I’m in a stare down with a raven that has just stopped searching a mound of dirty snow for food. It turned its head to focus an eye on me. I’m on my way to pick up an order of garlic eggplant from a Chinese restaurant. Even though I am hungry from skiing and the heavily spiced eggplant will melt in my mouth, I stop to return the raven’s stare.
If he had grabbed me with a stare while I was on my way out of the restaurant, I’d assume that he was lobbying for one of my fortune cookies. But my hands are empty. He looks like he’s seen many Alaska winters. Perhaps he is a wise one, gathering information about humans to pass on to newly hatched chicks. This raven is only one of many birds that have recently locked eyes with me. I am yet to come with an acceptable explanation for any of my near-bird experiences.
I wish I’d seen this or any raven while Aki and I skied this morning along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. But the conditions were wrong for bird watching. A glacial wind was scouring the lake ice of snow. It blew away the swan family we had visited on recent visits. Even the kittiwakes that made such a racket while gathering on the river waters were absent. Smart birds, like ravens, were hunting for scraps on wind-sheltered sections of the wetlands or mooching for snacks in parking lots.
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.
I wanted be out on the wetlands at first light. It makes the best shadows, deepens the colors of frost-covered grass. But the little dog needed her breakfast and me my morning coffee. It’s still early in the day when we arrive. Skims of ice soften the reflections off the river. Frost feathers decorate stubs of grass and the still frozen trail mud.
We are the first to stumble onto a flock of nibbling Canada geese. Apparently wanting nothing to do with the large, noisy birds, Aki ignores them. The geese try to ignore us. Unfortunately, they have staked out the trail as part of their feeding ground. The geese fly off in twos and threes when I try to sidle around them.
I had hoped to see the owls again. Two short-eared owls hunted the wetlands the last time we walked along this part of the Mendenhall River. If not them, we might see more swans. But there are only ducks and the now nattering geese. One eagle does a high Passover but sees nothing worth diving on.
The trail deteriorates as we walk, softening under the rising sun. We drop off the meadow to walk along the river beach. The ebb tide has reduced the river to narrow stream, but it is wide enough to reflect the glacier and the sawtooth peaks that frame it. The beauty of it should be enough to satisfy. But Aki is short-sighted and I am disappointed not to see the owls.
As I try to measure ice loss on the glacier, the Alaska Airlines jet from Seattle photobombs our view of it like bald eagles have done before. Anyone that deplanes from the jet will have to go home and stay there for the next two weeks.
Feeling the need for another coffee at our own quarantine zone, I try to rush Aki toward the car. She passes me when I stop to watch a flock of pine siskins party among the limbs of an alder tree. One of the tiny birds settles on the nearest limb and studies me, tilting his head to get a clearer view. I think of Annie Dillard’s famous soul gaze with a weasel. Ms. Dillard saw the wild one’s eye as a doorway. For me the siskin’s eye is a mirror, reflecting the sunlight bouncing off the river.
No formal trail crosses this meadow. Mountains surround it on all sides. Fast moving fog reveals and then as quickly obscures them. Normally, morning sunshine destroys meadow fog. These gray tendrils thicken as we work our away across the meadow.
Aki wouldn’t have picked this place for our daily adventure. It offers no chances for dog encounters or even pee mail to read. Over a foot of snow still covers the ground. It softened during yesterday’s heat and was crusted over by last night’s hard freeze. The crust supports Aki’s slight weight. I only break through every fourth or fifth step. Thanks to the conditions, we have the meadow to ourselves if you don’t count the gang of blue jays bickering nearby. I am confident that it will stay that way. If we have to isolate ourselves from neighbors, we might as well find a place of beauty for our quarantine.
I stop when we reach a small meadow within the meadow that has I few trees to block our view of the mountains. The fog has thickened enough to obscure the ridge to the west. But only one long tendril interferes with our view of a mountain bowl to the south. I take a quick photo of it before the tendril expands.
The snow crust seems to soften as I start moving toward the south. In a half-hour I will post holing into deep, wet snow. Even though there is no danger of her breaking through the crust, Aki is more than happy with my decision to backtrack our way off the meadow.
Aki and I are out on Mendenhall Lake. The temperature is above freezing and it is raining. I’ve stopped after crossing over two long linear cracks in the snow-covered ice. I’ve stopped to avoid skiing over an area covered with blue-green blotches. They will be puddles soon if the rain keeps up. Time to turn back to shore.
The little dog doesn’t mind retreating as long it doesn’t require returning to the car. She trots along behind until we almost reach the shore when she rushes off the ice. The skiing is better on the lake ice than shore so I don’t join Aki. She keeps to the snow-covered ground. Her hearing is superior to mine. Maybe she can hear the ice settling.
Our paths converge where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. The trail is still hard and fast from last night’s hard freeze. I’m so preoccupied with staying upright that I don’t notice six swans in the river until we are only ten or fifteen meters away from them. The big birds look as surprised as I feel.
I take off my skis so I won’t startle the swans more by falling. At first, they relax. While one keeps watch the others go back to sleep. As I take swan portraits, a large human family walks out of the woods downriver from us. They have a large dog that entertains the family’s preschoolers by splashing in and out of the river.
Even though they are several hundred meters from the family, the swans start paddling up river to increase the distance, moving nearer to us in the process. Aki and the swans ignore each other. But I feel like I might be placing the birds under stress. The little dog and I move on, leaving at least this part of the river to the swans.
The mallards are gathering along Fish Creek. A medium-high flood tide is pushing them off the wetlands in threes and fours. They fly past the face of Mendenhall Glacier and up the creek, circle like they are waiting for a parking place to open up, and then splash down on the water. Each new group of arrivals is welcomed with maniacal mallard laughs.
Some of the incoming ducks are American widgeons. After they settle on the water, they chuckle hellos to the mallards. Widgeon diplomacy must work. In no time the mallards and widgeons are peacefully sharing the same water.
This morning most of the birds are heard but not seen. Two eagles screech when we walk close to their roosts but we will never spot them. The trail side woods are full of junkos and siskins too shy to show themselves. Unseen varied thrusts punctuate the smaller birds’ songs with their shrill one note calls.
A small raft of Barrow golden-eye ducks cruises near the Fritz Cove shore. Each drake looks like a miniature common loon. Further off shore several buffle-head drakes start squabbling over fishing rights until two of them leave. One of them walks on water for a meter before going airborne. Soon all the buffleheads are spread out like naval pickets on blockade duty. When one splash dives on bait fish every bufflehead on the cove collects around it.
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?