Aki slips on slick ice, her right rear paw sliding sideways, and then recovers. I follow behind her, taking care to avoid falling. I could not have made two steps down the trail without my ice grippers. As I was pulling the ice cheaters onto my boots the sun broke through the marine layer to hit the Mendenhall Glacier and Mt. McGinnis like a spotlight.
I want to rush down the trail and past a wall of alders that blocks my view of the sunny scene. Aki slips again. Seeing her misstep reminds me to slow down. I do and still make it through the alder screen in time to catch the show.
The first sunlight I’ve seen in days enhances the vivid robin’s egg blue of the glacial ice and makes the remaining fall color on the flanks of Mt. McGinnis pop. Reflections of both in the ice-free portions of Mendenhall Lake are more intense than the scene reflected.
Aki and I slip and slide out to Nugget Falls. It’s a boring trip for the poodle-mix since no other dog walkers are willing to try the trail. Over our shoulders a blue wound forms in the gray cloud cover. I want to reach Nugget Falls before the wound heals and shuts out the sun.
While I am photographing the shrinking image of Mt. McGinnis reflected in open water, the patch of blue disappears. Low clouds obscure the mountains and all but a thin strip of blue glacial ice. After carrying Aki up a slick slope of ice, I turn back to the car. I should be disappointed by the loss of sun and the beauty it brought. But it could never last, not with a series of storms heading our way from the Pacific. Without the beauty to distract me, I can concentrate on safely traveling over the treacherous trail.
…Another guard, this one working for the gulls, gives out an alarm when we are still 100 meters from breaking out of the woods and onto the beach. Even though I use no stealth during those 100 meters the gulls, and they are hundreds of them, are still hugging the beach when we arrive. Some are almost painfully bright in the sunlight. They seem sluggish, almost hung over. I consider moving quickly on so they don’t have to expend energy to relocate but choose to linger. The gulls follow a four duck raft of mallards slowing paddling to the mouth of Peterson Creek. The scene produces a cold, penetrating beauty similar to that just found on the beaver’s pond.
The woods we next transit are too dense for the sun to penetrate and block sunlight from the second beach we crunch across. But the forest doesn’t block an east wind that makes our cold passage back even colder. Like the forest, this beach and the waters that touch it are empty of visible wildlife. The resting gulls we watched on the first beach explode past the point that marks the entrance to the little Peterson Creek bay. Some settle on the point or the much larger Outer Point. Most choose to fly to Shaman Island. All three landing locations are bright with sunlight.
Back in the woods I face the consequences for my decision—the wood-planked trail. It’s dry at first but soon I’m mincing over ice-covered treads. Aki would wait for me to pull on my ice grippers. But my right hand is too numb from holding the cold camera to manage it. If we had taken the wooden trail first, when I still worn grippers, I could have enjoyed views, like the one of sunlight shafting trees. Easy to see, but almost impossible to photograph, such filtered sun reminds me of the light that people are pulled toward in near-death-experience stories. Really I’m in little danger. Aki, with her little clawed paws trots over the ice like it was dry concrete. In most places, I can walk on firm dry ground rather than the wooden path.
In the end the little dog and I benefited from my choice not to take first the boarded trail even though for Frost’s speaker in “Road Not Taken” it would have been the route less traveled. But my choice allowed us a chance to see the gulls before they were scared into dispersing and that made all the difference.
After today’s North Douglas walk with Aki I wrote more than normal. So this is the first of a two part post. Thanks for you patience.
Thirty meters into old growth forest, I stall at a trail junction. While Aki catalogues recent dog activity, I think seriously about breaking with tradition and taking first a wood-planked trail rather than continuing on the gravel one that offers a more direct route to salt water. I want to reach the beach while the brief window of daylight is still open. But the ice grippers on my boots would be dulled on the journey. They would ease transit of the icy planked trail. But I can always use the grippers when we return to the car. After trying to remember the lines to Robert’s Frost famous poem about two trails in the woods, I chose the gravel route.
Our cold snap has silenced the forest, even the few remaining ice-free watercourses. No bird chits. No squirrel scolds, but circles of hoarfrost on forest moss betray the entrance to their dens. To survive the coldest days of winter, our squirrels and other smallish rodents climb into chambers dug out from wood stumps or rotting trees. They reduce their heart rate and metabolism and wait for the warmth to return. I wonder if a person could slide a gloved hand into an icy-rimed den and lift out a comatose squirrel without waking it.
The cold weather silence works in the favor of the forest’s largest rodent—the beaver. The sound of running water keeps them awake at night. Too bad they are sleeping in today. Sunlight has just reached their pond making the covering ice glow. Adult alders rise out of the ice looking like trees that have learned to balance on severed trunks.
Feet from one of the pond’s dams, beavers have chewed a hole in the pond ice. They must post a guard here to protect against a breach. Even on a cold night, a sudden dam collapse could lower the pond enough to allow an enemy access to their den. Even with a beaver’s wonderfully insulation, the guard must suffer while on duty.
Aki, these deer trails are untrustworthy. The little dog gives me her “you can’t be left alone in the woods” look and leads me through a maze of frosted pines and onto a muskeg meadow. More pines dot the meadow. Unlike their healthy-looking brothers we just walked through, these pines have led a tough life. Some are only skeletons. Wind has carried away their exhaled moisture before it could form into frost crystals. But beneath the trees, fragile frost feathers shaped like butterfly wings, cling to every blade of grass.
Mountains surround the meadow. They are in the light. We are not. That may change soon. The sun is curling around the curl of a southern hill. Already it’s light is flooding the next meadow over where frost butterflies may already be taking flight.
Aki and I are back on the glacial moraine where only pioneer plants grow. A second ago in geologic time, the Mendenhall Glacier covered the area where we walk. Now willows and alders work to covert poor soil to good. In areas where the moraine has been ice free longer, spruce and cottonwood trees grow close together like they would in a forest recovering from clear cut logging. The path we take has been compacted by previous hikers. If we step off it, we’d sink into deep, soft snow. We stay on the path.
Snowshoe hare tracks cross the trail in many places. Last night a deer struggled through the deep snow to reach the trail and then used it to speed up her trip to a foraging area. Otters left tracks of their undulating movement through the woods. I look for recent wolf tracks but find only those of wandering dogs.
Downtown, where Aki keeps her kennel, rain and warm temperatures have already stripped the trees of snow. But here they still carry heavy burdens of white. The glacier keeps the moraine cool while downtown thaws. Every turn of the corner provides another greeting card image to enjoy. We detour down a side trail that provides a view of a frozen slough. Before it retreated, the glacier dropped a dozen small boulders on the slough in a pattern that would please a Japanese gardener. In summer the rocks rise above water like an archipelago of islands. Snow now blurs the boundary between rock and ice. Odd shaped rocks have become pyramids or domes.
It’s sunrise on Gastineau Meadow. There are no clouds to block the light so it illuminates the meadow’s frozen surface, hitting the golden grass at an oblique angle. In less than a minute I’m 30 meters in, camera clicking, looking for Aki. If the sunlight weren’t highlighting the fur on her raised ears I wouldn’t be able to spot the little dog. She is still on the gravel trail waiting for me to come to my senses.
She has been burned twice metaphorically by following me onto the meadow. Once she trotted after me in early fall and dropped chest-deep into meadow mire. The other time was after a winter storm when the little dog floundered in deep snow until I rescued her. Today, when I whistle, Aki runs to a spot halfway between the trail and me and stops, perhaps giving a chance to reconsider my rash decision. When I don’t she catches up and we both enjoy a meander over the rock-hard meadow muskeg.
The strong sunlight softens the images of the mountains it backlights, like Jumbo, Sheep, and Gastineau Peak. But the sun gives Mt. Juneau the position of pride like it is Hamlet reciting a soliloquy. Most of my early photos feature the mountain.
At the northern edge of the meadow I take a well-used animal trail that would allow a deer or wolf to view activity of the meadow without being seen. Aki follows close at my heals, like she does when nervous or uncertain. She calms down after we spot the fresh scat of a deer buck. The green-colored poop does not steam like it did when just dropped by the deer but it hasn’t been here long enough to earn a coating of frost.
Aki pulls ahead and tries to lead me toward a human trail we have used many times to drop off the meadow. But I want to follow animal paths marked by broken blades of grass and crushed moss. Aki doesn’t mind. Her tiny frame can slip between narrow openings between alders like a deer and slide under windfalls that I have to struggle over. She reaches the human trail while I am eating frozen blue berries in the middle of an alder thicket. The sun has awakened the local birds—a grumpy bluejay, industrious red-breasted sap sucker, and a cloud of black-capped chickadees that chit and chirp as they feed.
On his rainless day that started with full sunshine that faded to gray when a cloud bank moved in off the Pacific, Aki and I have the moraine to ourselves. I suppose that is not quite true. There are squirrels chitterling challenges at the little dog. The silence we would otherwise enjoy is broken by fast fired rifles booming out from the nearby rifle range.
Aki rolls in some fresh beaver scat as we walk through one of their clear-cut areas. Water backing up from one of their larger damns floods the spot that offers the best view of their lake. But we don’t see the big rodents. Two Barrow golden eye ducks, spooked by our presence, burst off of the lake but some return to the surface. In a few moments they calm down and swim slowly in front of where we stand. They clearly intend to claim possession of this lake, at least until the first hard freeze.
The lakeside cottonwood trees and willows still possess most of their leaves but that will change during the next windstorm. Already their leaves are closer to brown than autumn yellow.