We’ve walked through predawn grey skies to reach Crystal Lake. Alder trees still loaded with green leaves lined the path. We are too near the glacier for the sun to reach it before 9:30 AM. As if she understands, Aki slows both of us down by stopping often to smell and mark spots with urine. Then at 9:30 she makes a dash down the trail when sunlight starts to flood over the outskirts of the lake.
On this rare sunny October day, the first rays to reach the lake should create a lovely orange and yellow pattern at the top end of the lake. But for odd, even unpredictable reasons, neither the cottonwoods nor the alders have bothered to turn their green leaves yellow or orange.
The cottonwoods now stand naked above piles of fading green. Most of the lakeside alders still display green leaves. After sun arrived, the alders begin to release their greenery, letting so each leaf flutters down to the ground.
The weather forecasters promised sun this morning and calm skies. After a long stretch of rain and cloudy conditions, the little dog and I were ready for the change. We headed out to the Mendenhall Glacier as soon as the sun rose.
There was a scattering of clouds in the mountains around Mendenhall Lake when we arrived. Twenty feet away from where we parked the car, an adult bald eagle groomed itself while perched on top of a covered area where people sometimes marry on high summer days. The eagle ignored me as I had to come quite close to grab poop bags from a government dispenser. I wasn’t sure why the big bird tolerated our near presence. Maybe it was too lazy to care.
We walked down to the lake. No wind blew, not even a slight stirring. Without wind the lake surface was a perfect mirror reflecting the surrounding mountains and even the few remaining clouds in the sky. But confusions of wafer-thin ice melted slowly under the rising sun. Early winter can’t be too far away.
Yesterday afternoon, our plane could barely land on the Juneau Airstrip. Clouds from a heavy fall storm almost force us to fly on to Anchorage. But we bounced and slowed on the runway and were soon deplaning at the airport. Forty-five minutes later we left the airport while calming down the nerves in our nostrils after being tested for Covid. Then we started a mandatory quarantine.
This morning, while the town was enjoying a brief brake between heavy rain storms, Aki and I took the car out to a remote trail where we could walk without risking any contact with other humans. As it turned out, we would have lots of contact with wild birds. The dog and I fell into the old ways—watching out for each other.
Most of the action took place along a little creek, where it crossed it’s tidal meadow. More than a dozen bald eagles huddled together along the creek bank, eating salmon scraps. Ducks and gulls hung about them, ready to grab anything that floated away from the eagles.
Suddenly, a pair of belted kingfishers dashed over the eagle’s hangout, chanting intimidations before diving for food in the creek. A raven drove off one of eagles. Two merganser ducks sulked off. The other eagles fled. When the kingfishers flew to another section of the stream, Aki and spotted a black-billed magpie, acting like it had just driven off the other pesky birds.
Aki shepherded her other human and I off the main moraine trail and onto a faint one leading into the Troll Woods. It’s a good choice for this flat-gray day. Without invasive sunshine reaching into the woods, it feels like the place has lifted far away and taken us with it.
With its ground cushioned by thick moss, which also decorate the trees, we could be on another planet. Only when the trail brings us to a lake shore, can we find mountain landmarks that let us know we are still in an earthly rain forest.
It is a very quiet place. The moss sees to that. When we see ducks, they are moving quietly across the water. The resident beavers sleep in their dens. No thrush or jay sings or squawks. You can almost hear the sounds of your own thoughts.
There is nothing special about the Troll Woods this morning, certainly not the Payne’s gray skies. Mushrooms have to provide the highlights now that the wildflowers have gone to seed. But I am still happy to walk on the soft ground between moss-covered trees.
I don’t need a mask on the moraine. We won’t see another Covid spreader until we return to the car. Aki patrols out ahead to make sure we don’t surprise a momma bear and her cubs. One does crash through the woods but it moves away, not toward us. The peace floating between the trees can be felt on the skin.
In a good, quiet mood, I follow the little dog to the shore of Crystal Lake, surprised by a clutch of mallards feeding a few feet away. They plunge their heads into the water until their rear ends point toward sky. Thick strands of grass encircle their beaks when they re-emerge.
It’s quiet in the rain forest. No woodpeckers hammer hemlocks, no thrush sing. That’s okay. Even in a summer when most of the engines of industrial tourism have been silenced by a virus, a quiet forest is often hard to find.
Aki’s nails beat a faint tattoo on the trail boards. When we pass a little cataract of moving water, the sound seems deafening. We return to quiet when we leave the boardwalk to walk on the soft forest floor. That’s why the sudden burst of eagle bickering is so jarring. While we approach the beach, one bald eagle chases another, driving its victim into a spruce tree. I can’t find either eagle after we emerge from the woods.
A single parent merganser family cruises off shore, making no noise. The resident crows and a flock of Bonaparte gulls remain silent until I walk in their direction. They take to the air, moan a bit, then fly noiselessly away. Later we see eagles sulking quietly on the beach.
Aki and I have just walked into the rain forest. I swear that my blood pressure dropped the instant we stepped under the canopy. Maybe it’s the muted light or the sound of a downy woodpecker tapping on a spruce trunk. It might be the lush green colors that dominate this time of year. Aki does her business and stares up at me, like she is considering calling an ambulance if I don’t come out of my trance.
After assuring her that all is if fine, she leads me down to the beaver pond and where the mallard family lurk in a blind of reeds. Later I’ll spot a rambunctious bird dog splashing into water near Shaman Island and assume that he did the same on the beaver pond.
Not wanting to contribute to the mallard hen’s stress, I follow Aki down the beach trail. A seal swims just offshore, hunting for silver salmon about to leave salt water for their spawning stream. Yesterday, I hunted salmon in Lynn Canal, boating a silver-bright chum salmon. Last night, while Aki chowed down a scrap of the salmon’s ski mixed with rice, her humans enjoyed what the seal sought.
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.