Aki and I are deep in the Troll Woods. All four of her legs are encased in snow. She stops every minute or so to shake her head to dislodge the snowballs attached to her muzzle and forehead. She wouldn’t have snowballs on her face if she didn’t plunge it into the fresh snow. But loves to plunge.
Yesterday’s storm dumped a foot of new snow in the woods. The resulting white blanket undulates over the forest floor. It collects in a thick layer over snags. Some of the busted trees now look like dragons or eels. The snow also obscures the beaver logging trails we usually follow through the woods. So, we are lost in the sense that I can only speculate on the direct route to Chrystal Lake and the main trail back to the car. But we have the tracks my skis made at the start of this adventure. When I start to turn around, Aki dashes around me and heads back down the trail my skis made on the way to getting lost.
Aki turns 11 today. That’s the equivalent to 77 in big dog years. Thankfully, little guys like Aki have a smaller multiplier. So, she is more middle-aged than elderly. This morning, while I shoveled 5 inches of new snow off the driveway, the poodle-mix was inside, chowing down on her birthday surprise—a can of high-end steak-flavored dog food. Rather than charge her up, the heavy meal seemed to have made her sluggish. Two blocks into our walk she stops in the middle of the street.
Aki doesn’t follow when I continue on up Basin Road. She throws on the break and digs her paws into the new snow. It’s like she is saying dude, its my birthday and I get to do whatever I want. On a normal snowy day, a walk up the Perseverance Trail would be exactly what Aki would want. She probably plans to head home in case another can of tasty food has been plopped into her dish. It’s hard to believe that a 10-pound dog could make a god of her stomach, but it’s the most likely explanation for her behavior.
We walk back down to house, passing a crab apple trees with red fruit covered in new snow. At our driveway, Aki starts to turn toward our door and looks up at me. When I take another step down the street she drops her head and leads me toward Cope Park. It is a favorite with dogs and their walkers so it is a mother lode of rich smells. At the park, we take as long as Aki needs to read the extensive pee mail. When done, she spots two big dogs running free in the snow. After the birthday girl is properly introduced I unclip her lead. Aki yips and entices the other dogs to chase her. Just before they catch her, she throws on the breaks and watches her pursuers slide past. Then she chases them. Happy birthday little dog. It looks like you are going to enjoy many more.
This morning Aki and I stay in the neighborhood, walking the icy streets of Downtown Juneau. The little dog leads the way. She chooses routes with the best smells rather than safe footing. Her toenails give her fine purchase on the ice. Since my boot don’t offer the same, I am constantly rejecting her navigational choices. Soon we are both grumpy. The sunlight doesn’t help.
On this last clear morning before a five-day snowstorm, the sun shines with a harsh intensity on the town. It’s the kind of light that can make beautiful woman look plain. But it sets off the colors of Gastineau Avenue Craftsman homes and gives Aki a monster’s shadow. It also makes the little dog squint, which doesn’t help improve her mood.
Our battle over direction increases when we turn back toward home. I want to walk on the docks from where we can get a better view of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. But she wants to glean the vacant lot on which food vendors park their shacks during tourist season. Rather than carry her, I give in and let her chase after the ghost smells of dropped fish tacos, barbeque, and pork adobo.
Aki and I are lost. I don’t mind and the little dog doesn’t seem to care. We’re lost in a box formed by roads, forests and mountains. We are lost on a muskeg meadow, not far from the tidelands. Its normally boggy surface has been frozen into a firm table by the recent cold snap. Later, snow will come to complicate passage over the meadow. But today it is dry and almost glows in the morning’s low angle light.
The sun throws dark shadows off everything, even diminutive blades of yellowing grass. This makes it easy for me to find the shallow trail formed by the passage of deer and the occasional wolf. Aki follows her own trail made of scent. She wanders off, a slave to her nose. When I call her back, she throws me an indignant look and then trots over to my side.
When we reach the spruce forest that form the meadow’s southeast border, I turn to face west and wander along a tree line. On my right, rising high above the meadow’s snarled Douglas pines, Nugget Mountain reflects back the morning light. From the here, the meadow looks primordial, a place for wooly mammoths and ancient bison to graze. But I only see my little poodle-mix when I scan for life.
Halfway back across the meadow I find a deep trail, almost a wound across the muskeg made by human boots. Before the freeze, it would have offered sloppy walking. But today it is almost a hiking superhighway. I follow it blindly until spotting a house, when none should be. We backtrack; take another trail that leads us to a chicken coop far from the trailhead. Aki would follow me back onto the meadow and tolerate even more confusion as I try to retrace our steps back to the car. But I leave our little frozen box for the assurance of the North Douglas Highway and walk the indirect route home.
Aki and I have just reached a beach on the backside of Douglas Island. Across Stephens Passage, morning sunlight floods the beaches of Admiralty Island. We are still in shadow. A bald eagle flies over us and lands near its mate on a spruce tree. They greet each other in their complaining way. Just offshore a harbor seal works through a line of small surf. It’s round head slips above water once, twice, and then disappears. We won’t see it again.
A flew white clouds float above Admiralty but otherwise the sky is clear and blue. I scan the channel in hopes of spotting a whale but none spouts. Without sunlight to warm us, the little dog and I are starting to feel the cold. But, I can’t make myself leave the beach and the comforting sound of small surf hitting the rocks.
Frosted brush lines the trail back to the car. Unseen spiders have recently woven basket-shaped webs in the crotches of hemlock or willow twigs. The morning’s rising temperature is melting the frost that had settled on the net webbing during the night, leaving tiny drops of water to cling to the silk.
In half-an-hour, the sun will be high enough to reach the spider webs. It will make the little drops of water sparkle until they fall to the ground. But neither Aki nor I have the patience to wait.
Like most dwellers of lands closer to the poles than the equator, people in Juneau tend to paint their homes in bright colors. Walking past a rose-colored Craftsman house on a stormy day, like this one, can lift your spirits. I’m thankful, this morning, for all those in Juneau who paint their homes or businesses in pastel colors. I am grateful to those who long ago planted the trees of fall color, like maples and birch, that seem to give off light on this gray day.
Aki and I are conducting her standard downtown patrol. As usual, she is all business. It’s been weeks since she has checked the trail of scent left on the streets by other dogs. Other than a trio of house dogs allowed out for a quick pee on their lawn, my poodle-mix will have no opportunity to sniff other dogs on this walk. We will pass a scattering of homeless in donated raingear. One, already smelling of stale smoke, will ask me for light. Others will pass head down as if to avoid getting rain in their eyes.
When I look up from the field of pink pumpkins, I spot a mountain goat feeding on the Southern slope of Mt. Juneau. Later, at home, I will enlarge the photo I took of the goat and realize that it is starring down at Aki and me. We are doing a circuit through Downtown Juneau. Already I followed the little dog up the gentle Gastineau Avenue grade to where we could look down on the docks, now cruise ship free. Then we dropped to South Franklin Street with its shuttered tee shirt and jewelry shops.
A line of gulls lined the superstructure of the cruise ship docks, dozing in the sun. A handful of smokers had spaced themselves along the dock. Some stood alone looking without much interest at the Douglas Mountain Ridge. Two talked, heads almost touching, as steam rose from their take-away coffee cups. One man, dressed in the business casual shirt and slacks of our commercial classes, lit up a long, smooth Cuban cigar. In short, the goat had plenty to look at from its mountain perch. But it broke off feeding to study a little poodle-mix sniff among a field of pink pumpkins. I suppose it makes sense. The man who painted and planted the pumpkins must have hoped to draw attention to his little field.