Aki hesitates at the grass line, her yellow coat not quite blending with the color of last fall’s straw. Around her sharp-edged green shoots of new growth muscle through the dead growth. The little dog wants to walk south down the beach toward where miners have anchored their thrown together gold dredges. The trail is rich in dog scent.
I turn my back on the poodle-mix and walk out onto the gravel and sand lands now exposed by an ebb tide. The sun is yet to make over the shoulder of Sheep Mountain. Blue sky shows through holes in the cloud cover. It’s too early to know whether the day will be blue or gray. After stopping to study the reflection of clouds in a tidal lake, I look for Aki and find her at my feet.
A small raft of ducks fidget at the opposite end of the lake, circling around what looks like a thin and tall piece of driftwood. As the sky lightens I see that what I thought was driftwood is really a great blue heron. The little dog and I swing in a wide arc around the lake until I can make out the grey-blue of the birds chest feathers and the long, pointed beak so useful in plucking small fish from the shallows. I think the heron might be my favorite bird for it’s movie star good looks and it’s graceful walk. This bird looks as peaceful as a sleeping child until it shoots downward with its killing beak to snatch a salmon smolt.
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.
Aki darts back and forth and then down a trail that crosses the glacial moraine—a target rich environment for dog scents. This time of year it should be covered with snow. The Mendenhall River should be silent under a layer of ice. But it’s 40 degrees F. and has been well above freezing for several days. Heavy rain has washed away the snow.
The little dog and I walk along the edge of Moose Lake, which is still iced over. A thinner skim of ice covers the flooded sections of the old river trail. On a sunny day like this, I have the right to expect to see the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in the surface of the ice-free river. The river is ice-free but turbulence from the recent rain has clouded the water with silt. I snap a few photos knowing that they will all end up in the digital trash bin. A heron flies past with its long legs held straight out. I snap away knowing that the bird is too far away for a detailed picture.
I have to face the sun to return to the car. It warms my face and enriches the view by crisscrossing the band of riverside willows with back shadow lines. Beauty and comfort are here to enjoy. All I have to do is stop whining about the absence of winter.
The little dog and I are pulling into the Fish Creek trailhead parking lot. And as if nature thought we deserved an early Solstice gift, it is not raining. Aki, you just never know what climate change will bring us. The pastel pinks of sunrise color mist rising off the pond. As if to gild the scene, a heron flaps through the mist to land on a pond-side spruce.
The weather guys forecast heavy rain for tomorrow, which makes this break in the storms that must sweeter. But it is not all beer and skittles for the little dog. A shotgun booms across Gastineau Channel making Aki cringe and look back to make sure I know what I am doing. The gunshot drives a gang of Canada geese into a noisy flight. I wonder if they are giving warning or hurling curses down upon the hunter.
It’s a day for finding bones. I almost step on a slim seal bone and later spot the large leg bone of a moose. Eagle feathers littler the beach grass. All these things were deposited here by a powerful flood tide.
It is also a day for crows. The Juneau murder must have roosted in the small forest that at the end of the Fish Creek spit. They spill out over the water of Fritz Cove, their black bodies looking like music notes inked onto the mottled sky.
We have one more day of gray before the sun returns. According to the weatherman, it will bring glacier-borne winds to chill Chicken Ridge and the rest of Downtown Juneau. The promised wind will make short work of the frost feathers now decorating town. Thier angular crystals cling to almost every surface from car roof to spruce tips. They brighten the bare-branched alders that line Fish Creek. Aki and I visit there to enjoy the show.
Aki finds a brace of miniature collie dogs to chase near the Fish Creek Pond but otherwise we have the place to ourselves. Leaving the pond, we walk down an icy trail that splits a frosty forest of beach roses and cow parsnip stalks to a spot offering an unobstructed view of Fritz Cove and the Chilkat Mountains beyond.
All the bird action is near the tide line where mallards grumble, a heron wades, and a bald eagle rests on a rock. The sky hints at the change of weather. Rather than forming a locked pearl and gray ceiling above the mountains, the clouds scatter and pastel pinks and purples paint their bottoms.
On our return to the car I hear what sounds like a murder of happy crows. When we get closer I can tell that it is a chorus made by children playing a pickup game of hockey on a small pond. Even if they look up from their ice, they wouldn’t be able to see the pastel clouds, the heron or the eagle. They wouldn’t even see the mountains. But their apparent joy exceeds mine.
Aki is home on Chicken Ridge, watching the lilacs and Apple tree shed their burdens of snow as the temperature rise into the mid-thirties. Here, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, it is barely above zero. Snow slows pedestrians and several hundred Canada geese crowd a small section of open water.
On the inner bank of the flood control dike, a great blue herron stands motionless. It isn’t fishing. A coat of ice on the pond makes that impossible. No, the Hunter is just trying to survive. I wonder if this is the same herron that watched me last October when I pedaled after him on the trail to Asotin. I wonder if he will survive this rare cold snap.
We are walking on a desert-like stretch of the Sheep Creek Delta where current and salt-water soakings make it almost impossible for anything to grow. Aki would rather be on the large beach that borders the old ore house. She loves to run across the sandy expanse and sniff for dog sign left above the high tide line. But there is bird action here. A great blue heron flies a low trajectory in front of us and lands a hundred meters away. Harlequin ducks, mallards, and goldeneyes paddle into the channel just far enough to ensure safety from charging Labrador retrievers. They don’t have to worry about Aki. She ignores waterfowl and refuses to swim.