Rain starts soaking into Aki’s curls as soon as she jumps out of the car. Thanks to the storm, we had our choice of parking places. I expect to have the lake to ourselves. Then we hear someone speaking with a Caribbean accent. He is walking up the steps from the lake with his parka hood up. A white ear bud trails from his ear to the cell phone in his hand. By ease dropping I learn that he has just texted a selfie of himself to person he is talking too. His face beams with the excitement of seeing a glacier snaking through granite to the lake. If the rain can’t dampen the joy of his visit, I can’t let it discourage the little dog or I.
The level of the lake is high but there is enough exposed beach to provide a path to the Nugget Falls Trail. We join the trail where it touches a slanting rock wall that still bears the groves cut into it by sharp stones frozen into the bottom of the retreating glacier. Rainwater brings out the beauty of the grooved rock. Like a pebble plucked from a creek bottom, the beauty of the rock will fade as it dries.
On the way to the falls we detour over to the arctic tern nesting area. The fierce little birds are long gone. Small, white feathers, sodden with rain, cover the green moss of the nesting area. Here and there the moss has been ripped away, exposing a woven mat of willow roots. I stick my finger into a tiny, cave-like opening under the root mat. Is this the work of a hungry bear or a nesting tern?
Morning clouds hide the Mendenhall Towers and the top of Mt. Stroller White. They do lift enough to offer a filtered view of Mt. McGinnis. From the pocket beach of gravel where Aki and I stand, Mendenhall Lake looks like a solid, gray-colored mirror. I am tempted to test the mirror’s strength. If it could hold my weight, I could stroll across reflections of McGinnis and the blue glacial ice to Nugget Falls.
Something hidden swirls the lake’s surface, rippling the glacier’s reflection. Ten meters off shore the head of a harbor seal breaks water. After snatching a quick look at us it is submerges. When the seal next comes up for a breath, it will be fifty meters away. There must still be some salmon working their way across the lake to their spawning stream.
The seal’s presence is as unexpected as the lack of rain. We must be in between Pacific storms. Hoping to complete our walk before the skies let loose, I join Aki on a trail through the woods, leaving the seal to hunt for salmon. We pass two braces of bufflehead ducks on a kettle pond that quickly put as much water as they can between them and us. I wonder if they are reacting to our presence or the sound of rapidly fired rifles from the nearby gun range.
When the shooting stops an eagle screams in the way they do when another eagle invades their personal space. I expect it to fly off when it spots us, but the eagle keeps its talons wrapped around branches in the top of a young spruce tree. For the rest of the walk we will hear it scream every few minutes, as if calling out to a missing child or wandering lover.
I am about to tell Aki to drop in stealth mood. We are using a series of informal trails that crisscross the backbone of False Outer Point. The poodle-mix, whose short status lets her slip under and around blueberry bushes without making a sound, doesn’t need to be silenced. Together we move toward the point where gulls and a huge raft of surf scooters have gathered. In the forest canopy above a raven croaks out a warning of our presence.
Even though the sound of my rain parka scraping against devil’s club and blueberry branches set a belted kingfisher to flight, the scooters are still near the point when we break out of the trees. One of the orange-beaked birds swims away from the point, drawing the rest of the raft along behind him as if they were all attached with invisible cords. Together the scooters form an apostrophe. Then, like an American high school marching band, they morph into straight line.
Wanting to watch the birds from the beach, I drop into a steep gully with exposed spruce roots that offer enough handholds to allow me safe passage down. Aki watches me descend but does not follow. On the beach I realize that she can’t do much with handholds since she lacks hands to grip them. In a few minutes I’m back on the ridge, huffing and puffing from the climb back to the little dog.
An eagle screams and then flies over the scooters, flushing out into Lynn Canal. Five horned grebes, as grey as gulls in the flat light, watch them go.
No birds bounced through the small waves that marched across the Fish Creek Pond. No eagles or herons roosted in the spruce trees. No salmon swirled the pond’s surface, no other people or dogs walked along the shore. This doesn’t bother Aki. The little dog has plenty of scents to sniff. Even though I looked forward to seeing some wildlife, the absence of it this morning doesn’t bother me either. I have the absences created—solitude.
We head out toward the mouth of Fish Creek, blown down the trail by the strengthening wind. No ducks work the close in waters of Fritz Cove. A few gulls keen and then ignore us. We are surprised by a flock of siskins feeding near the terminus of a tidal meadow. They fly into the sky above our heads, turning and diving in tight formation. At the end of each maneuver, their flock forms a different shape. Then they disappear.
I should just enjoy the beauty of the flock in flight, like I am enjoying the changing light on the meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier across Gastineau Channel. But I can’t help wondering if the shapes formed by siskins’ maneuvers were an attempt to communicate—an organic semaphore wasted on the ignorant.
Winter teased us with a few days of snow and cold. Now, like the fickle lover, it has left the rain forest for America’s East Coast. It’s mid-November and we are facing a week’s worth of wet storms. Aki and I suit up and head out to the Sheep Creek Delta.
Just a month ago we had to dodge eagles, step over salmon carcasses, but could tiptoe up to herons. The birds were there to feast on the wealth of wild food brought by the salmon spawn. Now all that has been washed into Gastineau Channel by rain and big autumn tides. This morning, only mallards and gulls remain.
The incoming tide shrinks the beach, creating isolated islands of gravel where the birds rest. The gulls squeal and the mallards cackle but otherwise they seem very comfortable in each other’s presence. It’s like they have formed a seasonal family for company until the salmon return.
This morning, after a night of mixed snow and rain, clouds descended on this mountain meadow. Rather than curse the obscuring wall of white for hiding the surrounding mountains, I smile. Aki, this must what it is like to walk in a cloud.
Aki, already moist from the dewy air, trots away without responding to my romantic statement. She has no interest in spinning the day into something other than what it is—wet and gray. The little dog is nose down, her body tense with anticipation as she walks a crooked path across the muskeg. Near one of the pothole ponds she slams to a stop and buries her nose into a clump of lichen. Then she whirls around and marks the spot with urine.
Once again I envy Aki’s powerful nose and the excitement she feels when tracking scent left my animals she will never meet. Bending down to harvest a few bog cranberries, I imagine sniffing out the trail left by a passing wolf, coyote or lynx. How great it would be to read nature without my eyes. But my sight is all I have so I scan the meadow for the animal that my dog just identified with her nose. All I see are the shapes of scattered pine trees made grotesque by wind and winter.
On the way home we stop at mile three of the North Douglas Highway. I park and watch a flock of siskins explode out of a leafless alder and fly toward the mountains on the other side of Gastineau Channel. If Aki saw the birds, she showed no interested in them. Perhaps they were too far away to smell.
Before I can stop her, Aki steps onto newly formed ice covering a mountain pond. I expect her to break through but the thin ice holds. She is a few feet away from four air bubbles frozen in the ice. The air was captured just below the surface. If the temperature rises a few degrees the captured air will escape.
The Yupik people of Western Alaska teach that all things have a spirit, even bubbles caught in the ice. The spirit of frozen air bubbles was honored by a mask carver a hundred years ago. His mask hangs in the Smithsonian Museum. I made a copy of it while it was on loan at the Alaska State Museum.
The Western culture I was raised in doesn’t consider inanimate objects worthy of having spirits. That would make it harder to exploit natural resources. The Yupik people’s belief that even ice bubbles have a spirit is understandable given their close, dependent relationship on an unforgiving environment.