According to the government, the season of Spring replaced Winter last week. Ads that accompany the national news on TV push purchases of gardening supplies or Easter candy. Last night the temperature dropped to below freezing, like it has done every night for what seems like months. This morning snow is falling through warming skies. Soon it will turn to rain. Clouds block our views of local mountains. But there might still skiable snow near the Mendenhall Glacier.
Aki, our other human and I drive out to the glacier in hopes that the snow covering the lake’s beaches hasn’t softened to mush. We find it perfect for skiing. Recognizing that we have finally gotten a break, we use our cross country skis to work along the beach and bays. No people, birds, or bears share the lake ice with us. In no time we make it to the Mendenhall River and ski down it to where it almost touches the campground ski trail. We will use that trail to return to the car. I am once again disappointed not to see the swans that normally feed in the river this time of year. Perhaps, they are waiting for Spring to finally appear.
The temperature of Upper Fish Creek Valley has been dropping for the past few days. Since Aki and I haven’t used the trail in months, I picked it for today’s hike. In the past, the creek has been swollen with water. Other times, the smell of dead, spawned out salmon hangs in the air. I’ve seen sparkling ice cycles lit up by the morning sun. But, until today, I’ve never seen the creak so enslaved by ice.
We can barely hear small holes in the ice mumble as the little dog and I pass a deep-water section of the creek. In minutes ice covers the water. Normally it is hard to let yourself think over the noise of the rushing creek waters. Today, for the first time that I can remember, it is profoundly quiet. We are passing through a old growth forest with trees still growing strong after hundreds of years in the little creek valley. Every other old growth creek on the island is pockmarked with downed hemlock or spruce. But here, in a forest that seems impervious to high winds or floods, time seems to have stopped.
Before sifting through today’s photographs, I put the kettle on to boil and drop a bag of Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea into a mug. Then I start the music from the Chieftains first album playing on the stereo. Aki follows me around the kitchen after the water boils. Something about the smell of Irish tea raises her expectations for treats.
Most Americans wait until St. Pat’s day in March to connect with their Irish roots. They drink more whiskey or beer then, rather than good cups of the Irish tea. This time of year, they prefer coffee drinks laced with peppermint or eggnog. But the Daughters of Mary and Joseph who ruled my grammar sky in Los Angeles, missed their Irish families most in December. They shared their dreams about the joys of Christmas in Cork. Maybe that is why I asked the little poodle mix to walk with me around the little Sheep Creek delta on this late December day.
Small rafts of Mallard ducks were hammering the shallows when we arrive at the delta. At first I took them for scattered rocks. They must be capturing the baby salmon that try to leave fresh for salt water each fall. Even more birds fish in the creek or along the shallow edge of the beach. They don’t care about Aki or I, just about each other. A few gulls even make low surveillance flights over our heads. Suddenly shafts of strong and clear white fill the sky over Gatineau Channel, looking like bright light escaping the room where a good mother just gave birth to a must-loved Christmas child.
The trail to Favorite Channel is empty this morning. I am not surprised. Slip ice covers the trail. Without grips, I would have already fallen on it. This is getting to be an old story. They are usually almost always true. This one is.
Every once in a while, Aki and I spot filtered sunlight through snow-burdened spruce trees. A full moon would cast more light in these woods. But hoping to see it reflected in salt water, I lead Aki to the beach. We have to be careful to move down the trail. I have to keep my eyes on the trail to avoid the dangerously icy bits.
Aki lets me walk into the beach alone so she won’t inadvertently chase off any ducks. It’s a wasted effort. The place is empty until two gulls land near the beach. But we can still see a bit of the sun powering through marine clouds to reflect some light on a patch of the offshore water.
Last night the temperature dropped to well below freezing, making the snow covered trail a little icy. Aki can move back and forth on it like she has magic paws. I can’t. But we manage to safely move through the woods toward Point Louisa.
Through openings in the woods, I can make out a small gang of walrus, feeding just off the beach. Nearby, gulls and harlequin ducks also track food.
A wind picks up as we leave the woods and walk across the open portion of the point. A large collection of gulls flies away when we approach but land close to the beach. In seconds most return to the snowless portion of the beach. Another gang of walrus passes the gulls on their way around the point.
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.