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.
My free weather app predicted a few hours of dry, if very grey skies this morning. Aki was open to the idea so we headed over to Sandy Beach for a recon mission. I was hoping to spot eagles and perhaps some ducks, newly arrived here from the coast. But the scene was almost totally empty of birds, dogs, or people.
We figured out the cause of emptiness just after we arrived. A man protected by tree harvest gear was sawing down a series of large alder trees. It was slow going. The lumberman had already trimmed off the tree’s branches. Now he had to cut off the top five feet of each tree, move down the remining trunk the same amount, and repeat the process. His saw could be heard over the whole trail system during our visit. This is probably why we had the place to ourselves.
We spent most of the visit on the beach itself, where the saw sound was almost tolerable. No eagles perched on beach side alders, no opinionated king fishers tried to chase us away. There were small groups of gulls feeding nearby on sand bars. They never responded to our presence or even flew off when Aki walked within a few feet of them. We had to leave them their domain, free of risk until the alder logger drove away.
Aki shepherded her other human and I off the main moraine trail and onto a faint one leading into the Troll Woods. It’s a good choice for this flat-gray day. Without invasive sunshine reaching into the woods, it feels like the place has lifted far away and taken us with it.
With its ground cushioned by thick moss, which also decorate the trees, we could be on another planet. Only when the trail brings us to a lake shore, can we find mountain landmarks that let us know we are still in an earthly rain forest.
It is a very quiet place. The moss sees to that. When we see ducks, they are moving quietly across the water. The resident beavers sleep in their dens. No thrush or jay sings or squawks. You can almost hear the sounds of your own thoughts.
There is nothing special about the Troll Woods this morning, certainly not the Payne’s gray skies. Mushrooms have to provide the highlights now that the wildflowers have gone to seed. But I am still happy to walk on the soft ground between moss-covered trees.
I don’t need a mask on the moraine. We won’t see another Covid spreader until we return to the car. Aki patrols out ahead to make sure we don’t surprise a momma bear and her cubs. One does crash through the woods but it moves away, not toward us. The peace floating between the trees can be felt on the skin.
In a good, quiet mood, I follow the little dog to the shore of Crystal Lake, surprised by a clutch of mallards feeding a few feet away. They plunge their heads into the water until their rear ends point toward sky. Thick strands of grass encircle their beaks when they re-emerge.
No formal trail crosses this meadow. Mountains surround it on all sides. Fast moving fog reveals and then as quickly obscures them. Normally, morning sunshine destroys meadow fog. These gray tendrils thicken as we work our away across the meadow.
Aki wouldn’t have picked this place for our daily adventure. It offers no chances for dog encounters or even pee mail to read. Over a foot of snow still covers the ground. It softened during yesterday’s heat and was crusted over by last night’s hard freeze. The crust supports Aki’s slight weight. I only break through every fourth or fifth step. Thanks to the conditions, we have the meadow to ourselves if you don’t count the gang of blue jays bickering nearby. I am confident that it will stay that way. If we have to isolate ourselves from neighbors, we might as well find a place of beauty for our quarantine.
I stop when we reach a small meadow within the meadow that has I few trees to block our view of the mountains. The fog has thickened enough to obscure the ridge to the west. But only one long tendril interferes with our view of a mountain bowl to the south. I take a quick photo of it before the tendril expands.
The snow crust seems to soften as I start moving toward the south. In a half-hour I will post holing into deep, wet snow. Even though there is no danger of her breaking through the crust, Aki is more than happy with my decision to backtrack our way off the meadow.
This rim of rime frost explains why the woods are so quiet. Frozen breath of the squirrel within formed the thick, white border. On a warmer day, the little guy would be scolding Aki as we moved up the trail.
Similar frost borders mark the sleeping places of the other squirrels in the woods. Up near the forest canopy, a wood pecker climbs an old growth hemlock but does not make a noise. Two Steller’s jays land on a close-in tree limb to silently watch us pass.
One gull keens when we reach the beach but the rest of the birds on the beach are silent. So is the raven that cruises overhead. A smart breeze riffles the off shore water but there are no leaves in the beachside alders to break the silence.
With the snow falling in dime-sized flakes, Aki and I head over to Basin Road. After climbing to the top of Gold Street and taking a moment to look down Gastineau Channel to Taku Inlet, we reach the road. Even though it is already mid-morning, the Christmas lights decorating a low of Craftsman houses pop in the gloam. As she often does here, Aki tries to convince me to turn around. She must smell danger or at least the potential for boredom. It takes little to get her to follow me. She won’t try to reverse us again. But she will hang back until we reach the turnaround point for this morning’s walk.
We will see things on the walk but nothing will amaze. We’ll step over tracks recently left by an ambling porcupine and meet three dogs. Two will be friendly. The third dog will trot by Aki, throwing her a look of distain. The snow will continue to fall but we will still be able to see the surrounding mountains. The falling snow will whiten the ground and narrow our view, making it almost impossible to think about the angry parts of the world.
No birds bounced through the small waves that marched across the Fish Creek Pond. No eagles or herons roosted in the spruce trees. No salmon swirled the pond’s surface, no other people or dogs walked along the shore. This doesn’t bother Aki. The little dog has plenty of scents to sniff. Even though I looked forward to seeing some wildlife, the absence of it this morning doesn’t bother me either. I have the absences created—solitude.
We head out toward the mouth of Fish Creek, blown down the trail by the strengthening wind. No ducks work the close in waters of Fritz Cove. A few gulls keen and then ignore us. We are surprised by a flock of siskins feeding near the terminus of a tidal meadow. They fly into the sky above our heads, turning and diving in tight formation. At the end of each maneuver, their flock forms a different shape. Then they disappear.
I should just enjoy the beauty of the flock in flight, like I am enjoying the changing light on the meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier across Gastineau Channel. But I can’t help wondering if the shapes formed by siskins’ maneuvers were an attempt to communicate—an organic semaphore wasted on the ignorant.
I am slipping and sliding through lakeside mud. Aki, no fool she, stays on a nice mossy path that parallels the beach. I could join her on the easier trail. But the views of mountains, waterfalls, and a glacier keep me on the beach.
The morning mist has melted away so nothing blocks my view of mountains McGinnis and Stroller White reflected on the lake’s surface. The lake also mirrors lines of cottonwood trees, each bearing a load of leaves fading from yellow to rust. The glacier slices between the mountains like a blue snake.
On our last visit to the lake, I was forced by high lake levels to use Aki’s forest path. Now, in spite of all the recent rain, those levels have dropped, revealing a wide strip of gravel for walking. It offers a variety of mud. Some of the yucky stuff is as greasy as lard. In other places the mud forms a thin patina over beach gravel. In one spot my boots making a sucking sound each time I take a step. Forced off her forest trail by a beaver pond, Aki joined me just before the sucking mud. She convinces me to carry her the mess.
We seem to have all the beauty to ourselves. No ducks or geese ripple the lake surface. No eagles, ravens, or even jays comment on our passage from lakeside tree roosts. There might be mountain goats on the high flanks of McGinnis or bears in woods. A deer could be peaking out from the Troll Woods. But only the sun shows itself just long enough to reverse for a few minutes, the cottonwoods’ autumn fade.
Opting for solitude over spectacle, I drive Aki out to the False Outer Point trailhead. It sunny and the temperature has climbed above 70 degrees F.—beach weather in the rain forest. Our favorite trails are already clogged with sun worshipers.
We approach the point on a crescent-shaped beach. It offers filtered views of the glacier and smooth gravel that seems perfect for sunbathing. I am the only human here, Aki the only dog. There are no bathing beauties or families roasting hot dogs over an open fire. Tiny sparrows hop in and out of the beachside grass but no eagles roost in nearby trees. Just offshore a solo gull does a touch and go on the surface of Fritz Cove. But no whales will surface for air as we walk around the point.
After watching hermit crabs skittering across the bottom of a tide pool, the little dog leads me into the forest. Red Huckleberry bushes line an informal trail up and over the headland. Aki finds a spot on the forest floor dappled by sun. If we stay in this spot much longer, she will collapse into a nap. It’s not a bad idea. I could join her on the mossy spot and listen to the sound of diminutive surf until we are both asleep.