Winter left this meadow in a hurry, little dog. Aki is sniffing one of the shrinking blocks of pond ice marooned on the meadow by the tide. Her paws sink into the softening meadow. Maybe our favorite season is down south visiting a sick friend.
It is 47 degrees F., which is ridiculously warm for mid-January. There is a breeze but it seems to warm rather than chill. To add to the argument for an early spring, a plover works now-soft mud along the edge of Fish Creek.
A great crowd of mallard ducks mingles with gulls at the creek’s mouth. We heard them cackling out alarms on our approach. When they see us a hundred of the mallards slip further out into Fritz Cove. But most explode from the creek, each doing a great impression of Chicken Little. I want to tell them to chill, to talk among themselves as we complete our circuit. Once airborne, the ducks all circle in front of the Mendenhall Glacier and wing deeper into the cove. The gulls don’t budge.
Aki sighs. We are standing on a tiny beach waiting for the receding tide to open up a passage around False Outer Point. Small waves weakened by an offshore reef collapse at our feet. Over a hundred surf scoters have formed a raft to our right. But Aki can’t see or smell them.
I’m content to wait out the tide, listening to the waves and watching gulls cruise past on the gentle wind. It’s 50 degrees F. and the wind warms rather than chills. I am fine. Then Aki signs again.
Since she usually wins these fights, I backtrack from the point to a trail that leads over the headland. We climb up and over it and drop down onto another beach sealed off by the tide. Scoters, in groups of 30 or 40 birds curl around the point and fly in long lines across our horizon. Knowing that Aki lacks the patience to wait out the tide, we climb back over the headland rather than hang tough until the path around the point dries out.
The little dog shivers at my feet, hunching her shoulders like a homeless man might while warming himself by a barrel fire. She stands in the footsteps I just made in five inches of new snow. We just crossed over wetlands to reach the mouth of Lemon Creek. Normally, she’d be tearing out and back, leaping her way through the fresh snow. Two hours before that is exactly what she would have done. But it wasn’t raining two hours ago.
The snow covering on the wetlands acts like a sponge, soaking up water from the retreating tide and the rain. Rather than expanding, the snow shrinks as the rain and tidewater condense fluffy flakes into thickening cement. It will rock hard if the temperature drops back below freezing. But the forecast is for warmer temperatures and heavy rain. Then the snow will melt away.
The rain and snow conditions don’t bother a water ouzel (American dipper) that just landed near us. The dipper bounces up and down along the edge of tiny watercourse, apparently looking for a meal. Look at the little bird, little dog, dancing in the rain. Aki just shivers until we turn back to the car.
Aki sniffs tentatively near the bell of an old growth spruce tree. It is one of a small island of mature trees in a hilly second growth forest. For some reason the loggers who had clear cut the forest 60 or 70 years ago let this clutch of spruce live. The last time we visited the grove the little dog found the body of a newly dead bald eagle. The forest seemed full of complaining eagles that day, driven from the nearby landfill by cracker shells. This morning, we only hear ravens calling out to each other as fine snow falls through the canopy.
The snow simplified finding the grove by painting the faint access trail white so it stuck out against the greens and browns of the forest floor. We followed the thick white line as it twisted around standing spruce and wind-fallen hemlock. It guided us through gaps in downed logs, under a canted hemlock tree serving as a nursery for the next generation of trees, and down to the eagle grove.
It was summer when Aki and I found the dead eagle. Broad, thorny leaves of devil club plants hid the trail. We were forced to climb over dozens of wind fallen trees and carefully slip through devil’s club thickets. There was once a decent trail from the grove back to the trailhead but much of it had been washed away during a fall storm or blocked by downed trees. I felt like a shipwreck survivor when the little dog and I finally managed to find the trailhead. Today, the magic white line painted by the snow helps us skirt all the obstacles.
A raven near the trailhead stops crocking to watch me retrieve the plastic bag I had use at the start of the trip to contain Aki’s poop. It calls out to his fellow forest guardians and then flies along with us back to the car.
Aki is in disgrace at least in my eyes. She probably sees herself as a hero for saving me from the imagine danger that awaits on the flume trail. It’s 16 F. degrees but we are both dressed for the cold. I can wait here at the start of the trail all day. So, apparently, can she.
We both I hear the hum of water flying through the flume—a squared wooden tube that feeds a downtown hydro plant with water from Gold Creek. The little dog could feel the vibration of moving water if she were standing on the flume boards. With a look that could melt a tax auditor’s heart, she tries to convince me to abandon my reckless plan. Frustrated, I pick up the ten-pound poodle mix and carry her 50 meters down the trail.
She skulks behind me until I lead her off the flume and down a rough trail that leads to Gold Creek. She flashes past to take up point, looking back often to make sure I haven’t fallen or worse, wandered off on some dangerous adventure. Runoff from an early January rainstorm gouged out a foot deep staircase that facilitates the descent. Above us, foot thick ice sickles hang from the flume. Ahead is a fine and stable bridge across Gold Creek. I am alone when I reach it. Aki stands 25 meters behind me on the trail. She looks back, apparently to convince me that we should climb back to the Flume Trail rather than cross the bridge. Guess who backtracks so he can carry a little dog across the bridge.
(Note that the gorse is still green even when partially coated with a layer of January ice.)
This week the temperature has been going up and down like an elevator. It was 9 degrees F. when the sun broke over Gastineau Channel. An hour later, Aki and I are walking the Outer Point Trail. Recent rain has washed the trail free of ice. No rain falls from the cold clouds this morning. It’s 12 degrees and the wind can’t reach us in the forest. Aki trots along like it’s a summer day.
No ducks or gulls bob on the waters of the first bay we reach. Waves produced by a north wind pound into the ice that covers shallow portions of the bay. Between Shaman Island and the beach a small gathering of gulls is forming on a rock just now exposed by the ebbing tide.
The trail takes us back into the woods and then onto a second beach. Just offshore a raft of Barrow golden eye ducks undulates in the waves. They might be the same ducks we saw last week in front of the old Auk Village site. These fish ducks seem nonplussed by the cold and wind that pushes them along the beach. With only a layer of feathers between them and sub-freezing temperatures, how can they thrive and dive in frigid water little dog asks the man wearing insulated overalls, heavy parka, and beaver hat of the dog wrapped in her own heavy cloak.
Aki has to be very patient today. She is leading one our human friends and me down the icy beach that borders Mendenhall Lake. Snow as fine as confectioners’ sugar collects in the little dog’s curls and obscures the lake ice. With her strong, sharp nails, Aki could trot comfortably down the beach. But her humans have been reduced to duck walking by the ice. Our grippers offer little help.
Snow clouds cover most of the glacier and almost all the surrounding mountains. But Mt. McGinnis stands separate from the clouds. I want to ask our human friend if he knows why the snow can’t defeat McGinnis but he leads the conversation into a discussion about victims and violence. He has just finished Sherman Alexie’s memoir about his mother. I am reading that honest book about love surviving violence. It could be one of those conversations that leave everyone feeling helpless. But we remember stories of victims overcoming violence, people speaking out against it, young people insisting on change. Aki, who had been keeping her tail at half-mast lets it rise to its “happy dog.”