Aki and I are out on Mendenhall Lake. The temperature is above freezing and it is raining. I’ve stopped after crossing over two long linear cracks in the snow-covered ice. I’ve stopped to avoid skiing over an area covered with blue-green blotches. They will be puddles soon if the rain keeps up. Time to turn back to shore.
The little dog doesn’t mind retreating as long it doesn’t require returning to the car. She trots along behind until we almost reach the shore when she rushes off the ice. The skiing is better on the lake ice than shore so I don’t join Aki. She keeps to the snow-covered ground. Her hearing is superior to mine. Maybe she can hear the ice settling.
Our paths converge where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. The trail is still hard and fast from last night’s hard freeze. I’m so preoccupied with staying upright that I don’t notice six swans in the river until we are only ten or fifteen meters away from them. The big birds look as surprised as I feel.
I take off my skis so I won’t startle the swans more by falling. At first, they relax. While one keeps watch the others go back to sleep. As I take swan portraits, a large human family walks out of the woods downriver from us. They have a large dog that entertains the family’s preschoolers by splashing in and out of the river.
Even though they are several hundred meters from the family, the swans start paddling up river to increase the distance, moving nearer to us in the process. Aki and the swans ignore each other. But I feel like I might be placing the birds under stress. The little dog and I move on, leaving at least this part of the river to the swans.
Aki and I returned home wet from this morning’s walk. She sleeps curled up near one of our radiators. Before we left, the sound of rain drops hitting our kitchen window discouraged her for leaving the house. Eventually she agreed to join me in the car. Seeking a sheltered hike, we drove out to North Douglas and stopped in the Rainforest Trail parking lot. But first we had driven past a pod of sleeping Stellar sea lions.
Most of the pod huddled around one of their brothers who floated on his side with a pectoral fin in the air. These had their eyes closed. One sea lion swam in front of his sleeping brothers, eye wide open. He must have been the one that croaked out a warning. The pod didn’t panic and dive. They just slept on. That’s how we left then as we drove on to the trailhead.
The trail provided us with a lesson on the value of old growth forests in winter. Snow still covered the trail and ground where it cut through alders and blueberry bushes. There was less snow after we entered a newish hemlock and spruce forest. The ground was bare under the big old growth trees. We looked for the deer that seek out such areas of old growth in winter. Saw none.
The rain was flooding beaver creek, pushing muskeg brown water over the top of white ice. The ice seemed to be lit from behind like a stain glass window. Water running over the ice glowed with the ice light. In the rain-drab forest, the creek scene was a miracle of bright colors, as pleasant a surprise as the sleeping sea lions.
Aki, who had been squealing like child Christmas morning when I parked the car, hesitates when I open the door. She can hear the rain slamming the car windshield and feel wind rocking the car. She stares at the icy ground coated with a thin slick of rainwater. Then she leaps out of the car, waddles without conviction to a patch of snow, and pees.
Water the color of tea streams over the ice still covering Fish Creek. Ice covers the trail too, making it a tricky passage for poodle and her human. Aki gives me her, “Are you sure you want to do this?” look. We are banking Karma, pooch. The big K will owe us if we slip and slide, head into rain and wind, around the pond and down to the creek mouth. What will the pay off be? The orca wolf pack rounding False Outer Point? We are more likely to see a deer sheltering in the old growth.
Aki gets her reward before we reach the pond. A fat golden retriever galumphs up, tries to stop on the slick ice, and goes into a 180 slide. My guy backtracks to facilitate the doggie meet and greet. Perked up, Aki trots around the pond then stalls when wind forces her head down. I lead on, sure that anyone willing to lean into cold and wet wind on such a flat light day is entitled to a special treat. But no killer whales slice through the waters of Fritz Cove, no deer huddles just off the trail. Something spooks a gathering of gulls when we reach the creek mouth. They form a sparce, white cloud in front of the barely discernable glacier. That will have to do little dog.
The wind shook our little car on the way to this morning’ trailhead. With the help of the windshield wipers I could make out the road through sheets of rain. Aki still whined with excitement a few blocks before we reached the entrance to the Marriot Trail. Two ravens were waiting for us. They flew ahead and landed on a spruce tree and watched. The ravens followed as we walked along a creek and then out onto a very wet meadow. No longer inhibited by the forest trees, the wind blasted the little dog and I. We pushed on. The ravens did not.
The trail led us into a forest still recovering from being clearcut. Like all second growtht forests, it is dark even on a sunny day. Thanks to the dense canopy formed by densely packed spruce and hemlock trees, not enough light can reach the forest floor to support life. We drop into a creek drainage which was never logged. Some of the thick spruce have been growing here for three hundred years.
The second growth forest continues on the other side of the street. Thin trees, twenty feet long and stripped of bark lay scattered on the ground. Most still have a root ball. Micro-bursts of wind must have uprooted them years ago, and tossed them about like an angry giant. Here and there new trees have taken root in an old growth stump. If left alone, nature wastes nothing.
It stops me dead in my tracks. Aki trots off to catch up with her doggie guest. As she disappears around the corner, I stare at the source of my distraction—a leafed-out blueberry bush. It’s almost January, you little fool. The lush, green plant doesn’t look out of place. At the bush’s base sorrel plants are yet to turn red. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s 40 degrees. Winter seems like a legend for old men to share with their grandkids.
In a week the little dog and I might be struggling down this same North Douglas trail through deep snow. Then the precocious blueberry plant will suffer like a Dickensian orphan. Now, its roots are drinking in the rain.
Aki, why is this eagle sulking? When I look down at the little dog she appears to be sulking too. The eagle has jammed itself into the tangled branches of an alder tree. The dog stands at my few, squinting to keep rain drops out of her eyes. Aki and I have just left the Sheep Creek Delta where only the ducks seem to be enjoying the weather.
The beach was empty except for the resident gulls, mallards, and Barrow golden eye ducks. The gulls clustered together on a sand bar. The golden eyes paddled and fed just off shore. But to my surprise, the mallards waddled around the beach where they would be easy targets for eagles. They were today’s canaries in the coal mine, letting me know that there were no eagles around to carry my diminutive poodle away.
It’s just gone past two in the afternoon. Full darkness is less than an hour away. Two hours ago the marine layer descended on downtown Juneau, enclosing us in mist. Aki is dragging me up Gastineau Avenue. She pours over sidewalk smells like a accountant on tax day. In her mind, where the nose is king, our walk through Downtown Juneau is stimulating.
Visual stimulation appeals more to me. There is little of that now. In the growing darkness, parked cars with new paint jobs look as bright as Christmas candy. Within a few minutes, the electric blue of this new Subaru will fade into the gray.
I have to carry the little dog down a set of metal stairs to South Franklin where light glares out from the Red Dog Saloon. With strings of white lights spiraling up their posts, the street lamps look like stale candy canes. Around the corner customers in Pel Meni study their screens while finishing their orders of Russian dumplings.
A homeless couple, profiles thickened with layers of warm clothes, share a bench under the Marine Park shelter. They ignore a lighted Christmas tree a few feet away. Across the street, the colors in a mural depicting the appearance of man on earth sparkle under twin spotlights. Rainwater trapped in the tire ruts on Marine Way reflect totem animals watching the first man emerging from a clam shell.