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.
This morning the sun popped unencumbered by clouds from the waters of Gastineau Channel. In minutes the marine layer swallowed it. I watched from Chicken Ridge, smug in my modern-man knowledge that today’s winter solstice will end the time of diminishing light. Men without that knowledge once prayed to their pagan gods to stop the disappearance of light. On this day they’d be kneeling next to me in the snow. I can almost hear their beggar’s voices call down channel to the newly risen sun.
I call down channel with excited praise for the sunrise’s beauty. Later I take the little dog north of Juneau where fresh snow covers one of our favorite ski trails. We start skiing just after noon and find sunset colors already streaking clouds above the Eagle River. We don’t need sunshine to brighten the forest—the new fallen snow that covers the forest floor and weighs down the trees seems to radiate peace and mild light. Such peace in the forest almost makes you believe that there can be peace on earth.
What calms me has the opposite effect on the little poodle mix. Lacking the patience to trot by my side, Aki tears out and back, sometimes leaping so high that no feet touch the snow.