When the wind blows this morning, it feels like it is below zero F. It is blowing as Aki and I explored the Sheep Creek Delta. The sand has frozen to the consistency of a hardwood floor. Crystallized sea foam marks the latest high tide line on the beach. Salt water that normally retreats back into Gastineau Channel as the tide ebbs has formed a frozen lake on the exposed beach.
We hear an eagle scream and watch another flush three mallards from mouth of the creek. The eagle that screamed soars out from a beachside spruce and makes a half-hearted attempt to do the same. I’ve seen eagles snatch herring, small salmons, and even a steelhead trout from the water. But I never watched one fly off with a duck.
Once, on the Innoko River of Western Alaska, a raven crashed into a young duck. Before it could finish off his prey, he tried to grab another chick. They both escaped.
It was sunny that day on the Innoko like it was when I finished off my morning coffee. The sun was just being swallowed up by a cloudbank when we started this walk. A small patch of sunrise yellow still colors the horizon but soon that will be gone. In a few hours we will have snow.
Needing to have the afternoon free so I can prepare for writing school, I leave the house early this morning. Aki has had her cheese so she doesn’t mind the pre-sunrise departure. We stop at the whale sculpture to watch the sun crack the darkness over Gastineau Channel. Our presence encourages a raft of mallards to slip into the cold water. They work their way over to a patch of water colored yellow by the sunrise. After relieving herself, Aki is ready to go. But she doesn’t complain when I linger to watch the ducks.
In a dusk-like gloam we drive out to North Douglas Island where it is calm and 15 degrees F. Last night’s wind knocked the frost from the trees in Downtown Juneau. But frost feathers that still cling to the roadside brush near the trailhead.
I have to carry the little dog over portions of the trail flooded by the water pouring over the tops of the beaver dams. It’s too cold for wet paws. The sun has reached a dead spruce in the middle of the pond. It draws my eye like a Las Vegas marquee. Whether suffering from the indignity of being carried, or just uncomfortable with cold, Aki refuses to follow me on the trail to the beach. I press on, knowing that she will soon end her strike. She does, flying by me to take the lead.
We are too early to see the sun light up the beach. But it does illuminate the mountains above the icefield. It also warms some offshore rocks and the gulls resting on them. Two golden eye ducks, lit by the same streak of sunlight, splash down near the rocks. It is so cold that I expect them to paddle over to the gulls’ rocks. But they are content to bob up and down in the surf. I, hands cold from handling the camera, body chilled in spite of multiple layers of clothing, feel very much the winter outsider.
The forest seems empty. It is certainly quiet. It is also dark. The snow that once brightened the trail has been made dull by an icy crust. No frost feathers circle the limbs of the spruce or decorate trailside alders. I struggle through a thicket of devil’s club to reach the bank of Eagle River. Sun still shines on the river and the tangle of uprooted trees that clutters up a nearby sand bar. But a thick screen of alders offers only a filtered view.
I want to push on, march through the woods to reach a muskeg meadow dotted with stunted spruce trees. There the afternoon sunshine should be turning frost feathers into prisms. But Aki is a hundred meters behind me with three of her other humans. I slow down until I can hear her yip when someone throws the Frisbee for her to retrieve.
The sun is about to drop behind a wall of trees when we reach the little meadow. It halos a small collection of spruce before it disappears. We won’t walk in sun again today. But sunlight will be shining full on the mouth of Eagle River, Lynn Canal, and the Chilkat Mountains when we reach the lower river.
Ravens flocked to Chicken Ridge this morning, drawn by a neighbor’s carelessly secured garbage bin. The messy eaters pierced plastic trash bags with their beaks and tossed kitchen waste everywhere in search for things rich in fat or protein. They ignored the vegetables.
No ravens greet Aki and I when we arrive at Skater’s Cabin. The song of a winter bird, perhaps a red poll, drifted across the ice of Mendenhall Lake. Otherwise it was quiet. No wind blew to knock frost feathers from the lakeside alders.
Even through we had the place to ourselves, Aki found plenty of smells to catalogue. While I photographed the glacier and his mountains, the little dog wandered onto the moss-covered floor of a new forest. She reappeared a few minutes later. This pattern repeated itself as we walked along the lake edge to the Mendenhall River.
Since there was no chance that Aki could wander into a road or be carried off by eagles, I didn’t worry. But I still wonder at the meaning of her behavior. After 12 years of walks, is she looking to assert more independence? Or has she finally learned to trust my judgment. Until recently, she always acted like a careful nanny watching over a flighty three-year-old.
Like a logger descending a spar tree the temperature has been slowing moving downward since early morning. If Aki and I had taken this walk last evening, the little dog would have splashed through the trailside puddles. We could have driven to the trailhead without concern about black ice on the road. This morning, I could feel the car float over newly formed ice.
The trail mud is firming up but it is still wet enough to cause Aki to detour around it. We are heading toward the Fish Creel delta just after the crest of a 17-foot high tide. When we left the car, water still blocked part of the trail. But it will have exposed a narrow path by the time we reach the tip of the small island that marks the mouth of Fish Creek.
We will see eagles and a handful of ducks. But the sunlit mountains will grab my attention. At one o’clock in the afternoon, they will be made impossibly white by end-of-day sunlight. Their silhouettes will cut a rugged line in the azure sky. Calm water at their base will double the scene.
All this sun washed beauty will quickly give way to dusk but not before the mountains and encroaching clouds reflect the pink colors of sunset.
Scattered snowflakes are falling on this mountain meadow. An hour ago the sun shone here. The deer that left tracks on the trail might have stood in the sun. Did he stretch his neck in happiness the sun warmed his hide?Aki, who has known only snow on this walk, ignores the question.
I’m pretty sure that the little dog feels a range of emotions. She can bark in anger or melt into my arms with a look of bliss on her face. What emotions drive the wild deer? They can panic. A doe protects her fawn like her human counterpart would. Love motivates the human mom. Is the doe only driven by instinct?
Humans can feel joy, like I did last night while watching a surprising sunset. I suspect that domestic animals might feel joy. What else could explain the display Aki puts on when her humans from vacation? But I wonder if wild animals like the deer and bear experience joy.
The smell of fresh-sawn spruce was the first clue. Saw dust on the trail and a nearby jumble of tree rounds confirmed that the wind blew down another tree while we were in Idaho. The wind that dropped this one, snapped off the trunk of another nearby mature spruce.
When nature takes beautiful trees like these, I try to accept it like I try to accept that death is a necessary part of life. But first I allow myself a little moment to mourn.
Aki would prefer to keep moving. But she stands without complaint, shivering as rain soaks into her curls. I look from the downed spruce to other, older wind-fallen tress. Electric green moss softens their lines. Hundreds of spruce and hemlock seedlings have sunk their roots into the rotting nursery logs. Nature wastes nothing when left alone by man.
Having pushed Aki to the point of impatience, I start down the trail before the little dog starts to whine.