This morning’s sun has the power to brighten the snow and throw shadows off the trailside alders. It warms the shade of blue in the cloudless sky. But it does little to protect Aki from the chilling effects of the wind. She darts sideways when hit by a gust that would otherwise hit her exposed rear end. We are climbing toward Gastineau Meadows. I’d give up on the trip if we weren’t only a few meters from where the trail enters a forest.
We pass the place where a lynx scored the snow with its claws. I can’t help imagining the wild cat flying across the crusted snow, snatching my poodle-mix, and disappearing into the woods. Aki has dropped behind me to sniff trail sign. I feel relieved when she catches up.
Many boots have pounded out a trail in the snow, forming a rut that is deeper than Aki is tall. It protects her from wind gusts that slam across the trail when we emerge from the forest. She still isn’t reluctant to follow me onto a shallower trail that will take us deep into the meadow. There we pass a runner and his very-serious husky dog. The runner and I both leave the trail, leaving four meters of space between us. Aki tries unsuccessfully to engage the dog.
The meadow should be covered with tracks. On past visits we spotted those of a wolf and slightly older ones made by a deer. But today, I can’t even find snowshoe hare tracks. The sky is as empty. Between wind gusts, we have silence until a Stellar Jay scolds us. I’d still rather hear the bossy bird than yet another pandemic story.
Aki takes the lead when we turn back toward the car. She is ten meters ahead when ahead if us a deer takes a tentative step onto the trail. The deer watches the little dog sniff some pee mail and then reply in kind. Before Aki notices it, the deer slow walks across the trail and disappears into the woods. Aki never saw the deer, but she did stop and sniff at the tracks it left in the trail snow.
I’m in a stare down with a raven that has just stopped searching a mound of dirty snow for food. It turned its head to focus an eye on me. I’m on my way to pick up an order of garlic eggplant from a Chinese restaurant. Even though I am hungry from skiing and the heavily spiced eggplant will melt in my mouth, I stop to return the raven’s stare.
If he had grabbed me with a stare while I was on my way out of the restaurant, I’d assume that he was lobbying for one of my fortune cookies. But my hands are empty. He looks like he’s seen many Alaska winters. Perhaps he is a wise one, gathering information about humans to pass on to newly hatched chicks. This raven is only one of many birds that have recently locked eyes with me. I am yet to come with an acceptable explanation for any of my near-bird experiences.
I wish I’d seen this or any raven while Aki and I skied this morning along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. But the conditions were wrong for bird watching. A glacial wind was scouring the lake ice of snow. It blew away the swan family we had visited on recent visits. Even the kittiwakes that made such a racket while gathering on the river waters were absent. Smart birds, like ravens, were hunting for scraps on wind-sheltered sections of the wetlands or mooching for snacks in parking lots.
It’s Sunday morning. Almost all the town’s churches are closed thanks to a government order prohibiting public gatherings. That order hasn’t prevented the Sunday Morning Church of Powder and Shot from holding service.
The church’s congregants sit behind shooting benches, each at least six feet way from their neighbors. There’s is not a church for music lovers or those who look for inspiration from a well delivered homily. They have no prayer or song books, just high-powered rifles, which they point at paper targets. As Aki’s other human and I step into our cross-country skis, the congregants fill the air with, for them, the joyful noise of rifle fire.
I pray for the riflemen to stop shooting long enough for us to put a half-a-kilometer between the gun range and Aki. But the firing continues. The little dog gallops alongside her humans as we ski down a series of small slopes to Montana Creek. A narrow bridge crossing the creek bares a pretty heavy snow load. Meter-deep mounds of snow cover rocks and the tangle of trees that have fallen onto the creek.
We start the steady climb required to reach the end of the trail. The sound of rifle fire mixes with that of the fast-moving creek. We won’t hear the song birds choir until the gunfire ends.
Two of our cross country venues ran out of snow this weekend. Their groomers loaded up their machines and hauled them to summer storage. That’s why Aki’s other human and I brought our skis and the little dog to Mendenhall Lake. This might be one of the last times we will be able to ski this spring. Last night’s snow evened out many of the ruts made by skiers during the recent thaw. But the ice is thin. Cautious skiers might avoid the lake today and use the trail set on the campground road system.
We are tentative at first, at least Aki’s humans are. The little dog speeds onto the lake and rolls like spring bear in the snow. I drop into the kick-slide-kick rhythm of the classical skier, passing the little dog, heading toward the glacier. The lake ice doesn’t crack under me. Water doesn’t bubble up to fill my tracks. But the tips of my old ski poles sink a few centimeters when I plant them in the ice. On our last lake ski, my tips bounced off hard ice.
We push on anyway. The skiing is too good to stop. But halfway we do stop after we notice that we are alone on the lake. Turning our backs to the glacier, we head to the shore. Snow clouds darken the skies above Thunder Mountain. The sun looks like huge moon. Everything is black or white. Aki’s blue sweater and the purple jacket of her other human provide the only color.
Aki follows us off the lake. We ski along the edge to the river where we stumble on three swans. One has the gray feathers of a yearling. The other two must be its parents. They feed on aquatic plants in the river, not bothering to paddle away from us. Yesterday, a heron did a similar thing when Aki and I rounded False Outer Point. We must be doing something right.
Exposed to a strong north wind, I am sitting on a rock shiny with rain, contemplating waves as they collide with False Outer Point. Aki isn’t in the mood to be philosophical about waves or the weather. She wants to finish rounding the point. When the little dog whines in protest, I look over in time to catch her “you are such an idiot” stare. In seconds we are heading for the wind-protected side of the point.
Aki got her way in part because neither of us were not designed to sit exposed for long to the winter wind. But I would have agreed to move even if I had been enjoying a Midsummer breeze. She is a persistent whiner.
The storm has forced most flying things to cover. One goldeneye duck works the heavy surf live. A handful of gulls struggle to hover over a bait ball. Their presence is not as surprising as the great blue heron strolling among exposed tide pools.
Preoccupied with waves and wind, I didn’t see the heron until we were only a few meters from it. When my foot slipped on a wet rock, the long-necked predator jerked itself into the air and landed six meters further down the beach. After giving us a long stare, the heron resumed searching for snails and sculpins. The little dog and I continued toward the point. The heron kept pace, flying off only after it reached a barren tumble of bare rocks. I wanted to stop and wonder about the heron’s behavior. Had it concluded after a measured stare that we were no threat, maybe even worthy to share the rock beach with it? More likely, the hunting opportunities just too good to pass up.
It started out like a raven day. Fog hid the channel-side mountains. The runout of a recent Mt. Roberts avalanche stuck out from the bottom line of fog like a tongue. More than a dozen ravens gabbled and garbled in the bare trees lining Sandy Beach. Some flirted. Most harassed each other. Three took station atop splinter-top wharf pilings, which have stood on the beach for 100 years, ready for ravens. No wonder these three act like they own the beach.
The white shoulders of Mt. Roberts muscles through the fog was I study the raven watchmen. Down channel, Sheep Mountain appears against a backdrop of blue sky and shattered clouds. The fog holds above the southern channel but the sun is about to bust through.
Aki and I leave the ravens and head toward the deep little cove formed by a 19th Century mine tunnel collapse. A lazy raft of mallards paddled on the cove when we reached it. I wonder if the ducks were as startled as me when a belted kingfisher slamed full speed into the water with a hollow “plunk”. As the sound fades, the kingfisher shot into the air with what looked like a small herring in its beak. Don’t even think about trying that Mr. Raven.
It’s a day for corvids. I’m talking about the birds, not the virus. Three Stellar’s blue jays watch the little dog and I pass under their spruce tree roast, looking as unaffected by our passage as a Buckingham Castle guard. Without so much as a scolding from the diminutive corvids, we continue down the trail to salt water.
The usual mallard gang hunts for food in the Fritz Cove shallows. One hen bursts off the water and flies over to a nearby kettle pond. She stands in shallow water that reflects her beauty back to her. The fit mallard looks sleek with not one feather out of place. While I wonder what flushed her from the salt water, the rest of the mallards from her raft panic into flight. Looking up I see the cause—a bald eagle that just landed in the top of a nearby spruce.
Aki, not a fan of eagles, is happy when we move down the trail to the mouth of the stream. There, a murder of crows fidgets from one bank to the other and back. Some find purpose when they spot a solitary raven skulking on the branch of a driftwood tree that has become stuck in the middle of the creek.
I expect a noisy squabble. The crows raise their young in a nearby forest. They consider ravens trespassers. But only a few of the crows land on the raven’s driftwood hang out. Even these seem more curious than outraged.