Aki and I were both a little tired as we drove out to the glacier. The little old dog whined a lot as her other human and I spent time shoveling new snow off the driveway and car. Three of our next door neighbors helped so it didn’t take an unusual amount of time. Aki disappeared into the house of our next door neighbor, where she told one of her favorite other humans how frustrated she was having today’s ski adventure delayed.
At the beginning of the ski run, low snow clouds blocked any views of the glacier, most of the trees, and all of the mountains. This didn’t bother our little dog, who cheered up when a dog friend popped out of his family car. Even though she only weighs 10 pounds, Aki is treated like a princess by most of the dogs she meets. She acts accordingly.
While Aki and rode out to Mendenhall Lake, I expected the trail to be soft. If there is still any sign of the ski trail, it must be flushy and shallow. But while warmish air was quickly melting snow near our downtown home, the air was well under freezing by the glacier. This allowed the volunteer trail guy to create a great, well-formed ski trail this morning.
On a good ski day like this, this is one of Aki’s favorite places to visit. The well packed trails help her fly toward the dogs of other skiers. She dashes up to them, engages in a quick exchange of sniffs, and trots back to me.
When we get close to the river that drains Mendenhall Lake, Aki and I leave the ski trail and walk over to the water. We do this on every Mendenhall ski on the chance that we will see a family of swans. It doesn’t happen on this visit. I think back to the story in the Juneau Empire describing the capture last month of an injured swan. It happened on this little river stretch. Maybe things will change next month. The injured swan might be reunited here with her family, or the little river will fill up with other transit swans.
The snow has returned, a snotty, unstructured white mass of dancers. They fly down the street as we drive to Fish Creek. The parking lot for the trail only has one car. We will see them for a few seconds while on the trail. Then we will have the place to ourselves.
I expected to find the delta empty. But it is full of birds. There are plenty of gulls and mallard duck, all working the shallows for food. None pay us any attention. In a little, shallow pond, two killdeer feed. Normally, they never visit the Alaskan rainforests in winter and are rarely seen in other seasons. They must have flown long and hard to get to the creek delta because they total ignore our presence.
On the other side of the little pond, an American wigeon walks along the beach. His kind are rarely seen in our area this time of year. A few minutes later, while passing along a short trail through the woods, a I stop short when a chestnut backed chickadee lands on the trail a few meet away. Like the gulls and the mallards, the chickadee is almost always around. But this one has no time or interest in keeping any distance between himself and Aki or I.
Aki turned 14 last Fall. If she were a more normal dog, she would act like she was almost 100 years old. Most folks think she is still puppy. All I know is that she hasn’t started to slow down yet. Today, her other human and I are crossing Mendenhall Lake using cross country skis. The little dog trots just behind me, her little tail beating back and forth like a metronome.
The last time we visited the lake it was several degrees below zero F. Today the air is just below freezing. The air is flat calm and no clouds block the sunshine. We first planned on taking a harder to find, lesser used trail for this morning’s ski because of all the cars parked near our usual trailhead. But the recent sub-zero weather solidified the lake ice. That opened up a path along the lake’s Southern shore.
We never met any other skiers during most of our ski. We saw more tracks left by wild animals than those left by people and their dogs. When checking out one photo after we returned home, I noticed the solo tracks of a red fox left it left while leaving the woods to cross the lake last night. Closer to the start of Mendenhall River, we had to ski over heavier tracks left early this morning by what might have been a lynx.
Seeing the wild animal tracks made me understand better why Aki stops so often to check out scents on the trail—even on new trails like this on lakes that have been used by few dogs. She always wants to know who else is passing through the neighborhood. More than once she had barked discouragement to chase off another wild animal I could not even see. She treed as least four bears. But she seems open to hanging out with other animals. She has even placed herself none-to-nose with a prickly porcupine. Another time, she even dashed across softening lake ice to visit with an otter.
We hadn’t intended to do a sub-zero walk this morning. But no wind discouraged us by stirring the country near the glacier. The minus 3 degree temperature (minus 19 C) seemed quite comfortable. Aki dashed onto the Mendenhall Lake and started on the trail to the glacier. We had heard others had posted pictures of a new hollow in the glacier formed from clear, blue ice. I guess the little poodle mix wanted to go check it out.
I told Aki that we didn’t have enough time to reach the glacier and return home before a scheduled meeting. Instead, we shifted over to little-used trail that wound around the glacier moraine. It offered lots of views of the little pocket lakes the glacier left behind as it retreated up the mountains.
On cold winter days, when ice covered lakes allow us a chance to explore new territory, I usually lead Aki off the usual trails. She starts after me when I walk onto Crystal Lake. Then she stops, bogged down in snow. The old puppy starts shivering. It’s like she will freeze if she can’t keep moving.
I dash over to Aki and carry her back to the solid trail. I expect her to ask me to haul her back to car. But she drops out of my arms and trots over to a little alder for a smell of scent left by another pup. She is still a tough little dog.
Cold but no wind—that is what we hoped to find when we visited a trail system 30 miles away. We dressed Aki in warm gear, filled up the car, and drove out to Eagle Beach. The campground parking lot was full of other cars so we drove a little further to an almost-empty trail head. From there we took a little used path into an old growth spruce forest.
The skiing was almost perfect as were the shafts of sunlight that powered around the trunks of the huge spruce. We had the trail to ourselves. Every once in awhile a huge and heavy load of new snow tumbled in a thick shower on the forest floor. I loved skiing through the trail, hoping to pass through without being hammered from loads of falling snow.
It was also dark in the forest. At the edge, the trail led to a sunlit trail where the full sin made the snow covered alders almost too painful to view. From there we powered through another sunny meadow to the river, where Aki ran into a collection of other dogs. For the first time on the ski, she acted like a hog heaven.
I am writing this after walking a very cold beach on Groundhog’s Day. It’s a meaningless pocket holiday designed down south to distract folks in the middle of long U.S. Winters. Before heading over to Sheep Creek, I heard the radio announce that a Pennsylvanian groundhog was caught standing in early morning sun. This, the local expert said with a smirk, meant six more week of winter.
We have ground hogs in Alaska. But none will be seen until the spring, after they end their winter hibernation. For us, this February is a time for birds to splash in the stream shallows and fish. This morning, mallards and golden eye ducks are hard at it when we arrive at low tide.
Rather than drying on the gravel, the little rocks and shells on the Sheep Creek beach are each covered by clear ocean ice. The ice is thicker in low spots on the beach. Because we are so close to the Sheep Mountain Ridge, it dominates our view. The ridge starts to disappear after a city snow plow flies down the road, filling the air with the pure-white snow we drove through to reach the trail head.
The incoming tide has covered all the beach sand and is now eating into the snow-covered beach. Aki and I are the only ones here if you don’t count a small covey of mallards bobbing about in the beach’s small surf. While she spends her time smelling pee and then covering it with her own, I walk onto Sandy Beach.
Strong morning light is enriching everything, making even the soaking wet logs sparkle as the surf bangs them up and down on the beach. By keeping the stiff wind at our backs we can move in comfort. While standing on a sunny stretch of beach, I look for more ducks or even an eagle or two. None appear until a little golden eye plops into the water just off shore.
Yesterday Aki’s other human and I spent an hour or so shoveling snow off our driveway. It was still snow-free this morning. But it took twenty minutes to free the car before we could drive off. The temperature dropped well before freezing last night. Now thin ice covers the street. We have to take the long way down the hill to avoid a wreck.
We drive out the southern side of North Douglas Highway. Sunshine beats down the mountains on the Northern side of Gastineau Channel. It is still dark on the southern side of the channel. We are hoping to find a snow-covered meadow seven miles out the road. It isn’t at first. But the sun will soon pop out from behind a mountain ridge before slipping behind another ridge.
I think that I preferred the unlit meadow because it seemed to set a stage for the string of mountains rising in the sun on the northern side of the channel. Besides, we were also going to drive over to Nine Mile Creek before heading home. It turned out to be the most beautiful place to visit on this sunny day. We walked along Gastineau Creek which was almost full of salt water. It reflected startling-white mountains on the other side of the creek.
We are halfway through January and snow still does not cover the beach around Mendenhall Lake. Aki has no problem crossing the now-shallow stream that still pours over a beaver dam. No did a red fox that just trotted down the trail. Our little dog sniffs around the fox’s prints and finds no reason to follow it into the woods. But she does shift her focus on her people for the rest of the trip.
The Mendenhall Lake ice has become as thin as Italian pizza. If things don’t chill down, we should be able to reach the glacier in our kayak over ice free water. The glacier expresses solid beauty this morning thanks to its turquoise ice. I find myself standing still as rain drops soak the little dog and I. I’m drawn by the shapes of dying lake ice and the reflection of glacier and mountains in an open section of the lake.
We turn away from the beach and cross a sandy meadow and find a little trail still covered with snow. Aki stands on edge of the trail. Melt water covering the old trail discourages her from continuing. I thought she was waiting for me to carry her over the shallow flood waters to sold ground. But, after making sure we are standing at the edge of the water, the little poodle mix leads us on the shallowest path back to the trail.