Last night a heavy snow fall covered the upper reaches of Mt. Juneau and its mountain cousins. It was still snowing slightly when we ate breakfast. Then, as I was searching in the kitchen for a bag of tea, the sun appeared.
Even though yesterday a sliver of sun lit up a chunk of shrinking blue sky, I expected today to be weighed down by wet, gray clouds. Aki and I left the house as soon as possible to hike up Basin Road so we could see sunlight almost setting fire to the mountain slopes. Mt. Juneau rose out of the shadowy darkness of the Gold Creek valley. My camera was overblown by intense light bouncing off the steep mountain sides. Then clouds returned, eating the mountain light until it disappeared under a veil of grey.
This morning, no rain fell on Juneau. Even though the skies are the color of the most boring grey, I am still hopeful. Tiny streaks of blue sky suddenly appear as we drive out to a beauty beach. We even see a tiny rainbow but it turns grey as I try to photograph it.
Grey seems to dominate the skies over the old village site as we start down the trail. A stiff wind rises. I am tempted to return to the car when a portion of the sky breaks open, letting strong light fly in all directions. Before I can start believing that our bad weather luck is finally dying, grey clouds return to wipe out the drama. In a hour, the rain returns.
Most people have the day off. Many would normally be jamming the Fish Creek Trail with dogs and kids. If Aki and I wanted to visit Fish Creek on such a day, we take the older trail away from the ocean so we could have it to ourselves. But high winds and rain have encouraged most folks to stay home, brew another pot of coffee, and spend the day distracted by email or text feeds.
We pull on good rain gear and drive out to the creek. Only one car is in the parking lot. The owner takes a few selfies with her dog and then dives back into her Subaru. I was hoping to see ducks or geese on the first pond but can only spot a single merganser swimming on it. There is a small collection of mallards on the Fritz Creek beach and one Bald Eagle feeding on a nearby island. The eagle ignores our passing. We have the wind at our backs until we reach the mouth of the creek, where we can normally have an excellent glacier view. Low clouds and rain showers prevent us from seeing any beauty.
Rather than powering way backing to the car in the wind, we wind through a dense old growth forest. The magic path delivers us to the little trail we used to initially pass the eagle. It gives us one of his, “What the hay looks,” poops, and flies over our heads. Another eagle resting on a transit buoy just offshore watches the scene as the buoy’s green warning light flashing out one of its periodic warning.
Some Sundays, when wet, wispy clouds cling to the Douglas Mountain Ridge but refuse to release the day’s predicted dump of rain, Aki and I wrap up in winter gear and walk down to the humpback whale statute. It provides a target for birds and people, and a passage for the poodle to search for scent.
The big iron whale statute flies nose-first out of a tiny people park, looking out of place so near the Douglas Island Bridge, state office buildings, and cheap-by-the-week apartments. After giving the whale a quick glance, Aki and start across a wooden walkway. We are alone except for a small gang of ravens. Most are jumpy. But one, perhaps one of ravens that nests in our neighborhood, doesn’t react negatively as we walk past it. It just turns calmly in our direction and nods.
We are halfway through January and snow still does not cover the beach around Mendenhall Lake. Aki has no problem crossing the now-shallow stream that still pours over a beaver dam. No did a red fox that just trotted down the trail. Our little dog sniffs around the fox’s prints and finds no reason to follow it into the woods. But she does shift her focus on her people for the rest of the trip.
The Mendenhall Lake ice has become as thin as Italian pizza. If things don’t chill down, we should be able to reach the glacier in our kayak over ice free water. The glacier expresses solid beauty this morning thanks to its turquoise ice. I find myself standing still as rain drops soak the little dog and I. I’m drawn by the shapes of dying lake ice and the reflection of glacier and mountains in an open section of the lake.
We turn away from the beach and cross a sandy meadow and find a little trail still covered with snow. Aki stands on edge of the trail. Melt water covering the old trail discourages her from continuing. I thought she was waiting for me to carry her over the shallow flood waters to sold ground. But, after making sure we are standing at the edge of the water, the little poodle mix leads us on the shallowest path back to the trail.
Last year Aki and I would have spent part of the morning on a cross country ski trail. It would have been cold, below freezing. Sun shine might have thrown dark shadows on to the snowy, forest floor. If we went walking the woods the next day, I might have had to wear boot cleats to avoid the slips and slides of winter.
But this is a year of early spring, not winter. The temperature hasn’t dropped below freezing for weeks. No snow or ice touches the trails. No snow weighs down the branches of trail lined trees. Every morning I check the local weather app. It always gives the same prediction for the following week: wet snow or rain, low clouds, and temps well above freezing. Winter seems to move a little further north each year.
I didn’t really want to leave the house today. I wasn’t looking forward to splashing under heavy, wind-driven rain falling out of clouds that cover the mountains along Gastineau Channel. It’s a day of grays, not blues. It’s the time for catching up on a good book. But a poodle like Aki is owed a small adventure a day so we slide into the car and head out to north end of Douglas Island, where the heavy forests can protect us from the worst of the rain.
When just a few miles from the trailhead, I spot gangs of sea lions hammering herring just off shore. Two whales do the same out in the middle of Fritz Cove. I park the car and step out. Ignoring heavy rain bouncing off my parka, I take photos of the hungry and aggressive sea lions.
In a few minutes I switch and watch the two whales conducting a similar hunt out in the cove. I think they are humpback whales, who sometimes winter over in the rain forest waters. A little gang of sea lions run just in front of the whales. The sea lions must be snatching at the herring being chased by the humpback.
I get back into the car before rain soaks through my parka. We drive to the end of the road and walk to the beach, now flooded by the high tide. Just off shore surf scoters have tightly tucked themselves into a tight raft. Are they stumbling over each other to harvest food or just enjoying a tight hug? In a few minutes they disburse as Aki and I head back to the car and then home.
Aki and I are home after a whippy walk through Downtown Juneau. It was a morning for appreciating the black and white shapes of neighborhood trees and mountains. Except for one dense strip of Franklin Street loaded with bars and homeless folks waiting for lunch, we saw little until we walked onto the downtown cruise ship dock.
Gulls lined the dock railings in a posture similar to that of the hungry pre-lunch crowd over at the homeless shelter. But one raven landed near us. It waddled across a decorative, if tiny piece of grass, stopping often to scream out a complaint. On this low-light winter day, all the screaming photos I took of it were blurred. But twice, the crusty gull moved until I could clearly see its profile and froze so my camera could capture the wild-bird distain it had with town on this wind-blown day.
This was supposed to be a practical, not a glorious day. We left early to reach St. Vincent DePaul’s while they were still accepting donations. Then, the other chores kicked in. We were running low on milk and bananas, bread and bean burgers so we hit the store after dropping off the donations. Two friends that appreciate good cookie baking each received a tasty dozen. After that we took the patience little poodle for a walk.
It was a sunny day, at least at first. Early in the morning, sunlight reached the tops of Mt. Juneau and Gastineau Channel. It enriched the sun-covered mountains along the Western side of Lynn Canal. We had to squint in the light when we unloaded stuff at the St. Vincent’s and then pointed the car toward the first cookie drop.
Gray clouds blocked the sun by the time we reached Amalga Harbor. There was still a small patch of blue in the Southern sky, but it faded to flat and then dark as we worked our way to the Peterson Lake salt chuck. We usual visit here in spring to fish for Dolly Varden or in July to watch salmon climb the salt chuck on their way into the salt chuck. Today, we could only enjoy the sound of the steep rocky water course dumping water into Lynn Canal and the view of a kingfisher longing for spring.
We stop near the bottom of Main Street to watch an eagle. It sits on top of a pylon, trying to ignore the rain. After flashing me a judgmental look, it turns away to watch the now-empty Gastineau Channel. You rarely spot an eagle this close to downtown Juneau. They go where the food goes. A small raft of ducks just moved down channel. Maybe the eagle will soon follow them.
I stopped to photograph the eagle because it is rainy, the kind of rain that usually keeps eagles off Sandy Beach, where are heading. We drive over to Treadwell Woods and have the place pretty much to ourselves, at least until we reach the beach and spot a very wet bald eagle. It stands on the roof of a mining vent tower, looking quite bored.
While Aki catalogues scat sign, I walk over the tower. The eagle watches my approach but will not move, even when I get very close. Nearby mallard feed just off the beach sand, heads buried in the water. They wouldn’t have time to escape of the eagle attacked. But the big bird just ignores them.