Without snowshoes I’d soon wear myself out walking over this field of new snow. Even with them it is a job reaching a place that offers a nice view of the glacier reflected in a partially frozen eddy. No little dog follows behind. She waits on the beaten path giving me her “are you crazy” look. Is she wise or lazy? It could be either given her age of eleven and a half years.
She didn’t act her age as she leapt the car and galloped down the trail. When I caught with her, she was rolling on her back, a look of bliss showing on her snow-covered face. Yesterday’s storm added five inches of snow to that already coating the trailside trees and the ground. The added weight forced the alders over the trail where they form temporary barriers to me but not the low-slung Aki.
The sun floats like a pearly disk in a flat gray sky and then muscles through briefly to throw cast shadows in the woods. We are alone on the moraine, having missing the morning rush of dog walkers who level the snowy trail for Aki. She sniffs the tracks left last night by the local beavers but we see no other sign of wildlife. The recent cold snap has all but silenced the river. There should be black-capped chickadees or juncos hunting for food but I hear nothing but faint airplane noise and the scraping of Aki’s paws as she digs in the new snow.
Aki slips on the icy trail that hugs an oxbow curve of the Mendenhall River. The little dog barely notices her misstep. She is too interested in the scents left behind on this heavy-use dog-walking trail. The dogs that scented the trail have all gone. If not for the shouts of men tending the salmon smolt pens and the airplane noise, we might have some solitude.
I am drawn to this trail on calm, sunny days when, as now, the river is at flood tide. Hungry seals might pop up at any time. Ducks could land any second. I look and find the great blue heron along the river shore. At first it stands tall and then curls back it’s long neck into a heat-conserving crouch. Backlit by the morning sun, it is only a black silhouette on the snowy beach.
Last night’s hard freeze has preserved the prints of boots and paws left during yesterday’s thaw. Aki is light enough to trot across the crust without breaking through. But for me, it’s “crunch, crunch, crunch” or slip, slip, slip. The tide forces the river into low spots on the trail. We would be blocked by one if it not for a homespun bridge fashioned from driftwood. I use it to make a successful crossing but Aki stays put. I have to re-cross, pick up the little poodle-mix, and carry her across.
We drop down to the river’s edge so I can enjoy views of the glacier and mountains reflected in the water. Aki is not impressed. We must be beyond the prime dog use area. After I carry her back across the little driftwood bridge, she dashes back the way we came.
Seven degrees. It doesn’t seem that cold as Aki and I head out onto the lake. Aki chases after her other human, allowing me to concentrate on my hands as they stiffen under my mittens. They get worse when I have to bare them so I can bag freshly deposited Aki poop.
On the nearside of the lake, strong slanting sunlight makes the freshly frosted spruce trees look like they are made of rock candy. Ahead the glacier ice is in shadow except for a small bright blue island.
I ski around the 7-kilometer loop, watching Aki trot after her other human, who is using the faster skate skis. The temperature rises with the sun. I have to ski without wearing mittens or hat as the sun bleaches the blue out of the glacial ice. When we reach the car, the temperature has risen to 10 degrees.
Sure it’s Sunday and the lake is offering the best cross-country skiing of the year. Yeah, the ice has thickened enough to give even the most timid sports person courage to ski over frozen water. Yeah, the sky is blue with just enough clouds to give the drama-queen sun something to work with. But it shouldn’t be too crowded on the lake because this is America and the Super Bowl just started.
Trusting that the skiers with the reddest blood (a trait of sports loving Americans) are at a party cheering over football plays while slamming down cheese poppers and beer, Aki, her other human and I drive out to the glacial lake with a car loaded with ski gear. A line of cars flies away from the trailhead parking lot, probably heading toward Super Bowl parties. But there are many more in the lot and up and down the road. Ay, Caramba.
Aki ignores the cars and their drivers to concentrate on the cornucopia of dogs waiting patiently outside their vehicles. They all seem to urging their owners to get this party started. We keep the poodle-mix on lead while negotiating the crowd and only release her when her other human and I are snapping into our skis. I slip mine into a machine-set-track and start my kick and slide. Aki charges after her other human who flies ahead on skate skis. The snow-white surface of the lake is dotted with splotches of the intense colors of high-tech gear. But I soon find my space of solitude.
The robin-egg-blue glacier keeps my attention until the trail starts its return leg to Skater’s Cabin. Then, I am entertained by the sun hanging low on the horizon. Crisscrossing white vapor trails form a double line above the sun, which is softened by a gauze of clouds. A sundog (a kind of winter rainbow) has formed as a wide circle around the sun. This arctic critter rarely appears above our rain forest so I stop often to admire it.
Aki will be hungry tonight. She spends most of her time running with her skate skier, stopping only to play catch-me-if-you-can with other dogs. But every ten minutes or so she gallops back to me, trots along for a minute and then dashes to catch up with her other human.
“Hope you like the north wind,” a man dressed in high-end ski gear said to me as he walked away from the lake. He carried a pair of skate skis over his shoulder. As he spoke I was trying to open up a bear proof trash bin near Skater’s Cabin. But I caught the skier’s smile just as he turned away.
I was prepared for the cold, maybe too well prepared and the air was calm. There was no reason not to slide past the cabin and down to the lake. Aki galloped ahead, apparently anxious to dash about on the snow.
Rather than start down the set track, I ski along the lakeshore where four or five inches of snow covers the lake ice. It’s hard work breaking trail because the ice prevents me from getting much purchase with my ski poles. In minutes I am sweating.
Aki hangs with me for a few minutes and then charges away toward the set track where a dog runs along side his skate skiing master. I head toward the track too, but at an oblique angle with draws Aki towards me. When we meet on the track, she looks at me for a minute and starts off at a trot.
By now my warm hat is in a pocket of my unzipped parka. My gloves are in the other pocket. Then the wind finds us. After another minute of skiing, I zip up my parka and pull on my hat. Aki stops often, looking back with apparently longing. The skiing is too good to turn back so I push into the wind with the loyal little dog.
To escape the wind hammering Downtown Juneau, I drive the little dog to the Mendenhall Peninsula beach access trail. She starts squealing and bouncing around when we are more than a mile away from the parking area. The trail leads us through an old growth spruce forest with a canopy thick enough to keep out all but a dusting of snow. We follow the boot prints of a previously hiker, each one an island of red-brown duff in a sea of white.
We usually pass under several eagles on this trail that make themselves known with screeching complaints. Today I can only hear mallards chuckling in nearby wetlands. Aki’s excitement fades when we reach the forest edge. She hangs back as I walk along the beach and under a line of spruce trees that are often used by bald eagles. The presence of eagles or the sound of birdshot booming from hunter’s shotguns make the little dog nervous. There are no eagles today and hunting season is over. But she sulks along behind as if sensing the ghosts of both.
Like Aki, I remember the eagles we’ve seen on this beach, the gunshots from a skiff emerging from the fog in December, and a gang of otters that crunched through the tough skulls of Irish lords (sculpins) on the beach in spring. I tend to remember past dramas on days that lack any.
After we turn back toward the car, Aki perks up and takes the lead. She starts monitoring smells and urine spots as the sun breaks through the marine layer to provide me a little drama.
Only two inches of snow cover the lake ice but it is enough for cross-country skiing. Aki is between the Mendenhall Glacier and me. She is chasing her other human who is using her fast skate skis. They’ve left me to shuffle after them on my old classics.
I am not sulking. It’s peaceful back here. I can hear Nugget Falls and enjoy the low contrast vistas of spruce forest, glacier, and snow-covered mountains. I can also spy on our little dog as she runs flat out across the snow, stopping once or twice to roll her face in it. This gives her a macho white beard, which is not something you see on your average 10-pound poodle-mix.