A single set of canine tracks cross Fish Creek. They are the kind of tracks a wolf would make while trotting. Aki and I have just left the car. She is cataloging the smells left by previous visitors. I am trying to figure out where the wolf trotted off the creek and into the woods.
Reluctantly, the little dog follows me to the pond. Each time I stop to check on her, she freezes, as if she is stalking prey. If I move in her direction, she breaks back to the car. I tell her that she is safer walking next to me if a wolf or eagle shows interest in her. She is not reassured. Maybe she fears for my safety.
Aki springs ahead once we reach the pond then freezes when an eagle starts scolding its mate. She still follows me onto an open spit where I spot another eagle flying down the beach. The big bird circles once and plunges, talons first, into the water. Half submerged, it dog paddles twice with its wings while it attempts to snatch something from under the water with its beak. In a second it is airborne again.
The scolding eagle flies over to harass the now-wet bird. When it sees that the diving bird carries nothing in its talons or beak, the noisy one flies back to its perch in the top of a spruce tree. The wet bird lands on an offshore rock.
Nearby a large raft of mallards hunts the shallows for food. Three other ducks sleep standing up on a small rise. When the tide returns they will lose their little refuge and all the birds will have to work harder for their food.
Aki streaks ahead of me on the way back to the car. But she stops when before the bridge across Fish Creek. When I catch up with the poodle, I take another look at the wolf tracks. Ten feet further up stream, is a line of tracks that the wolf left when it returned to the other side of the creek. These tracks were not there when we started our walk. Was the wolf tucked into the creek-side brush at the start of our hike, watching me puzzling about its tracks?
It was 24 above when we left home this morning. Aki and I are dressed accordingly. Unfortunately the temperature hovers around 12 degrees F. as we slide onto Mendenhall Lake. The little dog doesn’t notice. She is too busy greeting dogs that just finished the four-kilometer lake loop.
All the beauty that surrounds Juneau spoils us. But my jaw drops each time I see the Mendenhall Glacier snaking through saw-toothed mountains on its way to the snow-covered lake. I ski toward the glacier for forty minutes while Aki runs back and forth between her other human and me. The rocky peninsula that separates the lake from the glacier appears to grow in size as we approach. From the spot where we turn back for the trailhead, only a small wedge of fractured ice appears above the rocks.
By now Aki and I are almost too warm. She chases forward to catch her other human who is flying forward on skate skis. I slip into the meditative motion of Nordic skiing.
Aki doesn’t want to leave the main trail to follow me onto Gastineau Meadows. I am on snowshoes so she knows to expect deep snow. If we were alone, she’d probably outright refuse. But today the little dog and I are joined by two more members of her human family. Maybe she doesn’t want them to think that she is a wimp.
The little poodle-mix is right about the snow. Ten inches of new fluff covers the meadow. The paws of a wolf that crossed the meadow last night sank six inches into the snow. Aki’s chest is only five inches above the ground. She is right to be concerned.
She waits until all three of her humans have packed down a trail with their snowshoes before following. Now she has a workable trail. Then she discovers a cross-country ski track that set up overnight. Now she has a superhighway for crossing the meadow. Soon she is mincing down the ski tracks while her humans struggle in the soft snow.
Aki is having a Goldilocks’ moment. The snow on this trail is just right—not deep, not crusty. Just the stuff for rolling in. Last night’s high tide trimmed the edge of Aki’s snow pack. I can walk on frozen sand while the little dog runs full bore in the snow.
We have sun but feel little of its warmth because of the wind. It blows at a steady clip from the south. A small clutch of mallards hug the north face of a gravel island where the wind can’t chill them. One drake, with its metallic-green head works to separate a mussel from its purple shell.
A thin skim of sea ice lays broken over sea grass stubble. It crunches under Aki’s paws after she leaves the snow and follows me over an icy covered stretch of beach. She’d rather be back in her little snow belt. But as my self-appointed protector, she places my safety first. I, who spend most of the time scanning for hovering eagles that could carry her off, see our relationship as one based on mutual assistance.
Aki stares at me. I’m trying to enjoy the last sips of morning coffee. The sun is just climbing over the shoulder of Mt. Roberts. Soon the peach and orange colors of sunrise will be replaced by the simple blues and whites of a winter day. Does Aki know that when it reaches Chicken Ridge, the sun will loosen the bonds the fresh snow has to bare-tree branches? The snow will plop to earth, reducing the trees to mere skeletons.
The little dog doesn’t care about snowy beauty. She is probably bored or just needs to relieve herself. But we are burning daylight. In a minute we are out the door and walking along the edge of Downtown Juneau. The sun is already throwing long tree shadows onto snow covered yards. Snowmelt drips off roofs and down icicles.
Gastineau Channel is empty of boats except for one gillnetter chugging towards Taku Inlet. The Franklin Street tourist shops are closed and empty as the downtown sidewalks. City merchants have scattered crystals of chemical snowmelt on the downtown sidewalks. To save her feet, I have to carry Aki over the worst patches.
Just before home, we pass The Three Watchmen. This set of totem poles watches over Downtown Juneau. The two that face the channel look fierce. But the totem looking up at Mt. Juneau looks to be smiling under its cap of snow.
Yesterday hid in her kennel as I gathered gear for our daily walk. I managed to coax her out but she was back in the kennel by the time I opened the front door. It had been snowing for hours by that time. Six inches of fluff covered the hiking trails. I didn’t push the matter. But this morning I am wondering whether she will balk again.
The snowstorm ended an hour before. But it was still storm gray out. Aki didn’t seem to mind. She waited at the front door for me to secure my boots. She leaped from the car as soon after I stopped the car at the trailhead. We had to climb an two-meter high snow berm to reach the trail. That didn’t slow her. But a half-mile down the trail I discovered that I was alone. Backtracking, I found the little poodle-mix chest deep in new snow. Golf-ball sized snow clumps covered all four of her legs.
Looking like a guilty child, Aki slowly turned and headed back toward the car. I knew we would soon be on a snow-free beach so I picked her up. While I carried her up the trail, I pulled snowballs from her fur. Most were gone by time we reach a spot where she could smell salt water. She wriggled as I lowered her onto the trail.
In ten minutes were on a beach swept clear of snow by the ebbing tide. Aki, her legs again loaded down with snowballs, stood by my side. Together we watched a sea lion, just fifteen meters away, raise its doggie head out of the water to check us out. Aki gave out a low growl. The sea lion immediately disappeared into the water. After that, the little dog had no problem leading me back to the car.
Three college-aged folk just stepped onto the lake ice. They shuffle their feet to test for cracks. When reassured by silence, they start the 1.2-mile walk the face of Mendenhall Glacier. I am tempted to follow them. Our recent stint of cold weather set up the ice nicely for walking. Then there’s the patch of dark blue ice that might be the opening to a crevasse. But we still swing away from lake and take the trail to Nugget Falls.
While our spell of cold weather opened up the lake to walking, it made the falls trail treacherous. My cleats provide sufficient purchase on the icy trail for progress. Aki finds better going on the crusty snow that lines the trail. I’d punch through if I tried that trick.
The little dog waits for me at stream crossings where a thin sheet of water covers the ice. She knows not to let her feet get wet in freezing weather. I lift her with one hand and ferry her to the other side of each creek. She trots ahead scouting out possible dangers. She wants me forewarned.
The falls have been quieted by cold. Water flows over and under an ice fantasy that will continue to grow until true cold weather silences the creek. The ice shell makes it possible for us to walk right up to a spot normally swept by thick snakes of water. I turn to see whether Aki appreciates this rare chance. Rather than nosing the wonder with the tip of her muzzle, the poodle-mix is ten feet away, huddling in a nest of glacial granite.