Aki and I are back, drawn to the Mendenhall Lake for another chance to ski. Not wanting to press our luck with the lake ice, I lead the little dog on to the ski trail that meanders around a campground. The place is empty of other people and dogs. That might be explained by the fact that we are here on a weekday or because the classic ski trail is as slick as a luge run.
The little dog dashes after her other human who moves much faster than me on her skate skis. Aki’s strong herding instincts kicks in and she runs full out between her two humans as we do a circuit of the trail. When an opportunity to move onto the lake appears we leave the campground and slide into the freedom offered by the snow-covered beach.
I am standing on skis in the middle of the ice-covered Mendenhall Lake. Aki is several hundred meters away, trailing her other human as she skate skis toward the glacier. In a minute or so the little dog will break back and sprint to me. But for now I am alone, warm under the spring sun in a place so quiet I can hear my pulse beating a tattoo.
Even in a small town like ours that has no industry but tourism moments of silent solitude are rare. They usually occur when bad weather keeps everyone else inside, or when the little dog and I are deep in the woods. Today, perhaps thanks to the concern of others about the safety of the ice, I am alone. It’s wise to keep off the ice after long sunny days and early-spring temperatures have weakened it. I didn’t walk onto the ice during yesterday’s walk with Aki due to worry about ice thickness. But it froze hard last night and the tracks of skiers laid down yesterday tempted me to give it a try.
Aki sits in my lap in friend’s car. We are on the look out for winter. Cross-country skis rattled in the back. We found plenty of ice on the first trail we tried. Giving up on that one, we headed out to Eagle Beach in hopes of seeing some migratory waterfowl. The day before a snow goose was spotted in a formation of transiting Canada geese.
The tide was out when we arrived, giving the migrants little water to rest on. We walked along the river on a trail of mud and dead grass. Two skiers sat near the river’s mouth eating lunch. They had returned form an aborted ski trip to Point Bridget trail after finding it free of snow. “You go another mile on the road and there is no snow.” Looking around the snow free meadow I realize that it is time to put away the skis.
Nervous clouds cringe above Gastineau Channel as Aki and I drive out toward the glacier. Ignoring the little dog’s whining, I take us on a detour to Sandy Beach where the sun is about to move into a patch of blue sky. An optimist would describe the scene as “storm ‘s end” or “the first day of spring.” Being more a realist, I think it is a sucker hole. That’s what lost pilots call temporary breaks in clouds that could close over the plane the minute it drops into the hole. The sun disappears behind a wall of clouds as we return to the car.
Gray dominate the sky over Mendenhall Lake when we pull up to the trailhead. But shafts of sunlight are illuminating the glacier. The sun appears to melt the clouds obscuring Mendenhall Towers. We might be able to ski across the lake but after the recent stretch of warmish weather, I don’t want to chance it. I follow Aki onto the ski track that winds around the campground.
On a sunny day the trail would be full of skiers and their dogs. But not today. The little dog and I will only see four skater skiers and, disappointingly for Aki, no other dogs. The clouds will disperse and coalesce. Light snow, soon to be rain, will splatter on my windshield as I drive back to town.
Aki flinches at the sound of the first gunshot. She keeps her tail curved down and looks up at me as four more booms block out the sound of nearby Montana Creek. When I stop skiing she starts to shake. What was I thinking choosing this trail?
I know what I was thinking. After two days of rain, most of the other cross country ski trails are deteriorating. This one runs along Montana Creek where winter comes early and leaves late. I am not sure why. Maybe it’s the proximity to the glacier just a kilometer or so away. The trouble, as far as Aki is concerned, is that the trailhead is next to an outdoor gun range. The range’s parking lot was empty when we arrived so we had a peaceful time covering the first two kilometers of the trail. Then the gunshots began.
The little dog skitters along behind me on the trail. We would never hear another gun discharge but Aki will still cringe and shake each time I stop to look at the thick snow and ice that covers the still moving creek. There could be weeks more of skiing at Montana Creek but not for Aki.
Aki and I drove over twenty miles to reach this trail. This may be my last chance this year to use my skis on it. Wet snow fell during the entire drive. “Wet” is the operative word here. The thick flakes melted on contact with the road, our car, and the bare branches of roadside trees. Rather than thickening the ground snow layer, the flakes soften it. Our days for skiing are numbered as the winter of 2017-18 begins to die.
Aki squeals as I park the car and leaps onto the snow as I open the car door. If it were a few degrees colder, the snow would clump on the little dog’s fur. But it is too wet for clumping so she can run down the trail unhampered. I follow her into the old growth. It’s not bad skiing except where the forest canopy blocks the sky over the trail. The snow in those places is thin and icy and very close to melting away.
I will have good skiing for most of the visit. Aki will challenge my decision to take a soft side trail. After that she will run and sniff and run some more. I will have to carry my skis and poles over dry sections of the trail. The wet snow will not stop falling. I will feel like a relative on deathwatch, hoping that the treating physician is too pessimistic about our loved one’s chances. But the forest snow is melting and rain is on the way.
Good thing Aki isn’t here. She would have given up a half a mile back when we started post holing our way across a braided section of the Herbert River. She is in her doctor’s office, getting her teeth cleaned. Ahead the Herbert Glacier hangs above a scree field. My friend and I left our skis where the trail became too icy.
Not too many years ago we could have reached the glacier itself in conditions like this. That was before it retreated up the hill above the river.
We push on across the snowing plain, stepping in the footprints left an hour earlier by a group of co-eds from an Iowa College. We met the ladies at Four Kilometer Pond while they rested on their way back to their van. They were spending their spring break in Juneau doing volunteer work. After we left them at the lake, I wished that we had pointed out the moose tracks on the pond.
The co-ed’s tracks end at a small stream of open water that blocks access to the scree field. While we eat lunch I try to work out a route to the glacier’s toe. Even if we could cross the stream and manage to cross the scree field without breaking an ankle, there would still be a third class climb to reach the ice. Somehow that doesn’t matter on this clear, sunny day.