Has winter finally arrived? The signs are here. Thickening ice covers the lake. I’ve broken out my winter-weight parka. So has the human friend who walks with us along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Even Aki wears her warmest wrap.
It is still early morning when we start the walk. Sunlight hasn’t reached the lake. But rose madder red clouds float over Thunder Mountain. Soon the day’s first rays will brighten the tips of the Mendenhall Towers.
The last time we made this walk, Aki uses a parallel forest trail rather than join me on the muddy beach. Now that the mud is frozen she is happy to trot with us along the ice edge.
Sunshine seems precious this time of year. Thanks to the mountains that rim Juneau like canyon walls, we are lucky to have more than four hours of sun even on cloudless days. This is such a day so Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands where the sun arrives at daybreak and doesn’t leave until near the official time for sunset.
Aki is extra happy this morning, in part because she got a dog treat when a human friend and I stopped at a drive through stand for coffee. She is excited to have another dog along for the walk. She looks forward to feeling sun on her fur for the first time in weeks.
The trail forms a rough parallel with the Lower Mendenhall River, which is covered with a fragile skim of ice. We won’t see any of the resident mallards until reaching a section kept ice-free by current. The water on that section will provide a stunning reflection of a wall of mountains pierced through by the glacier. I will try to ignore the fact that the river is fed with melt water from the shrinking river of ice.
We will see one bald eagle resting on the roots of a driftwood tree. It will glance at us for a moment and then turn its face into the sun.
This morning Aki will meet a scary looking but nice dog and a nice looking dog that will act scary. Both interactions will have peaceful outcomes. We won’t meet anyone else on our walk along the shore of Mendenhall Lake.
I am surprised to have the spectacular scenery to ourselves this morning. The low clouds that had been obscuring the glacier and its mountains have lifted. No wind prevents the lake from making perfect reflections of them. Only sunshine would ramp up the beauty. But that would also raise a wind to shatter the crisp reflections.
As usual when taking this walk, I am moving down a mucky beach while Aki parallels me on a mossy forest trail. Suddenly she is at my side being chased by a hulking American bulldog. Aki ducks between my legs and then burst out to chase the bulldog. In seconds I know the new arrival is a sweet guy. In distance we hear his owner’s voice. She will tell us how she lives nearby and will display a local’s knowledge of the beavers that raise their young near where she raises her’s.
I envy the relationship the bulldog owner has with this dramatic slice of the rain forest. Except for the neighborhood ravens, wild animals only transit through our Chicken Ridge neighborhood. We encourage the porcupines to move on before they devour more of our fruit trees. We pray that black bears will spend more time on the salmon streams than knocking over neighborhood trash bins. I’d like the song birds to spend longer in our trees but they are too busy to comply. Mostly we see cars and dog walkers.
Feeling a little sorry for myself, I lead Aki onto a road through an empty campground. Around the corner a nuclear family of three approaches accompanied by a border collie. The dog drops it head and tail and pads towards us like we are rebellious sheep. It growls and barks when Aki moves toward it. Aki looks shocked but soon recovers. We will never see the collie or her human charges again. But the dog’s bark will reach us from across the forest many times before we return to the car.
I wonder if the little dog knows about what is about to happen. We are transiting the glacier moraine, rounding a still unfrozen lake. Water from melting snow drips from shoreline trees onto the lake’s surface. Wet snow was falling when we started this walk. It has been replaced by light rain, which speeds up the snowmelt. The early November assertion of winter is about to end. Fall is not finished with us.
Aki tries to rub her face on the trail snow but finds it is still too thin. Undeterred, she trots on to a place where fresh beaver tracks cross the trail. They seem to soften as we look at them.
The snow disappears from the trail when we enter the troll woods. Aki has to skirt the muddy stretches. I am thankful for the volunteers that have bridges the worst parts with assemblages of scrap lumber.
On the drive back home, I want to tell Aki to look up at Mt. Juneau where snow, rain falls on the mountains flanks. But she has curled herself on the car seat, dozing as her curls begin to dry.
As if to pin a lie on weatherman, nature brought us clear, cool skies this morning rather than the promised rain. At first light Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands. I’m hoping that it still retains the two inches of snow that fell on it yesterday. But this is early days for winter. The temperature is already above freezing when reach the wetlands. We take the trail along the river even though it is already slick with thawing mud. Aki finds cleaner footing on the grassy fringe.
At first light the still-surfaced river captures crisp reflections of the glacier underlined by trees flocked with snow. But the rising sun frees a breeze that riffles the water. The slight wind doesn’t wake a huge raft of Canada geese that doze, heads tucked into their back feathers, near the opposite side of the river. Among the sleeping flock, four white-fronted geese slip quietly toward shore. These arctic birds will soon resume their southerly migration.
When the heads of two harbor seals appear near the Canadians, the geese move casually towards the beach. I don’t see the seals make a move, but they or maybe a passing eagle flush the geese into flight.
Other than checking frequently to make sure she is near, I haven’t paid much attention to Aki. The little dog, who loves snow, doesn’t seem to mind until I head back toward the muddy trail. Then she gives me one of her “what an idiot” looks, hesitates, and then fast-trots towards her foolish master.
We are on the moraine between storm pulses. The last one ripped away most of the fall color from the tall poplars. Their living skeletons line Moose Lake. The more protected willows still provide a yellow contrast to the dull color scheme created by last night’s high winds.
Newly born cascades of rainwater carve out channels in the Thunder Mountain avalanche chutes. Fog mist rises from evergreen forests like campfire smoke. Heavy rain has raised lake and river levels. Aki and I have to detour around large sections of flooded trails to get to the heart of the moraine. As a result we have the place to ourselves except for a bald eagle roosting in the bare branches of a poplar tree.
With all the watercourses running high, silver salmon can now reach their spawning grounds. From its vantage point the eagle can spot potential meals as they struggle to complete their long swim.
Some swirling in the lake waters during my last visit encouraged me to take along a fishing rod on this visit to the Troll Woods. We are close to the glacier, walking on moraine recently colonized by fast growing poplars, willows, and alders. It must ten degree colder here than at home in Downtown Juneau. The little dog and I are underdressed.
Gray mist crawls over the lake surface, which is yet to feel the morning light. I make a few half-hearted casts but stop when I notice that Aki is shivering. I can see the promise of warmth in the sunlight that brings out the fall color in the shoreline cottonwoods and makes Mt. McGinnis stand out against the blue morning sky.
Silver salmon splash and roll in the smallest lake on the moraine. They are waiting for the next storm to raise the water level of their spawning stream so they can get on with their deadly mating rituals. At least one salmon has paid a stiff price for waiting. We found it’s severed head on the trail. Last night a bear ate the fish’s body.
Fortunately for the salmon, rain is forecasted for next Thursday. We will miss the sun but are willing to walk in the rain—a small price for living in a rain forest drained by salmon streams.