We normally never visit the Eagle River on a Saturday afternoon, especially on the first Saturday of the state’s legislative session. On such day, the road out to the river would normally be jammed with young legislative aides, trying to something to do on their first free weekend.
But this morning, a snow storm dropped on us, hiding mountains and even the little islands that fill Lynn Canal. Aki is still excited to climb in the car. It takes twenty, maybe thirty miles to reach the river. We see few cars on the ride. We are the first one to arrive at the river’s parking lot.
Aki is slow at first, to follow me down the trail. I wonder if she wants to wait for other dogs to arrive. Now that she is 14 years old, she has greeted many of hiking dogs. There is none to greet her as we move down river. The little dog cheers up when we reach the mouth of the river and watch a small catch of ducks burst into flight.
This was supposed to be a practical, not a glorious day. We left early to reach St. Vincent DePaul’s while they were still accepting donations. Then, the other chores kicked in. We were running low on milk and bananas, bread and bean burgers so we hit the store after dropping off the donations. Two friends that appreciate good cookie baking each received a tasty dozen. After that we took the patience little poodle for a walk.
It was a sunny day, at least at first. Early in the morning, sunlight reached the tops of Mt. Juneau and Gastineau Channel. It enriched the sun-covered mountains along the Western side of Lynn Canal. We had to squint in the light when we unloaded stuff at the St. Vincent’s and then pointed the car toward the first cookie drop.
Gray clouds blocked the sun by the time we reached Amalga Harbor. There was still a small patch of blue in the Southern sky, but it faded to flat and then dark as we worked our way to the Peterson Lake salt chuck. We usual visit here in spring to fish for Dolly Varden or in July to watch salmon climb the salt chuck on their way into the salt chuck. Today, we could only enjoy the sound of the steep rocky water course dumping water into Lynn Canal and the view of a kingfisher longing for spring.
This morning, when no wind disturbed the spruce trees lining Mendenhall Lake, Aki and walked from the Old Skater’s Cabin to the Mendenhall River. The parking lot was empty when we started. No humans were there walking the trail or posing for selfies on the lake shore. It would have perfect if eagles or even crows showed themselves. But, as far as the dog and I could tell, we had the beauty to ourselves.
I wasn’t too bothered by the lack of wildlife. When we left the lake shore for the river trail, we might be greeted by the small family of swans that winter on the river. Because of the softening weather patterns, some birds have decided to spend the whole year here. Canada geese fly over the tidal meadows most winter days. They are much noisier than the golden eyes, mallards, and mergansers that watch them fly over.
It was one of those high cloud days, where the light was gray but nothing could interfere with our views of mountain ridges and glacier tops. I could see patches of blue sky above the glacier, which formed a turquoise colored snake out of the ice.
I was disappointed by a lack of swans on the river. But on the opposite side of the river, a long line of mergansers slept on the snow-covered beach.
Aki and I were late to start our walk today. She had been stuck in the house all morning, which I had spent in the local park with our neighborhood Tai Chi group. I was in a great mood while walking back to get Aki. Thick clouds had broken up open over the park, letting sunshine make new snow on the cottonwood trees sparkle.
The little dog didn’t greet me at the door. She didn’t appear for a treat when I heated up a quick lunch in the microwave. It took me 10 minutes to find her hiding under the bed. She only acknowledged my presence after her other human carried out from under the bed.
Knowing how things had to be this late on the last day of the year, I surrendered all decision-control to the ten pound poodle. Knowing this, she stopped every few seconds to pee or smell something left by another dog. In what seemed like a day’s worth of daylight, we wandered onto the flats near the Federal Building, wandering up narrow streets and across footbridges until I had enough. I thought I’d would have had to carry the little poodle up the hill. But Aki relinquished control, to voluntarily follow me home.
Early this morning, while crouching next to our kitchen heater, waiting for the coffee pot to finish its waking magic, a local radio announcer promised listeners a day of wind, rain and snow.
For three hours I expected first snow, then rain to blur our house windows. But the sun flooded the neighborhood, making spruce trees throw shadows onto the moss-covered roof across the street. We might just have enough time to walk to the mouth of Fish Creek while the sun still lit up the glacier and mountains rising on the other side of Fritz Cove.
This close to the shortest day of the year, much of Douglas Island sits in gray light. But on clear winter days, unblocked sunlight brightens the snow covered mountains on the mainland, making them almost too bright to view from Fish Creek.
The little dog and I walk across a creek bridge still slick with winter ice and cruise through a grey forest towards Fritz’s Cove. Normally, I’d be frustrated by the flat, dull light and the lack of birds. I’d be aggravated that we can hear the cries of hidden eagles and another bird of prey but not see them. But when we reach a spit that offers views of the glacier reflected in the creek waters, the absence or presence of birds no longer seems to matter.
Rain but no wind driving it. Hoping that the wind isn’t about to rise, Aki and I head over to Sandy Beach. The forest we must pass through to reach the beach should protect us from being washed away by the rain.
We work our way through the woods. I’m grateful that the rain has washed the trail clean of ice or snow. The rain has also powered up the normally puny streams and filled a half-filled pond. The last time we were here, ice covered it.
We see no birds or animals in the woods. But a soaking-wet bald eagle is eating something on to roof of an old mining vent. It turns around to get a good look at the dog and I. Is it expecting me to deliver some tasty dessert?
Aki doesn’t act like this is her 14th birthday. She is planted on a very slippery ice, waiting for me to drop a bag of her poop into a bearproof garbage can. After I return, she and my wife walk off the ice and onto a snow free Basin Road.
In less than a block ice and slick snow again covers the road. It will be this way as we travel up the road up to Gold Creek crossing and then walk onto the newly reopened Flume Trail. It’s been shut down for the last two years for repairs. The last time we walked it in winter, twenty-footlong icicles hung from the bottom of parts of the flume. We see none today because they finally patched the leaks.
The flume carries water from the Gold Creek Valley to a tiny hydro plant near the Indian Village. The plant can continue to deliver electricity to Juneau town if landslides stop the main power lines.
Aki walks along the flume trail until we reach a patch with ice, rather than snow. Then, she throws on the breaks. My wife and I try to talk her into continuing. But she won’t move. Frustrated, I look above her and see forty knot winds pushing cloud of snow off the sides of Mt. Roberts. If the wind shifts, Aki and her people might get the big chill. The little dog is picked up and carried down the now slippery trail. Think of this as an early present little dog.
Because no ice or snow covered our street, I didn’t bother putting on my ice cleats when Aki and I left the house. Two blocks later, we ran into two friends. The first thing they asked was whether I was wearing my cleats. When I admitted to walking without them, they told to be very careful. I could hear their ice cleats scrap the sidewalk as they walked back home.
I was fine for another block but began struggling when we passed the last house and started into the Gold Creek Valley. Aki, whose claws help her move over ice, still waited patiently for me to creeped my way across the old wooden bridge then worked my way toward the cross of Gold Creek. Halfway we met two woman walkers who warned that their cleats slipped on some of the trail ice. Rather than push my luck, I turned back and recrossed the bridges. The slick trail required me to move slowly, which gave me more than enough time to study the growing ice formations that lined the road.
This morning, Aki’s other human and I drive out the mouth of Eagle River. I wish that we had brought skis or snow shoes for the planned walk up river. Not enough people have used the trail to pack down the snow. We could have glided along effortlessly on skis. Fortunately, a wide strip of compact river ice had formed a parallel trail fifty meters away. After sludging our way through soft snow, we reached the sold, if icy trail.
Aki broadened her search of the river bank, looking for scents. She tried to climb the snow-soft slope along the river boarder and sank in it up to nose. Each time she tried to climb out, she slipped further under the snow. Fortunately, Aki’s other human managed to pull her out before she sank too deep.
Why are the tree lines so crisp, the dead grass glowing in the early morning sun? The images jump out at Aki and I as we climb the trail leading to Gastineau Meadows. We won’t be able to ask for an answer from other hikers. Strong, pulsating winds seem to be keeping them off the trail.
I find the answer by looking at the trailside alders. This late on a normal October morning, not one leaf should still be clinging to the alders. This morning trailside alders seem weighed down with leaves that have curled up tight. Are they hoping for a return of warmer weather? Or are they stalling long enough for the leaves to send their nutrients down to the tree roots?