Lured by promises of a new ice cave, Aki and her humans headed out to the toe of Mendenhall Glacier. It’s been snowing all day, making it easier to ski the 1.2 miles across Mendenhall Lake to the glacier. Those of us on skis used a soft track set by previous skiers. The little dog found a superhighway pounded flat by walking pilgrims.
One man stared up at the face of the glacier when we arrived. When he left we had the place to ourselves. Before seeking entrance to the cave, we enjoyed the abstract forms created by an assemblage of icebergs. Between two geometric blacks stood a slice of ice in form of penitent monk. He bowed in the direction of the cave.
Accepting the monk’s guidance, we skied to up to the glacier and found a thin opening to the ice cave. I had to drop onto to my knees to see under a very low ceiling. By crawling on my stomach, I could have accessed the cave’s interior. Since I didn’t bring rain gear, I had to settle for a filtered view.
It was 24 above when we left home this morning. Aki and I are dressed accordingly. Unfortunately the temperature hovers around 12 degrees F. as we slide onto Mendenhall Lake. The little dog doesn’t notice. She is too busy greeting dogs that just finished the four-kilometer lake loop.
All the beauty that surrounds Juneau spoils us. But my jaw drops each time I see the Mendenhall Glacier snaking through saw-toothed mountains on its way to the snow-covered lake. I ski toward the glacier for forty minutes while Aki runs back and forth between her other human and me. The rocky peninsula that separates the lake from the glacier appears to grow in size as we approach. From the spot where we turn back for the trailhead, only a small wedge of fractured ice appears above the rocks.
By now Aki and I are almost too warm. She chases forward to catch her other human who is flying forward on skate skis. I slip into the meditative motion of Nordic skiing.
Three college-aged folk just stepped onto the lake ice. They shuffle their feet to test for cracks. When reassured by silence, they start the 1.2-mile walk the face of Mendenhall Glacier. I am tempted to follow them. Our recent stint of cold weather set up the ice nicely for walking. Then there’s the patch of dark blue ice that might be the opening to a crevasse. But we still swing away from lake and take the trail to Nugget Falls.
While our spell of cold weather opened up the lake to walking, it made the falls trail treacherous. My cleats provide sufficient purchase on the icy trail for progress. Aki finds better going on the crusty snow that lines the trail. I’d punch through if I tried that trick.
The little dog waits for me at stream crossings where a thin sheet of water covers the ice. She knows not to let her feet get wet in freezing weather. I lift her with one hand and ferry her to the other side of each creek. She trots ahead scouting out possible dangers. She wants me forewarned.
The falls have been quieted by cold. Water flows over and under an ice fantasy that will continue to grow until true cold weather silences the creek. The ice shell makes it possible for us to walk right up to a spot normally swept by thick snakes of water. I turn to see whether Aki appreciates this rare chance. Rather than nosing the wonder with the tip of her muzzle, the poodle-mix is ten feet away, huddling in a nest of glacial granite.
Because there is no wind and the temperature has stayed above zero, I brought Aki back to the Fish Creek Delta. Ice still covers the trail so the little dog and I slip and slip on the trail to the pond. The ice layer on the pond is healing after the last thaw. A layer so thin it is transparent already covers all recently opened water.
My right index finger burns when I depress the camera shutter button. I wish the sun could hurry its climb up the backside of the ridge that blocks it light. The little dog and I could use a source of heat.
We will eventually walk in sunlight but it won’t provide much warmth. We will hear several bald eagles but only see one as it flies between a gap in the trees. I will wonder at having the luck to look up at that moment in time to see the eagle. Then I will question whether I wasted my luck on such a far away view of the predator.
Ravens flocked to Chicken Ridge this morning, drawn by a neighbor’s carelessly secured garbage bin. The messy eaters pierced plastic trash bags with their beaks and tossed kitchen waste everywhere in search for things rich in fat or protein. They ignored the vegetables.
No ravens greet Aki and I when we arrive at Skater’s Cabin. The song of a winter bird, perhaps a red poll, drifted across the ice of Mendenhall Lake. Otherwise it was quiet. No wind blew to knock frost feathers from the lakeside alders.
Even through we had the place to ourselves, Aki found plenty of smells to catalogue. While I photographed the glacier and his mountains, the little dog wandered onto the moss-covered floor of a new forest. She reappeared a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself as we walked along the lake edge to the Mendenhall River.
Since there was no chance that Aki could wander into a road or be carried off by eagles, I didn’t worry. But I still wonder at the meaning of her behavior. After 12 years of walks, is she looking to assert more independence? Or has she finally learned to trust my judgment. Until recently, she always acted like a careful nanny watching over a flighty three-year-old.
Like a logger descending a spar tree the temperature has been slowing moving downward since early morning. If Aki and I had taken this walk last evening, the little dog would have splashed through the trailside puddles. We could have driven to the trailhead without concern about black ice on the road. This morning, I could feel the car float over newly formed ice.
The trail mud is firming up but it is still wet enough to cause Aki to detour around it. We are heading toward the Fish Creel delta just after the crest of a 17-foot high tide. When we left the car, water still blocked part of the trail. But it will have exposed a narrow path by the time we reach the tip of the small island that marks the mouth of Fish Creek.
We will see eagles and a handful of ducks. But the sunlit mountains will grab my attention. At one o’clock in the afternoon, they will be made impossibly white by end-of-day sunlight. Their silhouettes will cut a rugged line in the azure sky. Calm water at their base will double the scene.
All this sun washed beauty will quickly give way to dusk but not before the mountains and encroaching clouds reflect the pink colors of sunset.
This is more like it little dog. By her actions, Aki must agree. I am crunching along the snow-covered edge of Mendenhall Lake, my boot sinking in three or four inches with each step. The dog charges ahead, her little paws only sinking in half as deep. Since we are near the glacier, the snow is too cold to form balls on Aki’s curly coat. But more often than not, patches of snow cling to her muzzle and cheeks when she looks back at me.
To our right the glacier snakes beneath the Mendenhall Towers. She is snow white except for sections of exposed aquamarine-colored ice. I wish I had brought skis. But then I may have been tempted to slide onto the still-too-thin lake ice.