Wanting to sneak in at least one more trip to the glacier before the cruise ship hordes inundate its trails, I drive Aki out to the Mendenhall Visitor Center parking lot. The water level in the lake has dropped enough to allow the little dog and I to walk along the shore to Nugget Falls. But we soon find that the Forest Service has blocked off the beach to protect nesting sites of the income arctic terns. Aki, whose little paws were already muddy with beach clay, is happy to reverse our way back to the regular trail.
The ice river meanders out of a layer of low clouds that hides the Mendenhall Towers but not Mt. McGinnis or Mt. Stroller White. Alder trees on the mountains’ slopes, bare except for their swollen, white buds, could be a convention of ghosts. One bald eagle circles a forest meadow on the far side of the lake. Otherwise the sky below the clouds is empty of obvious life.
At the beginning of the hike a constant breeze made the lake surface look like dun colored corduroy. It dies out by the time we reach the falls, allowing the lake to form a mirror for the mountains, falls and glacier.
I’m leaning against a young tree, using its trunk to steady my camera. The tree is part of a spruce hedge that should prevent a nearby great blue heron from seeing me. Through a narrow opening in the hedge I watch the heron wade across a narrow stream. It moves with such stiff grace that my eye can’t catch actual movement.
Aki doesn’t whine or give any other clue of our presence. It won’t be her fault of the heron spots us. In my makeshift blind, I wait for the big bird to stab down into the water after a sand lance. Instead it slowly turns its head until it is looking directly at me. Busted.
After extracting myself from the hedge, I give the little poodle-mix a reassuring pet and lead us further out into the Fish Creek Delta. We cross an open spit from which we have a 360-degree view of the area. In the center of this natural compass a cold wind slams snow and rain at us. To the west, the sun is throwing cloud shadows on the green slopes of Admiralty Island. A wall of clouds obscures the glacier to the north and the Douglas Island ridge to the south. For a moment another cloud curtain raises to reveal Sheep Mountain in the East and then drops.
Two eagles, both hunched against a cold wind, cling to the roof of an old mine ventilation tower. The tower rises out of a beach of mine tailings that were crushed to sand over a hundred years ago. Rusting relics of the time when this was a mining town emerge from the sandy tailings, exposed by the ebb tide.
The eagles on the tower have the white head and tail feathers of mature birds. Fifty meters away, an eagle with the mottled brown and whites of an immature predator roosts far back in a tangle of alder branches. It watches one of the mature eagles, maybe a parent, fly out and over Gastineau Channel, circle and then dive toward the water. When the hunter returns with empty talons, its mate gives it a scolding that can be heard all the way from Downtown Juneau to the cabins at Lucky Me. I turn to see what effect the scolding has had on the immature bird and find that it has flown away.
The adult eagles settle into silence sulks allowing me to concentrate on the sound of Aki’s paws pounding on the sand and the songs of nesting birds. In spite of the lingering stretch of cold weather, the inhabitants of the Treadwell woods have committed to spring.
Pollen pods of alders lay empty on the forest floor. Sharp-edged leaves emerge from the dead-looking branches of cow parsnips. Drops of last night’s rain cling to the butter-yellow skunk cabbage flowers. Elderberry leaves slowly relax their grip on their clusters of incipient flowers.
Rain pockmarks the surface of Mendenhall Lake and softens the handful of icebergs that migrated away from the glacier after the lake thawed. Across the lake kittiwakes reoccupy their traditional nesting sites. They don’t seem bothered by the persistent precipitation.
I like the rain for the way it leaves sparkling bags of water on the willow catkins and makes the forest moss sparkle. It also might be responsible for the welcomed absence of other trail users. We have the lakeshore and moraine to ourselves. We also enjoy an absence of human-made noise. Planes can’t fly thanks to the low cloud ceiling. The roar of the supercharged Nugget Falls masks the other intrusive sounds. I can only hear the pat, pat, pat of rain on my rain parka and the sharp cries of the nesting kittiwakes.
I was in the kitchen, making coffee, thinking about using some sheltered beach for this morning’s walk when unexpected sunshine lit up Dan Moller Basin. The sun reflected intense light off the freshly fallen snow that flocked the basin’s spruce trees. I had to squint even though the basin is across the channel from our house and at least a kilometer away from our kitchen window.
Hey little dog, we’re heading to the mountains. Aki, who was stilled curled up on the bed, didn’t stirred. Thinking only of winter’s beauty and not the cold baggage that accompanies it, I dressed Aki in a light wrap and chose rain gear for myself. We drove to Eagle Crest, Juneau’s closed-for-the-season ski area. The temperature dropped as we gained altitude until it was just above freezing. Our car tires wobbled slightly on the snowy road.
Two inches of new snow covered the trailhead parking area. More was falling as we started down the trail. I wished that I had brought gloves. The little dog looked like she would rather be some place else. Neither of us was prepared for this late attempt by winter to reclaim the mountains.
By doddling behind and stopping each time I turned to check on her, Aki made her wishes clear. When I gave up and turned to join her she raised her tail to its happy position and dashed back toward the car. The snow stopped and sunshine began to leak through the cloud layer. In seconds the snow caught by the meadow’s trees melted. That covering the trail shrank, exposing bare gravel and puddles of melt water.
High winds rattled our house windows this morning. But Aki was still willing to head out for a walk. Last night she met me at the airport after a ten-day separation. I wondered, as I walked off he plane, whether she would be happy to see me. While we were gone, she spent every day with neighbors who took her on walks. Her nights were spent with family. She had it made. When I neared, the little poodle-mix raised her nose toward me, not in derision but to gather in my scent. It seemed to please her.
This morning we drive out to North Douglas Island and use the False Outer Point Trail to become reacquainted. At first Aki ignored me as she catalogued smells and cues left behind by other dogs. She caught up with me at the beaver pond, where we had watched a bevy of swans before I left for California. The swans were gone but two mallard drakes floated in the rain.
The rain slacked off but not the wind. We listened to the pulsing gusts bend the treetops, sounding like high surf along a California beach. The forest sheltered the beach and bays that border it from the wind. Hundreds of goldeneye ducks puttered over calm water. When I took a break from watching them, I spotted Aki, watching with patience concern—a loving parent ready to protect her sometimes-foolish charge.
When we reach the border of the Treadwell Woods and Sandy Beach Aki leaps onto the sand and charges up to a brace of Bernese mountain dogs. The dogs and their masters are kind so I am not worried. Aki squeals and runs circles around the big dogs trying to entice them into a game of tag. They stand like stunned statutes rather than accept my little poodle-mix’s invitation.
Fifty meters away an adult bald eagle watches the show from atop the old mine ventilation shaft. A minus ebb tide has exposed much of the beach and emptied the little moat that usually isolates the ventilation shaft from the rest of the breach. I expect the eagle to fly off when the little dog and I approach. But it just looks down with apparent distain on its face. Its mate roosts nearby on a barnacle-covered anchor. Even though the anchored bird is more exposed than the one on the ventilation shaft, it shows even less interest in me.
After watching the eagles for a moment I look down, expecting to see Aki giving me a bored look. The little dog is twenty meters away standing near driftwood that would offer her a hiding place if things went bad with the eagles.
We walk parallel courses down the beach until forced to return to the woods by the little cove formed by the collapse of a mining tunnel. While watching a golden eye hen launching itself into a dive, Aki appears at my feet. She gives me one of her “you are not going to do something stupid” looks, like she thinks I am going to try to cross the deep cove. No trust, little dog, no trust.