay scattered around the lodge like chicken bones outside the widow of a lazy teenager. But we can’t see any other evidence of the beavers’ presence. The big rodents must be inside sleeping.
I take a meandering route back to trail. Aki makes a bee line back. What does the little dog sense that I don’t? Can she hear sounds that warn of thinning ice or smell a predator? We heard an eagle scream on our way here. That must be it. Not feeling vulnerable to threats from the air I stop often to study the things trapped in ice.
I’d expect more unpleasantness in hell. But for a cross country skier, Montana Creek might be offering a taste of purgatory. Aki wouldn’t agree. She is having a great time racing back and forth between her other human and me. Already forgotten is the first half-a-kilometer of the trail where blasts from the gun range made it impossible for her to hear my calming words.
I just avoided a nasty fall when tree moss on the trail brought one ski to a stop while the other one pulled me down the hill. Now climbing up a hill, my skis can’t get a purchase on the ice-slick trail. Aki’s other human is having an easier time with her skate skis.
When the grade flattens out, the shushing sound of the snow-thaw stream will calm me. I’ll notice its beauty. The meter-deep mounds of snow that cover every rock and log in the creek are shrinking. Some have been reduced to a rime of ice that covers the round rocks like a short-cropped wig. Little falls of melt water pour from beneath each surviving snow mound.
Aki and I are cruising through a section of old growth forest turned in to marshland by beavers. Hardened by last night’s hard freeze, the supersaturated ground can no longer pull at my boots or stain Aki’s fur the color of strong tea. A small stream drained this patch of forest when Aki was a puppy. Spongy moss softened the ground. Then the empire building beavers expanded their realm by damming the stream.
Live spruce trees still grow on tiny islands in the pond. Soon they will die. To hasten the process along, beavers have denuded the lower trunks of two of the larger trees. I lose track of Aki as I cautiously approach the pond’s edge. Stepping onto a spot of bog kept soft by a warm-water spring could mean a soaking—something to avoid on this 23-degree (F.) morning. There is no way I’ll chance walking on the pond ice.
The marsh was dusk-gray when we neared the beaver pond. Now shafts of the day’s first light paint long, straight-edged tree shadows on the ice. Backlit tree moss glow an electric green. Standing at the pond’s edge, I raise my camera to photograph the light’s impact on the pond and find Aki trotting into my frame. An image of her rolling on a pile of beaver scat, face holding a blissful smile pops into my mind. Aki must be looking for more.
Hoping not having to test the holding strength of the ice, I whistle for my little dog. She hunches for a moment, like she does when she finds my commands tedious. Then she trots further onto the pond. I whistle again. Aki sniffs at a beaver-scared tree, pees, and trots off the ice.
This morning’s sun has the power to brighten the snow and throw shadows off the trailside alders. It warms the shade of blue in the cloudless sky. But it does little to protect Aki from the chilling effects of the wind. She darts sideways when hit by a gust that would otherwise hit her exposed rear end. We are climbing toward Gastineau Meadows. I’d give up on the trip if we weren’t only a few meters from where the trail enters a forest.
We pass the place where a lynx scored the snow with its claws. I can’t help imagining the wild cat flying across the crusted snow, snatching my poodle-mix, and disappearing into the woods. Aki has dropped behind me to sniff trail sign. I feel relieved when she catches up.
Many boots have pounded out a trail in the snow, forming a rut that is deeper than Aki is tall. It protects her from wind gusts that slam across the trail when we emerge from the forest. She still isn’t reluctant to follow me onto a shallower trail that will take us deep into the meadow. There we pass a runner and his very-serious husky dog. The runner and I both leave the trail, leaving four meters of space between us. Aki tries unsuccessfully to engage the dog.
The meadow should be covered with tracks. On past visits we spotted those of a wolf and slightly older ones made by a deer. But today, I can’t even find snowshoe hare tracks. The sky is as empty. Between wind gusts, we have silence until a Stellar Jay scolds us. I’d still rather hear the bossy bird than yet another pandemic story.
Aki takes the lead when we turn back toward the car. She is ten meters ahead when ahead if us a deer takes a tentative step onto the trail. The deer watches the little dog sniff some pee mail and then reply in kind. Before Aki notices it, the deer slow walks across the trail and disappears into the woods. Aki never saw the deer, but she did stop and sniff at the tracks it left in the trail snow.
I’m in a stare down with a raven that has just stopped searching a mound of dirty snow for food. It turned its head to focus an eye on me. I’m on my way to pick up an order of garlic eggplant from a Chinese restaurant. Even though I am hungry from skiing and the heavily spiced eggplant will melt in my mouth, I stop to return the raven’s stare.
If he had grabbed me with a stare while I was on my way out of the restaurant, I’d assume that he was lobbying for one of my fortune cookies. But my hands are empty. He looks like he’s seen many Alaska winters. Perhaps he is a wise one, gathering information about humans to pass on to newly hatched chicks. This raven is only one of many birds that have recently locked eyes with me. I am yet to come with an acceptable explanation for any of my near-bird experiences.
I wish I’d seen this or any raven while Aki and I skied this morning along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. But the conditions were wrong for bird watching. A glacial wind was scouring the lake ice of snow. It blew away the swan family we had visited on recent visits. Even the kittiwakes that made such a racket while gathering on the river waters were absent. Smart birds, like ravens, were hunting for scraps on wind-sheltered sections of the wetlands or mooching for snacks in parking lots.
It’s Sunday morning. Almost all the town’s churches are closed thanks to a government order prohibiting public gatherings. That order hasn’t prevented the Sunday Morning Church of Powder and Shot from holding service.
The church’s congregants sit behind shooting benches, each at least six feet way from their neighbors. There’s is not a church for music lovers or those who look for inspiration from a well delivered homily. They have no prayer or song books, just high-powered rifles, which they point at paper targets. As Aki’s other human and I step into our cross-country skis, the congregants fill the air with, for them, the joyful noise of rifle fire.
I pray for the riflemen to stop shooting long enough for us to put a half-a-kilometer between the gun range and Aki. But the firing continues. The little dog gallops alongside her humans as we ski down a series of small slopes to Montana Creek. A narrow bridge crossing the creek bares a pretty heavy snow load. Meter-deep mounds of snow cover rocks and the tangle of trees that have fallen onto the creek.
We start the steady climb required to reach the end of the trail. The sound of rifle fire mixes with that of the fast-moving creek. We won’t hear the song birds choir until the gunfire ends.
Two of our cross country venues ran out of snow this weekend. Their groomers loaded up their machines and hauled them to summer storage. That’s why Aki’s other human and I brought our skis and the little dog to Mendenhall Lake. This might be one of the last times we will be able to ski this spring. Last night’s snow evened out many of the ruts made by skiers during the recent thaw. But the ice is thin. Cautious skiers might avoid the lake today and use the trail set on the campground road system.
We are tentative at first, at least Aki’s humans are. The little dog speeds onto the lake and rolls like spring bear in the snow. I drop into the kick-slide-kick rhythm of the classical skier, passing the little dog, heading toward the glacier. The lake ice doesn’t crack under me. Water doesn’t bubble up to fill my tracks. But the tips of my old ski poles sink a few centimeters when I plant them in the ice. On our last lake ski, my tips bounced off hard ice.
We push on anyway. The skiing is too good to stop. But halfway we do stop after we notice that we are alone on the lake. Turning our backs to the glacier, we head to the shore. Snow clouds darken the skies above Thunder Mountain. The sun looks like huge moon. Everything is black or white. Aki’s blue sweater and the purple jacket of her other human provide the only color.
Aki follows us off the lake. We ski along the edge to the river where we stumble on three swans. One has the gray feathers of a yearling. The other two must be its parents. They feed on aquatic plants in the river, not bothering to paddle away from us. Yesterday, a heron did a similar thing when Aki and I rounded False Outer Point. We must be doing something right.