The weather folks have predicted eight more days of snow, except for Wednesday and Thursday, when there should be rain. But we’re enjoying partly cloudy skies. Most of the mountains along Gastineau Channel are lit up with sun. We get these little gifts during the unsettled times between Pacific storms.
Aki and I head out to Skater’s Cabin for a ski along the edge of Mendenhall Lake. The little dog lets me break trail over snow that seems perfect for the task. On our right, snow-burdened spruce trees poke into a brindled-blue sky. To our left the glacier and Mts. McGinnis and Stroller White glow with filtered sunlight. No else is around to share the view.
I feel a little sorry for Aki at times like this. The snow has covered all the interesting scents. No dog is around to greet or sniff. She can’t even find a squirrel to chase.
I ski over to the river and then down it, passing two merganser ducks asleep in a wide eddy. They bob across the river reflection of Mt. Stroller White. We cross fresh tracks of a river otter from the woods to the water. It might have just dived into the river. I expected Aki to at least sniff the tracks but she keeps her nose up as she trots over them.
The little dog and I just left the main moraine trail for an informal one that winds through blue berry bushes and spruce trees. Poor soil has stunted the spruce. They allow more snow to reach the ground than old growth trees. Some of snowflakes have formed a small cylinder at the end of a single strand of spider silk.
Aki is thirty meters down the trail. She gives me her “time’s a wasting” look. She’ll be back at my feet soon if I don’t press to join her. But I have to steal some time to ponder. Was this spider tread created last summer when there was a good chance it would snare flying insects? Or is the spider that made it hiding now, just out of sight? If I could find her, I’d ask if there are mosquitos are out there dodging snowflakes. If not, is she an artist with a cache still full of last summer’s harvest?
Sunshine lights up our street just as Aki and I pass out the front door. We walk onto our unploughed street and into a very confused weather situation. The sun’s appearance didn’t end a snow shower that began a couple of hours. Newly-whitened Mt. Juneau shines bright in the sunshine while snow clouds darken the skies over Gastineau Channel. A croaking raven flies over our heads, snowflakes softening its silhouette against the blue sky. Before we reach the end of the block, the gray returns.
We drop down the hill, passing the grounds of the Catholic church where a sparrow, nestled into a nest of snow, sings its spring song. The lilting melody cannot end winter, or even stop the falling snow. But I take a little time to enjoy it.
Later, while climbing up Gastineau Avenue, we hear a more seasonal bird song—the complaints of two eagles perched in a cottonwood tree.
The beach is empty and so is the little cove the beach fronts. Aki and I are only ones making tracks on the snow-covered beach. While I search for the raft of golden eye ducks that usually fish these waters, an eagle flies from the top of a spruce tree and flies across the cove. It flushes to flight hundreds of gulls that had been resting on the opposite shore.
During the food-rich summer, gulls ignore an eagle flying overhead. But this is famine time for the big birds. This one must have already tried to snatch one of the gulls. I imagine the eagle also tried for one of the ducks.
We take a trail off the beach and over a headland to another bay. A raft of nervous golden eye ducks fishes offshore. Other ducks, in groups of twos and threes fly over to join them. When something spooks them, all the golden eyes panic into flight and soon disappear. Where Outer Point pushes out into Stephens Passage, a couple hundred scoters burst into brief flight and then regroup back on the water. I wonder if his is all the work of the one eagle.
After our hike, I look for the golden eye ducks while driving home. They must have turned north into Lynn Canal. But we do spot the Fritz Cove pod of Stellar sea lions growling and lounging. An adult male sea lion can be 11 feet long and weigh over a ton. Females weigh 800 pounds. The eagle that flushed to birds poses no threat to them. Only killer whales can interfere with their leisure time.
Aki and I are in the car, waiting for the left turn arrow to turn green so we can drive onto the Douglas Island Bridge. The light standard sways up and down with the wind. It’s one degree above freezing. Snowflakes swirl around the car. Maybe this is not such a good idea, little dog.
Aki whines, like she does every time we approach a trail head. I drive on even though the wind whistles through the car’s ski rack. After I park nAki leaps out of the car, slides a bit on the snow-covered pavement, and is stunned by wind-driven snow. In seconds she climbs over a snow berm and starts down the trail.
MmThe little dog is too busy checking pee mail to notice two ravens huddled together on the path. They ignore us for a bit, then start sashaying away, sweeping their tails back and forth in a 10-centimeter arc. What a couple of brats.
Even though we are tucked away in the Treadwell Woods, we can hear the wind vibrating through the trees and waves hitting the beach. A duet for wind and water. I should stay in the woods, but can’t resist venturing out onto the beach. A single gull sleeps, standing on one leg, near the water line. Through a veil of blowing snow, we can just make out the remains of an avalanche that crashed down the side of Mt. Roberts after the weather warmed.
The north wind gives, the south wind takes, and the east wind opens the door to both, little dog. Aki doesn’t care which way the wind is blowing today, as long it is mild. She is enjoying the spring-like feel of the warmer air, and the smell of meadow grass just free from its overburden of snow. We are walking along Fish Creek, trying to reach a patch of sun lit meadow before it disappears.
I know that winter is not done with us yet. That’s not a bad thing. I enjoy skiing and snow shoeing under winter-blue skies. Aki likes to follow behind as long as she can stop from time to time and plunge her face into the snow. But spring brings nearer the smells, sights, and excitement of summer. It brings the salmon and all the birds and bears that feed on them.
We reach the patch of sunny meadow just in time to watch it darken into gray. But for a couple of seconds the sun warmed our faces. The murder of crows that raise their young in nearby woods each summer have arrived. Some squawk in the forest. Others crowd gulls on the wetlands hunting for food. In the creek, a half-dozen American widgeons mingle with the resident mallards.
The appearance of the widgeons and crows could signal the onset of spring. Neither are normally seen along the creek in winter. But the wind is blowing from the southeast and could veer north. Then the crows and widgeons might have to shiver through more weeks of winter before true spring.
I’ve never before seen the Auk Bay birds relax. The many dogs walking their humans on along the beach or using a parallel trail through the bordering old growth woods keep them on guard. Even when we are the first visitors of the day, the harlequin ducks will panic off the beach when they hear my footfalls. Those same harlequins stun me today by ignoring our appearance.
Seven of the party-colored ducks form a line on the beach, facing a noisy raft of goldeneye ducks that chatter and paddle just off shore. The harlequins slump with indifference. It takes the overflight of a bald eagle to flush the harlequins into the water. When a screen of alders blocks my duck views, I follow Aki told the old Auk village site.
In a few minutes we emerge from the trees and find a soaking-wet bald eagle squatting on the snow-covered beach. Later I will search where it landed for spot of blood or scrapes of meat and only find talon tracks and marks made by wing feathers dragged across the snow. I’ve seen sled dogs roll themselves dry in the snow after breaking through thin ice. Was that why the eagle landed on such an exposed section of beach? Did it dive unsuccessfully on one of the harlequins, dunking it self in the process?
While Aki sniffs something on the trail, the eagle spots me and labors into the air. Like a heavily loaded airplane, it climbs into the air and then drops back onto the snow. On the following bounce it climbs upward as a shower of snow flies off its talons. By powering it meter long wings up and down, it finally breaks free.