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.
I wonder if seals are the ravens of the ocean. Aki, who has never interacted with seals but has a grudging respect for ravens, is uncomfortable responding to my musing. It might be different if we were talking beavers or river otters. She has been lured out onto thin ice twice by their kind. Two otters called for her to join them on thin ice over this very Fish Creek Pond. She broke through pond ice twice near the glacier while answering the call of a young beaver.
My little dog may be wondering why I bring up harbor seals where we are walking along a fresh water stream. But then she cannot see one of them twirling and diving in Fish Creek. It must have followed the high tide surge up the creek seeking something to eat or just to alleviate boredom. More than once while kayaking I have turned in my seat to see a harbor seal a few feet from my rudder, looking at me with the saddest eyes in the world.
I wonder if the little dog knows about what is about to happen. We are transiting the glacier moraine, rounding a still unfrozen lake. Water from melting snow drips from shoreline trees onto the lake’s surface. Wet snow was falling when we started this walk. It has been replaced by light rain, which speeds up the snowmelt. The early November assertion of winter is about to end. Fall is not finished with us.
Aki tries to rub her face on the trail snow but finds it is still too thin. Undeterred, she trots on to a place where fresh beaver tracks cross the trail. They seem to soften as we look at them.
The snow disappears from the trail when we enter the troll woods. Aki has to skirt the muddy stretches. I am thankful for the volunteers that have bridges the worst parts with assemblages of scrap lumber.
On the drive back home, I want to tell Aki to look up at Mt. Juneau where snow, rain falls on the mountains flanks. But she has curled herself on the car seat, dozing as her curls begin to dry.
Aki, you’d think I’ve been too spoiled by natural beauty to be wowed by a borrow pit.The little dog gives me one of her “don’t stop gushing again” looks.
The poodle-mix and I are walking on top of a dike pushed up by men miring for gravel. The “U” shaped dike has captured a small pond by connecting to a length of gently sloping meadow. A beaver family has already colonized the pond. The big rodents’ earthworks killed a small copse of spruce trees on the opposite shore of the pond. It’s the reflection of these skeletons on the pond’s surface that’s gob smacked me.
Alder trees, gilded by backlighting morning light add to the show as does the dissipating globs of mist that hover just above the pond’s surface. When I walk without taking my eyes off the scene, I slip and fall where river otters have installed one of their “U” shaped slides. It’s pretty clear that nature and its wild children have claimed ownership of the old barrow pit. Tough skinned spruce roots snake over the top of the dike. Cow parsnip, fireweed, and the other aggressive forest plants color the dike with whites, yellows and reds.
Little dog, let’s hope that nature never loses the power to repair our messes.