This morning the sun popped unencumbered by clouds from the waters of Gastineau Channel. In minutes the marine layer swallowed it. I watched from Chicken Ridge, smug in my modern-man knowledge that today’s winter solstice will end the time of diminishing light. Men without that knowledge once prayed to their pagan gods to stop the disappearance of light. On this day they’d be kneeling next to me in the snow. I can almost hear their beggar’s voices call down channel to the newly risen sun.
I call down channel with excited praise for the sunrise’s beauty. Later I take the little dog north of Juneau where fresh snow covers one of our favorite ski trails. We start skiing just after noon and find sunset colors already streaking clouds above the Eagle River. We don’t need sunshine to brighten the forest—the new fallen snow that covers the forest floor and weighs down the trees seems to radiate peace and mild light. Such peace in the forest almost makes you believe that there can be peace on earth.
What calms me has the opposite effect on the little poodle mix. Lacking the patience to trot by my side, Aki tears out and back, sometimes leaping so high that no feet touch the snow.
Today’s snow provides a welcomed, if temporary makeover for the moraine. It settles in fine lines along the branches of otherwise bare alders to emphasize their strength and grace. It hides mud and decaying leaves under a thinning white blanket. Aki and I walk to the moraine’s edge where it abuts Mendenhall Lake. Each beach pebble is wrapped in a coating of snow that can’t quite reach the underlying sand.
When we first broke through the trees to the beach sunlight muscled through clouds to shine off some of the glacier. It also reached the top of the surrounding mountains. That changed in minutes as a snow squall moved over the lake to block our view.
Back in the thin moraine woods, we slip and slide on a muddy trail and listen to heavy drops of snowmelt plop onto puddles. After a bad muddy stretch the little dog detours through the snow cover woods to clean her paws. The wet trail reminds me that this is just a taste of winter beauty. One storm off the pacific will wash it all away. One from the Bering Sea will bring the cold and more snow to free us from autumn’s purgatory.
When the storm broke this morning, it left Mt. Juneau covered in six inches of new snow. While Chicken Ridge’s streets glistens under gray light, sun seemed to explode off Mt. Juneau’s new snow pack.
I pack the little dog into the car and drive up Douglas Island’s Fish Creek Road. We passed the parked pickup trucks of hunters who hope to shoot one of the deer driven out of the mountains by the new snow.
Unlike the deer, Aki loves snow. She shoots out of the car and onto a newly white meadow. Finding it too deep for walking, she moves across the meadow with a series of leaps. I walk behind her, surprised that my stride roughly equals the distance covered by one of the little dog’s jumps. The new snow clumps up on her hair so she stops often to chew snowballs off her legs. Once she plunges her face into the snow cover and clears her face of it by twisting her head back and forth. I can almost hear her ears snap.
This morning, as we do on every walk, little Aki and I teach each other patience. Tethered together on the busy lower section of Perseverance Trail, I must stop often and wait for the little dog to sniff and mark. She must sit while I try to photograph three mountain goats that graze on the slope of Mt. Juneau. The goats were further down the mountain last night when we took advantage of early summer weather to walk the lower section of the trail. One goat feed near the base of a waterfall; close enough for me to make out its four legs and head without binoculars. Do they move down to the sweetest forage when human and dog traffic falls off at night? This morning, as a truck takes the last Mt. Roberts’ trailhead parking lot, the goats move steadily up the steep slope.
Last night one goat flew from a rocky ledge. It appeared to leap, rather than fall, and sailed above a hundred foot drop at an angle that carried it behind a rock outcrop. This morning, I wonder if it’s broken body lies on top of avalanche scree. If the goat is dead, ravens and eagles would be circling above it. I see nothing but a goat, hopefully last night’s acrobat, feeding a quarter a mile up slope.
Aki, patience at an end, tugs me away from the goats and up the trail where willow catkins shimmer in strong sunlight.
Aki and I climb a service road to a high mountain meadow that still has snow. It’s an odd morning. No one else shares the road even though its over 50 degrees and blue sky backstops mountains, each a spruce green and white quilt. There is sun but it shines through a thin pewter haze that shows no sign of dissipating. Then there is the wind, not the broad breeze that can sweep across mountain and meadow, lifting the poodle’s earflaps when she faces into it, but a wind confined like a river, to unseen channels. When we cross one of these whippy tributaries, Aki dips her head low and I use the jacket, minutes ago unnecessary in the rising heat, as shield. Powering through, the little dog and I reach a saddle covered with snow. She is hesitant to follow me onto it, as if it lay over a lightly sleeping dragon. Maybe she smells the wolf that recently left this single track toward a pocket spruce forest. When the distance between us grows to the edge of her tolerance, Aki dashes toward me. Even though I am prepared for the dash, she runs too fast for me to capture her entire body with the camera.
Can the little dog read the signs of winter’s death, even in this high place? Already the rivulets run free, carrying snow melt to the sea. Bullet shaped skunk cabbage shoots power up through thawing ground. We can smell the decay of last fall’s grass and see the green specks of new growth pushing through it. Dash on, little dog, when this is gone, it will be all bog and biting bugs until next fall’s frosts.
As she always does, Aki squeals and fidgets in the car as we approach the glacier trailhead. She flies out of the car when I open the door even though no dogs are near to welcome her. She must always expect wonders at the start of every hike.
We drove through rain, snow, sun and more rain during the 12-mile drive from Chicken Ridge so I only expect confusion from the weather. I hope for a chance to watch mountain goats forage on the rock face above Nugget Falls. I didn’t expect to spot a female white-wing crossbill on some glacier-scrubbed rocks near the trail. The little yellow/gray bird’s bill strands it way out on an evolutionary limb. Overlapping like a broken pair of scissors, the bird’s bill is dynamite for prying seeds from spruce cones, which is why it thrives in the rainforest. The Audubon folks write that the white-winged crossbill can feed on pine seeds and even fruit in a pinch but it’s slim beak evolved to hammer spruce. “Chow down, little bird,” I tell it, “and pray that the spruce forest doesn’t shrink like our glacier.”
I brought Aki to Treadwell for a sheltered walk among the old gold town ruins. The steady storm has already overwhelmed the bare-boned cottonwood canopy so we walk on mud, instead of the expected gravel trail. I look through thick walls of rain for a metaphor or simile that might be expanded into a poem. But none of the cast iron relics, made by true craftsmen over 100 years ago, stir my imagination. A boiler held together with thick bolts has no connection with my computerize life. An ore car rail emerging from the flesh of a spruce tree doesn’t drag me down a rabbit hole to find a mirror image in my life.
We leave the woods for the beach near the deep little bay formed when mine tunnels that ran under the channel collapsed. You would think that the worn pilings that once sported a shipping dock would make a good metaphor. I try some out out: rotten teeth, Hayden’s Wall, ghost army, the gates of Hell. All bad.
Then, while leaning against a worm-eaten piling, I spot an immature bald eagle that has secreted itself on the top of a piling 20 feet away. If it already had the white head and tail of adulthood, the bird would stand out like an ice cream cone. But today, soaked like the piling, by rain, it blends into the wood. The rain has darkened his brown feathers and turned his few white patches gray. The effect of rain on the eagle inspires me to give up my search for metaphor and try for a list of rain’s powers:
I find an old friend on the Outer Point Beach. A belted kingfisher watches from a perch on offshore rock as Aki and I emerge from the old growth. Aki and the bird ignore each other. He might be ignoring me as I walk slowly toward him to get a better photograph. I love this bird with its spear of a bill and mullet topknot. I like his feisty verbal challenges and goofy way he flies: up with a frantic beat of wings like a hummingbird then down in a dipping glide.
Twenty years ago on Prince of Wales Island a cloud of kingfishers circled my kayak and dived on a school of baitfish. The birds tucked in their wings and penetrated to a surprisingly deep depth, their passage marked by a line of bubbles in the water. I felt fear, wonder, and privileged to witness their casual demonstration of skill. I wanted to share it. I wanted to enhance the experiences value through secrecy. I never saw such a thing again.
Bilbo is the first good thing that has come our way on this adventure. Before the big Chesapeake Bay retriever joined forces with Aki, it was all rain and emptiness along Eagle Beach. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. There were the crows, a small murder (manslaughter?) that croaked at us from safe perches along a narrow trail. We heard the nervous Canada geese that still fly almost of eyeshot along the river surface. I wonder if Bilbo makes them tense but the geese don’t react when he lumbers toward then and into the river, as if he needs to cool off on this 40-degree day, as if there is not enough rain to keep his skin pliable.
When they first met, the Chessie wiggled and galumphed around Aki. After he settled down they formed a dog gang—Aki the brains and Bilbo the muscle.
Every few minutes Bilbo wets himself in the river. Aki stays in the meadow always on alert for smells and animal movement to investigate. When they reunite, Aki appears to organize them into a recon patrol.
Just before we reach the woods, I hear a faint, “Bilbo.” Way down meadow a mom and her two kids call for their dog. Bilbo ignores the summons like he ignores the queen bumblebee that circles his thick skulled head. I pick up Aki to break the spell. Without the little poodle mix to distract him Bilbo hears his mistress and lumbers back to her. I drop Aki to the ground; half expecting her to follow her new homeboy, but never gives him another look.
A minute later we stumble on a local naturalist sitting in front of a blue berry bush covered in blossoms. Even though we interrupted his attempt to film a feeding bubble bee, he is gracious and tells me that only queen bumblebees survive the winter. All her royal subjects perish in the cold. These insects cannot be capable of emotion. No one with feeling could ever survive such generation genocide.
You might say the devil is beating his wife this morning if your devil, when angry, grows yellow like the sun and his beaten wife can shed enough tears to soak little Aki and wash the trail clean. I prefer the idea that Akria Kurosawa illustrated in his movie, Dreams: that rain and sun share the skies over fox weddings. As my Aki, the little poodle mix, and I trot along the lower Mendenhall River, I root for the sun to muscle aside the rain clouds that have been camped out over Juneau for more than a week.
The tide is on the flood and in minutes it will cut off our retreat from the riverside beach if we don’t turn back. It has already eliminated the last mud bar in the wetlands and forced an armada of ravens to fly over us to roost in tall spruce. Now they mutter curses at the tide, each other, and maybe us. If they cast criticism of the little dog’s fleece wrap, she ignores it.