This morning, I drove Aki out to the glacial moraine in hopes of seeing some transient tundra swans. Nothing, not even a merganser breaks the mirror surface of Dredge Lake. But it’s early enough that we have the place to ourselves. Moving through a cloud of bird song we walk a circuit of the other moraine lakes.
Beaver leavings—dams, fallen trees stripped of bark, wood chips, scattered sticks marred by tooth marks—litter the trailside ground. Many of their diminutives logging roads cross the trail. On the eastern shore of Moose Lake I say, It’s funny little dog. We rarely see those responsible for all this mess. Just then, a beaver slips into the lake and paddles toward the glacier.
Minutes later, another beaver scrabbles out from underneath a bridge we are crossing and plops into the lake. Aki paces up and down the bank while I measure the progress of its underwater swim by the trail of breath bubbles. Four meters from the shore, the beaver surfaces, see us, and crashes back under the water with a tremendous splash.
We continued on our search for swans but find only a sole Canada goose. I give up the search after two birders tell me that the swans had left two days ago. Released, I can enjoy the morning light infusing new cottonwood growth and the personality of a yellow-rumped kinglet that shows itself to us.
Aki runs ahead of me with her hind legs splayed out like both are in casts. It’s the only way she can make progress thanks to the collection of snow chunks, some bigger than golf balls, hanging onto the her fur. She has a similar collection on her chest and front legs. I’ve been struggling to make progress thanks to a buildup of snow on my ski bottoms. Were a pair to draw to, little dog, I think when something crashes through thin ice near the edge of Moose Lake.
At first I think that new snow sloughing off overhead branches made the noise. Then I spot a beaver, fur darkened by water, munching alder branches on another section of lake ice. These guys should be snug in their dens, waiting for ice out, if not night. But here they are exposed, eating as snowflakes melt on their backs. Is this a sign of the apocalypse, bad timing, or a failure to make a fall-time wood pile big enough to keep them in alder and cottonwood until spring?
The little stretch of cold weather we’ve enjoyed has opened up trails normally thanks to the beavers. Flooded sections and those usually sticky with sucking mud are firm. A few nights worth of frost on the glass slick trail ice allows traction. Only the sound of moving water will draw the beavers from their mud and stick dens. All is frozen and quiet on the moraine.
We work our way from Crystal Lake to Mendenhall through a forest of stark-white trees, all killed by flooding after the beavers built their series of fifty foot dams on one of the moraine streams. The dead trunks barely diminish our view of Mt. McGinnis.
Before arriving at Mendenhall Lake with its unimpeded view of the glacier, I vow not to take any more pictures of the river of ice. But seeing it underlined by the lake sparkling with undisturbed frost and backed by mountains and blue sky, I click away, driven as if a shot of happiness is being released in my brain each time I depress the shutter button.
The little dog and I walk between two channels of the Mendenhall River on a trail only passable after stretches of cold, snowy weather. If she wasn’t such a brat about it, we could follow it all the way to the lake and loop back on a trail rich in dog signs. But Aki disappears across the river and into the woods whenever she sniffs a trail to her preferred route. She doesn’t care about solitude or silence or the reflected views we have of the glacier and Mt. McGinnis. She wants some same-species interaction.
I crunch ahead, breaking through the thin crust covering the snow pack except where the wind had stripped the trail down to bare ice. We find what looks like a miniature bobsled course that runs from the river’s edge to a thick forest of alders. My suspicion that it is a beaver’s logging ice road is confirmed when the little dog rolls on a portion of the run with a goofy smile on her face. She does love beaver scent.
Last week, while Aki chased her Frisbee over Juneau trails, I explored lands drained by the Innoko River area in Western Alaska. Some of the area I passed through has been designated wilderness. But we saw as many or even more animals in the non-wilderness areas. The flying predators we spotted—eagles, peregrine falcons, owls (great grey and great horned), and even a raven—seemed more interested in keeping near their food source than fleeing us. On each beach we sampled we added our boot tracks to those of geese, wolves, moose, beaver, porcupine, and grizzly bears. Twice we watched moose swim the width of the Innoko River.
Today, now back with Aki in Juneau, I spent part of this Fourth of July picking blue berries near the Mendenhall River. While we walked on trails beaten through the patch by black bears, none appeared. Even one did appear it would not make the moraine a wild place, not when rubber rafts full of cruise ship customers constantly float past the berry patch.
The red tulips we planted last fall made their appearance during last week’s storm. Some of their petals dangle down like climbers stranded on a cliff. Able to relax in today’s sunlight, I feel like a rescued climber, fingernails stressed, not really believing how lovely Mount Juneau looks without its usual cloud cape. To celebrate Aki and I head out to the moraine where high water floods over parts of the trail. Beavers, not storm work caused the lake waters to cover our path. Aki charges through. I slosh, happy to escape with dry socks. There is always more moraine magic on days like this—the first dry and sunny one after a long stint of rain. Every leave seems washed clean. The new poplar leaves glow like they will in the fall as their life drains back into the tree roots.
We head out North Douglas Highway to a path taken often to the sea. As I always do on this walk, I stop where a beaver pond pushes against a row of old growth spruce and look at the feeder stream curving out of sight. What lies around that corner? I plan on bringing the canoe here so I can answer that question. I think, once again, that I should have explored the creek during last winter’s cold spell when strong ice covered it. But this summer, there will be no canoe expedition into the darkest recesses of the muskeg it drains. I’ll move past it on my way to the more dramatic beach even during next winter’s cold winter. Does something in me want to preserve the mystery? If Aki is stuck in similar mental loops, she is too busy to say. She has squirrels to chase and pee messages to leave dog friends.