Aki and I were late to start our walk today. She had been stuck in the house all morning, which I had spent in the local park with our neighborhood Tai Chi group. I was in a great mood while walking back to get Aki. Thick clouds had broken up open over the park, letting sunshine make new snow on the cottonwood trees sparkle.
The little dog didn’t greet me at the door. She didn’t appear for a treat when I heated up a quick lunch in the microwave. It took me 10 minutes to find her hiding under the bed. She only acknowledged my presence after her other human carried out from under the bed.
Knowing how things had to be this late on the last day of the year, I surrendered all decision-control to the ten pound poodle. Knowing this, she stopped every few seconds to pee or smell something left by another dog. In what seemed like a day’s worth of daylight, we wandered onto the flats near the Federal Building, wandering up narrow streets and across footbridges until I had enough. I thought I’d would have had to carry the little poodle up the hill. But Aki relinquished control, to voluntarily follow me home.
“Crap.” I should have taken the little path around the flooded part of the wooden trail. But my feet were protected by rubber boots. Only a few inches of dark water covered the plank trail. Piece of cake. Then things were very wrong.
Passage over the first part of the walk filled me with too much courage. While Aki had had to be carried over flooded sections of the forest trail, my rubber boots kept me dry. Then we had to cross an icy meadow trail to the beach. But we managed work arounds so man and dog made it safely to the ocean. I could relax and think about the dozen sea lions we watched feed as we drove to the trailhead. We were circling back through the forest to the car when things got very wet.
Once, Aki and I could have easily walked over a now-flooded wood trail. When she reached it, the little poodle-mix took the rough work-around path that requires us to squeeze through drenched blue berry brush. Aki had already finished the side path by the time I had reached the sunken part of the wooden trail. To show off, I continued down the trail, trusting my boots to stay on the submerged trail planks. Less than a foot from the finish, my right foot slipped off the trail and dropped into a deep, mucky pool. Water filled the boot and soaked my jean leg. After watching the drama, Aki turned and trotted toward the car.
Before heading over to the Gastineau Meadows Trail, I had to shovel away several inches of snow from our driveway. There might be more on the trail so I slipped my ice grippers into a jacket pocket. The sun was only a few inches above the Douglas Island ridge when we started the drive. It rarely rises more above the ridge this close to our shortest day of the year.
Two ravens are waiting for us when we reach the trailhead. One clings to the snow-covered branches of an alder tree, its pure-black body standing out against the flanks of Mt. Juneau. The ravens fly just in front of us as we head up the trail, then stop just before we can see Mt. Jumbo. They will be waiting at this spot when return from our swing through the meadow.
Thirty minutes later we reach the meadow. The sun has already disappeared behind Mt. Juneau even though dusk will last for three more hours. I often wonder why naturalists haven’t named this place “Dusk” rather than given it the name of an early explorer.
Early this morning, while crouching next to our kitchen heater, waiting for the coffee pot to finish its waking magic, a local radio announcer promised listeners a day of wind, rain and snow.
For three hours I expected first snow, then rain to blur our house windows. But the sun flooded the neighborhood, making spruce trees throw shadows onto the moss-covered roof across the street. We might just have enough time to walk to the mouth of Fish Creek while the sun still lit up the glacier and mountains rising on the other side of Fritz Cove.
This close to the shortest day of the year, much of Douglas Island sits in gray light. But on clear winter days, unblocked sunlight brightens the snow covered mountains on the mainland, making them almost too bright to view from Fish Creek.
The little dog and I walk across a creek bridge still slick with winter ice and cruise through a grey forest towards Fritz’s Cove. Normally, I’d be frustrated by the flat, dull light and the lack of birds. I’d be aggravated that we can hear the cries of hidden eagles and another bird of prey but not see them. But when we reach a spit that offers views of the glacier reflected in the creek waters, the absence or presence of birds no longer seems to matter.
“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun Long before the white man and long before the wheel…”
Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy
As Aki and I moved up Basin Road and cross the old wooden road bridge, I feel like we are almost entering wilderness. Behind us, a string of old miner’s homes line the road that in a few minutes would take a hiker past 100-year-old churches to Downtown Juneau. Ahead is a gravel road lined by a deep creek valley on one side and a steep, tree covered slope on the other. Mount Juneau seems to be climbing out of the creek. Two strong streams flow down the mountain side to dump into Gold Creek.
You can barely hear the creek today. Only a raven’s croak breaks the true silence. Years ago, mining trucks hauled gold ore down this wide trail. You wouldn’t be able to hear the trucks over the sound of ore crushers that operating 24 hours a day. Later water blasters reduced the valley to gavel rubble to get the last hidden grains of ore to market. The signs of such attacks on nature are just hidden beneath layers of new growth.
We take a little footbridge across Gold Creek and start downstream on the old flume trail. A channel under the trail still carries water from Gold Creek to a small hydro plant on the edge of the old Native community. Aki throws on the brakes shortly are we head down the flume. Fifteen years ago, she smelled a bear walking up the trail. Even though she has chased many of them away while walking other trails, she froze when she smelled the Gold Creek bear. Each time we start the flume trail I hope she will have a change day and keep moving at me side. But each day, including this one, I have to carry her to the trail’s end. The little poodle still honors that powerful bear.
I wasn’t even sure why we drove out here. For days, inches of rain slammed the rainforest. Six people from a nearby village disappeared when muddy landslides hammered their little town. No one died in Juneau but there were some close calls.
When we left the parked car, Aki’s other human and I were expecting more snow or rain to fall. The just finished storm melted the lake ice, which surprises us. So does the absence of wind that would otherwise prevent the lake surface from reflecting the glacier and its surrounding mountains.
Slick ice still covers most of the glacier trail. I’d fall often if I wasn’t wearing ice cleats until we leave the main trail to walk onto an ice free peninsula. I thought that we were the only users until Aki stumbles onto a tiny Jack Russell dog and its human owner. After the sniffing each other, the dogs tear around us, taking turns chasing and barking. Later, they will ignore each other when we meet on another icy section of the trail. They just lead their human charges slowly back to their cars.
Last night one of those five-inch-rains deals started. This morning it is still a storm, not a rain shower. Strong wind shivers the car as we drive out to North Douglas. It turned out to be a bad choice.
A few thousand feet into the forest, we hit the first problem—ten feet of flooded trail. Aki started to cross it first, slowly planting each step. He seems to think that if he slipped he’d be carried downstream by the little flood. This slowed me down, allowing more water to slip into my boots.
We had to pass through many similar puddles, each one soaking Aki’s fur and my boots. The rain soaked my parka and Aki’s head and back. It drove away most of the ducks and gulls. But we did spot the little trio of harlequin ducks nestled near a pile of rocks on the beach.
Slick ice topped with a layer of rainwater covers the trail along Fish Creek. By having metal ice grippers secured on my boots, I can move safely down the trail. Aki’s paws slip a little with each step but it doesn’t slow down her progress. Together we manage to reach a little pond that fills with spawning king salmon each summer.
The salmon all died months ago. Now no ducks cruise the pond. Most of the pond is still covered with frozen ice. After passing the pond, the little dog and I take another icy trail down to the mouth of the creek where the glacier and the surrounding mountains are reflected by the creek’s calm waters.
Winter came early to this capital town. Snow covered our yard weeks ago and hasn’t been washed away by rain. The weather service predicts five new inches of new snow this afternoon. Aki and I try to sneak in a cruise of Downtown before the storm hits. We work our way up Gastineau Avenue. It’s already snowing now. White flakes collect on the top edges of gray alder limbs, making them look bright against the storm-grey clouds.
Ravens are waiting for us after we leave Gastineau and work our way over to the cruise ship docks. By now the new snow has formed big lumps on my boots. It makes me walk like a raven, rocking from side to side and I try to move forward without falling over.
One of the ravens flies over so Aki will chase it. Aki growls but won’t chase, even after the raven takes flight. It lands a few away and looks a little put out. A half dozen other ravens sulk while we pass. One, who might not have seen us approach, flutters its feathers, making snowflakes fly.
For the past few weeks, Aki and I have spotted a pair of Sitka blacktail deer does walking near a road that leads to Sheep Creek. We drove out there this morning to walk around a delta exposed by the low tide. We didn’t see any deer along the road or even any had eagles.
It had snowed while the tide retreated early this morning. Today’s incoming tide will melt the fallen snow. But now, with the tide at its lowest, a thin blanket of white still coveres the exposed beach. The snow enriches the view by emphasizing the curves and dips of the tidal ridges. I can’t remember seeing this before.
We walked out to the edge of the now exposed wetlands and then to the beach’s end, where amateur gold miners have parked their makeshift dredges. One was made from the body of a tired looking pickup truck.
A collection of eagles and ravens had gathered along the road side. We drive past them on our way back to town. I stop the car and head toward the collection of hungry bird. They let me get within twenty feet before flying to roosts across the road. Then I spotted one of our Sitka black tailed deers lying dead on roadside snow now tramped by the thorny feet of the hungry birds.