Winter left this meadow in a hurry, little dog. Aki is sniffing one of the shrinking blocks of pond ice marooned on the meadow by the tide. Her paws sink into the softening meadow. Maybe our favorite season is down south visiting a sick friend.
It is 47 degrees F., which is ridiculously warm for mid-January. There is a breeze but it seems to warm rather than chill. To add to the argument for an early spring, a plover works now-soft mud along the edge of Fish Creek.
A great crowd of mallard ducks mingles with gulls at the creek’s mouth. We heard them cackling out alarms on our approach. When they see us a hundred of the mallards slip further out into Fritz Cove. But most explode from the creek, each doing a great impression of Chicken Little. I want to tell them to chill, to talk among themselves as we complete our circuit. Once airborne, the ducks all circle in front of the Mendenhall Glacier and wing deeper into the cove. The gulls don’t budge.
Aki sighs. We are standing on a tiny beach waiting for the receding tide to open up a passage around False Outer Point. Small waves weakened by an offshore reef collapse at our feet. Over a hundred surf scoters have formed a raft to our right. But Aki can’t see or smell them.
I’m content to wait out the tide, listening to the waves and watching gulls cruise past on the gentle wind. It’s 50 degrees F. and the wind warms rather than chills. I am fine. Then Aki signs again.
Since she usually wins these fights, I backtrack from the point to a trail that leads over the headland. We climb up and over it and drop down onto another beach sealed off by the tide. Scoters, in groups of 30 or 40 birds curl around the point and fly in long lines across our horizon. Knowing that Aki lacks the patience to wait out the tide, we climb back over the headland rather than hang tough until the path around the point dries out.
The little dog shivers at my feet, hunching her shoulders like a homeless man might while warming himself by a barrel fire. She stands in the footsteps I just made in five inches of new snow. We just crossed over wetlands to reach the mouth of Lemon Creek. Normally, she’d be tearing out and back, leaping her way through the fresh snow. Two hours before that is exactly what she would have done. But it wasn’t raining two hours ago.
The snow covering on the wetlands acts like a sponge, soaking up water from the retreating tide and the rain. Rather than expanding, the snow shrinks as the rain and tidewater condense fluffy flakes into thickening cement. It will rock hard if the temperature drops back below freezing. But the forecast is for warmer temperatures and heavy rain. Then the snow will melt away.
The rain and snow conditions don’t bother a water ouzel (American dipper) that just landed near us. The dipper bounces up and down along the edge of tiny watercourse, apparently looking for a meal. Look at the little bird, little dog, dancing in the rain. Aki just shivers until we turn back to the car.
Aki sniffs tentatively near the bell of an old growth spruce tree. It is one of a small island of mature trees in a hilly second growth forest. For some reason the loggers who had clear cut the forest 60 or 70 years ago let this clutch of spruce live. The last time we visited the grove the little dog found the body of a newly dead bald eagle. The forest seemed full of complaining eagles that day, driven from the nearby landfill by cracker shells. This morning, we only hear ravens calling out to each other as fine snow falls through the canopy.
The snow simplified finding the grove by painting the faint access trail white so it stuck out against the greens and browns of the forest floor. We followed the thick white line as it twisted around standing spruce and wind-fallen hemlock. It guided us through gaps in downed logs, under a canted hemlock tree serving as a nursery for the next generation of trees, and down to the eagle grove.
It was summer when Aki and I found the dead eagle. Broad, thorny leaves of devil club plants hid the trail. We were forced to climb over dozens of wind fallen trees and carefully slip through devil’s club thickets. There was once a decent trail from the grove back to the trailhead but much of it had been washed away during a fall storm or blocked by downed trees. I felt like a shipwreck survivor when the little dog and I finally managed to find the trailhead. Today, the magic white line painted by the snow helps us skirt all the obstacles.
A raven near the trailhead stops crocking to watch me retrieve the plastic bag I had use at the start of the trip to contain Aki’s poop. It calls out to his fellow forest guardians and then flies along with us back to the car.
Aki is in disgrace at least in my eyes. She probably sees herself as a hero for saving me from the imagine danger that awaits on the flume trail. It’s 16 F. degrees but we are both dressed for the cold. I can wait here at the start of the trail all day. So, apparently, can she.
We both I hear the hum of water flying through the flume—a squared wooden tube that feeds a downtown hydro plant with water from Gold Creek. The little dog could feel the vibration of moving water if she were standing on the flume boards. With a look that could melt a tax auditor’s heart, she tries to convince me to abandon my reckless plan. Frustrated, I pick up the ten-pound poodle mix and carry her 50 meters down the trail.
She skulks behind me until I lead her off the flume and down a rough trail that leads to Gold Creek. She flashes past to take up point, looking back often to make sure I haven’t fallen or worse, wandered off on some dangerous adventure. Runoff from an early January rainstorm gouged out a foot deep staircase that facilitates the descent. Above us, foot thick ice sickles hang from the flume. Ahead is a fine and stable bridge across Gold Creek. I am alone when I reach it. Aki stands 25 meters behind me on the trail. She looks back, apparently to convince me that we should climb back to the Flume Trail rather than cross the bridge. Guess who backtracks so he can carry a little dog across the bridge.
(Note that the gorse is still green even when partially coated with a layer of January ice.)
Aki has to be very patient today. She is leading one our human friends and me down the icy beach that borders Mendenhall Lake. Snow as fine as confectioners’ sugar collects in the little dog’s curls and obscures the lake ice. With her strong, sharp nails, Aki could trot comfortably down the beach. But her humans have been reduced to duck walking by the ice. Our grippers offer little help.
Snow clouds cover most of the glacier and almost all the surrounding mountains. But Mt. McGinnis stands separate from the clouds. I want to ask our human friend if he knows why the snow can’t defeat McGinnis but he leads the conversation into a discussion about victims and violence. He has just finished Sherman Alexie’s memoir about his mother. I am reading that honest book about love surviving violence. It could be one of those conversations that leave everyone feeling helpless. But we remember stories of victims overcoming violence, people speaking out against it, young people insisting on change. Aki, who had been keeping her tail at half-mast lets it rise to its “happy dog.”
I am ignoring Aki’s agenda for this morning’s walk. She stands and stares at me from a strip of grass that borders the Sheep Creek beach. It is obvious to her that we should follow the worn dog-walking path down channel toward Juneau.
Wanting to take advantage of the ebb, I keep walking away from her over exposed tidelands. Since no eagles skulk in the beachside spruce trees, I can safely stretch the invisible rubber band that connects me to the little dog until it pulls her onto the tidelands.
Fifty meters out I turn around. Aki, who has halved the distance between us, freezes. I keep walking, wishing the wind wasn’t driving down the wind chill. The next time I turn around, Aki is right behind me. Then, she sneaks ahead to conduct a nasal survey of the exposed ground.
A small raft of mergansers splash in Gastineau Channel. But the local murder of crows dominates the tidelands. At first they flit around. When neither Aki nor I chase them, they return to their search for food and fun.