This afternoon Aki is going to have her picture taken with Santa. It’s for a fundraiser to feed homeless dogs. But first we will take a walk together on the glacial moraine. Rain pours down on us when we leave the car. While Aki does her business, I climb up a small rise and look out over Mendenhall Lake. Its waters are almost as gray as the sky. I can just make out the blue of the glacier across the lake. Small pans of ice line the shore. They provide the only evidence of winter’s November visit.
Backtracking to the car, I lead Aki onto a new cross-country ski trail that snakes through a belt of thin spruce and hemlock trees. A month ago, a foot of snow covered the trail. Nordic skate skiers would have flown past us. Today it’s a bare as summer.
The rain forest has known grey and wet Christmases before. We might have to endure another one this year. Maybe Aki can ask Santa for a miracle snow storm next week.
There are a lot of things the little dog and I could be doing this morning. Recent rainstorms cleared almost all the local trails of ice. We could be walking on one of them. We could be on a snow free beach watching harlequin ducks paddle slowly away. But we are 30 miles north of town where there is enough just snow for cross-country skiing. Thanks to all the dead leaves, twigs and spruce needles on the trail my skis are doing more slogging than sliding.
On a drier day it would be even harder to make progress on the trail. But the steady rain lubricates the trail debris. For some reason, I am the only one of the 30,000 Juneauites that thought skiing here today was a good idea.
Aki would rather be dashing about on a popular dog walking trail but she manages to entertain herself by reading the wild animal sign. When we ski over fresh deer tracks I expect the little dog to growl or bark. But she ignores them. I still search the trailside woods for the animal that left the tracks. Nothing shows itself.
I didn’t expect much to come of this cross country ski trip. The temperature had dropped to below freezing yesterday to end the thaw and solidified the mushy snow. My skis shouldn’t be able to gain a purchase on the resulting concrete. But I hadn’t figured on the frost that built during the calm, cold night. It changed the ice-slick snow to ski-friendly stuff.
Aki, her other human and I are traveling along the shore of Mendenhall Lake on frost covered snow. It provides perfect skiing. The skis of those who tried the same thing before yesterday’s freeze sank deep into soft, wet muck. So did the paws of a wild animal that left a compact line of parallel tracks from the woods, through overflow, and onto the lake. I am still trying to identify the critter that made them.
The glacier and surrounding mountains rise above the refreezing surface of the lake. Low angle sun throws deep shadows on fractured sections of ice. But clouds obscure most of Mt. McGinnis and Thunder Mountain. In a short time we reach the still-ice-free Mendenhall River and ski along its shore. Thin fog vapors rise from the water to be turned almost painfully white by backlighting sun. The mist separates long enough to reveal a lone merganser paddling across the river.
I stop often to photograph the shiny beauty. A gap opens up between Aki’s other human and myself. The little dog dashes back and forth between us, taking advantage of the hard trail. She is still running when we reach the car and find two ravens policing the parking lot for dropped snacks. Aki is displeased.
It’s 13 degrees. The cold is messing up my camera. I am skiing alone, asking other cross-country skiers if they have seen a toy poodle in a knit sweater. Where has that little dog gone? We were together just minutes ago at the base of a small hill. She was inclined to take our usual trail, the one that loops around the hill. But, I have grown used to winning such battles so I started up the slope, figuring that she would pout a minute and trot after me. At the top I was alone.
We had already been skiing for more than an hour. Most of that time was spent on a back- country-style trail. Aki stopped often to roll or dig into the fine-grained snow. I worked out a way to take pictures without removing my mittens. Unlike yesterday, where the tracks of snowshoe hares, squirrels, and a fox crisscrossed our trail, we don’t spot any evidence that dog or wild animal had passed this way.
At the end of the back-country portion of our ski we crossed Glacier Highway and slipped onto a groomed, tracked trail that winds through a dormant campground. Aki stopped often to roll in the snow, check scent or chase about with another dog. Then, while I was on the hill, she disappeared.
A bit dehydrated. I can barely manage the whistle I use to call her home. She must have heard, because she sprints toward me from the opposite side of the hill, looking putout. At the same time we silently ask the same question: “Where have you been?”
As Aki and I hurry past the gun range to where the Montana Creek ski trail starts, I wonder at these people who chose to spend Sunday morning discharging high power rifles. Perhaps their Sabbath falls on a different day of the week. It’s still early so maybe they are centering themselves for the mid-morning Palm Sunday service by releasing violence against a paper target. For others, this may be their church: their way to celebrate creation and life. Instead of following along in hymnals, they use the Remington 270 or a standard thirty-ought-six to sing divine praise. Members of this church of powder and shot must prefer the bark of a Winchester 30-30 carbine to a homily.
When the rifle range noise becomes hidden by the sound of Montana Creek, I ease into skiing. Aki releases her tail from between her hind legs and trots along, stopping to sniff and pee like she does when relaxed. But at the turnaround spot, where there is only a tributary of the creek to break the silence, we hear three loud bangs. Down goes the tail until it is curled between Aki’s legs. Even though we are soon back to where the creek noise blocks out violence sounds, the little dog doesn’t relax.
After we run out of skiable snow, we walk. Yesterday, on this patch of ice and pavement, I felt like a WWI recruit approaching the trenches for the first time, trying not to duck for cover. But today, we don’t hear any shots during the 500-meter walk to the car. The gun range is practically empty. We spot only two men and them conversing quietly next to their pickup truck. Church must be out.
Aki was not pleased at being left out of yesterday’s hike. Giving me hard looks, she followed me around the house this morning as I gather needed stuff for a cross-country ski on the Montana Creek trail. We have avoided this trail for the last two seasons because it starts near a very active gun range. The cannon-like noise produced hurts my ears and makes the little dog very nervous. But Aki loves snow, especially when it offers her a chance to run along side one of her people skiing. So here we are.
Thanks it its proximity to the glacier, Montana Creek has an icebox microclimate that keeps winter alive as spring flowers open on Chicken Ridge. While walking away from the gun range on a bone-dry road I wonder if we left it too late. But three hundred meters ahead we find an icy covering that had been made just skiable by groomer. With the drum and track setter that he tows behind his snowmachine (Skido in Canadian, Snowmobile in American), he keeps winter on life support for the first kilometer of the trail. After that he just has to tidy up the snow that winter retains on its own. For the last two kilometers of the creek side trail snow stacks three feet high decorate boulders in the stream and a blanket of the same thickness covers the forest floor.
I’ve almost forgotten how much Aki loves running on snow, even after it has been softened by rain and warm temperatures. She dashes in front as if a child at an amusement park. I still enjoy skiing but am ready for spring. But Aki might morn the end of this snowy winter.
The trail takes us to the junction of the Eagle and Herbert Rivers. Both are swollen with tide and snow melt. Weakening pans of ice float past. One thinning sheet carries several rocks that each must weigh more than Aki. They float like offering to the hungry waters of spring.