Normally Aki refuses to follow me onto Gastineau, giving me her “are you crazy, I am just a little dog with short legs and tiny feet who will just flounder out there” look. But it is still morning and the sun has not had time to soften the frozen surface of the snow. We are free to roam.
On the far edge of the meadow, where we can enjoy an unfiltered view of Mt. Juneau, Aki goes on alert. I can’t find anything among the stubby Douglas pines to merit her attention. Twice more during our walk across the meadow, the little poodle-mix will bark and stare into the woods. Twice more I will fail to spot anything worth barking at. I will hear a hawk whistle, see two bald eagles circle over our heads, and trace the track of a black bear made yesterday afternoon in softening snow.
Aki and I are back, drawn to the Mendenhall Lake for another chance to ski. Not wanting to press our luck with the lake ice, I lead the little dog on to the ski trail that meanders around a campground. The place is empty of other people and dogs. That might be explained by the fact that we are here on a weekday or because the classic ski trail is as slick as a luge run.
The little dog dashes after her other human who moves much faster than me on her skate skis. Aki’s strong herding instincts kicks in and she runs full out between her two humans as we do a circuit of the trail. When an opportunity to move onto the lake appears we leave the campground and slide into the freedom offered by the snow-covered beach.
I am standing on skis in the middle of the ice-covered Mendenhall Lake. Aki is several hundred meters away, trailing her other human as she skate skis toward the glacier. In a minute or so the little dog will break back and sprint to me. But for now I am alone, warm under the spring sun in a place so quiet I can hear my pulse beating a tattoo.
Even in a small town like ours that has no industry but tourism moments of silent solitude are rare. They usually occur when bad weather keeps everyone else inside, or when the little dog and I are deep in the woods. Today, perhaps thanks to the concern of others about the safety of the ice, I am alone. It’s wise to keep off the ice after long sunny days and early-spring temperatures have weakened it. I didn’t walk onto the ice during yesterday’s walk with Aki due to worry about ice thickness. But it froze hard last night and the tracks of skiers laid down yesterday tempted me to give it a try.
Aki rooted out a treasure and she won’t give it up. We are near Skater’s Cabin after having started a walk along the edge of Mendenhall Lake. My little dog keeps herself between her prize and me. I manage to approach close enough to see that it is the heel of an old baguette. How it came to be buried in inches of snow is a mystery.
I walk on, pondering another mystery—why no one else is here. Morning sun shines on the still frozen lake and the glacier. No clouds obscure the Mendenhall Towers or Mt. McGinnis. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees. In an hour or two the snow will soften enough to make walking on it a struggle. But now it is still firm thanks to last night’s freeze.
Having forgotten Aki and her lump of French bread, I turn around and spot the little poodle-mix on the other side of inlet I just crossed. She is just crunching down the last of the bread. She squints in my direction and then tears across the inlet. In seconds she is at my feet. A second more and she is trotting ahead, looking for adventure or another treat.
To avoid heavy dog traffic on our normal Fish Creek trail, I lead Aki down one I haven’t explored for at least 20 years. It passes through a second growth forest. A generation ago, someone had cut every old growth spruce or hemlock on this streamside land. Today only spruce with 5 or 6 inch thick trunks grow jammed together so tight that their combined canopy blocks out sunlight. No understory plants can survive the resulting darkness.
After sliding along an icy trail through the second growth, the little dog and I drop onto the wetlands in time to watch a bald eagle flush fifty mallards from a stream eddy. If the eagle’s goal was to nail one of the plump ducks for dinner, he failed. With empty talons it lands next to another eagle that might be it’s mate. At any rate he doesn’t receive a warm welcome.
The disturbed ducks circle over Fritz Cove and then return to their protected stream eddy. A little further onto the wetlands we find ourselves surrounded by a gang of robin red breasts. (American Robins). Most hunt the grasslands for food but a few hop around in a showy fashion between stints of freezing into statutes like children do when playing Simon Says.
Wondering why the eagles don’t hunt the robins rather then skittery ducks, I climb onto a earthen dike that surrounds a small pond. Spruce have colonized the top of the dyke. The ground beneath one is covered with eagle down and white splats of the big predator’s poop. Just down wind is a scattering of mallard feathers.
Aki and I reunited this morning. Last week, while her humans traveled, she hung out in a dog haven. But rather than her usual dash ahead into the rain forest the little poodle-mix looks at me as if for guidance. She hesitates when I start down the trail. But soon she is sniffing, and peeing, and trotting like always.
With things back to normal I can enjoy being back in the rain forest. The thick ground layer of snow that fell two days ago is shrinking as the sun climbs into a blue sky. Above the white ground, a mini-forest of spruce sprigs covers the top edge of a wind-blown spruce, their roots pulling nutrients from the heart of the dead old growth tree. One or two of the tree babies on this nursery tree will eventually crowd the others out until their roots reach the ground.
Almost all of the spruce and hemlock trees in the forest rooted first on a back of a downed log. Sometimes the new tree forms a root that curls around the outside of the nursery log before reaching the ground. One hundred years later, long after the nursery log has rotted totally away, nutrients will flow over a hundred feet up the trunk of a spruce or hemlock through a root retaining the shape of the tree that gave it life.
You have to admire the commitment of this magnolia tree to flower. Growing between a giant typewriter eraser and a confused bronze work by Miro, it set buds before last week’s snow storm. The resulting flowers have been browned by a series of freezing nights.
In the nearby National Gallery, a great collection of portraits by Cezanne with unsmiling faces look without interest at museum visitors.