First light is breaking after the storm as Aki and I enter an old growth forest. We won’t see another man or dog on the walk to the beach. The light reaches deep into the forest and makes translucent the green skunk cabbage leaves as they muscle up through the waters of the beaver pond.
Reaching the beach we discover that the minus three-foot ebb has exposed the causeway to Shaman Island. Eagles feed on land normally covered with ten to twenty feet of water. I usually have to coax Aki onto the causeway. But today she follows at my heals.
It’s a tough morning for ravens and eagles. The crows that roost on the island harass them. As we leave the causeway, a raven flies over us, crows pulling at its tail feathers. Other crows do the same to a deserting eagle. To the north storm clouds lift to reveal the glacier and Mendenhall Towers.
I am standing on skis in the middle of the ice-covered Mendenhall Lake. Aki is several hundred meters away, trailing her other human as she skate skis toward the glacier. In a minute or so the little dog will break back and sprint to me. But for now I am alone, warm under the spring sun in a place so quiet I can hear my pulse beating a tattoo.
Even in a small town like ours that has no industry but tourism moments of silent solitude are rare. They usually occur when bad weather keeps everyone else inside, or when the little dog and I are deep in the woods. Today, perhaps thanks to the concern of others about the safety of the ice, I am alone. It’s wise to keep off the ice after long sunny days and early-spring temperatures have weakened it. I didn’t walk onto the ice during yesterday’s walk with Aki due to worry about ice thickness. But it froze hard last night and the tracks of skiers laid down yesterday tempted me to give it a try.
Snow falls on the little dog and I from a blue sky. The flakes glitter from sunlight reaching them through the old growth forest. It’s really last night’s frost being blown out of the canopy by a rising wind. The temperature is also rising. Soon it will allow the sunlight to melt the canopy’s snow load into droplets that will punch little holes into the snow covering the forest floor. I am glad that Aki and I will be out on the wetlands before that happens.
It’s quiet in the forest. Aki might be bored. But I appreciate the ability of a thick forest to filter out all but the loudest sounds.
We walk along side a set of cross country ski tracks made by someone willing to deal with thin snow cover and bare spots of ice. When we pass the junction for the Yankee Basin trail, I think of Romeo, the black wolf who hunted rabbits in these woods before it was killed by a poacher. While not tame, the wolf had learned to tolerate people and enjoyed playing with their dogs. Romero once followed Aki and I through the glacial moraine until two other dog walkers came along to distract it. One night while I skied with Aki around Mendenhall Lake, we listened to Romeo howling under a full moon.
I always had mixed feeling about Romeo. It seemed wrong to name an iconic animal of the woods. It was exciting to know that we might see Romeo any time we were on a local trail. It bothered me that the wolf was so comfortable with our very dangerous species. It saddened me that this led to his death.
The quiet time for contemplation ends when we leave the forest and find the meadow crowded with people and their dogs. I thought my little poodle-mix would be ecstatic. But she seems standoffish when we pass other canines. Maybe she, like I, feels like we had abandoned the solitude of the woods too soon.
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.