Rain soaks into Aki’s gray fur and makes my parka glisten. It slickens the already traitorous trail ice and softens what snow remains in the forest. It falls from clouds that deny us any mountain views. I’d feel claustrophobic if not the old growth trees that appear to be keeping the heavy, wet skies from collapsing on the little dog and I.
We are in the tweens—between snowy winter and the soft green spring. This year March, not April may be the cruelest month.
Aki sits in my lap in friend’s car. We are on the look out for winter. Cross-country skis rattled in the back. We found plenty of ice on the first trail we tried. Giving up on that one, we headed out to Eagle Beach in hopes of seeing some migratory waterfowl. The day before a snow goose was spotted in a formation of transiting Canada geese.
The tide was out when we arrived, giving the migrants little water to rest on. We walked along the river on a trail of mud and dead grass. Two skiers sat near the river’s mouth eating lunch. They had returned form an aborted ski trip to Point Bridget trail after finding it free of snow. “You go another mile on the road and there is no snow.” Looking around the snow free meadow I realize that it is time to put away the skis.
There is a “no dog allowed rule” in this cabin so Aki stayed home with her other human. The cabin is on the grounds of the Shrine of St. Theresa, which is north of Juneau. Outside of the cabin plein-air painters stand behind their easels. Some hold brushes. Others load oil paint onto a palette knife. Minutes before they had Pearl Harbor and fog-shrouded mountains beyond as their subject. Now a wall of sun-charged fog obscures everything but a beach in the foreground. This is enough for most of the painters to work with. The others head back to their cabin for coffee and community.
I walk on a trail that leads south along Favorite Passage. Golden eye and harlequin ducks hunt the outflow of a small salmon stream for smolt. Beyond them, more diving ducks fish the deeper water. A rowdy Stellar sea lion rips up the water’s surface.
The fog thickens briefly and then melts until only a strip along the shore of Shelter Island has survived the sun.
Nervous clouds cringe above Gastineau Channel as Aki and I drive out toward the glacier. Ignoring the little dog’s whining, I take us on a detour to Sandy Beach where the sun is about to move into a patch of blue sky. An optimist would describe the scene as “storm ‘s end” or “the first day of spring.” Being more a realist, I think it is a sucker hole. That’s what lost pilots call temporary breaks in clouds that could close over the plane the minute it drops into the hole. The sun disappears behind a wall of clouds as we return to the car.
Gray dominate the sky over Mendenhall Lake when we pull up to the trailhead. But shafts of sunlight are illuminating the glacier. The sun appears to melt the clouds obscuring Mendenhall Towers. We might be able to ski across the lake but after the recent stretch of warmish weather, I don’t want to chance it. I follow Aki onto the ski track that winds around the campground.
On a sunny day the trail would be full of skiers and their dogs. But not today. The little dog and I will only see four skater skiers and, disappointingly for Aki, no other dogs. The clouds will disperse and coalesce. Light snow, soon to be rain, will splatter on my windshield as I drive back to town.
Aki and I start the Ides of March on the Douglas Island Bridge. Normally she drags her paws on to the bridge. But today she tries to bully me into letting her walk across it. A murder of loud-mouthed crows watches our battle of wills. I know I shouldn’t care what these dudes think about the little dog or me. But I am still bothered by the attention. Aki eventually backs down and we return to the car. It’s time to check out Peterson Creek.
At first glance the creek looks to be ice-free. Over a foot of golden brown water runs between the creek banks, reflecting the mottled bark of the creek side alders. But ice stills covers the creek bed, providing a white background for the golden water. It’s still a winter scene but spring can’t be far away.
We cross over the creek and walk down to a beach bordering Stephens Passage and climb a small rocky headland. Aki gives me her “This is so boring” look. I will accommodate her but first I want to study something that looks like an animal’s backbone trapped in rock. It could be fossil, evidence of life from a time long past.
In summer this parking lot is full of cars and buses ready to take river rafters back to their cruise ships. Today it is empty except for an abandoned Buick and one pickup truck. When Aki and I start down the brotherhood bridge trail, we run into a disheveled young man struggling to push a bicycle through the soft snow covering the trail. “Sir, I hate to ask, but do you happen to have $5. I have a terrible headache and could really use a drink.” I almost complied to reward his honesty.
We pass through a small copse of spruce and move onto to a meadow dotted with alders. Disintegrating ground fog partially obscures the alders. As it lifts I can see the alders, which appear to be leafing out, something unexpected in late winter. But close up I can see that the yellowish green “foliage” are really lichen.
The lichen hang from every branch and twig. I’ve been told that lichen can’t tolerate polluted air. So their colonies in the meadow alders gives proof of our clean air. But the way that they have spread to almost every part of the tree makes me wonder whether the alders would consider them an infection.
Aki, my little guardian walks three or four meters behind me. She looks concerned each time I turn around. She has reason to be. We are crossing a snow-covered meadow, something only made possible by a firm foot wide track. Each time I step off it my leg sinks into soft snow to mid-calf. I must look like a drunk trying to walk home after closing time. Aki acts like a faithful wingman, acting like she is ready to stop me from falling each time I lurch.
To keep the slippage to a minimum, I rivet my eyes on the trail. While this denies me views of the surrounding mountains, it lets me search for animal tracks crossing the trail. Right off I spot fresh tracks of a small Sitka black tail deer. The deer must have been drawn to the firm trail for the same reasons I am using it. But it broke off the trail and into soft snow. Wondering if we had scared it off the trail, I look through the scattering of shore pines in case it is hiding beside one of them. When I return my gaze to the trail I notice a line of canine prints covering the deer’s tracks.
The canine’s prints are too small for a wolf and too deliberate for a wolf. That leaves Coyote. I realize that I’ve never seen one in Alaska. They were common enough on the California high desert where, as a boy, I’d lie next to my dad and listen to them sing. The mid-sized predator (10-15 kilos) moved into the rain forest over a hundred years ago. But I’ve seen wolves in the woods but never a coyote. Could the coyote that tracked the deer be watching my little dog right now?