From inside the Troll Woods the river sounds angry. It sounds hungry for land. I wonder briefly whether it is also hungry for Aki and me. Then I realize that rivers swollen to near flood stage must be indifferent to the bodies that fall into their grasp. They just carry them away like fallen trees or glacial silt.
Days ago an ice dam in Suicide Basin crumbled, releasing a reservoir of melt water. The water streamed down the glacier and poured into Mendenhall Lake. As the lake waters rose, they destroyed the nests of arctic terns and closed off popular trails. The floodwaters swelled the river, helping it escape its traditional channel and make a new one down the middle of the trail we used to access the woods.
The river doesn’t have to so all this to remind me that the glacier is melting. I have been witnessing its retreat for the last twenty years.
Even though she was born in Missouri of mix parentage, Aki looks like a French Poodle. I am tempted to wish her “Happy Bastille Day.” But we are out on the glacial moraine under gray, rain-filled clouds. She demands, not a parade, but for her humans to send her Frisbee spinning down the trail. While chasing the flying disk she growls like a wolf chasing down prey. She is no one’s poodle.
While the little dog is content with chasing her Frisbee, I am looking to pick enough blue berries for next Saturday’s pancakes. We recently used up last summer’s berries. Domestic blue berries for the store don’t work. They are overpowered by the sourdough pancake batter.
Water from the Mendenhall River is all but covering the trail and we have to press up against a hedge of alders in order to skirt a flooded out section. Aki dashes through the detour and waits for her two humans, Frisbee in her mouth. Later she will wait for us to pick a pint of blues and then walk back to the car in the rain.
There are many reasons why we don’t visit Fish Creek this time of year. All of them are linked to salmon. In a normal year, hundreds of king salmon would be splashing in the creek’s pond. These draw crowds of fishermen trying to snag the big fish with weighted hooks. Chum and pink salmon should be holding in the creek, ready to move upstream to their spawning grounds. They bring the attention of bears. But today, perhaps because of the disappointing salmon returns, there are no cars or bear scat in the trailhead parking. These absences, plus the fact that the low-gas-warning icon lit up five miles ago cause me to pull into in the empty lot.
Two ravens guard the footbridge over Fish Creek, hopping slowly down the railing as Aki and I start across the bridge. I look down at a gravel bar for the expected dog-salmon carcasses and find none. The ravens must be here to attack a garbage bag that hangs partway out of a waste bin. Above the ravens, an eagle screams.
A king salmon, already robbed of its silver color by time in fresh water, rises on the pond surface, drawing the attention of an airborne eagle. Nearer to us, two other eagles perch on pond-side spruce trees. The one with the chestnut and dun feathers of an immature bird appears to take interest in Aki. I think about putting the little poodle-mix on her lead but in a minute we will be back in the trees where she will presumably be safe from eagles.
A minute later, while we walk down a forested path, the immature eagle flies low over our heads and lands clumsily thirty feet up a nearby spruce. We watch each other for a while and then I follow Aki away from the pond toward the creek’s mouth. This eagle will follow us to the mouth and back to the pond—with the purposeful casualness of a spy, not the focused intensity of a mugger. After the third eagle flyby I clip Aki’s leash to her collar as the immature eagle settles onto another spruce branch.
Because it is beautiful and there are only 5000 cruise ship tourists in town, Aki and I are visiting the glacier this morning. As a sign above the visitor center’s urinal reminded me, over 550,000 people visit the glacial moraine every year. Most arrive on buses. We have to pass a row of the idling transports to reach the trailhead.
Most of the cruisers keep to a small viewing area near the visitor’s center. But many chatty tourists join us on the trail to Nugget Falls. Even after we leave the trail for a lightly used side path, we are not alone. There is still enough space for Aki to chase after her orange Frisbee. When her toy picks up too much sand and grit the little dog drops it into Mendenhall Lake for a wash.
We turn back before reaching the smallish gravel bar at the base of Nugget Falls. A faux Native-American canoe is just landing a group of tourists on the gravel bar to join the hundred or so other people already there.
The wind rose while we approached the falls, rippling the lake surface and that of all but the most protected bays. I’m admiring one of the remaining quiet places before using a bridge of stepping-stones to cross it. It’s one of the rare times on the walk when I can’t hear other human voices. Then Aki’s other human tosses the Frisbee across the water where it hits the surface and sends out a series of concentric ripples. Even before the Frisbee strikes the water, Aki is charging across the stepping-stones. She snatches up her toy just as the circle of expanding ripples shatters the remaining calm.
Aki doesn’t know it but we are on a scouting trip. As usual, she thinks the outing is about her and her orange Frisbee. But her other human and I are here to measure this year’s blueberry crop. We only have one small plastic bag of blues left in the freezer.
While the little dog roars after her beloved flying disk I gauge the river’s level to determine if it has left us enough trail to negotiate. By detouring into the riverside willows we can make it. Across the river the Mendenhall Glacier appears to snake out of the clouds to devour the spruce forest at its foot.
Only a few small berries show through the leaves of the trailside bushes. Last year large berries weighed down the branches of the blue berry plants. It might be a bad berry year for us and a worst one for the bears, who also must deal with a low salmon return. The high bush cranberry bushes are setting large numbers of berries. Maybe the bears can substitute sour cranberries for the sweeter blues. But Aki’s family prefers blueberries in their Saturday morning pancakes. We’ll look higher in the mountains for our winter’s allotment of fruit.
First light is breaking after the storm as Aki and I enter an old growth forest. We won’t see another man or dog on the walk to the beach. The light reaches deep into the forest and makes translucent the green skunk cabbage leaves as they muscle up through the waters of the beaver pond.
Reaching the beach we discover that the minus three-foot ebb has exposed the causeway to Shaman Island. Eagles feed on land normally covered with ten to twenty feet of water. I usually have to coax Aki onto the causeway. But today she follows at my heals.
It’s a tough morning for ravens and eagles. The crows that roost on the island harass them. As we leave the causeway, a raven flies over us, crows pulling at its tail feathers. Other crows do the same to a deserting eagle. To the north storm clouds lift to reveal the glacier and Mendenhall Towers.
Aki and I have come too soon to the troll woods. It looks and feels like winter has just left. Many of the lakeside alders and cottonwoods stand with naked limbs against a dull-grey sky. But there is hope for spring in for the form of pussy willows and bursting alder buds. Even though little or no snow remains on Thunder Mountain, it is cold enough for me to hood up.
By straining I am able to spot one mallard on Crystal Lake. The shrill whistles of the vared thrush and once, a hawk’s complaint supply the only other evidence of animated life. Pushing deeper into the moraine, despite a government sign warning of recent bear activity, I lead the little dog to the edge of a beaver-flooded trail.
Aki, apparently knowing I will have to soon reverse course, the poodle-mix watches me doing a clumsy tightrope-walking maneuver along the trail’s edge. When I reach a patch of dry ground, my eye is pulled down to the flooded trail by the panicked movements of water bugs. They are heading toward islands of grass where the waves generated by raindrops can’t break the tension that keeps them afloat.