We were heading to the glacier moraine but on this rare sunny day I couldn’t drive past the light washed wetlands. Neither Aki nor I have been to this section by the airport for a couple of years. Frost flowers sparkle on dead fireweed stalks and willow gall roses. Aki sniffs at one spot, dashes to another, and sniffs again. People rarely walk their dogs here so I can’t figure out what she is investigating.
To get to the high tide line, we have to walk along the Egan Expressway for thirty minutes. Cars rush by at 55 miles per hour. Aki ignores them. I go extensional: pretend that the highway a fast mountain river that brings life to a desert instead of shoppers home from Fred Meyers.
Leaving the “river” we walk over tussocks of grass bent low by snow to where the high tide replaced snow cover with a thin, flexible sheet of salt water ice. Portions of the ice sheet broke off when the tide ebbed and now lay on the banks of small, deep channels, draped like Greek gowns. When we return to the snow covered area, Aki restarts her investigation. We find a set of fresh tracks that must have been made by a large, running cat, say a Lynx. There are four tracks together as if made by the cat when it brought all four paws together just before springing forward. Maybe three feet away, we find a similar set of four, but also a “v” shaped groove that suggests that the animal dragged its right rear paw. While I was trying to focus my camera on some ice bling, did a cool cat leap across our tracks?
Relatively warm fog obscures everything but this mountain meadow and nearby trees. I know it’s warm. The sound of free flowing groundwater and snow texture on the trail testifies that it is well above freezing. But even my heavy winter gloves can’t warm my hands after I expose them when taking photographs. The moist fog is almost as efficient at removing body heat as cold water. The snow provides good purchase for Aki’s paws. She exploits it by dashing back and forth, sometimes stopping suddenly so she can enjoy the resulting slide.
By eliminating their visible competition, the fog provides a nice stage for the twisted meadow pines. Recently fallen snow dapples the meadow with a pinto pattern and partially fills twin wounds made by the wheels of an all terrain vehicle. The muskeg plants will eventually heal the scar but it will take many years. I’m wondering why the ATV guy drove in a cloud of noise and hydrocarbons to cut a path across a meadow that could be walked in twenty minutes. Was he or she a thoughtless yob or just someone who needed to leave proof of a sad life on earth.
An earworm has crawled into my brain. I blame the alders with their snow-covered limbs that reach over the trail for light. On days with good visibility, they appear to lean out in supplication to Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts. But today, a screen of falling snow obscures the mountains but I am still singing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” over and over again. Without the mountains as their target, the alders look to be leaning out for something—the snow or something spiritual. Are they are Cohen’s ‘heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning…leaning out for love.” Will, “they will lean that way forever?” Heroes, children, and all of us that fall in between, we all long for love and the meaning it brings to our lives.
Aki, no long a child and a hero only in her own mind, might seek our affection when at home but this morning cares only for trotting over fresh snow and the scent of the meadow’s nocturnal visitors. We step on tracks of mink, red squirrel, and rabbit slowly filling with falling snow. During this rain-cursed winter, this is a rare opportunity so I ignore everything, including the direction of our progress, and scan for more animal tracks. Aki scouts a way across the meadow and into a strip of forest where we have never walked. Ten minutes later I realize that one of is lost: me. Without the mountains for reference, I am disoriented. Aki stops, wags her tail, and looks confident. “Okay little dog, find us a way home.” She returns us to a familiar trail just before it hits the access road that we can take back to the car. “Try not to brag, LD.”
can take back to the car. “Try not to brag, LD.”
Before Aki. Before moving from Western to Southeastern Alaska. I drove a sled pulled by huskies. In Aniak, the dogs spent the summer along a wind swept section of slough while we fished and gardened. Most springs, the Kuskokwim River flooded our garden plot, soaking it in water made rich with nutrients from decomposing salmon. Hundreds of thousands of the fish spawned and died upriver from us.
On the long subarctic days of early summer we could almost hear our transplanted cole crops grow. But frost stayed late up there so, on advice from village elders, we waited to plant until emerging birch leaves were the size of squirrel ears. Frost never touched things planted after that point, which left me with an article of faith: wild plants never leaf until out until it is safe. On today’s walk with Aki I found reason to doubt.
During our recent thaw mountain ferns, like our foolish Dutch iris, pushed out new growth. The mild frost that hit them last night flattened out the ferns. They will lose all the stored nutrients invested in the new growth when real winter returns. Maybe this is why our elders in Juneau look to moon and won’t plant until the first high tide in May.
Deep in what the calendar names winter, I walk without grippers on a trail normally treacherous with ice. (New England, please return our snow). Aki digs and sniffs along the trail’s edges where spring like conditions have released odors recently hidden under snow. We will never walk in the sun today but it shoots its rays on the wheat colored meadow across the river and along the entire Chilkat Mountain Range to the west. The trail leads to one of Juneau’s few sandy beaches where today gulls feed in the shallows, sometimes crossing over the white reflection of a beautiful mountain with the ugly name of Mt. Golub. Anywhere in the lower 48, people would brag about having the pyramid shaped peak in their backyard. Here, only the climbers mention it.
On the large tidal meadow we cross after turning away from Mr. Golub, I almost step in bear scat: pale grey stuff shot through with pieces of dried grass. Somebody must be up and about to see if it really is spring. Later we find a collection of frozen sundews, open jaws filled with snow melt. Still later, three feet up a trailside spruce a red squirrel appears to wait for Aki. My little dog ignores the squirrel until it chatters a challenge. When Aki dashes over the squirrel climbs onto the stub of a branch and just stares us down. Nothing today, is as it should be.
This afternoon, as the rain stopped, Aki and I meandered around the University’s Auk Lake campus. It is quiet. All the action takes place in the library. We carry out the usual division of labor. Aki pees, and sniffs messages left by other dogs or greets the odd student on a study break. I take pictures, mostly of the eyes carved in totem poles.
When the marine layer breaks open to reveal the blue sky that I had lost hope of seeing again, we head down to the lake and find thin sheens of petroleum mimicking the northern lights. This faux aurora borealis doesn’t dance like the sky bound one until Aki walks onto a floating dock and sets off surface ripples with every step. I snap away at the lake reflections of black spruce, blue sky, and magenta and green oil sheen. Each reflection would be beautiful in cloud whites, blues and blacks but is made more stunning by the shimmering pollutants. I’ve been here before: admiring California sunsets enhanced by smog, Canadian sunrises with deep reds popping against black forest fire smoke. Each time I wonder how corruption can produce fallouts of such beauty.
The golden retriever wants to continue down the thin strip of gravel that momentarily links Douglas Island with Shaman. With our access to tide tables, the retriever’s owner and I know that the tide turned a half and hour ago. We can see that the waves hitting from both sides of the path are about to meet to swamp the trail and close the road to Shaman Island until the next minus tide. The old dog would push on after the trail floods, perhaps because she doesn’t remember how winter water chills after it soaks her fine, long hair. Aki, who only swims when caught unawares by a beach drop off, stands content at my side. When the retriever returns we walk across the exposed beach, happy that for the moment that rain had stopped and we can see a blue strip of glacier framed in Payne’s gray and spruce green.