Slick ice topped with a layer of rainwater covers the trail along Fish Creek. By having metal ice grippers secured on my boots, I can move safely down the trail. Aki’s paws slip a little with each step but it doesn’t slow down her progress. Together we manage to reach a little pond that fills with spawning king salmon each summer.
The salmon all died months ago. Now no ducks cruise the pond. Most of the pond is still covered with frozen ice. After passing the pond, the little dog and I take another icy trail down to the mouth of the creek where the glacier and the surrounding mountains are reflected by the creek’s calm waters.
It’s been a while since Aki and I walked on this trail. The government makes it illegal to walk with dog on it until the bears leave to hibernate. That has happened. The trail takes you through a forest of young spruce trees. Not too many decades ago, the land was too compressed by the shrinking glacier for the spruce.
Soon we drop down a short trail to Mendenhall Lake where a well packed trail heads toward the beginning of Mendenhall River. We see few people but lots of wild animal tracks. A coyote left many of them. I wonder that the little hunter was be attacking. Then we spotted the tracks made by a snowshoe hare running for its life.
Accepting the promise for sunshine by the weatherman, I headed out to the Rain Forest Trail with Aki in Tow. After crossing the Douglas Island Bridge, we drove north on the Douglas Highway. There were few cars on the highway but a lot of wildlife close to its border.
Eagles and ravens flew over the car during the first nine miles of the drive. Oddly we didn’t see any eagles after we reached the North Douglas boat ramp. From there until we almost reached the trailhead, we had an unrestricted view of Fritz Cove and Stephens Passage. The water was dotted with gulls and ducks. A tight congregation of sea lions harvested small fish just off the shore.
We drove to the Rain Forest trailhead and made our way down the icy trail. It led up to an open patch of ocean which was being used by a humpback whale to feed. The whale moved past a large black mass shaped like a very large ball. The incoming tide carried it up channel at about the same speed as the whale. I wondered whether it once was another whale, maybe an orca, now floating dead weight on the tide.
Tomorrow starts a five day stretch of snow. But we have sunshine today. We haven’t been there for a while, so Aki and I drive out to Dredge Lake trail head. Six inches of snow cover the trail. But the Mendenhall River and most of its tributaries still flow.
Bright, winter sun makes the snow sparkle. But it softens the borders of the mountains that line the river. I’d like to be able to walk onto ice-covered Moose Lake to get a better view of the surrounding mountains. But breaking through the new ice would allow the lake water to soak through my jeans. They might be frozen by the time I return to the car.
Aki loves to walk around this lake, no matter the weather. She has already touched noises with several canine noses and at least one rear end.
I expected the Sheep Mt. beach to offer us the best of a grim set of hiking options. Last night’s snow storm early this morning but a layer of clouds still covers the top half of the local mountains. So, the sight of sunshine hammering to the top half of Mt. Roberts is a great, unexpected treat.
Mallards and gulls are the only birds we can see if you don’t count the ravens and crows. Two ravens tease Aki until she chases them away down a stretch of the beach covered with snow. The last high tide cleared snow from most of the exposed beach. This increases Aki’s opportunities for sniffing. It also makes it easier for me to walk the end of the creek delta, where we can watch the clouds return to cover over Mt. Roberts.
It was late winter when Aki and I first found the Mendenhall River swans. A family of four were feeding in the mouth of the River. After that we usually spotted the foursome while cross country skiing down the river. As the winter progressed we also saw true transient swans. They were jumpy compared to the resident foursome.
Last May, another Juneau hiker told me that the foursome spent the entire winter surviving in the winter river drainage In hopes of spotting them now, I lead Aki down the river, careful not to slip on melting beach ice. But we see no swans. We see no birds, no deer, only melting snow and falling rain.
Our sunny stretch of weather will end tomorrow. The air is still frozen but that won’t last long. Soon the frost making trail grass sparkle will melt away. That’s why Aki and I came here now when can have the crisp place to ourselves.
We leave the trail and cross a grassy plain to the river. A very high tide last night flattened much of the grass, making it easy for the short-legged Aki to cross with me. I expect to spot geese or ducks gathered in the river water but find no birds.
While returning to the trail, the little dog and I hear the sounds of shotgun blasts coming from downriver. Some hunters are driving off the birds. I may have to avoid visiting these wetlands until after the waterfowl season ends on the first day of next year.
Aki and I are having a beautiful, if strange visit to the Fish Creek Delta. Unblocked sun pounds down on wetlands exposed by a low tide. Three men wearing masks cast lures into a tiny section of the lake not covered with ice. If there were still fish there, they show no interest in what the men have to offer.
On a beach along Fritz Cove, two guys wearing high end hunting gear sit in nice folding chairs. A small scattering of duck decoys floats just offshore. The resident mallard ducks are too far away to be shot by these guys. With their retrievers, they wait for something shootable to fly close enough to kill.
I am wondering whether this is a closed hunting area when a small collection of Canada geese appears just north of us. After spotting Aki and I, they fly in a wide arch around us before heading toward the waters of Fritz Cove. Their route takes them close to target range for the two human hunters. One fires three shots at the geese, who manage to fly away to safety.
It happened too fast. Last week Mendenhall Lake was open during our last visit. We watched two kayakers paddle just off shore, working their way around a shrinking iceberg. Ultra-thin, clear chunks of ice floated near the shore. In an hour they melted away. Today solid ice covers the surface of the lake.
The appearance of winter hasn’t driven birds away from the lake. In the top of a shoreside spruce tree, an adult bald eagle squawks at an approaching magpie as it tries to land in the same tree. There is a partially eaten wild animal nearby. The birds are fighting over who gets what’s left.
We’ve walked through predawn grey skies to reach Crystal Lake. Alder trees still loaded with green leaves lined the path. We are too near the glacier for the sun to reach it before 9:30 AM. As if she understands, Aki slows both of us down by stopping often to smell and mark spots with urine. Then at 9:30 she makes a dash down the trail when sunlight starts to flood over the outskirts of the lake.
On this rare sunny October day, the first rays to reach the lake should create a lovely orange and yellow pattern at the top end of the lake. But for odd, even unpredictable reasons, neither the cottonwoods nor the alders have bothered to turn their green leaves yellow or orange.
The cottonwoods now stand naked above piles of fading green. Most of the lakeside alders still display green leaves. After sun arrived, the alders begin to release their greenery, letting so each leaf flutters down to the ground.