Without snowshoes I’d soon wear myself out walking over this field of new snow. Even with them it is a job reaching a place that offers a nice view of the glacier reflected in a partially frozen eddy. No little dog follows behind. She waits on the beaten path giving me her “are you crazy” look. Is she wise or lazy? It could be either given her age of eleven and a half years.
She didn’t act her age as she leapt the car and galloped down the trail. When I caught with her, she was rolling on her back, a look of bliss showing on her snow-covered face. Yesterday’s storm added five inches of snow to that already coating the trailside trees and the ground. The added weight forced the alders over the trail where they form temporary barriers to me but not the low-slung Aki.
The sun floats like a pearly disk in a flat gray sky and then muscles through briefly to throw cast shadows in the woods. We are alone on the moraine, having missing the morning rush of dog walkers who level the snowy trail for Aki. She sniffs the tracks left last night by the local beavers but we see no other sign of wildlife. The recent cold snap has all but silenced the river. There should be black-capped chickadees or juncos hunting for food but I hear nothing but faint airplane noise and the scraping of Aki’s paws as she digs in the new snow.
I’m moving down a path covered with more snow than tracks. Aki and I have just left a well-trampled trail, one that she has used often in the past. Flooding by the moraine beavers makes the new trail impassible on all but the coldest days. Today—windless, and 14 degrees—is one those Goldilocks days when we can transit beaver-controlled country in relative comfort. After thinking this I look around and realize that I am using the wrong pronoun.
Aki stands statue straight near the trail junction. Her stare is also statue-like. It could be the product of several emotions: anger, impatience, disbelief, and even disappointment. This is a power grab or maybe even a simple effort to keep me from making a stupid mistake. The latter explanation has some merit.
Aki once watched me tightrope my way across a fallen cottonwood log that almost spanned a beaver-flooded portion of the tail. I soaked one boot while trying to leap to dry ground. The fact that I splashed her in the process might have riveted her memory in place.
I turn back down the questionable trail knowing that the invisible rubber band connecting us will eventually pull her in my direction. She follows, but at a distance. Each time I stop she turns back into a statue. After we pass through the scene of my misjudgment, Aki dashes ahead. Two minutes later we reach a junction with another well used dog walker trail. From now until we reach the car she will only stop to check pee mail or to allow me to catch up.
Aki ran into the woods as soon as a guy on the next beach opened up with a small caliber weapon. She entreats me to join her in the forest’s safety as the gun’s “pop, pop, pop, pop, pop” reaches us over the sound of surf. Is that is why the crows settled so near our trail on that rocky point? A murder of the birds were squatting just above the surf line when we broke onto the beach. Others were migrating to Shaman Island after rising from the rocks like Tolkien’s wraighs.
Ignorant of Hobbits and rings, Aki could ignore the crows but not the shots. I don’t know when she first connected danger with gunshots. She does have a cautious nature. Early in the walk she refused to leave the trail to follow me onto the frozen beaver pond. Did she know that beavers chew away at the under portions of the ice covering their pond so they can always reach their den after the pond ice thickens. A Yup’ik elder told me that years ago in another part of Alaska, but that was long before Aki arrived in my life. Maybe she intuits it.
I hadn’t planned on walking down beach to the shooter’s position so I muttered the bird hunting season ended a month ago you Yahoo and joined the little dog in the woods.
…Another guard, this one working for the gulls, gives out an alarm when we are still 100 meters from breaking out of the woods and onto the beach. Even though I use no stealth during those 100 meters the gulls, and they are hundreds of them, are still hugging the beach when we arrive. Some are almost painfully bright in the sunlight. They seem sluggish, almost hung over. I consider moving quickly on so they don’t have to expend energy to relocate but choose to linger. The gulls follow a four duck raft of mallards slowing paddling to the mouth of Peterson Creek. The scene produces a cold, penetrating beauty similar to that just found on the beaver’s pond.
The woods we next transit are too dense for the sun to penetrate and block sunlight from the second beach we crunch across. But the forest doesn’t block an east wind that makes our cold passage back even colder. Like the forest, this beach and the waters that touch it are empty of visible wildlife. The resting gulls we watched on the first beach explode past the point that marks the entrance to the little Peterson Creek bay. Some settle on the point or the much larger Outer Point. Most choose to fly to Shaman Island. All three landing locations are bright with sunlight.
Back in the woods I face the consequences for my decision—the wood-planked trail. It’s dry at first but soon I’m mincing over ice-covered treads. Aki would wait for me to pull on my ice grippers. But my right hand is too numb from holding the cold camera to manage it. If we had taken the wooden trail first, when I still worn grippers, I could have enjoyed views, like the one of sunlight shafting trees. Easy to see, but almost impossible to photograph, such filtered sun reminds me of the light that people are pulled toward in near-death-experience stories. Really I’m in little danger. Aki, with her little clawed paws trots over the ice like it was dry concrete. In most places, I can walk on firm dry ground rather than the wooden path.
In the end the little dog and I benefited from my choice not to take first the boarded trail even though for Frost’s speaker in “Road Not Taken” it would have been the route less traveled. But my choice allowed us a chance to see the gulls before they were scared into dispersing and that made all the difference.
After today’s North Douglas walk with Aki I wrote more than normal. So this is the first of a two part post. Thanks for you patience.
Thirty meters into old growth forest, I stall at a trail junction. While Aki catalogues recent dog activity, I think seriously about breaking with tradition and taking first a wood-planked trail rather than continuing on the gravel one that offers a more direct route to salt water. I want to reach the beach while the brief window of daylight is still open. But the ice grippers on my boots would be dulled on the journey. They would ease transit of the icy planked trail. But I can always use the grippers when we return to the car. After trying to remember the lines to Robert’s Frost famous poem about two trails in the woods, I chose the gravel route.
Our cold snap has silenced the forest, even the few remaining ice-free watercourses. No bird chits. No squirrel scolds, but circles of hoarfrost on forest moss betray the entrance to their dens. To survive the coldest days of winter, our squirrels and other smallish rodents climb into chambers dug out from wood stumps or rotting trees. They reduce their heart rate and metabolism and wait for the warmth to return. I wonder if a person could slide a gloved hand into an icy-rimed den and lift out a comatose squirrel without waking it.
The cold weather silence works in the favor of the forest’s largest rodent—the beaver. The sound of running water keeps them awake at night. Too bad they are sleeping in today. Sunlight has just reached their pond making the covering ice glow. Adult alders rise out of the ice looking like trees that have learned to balance on severed trunks.
Feet from one of the pond’s dams, beavers have chewed a hole in the pond ice. They must post a guard here to protect against a breach. Even on a cold night, a sudden dam collapse could lower the pond enough to allow an enemy access to their den. Even with a beaver’s wonderfully insulation, the guard must suffer while on duty.
T.S. Elliot claimed that April is the cruelest month. But he didn’t live in a rain forest. I nominate October for the title. For Southeast Alaska, October is a month of waves—one North Pacific storm surge after another passes over us. But between the storms, we often enjoy brief breaks of sun that bring out the beauty in the perpetually wet landscape. We have had Octobers full of clear, crisp days. Memories of those Octobers make today’s walk through the rain forest bittersweet.
Today’s storm raised the water levels in the forest beaver ponds to flood stage. Aki and I have to leap across rivulets of overflow. One is so wide and deep that Aki has to wade chest deep to cross it. Even through she has spent many days walking in the rain, the little dog always tries to avoid the wet or muddy portions of the trail. So she hesitated because wading into the half-a-meter wide stream of pond overflow. Then she minced across it slowly, as if testing the gravel bottom. Worried that the current would carry her away, I almost lifted her up. But she was across before I could help.
The large cottonwood trees that screen the glacier have begun their slow autumnal striptease. Aki and I see evidence of their dance along the moraine trail—Valentine-shaped leaves, yellow and orange and green, plastered by rain to the gravel or floating on the many beaver ponds. But only the most patient voyeur could appreciate or even detect the trees’ languid movements.
Evidence of beaver work is everywhere. Their dams back up waters in the trailside ditches so they now flood over parts of the trail. A patient man or dog might spot ripe silver salmon moving up the swollen drains on their way to spawning grounds deeper in the moraine. But I am impatient this morning and Aki is too fixated on fresh beaver scent.
She has an attraction to beavers that would prove fatal if she ever managed to close on one. She rarely passes on an opportunity to roll in their scat, something that brings a look of pure bliss to her face. The little dog has many blissful moments this morning as we pass a trio of cottonwood logs that the beavers had floated together and then stripped bare of bark. I wonder how many it took to reduce the logs to glistening white in one night. Because they work the swing and graveyard shifts, the beavers are probably resting in their dens but I still keep a look out for them. More than once, Aki has followed a moraine beaver into the water, tail wagging, apparently hoping to play.