Just where Basin Road curves onto the old trestle bridge that provides access to Perseverance Trail, a colony of ferns grows. Still green in spite of the recent stretch of cold weather, when the temperature dropped to near zero F., they seem unaffected by today’s heavy snow. Aki is no mood to appreciate the ferns’ adaptability. She drags me onto the bridge, drawn no doubt by smells in danger of being obscured by new snow.
Large snowflakes flutter onto the snow-covered trail. The clouds that dropped them obscure the slopes of Mt. Juneau. The hemmed in mountain valley feels cozy rather than claustrophobic. Aki, anxious to find and mark ever piece of pee mail, can’t appreciate the peace of this place.
We linger longer than usual in the valley and take a roundabout trail back home. The trail is untracked except by two deer that used the trail during the night. Aki lets me break trail for her in the six-inch-deep snow.
On the approach to the trestle bridge we discover another colony of green ferns. A thick icicle is forming around one of the ferns, doing it no apparent damage.
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.
Yesterday’s storm forced the snow to retreat a thousand feet up the Douglas Ridge. It did the same to the snow covering the flanks of the mountains surrounding Mendenhall Glacier. It also opened up bare patches on the Mendenhall Lake’s beaches. Aki and skirt the bare bits, using the remaining snow and ice as bridges over the silty beach.
The lake’s surface is still covered with ice. We find open water where the lake waters flow into Mendenhall River. It is hard for ice to form over Water quickening into current. Here, as other has been the case all through the walk, Aki keeps close. On previous walks along this beach, the little dog has wandered into the woods, trusting me to keep safe.
I want to tell her to relax. I won’t swim in the open water or slip on a patch of ice. Do I seem more vulnerable to her this morning? Does she smell a wolf hanging out in the woods? Maybe she just wants some quiet time with aa friend before the next storm hits.
With the snow falling in dime-sized flakes, Aki and I head over to Basin Road. After climbing to the top of Gold Street and taking a moment to look down Gastineau Channel to Taku Inlet, we reach the road. Even though it is already mid-morning, the Christmas lights decorating a low of Craftsman houses pop in the gloam. As she often does here, Aki tries to convince me to turn around. She must smell danger or at least the potential for boredom. It takes little to get her to follow me. She won’t try to reverse us again. But she will hang back until we reach the turnaround point for this morning’s walk.
We will see things on the walk but nothing will amaze. We’ll step over tracks recently left by an ambling porcupine and meet three dogs. Two will be friendly. The third dog will trot by Aki, throwing her a look of distain. The snow will continue to fall but we will still be able to see the surrounding mountains. The falling snow will whiten the ground and narrow our view, making it almost impossible to think about the angry parts of the world.
Beavers own this forest. Their castle is tucked safely away under a pond-sized tree. Aki and I are walking along the base of their major dam. The beavers have anchored the walls of it to a curving line of 100-year-old spruce trees that grew out of another beaver dam. Off and on, beavers have held this forest for more than a century. The little dog would have had to swim along the base of the dam if not for some trail work done last spring. Thanks to loads of gravel and bridges fashioned from peeled and split spruce trunks we can keep our feet dry. But during the last dumping of rain, even the new trail flooded.
Every night the beavers try to plug leaks in their dam with severed alder limbs and blue berry twigs. Water still pours over their works and makes its way down a small stream to another dam, this one five feet high. Downstream from that another dam backs water up and over the trail we will use to return to the car.
We round the pond and walk over icy trails to the beach where we surprise five bufflehead ducks. Rather than panicking into flight the little white-headed guys paddle a few meters further off shore and resume fishing. Further out, a young Pacific loon shoots onto the surface and quickly dives back under the water. A powerful underwater swimmer, the loon could be behind Shaman Island before it returns to the surface.
I try to remember when I became so passive—a walking man content just to see. Years ago, I hunted ducks and would have been tempted to destroy beaver dams that flooded beloved trails. Now I carry a camera and wear waterproof boots.
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.
I am slipping and sliding through lakeside mud. Aki, no fool she, stays on a nice mossy path that parallels the beach. I could join her on the easier trail. But the views of mountains, waterfalls, and a glacier keep me on the beach.
The morning mist has melted away so nothing blocks my view of mountains McGinnis and Stroller White reflected on the lake’s surface. The lake also mirrors lines of cottonwood trees, each bearing a load of leaves fading from yellow to rust. The glacier slices between the mountains like a blue snake.
On our last visit to the lake, I was forced by high lake levels to use Aki’s forest path. Now, in spite of all the recent rain, those levels have dropped, revealing a wide strip of gravel for walking. It offers a variety of mud. Some of the yucky stuff is as greasy as lard. In other places the mud forms a thin patina over beach gravel. In one spot my boots making a sucking sound each time I take a step. Forced off her forest trail by a beaver pond, Aki joined me just before the sucking mud. She convinces me to carry her the mess.
We seem to have all the beauty to ourselves. No ducks or geese ripple the lake surface. No eagles, ravens, or even jays comment on our passage from lakeside tree roosts. There might be mountain goats on the high flanks of McGinnis or bears in woods. A deer could be peaking out from the Troll Woods. But only the sun shows itself just long enough to reverse for a few minutes, the cottonwoods’ autumn fade.