Yesterday, after an enormous high tide flooded all the low-lying sections of the wetlands, A man and his large-pawed dog walked across this normally dry slough while the 10 degree temperature was turning the tide water to ice. Crisp, detailed impressions of paw of boot bottom now mark the duo’s passage. Usually, such evidence of another’s use of newly formed ice would encourage me to following in his footsteps. But there is something sinister about the frozen tide waters.
When I work up courage for the crossing, I carefully place my left boot onto the ice. It gets no purchase on the impossibly slick ice. I follow Aki onto an informal trail in the snow that will lead us around the frozen slough and to the base of a spruce tree. An adult bald eagle lands on a top branch of the tree and looks at everything except at us.
The wind stiffens as we move down along the now-frozen Mendenhall River. Aki, wearing two of her warmest wraps, trots ahead of me. I turn back to the car to avoid a long slog into the wind. Now ploughing into a 20-knot breeze, the little poodle-mix keeps up a steady, sled dog trot. When a sudden gust stops me in my tracks, Aki flinches and jumps sideways, like she had been pinched. Then she drops into a sheltered gully and continues towards the warm car.
This rim of rime frost explains why the woods are so quiet. Frozen breath of the squirrel within formed the thick, white border. On a warmer day, the little guy would be scolding Aki as we moved up the trail.
Similar frost borders mark the sleeping places of the other squirrels in the woods. Up near the forest canopy, a wood pecker climbs an old growth hemlock but does not make a noise. Two Steller’s jays land on a close-in tree limb to silently watch us pass.
One gull keens when we reach the beach but the rest of the birds on the beach are silent. So is the raven that cruises overhead. A smart breeze riffles the off shore water but there are no leaves in the beachside alders to break the silence.
It is still cold and windy in downtown Juneau. I should have started this walk an hour ago, before wind started to funnel down from Mt. Juneau. Aki is too blissed out over the plethora of scents to notice. As we climb Gastineau Avenue, a shadow crosses over us. I look up in time to see the eagle that made it.
The eagle is part of an airshow of ravens and pigeons that ride the wind currents over South Franklin Street. I suspect the pigeons to be prey for the larger birds. Most of the pigeons settle on a balcony of a house with a view of the channel. One of the ravens lands on the snow in front of the house. Another settles on a railing where it seems to be measuring the little dog and I. One of its eyes is cloudy, the other clear. I wonder if it can see out of the one with a cataract.
We walk to the end of Gastineau Avenue and drop down stairs to South Franklin. The metal stair grates are cold so I carry Aki. After I set her down on the sidewalk at the foot of the stairs, she walks with one paw suspended over the air. The protected one must have stepped on an ice melting crystal. Similar crystals have been scattered on most of the downtown sidewalks. I will carry Aki most of the way home,
Aki and I are staying away from the glacial moraine until this cold snap ends. Thanks to Juneau’s myriad of micro climates, we have lots of options, including the trails on North Douglas Island. I pull the car into the parking lot for the closest North Douglas trail—Fish Creek. It’s 17 degrees F. Only a light breeze ruffles Aki’s curls as she sniffs around for friendly scents.
Ice now covers the creek except for the riffles. Fast water freezes last. The temperature must drop far below 17 degrees for it to ice over. We move down to the pond but can’t use the normal trail to pass around it. The last flood tide covered the trail with brackish water, which is now slippery ice. Inch-thick sheets of pan ice lay on the pond bank. It crunches and cracks as it is lifted by a new flood tide.
The wind picks up as we leave the pond and head toward the creek mouth. Aki sticks close to my heels. She ignores the large raft of mallards that swim with heads down just offshore. I try to imagine dunking my head in the same water and the pain it would bring. A plump, shore bird stands on a rock just offshore, looking as relaxed as it would on a summer day.
As the wind numbs my face, I lose interest in slipping and sliding down the creek mouth. I turn back, followed by a now energized poodle-mix. We work our way back to the trailhead. When we cross the creek bridge, I expect to see the ice breaking up under pressure from the incoming tide. It still holds firm. Fifty meters up stream three river otters slink onto the ice. One by one they dive into the ice-free rapids. We are such cold weather wimps, little dog.
It is 14 degrees F. when Aki and I leave home. Dressed as she is in an insulated wrapper, she should be fine on our planned walk across the glacial moraine. The temperature drops as we approach the trailhead. It’s 11 degrees when we pass the airport and 10 when we reach the Catholic Church. Like a launch countdown, the temperature continues to drop: 10, 9. 8, 7, 6, 5, and finally to four by the time I park the car.
The little dog squeaks and squeals like she usually does when I open the car door. She leaps out and onto the snow-covered pavement. I have to trot quickly to catch up with her on the trail. As I fasten the chin strap on my mock-fur hat, Aki moves into deep snow and starts the peeing ceremony. She is still circling as I move down the trail, confident that she will soon catchup.
Fifty meters later I turn around, expecting to see Aki just behind me. The trail is empty. I backtrack and find her at the place where she peed. She holds a front paw suspended in the air, drops it to the trail and raises a rear paw. Then she hunches her back, like she does when I am about to pick her up, I lift her into my arms.
I carry the chilled old dog to our car and take a solo walk to the now-frozen Mendenhall Lake. While I take a picture of the surrounding mountains, a father and son approach a stream diminished by the cold to a trickle. Both are wearing rubber boots. The dad splashes across but the son hesitates. He is already cold and doesn’t want to be colder. The dad offers to give him a piggyback ride back to the heated visitor’s center after he crosses the stream. The boy does, then climbs onto his father’s back.
It feels like hands are reaching up and grabbing onto my skis. The skis had been gliding freely over the snow covering the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Then, they broke through crust covering an overflow pool. The resulting water on the skis acted like glue on the surface snow. In a few strides, inch thick blocks of icy snow were clinging to the ski bottoms.
Aki had enough sense to avoid the overflow. She glided over the crust. Now I have to slam each ski forward to make any progress. Using it as an excuse to stop, I turn to study the glacier. Fresh snow muffles the ultramarine color of its ice. Clouds that are about to bring us more snow block any view of the Mendenhall Towers between which the glacier flows.
A 100 meters away, people in spandex athletic gear fly down a groomed trail on high-end skate skis. Others, more moderately equipped, push their classic skis up grooved tracks. In a few minutes, Aki and I will struggle over way over to the groomed trail. She will chew away the ice and snow balls that have frozen to her legs and paws while I scape the impeding ice from my classic skis. Then we will find our grooves.
Aki and I waited for the heat of the day to hike up to Gastineau Meadows. I warmed up quickly as I trudged up the snow-covered trail. Since the diminutive Aki floated over the snow, I worried that she might not generate enough heat to stay warm. Sunshine would have helped. But this time of winter, the sun won’t reach us here. Good thing the expect wind storm has been delayed.
Aki stalls out where the coyote tracks cross the trail. She does this every time we make this hike. She reluctantly moves forward when start back toward the meadow. But I look back more often to check on her.
The meadow is as gloomy as the trail when we reach it. My eyes are drawn to the surrounding mountains that reflect back sunshine thanks to their fresh covering of snow. Aki barks and charges ahead to greet a hiker descending the trail. Since she is warm enough to wag her tail, she will be okay.