Aki, why do you want to stay in the woods? It’s not a fair question to ask the little dog. The woods and the campground road just beyond them are rich with dog smells. She can almost make out the scent left by one of her dog buddies, maybe Cedar. Aki doesn’t care if the lakeshore trail offers wonderful, if misty, mountain views. Besides, it has started to rain. The woods will provide her some shelter from the wet.
The poodle-mix might also be deterred by the crunch of ice that follows each of my steps along the snow-covered shore. A two-inch thick sheet of ice is buried beneath snow. An irregular surface of beach rocks stretch beneath the ice. I fracture the ice with every step.
I crunch my way around and between a set of small islands. Aki has planted herself at the forest edge. Only when I disappear around a point of land does the little dog trot after me. We repeat this pattern all the way to the place where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. Then we re-entered the forest and walk on an icy road through the campground and back to the car. Now a happy Aki is free to catalogue the passage of other dogs that recently left their mark on the snow.
Winter is holding its beachhead on the moraine. Aki and I are walking on a snow-covered glacial trail when an eagle lifts off the ground and lands in a nearby cottonwood tree. I search the ground for what drew the eagle. All I find is fresh blood on the snow.
A low layer of clouds hid the mountains when we first arrived. Now the sun is trying to burn it off. I can just barely make out the shoulder of Mt. McGinnis rising above the Troll Woods. Then the peak appears underlined with a thin strip of grey cloud. The air brightens when patches of blue appear in the eastern sky. It is reflected in a small beaver pond that almost touches the tree where the eagle waits for us to leave.
We move on to visit the beaver village. There thin ice barely covers the pond. Aki holds back at the edge of village. I wonder why. She normally loves to explore near beaver dens and always smiles when she rolls in their scat. I turn around after reaching the hole the beavers use to slip in and out of the pond. There is Aki, giving me her “Are You Crazy!!!” look. We seen no tracks of bears or wolves so I have no idea what has the little dog on edge.
At 9:15 this morning, the sun climbed above the Douglas Island mountain ridge and lit up the glacier and mountains on the north side of Gastineau Channel. Aki and I waited at the mouth of Fish Creek for the sun to climb high just a little higher so it could shine light on the tidal meadow on which we stood.
Trailside grass protected the diminutive poodle from the wind. But nothing prevented the breeze from carrying away my body heat. Just offshore, a small circle of gulls rolled and splashed in the water. It was time for their morning bath. Further out, over a hundred mallard ducks lazed.
Feeling totally out classed by the birds and unwilling to let my hands go numb as they held my camera, I pulled on a heavy pair of mittens and turned to search for the sun. Even though it was only 9:30, the sun had already slipped behind the mountains for the day.
Aki needed no encouragement to join me on a return hike to the car. No ducks paddled on the pond but we did see a red-breasted merganser caught out in the open on the creek. The exposed fish duck powered through the current to reach the wooded shore where it disappeared under the overhanging limbs of a spruce tree.
A bald eagle flies over our car as I steer it into our driveway. Look at that, little dog, we spent hours walking over semi-wild lands and saw nothing but pine siskins. If we had stayed home, we could have seen that eagle being covered with snowflakes as it sulked on our neighbor’s roof. Aki, hoping to find some abandoned food morsel on the kitchen floor, urges me to stop second guessing myself and let her into the house.
We have just returned from a visit to the glacial moraine. An inch of squeaky snow covered our trail. Quarter-sized flakes drifted down as we walked out to Nugget Falls. We could just make out the glacier and Mt. McGinnis through the falling snow.
I usually look forward to deciphering tracks made by animals in snow. But those left light night were already buried with newly fallen stuff. Near the lakeshore, we found fresh tracks that could have been left by a small black bear. Maybe someone is late to hibernate.
Aki and I enjoyed our first snowy walk of the year. Even during a storm, the white stuff brightens the day. But the appearance of the sun could have added a crispness to the scene. This morning, while preparing to drive out to the moraine, the sun did muscle out from behind snow clouds to light up the waters of Gastineau Channel. It happened as an ocean tug pulled the weekly freight barge from Seattle toward its moorings. I wondered what dreamed for goodies rode on the barge.
Aki looks at me like she might at a dog ignoring a cooling chunk of king salmon. Have you lost your mind, man of mine? I’m squatting close to the meadow grass, trying to aim my camera so that it will capture a picture of the glacier but not the string of airport runway lights that slice across the bottom of the frame. I want to use some driftwood logs in the foreground to cover up the lights.
I want to use some driftwood logs in the foreground to cover up the lights.
I manage to depress the shutter button without falling on my face. But the resulting picture will end up in the deleted files folder. On a gravel bar on the other side of the Mendenhall River, a hundred Canada geese seem to be laughing at me. Standing up, I capture the best view of the scene—the one that includes the airport lights and the reflection of the glacier in the river. It’s a view remarkable for its beauty but also because it demonstrates how close our machines of commerce are to the river of ice.
To get to this wetlands trail, we had to drive past a lumberyard, welding shops, boat storage lots, and a warehouse. Jets flying to Anchorage or Seattle and floatplanes traveling to Angoon or Hoonah flew over our heads during the walk. So did an eagle. A seal broke the surface of the river while the beep-beep-beep sound of a truck backing up reached us from water treatment plant.
I head over to the river to where the salmon pens are anchored. The Mendenhall Towers and boats on blocks for the winter rise above the river. Almost anywhere else in North America, the land under the boat storage lot would be packed with luxury houses that offered river and mountain views. Our city planners realized the value of providing fishing boats easy access to the sea.
Rain starts soaking into Aki’s curls as soon as she jumps out of the car. Thanks to the storm, we had our choice of parking places. I expect to have the lake to ourselves. Then we hear someone speaking with a Caribbean accent. He is walking up the steps from the lake with his parka hood up. A white ear bud trails from his ear to the cell phone in his hand. By ease dropping I learn that he has just texted a selfie of himself to person he is talking too. His face beams with the excitement of seeing a glacier snaking through granite to the lake. If the rain can’t dampen the joy of his visit, I can’t let it discourage the little dog or I.
The level of the lake is high but there is enough exposed beach to provide a path to the Nugget Falls Trail. We join the trail where it touches a slanting rock wall that still bears the groves cut into it by sharp stones frozen into the bottom of the retreating glacier. Rainwater brings out the beauty of the grooved rock. Like a pebble plucked from a creek bottom, the beauty of the rock will fade as it dries.
On the way to the falls we detour over to the arctic tern nesting area. The fierce little birds are long gone. Small, white feathers, sodden with rain, cover the green moss of the nesting area. Here and there the moss has been ripped away, exposing a woven mat of willow roots. I stick my finger into a tiny, cave-like opening under the root mat. Is this the work of a hungry bear or a nesting tern?
Morning clouds hide the Mendenhall Towers and the top of Mt. Stroller White. They do lift enough to offer a filtered view of Mt. McGinnis. From the pocket beach of gravel where Aki and I stand, Mendenhall Lake looks like a solid, gray-colored mirror. I am tempted to test the mirror’s strength. If it could hold my weight, I could stroll across reflections of McGinnis and the blue glacial ice to Nugget Falls.
Something hidden swirls the lake’s surface, rippling the glacier’s reflection. Ten meters off shore the head of a harbor seal breaks water. After snatching a quick look at us it is submerges. When the seal next comes up for a breath, it will be fifty meters away. There must still be some salmon working their way across the lake to their spawning stream.
The seal’s presence is as unexpected as the lack of rain. We must be in between Pacific storms. Hoping to complete our walk before the skies let loose, I join Aki on a trail through the woods, leaving the seal to hunt for salmon. We pass two braces of bufflehead ducks on a kettle pond that quickly put as much water as they can between them and us. I wonder if they are reacting to our presence or the sound of rapidly fired rifles from the nearby gun range.
When the shooting stops an eagle screams in the way they do when another eagle invades their personal space. I expect it to fly off when it spots us, but the eagle keeps its talons wrapped around branches in the top of a young spruce tree. For the rest of the walk we will hear it scream every few minutes, as if calling out to a missing child or wandering lover.