It happened too fast. Last week Mendenhall Lake was open during our last visit. We watched two kayakers paddle just off shore, working their way around a shrinking iceberg. Ultra-thin, clear chunks of ice floated near the shore. In an hour they melted away. Today solid ice covers the surface of the lake.
The appearance of winter hasn’t driven birds away from the lake. In the top of a shoreside spruce tree, an adult bald eagle squawks at an approaching magpie as it tries to land in the same tree. There is a partially eaten wild animal nearby. The birds are fighting over who gets what’s left.
We’ve walked through predawn grey skies to reach Crystal Lake. Alder trees still loaded with green leaves lined the path. We are too near the glacier for the sun to reach it before 9:30 AM. As if she understands, Aki slows both of us down by stopping often to smell and mark spots with urine. Then at 9:30 she makes a dash down the trail when sunlight starts to flood over the outskirts of the lake.
On this rare sunny October day, the first rays to reach the lake should create a lovely orange and yellow pattern at the top end of the lake. But for odd, even unpredictable reasons, neither the cottonwoods nor the alders have bothered to turn their green leaves yellow or orange.
The cottonwoods now stand naked above piles of fading green. Most of the lakeside alders still display green leaves. After sun arrived, the alders begin to release their greenery, letting so each leaf flutters down to the ground.
The weatherman promised clear skies and sunshine this morning. But grey clouds filled the skies over town as we headed for the car. I could just make out a streak of blue in the skies further up the channel. Aki didn’t complain when we headed north towards that clear horizon.
After driving 15 miles, we broke out of the clouds to where we could see sunshining on a mountain ridge on the western side of Lynn Canal. Snow from a recent storm now covers the top third of the ridge. A layer of clouds obscures the rest. In a few minutes we reach Amalga Harbor from where we can hike to the mouth of Peterson Creek.
This summer dog and silver salmon had to fight their way up a line of rapids in the creek to reach Peterson Lake. After crossing the lake, they moved into the upper creek to spawn. Today, I could find no sign of salmon or even trout. But a grey heron flew across the lake to check on us before flying over to the dock at Amalga Harbor. It left behind a pair of white swans to feed at the mouth of the tiny stream.
Only a few humans share the ocean boardwalk with Aki and I this morning. I wonder if that is why the place is full of confident ravens and crows. They take position on fence and lamp posts as we walk onto the boardwalk. In a few seconds we are about to passing pass three perched ravens. Each has its back turned to us as we approach.
The ravens take off and fly a few meters ahead of us as we approach. They do this again and again and again as we walk toward Egan Drive.
Aki ignores the birds unless one flies low over her head. Then she snarls out a protest as they land on a nearby fence rail. After that she acts like they don’t exist. Decades ago, when I lived in a tundra house surrounded by a dog team, I watched a pair of ravens steal dog food from the bowl of one of my lead dogs. One raven flew low over the dog’s bowl. When the dog went after it, the other raven snatched some kibble from the dog’s bowl. When the dog leaped after that raven, the other one filled up on the dog’s food.
During the summer of 2019, over a million tourists left their cruise ships to walk down this Juneau dock. Some headed into one of the tourist tee-ship shops to snap up presents for their grandkids. Others lined up to buy a helicopter ride to the Juneau Icefield for a dog sled ride. The thriftiest footed up the Perseverance Trail. Those needing a drink shuffled into one of the rundown bars.
Last summer 5000 person cruise ships tied up at the steamship dock until their clients returned for the evening cruise up Lynn Canal to Skagway. We expect even more visitors this summer. Then Covid descended. After that there were no cruise ships, no helicopter tourist packages, no half day fishing charters. We saw more song birds in our yards, few tourists hunting perfume shops for rich, expensive bottles of scent.
Even though this high-end perfume store never opened this summer, high quality photographs that decorated the outside walls of its shop distracted attention away from scattered trash and locked shop doors. This winter, they might please the homeless as they unroll their sleeping bags and plant them in this wind-protected dimpled doorway.
In a half-an-hour, I could harvest a pint of cranberries from this muskeg meadow. The berries would be wet but bitter sweet. I’d eat at least a handful raw and slip the rest in one of the plastic bags we always carry. Aki would follow close behind me, ready to munch down a few red berries from my hand if given half a chance. But I want to make it to Peterson Bay before low tide rather than linger to harvest.
Aki doesn’t seem to mind if we stay or go. She can always find worthwhile scents to sample further down the trail. A nervous cluster of mallards bursts into the air when the dog and I slip onto the beach. Further out in the bay I can just make out a big raft of goldeneye ducks, just back from a summer on the coast.
Low clouds rapidly rise to reveal a thick layer of snow on the mountains above Mendenhall Glacier. The summer time workers would call the first snow, “termination dust,” and speed up their return to the Lower 48. For me and the poodle dog, the arrival of coastal ducks and the first snowy enrichment of our glacial mountains, tells us that things are about to get interesting.
My free weather app predicted a few hours of dry, if very grey skies this morning. Aki was open to the idea so we headed over to Sandy Beach for a recon mission. I was hoping to spot eagles and perhaps some ducks, newly arrived here from the coast. But the scene was almost totally empty of birds, dogs, or people.
We figured out the cause of emptiness just after we arrived. A man protected by tree harvest gear was sawing down a series of large alder trees. It was slow going. The lumberman had already trimmed off the tree’s branches. Now he had to cut off the top five feet of each tree, move down the remining trunk the same amount, and repeat the process. His saw could be heard over the whole trail system during our visit. This is probably why we had the place to ourselves.
We spent most of the visit on the beach itself, where the saw sound was almost tolerable. No eagles perched on beach side alders, no opinionated king fishers tried to chase us away. There were small groups of gulls feeding nearby on sand bars. They never responded to our presence or even flew off when Aki walked within a few feet of them. We had to leave them their domain, free of risk until the alder logger drove away.
When I was a pup, my Montana father would tell me that we had to work hard all year. But if summer appeared on a Sunday, will should take it off to go fishing. Here in the more generous Alaskan rain forest, we can enjoy many more sunny days each summer. Sunshine is hard to find this late in October. But this morning, as the early morning clouds melt away, we have to head for our favorite mountain meadow.
It doesn’t take the little poodle-mix and I very long to reach Gastineau Meadows where early morning sun is already firing up fading cottonwood leaves. The Covid crisis is still keeping school classrooms closed, but it doesn’t prevent homeschool families from filing onto Gastineau. Grand school kids stand in small circles around teachers who share lessons about fading plant life. Younger ones lie half asleep in sunshine as their moms’ fill berry picking buckets with ripe cranberries.
I panic when I spot two of the sun-soaked kids stretched out on the narrow trail. Then I lead my poodle onto the muskeg so we can keep a wide space between the kids and us.
While Aki catalogs the scents left by other dogs, I let the morning’s surprising sunshine warm my face and hands. If not for the need to leave the trail on the return trip to avoid contact with the sun-soaked kids, I wouldn’t have a care in the world. But it can’t be avoided. I just about have an alternative, somewhat dry path worked out by the time we reach the cranberry picking families. But the trail is empty. Thirty feet off the trail the sun-soaked kids have stretched out on a raised chunk of meadow, still stunned by the sun.
This is a confused day. We have to walk through ten feet of rain to reach the car. In a minute, the skies turn dry. A wall of sun-bright clouds illuminates Gastineau Channel, then returns to gray.
We drive out to Auke Bay and walk through a light rain squall to the beach. Aki gets excited each time we pass another dog. They dance around each other and then move off in different directions. But she is excited as I am to walk across the beach to the sea.
I should focus my camera on a covet of newly-arrived golden eye ducks feeding along the beach edge. But I only have eyes for gulls flying beneath a line of summer-bright storm clouds.
Okay. The trail is flooded. Every leaf is weighed down by rain. Aki doesn’t mind. She dashes up and down one of the few still-open trails, filling her memory with fading scents. She doesn’t notice that the surface of every little pond is shattered by rain drops.
I wasn’t expecting anyone else on the trail. Then an old man and his young husky dog appear. As soon as I spot them, I move twenty feet off the trail. The hiker leads his husky twenty-five feet in the opposite direction. Aki dashes it to meet and greet the big dog. In response, the husky pup’ owner shouts out that he parked his bicycle a quarter-mile up the trail.
Later, after finding our common trails flooded out, I tell Aki that we will head home. The hiker, now riding his bike, suddenly moves past us. In a few seconds he and his big dog reach the flooded trail. After chanting his desire for a floatation device, he dismounts and pushes his bike into the flooded trail. Aki and I use one of the few remaining paths to return to the car.