Wet snow mixed with rain has been falling on Aki and I for a week. Even she has been acting grumpy. That’s why I got excited when the Juneau weatherman predicted an hour of dry weather this morning. Aki, who can’t speak or understand English, acted like she didn’t trust me. Still, she let me dress her for a walk.
The little dog drags her paws when we leave the house. I want her to accompany me on a walk into the mountains which are now at risk of avalanche danger. Aki rejects the plan, preferring instead to drag me onto a snow-covered sidewalk. Once on it, the little pooch moves as slowly as a child just learning to walk. Two poops and several pees later she throws on the breaks. She won’t move until we head back to the house. I drop her off and walk poodle-less along Gold Creek.
My dad grew up in a very rural section of Montana. It must have rained or snowed often there because he used to tell me if the sun shined on a Sunday he’d go fishing. I have thought often of the little story this winter since snow and clouds have dominated our winter weeks. It popped into my mind again this morning when I spotted rays from the rising sun lighting up the Mount Juneau ridge. But this evening we would again be hammered by snow.
Leaving earlier than usual the poodle-mix and I drove north out of Juneau to Eagle River. No clouds blocked our views of Lynn Canal and the mountains that line it’s east side. Last night slick ice formed on the road, slowing down our efforts to reach the ski trail. We saw few cars on the road. Only one rig sat in the trailhead parking lot when we parked and that one was covered with last night’s frost.
Aki charged down the trail, still firm with last night’s ice. I had to struggle to keep my skis moving forward. Shafts of morning light enriched the yellows and greens of moss covered tree bark. After a bit of a struggle we reached the parking lot for the campground. The little pooch chose an exposed spot in front of the manager’s office to push out a bowl movement. It took me ten minutes to pick it, bag it, and carry it out to the campground garbage bin. Aki used the time to sniff and pee her way around the parking area.
I was pretty grumpy when I lead Aki onto the ski trail and started back toward the car. Only a small number of people were skiing. No one had ventured down a little side trail that delivered Aki and I to an Eagle River sand bar. There we viewed reflections of sharp-edged coastal mountains reflected in the calm river waters.
It’s a wet day. Its been wet for several days as the weather has warmed. Yesterday, fat, wet flakes fell. Today its just rain. I was tempted to spend the daylight hours inside, with a copy of a book of poems by Louise Gluck because she won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. But Aki deserves a walk. The Gluck’s book that I received from an inter-library loan was shipped to Juneau from the Fairbanks Library where it had sat since April 5, 2013. The library’s “due date” page is blank, making me wonder if I am the first Alaskan to check it out.
While walking with Aki down a rainy beach this afternoon, I wondered why no one ever checked out Gluck’s book, which contains over six hundred pages of her poetry, all of it published between 1962 and 2012. It’s a first edition book that she signed before giving it to the Fairbanks Library. I think after the little dog and I return home and dry off, I’ll spend the rest of the afternoon sinking into Gluck’s poetry.
The snow has returned, a snotty, unstructured white mass of dancers. They fly down the street as we drive to Fish Creek. The parking lot for the trail only has one car. We will see them for a few seconds while on the trail. Then we will have the place to ourselves.
I expected to find the delta empty. But it is full of birds. There are plenty of gulls and mallard duck, all working the shallows for food. None pay us any attention. In a little, shallow pond, two killdeer feed. Normally, they never visit the Alaskan rainforests in winter and are rarely seen in other seasons. They must have flown long and hard to get to the creek delta because they total ignore our presence.
On the other side of the little pond, an American wigeon walks along the beach. His kind are rarely seen in our area this time of year. A few minutes later, while passing along a short trail through the woods, a I stop short when a chestnut backed chickadee lands on the trail a few meet away. Like the gulls and the mallards, the chickadee is almost always around. But this one has no time or interest in keeping any distance between himself and Aki or I.
The snow is back, replacing weeks of cold, but sunny skies. The snow turns the skies grey. For a while this morning, clouds blocked the views of surrounding mountains. If not for Aki, the poodle-mix, I would spend the day reading a book on the Alaskan wilderness and trying out some of the tea types we received for Christmas.
We end up visiting Sandy Beach. The trail is covered with new snow as is the beach. Aki is in hog heaven, playing “chase and chase me” with other dogs. A knot of golden eye ducks swim close to shore. Two males raise their beaks in song while their females swim alongside, often harvesting food with the submerged beaks.
Aki turned 14 last Fall. If she were a more normal dog, she would act like she was almost 100 years old. Most folks think she is still puppy. All I know is that she hasn’t started to slow down yet. Today, her other human and I are crossing Mendenhall Lake using cross country skis. The little dog trots just behind me, her little tail beating back and forth like a metronome.
The last time we visited the lake it was several degrees below zero F. Today the air is just below freezing. The air is flat calm and no clouds block the sunshine. We first planned on taking a harder to find, lesser used trail for this morning’s ski because of all the cars parked near our usual trailhead. But the recent sub-zero weather solidified the lake ice. That opened up a path along the lake’s Southern shore.
We never met any other skiers during most of our ski. We saw more tracks left by wild animals than those left by people and their dogs. When checking out one photo after we returned home, I noticed the solo tracks of a red fox left it left while leaving the woods to cross the lake last night. Closer to the start of Mendenhall River, we had to ski over heavier tracks left early this morning by what might have been a lynx.
Seeing the wild animal tracks made me understand better why Aki stops so often to check out scents on the trail—even on new trails like this on lakes that have been used by few dogs. She always wants to know who else is passing through the neighborhood. More than once she had barked discouragement to chase off another wild animal I could not even see. She treed as least four bears. But she seems open to hanging out with other animals. She has even placed herself none-to-nose with a prickly porcupine. Another time, she even dashed across softening lake ice to visit with an otter.
We hadn’t intended to do a sub-zero walk this morning. But no wind discouraged us by stirring the country near the glacier. The minus 3 degree temperature (minus 19 C) seemed quite comfortable. Aki dashed onto the Mendenhall Lake and started on the trail to the glacier. We had heard others had posted pictures of a new hollow in the glacier formed from clear, blue ice. I guess the little poodle mix wanted to go check it out.
I told Aki that we didn’t have enough time to reach the glacier and return home before a scheduled meeting. Instead, we shifted over to little-used trail that wound around the glacier moraine. It offered lots of views of the little pocket lakes the glacier left behind as it retreated up the mountains.
On cold winter days, when ice covered lakes allow us a chance to explore new territory, I usually lead Aki off the usual trails. She starts after me when I walk onto Crystal Lake. Then she stops, bogged down in snow. The old puppy starts shivering. It’s like she will freeze if she can’t keep moving.
I dash over to Aki and carry her back to the solid trail. I expect her to ask me to haul her back to car. But she drops out of my arms and trots over to a little alder for a smell of scent left by another pup. She is still a tough little dog.
The temperature of Upper Fish Creek Valley has been dropping for the past few days. Since Aki and I haven’t used the trail in months, I picked it for today’s hike. In the past, the creek has been swollen with water. Other times, the smell of dead, spawned out salmon hangs in the air. I’ve seen sparkling ice cycles lit up by the morning sun. But, until today, I’ve never seen the creak so enslaved by ice.
We can barely hear small holes in the ice mumble as the little dog and I pass a deep-water section of the creek. In minutes ice covers the water. Normally it is hard to let yourself think over the noise of the rushing creek waters. Today, for the first time that I can remember, it is profoundly quiet. We are passing through a old growth forest with trees still growing strong after hundreds of years in the little creek valley. Every other old growth creek on the island is pockmarked with downed hemlock or spruce. But here, in a forest that seems impervious to high winds or floods, time seems to have stopped.
This was a day for walking in shadows while having views of sun-flooded mountains. For some reason it is more pleasant than the bright days we enjoyed the last few days. It might be the last day for not wearing my heavy winter gear. Tomorrow it will drop to less than seven degrees Fahrenheit, by the time I post this piece.
We will have to dress Aki in her warmest clothes for tomorrow’s hike. She won’t mind. I won’t either. We will both enjoy the slight sting on our noises delivered by the cold. Today, I can leave my parka unzipped as we head down the trail. Even though it is a good weather weekend Sunday, we have the trail almost to ourselves. Most folks are getting ready for the Superbowl.
We hike down to the beach as the temperature begins to fall. Mallards, gulls, and harlequin ducks are gathered together on the shore. While the gulls stay put, the ducks drop into the ocean and swim just offshore, keeping pace as Aki and I move over the snow covered ground. In a few minutes they do reverse turns and head back to their beach hangouts. I guess the birds now consider us trustworthy neighbors.
Cold but no wind—that is what we hoped to find when we visited a trail system 30 miles away. We dressed Aki in warm gear, filled up the car, and drove out to Eagle Beach. The campground parking lot was full of other cars so we drove a little further to an almost-empty trail head. From there we took a little used path into an old growth spruce forest.
The skiing was almost perfect as were the shafts of sunlight that powered around the trunks of the huge spruce. We had the trail to ourselves. Every once in awhile a huge and heavy load of new snow tumbled in a thick shower on the forest floor. I loved skiing through the trail, hoping to pass through without being hammered from loads of falling snow.
It was also dark in the forest. At the edge, the trail led to a sunlit trail where the full sin made the snow covered alders almost too painful to view. From there we powered through another sunny meadow to the river, where Aki ran into a collection of other dogs. For the first time on the ski, she acted like a hog heaven.