After spending so much time recently at the glacier, today I opt for a more homey trip. Aki trots behind the tails of my skis as I move easily down a moraine trail. It’s raining, which makes the packed trail snow almost friction-free. Maybe that is why we get so close to the northern harrier before it flies off with a beak full of rabbit entrails. The grey bird loses most of them by the time it reaches a nearby tree roost.
I as pleased that Aki doesn’t bark or bother the big bird. The harrier isn’t pleased that I stop to take a few pictures. When it flies off, we head down the trail, passing over sections of the moraine that will soon be flooded by water backed up behind one of the beavers’ many dams. We probably won’t reach this deep into the troll woods until next winter.
The harrier is back when we returned, standing over a mostly-eaten hare. He is only a few feet from the trail. If not for the deep snow and heavy brush surrounding us, I’d lead Aki in a wide arc around the hunter and his prey. But there is nothing for it so I lead the little dog slowly toward the harrier. It flies off to a nearby tree, ready to finish his feast after we are gone.
At the end of each recent day, I expected that the next would offer the last chance to ski in front of the glacier. For the past week, the weatherman has predicted rain and higher temperatures—rain that would turn the snow to useless mush and weaken lake ice so it could no longer support even Aki’s weight. But we start this trip around Mendenhall Lake in sunshine. My boards slide smoothly down the track while Aki chases after her other human, who flies down the trail on skate skis. The little dog will sleep well tonight.
Left alone, I have plenty of time to take in the glacier. It’s size and beauty has always discouraged my previous attempts to study it. Today, I might have found a way in, inspired by The Great British Baking Show. (Aki is the only one in the house without a crush on Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.) Falling back on what they know, P and M would tell me to turn the glacier into a dessert. In my mind I build a glacial confection using chocolate wafers and vanilla ice cream to form the surrounding mountains and the rocky hill that underlines the river of ice. Hand carved marzipan, soaked in a teal-turquoise food coloring could represent the ice with sprinkled powdered sugar for snow.
Snow still blocks the road to the Fish Creek trailhead. Aki cruises on top of its crust while I break through. But there is a path of sorts busted through by past visitors. Unfortunately, they all had longer gaits than me so I have to stretch out to match their boot prints. Ahead, in the trees lining Fish Creek pond a murder of crows besiege a lone eagle. I can hear their racket over the sound of my boots crunching through frozen snow.
We must be the first human-dog teams to visit this morning because the crows let us get close before stirring. I expect to find the carcass they fight over but no deer bones litter the wetland grass. Rafts of mallards have tucked themselves against the far stream bank, as if they needed shelter on this windless day.
Two smells of spring hit me when I reach a section of beach washed of snow by the tides: mud and rotting seaweed. Feet away, the land is locked in the sterile hold of winter. But here the necessary work of decomposition already paves the way for summer growth and autumn harvest.
Bald eagles are solo hunters. They don’t cooperate. They don’t like competition. Today, three eagles trying for herring off of Point Louisa spend as much time warning each other off as in diving for fish. I am not one to argue with Darwin, but I can’t figure out the genetic advantage of being so crabby.
Harbor seals catch more salmon by working in a pack then they would on their own. Just when pink salmon enter Kowee Creek, two seals splash and crash dive, causing the fish to school up and swim straight toward two other seals. These sweet-eyed predators switch roles with the drivers after they have fed.
Aki and I are walking on the snow-slick path with one of my oldest friends. Over the sound of a rising wind we talk about the clearance, during World War II, of Aleut villages. The Native Alaskan residents were relocated to backwaters of Southeast Alaska where they were left to shiver and starve. Somehow 90% of them survived the camps. Many of the survivors never returned to their homeland. Doctor Darwin, what is genetic advantage of treating people like that?
Snowflakes, fine as ash from an extinguished house fire, fall on the whale. They settle and then melt on nearby truck tractors, a screaming-red crane, and the concrete slab to which the whale is bolted. The city fathers promise that one day, the bronze humpback whale will breach over a summer garden. It will entice cruise ship tourists to walk a mile down the multi-million dollar sea walk, away from the Franklin Street jewelry stores and Tee shirt shops. But now, the whale breaches in a construction yard, as startling as a sunflower in Antarctica.
I should have donned snowshoes, not ice grippers for this trip to Gastineau Meadows. We climb a well-packed trail, our feet eighteen inches below the snow level of the meadow. Aki doesn’t seem to mind having her field of view so restricted. She never leaps out of the easy channel, just dashes up the narrow trail and back, stopping only to sniff and pee.
It was twenty-two degrees F. when I made morning coffee and twenty-eight when we left Chicken Ridge. After such a night of cold, the water-rich meadow snow should have a rock hard crust strong enough to support my weight. That would grant us the freedom to wander into the least-visited corners of the meadow—the ones offering surprising mountain views. But my boots sink at least a foot when I try leaving the packed trail. So we stay trail-bound. At least I am tall enough to see the mountains standing like giants over the stunted meadow trees, the little dog, and me.
Aki dashes between her other human and me, finding good, firm footing on the snow-covered lake. The number of parked cars near the trailhead led me to expect a crowd on the lake. But all who used the cars to drive here are skiing in the campground. That trail, set by a snowmachine over a paved road, offers little danger and only one view of the glacier. If the wind isn’t blowing across it, we usually chose the lake. Its trail gives you an unobstructed view of the river of ice for more than a kilometer and a half. We have only enjoyed the view for a minute before finding a patch of open water, apparently made when the snowmachine groomer’s roller punched through the ice.
We ski on toward the glacier, looking for soft spots and finding none. Torn cloud fragments wreath Mt. McGinnis and Thunder Mountain. If the lake is groaning under its twenty inch thick blanket of snow, we don’t hear it. We don’t hear anything but Aki’s panting and the scraping of our skis over the slightly icy track.
The groomer’s snowmachine approaches after we make the turn back to the car. After it growls past. a trio of skiers slips onto the lake followed by several more. I am not surprised. Like I have many times in the past, the incomers have waited for the heavy machine to test the ice before venturing on to it.