Aki and I are deep in the Troll Woods. All four of her legs are encased in snow. She stops every minute or so to shake her head to dislodge the snowballs attached to her muzzle and forehead. She wouldn’t have snowballs on her face if she didn’t plunge it into the fresh snow. But loves to plunge.
Yesterday’s storm dumped a foot of new snow in the woods. The resulting white blanket undulates over the forest floor. It collects in a thick layer over snags. Some of the busted trees now look like dragons or eels. The snow also obscures the beaver logging trails we usually follow through the woods. So, we are lost in the sense that I can only speculate on the direct route to Chrystal Lake and the main trail back to the car. But we have the tracks my skis made at the start of this adventure. When I start to turn around, Aki dashes around me and heads back down the trail my skis made on the way to getting lost.
Aki is ready to leave. It’s the wind blowing across Fish Creek Pond. She turns to stare at the pond each time a gust lifts her ears. The combination of wind and cold has numbed my face and hands but I want to push on a little further just in case. If the little dog asked what I expect to see when we reach the Fritz Cove overlook , I’d tell her I just have a feeling that we will find beauty if not a little excitement.
Aki follows me up over a rise just in time to watch a trio of sandpipers flying low over the beach with what looks like a peregrine falcon flying ten feet above them. The falcon breaks off its hunt when it spots me and turns into the wind, which carries it high and away from us. The pilgrim hunter flies off to find better luck on the other side of the creek.
The wind blows harder here, raising white caps on even small patches of open water. We are in shade but the sun shines like a search light on the side of Bullard Mountain so that it casts a wavy shadow onto the glacier. It also illuminates a tall, thin house on the opposite bank of the creek. Aki would love be in that house curled up on a patch of sunshine warming the floor. I’d be there too, if I could, maybe drinking a coffee and admiring the view.
I follow Aki back to the car, thinking about this morning’s sunrise over Gastineau Channel. The minute the sun struck the top of Sheep Mountain fierce winds flew down its valleys to whip up dervishes of spray that raced across the channel. Above, the sky glowed red, apricot, orange, and blue—a mix of warm and cold beauty.
Aki and I are back on the glacier moraine where all the leaves have already fallen. I am not surprised. Winter always comes first to the moraine. The glacier, the big river of ice, sees to that. There is still some color to be found. Green and yellow islands of grass stand above new ice on the lakes. A few stubborn leaves hang by a thread from frosty willow branches.
I have to coax the little dog off the main dog-walking trail and onto a rougher one that leads to the river. She stands for a minute at the junction, trying to use her mental powers to bend me to her will. When the invisible rubber band that connects us stretches to the breaking point, she gallops to me over crisp cottonwood leaves, producing a sound like that made by horse hooves on firm ground.
I am angered by the presence of wide-tire bicycle tracks on the soft trail. Just one pass of a fat bike over it last weekend reduced sections of the trail to a muddy gruel. Some of it sticks to my boots.
We find other, more welcome tracks at the river. Yesterday, before it froze, a deer crossed over the sandy beach and swam across the river. Frost has filled in one of the cloven tracks, now preserved in frozen sand until the next thaw.
After enjoying our first sunrise for what seems like months, I drive with Aki out to the one place without morning sun: the Mendenhall Glacier. The sun will have to rise above the shoulders of Thunder Mountain before it can warm the trail we walk on or make Nugget Falls sparkle. That won’t be much before eleven, when we will be back on Chicken Ridge.
Why then, Aki might ask, are we out here shivering in the twilight? If she did, I’d remind her that she is not shivering and there is light striking the glacier and the Mendenhall Towers that rise above it into blue sky. But we are both too distracted by eagles for conversation.
Attracted here by spawning sockeye salmon, five eagles bicker near the waters of Steep Creek. One with better luck or eyes tears away strips of flesh from a dead salmon. Behind the feeding bird, the calm waters of the lake reflect the glacier and Mt. McGinnis.
When the sun clears Thunder Mountain to bath everything in strong light, it will also bring a wind to riffle the ice-free portion of the lake, shattering the glacier’s mirror.
On his rainless day that started with full sunshine that faded to gray when a cloud bank moved in off the Pacific, Aki and I have the moraine to ourselves. I suppose that is not quite true. There are squirrels chitterling challenges at the little dog. The silence we would otherwise enjoy is broken by fast fired rifles booming out from the nearby rifle range.
Aki rolls in some fresh beaver scat as we walk through one of their clear-cut areas. Water backing up from one of their larger damns floods the spot that offers the best view of their lake. But we don’t see the big rodents. Two Barrow golden eye ducks, spooked by our presence, burst off of the lake but some return to the surface. In a few moments they calm down and swim slowly in front of where we stand. They clearly intend to claim possession of this lake, at least until the first hard freeze.
The lakeside cottonwood trees and willows still possess most of their leaves but that will change during the next windstorm. Already their leaves are closer to brown than autumn yellow.
So quiet, I tell Aki. We are walking around an empty campground that offers occasional views of the glacier. Aki looks up at me with her, “Are you crazy?” stare. She is sampling the rich smells left by a summer’s worth of camping families. While I see empty space, she smells the ghosts of those who used the place before.
I wonder if the little dog can single out the smell of the moose that we are tracking. The big animals are rare on this side of the Juneau Icefield. One must have wandered down from the Antler River, drawn by the juicy willows that grown on the glacial moraine. This is an odd time of year for a moose to do a solo walk about. He or she should be sticking around other moose trying to mate. Are you a young male, driven off by the mature bulls or an oldster?
We follow the tracks to the river where the moose must have entered the water and crossed over to the moraine. I search the opposite shore but see only a thick wall of moose food.
The large cottonwood trees that screen the glacier have begun their slow autumnal striptease. Aki and I see evidence of their dance along the moraine trail—Valentine-shaped leaves, yellow and orange and green, plastered by rain to the gravel or floating on the many beaver ponds. But only the most patient voyeur could appreciate or even detect the trees’ languid movements.
Evidence of beaver work is everywhere. Their dams back up waters in the trailside ditches so they now flood over parts of the trail. A patient man or dog might spot ripe silver salmon moving up the swollen drains on their way to spawning grounds deeper in the moraine. But I am impatient this morning and Aki is too fixated on fresh beaver scent.
She has an attraction to beavers that would prove fatal if she ever managed to close on one. She rarely passes on an opportunity to roll in their scat, something that brings a look of pure bliss to her face. The little dog has many blissful moments this morning as we pass a trio of cottonwood logs that the beavers had floated together and then stripped bare of bark. I wonder how many it took to reduce the logs to glistening white in one night. Because they work the swing and graveyard shifts, the beavers are probably resting in their dens but I still keep a look out for them. More than once, Aki has followed a moraine beaver into the water, tail wagging, apparently hoping to play.