Scouring Light

It froze hard last night. The skies cleared enough to expose the moon slipping in and out of cloud cover like a sneak thief. Aki and I breakfasted early and headed out to visit Sheep Creek. I made of point of checking the avalanche warning sign as we left the Juneau outskirts. It warned that the road would be closed this afternoon while a helicopter dropped explosive charges onto the Mt. Robert’s snow pack. Unless the dropper screws up, the snow he dislodges with his charges won’t reach the road. But it has happened.

            The little dog and I will be home before the first charge is dropped. But I still feel nervous driving through the two-mile-long avalanche zone. The car manages to skid to a stop in the trailhead parking lot. It’s pretty icy, little dog. Aki does a better job than I maneuvering across the slick parking lot and down a short trail to beach. Last night’s tide swept the creek delta clear of snow and ice, eliminating any chance of a nasty fall. 

A nearby eagle screams out a warning, sounding like an over vigilant homeowner warning off trespassers.  It’s the only bird sound we will hear this morning. I can’t see the eagle or the usual ravens, gulls, or ducks that make their living along Sheep Creek. The place seems scoured clean of birds by the strong morning light. I want to rush out to the ponds formed near the shore of Gastineau Channel by current and tide. If we hurry, we can enjoy the reflection of Sheep Mountain in the ponds before the wind arrives to fracture it. 

Aki hangs back at the snow edge, using her mental powers to force me to arc back so we can walk along a line of sand dunes towards the old ore house. But I can be as stubborn as the little dog. When I am halfway to the first pond, Aki breaks into a trot to join me. But, by making me turn back often to check on her, she slowed my progress. The wind is just ruffling the first pond when we reach it.  The mountain reflection in another pond is ruined by surface ice. Neither ice nor wind bothers the third pond, which holds a clear reverse image of Mt Jumbo and the Douglas Mountain Ridge. 

Rainy Day Gifts

During my recent visit to Talkeetna, Alaska for a writer’s workshop, KTNA, the local public radio station was kind enough to record me reading of “Dirty Work,” an essay that first appeared in Gravel, a literary journal of the University of Arkansas. Here is the link to the radio website if you would like to listen to the reading. https://ktna.org/2020/02/susitna-writers-voice-2-2-2020-dirty-work-by-daniel-branch/

Aki and I returned home wet from this morning’s walk. She sleeps curled up near one of our radiators. Before we left, the sound of rain drops hitting our kitchen window discouraged her for leaving the house. Eventually she agreed to join me in the car. Seeking a sheltered hike, we drove out to North Douglas and stopped in the Rainforest Trail parking lot. But first we had driven past a pod of sleeping Stellar sea lions. 

            Most of the pod huddled around one of their brothers who floated on his side with a pectoral fin in the air. These had their eyes closed. One sea lion swam in front of his sleeping brothers, eye wide open. He must have been the one that croaked out a warning. The pod didn’t panic and dive. They just slept on. That’s how we left then as we drove on to the trailhead. 

            The trail provided us with a lesson on the value of old growth forests in winter. Snow still covered the trail and ground where it cut through alders and blueberry bushes. There was less snow after we entered a newish hemlock and spruce forest. The ground was bare under the big old growth trees. We looked for the deer that seek out such areas of old growth in winter. Saw none. 

The rain was flooding beaver creek, pushing muskeg brown water over the top of white ice. The ice seemed to be lit from behind like a stain glass window. Water running over the ice glowed with the ice light. In the rain-drab forest, the creek scene was a miracle of bright colors, as pleasant a surprise as the sleeping sea lions.   

Happy Dogs Fly

I’m dropping off a mountain meadow. It and the access trail are weighed down with snow. Aki is nowhere to be seen. We just passed a collection of five dogs. Maybe she is still playing with them. I should whistle for the little poodle. If dusk had already descended or this were eagle country, I’d be worried. But the sun still shines, the dogs we just met were mellow, and the sky is clear of raptors. 

            Today’s warmer temperatures have softened the meadow snow. This will keep Aki on the packed trail, which scars the meadow snow like a knife cut. As I start to reverse directions to look for the pooch, she comes rocketing around the corner and slides to a stop at my feet. She is having a good time. 

I’m dropping off a mountain meadow. It and the access trail are weighed down with snow. Aki is nowhere to be seen. We just passed a collection of five dogs. Maybe she is still playing with them. I should whistle for the little poodle. If dusk had already descended or this were eagle country, I’d be worried. But the sun still shines, the dogs we just met  were mellow, and the sky is clear of raptors. 

            Today’s warmer temperatures have softened the meadow snow. This will keep Aki on the packed trail, which scars the meadow snow like a knife cut. As I start to reverse directions to look for the pooch, she comes rocketing around the corner and slides to a stop at my feet. She is having a good time. 

            When we reached the meadow afternoon sun shone on Sheep, Roberts, and the other mountains on the North side of Gastineau Channel. Then the sun dropped behind the Douglas Island ridge, leaving the north side mountains in a dusk-like funk. Mt. Juneau, which was also lit up by the sun, has disappeared behind aggressive clouds. Aki doesn’t seem to mind this return to the gray. She charges down the trail, ready for her next meet and greet with neighborhood dogs. 

Walking Like Mr. Natural

Yesterday’s indulgence of sun ended as we completed our walk. Rain came next, followed in the evening by showers of wet snowflakes. This morning the rain has returned. We head out to the glacial moraine to see it when it is completely inundated by fresh snow. 

            As I dig my ice spikes out of the car Aki dashes around the trailhead parking lot. She’d already be on the trail if a meter-high berm pushed us by a snowplow didn’t cover the access point.  We both have to post hole up and over the berm before starting our walk through the stunted forest covering the moraine. The ice spikes dangle from my gloveless hand while I try to decide if they will be needed. By the time we reach the viewpoint of Mt. McGinnis, the spikes are in my pocket where they will stay the rest of the morning. 

            The boots of earlier hikers have firmed up the trail, making for an easy walk for man and little dog. A kilometer in, the boot prints disappear. There should be prints to prove that the persons turned around but there are none. I start to ask Aki if this is evidence of an alien abduction.  Something in the look she gives me makes me reconsider. 

            We turn back to a trail fork. Turning left would mean a quick trip back to the car. Remembering my Robert Frost, I take the less trodden path, hoping that my choice will make all the difference. Only the footprints made by a person with legs longer and feet smaller than I dimple the deep snow. As long as I plant my feet in the other’s footprints, I can stay on top of the snow load. When I don’t my boot sinks into soft, wet stuff. 

            Aki, of course, just trots on top of the crust while I adapt my stride to match that of the one who went before. I find myself leaning back and shooting my right foot forward like Art Crumb’s Mr. Natural. While this walking style seemed to bring joy to the cartoon character, it eats up my energy. Aki looks back often to make sure that I am doing Okay. We are both relieved when we make it back to the car, which is now covered with new snow.  

Aki's Edge

Aki wants to use the campground trail—the one jammed with noisy school kids. From the racket they make, they must be as charged up by the sudden appearance of the sun as me. We try to avoid little kids. The little dog tends to treat them as puppies. She loves to dash up to them barking a “hey how are you guys doing” bark. 

Since they don’t speak dog, the kids usually mistake her exuberance for aggression. I lead her away from the packed campground trail for one covered with soft snow. It follows the contours of the lake shore. 

            Last night’s freeze formed a light crust on the snow, just enough to allow the 10-pound poodle-mix to trot across its surface. My boot crash through after every step. Aki flies over the snow, rooming far and wide in search of interesting smells. I plod on, my boots soaking up moisture from the wet snow beneath the crust. 

            I had planned to follow the lake shore to where the Mendenhall River leaves the lake. But it takes a lot of energy to pull my boot free from the snow after each step. I may not make it all the way the river. Aki must sense this. I spot her waiting for me at the start of a path that will offer quick access to the campground trail. In seconds both us are walking comfortably on the top of the firm trail. 

Calm Water, Deep Snow

I’m rushing to reach a vantage point before the wake of an outbound salmon troller shatters the reflection of Mt. Roberts. Tired from struggling in the soft-deep snow, Aki isn’t keeping pace. She catches up with me just after I take a few photos of the mountain. Soon she is following close at my heals, taking advantage of the trail I am punching into the snow. 

            The tide is in, pushing up against the snow line. Seeing a strip of exposed sand at the waterline, I plod over to it. Instead of a dry, snow-free strip made for poodle passage, I find a soggy mess. My boots would sink as deep in the sand as they do in the snow. Aki no doubt wonders “What the heck” as I lead her away from the sand. 

            I take the first trail off the beach and enter the Treadwell Woods. Aki flashes past me. At the deep bay caused by a mine tunnel collapse, handful of Barrow golden eye ducks fish. Out in Gastineau Channel another salmon troller heads toward Taku Inlet. Tomorrow, while passing Harris Harbor, I’ll look for a hand painted “Fresh Winter Kings for Sale” sign.   

A Brief Glimpse of Sun

The sun is a surprise. We drove through a rain shower to reach the trailhead. Snow is predicted for this afternoon. But the clouds have split open like a smile and let the sun free for a few minutes. 

            Aki wants to doddle but I push ahead to reach the beaver pond, maybe even the beach before the sun disappears. The sun and Aki are both with me when I reach the pond. It sparkles on fracture ice fragments and enriches the reflection of tree branches and sky in a section of open water. 

            We still have sun when we cross a small muskeg meadow weighed down with snow. It turns a snow-cover spit blinding white after we reach the beach. It seems like every gull in Juneau is hugging the beach, as well as most of the golden eye ducks. Two little harlequin ducks huddle together on a sliver of beach washed of snow by the last incoming tide. They plop into the water as the sun disappears behind the clouds.