It’s late in the morning. The earth has rotated enough to let the sun shine full on Lynn Canal and the mountains that line it. Waves whipped by yesterday’s storm slam onto the False Outer Point beach. Fresh snow flocks the tall evergreens that form the foreground for the mountains. The scene is stunning and as romantic as a Christmas card.
Romance is not something on Aki’s mind today. She dashes up and down the trail using her nose to read recent history. A young couple drops to the beach. Apparently unaware of anything other than each other, they almost walk into the frame of a picture I am taking of Spuhn Island. He wears jeans and a light jacket in a drab color popular with young men in Juneau. The wind tousles his hair as he points with a bare hand at the rocky point where people fish for king salmon each Spring.
The man’s date walks uncertainly on the uneven beach rocks, taking as much care not to fall as she did assembling her outfit. A pony tail of washed hair escapes from a hole in the center of her knit cap, bouncing on the back of her flattering jacket as she slips and slides over a patch of icy trail. Neither looks up as a mated pair of bald eagles flies over their heads. They do briefly stop to take a selfie with the glacier and its cohort. Then, they slip back into the tight little world they maintain with their smiles.
This morning snow has made Juneau’s streets slick so the little dog and I are leaving the car parked. Instead of a trip out the road, we walk down to salt water and catalogue how many plants have been caught out by the storm. All the ones in our yard have gone to ground except the Sitka rose. The rugosa, developed in the Southeast Alaska town of the same name, still has some green leaves to catch the new snow.
Aki is a bit frantic in her sniffing, as if she fears the snow will wipe out the pee mail system before she has time to check it for messages. This slows our progress down to the channel. There the snow obscures our view of Douglas Island but not the bronze statue of a breaching humpback whale. It looks like is about to leap onto the Douglas Island Bridge.
Aki throws on the breaks when I try to lead her onto the new tidelands walkway. So I carry the little poodle, a pathetic bundle wrapped in a red sweater, under one arm and soldier on. Her strike ends after I set her back on ground on a sidewalk we have used before many times. Just below us, a bald eagle with the white head and tail of a mature bird seems to sulk as snow whitens the brown feathers on its back.
The weather service expects the sun to set at 3:49 this afternoon. But, it’s only noon and thanks to an inconveniently placed hill, Aki and I stand in dusk. That’s how low the sun arcs through Alaska skies in winter. Below us Eagle River slowly makes it way to Lynn Canal through exposed gravel bars. A half-a-mile away, waves pound ashore, mimicking the roar of a jet engine.
The little dog and I walk toward the noisy ocean and into sunshine. Scattered over the golden grass of a riverside meadow are inch thick slabs of ice that once covered the river. I can’t help but step on the ones laying on the trail. When they fracture I feel like a vandal like a do when crunching across a frozen meadow or crossing barnacle-covered rocks.
I brought Aki here today because tonight the weather changes. A strong winter storm is scheduled to arrive late this evening. Before it moves across the icefield and into the Yukon Territory, the storm will drop at least a-half-a-foot of snow. Then, we will have to kiss this crunchy beauty goodbye.
It’s sunrise on Gastineau Meadow. There are no clouds to block the light so it illuminates the meadow’s frozen surface, hitting the golden grass at an oblique angle. In less than a minute I’m 30 meters in, camera clicking, looking for Aki. If the sunlight weren’t highlighting the fur on her raised ears I wouldn’t be able to spot the little dog. She is still on the gravel trail waiting for me to come to my senses.
She has been burned twice metaphorically by following me onto the meadow. Once she trotted after me in early fall and dropped chest-deep into meadow mire. The other time was after a winter storm when the little dog floundered in deep snow until I rescued her. Today, when I whistle, Aki runs to a spot halfway between the trail and me and stops, perhaps giving a chance to reconsider my rash decision. When I don’t she catches up and we both enjoy a meander over the rock-hard meadow muskeg.
The strong sunlight softens the images of the mountains it backlights, like Jumbo, Sheep, and Gastineau Peak. But the sun gives Mt. Juneau the position of pride like it is Hamlet reciting a soliloquy. Most of my early photos feature the mountain.
At the northern edge of the meadow I take a well-used animal trail that would allow a deer or wolf to view activity of the meadow without being seen. Aki follows close at my heals, like she does when nervous or uncertain. She calms down after we spot the fresh scat of a deer buck. The green-colored poop does not steam like it did when just dropped by the deer but it hasn’t been here long enough to earn a coating of frost.
Aki pulls ahead and tries to lead me toward a human trail we have used many times to drop off the meadow. But I want to follow animal paths marked by broken blades of grass and crushed moss. Aki doesn’t mind. Her tiny frame can slip between narrow openings between alders like a deer and slide under windfalls that I have to struggle over. She reaches the human trail while I am eating frozen blue berries in the middle of an alder thicket. The sun has awakened the local birds—a grumpy bluejay, industrious red-breasted sap sucker, and a cloud of black-capped chickadees that chit and chirp as they feed.
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, I may be suffering from sunshine withdrawals. The little dog and I are on the false outer point beach. She has waited patiently as I collected severed seaweed for the garden. Now we both look out over Fritz Cove. It’s a gray scene: gray beach, ocean, mountains, glacier and sky. Even the spruce and hemlocks on Sphun Island look grayer than green. One gray gull is the only thing beside waves animating the scene.
Work done, we enter the dim woods. Yesterday afternoon’s sunlight would have brought out the colors in the forest floor moss and the scattering of leaves not yet brown. But today, even the frost refuses to sparkle.
Aki is having a great time sniffing for sign and leaving post cards of scent for her dog friends. But I am in bit of a funk until we reach a half-drained pond. Apparently not ready to surrender to winter, green skunk cabbage shoots poke up through the pond’s surface to be gripped by a sheet of newly formed ice. Busted, I think, even as I admire the doomed plants’ spunk.
It’s 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Aki and I fast walk around the Fish Creek Pond. The little dog stops very briefly from time to time to check the pee mail. I slip off my right hand glove to photograph the moon reflected in the new pond ice. We are still a half-an-hour away from true sunrise but the Chilkat Mountains are already brightening from pink alpenglow to white.
If she took the time to listen, I’d tell Aki I was a little moonstruck this morning. Southeast Alaska’s stubborn marine layer of clouds seldom lets us see the moon. This morning, it hangs fairly low in sky, letting my camera frame it with mountains, tidelands or pond. I stop to search its surface for cheese, rabbits, or a man. But, I only see dark continents on a white sea of reflected light.