As a flood tide swells the Mendenhall River, Aki and I walk towards its mouth. The ice-free river must look like a miracle to migratory waterfowl looking for a feed. On this flat-light day, the river looks to me like a dark-gray snake slithering across a barren grassland. A Canada goose might agree with me. It flies low over the drab scene, repeating over and over a honking lament.
Ignoring the lamentation, I lead Aki off the trail. We cross tide-soaked grass to the top of a low bluff. Below, the current carries three sleeping ring necked ducks up river. At least 50 more of their fellow travelers are waking up to feed a kilometer down river. They have a long way to go to the breeding grounds in central Alaska. After they resume their northern migration, we won’t see their kind again until next spring.
Aki and I squelch our way back to main trail and use it to continue our own journey to the river’s mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a large mammal slinking through the wetland grass. It moves with feline sensuality rather than lumber like a bear or lope like a dog. I can’t make out a tail. Is it a lynx? A short way away from the mystery guy, two Labrador retrievers start toward it until their owners call them back. I’ll look without success for the predator for the rest of our walk.
We will spot other recharging ducks on our walk down river. One Eurasian widgeon, with aquatic weed handing from its beak will feed along side an American widgeon. She needs to top off her tank. Her migration will take her to the Aleutian Islands, over 3000 kilometers away.
I am still at writer’s school in sub-zero Talkeetna. If I am not careful, every photo I take will have Denali in it. They call it the great one for a reason. Denali and its big buddies in the Alaska Range distract me from the clarity of near-arctic light. The sun rises late, cruises low over the southern horizon, and drops like an orange basketball into a basket of riverside willows.
At the sun’s rising and setting, it underlines a transient blue sky with tropical yellows and oranges. In the hours between, its ;eight bounces on painfully white snow and throws strong shadows from the town’s birches and aspens.
Aki, you wouldn’t like this. It’s 2 degrees F. below zero. Two snowmachines snarl around me on their way to the Talkeetna River. The cold seems to amplify the noise and thicken the snowgos’ exhaust smoke. When the machines drive between the setting sun and me, the exhaust takes on an orange tinge. No, little dog, if here, you’d be begging to be carried back to the Roadhouse.
I shuffle along the snowmachine trail, slipping every fifth step on glazed snow. It’s been twenty years since I’ve approached a frozen river while subzero temperature numbs my cheeks. Remembering previous experiences with minor frostbite, I free a hand from its mitten and warm the affected spots. I came to Talkeetna for writing school, not first aid.
A sign near the riverbank warns against walking on the river. I can hear the sound of current running through patches of open water where the Talkeetna river joins the larger Susitna. On the other side of the rivers rises Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. Seeing it in this clear winter light, you’d think that you could reach its summit in a day.