Aki and I are racing through the Troll Woods, pursued by mosquitos. Six or eight of the pests buzz around the little dog’s face each time she stops to sniff or pee. She shows no sign of being bit. I wish I could say the same. I have a rosary of bites across my forehead. It’s not surprising, then, that we have the woods almost to ourselves.
The place is full of birds. Robins dare Aki to chase her. She is no mood for the game today. Song birds belt out their nesting tunes in the canopy. Most are hidden in the leaves. But a winter wren settles on an exposed branch and belts out its signature song.
We leave the gravel paths and follow trails in the mossy floor that were pioneered by beavers. They are night workers so none appear outside their log-covered dens. But evidence of their presence is everywhere. Sticks stripped of their bark float in the lakes. Similarly denuded cottonwood tree trucks lie on the forest floor. We even find a wood pile of foot-long logs that were cut up by the beaver’s sharp front teeth, not a saw. I wonder if the beavers are preparing wood for a mid-summer bon fire.
This is our third attempt in a month to reach Norton Lake. Water backing up from a beaver dam flooding the trail forced me to give up on the first two attempts. It has dropped enough to allow me to reach the lake with damp, but not soaked boots. Aki and I splash along the edge of the water until reaching an old beaver dam. I walk across the top of the dam until reaching a deer trail that leads to the lake.
Aki didn’t walk onto the dam until I was most of the way across it. When I look back, she gives me her, “Are you sure this is how you want to end your life?” look. I search the pond waters for crocodiles and the nearby woods for bears. Seeing none, I push on. Aki dashes across the dam to join me on the other side. Then, she gives me her “I hope this is worth it” glare.
Few dogs have passed this way so at first Aki has little use for her nose. Then she finds beaver scent and appears to go into a trance as she rolls in it. That must have made the dam crossing worth it for the little poodle-mix. I expected a chance to view more northbound waterfowl or even a young beaver looking for a mate. But we only see a bufflehead drake and a small gang of tense looking mallards.
It’s a clam day so lake provides a nice mirror for the glacier and Mt. McGinnis. Little birds sing and make quick sorties onto the ground for seeds or gravel but don’t stay long enough for me to make an identification. Then, an alder flycatcher bops unto the limb of a dead snag lets itself be photographed. I manage to take two photos—one when it is frozen on the snag, and the other with its wings flashed out in a turn.
This meadow would be almost quiet if not for a nearby Glacier Highway. During breaks in traffic, Aki and I can hear siskins and junkos busy hunting in alders and damaged pines. A jagged line of mountain peaks show above the tops of a spruce forest that starts on the other side of the highway.
Dense snow covers the muskeg even though the temperature is already well above freezing. Aki rolls in the sugary snow as I study a straight line of tracks left by a large canine this morning. Should we follow what could be wolf tracks or pass through a screen of alders to visit a watercourse controlled by beavers?
Remembering the large beaver dam on the other side of the alders, I lead the little dog to a narrow but deep creek. Upstream is otter country. But recent warm weather has destroyed the otter’s slides.
A few meters downstream is a beaver lodge mostly hidden by snow. Water cascading over the beaver dam blocks the road noise. I’m struck with the parallel of this meadow visit to a walk across land bordering a train line. When on trains in Europe, Britain, Scandinavia, or Japan, I find myself staring at these waste lands. Some look wild enough to shelter otters or badgers. On a ride through the Sami country of Sweden, a small herd of reindeer raced my train. Around cities, the railroad border lands have been divided into garden allotments. I imagine siting in the doorway of one of the little allotment shacks, sipping coffee from a thermos mug, watching tomatoes swell in the summer sun.
Does the noise of rushing trains annoy an allotment gardener like today’s traffic noise bothered me, or does it carry away urban stress like a river, like spring melt rushing over a beaver dam?
The last time we passed by a beaver pond, Aki trotted out on the ice before I could stop her. This morning, she wants no part of this pond. With her paws firmly planted on solid earth, the little dog watches me ease onto the ice. It holds firm as I creep over to an island where the beavers have their lodge.
The ice formed quickly enough to trap sticks, blades of grass, bubbles of air, and even feathers. The encapsulated sticks look as gray as death. I feel like I am walking on ghosts. Aki joins me when I am only a few meters away from the beavers’ house. Small logs, each stripped of bark, lay scattered around the lodge like chicken bones outside the widow of a lazy teenager. But we can’t see any other evidence of the beavers’ presence. The big rodents must be inside sleeping.
I take a meandering route back to trail. Aki makes a bee line back. What does the little dog sense that I don’t? Can she hear sounds that warn of thinning ice or smell a predator? We heard an eagle scream on our way here. That must be it. Not feeling vulnerable to threats from the air I stop often to study the things trapped in ice.
Aki and I are cruising through a section of old growth forest turned in to marshland by beavers. Hardened by last night’s hard freeze, the supersaturated ground can no longer pull at my boots or stain Aki’s fur the color of strong tea. A small stream drained this patch of forest when Aki was a puppy. Spongy moss softened the ground. Then the empire building beavers expanded their realm by damming the stream.
Live spruce trees still grow on tiny islands in the pond. Soon they will die. To hasten the process along, beavers have denuded the lower trunks of two of the larger trees. I lose track of Aki as I cautiously approach the pond’s edge. Stepping onto a spot of bog kept soft by a warm-water spring could mean a soaking—something to avoid on this 23-degree (F.) morning. There is no way I’ll chance walking on the pond ice.
The marsh was dusk-gray when we neared the beaver pond. Now shafts of the day’s first light paint long, straight-edged tree shadows on the ice. Backlit tree moss glow an electric green. Standing at the pond’s edge, I raise my camera to photograph the light’s impact on the pond and find Aki trotting into my frame. An image of her rolling on a pile of beaver scat, face holding a blissful smile pops into my mind. Aki must be looking for more.
Hoping not having to test the holding strength of the ice, I whistle for my little dog. She hunches for a moment, like she does when she finds my commands tedious. Then she trots further onto the pond. I whistle again. Aki sniffs at a beaver-scared tree, pees, and trots off the ice.
Aki is nose down, snuffling her way along a moraine trail. Her paws punch inch-deep holes in the snow as we make our way over ground still rebounding from the time, not so long ago, that it supported the weight of a retreating glacier.
In s normal winter the little dog and I would be in danger of slipping on icy or crusted-over snow. But the stuff covering the moraine trail is soft and yielding. We pass the edge of a beaver pond covered with a paper-thin layer of ice. Water still pours over the beaver’s dam where some guy tried to dismantle it.
We drop down onto the lakeshore to get our first unfiltered view of the glacier. There is an informal trail packed down by the boots of paws of others. I leave the easy path and punch my way to the ice edge and find only the track of one large canine that moved with purpose toward the Mendenhall River. The animal moved in a steady trot, the kind used by sled dogs and wolves to cover ground.
The romantic in me wants to attribute the tracks to a wolf. Years ago, Aki and I listened to wolf howling when we skied along the edge of this lake. Later that winter, a black wolf nicknamed “Romeo” followed the little dog and I as we crossed the moraine. But Romeo is now long dead. These might be wolf tracks. No trail of boot prints runs parallel to them.
Beavers own this forest. Their castle is tucked safely away under a pond-sized tree. Aki and I are walking along the base of their major dam. The beavers have anchored the walls of it to a curving line of 100-year-old spruce trees that grew out of another beaver dam. Off and on, beavers have held this forest for more than a century. The little dog would have had to swim along the base of the dam if not for some trail work done last spring. Thanks to loads of gravel and bridges fashioned from peeled and split spruce trunks we can keep our feet dry. But during the last dumping of rain, even the new trail flooded.
Every night the beavers try to plug leaks in their dam with severed alder limbs and blue berry twigs. Water still pours over their works and makes its way down a small stream to another dam, this one five feet high. Downstream from that another dam backs water up and over the trail we will use to return to the car.
We round the pond and walk over icy trails to the beach where we surprise five bufflehead ducks. Rather than panicking into flight the little white-headed guys paddle a few meters further off shore and resume fishing. Further out, a young Pacific loon shoots onto the surface and quickly dives back under the water. A powerful underwater swimmer, the loon could be behind Shaman Island before it returns to the surface.
I try to remember when I became so passive—a walking man content just to see. Years ago, I hunted ducks and would have been tempted to destroy beaver dams that flooded beloved trails. Now I carry a camera and wear waterproof boots.
Winter is holding its beachhead on the moraine. Aki and I are walking on a snow-covered glacial trail when an eagle lifts off the ground and lands in a nearby cottonwood tree. I search the ground for what drew the eagle. All I find is fresh blood on the snow.
A low layer of clouds hid the mountains when we first arrived. Now the sun is trying to burn it off. I can just barely make out the shoulder of Mt. McGinnis rising above the Troll Woods. Then the peak appears underlined with a thin strip of grey cloud. The air brightens when patches of blue appear in the eastern sky. It is reflected in a small beaver pond that almost touches the tree where the eagle waits for us to leave.
We move on to visit the beaver village. There thin ice barely covers the pond. Aki holds back at the edge of village. I wonder why. She normally loves to explore near beaver dens and always smiles when she rolls in their scat. I turn around after reaching the hole the beavers use to slip in and out of the pond. There is Aki, giving me her “Are You Crazy!!!” look. We seen no tracks of bears or wolves so I have no idea what has the little dog on edge.
Snow no longer covers this trail through the old growth. Yesterday it did. Yesterday snow drifted down through the forest canopy. Today it’s rain. The rain forest is once again the venue for the annual fight between fall and winter.
While Aki hangs back to investigate a stain of urine near the trail, I push on to the beaver dam. Water spills over the dam through layers of newly severed tree branches dragged there by beavers. There is still a paper-thin layer of ice covering parts of the pond. But it is already melting as the temperature climbs and the rain falls. Snow still covers the mountain backdrop for the pond. But winter lacks the strength to counterpunch the warmth of fall here where the beavers sleep.
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.