The temperature has stayed above freezing for several days and nights. Such a winter let down often occurs when a cold weather snow storm hammers the east coast of the United States. That’s what happened this week. In Juneau, if you drive more than 20 miles north of town, you can often ski there. We did that yesterday even though we had a good chance of being hammered by rain. This morning, the sky was temporality dry. But our weather app was predicting the return of snow. We grabbed Aki and our ski gear and headed out to the Mendenhall Campground.
Heaps of soft snow covered the campground. But thanks to work done by the groomers, the ski trail was solid. In fact, it was still icy. Aki’s other owner and I had spent more than 10 years skis cross country skiing down wind-pounded paths in Bush Alaska so today’s Mendenhall path should be a piece of frozen cake.
I didn’t expect any decent views of the glacier or its surrounding mountains. But the lower clouds lifted and pulled apart to allow shafts of morning sunshine to light up parts of the ski trail. Clouds would soon bury the sunshine with blankets of grey. For half-an-hour, we could suck up the sunshine.
Wondering if we can ski all the way to the river, I lead Aki past Skater’s Cabin and onto the still-snow-covered beach of Mendenhall Lake. The snow is softer than yesterday but still firm enough for skiing. Like yesterday, we have the place to ourselves.
Aki rolls in the snow and then plants her face in it. Holding a handful of the coarse-grained stuff is like holding a handful of cold sand. Crush it and you have an ice cube rather than a snow ball.
I ski parallel to yesterday’s tracks, surprised to see the tops of rocks poking up through them. On the way to the river, my skis break through a snow bridge over a narrow stream. Thanks to expanding bare spots along the river, I will have to carry my skis a longer distance than yesterday.
We pass divots in the snow formed by light, fallen objects rather than rocks. Sun heated things leaves, feathers, and tangles of tree lichen have melted the snow where they came to rest. I remember visit I made this time of year to Grayling on the Alaskan portion of the Yukon River. An Athabaskan man was scattering wood stove ash onto a bulldozer sized patch of snow. When I asked him why, he dug down until he struck the yellow-colored cab of a small Caterpillar earth mover.
It’s already 10 degrees Celsius and the sun’s been up for hours. Good thing I can hike in these ski boots, little dog. Aki, who knows she will get in a walk one way or another, doesn’t care what kind of boots I pull on this morning. After securing her in the car and fasten skis and poles on the roof top carrier, I drive out to Mendenhall Lake. A lot of snow covered the shore two days ago. Maybe we can still ski along the beach.
The warm, sunny weather has drawn people away from their home shelters. Cars fill the Fred Meyers parking lot. More head out Glacier Highway to drive thirty miles to the end of the road system and return. I expect to find the lake shore crowded with people escaping quarantine. But the Skater’s Cabin lot is empty as is the lake. This is almost as surprising as trail conditions. The temperature dropped below freezing last night long enough for a thick crust to form on the beach snow.
The little dog trots behind as I sneak onto the lake ice to skirt a bare spot in the beach. It holds, even offers good skiing. I think, for a few seconds, of leaving the safe, solid shore for the freedom offered on the lake ice. We could ski all the way to the glacier free from people and virus worries—establishing a social distance of six kilometers rather than the two meters we must struggle to maintain at the grocery store. But breaking through the lake ice far from help could create a social distance I could not close without becoming a ghost.
We return to shore and ski again to the river where mallards sunbathe on the snowy banks. Some fly further downstream when we approach. Most just ignore the little dog and I. The even ignore the martial sound of an avalanche crashing down the flank of Bullard Mountain.
Wanting at least one more chance to ski, I drive through the rain to Mendenhall Lake. We have it to ourselves. Fog and clouds obscure the glacier and mountains. Spruce covered peninsulas appear and disappear in the moving gloam. Aki breaks through the snow crust every fourth step while my skis keep me on top of it. For the first time all winter, I have it easier than the little dog.
At first, I am disappointed with the views. Then the glacier ghosts into view for a moment. The ice color deepens then fades. The glacier disappears. I can briefly make out the silhouette of a Canada goose and those of a raft of Canada geese. Then the soft power of the day returns.
We ski over to the river and follow it to a section broken into channels by rocky islands. It’s a place of eddies that trap food for mallards and swans. I count 9 trumpeter and (I think) 2 tundra swans. They must be new arrivals, taking a break from their northern migration. The trumpeters have formed a community on one of the islands. Resident mallard ducks crowd up close to them. Downriver, the two tundra swans cuddle off a snowy point.
Yesterday, after the fog burned off, Aki’s other human and I rode our bicycles to Sheep Creek. We enjoyed blue skies and a summer time temperature of 16 degrees Celsius. After his one-day visit, summer left with the sun, driven south by rain. The temperature dropped 12 degrees. We are back on skis with Aki in tow.
Only one car occupies the Skater’s Cabin parking lot when we arrive. It belongs to a dog walker that leaves as we carry our skis to the lake. We felt lucky to find a parking place on our last visit. We find Mendenhall Lake covered with turquoise colored ice. Snow, in some places more than 30 cm thick, still blankets the beach. Made just soft enough by the rain, the snow provides us great skiing.
After taking a few snow baths, Aki falls in behind me as we head toward the river. We visited with a family of swans several times on the river this spring. As I search for them, a northern harrier drops from the top of a spruce and glides across the river. Other than the resident mallards, the harrier will be the only bird we will see until just before we leave the river for the woods. Then our thee swans will appear from behind a downriver bend and fly away to the north.
I’d expect more unpleasantness in hell. But for a cross country skier, Montana Creek might be offering a taste of purgatory. Aki wouldn’t agree. She is having a great time racing back and forth between her other human and me. Already forgotten is the first half-a-kilometer of the trail where blasts from the gun range made it impossible for her to hear my calming words.
I just avoided a nasty fall when tree moss on the trail brought one ski to a stop while the other one pulled me down the hill. Now climbing up a hill, my skis can’t get a purchase on the ice-slick trail. Aki’s other human is having an easier time with her skate skis.
When the grade flattens out, the shushing sound of the snow-thaw stream will calm me. I’ll notice its beauty. The meter-deep mounds of snow that cover every rock and log in the creek are shrinking. Some have been reduced to a rime of ice that covers the round rocks like a short-cropped wig. Little falls of melt water pour from beneath each surviving snow mound.
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.