It feels like hands are reaching up and grabbing onto my skis. The skis had been gliding freely over the snow covering the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Then, they broke through crust covering an overflow pool. The resulting water on the skis acted like glue on the surface snow. In a few strides, inch thick blocks of icy snow were clinging to the ski bottoms.
Aki had enough sense to avoid the overflow. She glided over the crust. Now I have to slam each ski forward to make any progress. Using it as an excuse to stop, I turn to study the glacier. Fresh snow muffles the ultramarine color of its ice. Clouds that are about to bring us more snow block any view of the Mendenhall Towers between which the glacier flows.
A 100 meters away, people in spandex athletic gear fly down a groomed trail on high-end skate skis. Others, more moderately equipped, push their classic skis up grooved tracks. In a few minutes, Aki and I will struggle over way over to the groomed trail. She will chew away the ice and snow balls that have frozen to her legs and paws while I scape the impeding ice from my classic skis. Then we will find our grooves.
Tonight, we may have 60 knot winds that could scour away snow from our favorite trails. This morning could offer our only chance for a ski until the next storm. If she could read my mind and speak, Aki might tell me to relax. The wind, if it comes, won’t reach all our ski trails. I’d give her an embarrassed smile and admit that I might be manufacturing urgency to give this morning’s cross-country ski something extra—the trill of stealing joy from a sleeping bear’s cave.
On the way out to the glacier we pass three cars that became stuck in snow drifts after their drivers lost control on the slick road. I keep going, sure that our car is up to challenge if I slow down. After parking at Skater’s Cabin, I ski down to the lake and slip into tracks that lead down the beach. Aki wants no part of this plan. She dashes up a trail that leads the closed campground.
I know the little dog will eventually join me on the beach trail even though it will mean wallowing in the fresh snow. That doesn’t seem fair so I ski up the trail she just took and find her waiting for me on the campground road. At first Aki give me her pathetic look. When I start down the road, she flies down the trailhead of me. I fall into the transcendental rhythm that makes classical cross country skiing a great tool for dealing with the darken days of our rain forest winter.
The Juneau Church of Powder and Shot has gathered with their weapons this morning at the gun range. They share a parking lot with users of the Montana Creek cross-country ski trails. Aki and her two humans, unbelievers all, walk away from the gun range. Each shot makes the little dog jump, as if they were aimed at one of us. She will calm down as soon as we start skiing. But I still wonder if it was mistake to bring her along.
We have to walk for a quarter of a kilometer on bare pavement or ice before we can ski. Just after clipping in my skis, I spot a man and woman slowly walking towards us. A makeshift sling immobilizes the woman’s left arm. She thinks that she separated her shoulder when her skis slipped and she fell. The grimace of pain on her face confirms her prognosis. The man holds her close to prevent another fall, like he might escort a wounded soldier from the battlefield. They walk toward the sound of booms and bangs of rifle shots.
I ski on until we reach a little hill covered with gray ice. Thinking about the woman, I take off my boards and walk to the bottom of the hill. We ski just past the three-kilometer sign and return to the car. The noisy creek obscures the gun sounds, the sun softens the snow. We can relax now that the ice has been turned into corn snow by the day’s growing warmth. But this is definitely the last time we will ski Montana Creek until next winter.
That’s it, I tell the little dog while sliding my skis into the car’s ski carrier. Aki looks puzzled. Perhaps I’ve chosen words with too many possible meanings. “That’s it” could mean, “that’s the skiing experience I have awaiting since first buying skis.” Since we are parked near the gun range, I could have meant, “the just concluded chorus of high powered rifle discharges precisely mimics the 1814 Battle of New Orleans.” I don’t have the heart to tell Aki that my words signal intent to put away the skis until winter’s return.
We just completed the 6-kilometer Montana Creek Trail. This time we didn’t have to dodge deep ruts made by a fool on his or her four wheel all terrain vehicle. The groomer did a great job leveling out the snow. But he wiped out the classic track in the process. I wouldn’t have minded skiing without a track. But the snow was icy-slick except where it had been softened by the strong spring sunshine.
I shouldn’t whine. We had solitude and a chance to listen to the creek chuckling and singing it’s way to sea, drowning out the sound from the gun range.
At least a foot snow still covers the Montana Creek Trail. Thanks to the recent stint of spring weather the snow is soft but still skiable. Ahead, Aki’s other human starts down the chicane of three hills that starts the trail. The little dog chases her, charging down a deep grove cut by the wheel of an all terrain vehicle.
Early this morning some yob drove his or her four-wheeler up the trail, ripping it up. The anger I initially felt at having to ski in the resulting mess fades, calmed by the sounds of the creek and the Zen rhythm of skiing. By time we reach the turn around point I am no longer wishing great bodily harm on the person that chewed up the trail out of boredom or a desire to destroy something that provides an entry into the woods for those willing to make the effort.
Aki splashes along a trail of covered by ice and a thin layer of water. Before I left for my weekend trip to Anchorage it offered skiable snow. Now I have to struggle to stay upright on my cross-country skis. I follow the little dog, thinking that we should turn around. Each time I do, the glimmer of water on Mendenhall Lake draws me forward.
The water covering the still frozen lake reflect a gray ski, clouds, mountains, the glacier, and surrounding trees. The captured reflections are outlined by the glow from the underlying ice. To eye them is to see into Alice’s looking glass.
After almost falling a few times, I follow Aki into the relatively snow free woods and onto the edge of the lake. Here a border of windblown snow offers a skiable surface. The little dog walks behind me on my ski tracks. I still have to take care to avoid skiing over the tops of emerging rocks.
The temperature has reached 54 degrees F. I unzip my parka and remove my hats and gloves. The snow, already reduced by a recent deluge of rain, can’t survive long in these conditions. Is winter dying, little dog? She offers no opinion.
Tempted by another dog’s scent, Aki stopped to investigate it. Finding the spot worthy of marking, the little dog lifted her rear into the air and peed—a trademarked poodle move. Just before I could catch up with her on my cross-country skis, Aki charged down the lake after her other human—the one using the faster skate skis. They were the only creatures between the Mendenhall Glacier and me.
The poodle-mix looked even tinier than the ten-pound dog she is against the glacial background. Slowed by the soft, wet snow, she struggled like Dickens’ Tiny Tim. We still had two miles of snow to cross before returning to the car. She should have slow down to save her strength. But the growing gap between her other human and I spurred her herding instinct.
I tried to pick up my pace but was slowed by the softening snow. Ahead, Aki snaked back and forth across the trail, trying to find the firmest footing. Water began filling her paw prints almost as soon as she made them. She wasn’t winded when we finally caught up with her skate-skiing human. Not bad for a 12 and a half year old dog.