This is the first walk for the little dog and I since I returned from a solo adventure. Not a time for drama, intrigue, or distraction. To allow us both a quiet time to sync, I drove Aki out to the Troll Woods with a plan to wander around the beaver’s trail system.
It’s a bluebird day. The temperature may reach 70 degrees F. At first a little breeze riffled the lake surfaces. When it stopped the cottonwoods among Moose Lake could used the lake’s surface to appreciate their beautiful spring coats. My little dog wades out into the lake, making a hole in a scum of spruce pollen. The electric green pollen covers everything from cars to Aki’s little paws. The poodle-mix sneezes. I hope she isn’t developing an allergy to the omnipresent stuff.
We leave the lake for a path lined by northern marsh violets, one of the first wildflowers of the summer. Dragonflies, another harbinger of real summer, flit around us like mosquitoes. One lands close enough for me to photograph but takes off when Aki trots over to investigate him. The payable price of companionship.
Three miles in, I’m thinking that me riding alone to the Herbert Glacier was a bad idea. Maybe if I were on a mountain bike it would be okay. But I’m using my touring bicycle, hoping that its 29 inch tires can handle the trail’s rocks and roots.
I haven’t ridden to the glacier since Aki was a puppy. That day the tiny little guy chased my bike the four miles to the glacier. She has hated bicycles ever since. I have always regretted bringing her along.
The highway is my bike’s natural home. When I left Glacier Highway to ride onto the trail, I promised the bike I would turn around if things got too rough. After I’ve traveled on it for a few thousands miles the bike and I have developed that kind of relationship. Because it knows me, the bike expects my promise to be broken.
We do fine the first few miles. The trail is flat and covered with fallen spruce needles that cushion the ride. As we climb toward Herbert Glacier ugly lumps of rock start appearing above the needles but I avoid most of them. Just a mile before the glacier the trail turns into a rock strewn single-track. I should turn around but we are so close. The bike will understand. So I proceed with caution, cringing each time a tire slams into an unavoidable cob.
When the trail becomes a narrow path between cliff and river, I finally park the bike and proceed on foot to where the glacier can be seen hanging above a forest of yellow green cottonwoods and alders. It’s cloudy, but here and there blue holes in the grey appears. One lets enough light through to bright out the best in he glacier and its forest.
It is almost impossible to rise with the sun during the northern summer. At this time of the morning last winter Aki and I would have been hiking in the dark. Still, during most of our visit we will have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. A nice bird watcher arrived just before us but didn’t go beyond the pond.
On the drive to the trailhead, I thought about deer and when a doe walked in front of the car. After we stopped, it crossed to the west side of the road and tried to find cover behind a sparse blueberry bush. Another deer appeared to be waiting for us at the trailhead parking area. Acting like it was still undiscovered, it tiptoed off the trail and into a forest tangle.
Things have calmed down on the delta since our last visit. The resident eagles have reached accommodation with the crows, which no longer try to drive the bigger predators from their roosts. Freed up from defense work, the crows have spread out to feed on the tidal meadow. One crow lands on a rock in the middle of tiny pond, apparently to enjoy its reflection in the pond’s surface. It doesn’t seem to notice a sandpiper that wades past.
The marine layer that darkened our skies for weeks is breaking into clouds that reflect in the waters of Fritz Cove. An adult bald eagle flew out over the cove, dove on a fish and pulled up—wings wet and talons empty. Now it squats at the top of a spruce tree with its wings spread out to dry, a sour look on its face.
Aki couldn’t have picked a worse tip to go on a walk about. We are exposed on an open section of the Mendenhall Wetlands. The 10-pound poodle-mix is 40 meters away, sniffing a pee mail message. A bald eagle on its way toward the glacier makes a sudden course correction and begins to circle over the little dog, which must look like a plump, gray rabbit from the air. Aki freezes when I demand her to come to me. There is no time to outwait the little brat so I run toward her. The eagle breaks off and veers north toward the glacier.
Aki, who never saw the eagle, trots close to my side a little confused as we move down along the Mendenhall River towards Fritz Cove. The tide was out on our last visit to the wetlands, exposing food-rich mud flats to hundreds of teals, northern shovelers, mallards, and shorebirds. Today, with the tide at the flood, we only spot a bored-looking raft of mallards sleeping near the riverbank.
I expect that we will have to rely on the glacier, surrounding mountains, and the intense yellow-green colors of unleafing cottonwood trees for drama. Then an arctic tern flies overhead. It’s amazing to think that the tern’s frail-looking wings carried it all the way from Antarctica and will have to carry it back at the end of our summer.
While Aki sulks with impatience at my feet, I watch the tern disappear over the river. Then I spot two sparrow-like birds perched near each other on the roots of a driftwood log. They look like female Lapland longspurs in breeding plumage. If they breed this year it will be on the northern tundra, not along this river. They must be resting up before resuming their flight north.
Beavers. Aki and I are on the lookout for the buck-toothed rodents on this walk across the moraine. We walk along the Mendenhall River, which is dropping after a recent run of high water. It was raining earlier, which might explain why we have the place to ourselves.
Even though there is a large beaver house just upriver from our position, we have no chance of seeing one of them swimming across the water. We have to go deeper into the moraine—to the rarely visited Norton Lake. In years past, the little dog and I have been able to watch beavers tail slap the lake water and then swim towards us to check out the poodle wearing clothes.
The beavers have made it difficult to reach Norton Lake. You have to skirt a flooded portion of the trail and then tightrope walk along the top of one of their dams. After Aki and I walk maneuver our way through this obstacle course, I search the remains of beaver killed trees that rise like grave markers from the surface of the pond, looking for the arrow-head shaped beaver snout cutting a “v” across the water.
There will no beavers sighted this day, a pair of mallard drakes floating without apparent purpose across the surface of the lake.
Aki and I are back in the Troll Woods after a long absence. It’s good to be in the peaceful place. This time of year the little dog doesn’t have to worry about eagles. We might run into a wandering black bear but that doesn’t trouble a dog with a heart way too big for her 10-pound body.
Thick, yellow-green moss covers the forest floor and the trunks and branches of the trees, turning them into sculptures that could have been designed by Gaudi. It would be silent if not for the nesting songs of invisible birds and the muffled roar of Nugget Falls.
There is beaver sign everywhere: cottonwood limbs stripped of their bark, trails formed by the beavers skidding wood into their ponds, small dams slowing the flow of every watercourse. We run into a member of the beaver patrol. Late every afternoon she caps a pipe that runs underneath the beaver’s main dam. Otherwise the sound of moving water would energize the beavers into building a bigger dam behind the one pierced by the pipe. Every morning she uncaps the pipe, allowing the pond’s water level to drop. Otherwise the trail we use to access to the woods would be flooded.
Aki and I are cruising the Mendenhall campground, looking for the perfect spot to set up our family tents. We need a place with room for two tents that is within easy canoe carrying distance of the lake. From nearby comes the sound of preschool students heading in our direction. Aki, who thinks that little kids are really just puppies wearing funny clothes, tends to scare them with exuberant welcomes. To avoid that I lead the little dog down toward the lake and find a great blue heron fishing the shallows.
Either Aki can’t see the bird or she ignores it. Either way the heron doesn’t exhibit any signs of stress or concern. It lets me watch it stalk salmon smolt, moving slowly with its neck pulled back to form an “S.” When it freezes, it releases the tension in its neck to fire its head and long beak forward like a lance. It does this several times. The fish win their first battles with the heron. Finally the tall bird snatches a meal from the water, flipping up its beak to force its prey down that long neck.
After the preschoolers move on, Aki and I return to the campground road and follow it around the edge of a large pond. Mergansers, buffleheads, and mallards are paddling toward the far shore when an osprey cruises over their heads to land in the top of a nearby spruce. It’s been years since I have seen one of the fish eagles. I would have passed the pond long before the osprey appeared if not the for noisy toddlers.