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.
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:
Rain blends eagle into wood
washes free iron relics
or buries them in mud
feeds the forest moss
floods its streams
softens my poodle’s curls
and makes them smell like spring.
When packed in a storm
rain ensures solitude
unwanted by my extravert dog
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.
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.
It’s early morning on a tidal meadow but we could be walking through downtown Los Angeles at sunrise. Canada geese, all locals, huddle like the homeless in protected dips of the meadow. Some make low complaints, as refugees from mental health treatment sometimes mutter to themselves while pushing a shopping cart of castoffs down the street.
If the geese represent the homeless of our cities, Aki and I are seen by them as police officers; my camera a baton to encourage them to move along from the protected doorways where they huddled for the night. Aki tries to ignore the big birds while I photograph them. I also take pictures of still-white peaks of the Chilkat Range reflected on the surface of Eagle River.
Tired of making geese nervous, I lead my little dog into the woods where we are greeted by a red-breasted sapsucker hammering away at a metal trail sign. I saw one of his brothers doing the same to a “No Motor Vehicles on the Trail” sign yesterday. Are the beautiful woodpeckers uniting against the man? As cops Aki and I should investigate further but the sapsucker flies off before I can question him.
Because people are coming over for a holiday dinner, Aki will get a bath today. I hide this from her. The little dog has a love/hate relationship with soap and water. She hates the bath but loves to dash around the house when freshly clean. She also loves to explore tidal meadows—a place she is unlikely to leave without mud and muck imbedded in her poodle fur.
We drop down from a well-used trail to the meadow and hear a series of “rock dropping into a well” sounds. Ducks start migrating over our heads, at first in one and twos, and then in dozens. I blame the Labrador retriever that went down the trail ahead of us for flushing the birds until I spot him heading back to the trailhead with his owner. Do the math Dan. The sound of something being plunked into water followed by ducks in frantic flight equals crab pot placements. Someone just dropped a line of crab pots into a chunk of Smuggler’s Cove covered with waterfowl. We won’t have much to watch when we reach the cove overlook so I snap pictures of fleeing mallards as they pass into front of the Mendenhall Towers and Mount McGinnis.
It’s a day for rain forest dwellers to cash in on an early spring day with sun and temperatures in the 50’s. Some with boats spend this warm Easter Morning dropping crab pots. Others troll for feeder king salmon off False Outer Point. Many, like Aki and I, just look at things.
We run into a group of serious bird watchers with serious spotting scopes and serious tripods for mounting them. Understandably, they are not happy to receive Aki’s happy, if loud greeting. I would have told them where the Smuggler Cove ducks now feed but did not want to intrude.
The little dog and I, we spend this holiday morning with sun on our faces listening to eagle song and duck complaints. I wonder at the beauty so accessible to one with eyes and interest; the little dog rolls in something rich in sea smells that last night’s tide left in the meadow grass. Thank God for the day and that Aki is scheduled for a bath.
The flat, grey light doesn’t diminish the little dog’s excitement on this hike up the Perseverance Trail. Yesterday’s heavy rain hasn’t washed away the scents she loves to sample. I carry a camera with little enthusiasm. We walk over familiar ground unenhanced by sunlight, frost, or even rain. As if to lift my mood, the sun’s ghost appears just above the outstretched limb of a cottonwood tree. A robin settles in the tree. I snap their picture before the ghost departs.