As we wait for a human friend to pull on his winter boots, Aki and I watch several hundred Canada geese floating on Auk Lake. Most sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers. The guard birds cackle. It’s hunting season. The geese spend the daylight hours when hunting is allowed resting on this lake where hunting is prohibited. Shortly after sunset they will fly out to the wetlands to feed. The birds have adapted.
We leave the birds’ sanctuary and head out to a riverine forest gone to sleep until the spring. No bird or animal breaks the silence. We see only a single raven and it flies off when it hears us talking. We continue on in the direction of the raven’s flight and find twin hemlock trees loaded down with Christmas ornaments. A strong offshore wind whips about the little trees. The nearby ground is littered with fallen ornaments. Normally I dislike human attempts to embellish nature’s beauty. But today, when low clouds hide the mountains and nothing but ravens fly, I appreciate some little globes of color.
As if to pin a lie on weatherman, nature brought us clear, cool skies this morning rather than the promised rain. At first light Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands. I’m hoping that it still retains the two inches of snow that fell on it yesterday. But this is early days for winter. The temperature is already above freezing when reach the wetlands. We take the trail along the river even though it is already slick with thawing mud. Aki finds cleaner footing on the grassy fringe.
At first light the still-surfaced river captures crisp reflections of the glacier underlined by trees flocked with snow. But the rising sun frees a breeze that riffles the water. The slight wind doesn’t wake a huge raft of Canada geese that doze, heads tucked into their back feathers, near the opposite side of the river. Among the sleeping flock, four white-fronted geese slip quietly toward shore. These arctic birds will soon resume their southerly migration.
When the heads of two harbor seals appear near the Canadians, the geese move casually towards the beach. I don’t see the seals make a move, but they or maybe a passing eagle flush the geese into flight.
Other than checking frequently to make sure she is near, I haven’t paid much attention to Aki. The little dog, who loves snow, doesn’t seem to mind until I head back toward the muddy trail. Then she gives me one of her “what an idiot” looks, hesitates, and then fast-trots towards her foolish master.
The forest should be greening up. Normally by early May green shoots of bracken, with tips curled like the head of a violin, would be forcing their way through last year’s dead growth. But today only the ever-present tree moss shows green.
The tidal meadow, when the little dog and I reach it, looks as dead as November. But the presence of nattering Canada geese confirm the onset of Spring. Those not chuckling graze on new shoots of meadow grass. In less accessible meadows black bears are filling their winter-empty stomachs with shoots of similar grass.
While Aki sniffs at a seemingly random spot on the trail, I lean down to inspect wolf scat that is chock full of tan colored fur. I’ve seen similar colored fur on our Sitka black tail deer. Winter’s winners and losers, little dog, now fueling this spring’s new growth.
Aki wouldn’t like this. It’s seven in the morning. The temperature drops a degree each mile I ride my bike out Glacier Highway. Now it hovers at 27 degrees F. The temperature didn’t stop the Hermit Thrush from singing its spring song when I mounted my bicycle at the Shrine of St. Theresa. The cold might have silenced the eagles because I can’t hear their territorial scream as I head out the road. But the Stellar’s jays are warm enough to scold me as I ride over the Peterson Creek Bridge.
The sun lights up Shelter Island and the snow-white Chilkat Mountains that line the other side of Lynn Canal. But I ride in pre-dawn grey until Eagle River where the sun shines on the gang of Canada geese in a mid-stream gravel bar. The birds cackle away as if plotting mischief.
I push on another half-mile and then drop into the picnic area where a smaller group of geese hunt and peck near the picnic tables. If my presence bothers them, they don’t show it. Pleased for not being their cat among the pigeons, I ride to a trailhead where a man on a mountain bike greets me. After we exchange hellos, he rides down the trail toward the plotting Canada geese. In seconds they explode off the meadow and fly low over my head, flushed by a cat on a cycle.
A forty-knot wind plasters Aki’s fur to her skin. Long ago she had dropped down her stub of a tail to cover her privates. I walk behind her, bare hands stuck in my pockets, eyes scanning the Mendenhall River for participants in the spring migration.
Aki didn’t notice a small raft of bufflehead ducks drop onto the river where they now bob in wind driven waves. She doesn’t lift her head when we cross a field of dead-brown grass to the river’s edge. Just upstream a huge raft of mallards shelters in the lee of a bluff cut by the river current. The water glimmers like a shattered mirror left abandoned in the sun. But the grasslands seem dead, as if the strong wind has stripped it of color.
To get out of the wind, we drop down into the gully formed by a small stream and surprise a gang of six Canada geese that had the same idea. They circle in front of the glacier and land on the grass a hundred meters away where they huddle behind a small rise.
My little dog doesn’t complain or give me her “are you crazy” stare. She conducts her usual nasal patrol, covering the more intriguing scents with her own. In a sense, she may be tougher than the geese and other wild things that make their living on the wetlands. All the birds we spotted this morning had obtained shelter from the wind. She trots into it.
“Boom, boom, boom” and a hunter whistling in his dog interrupt the nattering complaints of Canada geese. Then, the smell of cordite arrives on a light breeze. Aki cringes and moves cautiously ahead, choosing the iciest path. Her little paws slip and then regain a purchase and she is on surer ground. I think about turning back but we are almost to the mouth of Fish Creek. I’ll just peak around the spit to see if the hunter is there. I end my search after spotting gulls strutting along one of the diminutive inlet that drains the wetlands.
The hunter must be working another part of the wetlands, one upwind from our position. Aki returns to her survey of dog sign. It’s 9:30 and the sun is brightening the snow on the Chilkats and Mt. McGinnis. No light will warm the little dog or sparkle the thick, trailside frost today. But we are used to enjoying the sun’s work from afar.
On our return to the car I stop to study a long, thin raft of Canada geese that has formed just off shore in Fritz Cove. Each has its beak tucked into its feathered body. It’s 19 degrees F. and they still chose water over the warmer land for their bed.
We hear a mother and two small boys as we approach the pond. Only a thin layer of ice covers it. The boys, both dressed in heavy winter gear toss rocks onto the ice to hear the sound of it breaking. I think of the admonition of a Tlingit elder I once knew in Ketchikan not to break the stillness of water by skipping stones on it. What would she say to these two boys? They slide down some hinge ice to reach the slanted pond beach. They could slip on the ice and slide into the pond if they edged any further forward. I think of the mother and child who drowned after breaking through ice on this very pond twenty years ago. The boys’ mom saves me using the story as a warning by calling them back from the edge.
It’s not terribly cold. The temperature hovers somewhere in the mid-twenties Fahrenheit. No breeze ruffles the surface of the Mendenhall River. But the little dog and I are not designed for the conditions. So we adapt. Aki wears a knitted sweater with front sleeves that reach almost to her paws. She’ll shiver if she stops but she never does. Me, I am wearing gloves, knit hat, and heavy parka. My trigger figure numbs if I take too many pictures before returning finger and hand to their glove.
I wouldn’t have given any of this a thought if not for the great blue heron. He stands, still as one of the queen’s guards, in an ice-free portion of the river. He’s puffed out his chest feathers to trap warm air leaving his body but that’s all he can do to adapt to the cold. Around him mallards and golden eye ducks paddle, sometimes diving down to catch lunch. In the air above the edge of the wetlands, an extended formation of Canada geese flies noisily away. No warm parkas for them. I wonder if their kin provided the down that is keeping me warm.
A naturalist could explain all the things given to the wetland birds to help them tough out the winter. She could also solve the mystery of salt-water ice. Last night at slack high tide, when the beach we walk on was covered by seawater, a skim of ice formed. As the river dropped during the ebb the ice skim draped itself over tuffs of beach grass and beach pebbles. Brittle freshwater ice would have cracked and split when left by the tide to bear its own weight. But this paper-thin sea ice lays like a lover over the bent grass until the next high tide.