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.
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.