A year ago today a mega cruise ship was plugging its way up Favorite Channel. The on-board naturalist would have used the public address system, the same one used to announce the opening of the casino, to direct passengers’ attention to Shelter Island where two humpback whales had just surfaced. I would have grumbled to Aki that the whale watching boats couldn’t be far away.
If we didn’t move from this rocky headland, we would have seen four or five go-fast-boats circle around the whales as more on-board naturalists clicked the microphones on their PA systems. I would have remembered the time, on an early spring day, before the first cruise ship of the year, when two newly-arrived humpback whales surfaced less than fifty meters from here. The little dog and I were the only ones to see them.
This morning, the channel is empty of cruise ships and whale watching boats. No one follows the whales as they swim from Pearl Harbor to Shelter Island. This will be the first summer in decades without cruise ships or whale watching boats. No helicopters loaded with cruise ship passengers will buzz overhead on their way to the Juneau Ice Field. The city’s economy is going to take a hit. But the whales won’t mind.
No formal trail crosses this meadow. Mountains surround it on all sides. Fast moving fog reveals and then as quickly obscures them. Normally, morning sunshine destroys meadow fog. These gray tendrils thicken as we work our away across the meadow.
Aki wouldn’t have picked this place for our daily adventure. It offers no chances for dog encounters or even pee mail to read. Over a foot of snow still covers the ground. It softened during yesterday’s heat and was crusted over by last night’s hard freeze. The crust supports Aki’s slight weight. I only break through every fourth or fifth step. Thanks to the conditions, we have the meadow to ourselves if you don’t count the gang of blue jays bickering nearby. I am confident that it will stay that way. If we have to isolate ourselves from neighbors, we might as well find a place of beauty for our quarantine.
I stop when we reach a small meadow within the meadow that has I few trees to block our view of the mountains. The fog has thickened enough to obscure the ridge to the west. But only one long tendril interferes with our view of a mountain bowl to the south. I take a quick photo of it before the tendril expands.
The snow crust seems to soften as I start moving toward the south. In a half-hour I will post holing into deep, wet snow. Even though there is no danger of her breaking through the crust, Aki is more than happy with my decision to backtrack our way off the meadow.
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.