Timing is important during these days of freeze and thaw. The little dog and I need to be on the moraine just as the strengthening sun softens the trail ice into something I can walk without slipping. That same sun will eventually weaken the snow crust. When that happens my boots will make six-inch-deep holes with every step.
This morning we might be a tad early. I’m slipping on trail ice every fifth step. The lighter, more compact dog has no problems. Recent snow fall and a series of cold nights have opened up areas of the moraine we rarely visit. I plan on taking advantage of this after we take the traditional dog walking trail to the Mendenhall River. I’d face a mutiny if I veered off the normal path now.
You’d think we in a dog park the way Aki is dashing around. But we have not seen so much as a cockapoo on the trail. The little poodle-mix has always valued personal encounters with dogs higher than a chance to sniff their pee. Today, she is all about the nose.
Aki shows no reluctance to follow me off the trail and onto Moose Lake. It’s the first time in years that I’ve chanced it. Just last year swans and ducks feed on its waters in early April. Now we are walking across it. It’s as trilling as sneaking onto a baseball diamond when the stadium is closed. The trail has softened while we were on the lake. Aki and I take the spur of it that leads to Mendenhall River. I’m occasionally breaking through the crust but we still make good progress.
After admiring the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in a river eddy, I walk up stream to a spot that offers a good glacier view. A trumpeter swan family watches our approach. They are the same swans we saw on previous cross-country ski trips down the opposite side of the river. Mellow birds, the swans soon return to their feeding.
We turn around and head back to the car. Rather than dig her little paws in the snow when I walk past the trail we took to get here, she dashes in front me as I continue down a large, snow-covered gravel bar. A few meters ahead, she dives onto a patch of sun softened snow and squirms, a ridiculous smile on her face.
I’d expect more unpleasantness in hell. But for a cross country skier, Montana Creek might be offering a taste of purgatory. Aki wouldn’t agree. She is having a great time racing back and forth between her other human and me. Already forgotten is the first half-a-kilometer of the trail where blasts from the gun range made it impossible for her to hear my calming words.
I just avoided a nasty fall when tree moss on the trail brought one ski to a stop while the other one pulled me down the hill. Now climbing up a hill, my skis can’t get a purchase on the ice-slick trail. Aki’s other human is having an easier time with her skate skis.
When the grade flattens out, the shushing sound of the snow-thaw stream will calm me. I’ll notice its beauty. The meter-deep mounds of snow that cover every rock and log in the creek are shrinking. Some have been reduced to a rime of ice that covers the round rocks like a short-cropped wig. Little falls of melt water pour from beneath each surviving snow mound.
This morning’s sun has the power to brighten the snow and throw shadows off the trailside alders. It warms the shade of blue in the cloudless sky. But it does little to protect Aki from the chilling effects of the wind. She darts sideways when hit by a gust that would otherwise hit her exposed rear end. We are climbing toward Gastineau Meadows. I’d give up on the trip if we weren’t only a few meters from where the trail enters a forest.
We pass the place where a lynx scored the snow with its claws. I can’t help imagining the wild cat flying across the crusted snow, snatching my poodle-mix, and disappearing into the woods. Aki has dropped behind me to sniff trail sign. I feel relieved when she catches up.
Many boots have pounded out a trail in the snow, forming a rut that is deeper than Aki is tall. It protects her from wind gusts that slam across the trail when we emerge from the forest. She still isn’t reluctant to follow me onto a shallower trail that will take us deep into the meadow. There we pass a runner and his very-serious husky dog. The runner and I both leave the trail, leaving four meters of space between us. Aki tries unsuccessfully to engage the dog.
The meadow should be covered with tracks. On past visits we spotted those of a wolf and slightly older ones made by a deer. But today, I can’t even find snowshoe hare tracks. The sky is as empty. Between wind gusts, we have silence until a Stellar Jay scolds us. I’d still rather hear the bossy bird than yet another pandemic story.
Aki takes the lead when we turn back toward the car. She is ten meters ahead when ahead if us a deer takes a tentative step onto the trail. The deer watches the little dog sniff some pee mail and then reply in kind. Before Aki notices it, the deer slow walks across the trail and disappears into the woods. Aki never saw the deer, but she did stop and sniff at the tracks it left in the trail snow.
It’s Sunday morning. Almost all the town’s churches are closed thanks to a government order prohibiting public gatherings. That order hasn’t prevented the Sunday Morning Church of Powder and Shot from holding service.
The church’s congregants sit behind shooting benches, each at least six feet way from their neighbors. There’s is not a church for music lovers or those who look for inspiration from a well delivered homily. They have no prayer or song books, just high-powered rifles, which they point at paper targets. As Aki’s other human and I step into our cross-country skis, the congregants fill the air with, for them, the joyful noise of rifle fire.
I pray for the riflemen to stop shooting long enough for us to put a half-a-kilometer between the gun range and Aki. But the firing continues. The little dog gallops alongside her humans as we ski down a series of small slopes to Montana Creek. A narrow bridge crossing the creek bares a pretty heavy snow load. Meter-deep mounds of snow cover rocks and the tangle of trees that have fallen onto the creek.
We start the steady climb required to reach the end of the trail. The sound of rifle fire mixes with that of the fast-moving creek. We won’t hear the song birds choir until the gunfire ends.
Two of our cross country venues ran out of snow this weekend. Their groomers loaded up their machines and hauled them to summer storage. That’s why Aki’s other human and I brought our skis and the little dog to Mendenhall Lake. This might be one of the last times we will be able to ski this spring. Last night’s snow evened out many of the ruts made by skiers during the recent thaw. But the ice is thin. Cautious skiers might avoid the lake today and use the trail set on the campground road system.
We are tentative at first, at least Aki’s humans are. The little dog speeds onto the lake and rolls like spring bear in the snow. I drop into the kick-slide-kick rhythm of the classical skier, passing the little dog, heading toward the glacier. The lake ice doesn’t crack under me. Water doesn’t bubble up to fill my tracks. But the tips of my old ski poles sink a few centimeters when I plant them in the ice. On our last lake ski, my tips bounced off hard ice.
We push on anyway. The skiing is too good to stop. But halfway we do stop after we notice that we are alone on the lake. Turning our backs to the glacier, we head to the shore. Snow clouds darken the skies above Thunder Mountain. The sun looks like huge moon. Everything is black or white. Aki’s blue sweater and the purple jacket of her other human provide the only color.
Aki follows us off the lake. We ski along the edge to the river where we stumble on three swans. One has the gray feathers of a yearling. The other two must be its parents. They feed on aquatic plants in the river, not bothering to paddle away from us. Yesterday, a heron did a similar thing when Aki and I rounded False Outer Point. We must be doing something right.
Exposed to a strong north wind, I am sitting on a rock shiny with rain, contemplating waves as they collide with False Outer Point. Aki isn’t in the mood to be philosophical about waves or the weather. She wants to finish rounding the point. When the little dog whines in protest, I look over in time to catch her “you are such an idiot” stare. In seconds we are heading for the wind-protected side of the point.
Aki got her way in part because neither of us were not designed to sit exposed for long to the winter wind. But I would have agreed to move even if I had been enjoying a Midsummer breeze. She is a persistent whiner.
The storm has forced most flying things to cover. One goldeneye duck works the heavy surf live. A handful of gulls struggle to hover over a bait ball. Their presence is not as surprising as the great blue heron strolling among exposed tide pools.
Preoccupied with waves and wind, I didn’t see the heron until we were only a few meters from it. When my foot slipped on a wet rock, the long-necked predator jerked itself into the air and landed six meters further down the beach. After giving us a long stare, the heron resumed searching for snails and sculpins. The little dog and I continued toward the point. The heron kept pace, flying off only after it reached a barren tumble of bare rocks. I wanted to stop and wonder about the heron’s behavior. Had it concluded after a measured stare that we were no threat, maybe even worthy to share the rock beach with it? More likely, the hunting opportunities just too good to pass up.
It’s a day for corvids. I’m talking about the birds, not the virus. Three Stellar’s blue jays watch the little dog and I pass under their spruce tree roast, looking as unaffected by our passage as a Buckingham Castle guard. Without so much as a scolding from the diminutive corvids, we continue down the trail to salt water.
The usual mallard gang hunts for food in the Fritz Cove shallows. One hen bursts off the water and flies over to a nearby kettle pond. She stands in shallow water that reflects her beauty back to her. The fit mallard looks sleek with not one feather out of place. While I wonder what flushed her from the salt water, the rest of the mallards from her raft panic into flight. Looking up I see the cause—a bald eagle that just landed in the top of a nearby spruce.
Aki, not a fan of eagles, is happy when we move down the trail to the mouth of the stream. There, a murder of crows fidgets from one bank to the other and back. Some find purpose when they spot a solitary raven skulking on the branch of a driftwood tree that has become stuck in the middle of the creek.
I expect a noisy squabble. The crows raise their young in a nearby forest. They consider ravens trespassers. But only a few of the crows land on the raven’s driftwood hang out. Even these seem more curious than outraged.