Aki and I emerge from a tunnel of alders to access the wetlands. Overhead a bushel basket of clouds mute the sun. Mist clings to Aki’s grey curls and soaks into my cotton sweatshirt. The clouds also mute the magenta of fireweed blooms and the normally intense yellows of dying beach grass. It’s a soft, subtle day.
Sparrows flit through the trailside grass, stopping in dead stalks of cow parsnip where they can watch our passage. Across the Mendenhall River two bald eagles break from their spruce tree roosts. One swings so low over the river that its left wing tip slips into the water. It rights itself and slams its talons beneath the surface twice but comes up empty. I wonder how many more times its will have to sink its talons before snatching away a meal.
The little dog and I push on down river to where the trail ends at the edge of a backwater slough. Just across the slough two other bald eagles perch on the root wads of driftwood logs. Rain soaks into their ruffled feathers, giving them an “I just woke up” look. But their eyes are clear and hard as jewel stones. They are ready to race for the first food revealed by the outgoing tide.
Since this is the first overcast morning we have had in a week, I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of hikers on Perseverance Trail. But it seems weird to have the trail to ourselves. Thanks to her powerful nose, Aki can never experience true solitude. Her world is always full of scent messages. She can never know and would probably hate the sense of being alone in the rain forest.
Today’s flat light robs much of the beauty from the mountains but there is plenty of interest at my feet: heart-shaped cotton woods leaves stressed into displays of fall colors, canary yellow monkey flowers (aka touch-me-nots) framed by their own green leaves, and a judgmental little poodle-mix urging me to get a move on.
I was drawn here by the meadow’s promise of a little solitude. Cars clogged the parking areas for the trails I would have preferred on this Father’s Day. But this meadow has few summer visitors.
With silence broken only by robin song, Aki and I fall into our usually routine. She sniffs and pees, updating her message system with a plain-faced concentration. I stroll past the low growing wild flowers, stopping occasionally to enjoy the way water droplets cling to colorful blossoms.
Each flower displays the complexity and beauty of great paintings. But I am the only human in attendance at this outdoor art museum. There are art critics here, insects that show their appreciation for a flower’s form or color by landing on it. The flowers getting the best reviews will soon reproduce.
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.