This day after the winter’s solstice, Aki and are exploring a new trail across the wetlands. Expecting more hours of gray, we are surprised by sun. It makes us squint like troglodytes. The wetland grass looks trampled, crushed down by now melted snow. Dead-brown stocks of cow parsnip and driftwood are the only vertical things on the wetlands.
The flocks of sparrows have disappeared. We can hear the resident gang of Canada geese on the other side of Fritz Cove. Later something will flush them skyward. They will fly over our heads and to touch down near where the spruce forest touches the meadow’s edge.
We reach the river and follow it towards its mouth. A single merganser duck fishes the river. Only the airplanes on approach for landing break the silence. Turning around to watch one glide over the wetlands, I am surprised to see Mt. McGinnis emerging from dissipating cloud cover. It is over-bright in the morning sun, like it is trying out for a role as a minor winter god.
December 25th is one of the days on which I wish Aki could speak. What does the little dog make of Christmas, with its gifts and extra visitors? Does she hate holiday music? She shows her appreciation during Christmas dinner for scraps of meat secreted to her under the table. But does she wish everyone would leave the house as soon as the turkey or lamb is put away?
If she could understand, I’d tell her that humans need something to celebrate during this, the darkest time of the year. People living closer to the equator may not get this. But since last summer we northerners have had to wait longer and longer for the daily sunrise. Those of us wintering in Juneau suffer even greater reductions in daylight because of the Douglas Mountain Ridge. Five days ago on the solstice, the earth began slowly rotating its north pole to the south. Merry Christmas little poodle, spring is just three or four months away.
Happy Solstice little dog. Tomorrow we start the climb toward midsummer. Aki pauses in her investigation of a yellow spot on the snow and looks up at her human. Her kind never fears the dark. Our low-light winter days do not depress her. She just takes what nature offers. Does she ever worry, like I do, that one winter the earth may not tilt south after solstice?
It’s high noon. Sunlight bathes Mt. Juneau and the other south facing peaks that line Gastineau Channel. But sunshine will never touch the mountain meadow that Aki and I cross. Even the mountains’ time in the sun will be brief.
Without pesky sunshine, frost builds thick forests of feathers on the meadow grass. Cold firms up the boggy muskeg, opening up areas closed during thaws. Aki flies across the meadow, changing direction without concern about watercourses, ponds, or bogs. For a brief moment I am tempted to lead the poodle mix to the Southern end of the meadow where our combined weight might stop the earth’s tumble north. But only for a moment.
The little dog and I are pulling into the Fish Creek trailhead parking lot. And as if nature thought we deserved an early Solstice gift, it is not raining. Aki, you just never know what climate change will bring us. The pastel pinks of sunrise color mist rising off the pond. As if to gild the scene, a heron flaps through the mist to land on a pond-side spruce.
The weather guys forecast heavy rain for tomorrow, which makes this break in the storms that must sweeter. But it is not all beer and skittles for the little dog. A shotgun booms across Gastineau Channel making Aki cringe and look back to make sure I know what I am doing. The gunshot drives a gang of Canada geese into a noisy flight. I wonder if they are giving warning or hurling curses down upon the hunter.
It’s a day for finding bones. I almost step on a slim seal bone and later spot the large leg bone of a moose. Eagle feathers littler the beach grass. All these things were deposited here by a powerful flood tide.
It is also a day for crows. The Juneau murder must have roosted in the small forest that at the end of the Fish Creek spit. They spill out over the water of Fritz Cove, their black bodies looking like music notes inked onto the mottled sky.
Aki and I are lost. I don’t mind and the little dog doesn’t seem to care. We’re lost in a box formed by roads, forests and mountains. We are lost on a muskeg meadow, not far from the tidelands. Its normally boggy surface has been frozen into a firm table by the recent cold snap. Later, snow will come to complicate passage over the meadow. But today it is dry and almost glows in the morning’s low angle light.
The sun throws dark shadows off everything, even diminutive blades of yellowing grass. This makes it easy for me to find the shallow trail formed by the passage of deer and the occasional wolf. Aki follows her own trail made of scent. She wanders off, a slave to her nose. When I call her back, she throws me an indignant look and then trots over to my side.
When we reach the spruce forest that form the meadow’s southeast border, I turn to face west and wander along a tree line. On my right, rising high above the meadow’s snarled Douglas pines, Nugget Mountain reflects back the morning light. From the here, the meadow looks primordial, a place for wooly mammoths and ancient bison to graze. But I only see my little poodle-mix when I scan for life.
Halfway back across the meadow I find a deep trail, almost a wound across the muskeg made by human boots. Before the freeze, it would have offered sloppy walking. But today it is almost a hiking superhighway. I follow it blindly until spotting a house, when none should be. We backtrack; take another trail that leads us to a chicken coop far from the trailhead. Aki would follow me back onto the meadow and tolerate even more confusion as I try to retrace our steps back to the car. But I leave our little frozen box for the assurance of the North Douglas Highway and walk the indirect route home.
Aki and I have just reached a beach on the backside of Douglas Island. Across Stephens Passage, morning sunlight floods the beaches of Admiralty Island. We are still in shadow. A bald eagle flies over us and lands near its mate on a spruce tree. They greet each other in their complaining way. Just offshore a harbor seal works through a line of small surf. It’s round head slips above water once, twice, and then disappears. We won’t see it again.
A flew white clouds float above Admiralty but otherwise the sky is clear and blue. I scan the channel in hopes of spotting a whale but none spouts. Without sunlight to warm us, the little dog and I are starting to feel the cold. But, I can’t make myself leave the beach and the comforting sound of small surf hitting the rocks.
Frosted brush lines the trail back to the car. Unseen spiders have recently woven basket-shaped webs in the crotches of hemlock or willow twigs. The morning’s rising temperature is melting the frost that had settled on the net webbing during the night, leaving tiny drops of water to cling to the silk.
In half-an-hour, the sun will be high enough to reach the spider webs. It will make the little drops of water sparkle until they fall to the ground. But neither Aki nor I have the patience to wait.
Writer’s school is a noisy place. The necessary noise of craft being shared and stories told provides the sound track for each UAA MFA summer residency. But even beneficiaries of this cacophony such as myself need quiet time. That’s why I rode my bicycle this gray morning deep inside a birch forest. It would be winter quiet but for the distant commuter traffic mimicking a slow moving stream. I could stand here until it is time for the morning talk if not for the biting mosquitoes. Even they are considerate enough not to buzz.
According to the calendar, winter started yesterday but it is spring in this beachside forest. It’s not a Wordsworth spring with its daffodil icons or even a Southeast Alaska spring marked by rising crocuses. This feels like a true northern spring when a hard nightly freeze follows each day of thaw. Like it would during an arctic spring, our snow pack has shrunken to an ice-crusted carpet that makes walking treacherous, even for Aki with her sharp nails.
The little dog and I walk in darkness but sunlight explodes off the mountains. Shaman and the other islands dotting Lynn Canal seem to be sun bathing. But there are few animals to enjoy the view. A cabal of gulls search the tidelands for chow but only four ducks, all local harlequins, fish the bay.
We are between lows, a time of busted weather that comes after the latest low has exhausted itself against our mountains. Soon, maybe tonight, a new storm will bring us snow and the return of winter.
Aki and I walk along the Mendenhall River where it slips into Fritz Cove. None of the local birds or animals show signs that they celebrate the Solstice. A harbor seal sulks in the river and we can hear but not see a trio of bald eagles. They complain from perches deep in the woods, sounding like hung over parents telling their kids to shut up. On the sand bar that forms the south border of the river mallard ducks waddle, stopping occasionally to belt out one of their maniac laughs. The gulls, being gulls, scream at each other. Solstice began early this morning. Maybe the birds and seals are partied out.
Aki looks edgy, keeping above the high-tide line. Confident that tomorrow the earth will turn its face back to the north, I enjoy the gray. I wish we still had snow but settle for the ice stalactites that decorate a sheltered cove. Soon even they will be gone unless winter returns.
Light is precious this close to the winter solstice. Even during last week’s stretch of clear weather, dusk settled over Juneau before 3 P.M. Now the clouds are back as is the rain. Aki and I move with caution down a Treadwell trail covered with sloppy snow and ice. When the marine layer shatters over Gastineau Channel to let in light, I understand why my Celtic ancestors honored the winter sun.
The forest that hides the old mining ruins still retains snow from the last storm. It brightens the reflection of the twisted alders growing along a shallow pond. One triangle of pond ice juts into the air but the rain is already eroding its sharp corners. Tiny waves, the concentric rings radiating out from each rain strike, crash against the ice—wing strikes on softening marble.