Many feet and paws have beaten this path into the snow covering Mendenhall Lake. It leads to the glacier’s face. The weatherman is calling for a snowstorm to start in a few hours but nothing falls from the sky now. More surprising, I can’t see anyone between the glacier and us.
During the summer, the edge of the lake is crowded with cruise ship tourists. Hundreds a day paddle or canoe across its waters. Helicopters full of tourists fly overhead to land on the ice field. Eagles hang in the lakeside cottonwoods and arctic terns defend their nesting grounds. On the rocky point near the glacial, a large colony of gulls raises a new generation.
The birds and tourists are gone by the time the lake freezes and the skaters slide onto it. When enough snow falls, cross-country skiers course around in set tracks. As long as the ice is safe, a line of people and dogs can usually be seen walking to or from the glacier. Today, I see no one. The narrow trail changes from snow to ice when are within a kilometer of the glacier. When I step off it to frame a photograph, my boots sink past the covering snow into a five-centimeter deep pool of overflow. The trail is a bridge over a lake that has formed between the ice and snow covering.
Last summer, when one of Aki’s other humans and I kayaked to the glacier’s face, we had a fairly long walk to reach the ice. Now dense, blue glacier covers the trail we used. With the help of my micro spikes, I manage to scramble over some small icebergs and reach the mouth of a very shallow ice cave. The ice is losing its grip on rocks that it has carried for hundreds of years. Half of one the size of my head sticks out of the ceiling of the cave. By next summer it will be free.
Even though she followed me up to the ice cave, Aki is not happy to be here. The sound of falling ice and stones makes her nervous. Such sounds disturb the peace of the moment for me too so I head back down after taking a few pictures. The little dog gets stuck on a false route and I have to drop down to rescue her. But she has no problem following me to the lake on the route we used to reach the cave mouth. Don’t worry little dog, we won’t speak of this again.
Snow falls on the little dog and I from a blue sky. The flakes glitter from sunlight reaching them through the old growth forest. It’s really last night’s frost being blown out of the canopy by a rising wind. The temperature is also rising. Soon it will allow the sunlight to melt the canopy’s snow load into droplets that will punch little holes into the snow covering the forest floor. I am glad that Aki and I will be out on the wetlands before that happens.
It’s quiet in the forest. Aki might be bored. But I appreciate the ability of a thick forest to filter out all but the loudest sounds.
We walk along side a set of cross country ski tracks made by someone willing to deal with thin snow cover and bare spots of ice. When we pass the junction for the Yankee Basin trail, I think of Romeo, the black wolf who hunted rabbits in these woods before it was killed by a poacher. While not tame, the wolf had learned to tolerate people and enjoyed playing with their dogs. Romero once followed Aki and I through the glacial moraine until two other dog walkers came along to distract it. One night while I skied with Aki around Mendenhall Lake, we listened to Romeo howling under a full moon.
I always had mixed feeling about Romeo. It seemed wrong to name an iconic animal of the woods. It was exciting to know that we might see Romeo any time we were on a local trail. It bothered me that the wolf was so comfortable with our very dangerous species. It saddened me that this led to his death.
The quiet time for contemplation ends when we leave the forest and find the meadow crowded with people and their dogs. I thought my little poodle-mix would be ecstatic. But she seems standoffish when we pass other canines. Maybe she, like I, feels like we had abandoned the solitude of the woods too soon.
Aki slips on slick ice, her right rear paw sliding sideways, and then recovers. I follow behind her, taking care to avoid falling. I could not have made two steps down the trail without my ice grippers. As I was pulling the ice cheaters onto my boots the sun broke through the marine layer to hit the Mendenhall Glacier and Mt. McGinnis like a spotlight.
I want to rush down the trail and past a wall of alders that blocks my view of the sunny scene. Aki slips again. Seeing her misstep reminds me to slow down. I do and still make it through the alder screen in time to catch the show.
The first sunlight I’ve seen in days enhances the vivid robin’s egg blue of the glacial ice and makes the remaining fall color on the flanks of Mt. McGinnis pop. Reflections of both in the ice-free portions of Mendenhall Lake are more intense than the scene reflected.
Aki and I slip and slide out to Nugget Falls. It’s a boring trip for the poodle-mix since no other dog walkers are willing to try the trail. Over our shoulders a blue wound forms in the gray cloud cover. I want to reach Nugget Falls before the wound heals and shuts out the sun.
While I am photographing the shrinking image of Mt. McGinnis reflected in open water, the patch of blue disappears. Low clouds obscure the mountains and all but a thin strip of blue glacial ice. After carrying Aki up a slick slope of ice, I turn back to the car. I should be disappointed by the loss of sun and the beauty it brought. But it could never last, not with a series of storms heading our way from the Pacific. Without the beauty to distract me, I can concentrate on safely traveling over the treacherous trail.
…Another guard, this one working for the gulls, gives out an alarm when we are still 100 meters from breaking out of the woods and onto the beach. Even though I use no stealth during those 100 meters the gulls, and they are hundreds of them, are still hugging the beach when we arrive. Some are almost painfully bright in the sunlight. They seem sluggish, almost hung over. I consider moving quickly on so they don’t have to expend energy to relocate but choose to linger. The gulls follow a four duck raft of mallards slowing paddling to the mouth of Peterson Creek. The scene produces a cold, penetrating beauty similar to that just found on the beaver’s pond.
The woods we next transit are too dense for the sun to penetrate and block sunlight from the second beach we crunch across. But the forest doesn’t block an east wind that makes our cold passage back even colder. Like the forest, this beach and the waters that touch it are empty of visible wildlife. The resting gulls we watched on the first beach explode past the point that marks the entrance to the little Peterson Creek bay. Some settle on the point or the much larger Outer Point. Most choose to fly to Shaman Island. All three landing locations are bright with sunlight.
Back in the woods I face the consequences for my decision—the wood-planked trail. It’s dry at first but soon I’m mincing over ice-covered treads. Aki would wait for me to pull on my ice grippers. But my right hand is too numb from holding the cold camera to manage it. If we had taken the wooden trail first, when I still worn grippers, I could have enjoyed views, like the one of sunlight shafting trees. Easy to see, but almost impossible to photograph, such filtered sun reminds me of the light that people are pulled toward in near-death-experience stories. Really I’m in little danger. Aki, with her little clawed paws trots over the ice like it was dry concrete. In most places, I can walk on firm dry ground rather than the wooden path.
In the end the little dog and I benefited from my choice not to take first the boarded trail even though for Frost’s speaker in “Road Not Taken” it would have been the route less traveled. But my choice allowed us a chance to see the gulls before they were scared into dispersing and that made all the difference.
After today’s North Douglas walk with Aki I wrote more than normal. So this is the first of a two part post. Thanks for you patience.
Thirty meters into old growth forest, I stall at a trail junction. While Aki catalogues recent dog activity, I think seriously about breaking with tradition and taking first a wood-planked trail rather than continuing on the gravel one that offers a more direct route to salt water. I want to reach the beach while the brief window of daylight is still open. But the ice grippers on my boots would be dulled on the journey. They would ease transit of the icy planked trail. But I can always use the grippers when we return to the car. After trying to remember the lines to Robert’s Frost famous poem about two trails in the woods, I chose the gravel route.
Our cold snap has silenced the forest, even the few remaining ice-free watercourses. No bird chits. No squirrel scolds, but circles of hoarfrost on forest moss betray the entrance to their dens. To survive the coldest days of winter, our squirrels and other smallish rodents climb into chambers dug out from wood stumps or rotting trees. They reduce their heart rate and metabolism and wait for the warmth to return. I wonder if a person could slide a gloved hand into an icy-rimed den and lift out a comatose squirrel without waking it.
The cold weather silence works in the favor of the forest’s largest rodent—the beaver. The sound of running water keeps them awake at night. Too bad they are sleeping in today. Sunlight has just reached their pond making the covering ice glow. Adult alders rise out of the ice looking like trees that have learned to balance on severed trunks.
Feet from one of the pond’s dams, beavers have chewed a hole in the pond ice. They must post a guard here to protect against a breach. Even on a cold night, a sudden dam collapse could lower the pond enough to allow an enemy access to their den. Even with a beaver’s wonderfully insulation, the guard must suffer while on duty.
Aki, these deer trails are untrustworthy. The little dog gives me her “you can’t be left alone in the woods” look and leads me through a maze of frosted pines and onto a muskeg meadow. More pines dot the meadow. Unlike their healthy-looking brothers we just walked through, these pines have led a tough life. Some are only skeletons. Wind has carried away their exhaled moisture before it could form into frost crystals. But beneath the trees, fragile frost feathers shaped like butterfly wings, cling to every blade of grass.
Mountains surround the meadow. They are in the light. We are not. That may change soon. The sun is curling around the curl of a southern hill. Already it’s light is flooding the next meadow over where frost butterflies may already be taking flight.
Aki and I are back on the glacial moraine where only pioneer plants grow. A second ago in geologic time, the Mendenhall Glacier covered the area where we walk. Now willows and alders work to covert poor soil to good. In areas where the moraine has been ice free longer, spruce and cottonwood trees grow close together like they would in a forest recovering from clear cut logging. The path we take has been compacted by previous hikers. If we step off it, we’d sink into deep, soft snow. We stay on the path.
Snowshoe hare tracks cross the trail in many places. Last night a deer struggled through the deep snow to reach the trail and then used it to speed up her trip to a foraging area. Otters left tracks of their undulating movement through the woods. I look for recent wolf tracks but find only those of wandering dogs.
Downtown, where Aki keeps her kennel, rain and warm temperatures have already stripped the trees of snow. But here they still carry heavy burdens of white. The glacier keeps the moraine cool while downtown thaws. Every turn of the corner provides another greeting card image to enjoy. We detour down a side trail that provides a view of a frozen slough. Before it retreated, the glacier dropped a dozen small boulders on the slough in a pattern that would please a Japanese gardener. In summer the rocks rise above water like an archipelago of islands. Snow now blurs the boundary between rock and ice. Odd shaped rocks have become pyramids or domes.