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.
After today’s North Douglas walk with Aki I wrote more than normal. So this is the first of a two part post. Thanks for you patience.
Thirty meters into old growth forest, I stall at a trail junction. While Aki catalogues recent dog activity, I think seriously about breaking with tradition and taking first a wood-planked trail rather than continuing on the gravel one that offers a more direct route to salt water. I want to reach the beach while the brief window of daylight is still open. But the ice grippers on my boots would be dulled on the journey. They would ease transit of the icy planked trail. But I can always use the grippers when we return to the car. After trying to remember the lines to Robert’s Frost famous poem about two trails in the woods, I chose the gravel route.
Our cold snap has silenced the forest, even the few remaining ice-free watercourses. No bird chits. No squirrel scolds, but circles of hoarfrost on forest moss betray the entrance to their dens. To survive the coldest days of winter, our squirrels and other smallish rodents climb into chambers dug out from wood stumps or rotting trees. They reduce their heart rate and metabolism and wait for the warmth to return. I wonder if a person could slide a gloved hand into an icy-rimed den and lift out a comatose squirrel without waking it.
The cold weather silence works in the favor of the forest’s largest rodent—the beaver. The sound of running water keeps them awake at night. Too bad they are sleeping in today. Sunlight has just reached their pond making the covering ice glow. Adult alders rise out of the ice looking like trees that have learned to balance on severed trunks.
Feet from one of the pond’s dams, beavers have chewed a hole in the pond ice. They must post a guard here to protect against a breach. Even on a cold night, a sudden dam collapse could lower the pond enough to allow an enemy access to their den. Even with a beaver’s wonderfully insulation, the guard must suffer while on duty.
After spending so much time recently at the glacier, today I opt for a more homey trip. Aki trots behind the tails of my skis as I move easily down a moraine trail. It’s raining, which makes the packed trail snow almost friction-free. Maybe that is why we get so close to the northern harrier before it flies off with a beak full of rabbit entrails. The grey bird loses most of them by the time it reaches a nearby tree roost.
I as pleased that Aki doesn’t bark or bother the big bird. The harrier isn’t pleased that I stop to take a few pictures. When it flies off, we head down the trail, passing over sections of the moraine that will soon be flooded by water backed up behind one of the beavers’ many dams. We probably won’t reach this deep into the troll woods until next winter.
The harrier is back when we returned, standing over a mostly-eaten hare. He is only a few feet from the trail. If not for the deep snow and heavy brush surrounding us, I’d lead Aki in a wide arc around the hunter and his prey. But there is nothing for it so I lead the little dog slowly toward the harrier. It flies off to a nearby tree, ready to finish his feast after we are gone.
“We usually don’t see waves,” I shout over the onshore wind and wave crashes. The couple are petting Aki so I don’t know if they heard me. It is hard to tell where they are from. He wears a ball cap made from high-tec fabric and they both have good quality raincoats. His is a British Commonwealth accent, not Canadian but not London Brit. Neither seems afraid even through they will be alone on the North Douglas trail when Aki and I turn into the woods—alone with the wind and the rain clouds it is blowing towards them. Halfway back to the car, I am tempted to turn back and find the couple and give them enough information to stay out of trouble. But they managed to find the Outer Point Trail on their own. Hopefully, even with the trail system’s lack of directions signs, they will find their way home.
Standing in full sun on the side of a Douglas Island mountain, I realize how cleverly we rain forest dwellers can honor days of gray. During the recent wet spell, I took comfort in a day’s lack of gale force winds or, when that didn’t apply, that the rain was warm, not the chilly cold of November. Yesterday, it was enough that the pavement was dry when I woke up. Today, we have sun, warmth, and little wind. In other words, it’s summer.
Aki has four humans to herd up the trail. When we break into pairs and space ourselves out on the trail, the little dog runs back and forth between her groupings like a border collie herding sheep. Maybe, given the la-la feeling produced by the weather, we need herding.
It’s good to see the mountains’ white silhouette against today’s blue sky. The sun doesn’t reach us on the moraine where we walk on barely-frozen ground. Across the ice-covered lake, it slams into the snowy peaks and dull-white glacial ice. Aki cares only for her beloved orange Frisbee. She chases it again and again down the beach. At a stream draining a big beaver dam the little dog drops her sand-covered toy into the water. For a moment she watches it float downstream where it might disappear under the lake ice. She has lost other Frisbees this way. But today she snatches it and carries it to my feet with a silent demand to renew the game of catch and release.
I’ll be in Anchorage at writing school the next couple of weeks so this is my last trek with Aki for a bit. We walk along lower Fish Creek to the pond circled by a thin line of fisherman. Using large treble hooks, they try to snag king salmon now going to rot in the pond. The men ignore us, concentrate instead on the bass notes made by 20 pound salmon as they crash into the surface of the pond.
Fishermen and fish are both driven here by DNA. For the men, a deep need to hunt and harvest, feed their families, drove them from their beds. The fish seek only to reproduce but can’t make it up the shallow creek to their spawning beds until it is swollen by August rains. Genetics might also be behind Aki and my moves this morning. She seeks promising scents, I satisfy my inter-caveman with a camera rather than gun.
The tide is out so the place smells of death and new life—-the stink of spent salmon and exposed tidal mud is almost overpowered by the sweetness of just opened wild rose buds.
Eagles and crows hunt carrion on the tide flats. I look for a way to capture the gold-yellow beauty of a seaweed carpet exposed before the glacier by the ebb tide. Four foot hight stalks of fireweed stand before me and the tidelands, the bottom rungs of their ladders of magenta blooms already in full flower. The layers will blossom one after the other until all the flowers transform into seed down that will float away at the end of summer.