Author Archives: Dan Branch

Snow Walker

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.    

Reunion Walk

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. 

Volunteer Canary

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. 

Near-Arctic Light

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.    

Denali

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. 

Scary Scavengers

Aki and I are walking up Main Street when a raven flies over our heads and lands in the middle of the snow covered street. It digs at something the color of strawberry licorice until a car approaches. It flies away just before the car squashes it flat. The raven returns seconds later, joined by several more of its brothers. Soon the surrounding trees fill up with a dozen more ravens. 

            Seeing the ravens feeding on something the color of human blood reminds me that in addition to being clowns and tricksters, the big birds are voracious, sometimes scary scavengers. Days later, across from Perseverance Theatre, I stumble on another gang of ravens. Hours before city ploughs had cleared away snow that cheated theatre goers of needed parking spaces. They must have stirred up something tasty.  

Trotting into the Wind

Yesterday, after an enormous high tide flooded all the low-lying sections of the wetlands, A man and his large-pawed dog walked across this normally dry slough while the 10 degree temperature was turning the tide water to ice. Crisp, detailed impressions of paw of boot bottom now mark the duo’s passage. Usually, such evidence of another’s use of newly formed ice would encourage me to following in his footsteps. But there is something sinister about the frozen tide waters. 

            When I work up courage for the crossing, I carefully place my left boot onto the ice. It gets no purchase on the impossibly slick ice. I follow Aki onto an informal trail in the snow that will lead us around the frozen slough and to the base of a spruce tree. An adult bald eagle lands on a top branch of the tree and looks at everything except at us.  

            The wind stiffens as we move down along the now-frozen Mendenhall River. Aki, wearing two of her warmest wraps, trots ahead of me. I turn back to the car to avoid a long slog into the wind. Now ploughing into a 20-knot breeze, the little poodle-mix keeps up a steady, sled dog trot. When a sudden gust stops me in my tracks, Aki flinches and jumps sideways, like she had been pinched. Then she drops into a sheltered gully and continues towards the warm car.