Seven degrees. It doesn’t seem that cold as Aki and I head out onto the lake. Aki chases after her other human, allowing me to concentrate on my hands as they stiffen under my mittens. They get worse when I have to bare them so I can bag freshly deposited Aki poop.
On the nearside of the lake, strong slanting sunlight makes the freshly frosted spruce trees look like they are made of rock candy. Ahead the glacier ice is in shadow except for a small bright blue island.
I ski around the 7-kilometer loop, watching Aki trot after her other human, who is using the faster skate skis. The temperature rises with the sun. I have to ski without wearing mittens or hat as the sun bleaches the blue out of the glacial ice. When we reach the car, the temperature has risen to 10 degrees.
The wild roses that scented my bicycle rides down this trail last summer are forcing me out of the ski track. I’m in Alaska’s big city while the little dog is back home in the rain forest, resting up from a ski trip with her other human. Morning sun is burning holes in the dense, freezing fog that settled over town last night. It sets the birch trees sparkling.
I’m heading toward the small creek delta where a pair of sandhill cranes hung out last summer. They and the rest of the summer vistors have gone south where there is warmth and food. This is the season of cold and simple clarity. Only the everpresent ravens remain to make noise.
Recent tracks of a moose cross the trail at the creek. I wonder if they were made by the animal I saw yesterday afternoon munching on a birch tree in a suburban yard. Since moose are rare back home, I stopped, gawked, and took photographs. The locals drove on by, ignoring it like they might a homeless person.
Holes formed this morning in the impenetrable gray curtain that had hid Mt. Juneau from sight, revealing flanks of freshly flocked spruce trees. I loaded Aki into the car for the short drive to Sheep Creek. The little dog shoots down the beach, now frozen sand covered with two inches of firm snow.
For once no eagles sulk in the beachside trees to discomfort her. I follow her down the beach, happy to see portions of the Douglas Island ridge highlighted by sunlight. Otherwise, Paynes gray is the dominate color of the morning.
While Aki searches for sign, a shaft of light paints the waters of the Gastineau Channel with a pearly strip. The tug towing our weekly supply barge from Seattle moves toward the brightened water. But the sun and its fancy lighting disappear before the tug driver can enjoy a few minutes in the spot light.
Aki leaps out of the car and starts inventorying nearby scents. I follow as she dashes past the Mendenhall Wetlands sign and onto a path bordered on both sides by alder thickets. This morning’s fine snow has turned to drizzle but that doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm for a walk. I look forward to a lengthy exploration of the grasslands drained by Gastineau Channel because the tide has left the maze of back channels dry.
My plan is to walk as far as a mid-channel navigation aid. Two bald eagles occupy the aid. Another one flies above them screeching out a challenge. I walk on to the wetlands toward the nav. aid but no little dog follows at my heels. Aki hangs back by the alder thicket, giving me her “are you crazy” stare. I snap a few pictures and follow her back to the car.
When I stop at another trailhead, one without eagles, she shows little excitement for another walk. Aki follows me slowly down the trail and perks up when, after a few minutes, we return to the car. The poodle-mix is scheduled this afternoon for another cross-country ski on Mendenhall Lake. She rests on the drive home, as if saving energy for this afternoon’s adventure.
Aki is only a blue-grey dot back down the trail. She might be standing and staring. More likely, she is sniffing or peeing. But I wonder if she is still recovering from yesterday’s ski. We are back on the lake and like yesterday we have a sun and blue-sky canopy to move under. We also have a gentle wind in our faces but that shouldn’t slow down the little poodle mix.
Worried that Aki is feeling her age, I suggest to her other human that we ski the shorter, inner loop to give our eleven-year-old pup a break. Maybe she needs a recovery day. We decide to wait. There are several kilometers between us and the junction where the shorter trail breaks towards Skater’s Cabin. Seconds later Aki catches up and passes me.
The lake is almost empty of dogs and their people. If yesterday the glacial lake seemed like a crowded amusement park, today it feels like an open-air library.
Yesterday, Aki dashed back and forth between her people. Today, with two kilometers to go, the little dog trots along with me. Then, she spots a skate skier moving down the inside loop and runs full speed for a half a kick until reaching him. When Aki realizes that she has not chased down her other human, she spots the right target and charges off again, this time in the right direction. She still has plenty of gas in the tank.
Sure it’s Sunday and the lake is offering the best cross-country skiing of the year. Yeah, the ice has thickened enough to give even the most timid sports person courage to ski over frozen water. Yeah, the sky is blue with just enough clouds to give the drama-queen sun something to work with. But it shouldn’t be too crowded on the lake because this is America and the Super Bowl just started.
Trusting that the skiers with the reddest blood (a trait of sports loving Americans) are at a party cheering over football plays while slamming down cheese poppers and beer, Aki, her other human and I drive out to the glacial lake with a car loaded with ski gear. A line of cars flies away from the trailhead parking lot, probably heading toward Super Bowl parties. But there are many more in the lot and up and down the road. Ay, Caramba.
Aki ignores the cars and their drivers to concentrate on the cornucopia of dogs waiting patiently outside their vehicles. They all seem to urging their owners to get this party started. We keep the poodle-mix on lead while negotiating the crowd and only release her when her other human and I are snapping into our skis. I slip mine into a machine-set-track and start my kick and slide. Aki charges after her other human who flies ahead on skate skis. The snow-white surface of the lake is dotted with splotches of the intense colors of high-tech gear. But I soon find my space of solitude.
The robin-egg-blue glacier keeps my attention until the trail starts its return leg to Skater’s Cabin. Then, I am entertained by the sun hanging low on the horizon. Crisscrossing white vapor trails form a double line above the sun, which is softened by a gauze of clouds. A sundog (a kind of winter rainbow) has formed as a wide circle around the sun. This arctic critter rarely appears above our rain forest so I stop often to admire it.
Aki will be hungry tonight. She spends most of her time running with her skate skier, stopping only to play catch-me-if-you-can with other dogs. But every ten minutes or so she gallops back to me, trots along for a minute and then dashes to catch up with her other human.
I’m moving down a path covered with more snow than tracks. Aki and I have just left a well-trampled trail, one that she has used often in the past. Flooding by the moraine beavers makes the new trail impassible on all but the coldest days. Today—windless, and 14 degrees—is one those Goldilocks days when we can transit beaver-controlled country in relative comfort. After thinking this I look around and realize that I am using the wrong pronoun.
Aki stands statue straight near the trail junction. Her stare is also statue-like. It could be the product of several emotions: anger, impatience, disbelief, and even disappointment. This is a power grab or maybe even a simple effort to keep me from making a stupid mistake. The latter explanation has some merit.
Aki once watched me tightrope my way across a fallen cottonwood log that almost spanned a beaver-flooded portion of the tail. I soaked one boot while trying to leap to dry ground. The fact that I splashed her in the process might have riveted her memory in place.
I turn back down the questionable trail knowing that the invisible rubber band connecting us will eventually pull her in my direction. She follows, but at a distance. Each time I stop she turns back into a statue. After we pass through the scene of my misjudgment, Aki dashes ahead. Two minutes later we reach a junction with another well used dog walker trail. From now until we reach the car she will only stop to check pee mail or to allow me to catch up.