As Aki and I hurry past the gun range to where the Montana Creek ski trail starts, I wonder at these people who chose to spend Sunday morning discharging high power rifles. Perhaps their Sabbath falls on a different day of the week. It’s still early so maybe they are centering themselves for the mid-morning Palm Sunday service by releasing violence against a paper target. For others, this may be their church: their way to celebrate creation and life. Instead of following along in hymnals, they use the Remington 270 or a standard thirty-ought-six to sing divine praise. Members of this church of powder and shot must prefer the bark of a Winchester 30-30 carbine to a homily.
When the rifle range noise becomes hidden by the sound of Montana Creek, I ease into skiing. Aki releases her tail from between her hind legs and trots along, stopping to sniff and pee like she does when relaxed. But at the turnaround spot, where there is only a tributary of the creek to break the silence, we hear three loud bangs. Down goes the tail until it is curled between Aki’s legs. Even though we are soon back to where the creek noise blocks out violence sounds, the little dog doesn’t relax.
After we run out of skiable snow, we walk. Yesterday, on this patch of ice and pavement, I felt like a WWI recruit approaching the trenches for the first time, trying not to duck for cover. But today, we don’t hear any shots during the 500-meter walk to the car. The gun range is practically empty. We spot only two men and them conversing quietly next to their pickup truck. Church must be out.
Aki was not pleased at being left out of yesterday’s hike. Giving me hard looks, she followed me around the house this morning as I gather needed stuff for a cross-country ski on the Montana Creek trail. We have avoided this trail for the last two seasons because it starts near a very active gun range. The cannon-like noise produced hurts my ears and makes the little dog very nervous. But Aki loves snow, especially when it offers her a chance to run along side one of her people skiing. So here we are.
Thanks it its proximity to the glacier, Montana Creek has an icebox microclimate that keeps winter alive as spring flowers open on Chicken Ridge. While walking away from the gun range on a bone-dry road I wonder if we left it too late. But three hundred meters ahead we find an icy covering that had been made just skiable by groomer. With the drum and track setter that he tows behind his snowmachine (Skido in Canadian, Snowmobile in American), he keeps winter on life support for the first kilometer of the trail. After that he just has to tidy up the snow that winter retains on its own. For the last two kilometers of the creek side trail snow stacks three feet high decorate boulders in the stream and a blanket of the same thickness covers the forest floor.
I’ve almost forgotten how much Aki loves running on snow, even after it has been softened by rain and warm temperatures. She dashes in front as if a child at an amusement park. I still enjoy skiing but am ready for spring. But Aki might morn the end of this snowy winter.
The trail takes us to the junction of the Eagle and Herbert Rivers. Both are swollen with tide and snow melt. Weakening pans of ice float past. One thinning sheet carries several rocks that each must weigh more than Aki. They float like offering to the hungry waters of spring.
I’m back in Alaska and on the MV Le Conte—six and a half hours from home. We are waiting for last southbound vehicles to drive onto the car deck so we can depart. Onshore, the tourist town of Skagway awakens from its winter hibernation. Outside, gulls wheel over balls of herring. The Edgar Oldenhdroff waits for a load of Yukon ore.
Surviving the drive to here from Whitehorse always seems a bit of a miracle this avalanche-prone time of the year. During our last March visit to the Yukon, we had to drive through a small avalanche. It bent our front license plate but otherwise did no damage. Today we pass over pavement recently cleared from snow slides but had no close calls.
Before the drop down White Pass and into Alaska, we skied at the northern terminus of the Chilkoot Trail. Pushing our boards through newly drifted snow, we waddled to the snow-walled aid station that volunteered had crated for last Saturday’s Buckwheat ski race. Three days ago, the place was noisy with skiers. Today, we had the place to ourselves. I wanted to push on even though sticky snow slowed our progress. Just over a low set of hills lay the way to Lake Bennett, where more than 100 years ago stampeders built rafts and DIY boats for the Yukon River float to the Dawson City gold fields. Then, axes and saws would have shattered the late-winter silence. Today, it is only diminished by our creaky skis.
The grouse is a surprise, as was the pair of lynx that crossed languidly across the Klondike Highway in front of us a few says ago. The bird appears to nest in snow on the forest floor near a Chadburn Lake ski trail. I test the extent of its privacy zone by skiing closer and closer until it flies into a nearby pine tree.
We ski on through the mixed aspen/pine forest to a Yukon River overlook. Not too many years ago, I paddled a canoe under this bluff with a Swedish friend. The Yukon was a source of fear then as it is today. In the canoe, I entertained a little fear of the river’s power that moved us forward as the glacier silt it carried scraped against the canoe’s submerged skin. Today, I fear that the ice beneath the river’s snow covering would be too weak to hold my weight. It is a silly fear. I only touch the river with my eyes.
Later in the day we ski do on the river near the Moss Lake dam, reassured by the presence of newly laid ski tracks. The tracks keep us close to the shore. Across the river, dark clouds block out the sun, bringing drama before the next snow squall.
Mt. MacIntyre is Whitehorse is a world class cross country ski area. On a sunny day like today, when the temperature is near freezing, it provides a ski experience that justifies the effort to get here from Juneau.
Stopping to enjoy the sunlight bouncing off the heavy layer of trailside snow, I spot a large squirrel drop down from a white spruce tree and pose on an upturned tree root wad. Unlike the red squirrels in Juneau who can’t tolerate Aki or I, this guy seems to enjoy my attention. He doesn’t chit a challenge or toss down an empty spruce cone. He just strikes a series of ten second poses, like a life drawing model.
Leaving Aki at home with friends this morning, her other human and I board an Alaska ferry for Skagway, Alaska. Many tourists, international and otherwise, ride the ferries up and down the inside passage. But this time of year, the boat carries only locals. Some are heading home to Whitehorse. Most, from Juneau, will ski tomorrow on the Buckwheat cross-country ski race.
During the six hour boat ride from Juneau to Skagway I spot few people looking out the window even through winter sun sparkles off the waters of Lynn Canal and makes the beautiful Chilkat Mountains even more lovely. In summer, on days when low clouds hide the mountains and flat light turn the canal waters leaden, the ferry windows will still be lined with gawking visitors. The locals could take a lesson.