This chance to ski is an unexpected holiday gift. Everywhere but along Montana Creek is bare of snow. Thanks to Montana Creek’s microclimate, it received snow while the rest of town saw only rain. But the recent string of warm days and freezing nights have iced over sections of the trail and exposed rocks. This might be the only chance for the little dog and I to get in a ski until we receive a new blanketing of snow.
Aki and I sneak by the gun range, thankful that no one is blasting away. The sound of a shotgun or rifle can send the poodle-mix into a panic. We won’t hear gunshots until two kilometers up the creek. Mostly we listen to the sound of skis shushing on the trail and water pouring over creek boulders and windfalls that have fallen into the stream. At first Aki dashes ahead as we climb up the creek valley. When she tires, the little dog trots just ahead of me on the set classic ski tracks.
It’s below freezing. A light wind makes it feel colder. But for the first time in a week, the sun shines down unimpeded on the rain forest. While watching golden eye ducks splash after fish in Gastineau Channel I hear a strange cry. It is faint and very close. It is not a mimicking or sarcastic sound so I rule out ravens. It is far from a mallard’s maniacal cackle, the gull’s tattletale scream, or the eagle’s scolding screech.
I wonder, for a moment, whether a nearby great blue heron is singing the plaintiff song. Then I remember that herons squawk like barnyard chickens.
Looking down, I discover the source of the noise at my feet. Aki, squinting under the unfamiliar sun, is singing to herself.
It’s a blues song. The little dog dislikes walking along Gastineau Channel. I think she only agrees to join me out on the exposed gravel because she knows that we will soon be walking along the edge of a grass-covered dune where many people walk their dogs.
With snow falling down in coin-sized flakes, Aki and I head out to False Outer Point. We started the drive on gray, glistening pavement but by the time we reach the trailhead, several inches of snow cover the road. The little dog bursts out of the car and into the white.
Aki loves snow, loves the way her paws dig in to the stuff when she runs, loves to run the side of her muzzle down a stretch of it. But the snow produced by this morning’s shower offers none of those doggie enjoyments. When she runs down the beach, her paws reach sand and gravel. The new covering the beach is too shallow to muzzle rubbing. But she doesn’t throw in the brakes or try to coax me back to the car. She just ignores the way the flakes into her curls and trots along by my side.
For me, the snow is perfect—not too deep for walking but thick enough to enhance the angles and curves of the rocks that jut out into Lynn Canal.
The outdoor thermometer on Chicken Ridge promised a mild day for this time of year. If not for a brief snow shower that fell while I gathered things for today’s walk, winter would have seemed a long way off. Aki and I headed out to the wetlands to cruise for ducks or eagles. We only saw ravens.
The temperature during the walk never dropped below freezing but the wind chill made Aki shiver and me wish I had brought a heavier coat. At the beginning of the walk, we watched an airborne raven try to drive its brother off a scrap of food. After that it was all windblown grass and muddy trails. Well, that is not entirely true.
On the side of a large driftwood log, I found a little moss and lichen garden. Red lichen flowered among moss with leaves like tiny blades of grass. I would have never found this magic garden if not for the wind, which forced Aki and I behind the big log to warm up.
There is almost always an eagle in that cottonwood this time of year. Aki takes notice of my mumbling. The big birds always make her nervous. The eagle, marked with the white head and tail of an adult, watches us out of the corner of its eye. She is even wetter than my little dog.
From its cottonwood perch, the eagle can see the toe of Mendenhall Glacier poking out from a fog that hides the rest of the river of ice. Ghosts of mist float over Nugget Falls and the spruce covered hills that encroach on the east side of Mendenhall Lake. The resulting beauty helps me ignore the plink and plunk of raindrops hitting the hood of my rain parka.
The eagle can’t pull on a gore-tex coat when the weather worsens. It must endure and hope to scavenge some food to fuel its inter furnace. Is it dreaming of summer when salmon swim past its cottonwood tree on their way to spawn then become eagle and bear food? Or just does it just curse the rain and pray for a chance to dry out in the sun.
At beginning of this walk to Gastineau Meadows, a raven supervised me as I captured Aki’s scat in a plastic bag. From its post in a nearby spruce tree, it squawked with apparent disapproval when I dropped the bag on the ground and continued up the trail. I don’t think it trusted me to pick up the bag on the return trip to the car. It is one of those “at least it is not raining” days. The sunrise provided a little drama at daybreak but now gray skies seem to suck the color out of the rain forest.
A crust of snow covers the frozen meadow. It doesn’t deter the little poodle-mix from following me off the gravel trail and onto the muskeg. Someone with a fat tire bike has crushed his way across the south section of meadow. Worried that the thin snow covering is not enough to protect the fragile muskeg, I mutter curses to heap on the bike rider if he appears. But he is gone. After leaving the portion of the meadow marked by his tracks, we won’t see any other human tracks.
We follow the tiny tracks of a first-year fawn, hoping to find those left by its mother. But the little deer appears to have walked alone. Later we find the tracks of an adult deer moving in the direct we need to take to reach the trail to the car. A few yards later we see the tracks of a stalking wolf. I wonder if a single wolf could run down a deer impeded only by a thin crust of snow over frozen ground. Aki and I will find no sign of a kill.
The raven will still be in its post when I bend to pick up the poop bag that I had dropped at the beginning of this walk. It flies off only after I carry the smelling bag a few feet down the trail.
Today Aki will make an odyssey along a crescent shaped beach where she will see many strange things.
She will walk on an empty beach, passing a stream mouth full of bathing gulls. Other gulls will fly far over water to join them. A pair of mallard ducks will be tempted by the commotion but will paddle away when they discover there is no food.
The same pair of mallards will dance in a tight circle until the drake rides like a fuzzy chick on the hen’s back. Aki will wonder if they are mating as all but the head of the hen disappears under the weight of her dude.
Seas normally fractured in winter will remain calm, its surface like satin.
Western grebes will pass in threes, harlequins in groups of five. A harbor seal will creep with feet of two harlequins and then swim past them. He will pursue a raft of golden eye ducks until they reach water too shallow for a seal to swim.
The little dog will reach the car dry even though she passed through a light rain to get there.