One of Aki’s other humans and I paddle toward the glacier into a rain bearing head wind. Kittiwakes from the nearby rookery watch us from a small iceberg. They don’t stir as we pass. Members of their clan mew and keen before diving on sockeye salmon smolt in the lake waters. I worry that we will face worse conditions when we round a point of a rocky hill that has been partially blocking the wind. I am glad that Aki is home snug and warm.
It may be the lovely month of May but today is a wicked-wet day. It’s the only day I have to sneak in a kayak trip to the glacier. Soon an eco tourist company will be hauling cruise ship tourists across Mendenhall Lake in faux Chippewa canoes and lead them into the shrinking ice cave. I want to enjoy it when empty.
Pulling past the point we get an unblocked view of the glacier descending out of rain clouds. A rocky hill rises to our left, colored by low growing plants fertilized by kittiwake guano. It seems to take hours to paddle the mile to the glacier in the now unrestrained wind. An empty tourist canoe sits on the beach where we haul out the kayak. Who, I wonder, would pay big money to ride here in an open canoe today? Must be a group of hardy Australians.
Listening for ANZAC accents, we walkover a landscape as barren as the moon’s surface. At first appearance, the trail seems to be well graveled. But I find myself slipping on portions that are really hard glacial ice covered with a thin layer of mud or pebbles. We pass torn chunks of trees just released from hundreds of years of icy imprisonment by the glacier’s retreat. The only bird sound we hear is from the keening kittiwakes. No songbirds could earn a living in such a sterile place.
The glacier seems to be collapsing into itself like an overripe pumpkin. Mocha brown water rushes from beneath the ice. I worry that the mystic blue ice that formed the glacial cave will now be fragile, and opaque. But in spite of our recent heat wave and the subsequent days of rain, the cave retains its basic shape and color. Rainwater streams from cracks in the overhead ice and some of the old entrances have collapsed. It is still a suitable venue for a religious ceremony or at least a brief prayer for our challenged world.
Rain pockmarks the surface of Mendenhall Lake and softens the handful of icebergs that migrated away from the glacier after the lake thawed. Across the lake kittiwakes reoccupy their traditional nesting sites. They don’t seem bothered by the persistent precipitation.
I like the rain for the way it leaves sparkling bags of water on the willow catkins and makes the forest moss sparkle. It also might be responsible for the welcomed absence of other trail users. We have the lakeshore and moraine to ourselves. We also enjoy an absence of human-made noise. Planes can’t fly thanks to the low cloud ceiling. The roar of the supercharged Nugget Falls masks the other intrusive sounds. I can only hear the pat, pat, pat of rain on my rain parka and the sharp cries of the nesting kittiwakes.
High winds rattled our house windows this morning. But Aki was still willing to head out for a walk. Last night she met me at the airport after a ten-day separation. I wondered, as I walked off he plane, whether she would be happy to see me. While we were gone, she spent every day with neighbors who took her on walks. Her nights were spent with family. She had it made. When I neared, the little poodle-mix raised her nose toward me, not in derision but to gather in my scent. It seemed to please her.
This morning we drive out to North Douglas Island and use the False Outer Point Trail to become reacquainted. At first Aki ignored me as she catalogued smells and cues left behind by other dogs. She caught up with me at the beaver pond, where we had watched a bevy of swans before I left for California. The swans were gone but two mallard drakes floated in the rain.
The rain slacked off but not the wind. We listened to the pulsing gusts bend the treetops, sounding like high surf along a California beach. The forest sheltered the beach and bays that border it from the wind. Hundreds of goldeneye ducks puttered over calm water. When I took a break from watching them, I spotted Aki, watching with patience concern—a loving parent ready to protect her sometimes-foolish charge.
After 17 dry days the rain has returned to Southeast Alaska. You can almost hear the forest sigh with relief. I am doing the same. The rain has washed away a thin layer of glacier silt that covered the downtown streets and sidewalks. The rain may have discouraged other hikers from using the Dredge Lakes trail system. Alone, Aki and I move up a trail that parallels the Mendenhall River. On a clear day the trail offer views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. This morning only a sliver of the river of ice appears above the river.
Thanks to the recent stint of dry weather, a tributary normally too deep for us to cross has been reduced to a trickle. I take advantage and lead the little dog up a side slough to a section of the river we can rarely reach. Today it’s a hang out for mallards and merganser ducks. As we approach they fly off the beach in twos or threes and land a short ways off in the river. Soon the whole raft follows them.
After circling a large beaver den, we cut back through the woods to Moose Lake. While Aki rolls and rubs her face in a soft patch of trail snow I hear a bird with a powerful voice call “ko-hoh.” We move on, after an unsuccessful attempt to locate the caller,and reach the lake. Ice still covers most it. Two trumpeter swans float in a small patch of open water, their long necks stained brown by the muskeg water in which they recently fed. Now they sleep with their black beaks tucked into their back feathers.
One of the swans wakes up when my foot slips on some gravel. It looks at the little dog and me, then resumes its nap. I assume that they have just finished a leg of their northward migration. Now they must rest and feed before resuming their flight to the summer breeding grounds.
Aki and I meet two humans and their three dogs on our walk back to the car. When I mention the swans, they tell me that two swans were feeding on the lake last week. I wonder if our swans are the same birds, still recovering from the long flight or a newly arrived pair.
This morning only one bald eagle roosts on top of the old Treadwell mine ventilation shaft. Small waves slap at the base of the shaft. Rain soaks into the eagle’s feathers. It focuses one eye on the little dog and I and forces its eyebrow into a shallow “u.” I’ve seen a similar look on policemen and teachers about to scold a troublesome student.
Aki trots over to the beach’s grassy verge, apparently unaware of the eagle’s mood. A few yards away, a rusted piece of ore car railing emerges from the sand. Further down the beach, the tide has exposed a hundred-year-old engine block. In between chunks of shattered pottery and bricks lay on the beach. Maybe the eagle is upset with the men that left all this junk behind when the mines closed after World War I.
We walk on down the beach into the wind and exposed to the rain. When Aki and I reach the little bay formed by collapsing mine tunnels, we move into woods that have grown over the mining town of Treadwell. Steel cables, car springs and ore cart railings emerge from the flesh of spruce trees. The trees, not the things manufactured by men, are the aggressors. This is not right. The trees aren’t attacking, just tiding up the mess left by the men who moiled for gold. (“Moiled for gold” borrowed from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service).
On one of January’s last days it’s 37 degrees above zero. Persistent rainfall has eliminated snow from the forest floor except where it has been packed into ice by foot traffic. You see, this week Winter left Alaska to holiday below the 49th parallel. Subzero temperatures made worst by strong winds have people in the Lower 48 are penned down in their homes while we watch our ski trails melt in the rain.
Aki and I head out to the Fish Creek Delta looking for distractions from the weather. A mature bald eagle, feathers soaked by rain, has positioned itself above to pond. Last week the pond was capped by a solid layer of ice. The fractured flows that remain float up and down with the tides.
Aki is soon as soaked as the eagle. She shivers each time I stop to watch the eagle or a small raft of mallards that have moved up the creek with the tide. She doesn’t object when I turn back towards the car. Don’t worry little dog, snow is in the forecast and the temperatures should be in signal digits soon. Winter’s vacation is almost over.
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.