Aki stands staring at two trumpeter swans that feed in a sliver of open water on Moose Lake. Her tail is up but she doesn’t bark. The swans, only a meter away from her, continue to search for food in the calm manner they showed when we first spotted them.
A screen of alders prevented me from seeing Aki approach the swans or I would never have let her go so close to the tired looking birds. I would have kept closer tabs on the little poodle-mix if not distracted by a stream of water drops pouring off the beak of a third swan that swam a few meters away from Aki’s brace.
Because of their massive size, few animals prey on swans. Trumpeters are the largest waterfowl in North America. Their wingspan exceeds two meters. Humans could bring them down with a well-aimed shotgun but that would break federal law. This might explain why the much-hunted mallards usually fly off in a panic when we approach but swans just ignore us.
This morning a brace of mallards paddle tight circles around one of the feeding swans. The mallard hen gives me a hard stare, then returns her attention to the swan. The ducks must be feeding on scraps that fall from the swans’ beaks or eating food stirred up as the swans dredge the lake bottom with their massive beaks.
Wanting at least one more chance to ski, I drive through the rain to Mendenhall Lake. We have it to ourselves. Fog and clouds obscure the glacier and mountains. Spruce covered peninsulas appear and disappear in the moving gloam. Aki breaks through the snow crust every fourth step while my skis keep me on top of it. For the first time all winter, I have it easier than the little dog.
At first, I am disappointed with the views. Then the glacier ghosts into view for a moment. The ice color deepens then fades. The glacier disappears. I can briefly make out the silhouette of a Canada goose and those of a raft of Canada geese. Then the soft power of the day returns.
We ski over to the river and follow it to a section broken into channels by rocky islands. It’s a place of eddies that trap food for mallards and swans. I count 9 trumpeter and (I think) 2 tundra swans. They must be new arrivals, taking a break from their northern migration. The trumpeters have formed a community on one of the islands. Resident mallard ducks crowd up close to them. Downriver, the two tundra swans cuddle off a snowy point.
Timing is important during these days of freeze and thaw. The little dog and I need to be on the moraine just as the strengthening sun softens the trail ice into something I can walk without slipping. That same sun will eventually weaken the snow crust. When that happens my boots will make six-inch-deep holes with every step.
This morning we might be a tad early. I’m slipping on trail ice every fifth step. The lighter, more compact dog has no problems. Recent snow fall and a series of cold nights have opened up areas of the moraine we rarely visit. I plan on taking advantage of this after we take the traditional dog walking trail to the Mendenhall River. I’d face a mutiny if I veered off the normal path now.
You’d think we in a dog park the way Aki is dashing around. But we have not seen so much as a cockapoo on the trail. The little poodle-mix has always valued personal encounters with dogs higher than a chance to sniff their pee. Today, she is all about the nose.
Aki shows no reluctance to follow me off the trail and onto Moose Lake. It’s the first time in years that I’ve chanced it. Just last year swans and ducks feed on its waters in early April. Now we are walking across it. It’s as trilling as sneaking onto a baseball diamond when the stadium is closed. The trail has softened while we were on the lake. Aki and I take the spur of it that leads to Mendenhall River. I’m occasionally breaking through the crust but we still make good progress.
After admiring the reflection of Mt. McGinnis in a river eddy, I walk up stream to a spot that offers a good glacier view. A trumpeter swan family watches our approach. They are the same swans we saw on previous cross-country ski trips down the opposite side of the river. Mellow birds, the swans soon return to their feeding.
We turn around and head back to the car. Rather than dig her little paws in the snow when I walk past the trail we took to get here, she dashes in front me as I continue down a large, snow-covered gravel bar. A few meters ahead, she dives onto a patch of sun softened snow and squirms, a ridiculous smile on her face.
Two of our cross country venues ran out of snow this weekend. Their groomers loaded up their machines and hauled them to summer storage. That’s why Aki’s other human and I brought our skis and the little dog to Mendenhall Lake. This might be one of the last times we will be able to ski this spring. Last night’s snow evened out many of the ruts made by skiers during the recent thaw. But the ice is thin. Cautious skiers might avoid the lake today and use the trail set on the campground road system.
We are tentative at first, at least Aki’s humans are. The little dog speeds onto the lake and rolls like spring bear in the snow. I drop into the kick-slide-kick rhythm of the classical skier, passing the little dog, heading toward the glacier. The lake ice doesn’t crack under me. Water doesn’t bubble up to fill my tracks. But the tips of my old ski poles sink a few centimeters when I plant them in the ice. On our last lake ski, my tips bounced off hard ice.
We push on anyway. The skiing is too good to stop. But halfway we do stop after we notice that we are alone on the lake. Turning our backs to the glacier, we head to the shore. Snow clouds darken the skies above Thunder Mountain. The sun looks like huge moon. Everything is black or white. Aki’s blue sweater and the purple jacket of her other human provide the only color.
Aki follows us off the lake. We ski along the edge to the river where we stumble on three swans. One has the gray feathers of a yearling. The other two must be its parents. They feed on aquatic plants in the river, not bothering to paddle away from us. Yesterday, a heron did a similar thing when Aki and I rounded False Outer Point. We must be doing something right.
Aki and I are out on Mendenhall Lake. The temperature is above freezing and it is raining. I’ve stopped after crossing over two long linear cracks in the snow-covered ice. I’ve stopped to avoid skiing over an area covered with blue-green blotches. They will be puddles soon if the rain keeps up. Time to turn back to shore.
The little dog doesn’t mind retreating as long it doesn’t require returning to the car. She trots along behind until we almost reach the shore when she rushes off the ice. The skiing is better on the lake ice than shore so I don’t join Aki. She keeps to the snow-covered ground. Her hearing is superior to mine. Maybe she can hear the ice settling.
Our paths converge where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. The trail is still hard and fast from last night’s hard freeze. I’m so preoccupied with staying upright that I don’t notice six swans in the river until we are only ten or fifteen meters away from them. The big birds look as surprised as I feel.
I take off my skis so I won’t startle the swans more by falling. At first, they relax. While one keeps watch the others go back to sleep. As I take swan portraits, a large human family walks out of the woods downriver from us. They have a large dog that entertains the family’s preschoolers by splashing in and out of the river.
Even though they are several hundred meters from the family, the swans start paddling up river to increase the distance, moving nearer to us in the process. Aki and the swans ignore each other. But I feel like I might be placing the birds under stress. The little dog and I move on, leaving at least this part of the river to the swans.
Aki and I have returned to the moraine, looking for swans. A little superstitious, and more than willing to indulge in magical thinking, I intend to take the same route to the river eddy where yesterday we saw the swans.
Unlike yesterday, there is no sunshine to soften the snow or blue sky to act as a backdrop for the Mendenhall towers and Mt. McGinnis. The top of the towers and mountain are partially obscured by clouds. But the Mendenhall Lake is skiable. I shush along the surface with the little dog in my wake. Careful not to ski too close to open water, I reach the river where the trail snow is still icy from last night’s freeze.
What yesterday was a carefree trail softened by sunshine ski is now a tense transit along the running river. When we reach the eddy I look for the trumpeter swans we saw before but spot only mallards. In the patch of open water below the eddy two tundra swans paddle down river. They pivot back in our direct just before reaching the ice edge. Compared to yesterday’s trumpeters, the tundra swans seem edgy. They mutter their “oo oo oo” call and never stop paddlng.
After watching the nervous tundra swans for a few minutes, I start back down the river. There, maybe five meters from the trail are yesterday’s three trumpeters. They stand on a high spot in the river bottom. One watches us approach as the other two sleep, beaks poked into their wing feathers.
Do they feel safe, maybe even invulnerable thanks to their five-meter moat? Or are they just too tired from their long migration to care?
Far out on Mendenhall Lake an exclamation point and a period move toward us. In a minute the punctuation marks transform into a skiing man and his dog. Assured that the lake ice is now firm enough, I ski onto the lake. Aki follows and the passes me. Soon she is running in large circles.
The glacier grows in size as I move further onto the ice. The conditions are perfect—five centimeters of sugar snow on firm, flat ice—almost too perfect. We are moving fast. Soon the little dog and I will be reduced to punctuation marks when seen from the beach. Worrying about skiing onto ice weakened by hidden currents or underwater springs, I head over toward the beach.
We cross a series of points and small bays to reach the Mendenhall River, which still runs dark and free. I can’t remember a winter cold enough to silence it. Something honks as we approach the place where the trail leaves the river bank and enters the woods.
Expecting Canada geese, I spot four large waterfowl gliding on a river eddy. The fierce morning light makes it hard to see more than the birds’ shapes. They could be Canadians but they would be larger than normal Canadians. Aki follows as I ski further down river to a get a better angle for investigating the birds. I stop when I can see that the birds are swans. They are recovering from their northern migration on the only piece of open fresh water for miles around.
The swans huddle against a snow-covered gravel bar where they almost vanish. After Aki and I move into the woods the swans come out of hiding. I watch them for a few minutes while screened from their view of shoreside alders.
Aki and I are thirty miles North of home, slipping between rain-soaked blueberry bushes. More deer than men have used the path. It leads to a chute that bottoms out on a rocky beach. Like the herder that she is, the little dog waits for me to move onto the beach before she joins me.
I don’t know what Aki wants out of this walk. She seems satisfied with the smells on offer so far. Me, I hope to see a whale or seal or sea lion. I’d like to watch a heron hunt the shallows or spot a swan cuddled up in beach grass.
As if it read my mind, a harbor seal steams toward us, throwing up a bow wake as it nears the beach. It slips under the water when only a few meters from the beach. We won’t see it again. Well little dog, at least we saw one animal on the list. I don’t think Aki even saw the seal. When it appeared, she was snuffling along the edge of an old campfire ring.
We move back into the woods and follow another informal trail to a small rocky shelf that overlooks a pocket bay. Aki whines while I try to find the source of splashing coming from the bay. Twenty or thirty tiny fish burst out of the water, which is swirling to the movement of unseen predators. The scene repeats five or six more times. I can just make out pieces of the predator rising above the water. I assume it’s a winter king salmon feasting on baitfish. At home, in the pictures of the hunt that I took are enlarged by the computer, the predator will look more snake than fish.
We return to the car on trail that takes us up and over a forested hill and onto a tidal meadow where I’ve seen heron hunt for frogs. Aki flushes one that was feeding feet from the trail. It is considerate enough to only fly thirty meters away. Check another one off the must-see list. The heron eventually flies to just above where a stream drains into a salt chuck. On the shore of the brackish little lake, a swan cuddles in the beach grass just inches away from a brace of mallards.
I knew that the tide would be low when we reached this North Douglas beach. But I didn’t expect to see the causeway to Shaman Island exposed. I decided to walk across it and return before the tide turned. Aki wouldn’t follow me so I’d had to carry her. To reach the path we had to cross a stretch of open beach frequently flown over by eagles. Fear of them causes the little dog to hug the forest’s edge whenever we walk up this beach at low tide.
Holding the poodle-mix with one arm and my camera in the other I walked to the causeway. We met a couple of hikers coming back from the island. They managed to spot two oystercatchers on the spit. The little dog and I didn’t. There were the usual crows and gulls and harlequin docks, but no oystercatchers. A pair of common goldeneye ducks flew low over our heads, offering me a hunter’s eye view of their chests.
The sun climbed above the clouds as we started back across the causeway. I had to carry Aki again, this time because part of the path was already under water. Minutes after we returned to the beach the causeway became impassable.
Continuing on to the car, we passed the beaver pond where we had seen the swans a few days ago. At first I only spotted three of the big white birds. Then I noticed another two in a brush-choked portion of the pond. A fight broke out when the two isolated guys tried to rejoin the rest of the bevy. Two of the swans rose up their heads and beat their wings at each other. Then, the apparent loser sulked off to the weeds. The remaining four floated past the little dog and I, long necks straight, looking like a naval squadron on parade.
We hadn’t planned on hiking the False Outer Point Trail on this overcast day. But the parking lot for our targeted trail was jammed full of mini-vans. I drive on to the Outer Point trailhead, park, and follow Aki into the old growth forest. Only the blurry song of a varied thrush breaks the silence. As the little dog splashes through streams of water leaking from the beaver dam, I spot three white blobs floating on the far side of pond. A long, white neck rises from the water and I realize that they are trumpeter swans.
I’d like to linger and watch but Aki seems in a hurry to reach the beach. She wins out, as usual, and we both walk quickly to the beach. Only a handful of mallards drift off shore. Low clouds reduce the view of the Chilkat Mountains on the other side of Lynn Canal. Nothing too exciting. At least we saw the swans.
The trail takes us back into the woods and then onto another beach. Here we watch harlequin ducks ride a light swell. In better light we could have made out their bright party colors. I still enjoy watching them dive under the water and pop back up with food.
Aki doesn’t like to linger on the beach so we are soon back in the woods, taking the return trail to the car. The little dog doesn’t object when I turn onto a little-used path that ends up at the beaver pond. The swans are feeding near the beaver dam when we arrive.
There are six swans, not three in the bevy. One stands watch while the other five plunge their long necks under the water in search of food. They don’t seem to notice me squatted down on the beaver dam until another group of hikers arrives. I am not sure if the big birds would have reacted to them if one of the hikers hadn’t tried to do a poor impersonation of a swan honk. The guard swan stares at me until I move up the trail. It had already returned feeding by the time I turn back for one last look. I feel guilty for distracting them, even for a moment, from feeding. They still have a long way to fly before reaching their northern breeding grounds.