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.
Aki and I are working across a tidal meadow to the Peterson Creek salt chuck. Without snowshoes I’d be post holing a trail in the deep snow. A crust on the snow allows the little dog to fly anywhere she wants. But when area an area shaded by trees, she finds her self crashing, chest deep, into the cold cover. After dropping through the crust several times Aki takes up station behind me.
There is nothing to distract me during the walk across the meadow or along the edge of the salt chuck. I am still excited, knowing what awaits us when we reach the salt chuck’s outlet stream.
Shade from spruce trees darkens the stream rocks. But shafts of sunlight manage to reach snow on top of the rocks. Nothing blocks the sun from lighting up Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Mountains beyond.
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.
Aki and I just left Sheep Creek. It is one of the little dog’s favorite walks because it is the favorite walk of many other Juneau dogs. Aki had to squint into the sun, which made the sides of flying gulls almost painfully white.
We skirted the little inlet always haunted by a small raft of mallards. This morning a gadwall joined them. Even though their numbers make them seem as common as dirt, I love the metallic green heads and blue wing patches of the showy males. This morning two of the male mallards gave us hard looks as a hen plunged her head under the water for food.
Even though she would rather scout the sand dune for scents, Aki followed me to edge of Gastineau Channel. From there I could see Sheep Mountain emerging from a wall of fog. Recent storms have weighed down it and all the local mountains with snow. Thanks to yesterday’s thaw a slick crust covers the snow load. We should have avalanches if we receive the seven inches of new snow promised to fall tonight.
The road from the trailhead to town runs along the bottom of a series of avalanche chutes. In winter it is illegal to stop in this zone. Just before the no-stop section a sign warns us that the road will be closed at noon for avalanche abatement activities. It is now 11:40 A.M. In twenty minutes a helicopter will lower a daisy bell percussion device over areas with too much of a snow load. Sound waves from the daisy bell will set out little avalanches. Some could reach the road.
Until recently the state controlled avalanches by firing shells from a recoilless rifle into the upper sections of the zone. The boom of each shot would echo down the channel. After accurate shots the boom would be followed by the crack and crash of a cascade of snow.
Minutes after we leave the Treadwell woods, two border collies start stalking Aki. They look so similar that I wonder if a sheep dog factory stamped them out. One of the collies is stretched out on the snow, head down, front legs stretched out, ready to charge forward. The other one creeps forward slowly, head down, using mincing steps. Now I know how a lost sheep must feel.
We are not in New Zealand and Aki is a poodle, not a lamb. As if to make that point two eagles roosting on the roof of the mine ventilation shaft let out their keening calls. I check the eyes of the collie dogs and then those of their owner. Finding no meanness, I relax and enjoy my little dog’s reaction.
Aki stands as tall as she can, tail a metronome. When one of the collies breaks toward her, she dashes forward to meet him. They sniff and then Aki runs a circle around me, her tail now an invitation for the collies to chase her. When they do, she yips and drops low onto the sand. Normally the poodle-mix can always win this game. But these two sheep dogs work together to herd her, like seals driving pink salmon into a trap. Aki has met her match.
On the way to the Treadwell Ruins trailhead, Aki and I stopped on the Juneau waterfront and watched sunlight break through the clouds. As if shinning through a lattice window, the sun formed sunrise colored squares onto Gastineau Channel. Near the navigational tower, a single seal swam through squares of yellow/red light. I told the little dog that that was more beauty than we are to expect on this early December day. But I was wrong.
On the sandy beach that borders the Treadwell Ruins, I try to correct my earlier statement. Aki, I think each kind of weather produces its own beauty. As she usually does when I try to share a profound idea, the little dog throws me her “are you kidding” look.
No, really. Take this scene, one with frost but no snow. Even without sun to sparkle the frost, this beach and the trees that crouch towards it are quite lovely.
Knowing this I am not convincing the little dog, I turn and look toward Juneau. Sunlight has managed to again pierce the clouds to swath the town and the mountain with the same name.
We move south until reaching the collapsed glory hole that marks the end of Sandy Beach. Frost feathers have turned the offshore rocks an icy grey. A raft of mallards slides from behind the rocks to provide just the right punch of color.
Has winter finally arrived? The signs are here. Thickening ice covers the lake. I’ve broken out my winter-weight parka. So has the human friend who walks with us along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Even Aki wears her warmest wrap.
It is still early morning when we start the walk. Sunlight hasn’t reached the lake. But rose madder red clouds float over Thunder Mountain. Soon the day’s first rays will brighten the tips of the Mendenhall Towers.
The last time we made this walk, Aki uses a parallel forest trail rather than join me on the muddy beach. Now that the mud is frozen she is happy to trot with us along the ice edge.