Every four years the calendar gives us this extra leap day. Aki and I spend part of it exploring the country around the Peterson Creek Salt Chuck. Only a steep cascade of boulders separates salt chucks from the sea. High tides rise above the cascade and push salt water into the chuck. Today, with the tide out we can listen to water draining from the salt lake into the big fjord known as Lynn Canal.
We must make this trip in the morning before today’s sunshine and warm temperatures melt away the crust that formed over this snow covered trail during last night’s hard freeze. The crust provides Aki with a wide platform for dashing about and taking the occasional rolling tumble. The freeze decorated these bare alder and willow branches with ice crystals that now sparkle in the sun. Like the crust they soon will yield to the day’s warmth. Some, made more beautiful by their own melting, already fall to the ground.
Above the transitioning scene a male Pine Grosbeak, showing strong red color against the blue sky, sings out from the top of a tall spruce tree. Aki has never seen a Grosbeak before but I enjoyed them often when living along the Kuskokwim River. In that place of great silence only Grosbeaks could break the forest’s quiet with song.
Moving away from the salt chuck I follow Aki into the woods above a headland and we make our way to a pocket beach. The hatchery has anchored its pens full of salmon fingerlings just off shore. In a few months hatchery staff will release hundreds of thousands of the fingerlings into the canal. Those that survive local predators will cruise the North Pacific until the call to spawn sounds and they return to natal waters.
Looking for a free meal, a gang of Golden Eye Ducks patrol around the nets until a Stellar Sea Lion breaks the surface. Then the ducks collect in a pocket formed where a rocky point juts out from the beach. Unlike the transit ducks that fell victim to seals at the Mendenhall River mouth last weekend, these are local boys that know they can’t swim out of this danger. Aki, concentrating on good beach smells, ignores the ducks but I watch them tense and then fly over the sea lion’s head before dropping to sea nearer the nets.
The weather changed this morning at 7. Just a half an hour earlier the sky had gone from black to deep blue, promising another sunny day. Then it was all grey skies and snow. Expecting no sparkle on its waters. Aki and I drive through the 2 mile avalanche zone on Thane Road to Sheep Creek. A high snow wall still boarders the uphill side of the road marking the edge of the avalanche that closed it last month.
At Sheep Creek snow covers the vast expanse of sand and gravel exposed by the outgoing tide. The creek cuts a diminutive and wandering channel through a huge bar formed by tidal forces in Gasteneau Channel. The sound here in Summer can be deafening—territorial gull cries, eagle screams, and rolling salmon fighting for possession of the spawning redds. The carcasses of spent salmon left behind by ebbing tides add a nasty spice to the air. Today we only smell wet sand and sea weed and hear the voices of song sparrows working the beach.
Farther out, where the gravel bar edges Gasteneau Channel big disorganized rafts of ducks, gulls and scoters fish the shallow waters. They don’t react to us. We can trace the movement of schools of bait by their meanderings. This is unlike the organized scoter rafts of summer. They hold tight formation facing the swell. As if responding to command the front row dives en mass letting the second row replace them at the front of the raft. In a few seconds members of the former first row bob to the surface at the raft’s rear to form a new back line. This is repeated until the last once again becomes the first and then again the last.
When today’s disorganized bird rafts move into deeper water Aki and I turn to the mountains and walk onto a large sandy expanse. She dashes away at full speed for several hundred yards and then returns at the same breakneck speed. I have nothing to give for this performance but praise. It must be enough for she does it several times before settling in at my side for the snowy walk back to the car.
Today I discover what its like being used by seals. Aki and I are walking along the lower Mendenhall River under full sun. Ducks and geese hug the waters on the river’s other shore. It’s hard to see them through light glittering off the river. A Great Blue Heron croaks then rises from the shallows to fly closer to Douglas Island. Then a Belted Kingfisher flutter flys over the river, its wet feathers glistening in the sun.
A seal surfaces nearby and follows us down river. Figuring he is just bored, I concentrate on tracks in the sand. In this area transitioning from the world of water to that of land, every rock and half buried stick supports islands of shell fish. Small tufts of beach grass colonize high spots that might stay dry during moderate tides. Green shoots mix with season’s dead stuff to promise spring. Aki’s tracks join those of a gulls and another canine. Normally she would show more interest in the larger dog like tracks, sniffing carefully where the animal leaped then pounced on something. The gait and track pattern suggest a wolf but I can’t believe one would expose himself on this well used portion of ground. Aki also ignores a snail moving deliberately across a patch of smooth sand. It leaves behind a long furrow as it makes for a tiny island of mussels.
Reaching the turn around point we spot a small raft of ducks right up against the beach. One cackles a warning and they move into deeper water then head up river. I’ve forgotten friend seal so am confused when the ducks zigzag their way up the current. After reaching midstream they paddle quickly back to shore. Even though we are never closer then 75 feet to the water, the ducks move back into midstream when we they hear my boots crunch on beach rocks.
Things become clear then the seal surfaces to encourage their return to shore. At this point I stop walking and watch the ducks swim to midstream not far from where the seal floats. They spit up. Most head across to the other shore but one, singing out a song you would call sarcastic if it came from my mouth, turns upriver. Perhaps knowing that the one brave duck will fly at the first charge, friend seal doesn’t follow. Just when the duck seems clear, another seal bursts out the water and grabs it. The two seals tussle on the surface then disappear. The nervous muttering of the onshore ducks stops and we all spend a moment in silence reflecting on what just happened.
Aki and I turn into the sun and head toward the car. Rounding a headland we see the Glacier reflected in the incoming tide, two geese flying across its face. One of the remaining ducks begin the sarcastic song as we disappear from sight.
I pass this tree each day on the way to work. It grows above a well used playground. In a month or so when spring’s leaves turn it into a great green ball, the tree will become transformable into a child’s fort or the perfect hiding place during a game of hide and seek. After the children go home it may provide screened housing for a tired bear. All this magic was made possible in the tree’s early days when a moment’s carelessness split apart it’s trunk so it could send out two massive branches. Bears and children still find uses for the cozy space formed by the resulting empty space..
You can imagine a school child on the first real warm day of Spring, full of that crazy energy Northerners get on such days, grabbing the sapling in order to propel himself to the front of a scrum through the brush. Maybe a bear, unaware of consequences, did it. As so often happens in this rain forest nature healed the tree and it lives on as a magic place for children and bears.
The morning’s snow fall brings fragile beauty to this trail. Flakes gather in the crevices formed by branches and twigs on trail side blueberry bushes. They will fall as wet drops to the ground as the temperature rises or fly off in the next moderate breeze. Further into the woods snow, filtered by the old growth canopy, falls on mossy green ground. I want to morn the inevitable destruction of magic but opt instead to be in the moment.
The melt is more advanced when we reach salt water, Alders lining the beach stand bare. Snow still covers the beach except where an incoming tide has washed it clean. Something or someone around the next headland frightens a raft of ducks to flight, They hit the water just offshore of us. Then a gang of gulls burst into a mewing song and take briefly to air before resettling on the beach. They mutter for a bit, perhaps about foolish ducks and this unending winter. Standing still Aki and I watch the ducks and Shaman Island now whitened with fresh snow.
I listen to the faint surf and stain to see the outline of Portland Island through the screen of snow. I wish I could freeze this moment in time—turn it into a film to be explored by all five senses. Then water drops fall on me from the overhead trees and I notice how cold the wind is on this exposed beach. Abandoning the moment completely I think of what to freeze in time. It would be great to capture the joy at the birth of my child or love’s first kiss. I could study them, even walk through them again again. Returning from exploring an interesting scent, Aki stands where the trail leads away from the beach. She of few memories, seems to recognize the peril in my fantasy. She is the queen of living in the moment. I follow her into the woods and the moment.
Gray days like this leave me hungry for the drama of opposites. I find a feast on this walk through an old growth forest and in the river meadow country it borders. Only contrasting smells excite Aki. Catching the scent of a squirrel or fresh animal scat sends her dashing down the trail, ears flapping, tail a metronome. For me its all visual.
Last’s night snow starts us off. It coats the green spruce forest to within a few hundred feet of sea level. This sharp demarcation of light and dark pops when shafts of low angle morning sun spot the mountain side. In the forest fresh snow dusts young evergreens and fills open spaces in the yellow green tree moss.
A crest of blue shows through the clouds when the trail leaves the forest and crosses a muskeg meadow. It’s the first blue I’ve seen in days. The sound of geese rising in panic fills the air but there are none on the muskeg. We push on to the meadowlands bordering Eagle River to see what the excitement is all about. Until now the forest has been silent.
I figure out what happened to the geese on our first glance of the river. A flood tide now covers all the bars where geese like to hang. They are gone but three ducks fly across our vision and a single seal watches us for a few seconds before dropping silently beneath the river surface.
On this open space we can appreciate the battle of sunlight with cloud cover. I have to cheer on the sun but know the clouds will win. Some filtered rays do manage to reach to river water and turn it a pale gold.
The river has covered our usual trail across the meadow with five feet of water so we have to back track. But first we stand on a high spot and watch the tide rob this meadow of the beauty. A field of snow dusted yellow beach grass disappears beneath dark water.
“Why risk it Aki?” She who is better equipped to transit slick surfaces appears to agree so we turn our backs on a chance to visit the old gold bearing Glory Hole and head for home. We have been taking risks since we left the house this morning. Now I am wondering why.
After watching Everton easily defeat Blackpool in a FA cup match we headed out the front door to find black ice overing the street. I have ice grippers but decide to risk a fall so I won’t have to take them off when we reach dry pavement. Our warm overcast weather continues but we can still see the Mt. Juneau summit. That changes as we drop down into the Evergreen Bowl and start up a very icy trail running along Gold Creek. A snow storm will catch up before we reach home.
Even with ice grippers I slip a bit. The trail becomes more treacherous after passing through a grove of alders and starts its climb to the flume trail. On this steep serpent of ice the grippers fail but I pull myself upward by grabbing trail side willows. If one breaks I could be in trouble.
I don’t have time to question the wisdom of this adventure until we reach the Flume. The snow covering it offers a safer tread but we have to pass under several avalanche chutes to gain the Perseverance trail. It should be safe now that the snow on Mr. Juneau has stabilized a bit. Still, I am a bit unnerved looking up at chutes still choked with recent avalanches. Here I envy Aki’s ability to stay in the here and now.
We join the Perseverance trail just before it becomes a long ledge cut into a steep hillside. One slip here and I’d slide for more than 100 feet. The stretch is covered with high mounds of snow left by the tail end of an avalanche that must have flow over the trail to the valley below. It snapped off the tops of trees growing on the downhill slope. I think of turning around here until seeing the prints of a child’s boots on the trail. Rather than judge the child’s parent I question my caution and continue past the ledge to where the trail becomes a road winding up the creek valley.
Below the creek runs free but across is another chute overloaded by very recent avalanches. Here the trail widens into a gravel road covered with hard crusted snow. The downhill slope drops hundreds of feet to the creek and I am reminded of the young man who fell to his death down the slope a few years ago. Still we move on. I want to see Ebner Falls crashing down into the creek and then reach the place where the valley opens up.
I made this trip in winter once with two friends. One turned back at this spot rather than cross a section of ice covered trail. I pushed on with the other friend and we were awarded with the sight of a wolf flashing across the trail ahead of us. Today, after reaching an area where my ice grippers fail, I turn back. The promise of more beauty or even a wolf is not worth the risk.