Tempted by another dog’s scent, Aki stopped to investigate it. Finding the spot worthy of marking, the little dog lifted her rear into the air and peed—a trademarked poodle move. Just before I could catch up with her on my cross-country skis, Aki charged down the lake after her other human—the one using the faster skate skis. They were the only creatures between the Mendenhall Glacier and me.
The poodle-mix looked even tinier than the ten-pound dog she is against the glacial background. Slowed by the soft, wet snow, she struggled like Dickens’ Tiny Tim. We still had two miles of snow to cross before returning to the car. She should have slow down to save her strength. But the growing gap between her other human and I spurred her herding instinct.
I tried to pick up my pace but was slowed by the softening snow. Ahead, Aki snaked back and forth across the trail, trying to find the firmest footing. Water began filling her paw prints almost as soon as she made them. She wasn’t winded when we finally caught up with her skate-skiing human. Not bad for a 12 and a half year old dog.
A misery of wet snow fell on the little dog and I when we walked from our house to the car. As I drove Aki looked uncertain. The wipers worked to clear the windshield of the stuff. At least no wind rocked the car as we headed out to the northern end of Douglas Island. There we hoped to find protection from the mucky weather in an old growth forest.
At the trailhead, Aki sniffed spots on the parking area as I pulled on ice cleats. Without them I’d fall on the icy trail. The warm, wet weather was already softening the trail ice. By next week, the cleats might be stored away until next winter. Except for eagle screams and raven complaints the rain forest was silent. Nothing slowed our progress to the beach where we found hundreds of surf scoters formed into tightly packed rafts.
One of the scoter rafts formed into a line and cruised past two crows on an offshore rock. One of the crows stood erect as a preacher. Few of the scoters turned their orange beaks toward the crows. But a lone harlequin dock approached with its head tilted as if to better hear the sermon.
After yesterday’s expedition out the road, Aki and I are walking on a less demanding trail today. I need cleats to stay upright on the icy surface. Tomorrow’s promised rain should melt most of it away. I look forward to the end of ice season, but I’ll miss the snow that now covers the forest floor.
The trail circles through old growth rain forest. Halfway through, we drop onto a pebble beach. Our appearance encourages the resident mallards and harlequin duck to paddle into the bay. One mallard drake refuses to move. It just gives us a hard look. Okay, Okay, we were heading back into the woods anyway.
Aki and I are about as far away from Juneau as a person can get without boarding a plane or a boat. This fact is more descriptive of the limited Juneau road system than our adventurous spirit. We are at the end of the road.
I just stashed the snowshoes I had been carrying. They are not needed thanks to all the other walkers who compacted the trail snow with their boots. Two miles ahead is the Cowee Meadows cabin. Most of the winter trail users target that cabin or the Blue Mussel cabin on Pt. Bridget.
We leave the main trail and follow a small stream that winds towards a huge beaver pond. Thanks to our recent stretch of cold weather, the swampy land drained by the stream offers easy passage for the little dog and I. Soon, if the weatherman is to believed, warm, wet weather will make it impassible.
We’ve seen moose and bear on the meadow but no animals appear. We pass a beaver house, and negotiate a series of beaver dams before returning to the main trail. I stop often to listen for bird song but hear only ravens. The sun, which had been trapped all day behind clouds, breaks through to light up the irregular shaped peaks that circle the meadow. We push on to a rocky beach that offers open views of Berner’s Bay and Lynn Canal. A small raft of harlequin ducks have the water to themselves.
The little dog and I have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. Frost feathers on broken pans of pond ice sparkle in sunshine that I am beginning to take for granted. We may pay later for our recent stint of clear, dry, and cold weather. But on this windless day it is easy to ignore the future.
The high tide is about to crests. It lifts and fractures the pond ice. In additional to the expected tinkling and cracking, we heard a deep base sound, like you’d hear after dropping a rock into a well. The sounds don’t bother Aki as she follows a scent trail around the pond edge. It’s hard to convince her to follow me onto the spit that separated the stream drainage from Fritz Cove.
Ten American widgeons pull away from the cove beach. A strip of seaweed dangles from one of their beaks. They don’t winter here so they must be transients. Golden eyes, local ducks, hunt offshore. Along the creek banks, other widgeons rest with beaks tucked into their back feathers. Hundreds of mallards sleep nearby. Transient green wing teal hunt for food in the creek.
The sleeping ducks don’t stir until the crest of the tide, when the rising waters drive them from their beds. They don’t fly off in a panic. Just stir and let the tide carry them into the stream. Overhead, a murder of crows summersaulted through the air.
I can’t believe we are back on the ice cave trail, slipping along the edge of an open crevasse. Because of a recent cold streak, I thought the path would be safe. But I hadn’t given full credit to the power of winter sun.
We had no trouble crossing the ice of Mendenhall Lake. One of Aki’s favorite human friends joined us. The easy trail allowed us to enjoy watching the glacier grow in size as we approached it. Snow still covered the rocky peninsula that serves as a kittiwake rookery each summer. I searched it without success for ptarmigan feeding on willow catkins.
A large slab of ice formed from snowmelt covered the trail just above the lake. Instead of the easy walking we enjoyed on our last visit, we had to scrabble up and over ice to leave the lake. The trail improved after that so we could appreciate the jumble of pyramid-shapes that form the glacier’s icefall.
We stop to check out a minor ice cave but It looked like a muddy hole so we didn’t go in. We pushed on to the second cave, which is lined with aquamarine ice. To get there we have to pass through a section of icy trail and steep, snow-covered chutes.
Aki watches her humans slip and slide down the trail, like the nursery maid she thinks herself to be. A golden retriever joins us just before we reach the cave. The big dog distracts Aki for a few seconds. Then she is back on human duty until I pretzel my way through an ice labyrinth and disappear into the cave. Neither she nor the retriever followed me.
It’s too early for true spring, little dog. Aki squints up at me. She looks relaxed, not annoyed. Even through the temperature is below freezing, my gloveless hands are warm.
We crunch over still frozen sand toward the little bay formed by the collapse of the Treadwell mine tunnel. I look for bird tracks but see only those of dogs and their people. Just offshore, a small raft of golden eye ducks pull mussels off splinted pilings. We watch for several minutes until the head duck stares us down.
With regret, I lead the little dog off Sandy Beach and into the forested ruins of Treadwell. Even here, sunshine manages to dapple the snow-covered ground. A bald eagle gives itself away with a screech. I find him hidden in a snarl of spruce and cottonwood limbs, apparently enjoying the sun.