Rain pockmarks the surface of Mendenhall Lake and softens the handful of icebergs that migrated away from the glacier after the lake thawed. Across the lake kittiwakes reoccupy their traditional nesting sites. They don’t seem bothered by the persistent precipitation.
I like the rain for the way it leaves sparkling bags of water on the willow catkins and makes the forest moss sparkle. It also might be responsible for the welcomed absence of other trail users. We have the lakeshore and moraine to ourselves. We also enjoy an absence of human-made noise. Planes can’t fly thanks to the low cloud ceiling. The roar of the supercharged Nugget Falls masks the other intrusive sounds. I can only hear the pat, pat, pat of rain on my rain parka and the sharp cries of the nesting kittiwakes.
For the past few weeks robins have been a regular feature of our walks. Before today, they just trotted along in front of us as if to lead the little dog and I away from their young. But they didn’t sing. The robins infesting the forest near Fish Creek Pond this morning have switched into nesting mode—singing territorial songs and escaping into a surrounding tree when we approach. Black-capped chickadees harmonize with the robins as they move nervously through the forest canopy.
Aki ignores the noisy birds. One of her other humans has brought along a Frisbee for the little dog to chase. While she is busy with her toy, I sneak off the trail to look at ducks gathered on a swampy meadow. At least one hundred mallards crowd on a series of tiny lakes. A northern pintail and several American widgeons wander among the mallards. Every minute two or three more ducks join the crowd.
The wind, which has being growing in strength since we left the car, can’t reach the ducks in their inland preserve. Nothing blocks it from whipping down the glacier, across Gastineau Channel, and over the Fish Creek Delta. Only crows use this open space. They toss themselves into the air, pop around like kites, and drop back onto the beach.
After 17 dry days the rain has returned to Southeast Alaska. You can almost hear the forest sigh with relief. I am doing the same. The rain has washed away a thin layer of glacier silt that covered the downtown streets and sidewalks. The rain may have discouraged other hikers from using the Dredge Lakes trail system. Alone, Aki and I move up a trail that parallels the Mendenhall River. On a clear day the trail offer views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. This morning only a sliver of the river of ice appears above the river.
Thanks to the recent stint of dry weather, a tributary normally too deep for us to cross has been reduced to a trickle. I take advantage and lead the little dog up a side slough to a section of the river we can rarely reach. Today it’s a hang out for mallards and merganser ducks. As we approach they fly off the beach in twos or threes and land a short ways off in the river. Soon the whole raft follows them.
After circling a large beaver den, we cut back through the woods to Moose Lake. While Aki rolls and rubs her face in a soft patch of trail snow I hear a bird with a powerful voice call “ko-hoh.” We move on, after an unsuccessful attempt to locate the caller,and reach the lake. Ice still covers most it. Two trumpeter swans float in a small patch of open water, their long necks stained brown by the muskeg water in which they recently fed. Now they sleep with their black beaks tucked into their back feathers.
One of the swans wakes up when my foot slips on some gravel. It looks at the little dog and me, then resumes its nap. I assume that they have just finished a leg of their northward migration. Now they must rest and feed before resuming their flight to the summer breeding grounds.
Aki and I meet two humans and their three dogs on our walk back to the car. When I mention the swans, they tell me that two swans were feeding on the lake last week. I wonder if our swans are the same birds, still recovering from the long flight or a newly arrived pair.
Aki and I move south along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. At first I stick to the beach, slipping and sliding on pebbles and old snow that has been compacted into ice. More often than not I walk in sunlight. Aki follows a nearby forest path, which offers shade, soft mossy footing, and more interesting smells. Since I left home without a hat I soon have to join her in the woods.
White, fragile ice still covers the lake. We head toward the place where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake for its short journey to the sea. On a warm spring day like this, the river current should be keeping at least part of the lake ice-free. We’ve seen ducks and even geese take advantage of the open water.
While we head toward the river, two boys ride their bikes past Skater’s Cabin and onto the beach. They assemble a pile of palm-sized rocks at their feet and begin tossing they onto the ice. On landing each rock makes a satisfying “thunk” sound.
It has always bothered me to see scatterings of rocks on lake ice. They seem to represent a person’s desire to destroy, to shatter. After today, when I see random rocks on lake ice I will be tempted to add to the pile just to hear the thunk.
On days like this, when the sky looks like dirty sheep’s wool and there is no wind to create drama, my mind wanders. I forget for moments to monitor Aki. There is little to endanger the poodle on this trail to Nugget Falls. When she finishes her most recent exploration, she will catch up.
Even though fuzzy catkins decorate bare willow branches, it doesn’t feel like spring. There is no sign that bears have stirred from their winter dens. No wolf tracks mark the remaining snow. No eagles bicker in the nearby spruce trees. Only the falls, now unfrozen, makes any sound.
Across the lake Mendenhall Glacier snakes down through rocky cliffs. We walk toward the falls in gray light until the sun breaks through the marine layer to give the dog and I crisp shadows. It forms faint rainbow prisms on the falls for a second and then disappears. High above the glacier a large mountain goat rests on a ledge. It appears to be looking at Aki and I rather than the glacier or the shafts of light glistening the lake ice. It appears to be in a philosophical mood.
The mallards are still here, settled in along the banks of Fish Creek. But the widgeons that we watched last week are gone. I can’t find one, nor can I spot a green wing teal. Those transients must have moved north. Other migrants has arrived.
A pair of American robins try to decoy us down the trail. It is too early in the spring for their rich nesting songs. Today we will only hear discordant birds songs: crow grumbles, the harsh threats of Stellar’s jays, and screams of frustration from touchy eagles.
Two half-foot slabs of pond ice still lay athwart the trail. They won’t last long in this warmish weather. Only a thin skim of ice covers the pond. All of it will be carried away by this afternoon’s eighteen-foot high tide.
Other than the mallards, the creek is empty of waterfowl. A small scattering of golden eye ducks dabble in Fritz Cove. We can’t spot a raven. On a tiny island in the creek’s mouth a murder of bored-acting crows ignore us and the incoming tide.
Aki splashes along a trail of covered by ice and a thin layer of water. Before I left for my weekend trip to Anchorage it offered skiable snow. Now I have to struggle to stay upright on my cross-country skis. I follow the little dog, thinking that we should turn around. Each time I do, the glimmer of water on Mendenhall Lake draws me forward.
The water covering the still frozen lake reflect a gray ski, clouds, mountains, the glacier, and surrounding trees. The captured reflections are outlined by the glow from the underlying ice. To eye them is to see into Alice’s looking glass.
After almost falling a few times, I follow Aki into the relatively snow free woods and onto the edge of the lake. Here a border of windblown snow offers a skiable surface. The little dog walks behind me on my ski tracks. I still have to take care to avoid skiing over the tops of emerging rocks.
The temperature has reached 54 degrees F. I unzip my parka and remove my hats and gloves. The snow, already reduced by a recent deluge of rain, can’t survive long in these conditions. Is winter dying, little dog? She offers no opinion.