Last night ninety knot gusts rattled our house windows and kept the little dog and her humans from having a good night sleep. Aki and I needed a wind-free zone for our morning walk. We found one. Not even a breeze touched us as we cross the glacial moraine. The temperature was a balmy 19 F. Snow still weighed down the trailside trees while back home, our trees had long been stripped bare by Taku winds.
We walked, for the first time this winter, on lake ice. The recent freeze up solidified the winter trail across the moraine to Mendenhall Lake. Snow softened the lines of the beavers’ dams and made it almost impossible to make out the shape of their house. We were free to cross their swampy pond and walk between the dead-gray sticks that were once healthy spruce trees.
Aki seemed quite at home on the snow, perhaps because she wore her two heaviest wraps. I would have worn my insulated overalls. If I had, I might not have been able to gauge the cold and its effects on the little dog. When I felt chilled, I turned us back toward the car. I am better suited than Aki to be the canary in the coal mine.
Yesterday, after an enormous high tide flooded all the low-lying sections of the wetlands, A man and his large-pawed dog walked across this normally dry slough while the 10 degree temperature was turning the tide water to ice. Crisp, detailed impressions of paw of boot bottom now mark the duo’s passage. Usually, such evidence of another’s use of newly formed ice would encourage me to following in his footsteps. But there is something sinister about the frozen tide waters.
When I work up courage for the crossing, I carefully place my left boot onto the ice. It gets no purchase on the impossibly slick ice. I follow Aki onto an informal trail in the snow that will lead us around the frozen slough and to the base of a spruce tree. An adult bald eagle lands on a top branch of the tree and looks at everything except at us.
The wind stiffens as we move down along the now-frozen Mendenhall River. Aki, wearing two of her warmest wraps, trots ahead of me. I turn back to the car to avoid a long slog into the wind. Now ploughing into a 20-knot breeze, the little poodle-mix keeps up a steady, sled dog trot. When a sudden gust stops me in my tracks, Aki flinches and jumps sideways, like she had been pinched. Then she drops into a sheltered gully and continues towards the warm car.
Aki and I are staying away from the glacial moraine until this cold snap ends. Thanks to Juneau’s myriad of micro climates, we have lots of options, including the trails on North Douglas Island. I pull the car into the parking lot for the closest North Douglas trail—Fish Creek. It’s 17 degrees F. Only a light breeze ruffles Aki’s curls as she sniffs around for friendly scents.
Ice now covers the creek except for the riffles. Fast water freezes last. The temperature must drop far below 17 degrees for it to ice over. We move down to the pond but can’t use the normal trail to pass around it. The last flood tide covered the trail with brackish water, which is now slippery ice. Inch-thick sheets of pan ice lay on the pond bank. It crunches and cracks as it is lifted by a new flood tide.
The wind picks up as we leave the pond and head toward the creek mouth. Aki sticks close to my heels. She ignores the large raft of mallards that swim with heads down just offshore. I try to imagine dunking my head in the same water and the pain it would bring. A plump, shore bird stands on a rock just offshore, looking as relaxed as it would on a summer day.
As the wind numbs my face, I lose interest in slipping and sliding down the creek mouth. I turn back, followed by a now energized poodle-mix. We work our way back to the trailhead. When we cross the creek bridge, I expect to see the ice breaking up under pressure from the incoming tide. It still holds firm. Fifty meters up stream three river otters slink onto the ice. One by one they dive into the ice-free rapids. We are such cold weather wimps, little dog.
It is 14 degrees F. when Aki and I leave home. Dressed as she is in an insulated wrapper, she should be fine on our planned walk across the glacial moraine. The temperature drops as we approach the trailhead. It’s 11 degrees when we pass the airport and 10 when we reach the Catholic Church. Like a launch countdown, the temperature continues to drop: 10, 9. 8, 7, 6, 5, and finally to four by the time I park the car.
The little dog squeaks and squeals like she usually does when I open the car door. She leaps out and onto the snow-covered pavement. I have to trot quickly to catch up with her on the trail. As I fasten the chin strap on my mock-fur hat, Aki moves into deep snow and starts the peeing ceremony. She is still circling as I move down the trail, confident that she will soon catchup.
Fifty meters later I turn around, expecting to see Aki just behind me. The trail is empty. I backtrack and find her at the place where she peed. She holds a front paw suspended in the air, drops it to the trail and raises a rear paw. Then she hunches her back, like she does when I am about to pick her up, I lift her into my arms.
I carry the chilled old dog to our car and take a solo walk to the now-frozen Mendenhall Lake. While I take a picture of the surrounding mountains, a father and son approach a stream diminished by the cold to a trickle. Both are wearing rubber boots. The dad splashes across but the son hesitates. He is already cold and doesn’t want to be colder. The dad offers to give him a piggyback ride back to the heated visitor’s center after he crosses the stream. The boy does, then climbs onto his father’s back.
It feels like hands are reaching up and grabbing onto my skis. The skis had been gliding freely over the snow covering the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Then, they broke through crust covering an overflow pool. The resulting water on the skis acted like glue on the surface snow. In a few strides, inch thick blocks of icy snow were clinging to the ski bottoms.
Aki had enough sense to avoid the overflow. She glided over the crust. Now I have to slam each ski forward to make any progress. Using it as an excuse to stop, I turn to study the glacier. Fresh snow muffles the ultramarine color of its ice. Clouds that are about to bring us more snow block any view of the Mendenhall Towers between which the glacier flows.
A 100 meters away, people in spandex athletic gear fly down a groomed trail on high-end skate skis. Others, more moderately equipped, push their classic skis up grooved tracks. In a few minutes, Aki and I will struggle over way over to the groomed trail. She will chew away the ice and snow balls that have frozen to her legs and paws while I scape the impeding ice from my classic skis. Then we will find our grooves.
Tonight, we may have 60 knot winds that could scour away snow from our favorite trails. This morning could offer our only chance for a ski until the next storm. If she could read my mind and speak, Aki might tell me to relax. The wind, if it comes, won’t reach all our ski trails. I’d give her an embarrassed smile and admit that I might be manufacturing urgency to give this morning’s cross-country ski something extra—the trill of stealing joy from a sleeping bear’s cave.
On the way out to the glacier we pass three cars that became stuck in snow drifts after their drivers lost control on the slick road. I keep going, sure that our car is up to challenge if I slow down. After parking at Skater’s Cabin, I ski down to the lake and slip into tracks that lead down the beach. Aki wants no part of this plan. She dashes up a trail that leads the closed campground.
I know the little dog will eventually join me on the beach trail even though it will mean wallowing in the fresh snow. That doesn’t seem fair so I ski up the trail she just took and find her waiting for me on the campground road. At first Aki give me her pathetic look. When I start down the road, she flies down the trailhead of me. I fall into the transcendental rhythm that makes classical cross country skiing a great tool for dealing with the darken days of our rain forest winter.
I was almost too tired to go on a walk this morning. It took me two hours to shovel ten inches of last night’s snow off the drive and walk ways. My body wasn’t interested in clumping along a snow-covered trail. But the little dog, she does love the snow, especially fresh, soft stuff like this. It is perfect for dog rolls.
It takes me ten minutes to free the car from its snow burden. Aki waited inside, shaking with anticipation. We drive out to North Douglas Island where the trails run under an old growth canopy that should keep out most of the snow. While the Douglas Island ridge keeps us in shadow, low-angled sunlight lights up the glacier and its mountain consorts. Strong sun on new snow—is there anything more beautiful little dog? Aki is too excited to answer.
Only a few inches of white cover the parking lot when we reach the Outer Point Trailhead. This shouldn’t surprise me. The trailhead sits in the middle of our driest micro climate. Aki runs down the trail unimpeded by the snow dust covering the trail. A varied thrust watches us round the beaver pond and hurry toward the beach.
The same strong sunshine that lit up the glacier hammers the snow-covered beach. It acts like a spotlight for the gulls that sleep on offshore rocks and a small raft of swimming goldeneye ducks. Then the snow clouds return to block the sun as the little dog and I move back into the forest.