Exploring land recently released by ice (geologically speaking)
Category Archives: Cross Country Skiing
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.
Many feet and paws have beaten this path into the snow covering Mendenhall Lake. It leads to the glacier’s face. The weatherman is calling for a snowstorm to start in a few hours but nothing falls from the sky now. More surprising, I can’t see anyone between the glacier and us.
During the summer, the edge of the lake is crowded with cruise ship tourists. Hundreds a day paddle or canoe across its waters. Helicopters full of tourists fly overhead to land on the ice field. Eagles hang in the lakeside cottonwoods and arctic terns defend their nesting grounds. On the rocky point near the glacial, a large colony of gulls raises a new generation.
The birds and tourists are gone by the time the lake freezes and the skaters slide onto it. When enough snow falls, cross-country skiers course around in set tracks. As long as the ice is safe, a line of people and dogs can usually be seen walking to or from the glacier. Today, I see no one. The narrow trail changes from snow to ice when are within a kilometer of the glacier. When I step off it to frame a photograph, my boots sink past the covering snow into a five-centimeter deep pool of overflow. The trail is a bridge over a lake that has formed between the ice and snow covering.
Last summer, when one of Aki’s other humans and I kayaked to the glacier’s face, we had a fairly long walk to reach the ice. Now dense, blue glacier covers the trail we used. With the help of my micro spikes, I manage to scramble over some small icebergs and reach the mouth of a very shallow ice cave. The ice is losing its grip on rocks that it has carried for hundreds of years. Half of one the size of my head sticks out of the ceiling of the cave. By next summer it will be free.
Even though she followed me up to the ice cave, Aki is not happy to be here. The sound of falling ice and stones makes her nervous. Such sounds disturb the peace of the moment for me too so I head back down after taking a few pictures. The little dog gets stuck on a false route and I have to drop down to rescue her. But she has no problem following me to the lake on the route we used to reach the cave mouth. Don’t worry little dog, we won’t speak of this again.
Snow falls on the little dog and I from a blue sky. The flakes glitter from sunlight reaching them through the old growth forest. It’s really last night’s frost being blown out of the canopy by a rising wind. The temperature is also rising. Soon it will allow the sunlight to melt the canopy’s snow load into droplets that will punch little holes into the snow covering the forest floor. I am glad that Aki and I will be out on the wetlands before that happens.
It’s quiet in the forest. Aki might be bored. But I appreciate the ability of a thick forest to filter out all but the loudest sounds.
We walk along side a set of cross country ski tracks made by someone willing to deal with thin snow cover and bare spots of ice. When we pass the junction for the Yankee Basin trail, I think of Romeo, the black wolf who hunted rabbits in these woods before it was killed by a poacher. While not tame, the wolf had learned to tolerate people and enjoyed playing with their dogs. Romero once followed Aki and I through the glacial moraine until two other dog walkers came along to distract it. One night while I skied with Aki around Mendenhall Lake, we listened to Romeo howling under a full moon.
I always had mixed feeling about Romeo. It seemed wrong to name an iconic animal of the woods. It was exciting to know that we might see Romeo any time we were on a local trail. It bothered me that the wolf was so comfortable with our very dangerous species. It saddened me that this led to his death.
The quiet time for contemplation ends when we leave the forest and find the meadow crowded with people and their dogs. I thought my little poodle-mix would be ecstatic. But she seems standoffish when we pass other canines. Maybe she, like I, feels like we had abandoned the solitude of the woods too soon.
Yesterday the weather service promised that a foot of new snow would fall today. But sometime during the night moist air from the Pacific pushed up the temperature to above freezing. It’s snowing now but rain is not far away—rain that will soften the lake ice and wash away the snow we have been enjoying for the past few weeks. There is only one thing for a little dog and her people to do—try to sneak in one more ski adventure.
We drive out to Mendenhall Lake and park near Skater’s Cabin, which is across the lake from the glacier and its mountain consorts. Low clouds dump snow on the lake and obscure the view of anything more than a kilometer away. The resulting flat light would make it hard for us to see the trail, which is already filling in with soft, wet snow. We opt to ski through the campground. This pleases Aki because it is a popular dog use area.
On a downhill section of the trail, Aki flies by me as she follows her other human. In seconds they are out of sight. I see them again after I round a turn and begin a gentle uphill climb. At the top I learn from Aki’s other human that a goshawk had just flown low across the trail in front of them. Last winter Aki and I had watched a goshawk rip off strips of flesh from a snowshoe hare. I wonder if Aki just saw the bid bird again. I also wonder why the goshawk flew in front of them instead of me. On the Kuskokwim, where we once lived, the elders preached that the second boat always gets the moose. Moose and other animals will often stay hidden in the woods while the first boat or skier passes by. They can often be caught on the trail by a person dawdling along behind. Most of the time the elders are right. I see a lot while dawdling.