It was O Dark 30, on a grey, dry morning. Aki and I had just dropped off her other human at the airport. Then we drove over to the parking lot for a trail that skirts the north end of the runway. I didn’t bother to bring my camera. Sunrise was still minutes away. It will take much longer for the sun to brighten the sky. For at least another hour, a heavy layer of clouds will hide it.
The parking lot was completely empty when we started down the trail. It also appeared empty except for a small gang of scavenging crows. Then, thirty feet away, some migratory birds stirred and started slowly moving away from the trail. At first, I couldn’t identify the birds. Then they reached a spot nearer the river that seemed to catching more morning light. I realized that they were Greater White-fronted Geese. They were the only birds Aki or I would see on the trail. The flock was gone before we returned to the car. I wished them well. They still had to complete a long flight to Southwest Alaska before they can feed and breed.
It seems like only yesterday that ice covered the tiny moraine lakes and snow made it had to walk on these trails. Bears were probably still sleeping on nearby hillsides, and deer struggled, as they had all winter, to find eatable twigs. Well today almost every place on the moraine is bare and empty of color. It’s that time between winter and real spring, when the forest seems to pout.
Some willows are trying to branch out leaves. But most are bare. I came this morning to spot some swans but found only thawed out lakes and fresh bear tracks. Well, that’s an unfair understatement. We also saw robins and junkos carrying web improving roots and grasses to their building sites and a pair of freshly arrived ring-neck ducks.
The first person we met on a North Douglas Island trail was an old man. He moved slowly toward me, weighed down by a heavy back pack. Twenty steps behind him, a woman of the similar age carried a similar burden. Shafts of morning light threw long shadows from every tree and bush they past. Aki and stood ten feet off the trail so they could safely pass.
We ran into more campers on a trail that rarely has any. They stayed all night even though the temperature dropped to around freezing. Many were still snugged in their tents. Two men sat in folding chairs where they could catch warmth from the morning sun. They looked fragile, like men do when feeling the morning sun after a night of cold. A bottle of whiskey sat just beyond their reach.
Our car claims that the air is currently 61 degrees F. But we still have to use a lot of caution to work our way down the ice-slick trail along Fish Creek.
There’s lot of reasons to believe that it is spring. Gangs of robins bounce about the meadows. I Even spotted my first varied thrush of the year. It’s low tide so there is a long of ground exposed between our trail and the ocean water. We watched two eagles leave their spruce tree roosts and glide out to sea. One just misses a mallard. The other eagle snatched a fish from the water and carried it to the beach to eat.
People in this tiny, Alaskan capital city are had a dogs. Folks who haven’t owned a puppy since their own childhood started buying them when Covid force them to work from home. Today, a six or eight month old pup accompanies every human walking down Eagle River.
Perhaps to teach all the new dogs a lesson, Aki ignores them. I try to do the same. It’s low tide so a great deal of the river delta is exposed. For this reason I am surprised to see hundreds of Canada geese feeding nearby.
Aki and I leave a river meadow and walk a little closer to the geese cubby. Several 100 feet down the river, I spot an immature bald eagle sleeping on the beach. It’s just a few feet from the river. Many dogs would charge the goose, Aki ignores it. I swing wide around it rather than get too close. Eagles need their space. As I watch it, a human couple with a dog on a leash, walk close enough to the eagle to wake it up. It still doesn’t move, which makes me wonder it is sick or undernourished.
I tell the human couple that eagles need more space than they are currently giving this one. One of the humans smiles and says that always give eagles this much space. They continue walking towards the ocean, flushing geese and ducks into flight on the way. I apologize to the eagle and tell it that more invasive couples would soon be walking past it. It appears to stare at the couple but doesn’t fly off. I take a few more photos and turn my back, When I turn around again, the immature eagle is gone.
In a minute or two a patch of geese that the friendly, if obtuse humans flushed off the beach, fly back to their original spot. As Aki and I sit where we can enjoy the sunshine, a series of hikers with dogs walk toward to geese. When a new couple approaches, the geese takeoff, honking, as they had when the first human/dog gang approached them. A few minutes after those people pass, the geese return to their spot. This happened three or four times before there is a break in human visitors. No wonder the Canada geese population seems to be exploding. They are wise, like a fox, but hide their wisdom by sounding like fools when they fly away.
Aki and her other human joined me on the Dredge Lake trail this morning. Aki’s humans had talked about using the cross country skis but decided just to walk. By now the recent stretch of warm weather should be melting the trail free of snow. Boy, we were wrong.
After parking near the trail head, we slipped and slid our way along Mendenhall River, happy not to find clouds covering the glacier and surrounding mountains. But a grey mist covered most of the other mountains. We could hear geese and noisy gulls flying overhead, out of sight. We passed areas containing robins and what sounded like swans. But they never broke out of the grey.
Aki and I are more than ready for spring. It’s just too late this year. Rather than being muddy, this trail is icy and solid. Above the high tide line, a three inch deep blanket of snow covers the meadow grass.
As Aki pees and poops, I spot a short eared owl. It’s flying back and forth in long swaths across the tundra. Each time it reaches the end of a swath, the owl turns and starts a new one a little closer to Aki and I.
Because we freeze into place, the owl glides closer and closer to us. After the third or four glide path, the owl is only twenty feet away. It drops one wing down and gives us a penetrating stare. Then it makes a gentle turn and flies away, only a few feet above the dead meadow grass.
We hadn’t seen the sun shine for a week, maybe two. Every morning my computer weather app. had predicted another gray, snowy day. Every morning during the past two weeks, the temperature climbed above freezing and stayed there until late in evening. The warming weather didn’t stop the snow from falling, only made sure that it would melt just as it hit our streets and trails. Last night the sun did appear, causing me to check the weather app. It promised that tomorrow would be a sunny day, followed by at least another week of snow.
Waking this morning, and hoping to find confirmation of the weather app prediction, I looked out the window at the top of Mt. Juneau, and found it lit by early sun under a blue, cloudless sky. Even though she was sleeping on the family bed, I grabbed Aki’s warm wrap and slid it around her neck and shoulders. She was immediately awake and reading for a hike.
We drove through the empty streets of Downtown Juneau and across the Douglas Island Bridge to the Gastineau Meadows trail head. The tiny parking lot was empty. Aki followed me up the steep approach path and on to the main trail. We saw no one, animal or human, during the hike. I could hear blue jays complaints and complicated speeches of ravens. I sought and then spotted a wood pecker wounding the side of a giant alder tree. As always happened after we reach the open meadow, I was almost overwhelmed by the sight of sunshine on the snow covering the meadows and mountains that surrounded the little dog and I.
According to the government, the season of Spring replaced Winter last week. Ads that accompany the national news on TV push purchases of gardening supplies or Easter candy. Last night the temperature dropped to below freezing, like it has done every night for what seems like months. This morning snow is falling through warming skies. Soon it will turn to rain. Clouds block our views of local mountains. But there might still skiable snow near the Mendenhall Glacier.
Aki, our other human and I drive out to the glacier in hopes that the snow covering the lake’s beaches hasn’t softened to mush. We find it perfect for skiing. Recognizing that we have finally gotten a break, we use our cross country skis to work along the beach and bays. No people, birds, or bears share the lake ice with us. In no time we make it to the Mendenhall River and ski down it to where it almost touches the campground ski trail. We will use that trail to return to the car. I am once again disappointed not to see the swans that normally feed in the river this time of year. Perhaps, they are waiting for Spring to finally appear.
We are skiing. At least Aki’s other human and I are skiing. Aki is stalling, at least until we are almost out of her reach. Then the little dog fires up into a trot to catch up with us. The snow storm that has dumped on us all night briefly stops. Sun shine starts pushing through the clouds then disappears. The snow storm returned, dropping even more precipitation. This reduces our vision almost to zero. We have just enough vision to find our way back to the car.