The snow on each side of the path is too soft for even Aki to use. The little dog must master an icy chute of a trail if we are going to drop down to the road. I’d like to appreciate the sugar sparkle of the snow and the shapes formed by the bare cottonwood trees against the indigo sky. But Aki has all my attention.
The little poodle-mix tries a quick trot then slides and freezes into a cringe. When sure that she won’t slip out of control she reaches out with her front left paw to tip toe forward and drops into another cringe. Thanks to my cleats, I can move with confidence toward her. She arches her back after I arrive like she does when asking to be picked up at home. I do and carry her to the relative safety of the road. Soon she is trotting along in a snowy channel packed firm by the tire of a passing truck.
Aki is leading some out-of-town guests and me across Mendenhall Lake to the glacial ice cave. Mount McGinnis and the Mendenhall Towers form a jagged skyline against the indigo sky. It’s easy walking. Previous ice cave pilgrims have pounded our path smooth.
We got a late start. It’s still only 23 degrees F but the temperature is rising. Even now snow melt is seeping onto the moraine trail, making it too slipper to use without poodle paws or ice cleats. We have both. I ask hikers returning from the glacier if they made it to the cave. None managed it. Undeterred, Aki presses on, leading us across the mile-wide lake and onto the moraine.
To avoid sliding into a crevasse or rocks, we climb up hillsides rather than risk ice-covered sections of the trail. Translucent slabs of ancient ice line the trail, encouraging us to press on to the cave.
A jumble of clear, blue-tinted ice forms the only access to the cave. Aki refuses to enter. But her humans pretzel their way into the aquamarine-colored chamber. It has the same scalloped roof of the other ice caves we have visited. The roof and walls of those caves imprisoned round, foot-sized rocks. None decorate this cave.
Drawn by a patch of bright, white light striking the floor on the opposite side of the cave, I cross a still-frozen stream and enter a vertical tube of scalloped ice. Above a series of ice lens offer circular views of blue sky and clouds. I can’t think of another view like it.
Our sunny streak continues today. Aki some friends and I take advantage by hiking out to Nugget Falls. Previous hikers stomped out a narrow trail through deep snow. Frost feathers on top of the snow sparkle enough to hurt my eyes. Aki doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe that’s because she is so busy herding two other humans and I.
Since she can’t see over the snow banks on either side of the trail, it is hard for her to carry out her duties. We humans try to stay close to each other to ease her load.
The falls are roaring when we arrive even though the snow along the trail is still frozen. But it looks like the spring melt is on in the Nugget Creek Valley.
Sometime during the night a powerful high tide scattered 8-inch-thick pans of ice on the trail. The wet snowstorm that plagued us for several days moved on. Fresh morning light shines on the fresh snow covering Fish Creek Pond. As an added bonus, the snow provides good footing. When it melts in a hour or so, the ice-covered trail will be too slick to walk on without ice cleats.
At first the place is silent. No eagle cries as we round the pond and walk out onto the spit that separates Fish Creek from Fritz Cove. No mallard cackles. Then we hear a bald eagle complaint. On the grassy bank of the creek, the noisy eagle is spreading its wings to dry them. It has the white head and tail of a mature bird but the mottled wings of a young one. It looks wet and disheveled.
We won’t see any other birds on the way to the creek mouth. A man with his Labrador retriever will flushed them first by walking around on the wetlands. He will wear the camo clothing of a hunter but there is nothing for him to hunt.
I will debate whether it is any of my business where the man walks. I will argue that it is his responsibility not to intimidate the wild residents off the wetlands when so much of the food-rich ground is exposed by a very low tide. I will follow Aki’s example and concentrate on the fresh light on fresh snow.
When the winter wind blows in a normally calm place like Mendenhall Lake, it can sting. Aki knows this. If she didn’t before, she is learning it now. She trots just behind one of her humans as he skis into a thirty-knot wind. The skier takes the brunt of the wind. It flows over his unprotected face, making the 22-degree air feel like zero. Cleaver Aki uses him like a windbreak.
It’s not all beer and skittles for the little dog. When her humans spread out she must leave her wind shadow and run back to round up someone who has stopped to photograph the glacier. Then she squints her eyes into the wind, spots her other charge and runs full tilt to him. In a minute she is back urging the photographer not to doddle.
Lured by promises of a new ice cave, Aki and her humans headed out to the toe of Mendenhall Glacier. It’s been snowing all day, making it easier to ski the 1.2 miles across Mendenhall Lake to the glacier. Those of us on skis used a soft track set by previous skiers. The little dog found a superhighway pounded flat by walking pilgrims.
One man stared up at the face of the glacier when we arrived. When he left we had the place to ourselves. Before seeking entrance to the cave, we enjoyed the abstract forms created by an assemblage of icebergs. Between two geometric blacks stood a slice of ice in form of penitent monk. He bowed in the direction of the cave.
Accepting the monk’s guidance, we skied to up to the glacier and found a thin opening to the ice cave. I had to drop onto to my knees to see under a very low ceiling. By crawling on my stomach, I could have accessed the cave’s interior. Since I didn’t bring rain gear, I had to settle for a filtered view.
It was 24 above when we left home this morning. Aki and I are dressed accordingly. Unfortunately the temperature hovers around 12 degrees F. as we slide onto Mendenhall Lake. The little dog doesn’t notice. She is too busy greeting dogs that just finished the four-kilometer lake loop.
All the beauty that surrounds Juneau spoils us. But my jaw drops each time I see the Mendenhall Glacier snaking through saw-toothed mountains on its way to the snow-covered lake. I ski toward the glacier for forty minutes while Aki runs back and forth between her other human and me. The rocky peninsula that separates the lake from the glacier appears to grow in size as we approach. From the spot where we turn back for the trailhead, only a small wedge of fractured ice appears above the rocks.
By now Aki and I are almost too warm. She chases forward to catch her other human who is flying forward on skate skis. I slip into the meditative motion of Nordic skiing.