This was to be an easy walk through the Treadwell woods. The sun had managed to break through mottled sky. With the temperature just above freezing we expected a walk in the park.
We had it easy at first. Previous dog walkers had broken a trail through the foot of new snow that covered the forest floor. Aki bounced ahead, stopping often to pee or sniff. I unzipped my jacket and shoved my mittens into a pocket.
I walked toward the beach, attracted by what sounded like a series of express trains moving through a tunnel. Aki reluctantly followed me until the trail disappeared.
I carried the little dog across a drifted-over streambed and then onto a snow-covered dune. Aki made to turned back when she felt the first strong gust of wind blow snow into her fur. But she perked up when we reached the frozen sand of the beach.
The poodle-mix charged down the beach as if in a race with the streams of windblown snow that skidded over the sand. She disappeared for a moment in a whiteout. Seconds later I spotted her sheltering behind a weathered piling. When the wind dropped she charged back to me and then took a trail off the beach. That’s the smart move little dog, I said as I followed her into the sheltering woods.
Because the skiing is still good here, the little dog and I have returned to Mendenhall Lake. Last night a half-a-foot of snow fell. But thanks to the ski club groomers, we have a well-packed trail. Otherwise Aki’d be wallowing in soft snow.
A flat light dominates the lake and the mountains that surround it. I miss the sunshine and blue skies that we enjoyed during our last visit. But the new snow that clings to spruce trees and bare-branched alders provides its own bright beauty.
The rain forest sees more cloudy days than sunny ones. When a day breaks clear after a storm, the scenes enjoyed during the sunny hours that follow can seem as rich as a North Douglas Chocolate Cake. We ignore the shapes and sights that moved us on soft, gray days. This afternoon, I’m relieved that the recently sunny spell didn’t rob me of the rain forest knack of recognizing beauty in the simplest things.
Lured by promises of a new ice cave, Aki and her humans headed out to the toe of Mendenhall Glacier. It’s been snowing all day, making it easier to ski the 1.2 miles across Mendenhall Lake to the glacier. Those of us on skis used a soft track set by previous skiers. The little dog found a superhighway pounded flat by walking pilgrims.
One man stared up at the face of the glacier when we arrived. When he left we had the place to ourselves. Before seeking entrance to the cave, we enjoyed the abstract forms created by an assemblage of icebergs. Between two geometric blacks stood a slice of ice in form of penitent monk. He bowed in the direction of the cave.
Accepting the monk’s guidance, we skied to up to the glacier and found a thin opening to the ice cave. I had to drop onto to my knees to see under a very low ceiling. By crawling on my stomach, I could have accessed the cave’s interior. Since I didn’t bring rain gear, I had to settle for a filtered view.
A single set of canine tracks cross Fish Creek. They are the kind of tracks a wolf would make while trotting. Aki and I have just left the car. She is cataloging the smells left by previous visitors. I am trying to figure out where the wolf trotted off the creek and into the woods.
Reluctantly, the little dog follows me to the pond. Each time I stop to check on her, she freezes, as if she is stalking prey. If I move in her direction, she breaks back to the car. I tell her that she is safer walking next to me if a wolf or eagle shows interest in her. She is not reassured. Maybe she fears for my safety.
Aki springs ahead once we reach the pond then freezes when an eagle starts scolding its mate. She still follows me onto an open spit where I spot another eagle flying down the beach. The big bird circles once and plunges, talons first, into the water. Half submerged, it dog paddles twice with its wings while it attempts to snatch something from under the water with its beak. In a second it is airborne again.
The scolding eagle flies over to harass the now-wet bird. When it sees that the diving bird carries nothing in its talons or beak, the noisy one flies back to its perch in the top of a spruce tree. The wet bird lands on an offshore rock.
Nearby a large raft of mallards hunts the shallows for food. Three other ducks sleep standing up on a small rise. When the tide returns they will lose their little refuge and all the birds will have to work harder for their food.
Aki streaks ahead of me on the way back to the car. But she stops when before the bridge across Fish Creek. When I catch up with the poodle, I take another look at the wolf tracks. Ten feet further up stream, is a line of tracks that the wolf left when it returned to the other side of the creek. These tracks were not there when we started our walk. Was the wolf tucked into the creek-side brush at the start of our hike, watching me puzzling about its tracks?
It was 24 above when we left home this morning. Aki and I are dressed accordingly. Unfortunately the temperature hovers around 12 degrees F. as we slide onto Mendenhall Lake. The little dog doesn’t notice. She is too busy greeting dogs that just finished the four-kilometer lake loop.
All the beauty that surrounds Juneau spoils us. But my jaw drops each time I see the Mendenhall Glacier snaking through saw-toothed mountains on its way to the snow-covered lake. I ski toward the glacier for forty minutes while Aki runs back and forth between her other human and me. The rocky peninsula that separates the lake from the glacier appears to grow in size as we approach. From the spot where we turn back for the trailhead, only a small wedge of fractured ice appears above the rocks.
By now Aki and I are almost too warm. She chases forward to catch her other human who is flying forward on skate skis. I slip into the meditative motion of Nordic skiing.
Aki doesn’t want to leave the main trail to follow me onto Gastineau Meadows. I am on snowshoes so she knows to expect deep snow. If we were alone, she’d probably outright refuse. But today the little dog and I are joined by two more members of her human family. Maybe she doesn’t want them to think that she is a wimp.
The little poodle-mix is right about the snow. Ten inches of new fluff covers the meadow. The paws of a wolf that crossed the meadow last night sank six inches into the snow. Aki’s chest is only five inches above the ground. She is right to be concerned.
She waits until all three of her humans have packed down a trail with their snowshoes before following. Now she has a workable trail. Then she discovers a cross-country ski track that set up overnight. Now she has a superhighway for crossing the meadow. Soon she is mincing down the ski tracks while her humans struggle in the soft snow.
Aki is having a Goldilocks’ moment. The snow on this trail is just right—not deep, not crusty. Just the stuff for rolling in. Last night’s high tide trimmed the edge of Aki’s snow pack. I can walk on frozen sand while the little dog runs full bore in the snow.
We have sun but feel little of its warmth because of the wind. It blows at a steady clip from the south. A small clutch of mallards hug the north face of a gravel island where the wind can’t chill them. One drake, with its metallic-green head works to separate a mussel from its purple shell.
A thin skim of sea ice lays broken over sea grass stubble. It crunches under Aki’s paws after she leaves the snow and follows me over an icy covered stretch of beach. She’d rather be back in her little snow belt. But as my self-appointed protector, she places my safety first. I, who spend most of the time scanning for hovering eagles that could carry her off, see our relationship as one based on mutual assistance.