Aki and I are more than ready for spring. It’s just too late this year. Rather than being muddy, this trail is icy and solid. Above the high tide line, a three inch deep blanket of snow covers the meadow grass.
As Aki pees and poops, I spot a short eared owl. It’s flying back and forth in long swaths across the tundra. Each time it reaches the end of a swath, the owl turns and starts a new one a little closer to Aki and I.
Because we freeze into place, the owl glides closer and closer to us. After the third or four glide path, the owl is only twenty feet away. It drops one wing down and gives us a penetrating stare. Then it makes a gentle turn and flies away, only a few feet above the dead meadow grass.
This must be our hundredth day of snowfall this winter. I still find it beautiful. But Aki, the poodle who sometimes acts like she was raised in Paris, is disappointed. Still, she doesn’t protest when I dress her in a waterproof coat and let her lead me out the door.
We must be close to the end of winter. The snow has no power to survive on the bare neighborhood streets. I let her chose the route and she drags me down the steepest portion of Gold Street and into the bar district of Juneau. I am feeling cold and a little bored with the thick snow fall.
As we pass the downtown coffee shop, a young woman pops out to drop a chunk of dog cookie in front of Aki. Torn between eating the cookie and walking home, the little pooch looks up at me. I grab the cookie fragment, thank the nice coffee shop person and walk toward home. Then a friend pops out of her car and shouts out my name. While standing in the snow, we bring each other up to date, sharing the happy stories and the sad. She was always a huger but we could only bump fists in greeting.
What is going on little dog? We are approaching the middle of April, a time when crocus flowers normally bloom and daffodils spike toward the sky. Yesterday, the purple blooms of crocuses had punched through the snow. I expected to enjoy the crocus flowers the today if the sun breaks through the clouds.
Yesterday, a blizzard heaped snow on Juneau most of the afternoon. It returned this morning. The crocuses sink deeper and deeper under the snow. This morning, snow continues to fall. Three to four inches of new white stuff now cover the crocus plants, our porch, and driveways. On the side of Mt. Juneau, it is snowing harder, increasing the risk of avalanches that can rip down the mountain sides and then plunge into Gastineau Channel.
On days like this, when sunshine, rather than the predicted snowfall, sets the tone for a walk, Aki and I are more than happy to use the Downtown Juneau streets. Heavy snow from last night’s storm still weigh down spruce and the otherwise bare lilac trees. As the temperature rises with the sun, all the tree limbs will be snow free.
The little dog and I move down wet sidewalks to downtown, slipping past a small gang of homeless people, each of them with closed eyes on faces pointed toward the sun. We cruise by this group almost every time we walk downtown, shouting out a “good morning” on the way. Normally, homeless folks like them would ignore us. But one of them loves dogs, including my little poodle-mix. If he wasn’t stunned by warming sunshine this morning, he would have shouted out his usual “hello.”
As Aki and I near Point Louisa, a gang of crowds seemed to be racing us to the island’s point. Cold wind and rain made me want to turn back. But Aki was having a great time sniffing down the trail and I wanted to figure why the crows were willing to point their beaks into the wind.
I found out after we reached the point where the crows had formed a line along the rocky shore. The tide was out, which exposed a diversity of shelled critters. Each crow poked its beak into rocky cracks until it could snatch up a mussel or snail. Then it would launch itself like a rocket into the air until the wind started pushing it backwards. Before it lost control of the flight, the crow would release the shelled guy and let it smash onto the rocks below. After a few more seconds the crow would begin chomping down a just-harvested treat.
Winter is losing its grip on the rain forest. That happens every Spring, after the additional of daylight hours begins to rapidly expand. It was below freezing this morning when I brew my first mug of coffee. Frost covered the car windshields on 7th Avenue. Then the temperature rose a few degrees and the snow melting began again. After breakfast, I looked and found Aki curled up under her human’s bed. She looked happy to sleep the day away. She looked stunned when I poked and prodded her to join me at the front door. After being wrapped and harnessed, she shook her body and started wagging her tail.
We walked down Goldbelt Street and onto the flats, stopping often to allow her to scent and pee. Thick, wet clouds swallowed up the sun by the time we reached the humpback whale statute. Just off shore two bald eagles leaned against each other on the top of a Coast Guard channel marker. A bunch of ravens watched them from the beach. Suddenly, one of the eagles flew over to the beach and started ripping flesh from a gull’s carcass. Just before Aki and I moved on, a raven landed near the eagle and started encouraging it to share some of the meal.
This morning, Aki is moving down the trail as slow and careful as an archeologist investigating a thousand year old village site. It’s taken us ten minutes to walk 200 yards. Every few feet, she has to stop, smell, and pee. At first I don’t mind. It gives me plenty of time to stop and study the avalanche chutes marking the side of Mt. Juneau.
Thinking that I am free to take photographs, I unshoulder my camera and start to point it at the mountain. Before I can click off a picture, the little dog jerks me down the road. After this little act of rebellion, I stop trying to hold the handle of her leash before photographing something. Instead, I place it on the snow-covered street and keep Aki in place by standing on it. I only have to do this a few more times before the 14 year old pup reassumes her traditional role of non-hunting guide.
Even though many of our neighbors are avoiding the Perseverance Trail during this avalanche season, I am letting Aki lead me onto an old wooden bridge that marks the start of the trail. We are here even though a heavy avalanche once covered the nearby road. A few feet onto the bridge, my phone rang. I took the call since the man making it and I have known each other for 40 years. We shared many kayaking trips, hikes, and holiday meals. After learning that Aki and I were crossing the old bridge, my friend warmed me to watch out for avalanches.
“I remember that in early April 1972 a heavy avalanche plunged down Mt. Juneau, across Gold Creek, and over this trail,” he said. While my phone friend is telling his story, I watch a tiny avalanche fly down Mt. Juneau. That’s when I decide to turn around. On the way back to downtown, I run in to a man who had known me and my phone friend for a long time. He was working in a downtown school when the 72’ avalanche rushed down the mountain to cover Gold Creek and the road Aki and I had just left. In the minutes after the slide, the sunlight disappeared from Downtown Juneau, blocked by a thick blanket of fine snow.
We hadn’t seen the sun shine for a week, maybe two. Every morning my computer weather app. had predicted another gray, snowy day. Every morning during the past two weeks, the temperature climbed above freezing and stayed there until late in evening. The warming weather didn’t stop the snow from falling, only made sure that it would melt just as it hit our streets and trails. Last night the sun did appear, causing me to check the weather app. It promised that tomorrow would be a sunny day, followed by at least another week of snow.
Waking this morning, and hoping to find confirmation of the weather app prediction, I looked out the window at the top of Mt. Juneau, and found it lit by early sun under a blue, cloudless sky. Even though she was sleeping on the family bed, I grabbed Aki’s warm wrap and slid it around her neck and shoulders. She was immediately awake and reading for a hike.
We drove through the empty streets of Downtown Juneau and across the Douglas Island Bridge to the Gastineau Meadows trail head. The tiny parking lot was empty. Aki followed me up the steep approach path and on to the main trail. We saw no one, animal or human, during the hike. I could hear blue jays complaints and complicated speeches of ravens. I sought and then spotted a wood pecker wounding the side of a giant alder tree. As always happened after we reach the open meadow, I was almost overwhelmed by the sight of sunshine on the snow covering the meadows and mountains that surrounded the little dog and I.
Deep snow covers the trail to Sandy Beach. It’s dense enough to has enough to support Aki’s weigh. But, I have to keep on the narrow trail to avoid wearing myself out on the soft, deep snow that borders it.
The beach is lined with dark and naked tree trunks. They still look pleasing but I am wondering whether spring will ever arrive. Then I spot one willow tree displaying a cloud of white. It’s not snow, but cotton-like flowers called pussy willows. I should take photographs of the blooms but don’t want to tromp my way through many meters of deep snow to reach them. Believing that there are more blooming willows, I follow Aki toward the beach’s end.
None of the other willows along the beach are blooming. I wonder if the flowery one is a wise predictor of winter’s end, or a short-lived fool. Then I leave the beach and climb a steep trail toward an eagle’s nest. One of the nesting birds calls out on our approach. But none of them make themselves visible from the trail.