It’s Sunday morning. Almost all the town’s churches are closed thanks to a government order prohibiting public gatherings. That order hasn’t prevented the Sunday Morning Church of Powder and Shot from holding service.
The church’s congregants sit behind shooting benches, each at least six feet way from their neighbors. There’s is not a church for music lovers or those who look for inspiration from a well delivered homily. They have no prayer or song books, just high-powered rifles, which they point at paper targets. As Aki’s other human and I step into our cross-country skis, the congregants fill the air with, for them, the joyful noise of rifle fire.
I pray for the riflemen to stop shooting long enough for us to put a half-a-kilometer between the gun range and Aki. But the firing continues. The little dog gallops alongside her humans as we ski down a series of small slopes to Montana Creek. A narrow bridge crossing the creek bares a pretty heavy snow load. Meter-deep mounds of snow cover rocks and the tangle of trees that have fallen onto the creek.
We start the steady climb required to reach the end of the trail. The sound of rifle fire mixes with that of the fast-moving creek. We won’t hear the song birds choir until the gunfire ends.
Two of our cross country venues ran out of snow this weekend. Their groomers loaded up their machines and hauled them to summer storage. That’s why Aki’s other human and I brought our skis and the little dog to Mendenhall Lake. This might be one of the last times we will be able to ski this spring. Last night’s snow evened out many of the ruts made by skiers during the recent thaw. But the ice is thin. Cautious skiers might avoid the lake today and use the trail set on the campground road system.
We are tentative at first, at least Aki’s humans are. The little dog speeds onto the lake and rolls like spring bear in the snow. I drop into the kick-slide-kick rhythm of the classical skier, passing the little dog, heading toward the glacier. The lake ice doesn’t crack under me. Water doesn’t bubble up to fill my tracks. But the tips of my old ski poles sink a few centimeters when I plant them in the ice. On our last lake ski, my tips bounced off hard ice.
We push on anyway. The skiing is too good to stop. But halfway we do stop after we notice that we are alone on the lake. Turning our backs to the glacier, we head to the shore. Snow clouds darken the skies above Thunder Mountain. The sun looks like huge moon. Everything is black or white. Aki’s blue sweater and the purple jacket of her other human provide the only color.
Aki follows us off the lake. We ski along the edge to the river where we stumble on three swans. One has the gray feathers of a yearling. The other two must be its parents. They feed on aquatic plants in the river, not bothering to paddle away from us. Yesterday, a heron did a similar thing when Aki and I rounded False Outer Point. We must be doing something right.
Aki and I have returned to the moraine, looking for swans. A little superstitious, and more than willing to indulge in magical thinking, I intend to take the same route to the river eddy where yesterday we saw the swans.
Unlike yesterday, there is no sunshine to soften the snow or blue sky to act as a backdrop for the Mendenhall towers and Mt. McGinnis. The top of the towers and mountain are partially obscured by clouds. But the Mendenhall Lake is skiable. I shush along the surface with the little dog in my wake. Careful not to ski too close to open water, I reach the river where the trail snow is still icy from last night’s freeze.
What yesterday was a carefree trail softened by sunshine ski is now a tense transit along the running river. When we reach the eddy I look for the trumpeter swans we saw before but spot only mallards. In the patch of open water below the eddy two tundra swans paddle down river. They pivot back in our direct just before reaching the ice edge. Compared to yesterday’s trumpeters, the tundra swans seem edgy. They mutter their “oo oo oo” call and never stop paddlng.
After watching the nervous tundra swans for a few minutes, I start back down the river. There, maybe five meters from the trail are yesterday’s three trumpeters. They stand on a high spot in the river bottom. One watches us approach as the other two sleep, beaks poked into their wing feathers.
Do they feel safe, maybe even invulnerable thanks to their five-meter moat? Or are they just too tired from their long migration to care?
Far out on Mendenhall Lake an exclamation point and a period move toward us. In a minute the punctuation marks transform into a skiing man and his dog. Assured that the lake ice is now firm enough, I ski onto the lake. Aki follows and the passes me. Soon she is running in large circles.
The glacier grows in size as I move further onto the ice. The conditions are perfect—five centimeters of sugar snow on firm, flat ice—almost too perfect. We are moving fast. Soon the little dog and I will be reduced to punctuation marks when seen from the beach. Worrying about skiing onto ice weakened by hidden currents or underwater springs, I head over toward the beach.
We cross a series of points and small bays to reach the Mendenhall River, which still runs dark and free. I can’t remember a winter cold enough to silence it. Something honks as we approach the place where the trail leaves the river bank and enters the woods.
Expecting Canada geese, I spot four large waterfowl gliding on a river eddy. The fierce morning light makes it hard to see more than the birds’ shapes. They could be Canadians but they would be larger than normal Canadians. Aki follows as I ski further down river to a get a better angle for investigating the birds. I stop when I can see that the birds are swans. They are recovering from their northern migration on the only piece of open fresh water for miles around.
The swans huddle against a snow-covered gravel bar where they almost vanish. After Aki and I move into the woods the swans come out of hiding. I watch them for a few minutes while screened from their view of shoreside alders.
The weather folks have predicted eight more days of snow, except for Wednesday and Thursday, when there should be rain. But we’re enjoying partly cloudy skies. Most of the mountains along Gastineau Channel are lit up with sun. We get these little gifts during the unsettled times between Pacific storms.
Aki and I head out to Skater’s Cabin for a ski along the edge of Mendenhall Lake. The little dog lets me break trail over snow that seems perfect for the task. On our right, snow-burdened spruce trees poke into a brindled-blue sky. To our left the glacier and Mts. McGinnis and Stroller White glow with filtered sunlight. No else is around to share the view.
I feel a little sorry for Aki at times like this. The snow has covered all the interesting scents. No dog is around to greet or sniff. She can’t even find a squirrel to chase.
I ski over to the river and then down it, passing two merganser ducks asleep in a wide eddy. They bob across the river reflection of Mt. Stroller White. We cross fresh tracks of a river otter from the woods to the water. It might have just dived into the river. I expected Aki to at least sniff the tracks but she keeps her nose up as she trots over them.
Sometimes it’s all about the snow. Aki and I are back on the Eagle River Trail. Yes, it is still snowing. No, there are other dogs or people around. A dog and its human tracked the trail earlier this morning. Now we are alone.
The trail offers no views of glaciers or even mountains. One eagle does a fly over before disappearing into the clouds. Then we slip back beneath the forest canopy. When I stop to catch my breath, I hear small song birds chirps, made maybe pine siskins. But they don’t show themselves.
Aki keeps station near the tails of my skis, relying on me to pack the trail for her. Irregular clumps of snow decorate all four of her legs. But I know that I will reach my physical limit well before she reaches her’s.
Aki, you are a mess. Gumball sized clumps of snow hang from all four of her legs. A couple of more cling to her chest. We are three quarters through a looping trail through a riverine forest. If I don’t do something, she is going to carry her snowy burden for at least another half-an-hour. I could pull off the snow balls but know that she would rather bite them off herself. Besides, she would assemble a similar collect in a few minutes of trotting behind the tails of my skis.
I could carry her the rest of the way to the car, holding my ski poles in one hand and the dog with the other. But I know from experience that she would squirm until I released her. As if to distract me, Aki buries her head in the soft snow, retrieves it, and shakes, making flakes fly in all directions.
A mile back, we cruised along Eagle River. Falling snow softened the reflections in the water of beached logs and forested hills across the river. I searched for seals, gulls, eagles, and ravens. They all seemed swallowed by the snow.
Now I’m skiing under the canopy of an old growth forest. Little snow makes it to the trail so it is easy going for dog and man. I expect Aki to take advantage of the firm trail to dash ahead. Instead she stays in may wake, keeping pace as we use a bridge to cross a salmon spawning stream and ski across a couple pocket meadows to the car.