Aki, why do you want to stay in the woods? It’s not a fair question to ask the little dog. The woods and the campground road just beyond them are rich with dog smells. She can almost make out the scent left by one of her dog buddies, maybe Cedar. Aki doesn’t care if the lakeshore trail offers wonderful, if misty, mountain views. Besides, it has started to rain. The woods will provide her some shelter from the wet.
The poodle-mix might also be deterred by the crunch of ice that follows each of my steps along the snow-covered shore. A two-inch thick sheet of ice is buried beneath snow. An irregular surface of beach rocks stretch beneath the ice. I fracture the ice with every step.
I crunch my way around and between a set of small islands. Aki has planted herself at the forest edge. Only when I disappear around a point of land does the little dog trot after me. We repeat this pattern all the way to the place where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. Then we re-entered the forest and walk on an icy road through the campground and back to the car. Now a happy Aki is free to catalogue the passage of other dogs that recently left their mark on the snow.
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.
Aki waits in the woods as I scramble over some rocks to the outfall of a salt chuck. At extreme high tide, salt water flows over the outfall and into the small lake that it drains. That’s why it’s called a salt chuck. Steel head trout and three different types of salmon climb the outfall rocks on their way to the spawning grounds. This morning here might be some fall run steel head moving into the lake.
Turning, I scan the lake and spot a heron on the far shore. From here it could be a piece of driftwood. But my camera lens confirms it to be a great blue heron. While I spy on the heron with the camera, a river otter pokes it head into the frame. It acts as surprised as I feel, rising high into the air and then crash diving beneath the lake’s surface. By now Aki is standing by my side. The little dog starts barking and wagging her tail.
The otter returns, this time with a friend for back up. Now two otters swirl nearby in the lake, occasionally lifting their heads high above the large. They make a chuffing sound. Aki responds with more barking. In the past, when trying to coax Aki into the water, otters had made a chirping sound. Today’s chuffing seems designed to intimidate rather than seduce.
Otters are at home on land as well as in water. As they slowly close the distance between themselves and Aki, I snatch up the little poodle-mix and carry her away. She may have meant her barks to be inviting. The otters were acting as if she was challenging them to a fight. Since they outweighed the little dog by at least two to one, it would be a fight that the poodle could not win.
I’m again walking into the breeze on Sandy Beach. The wind tosses rain into my face and onto my parka. I want to ask Aki why I always make this mistake. But the little dog is thirty meters away, trotting along the forest’s edge where the wind can’t reach her.
Next time, I promise myself, I will walk through the Treadwell Woods to Glory Hole Bay and then home with the wind at my back. I wipe rain from my glasses so I can see down Gastineau Channel. Just past Glory Hole Bay, two bald eagles ride upward in the wind. Flexing their wings, the eagles then drop like stones. One dives on something in the channel. The other eagle turns its wings into a parachute and drifts onto the top of an old wharf piling. They are masters of their six-foot wings.
At 9:15 this morning, the sun climbed above the Douglas Island mountain ridge and lit up the glacier and mountains on the north side of Gastineau Channel. Aki and I waited at the mouth of Fish Creek for the sun to climb high just a little higher so it could shine light on the tidal meadow on which we stood.
Trailside grass protected the diminutive poodle from the wind. But nothing prevented the breeze from carrying away my body heat. Just offshore, a small circle of gulls rolled and splashed in the water. It was time for their morning bath. Further out, over a hundred mallard ducks lazed.
Feeling totally out classed by the birds and unwilling to let my hands go numb as they held my camera, I pulled on a heavy pair of mittens and turned to search for the sun. Even though it was only 9:30, the sun had already slipped behind the mountains for the day.
Aki needed no encouragement to join me on a return hike to the car. No ducks paddled on the pond but we did see a red-breasted merganser caught out in the open on the creek. The exposed fish duck powered through the current to reach the wooded shore where it disappeared under the overhanging limbs of a spruce tree.
While driving through the avalanche zone on the way to Sheep Creek, I wanted to stop and photograph the southern end of Gastineau Channel. A rising wind had broken up the gray mass of clouds that hung over the channel. Sunlight infused the clouds above Lucky Me. But there was no place to stop safely and we were only a few minutes away from the creek. When we arrived, the light was gone and the clouds were beginning to heal their wounds. At least it wasn’t raining.
I followed a dune of gravel out toward the channel where a raft of Barrow golden eye ducks fed. Aki held back to stare at me from a fringe of beach grass. Then came rain. It feel in sporadic drops at first then followed by and a wind-driven deluge.
After the little dog joined me on the dune, we moved toward the channel for a better view of the ducks. The golden eyes were keeping close to the shore even as we approached them. Usually they would edge out into the channel, like shop lifters moving slowly out a store’s door to avoid looking suspicious. This morning, when they tried to edge out a little, they quickly returned and to the shallows. That’s when the seal head appeared. It wasn’t the first time that we had been used without our knowledge to herd ducks in a seal’s direction.
Snow no longer covers this trail through the old growth. Yesterday it did. Yesterday snow drifted down through the forest canopy. Today it’s rain. The rain forest is once again the venue for the annual fight between fall and winter.
While Aki hangs back to investigate a stain of urine near the trail, I push on to the beaver dam. Water spills over the dam through layers of newly severed tree branches dragged there by beavers. There is still a paper-thin layer of ice covering parts of the pond. But it is already melting as the temperature climbs and the rain falls. Snow still covers the mountain backdrop for the pond. But winter lacks the strength to counterpunch the warmth of fall here where the beavers sleep.