I’m again walking into the breeze on Sandy Beach. The wind tosses rain into my face and onto my parka. I want to ask Aki why I always make this mistake. But the little dog is thirty meters away, trotting along the forest’s edge where the wind can’t reach her.
Next time, I promise myself, I will walk through the Treadwell Woods to Glory Hole Bay and then home with the wind at my back. I wipe rain from my glasses so I can see down Gastineau Channel. Just past Glory Hole Bay, two bald eagles ride upward in the wind. Flexing their wings, the eagles then drop like stones. One dives on something in the channel. The other eagle turns its wings into a parachute and drifts onto the top of an old wharf piling. They are masters of their six-foot wings.
At 9:15 this morning, the sun climbed above the Douglas Island mountain ridge and lit up the glacier and mountains on the north side of Gastineau Channel. Aki and I waited at the mouth of Fish Creek for the sun to climb high just a little higher so it could shine light on the tidal meadow on which we stood.
Trailside grass protected the diminutive poodle from the wind. But nothing prevented the breeze from carrying away my body heat. Just offshore, a small circle of gulls rolled and splashed in the water. It was time for their morning bath. Further out, over a hundred mallard ducks lazed.
Feeling totally out classed by the birds and unwilling to let my hands go numb as they held my camera, I pulled on a heavy pair of mittens and turned to search for the sun. Even though it was only 9:30, the sun had already slipped behind the mountains for the day.
Aki needed no encouragement to join me on a return hike to the car. No ducks paddled on the pond but we did see a red-breasted merganser caught out in the open on the creek. The exposed fish duck powered through the current to reach the wooded shore where it disappeared under the overhanging limbs of a spruce tree.
A bald eagle flies over our car as I steer it into our driveway. Look at that, little dog, we spent hours walking over semi-wild lands and saw nothing but pine siskins. If we had stayed home, we could have seen that eagle being covered with snowflakes as it sulked on our neighbor’s roof. Aki, hoping to find some abandoned food morsel on the kitchen floor, urges me to stop second guessing myself and let her into the house.
We have just returned from a visit to the glacial moraine. An inch of squeaky snow covered our trail. Quarter-sized flakes drifted down as we walked out to Nugget Falls. We could just make out the glacier and Mt. McGinnis through the falling snow.
I usually look forward to deciphering tracks made by animals in snow. But those left light night were already buried with newly fallen stuff. Near the lakeshore, we found fresh tracks that could have been left by a small black bear. Maybe someone is late to hibernate.
Aki and I enjoyed our first snowy walk of the year. Even during a storm, the white stuff brightens the day. But the appearance of the sun could have added a crispness to the scene. This morning, while preparing to drive out to the moraine, the sun did muscle out from behind snow clouds to light up the waters of Gastineau Channel. It happened as an ocean tug pulled the weekly freight barge from Seattle toward its moorings. I wondered what dreamed for goodies rode on the barge.
While driving through the avalanche zone on the way to Sheep Creek, I wanted to stop and photograph the southern end of Gastineau Channel. A rising wind had broken up the gray mass of clouds that hung over the channel. Sunlight infused the clouds above Lucky Me. But there was no place to stop safely and we were only a few minutes away from the creek. When we arrived, the light was gone and the clouds were beginning to heal their wounds. At least it wasn’t raining.
I followed a dune of gravel out toward the channel where a raft of Barrow golden eye ducks fed. Aki held back to stare at me from a fringe of beach grass. Then came rain. It feel in sporadic drops at first then followed by and a wind-driven deluge.
After the little dog joined me on the dune, we moved toward the channel for a better view of the ducks. The golden eyes were keeping close to the shore even as we approached them. Usually they would edge out into the channel, like shop lifters moving slowly out a store’s door to avoid looking suspicious. This morning, when they tried to edge out a little, they quickly returned and to the shallows. That’s when the seal head appeared. It wasn’t the first time that we had been used without our knowledge to herd ducks in a seal’s direction.
Snow no longer covers this trail through the old growth. Yesterday it did. Yesterday snow drifted down through the forest canopy. Today it’s rain. The rain forest is once again the venue for the annual fight between fall and winter.
While Aki hangs back to investigate a stain of urine near the trail, I push on to the beaver dam. Water spills over the dam through layers of newly severed tree branches dragged there by beavers. There is still a paper-thin layer of ice covering parts of the pond. But it is already melting as the temperature climbs and the rain falls. Snow still covers the mountain backdrop for the pond. But winter lacks the strength to counterpunch the warmth of fall here where the beavers sleep.
I smell the smoke from his cigarette before I see a man heading towards us on an informal meadow trail. It’s deer hunting season so I expect to spot a rifle slung over his shoulder. But where a hunter would carry his rifle, he carries a small crosscut saw. After introducing himself to Aki, he says he is looking to cut down one of the meadow pines for a Christmas tree: “I used to take my grandchildren with me, but they have moved away.”
We share stories of taking kids into the woods to hunt for Christmas trees until Aki starts to shiver. Wishing the tree hunter good luck, we head out across the meadow. It’s a place of weather-stunted trees, tiny ponds, and patches of red cranberry moss. A thin layer of hoar frost binds the scene together.
Looking up, I spot Mt. McGinnis at the far end of the meadow. Used to seeing the mountain reflected on the surface of Mendenhall Lake, it takes me a while to identify McGinnis. It’s as if we are in the boarding area of a crowded airport when spotting someone familiar standing in flight to board a flight. Without the context of home, it takes time to convince myself that it really is my old friend.
A Stellar’s jay lands in the top of pine tree with a peanut trapped in its beak. The peanut is the size of the jay’s head. Its only chance of cracking the shell is to set it on the ground. But then a nearby raven would be on it in a New York minute. Aki needs to keep moving so we can’t wait to see how the jay cracks the nut. A half hour and a mile later the jay lands on another tree near the little dog and I. No longer burdened with the peanut, it squawks and gives us the evil eye. Since we haven’t offered up a nut with which to pay for our use of the meadow, it wants us exit his domain. As we enter a belt of trees bordering the meadow, a raven does a low fly over, as if to make sure we are not overstaying our welcome.
As three mountain goats climb the south flank of Mt. Juneau, I bend down to bag Aki’s scat. I want to ignore the steaming pile of poop so I can watch the goats approach a frozen waterfall. But the poop scoop needs to be done.
Aki watches with a look of pride on her face. She trots along to a nearby trashcan where I deposit her morning’s work product.
We are hiking up the Perseverance Trail, which was dusted with snow last night. Gold Creek still runs free but ice covers the creek’s tributaries. Not one leaf clings the trailside trees. It feels like a land waiting for winter.