Thunder Mountain still hides the sun when we approach Crystal Lake. Aki, who moved out in front a few minutes ago, turns her head to watch me peering through the lake mist. I can just make out a stand of yellowing cottonwood trees that line a marshy shore. On the lake a herd of canvasback ducks could be conferring over a map of their southern migration route and I wouldn’t be able to see them.
Feeling Aki’s impatience, I follow her toward the beaver village at the opposite end of the lake. The sun catches us just before we reach the village, it’s reflection in the water looking like a narrow spotlight being eased above the mountain’s silhouette. The sudden blast of sunlight destroys the lake mist and deepens the fall colors. It makes Mt. Stroller White stand out against the blue sky.
I want to take a trail through the Troll Woods pioneered by tree cutting beavers. It winds around three small lakes before returning its users to Crystal Lake. Aki, who loves beaver scent, is already trotting down it. I hesitate, thinking about the Forest Service sign posted at the trailhead. It warns walkers to beware of the local bears, who have a recent history of hostile interactions with dogs.
I table my concerns and follow the little dog. The trail she selected leads away from salmon streams and into an area that would offer little to a hungry bear.
The narrow channel that once flowed water into Crystal Lake is now just a muddy trough. Wide beaches have formed around the lake.
Aki shows no desire to cross the channel. We follow it until finding the culprit—a well maintained beaver dam. Fall rainstorms should raise the level of the channel until water can flow over the dam and into Crystal Lake. Until then we will have to put up with the beaver’s muddy mess.
Beavers and their dams are the greatest agents of change on the moraine. Water backs up behind the dams to flood and then kill forests. Eventually grass and reeds clog the lakes to create wet meadowlands. Our local land managers call the changed land “improved habitat.” I can’t argue. But, as once crystal lakes are dulled into meadows that can no longer reflect the surrounding mountains, I will let myself mourn just a little for the loss of beauty.
Something has drawn a cabal of ravens to Sandy Beach. A dozen of the grouchy birds sulk on the sand or on top of broken wharf pilings. The usual eagle sits on its perch on the roof of the old ventilation shaft. The eagle isn’t watching the ravens. It stares down the beach toward Marmion Island.
I follow the eagle’s gaze and spot what looks like a giant bald eagle walking along the edge of the collapsed glory hole. In the rainforest, ravens are credited in legend with having magical powers, not eagles. Are the little dog and I witnessing the start of a new legend.
As we approach a dog climbs out of the water and runs up to the big eagle. The “eagle” is only a white-haired woman wearing a coat that hangs off her body like a bell. For some reason I don’t want to approach any further. Maybe it is because with each step the woman becomes more human than bird-like. Feeling foolish, I lead Aki back into the Treadwell Woods. Then I wonder if the real eagle, sitting on top of the ventilator shaft, was also fooled.
Beavers. Aki and I are on the lookout for the buck-toothed rodents on this walk across the moraine. We walk along the Mendenhall River, which is dropping after a recent run of high water. It was raining earlier, which might explain why we have the place to ourselves.
Even though there is a large beaver house just upriver from our position, we have no chance of seeing one of them swimming across the water. We have to go deeper into the moraine—to the rarely visited Norton Lake. In years past, the little dog and I have been able to watch beavers tail slap the lake water and then swim towards us to check out the poodle wearing clothes.
The beavers have made it difficult to reach Norton Lake. You have to skirt a flooded portion of the trail and then tightrope walk along the top of one of their dams. After Aki and I walk maneuver our way through this obstacle course, I search the remains of beaver killed trees that rise like grave markers from the surface of the pond, looking for the arrow-head shaped beaver snout cutting a “v” across the water.
There will no beavers sighted this day, a pair of mallard drakes floating without apparent purpose across the surface of the lake.
Aki and I are back in the Troll Woods after a long absence. It’s good to be in the peaceful place. This time of year the little dog doesn’t have to worry about eagles. We might run into a wandering black bear but that doesn’t trouble a dog with a heart way too big for her 10-pound body.
Thick, yellow-green moss covers the forest floor and the trunks and branches of the trees, turning them into sculptures that could have been designed by Gaudi. It would be silent if not for the nesting songs of invisible birds and the muffled roar of Nugget Falls.
There is beaver sign everywhere: cottonwood limbs stripped of their bark, trails formed by the beavers skidding wood into their ponds, small dams slowing the flow of every watercourse. We run into a member of the beaver patrol. Late every afternoon she caps a pipe that runs underneath the beaver’s main dam. Otherwise the sound of moving water would energize the beavers into building a bigger dam behind the one pierced by the pipe. Every morning she uncaps the pipe, allowing the pond’s water level to drop. Otherwise the trail we use to access to the woods would be flooded.
I feel like Ulysses, Aki—Joyce’s Bloom, not Homer’s hero. The poodle-mix, who has never shown any interest in literature, ignores me. Two rambunctious Labrador retrievers, rather than the Cyclops force us to take a more circuitous route to the mouth of Fish Creek, sending us on an extended odyssey.
Our slow road takes us past a huge beaver dam and around a small, landlocked pond. Two bufflehead ducks and a tiny raft of mallards paddle nervously across the pond’s surface. One of the beavers pops up and crash dives when I look in its direction. Overhead two kingfishers battle for ownership of the pond. The victorious kingfisher roosts on a limb in the grove of dead spruce trees that surround the beaver’s den.
After circumnavigating the kingfisher’s pond, we take the proper path around Fish Creek pond and down to the creek mouth. Hundreds of mallards loaf on the beach and nearby waters. Near the little dog and I, a semipalmated plover darts from rock to rock and then takes flight. Since my attention is on the little plover, I miss an eagle’s attempt to snatch a mallard from the creek mouth. The predator only manages to flush the mallards into flight. In seconds the ducks form a tight cloud that twists and turns in the air over the creek like a school of mackerel. Seconds later, the mallards are back at the creek mouth listening to the eagle’s lament.
Across Norton Lake a plume of snow rises from a wooded valley high into the air. When its animating gust dies, the plume disintegrates. According to the weather service, the strength of the wind will grow to something like a gale. Then half-a-kilometer long plumes of snow will fly from the mountain ridges.
Aki and I are an hour into our walk with plans to continue a circle route back to the car. But the promised winds and the chance we would have to walk over thin trail ice convince me to turn back.
We have to walk across the tops of three beaver dams to reach home. Not quite ready for the long winter, the beavers have broken open channels in their pond ice from the dams to their wood lots. Seeing how the ice is just forming over these channels makes me even more comfortable with the idea of returning home over known ground.