Just minutes from the car, Aki and I are already soaked. Without interference from the wind, steady rain falls straight onto the glacial moraine. The Irish guide that once drove me around the Dingle Peninsula would call this a soft day, as if sunshine cuts like a knife. The description was accurate in one way: that day’s wet grayness softened away the visual contrasts that could have given the Irish farmland pop.
Today’s rains falls from clouds low enough to hide surrounding mountains and the glacier. Later we will see a slice of mountains and ice as the clouds lift. But, when we pass it on our way onto the moraine, the Mendenhall River appears to come out of a cloud. Raindrops bead up on blueberry and poplar leaves as well as in the border of segments of horsetail shoots. But the robins still sing, the kingfisher scolds, beavers tail slap lake water, and the little dog manages to enjoy herself.
Back in Juneau, back in the rain. Aki, her other human and I splash down the Nugget Falls Trail. Ahead, a mountain goat focuses on the emerging alder and cottonwood growth. Beneath him, the falls charge into Mendenhall Lake. Later, when I upload photographs of the day onto the computer, I’ll find one in which the goat is staring at the little dog and her family. He could be looking at the glacier or one of the many icebergs it calved since spring. He could be distracted by the hoards of dark-eyed juncos bouncing around the trailside brush. I’d understand it if he noticed the brilliant yellow-green of the leaves he had been eating. Why look at Aki?
The photo that I uploaded next shows the goat head searching for food, turned so that his rear faces our fronts. Back to business. Don’t take it personal, little dog.
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.
It’s a white day: white skies, white snow following on a lake ice covered with more of the same. I’m back on the pilgrimage trail to the glacial ice cave. But, this time the little dog and her other human are here.
Aki bounces through the new snow. Her humans use skis on the irregular surface. They are tools, not sporting equipment. Without them, we’d be slogging through the heavy new snow.
At the glacier, Aki’s humans switch to ice cleats and use a frozen creek for access to the ice cave. On this day of flat light, I don’t expect to find as much beauty as on Friday when strong sunlight muscled its way through the thick glacial ice. But the cave surprises. In the softer light, I find fairy ice fractures, crystal clear against a background of blue.
I am on a pilgrimage with a poet and a memoirist, but not Aki. As is required for any worthwhile pilgrimage, we endure pain. Winds gusting to 30 miles-an-hour chill our exposed skin and push obscuring wind over the lake ice. (Aki would not have liked the wind). Because it is shrinking, we must walk farther to reach the glacier than last year.
We are not alone. A line of other pilgrims move with us on a long, flat trail to the glacial ice cave. Another line of walkers moves away from the glacier. With the wind at their backs, sun on their faces, and fresh memories of the cave’s beauty, they should appear happy, if not transformed. But most just look cold, ready for lunch.
I had hoped that the wind would have kept the selfie seekers away. But I should know to never to underestimate the need for Facebook affirmation. This dark thought is hypocritical. I am also on this walk to photograph beauty.
After passing through a wind funnel and climbing a small moraine hump, we reach the cave. Water drips from the icicles that form a fringe over the opening. From inside comes the sound of teenagers expressing awe. We pass through a gentle curtain of ice melt and into an aquamarine tunnel. The cave is lined with the ancient ice, some hundreds of year old; ice that traps stones ripped long ago from the bedrock. In places it is crystal clear, others as green as aquarium glass or cobalt blue.
We pass through the cave and climb onto the glacier itself. A week of strong wind has scoured the surface ice free of snow. Here the glacier is all undulation and soft edges. Less and half-a-kilometer down the river of ice, fissures have cut the glacier face into chunks that will soon calve into bergs. Next summer I will canoe around the new icebergs, knowing that they will melt to nothingness before the next winter, wondering whether the shrinking ice cave has finally collapsed.
To get to this pocket grove of old growth spruce, Aki and I had to cross recovering ground. More than 200 years ago, it began rebounding after being crushed by the Lemon Glacier. The Lemon retreated into hanging glacier status but since then someone clearcut most of the old growth that grew in its newly freed earth. Alders and berry brush choked the slashed land until new hemlock and spruce trees managed to rise above the tangled mess and form a second growth forest. The canopy of these thickly packed trees now blocks the light needed for understory plants.
Perhaps because they rooted in a hard-to-reach stream valley, the collection of spruce that now surround my little dog and I have stood since America purchased this land from Russia. In a tiny glade formed by the big trees, a bald eagle died and its body was devoured by forest recyclers. Aki tentatively sniffs the corpse—-now just bones and feathers, talons and beak, then backs away. The bird lays on its back with wings splayed out, head upside down. I hope it chose this peaceful place to die after a long life.
It’s almost March. Tomorrow or the next day a Pacific storm will likely hammer Juneau with heavy snow or worse—rain. But this morning, on Mendenhall Lake, it’s almost desert-warm. Someone has set a five-kilometer track on the ice, which we follow toward the glacier. Aki dashes from her other human and I, stopping occasionally to take a cooling snow bath.
It’s hard to concentrate on anything but sparkling snow, the blue-green glacier ice, and the saw tooth ridge of mountains that rise out of the Juneau ice field. I think about To Make A Poem by Alberta Turner, a book that urges poets to tap into the subconscious for inspiration. But my subconscious can’t complete with all the natural beauty. Only when I complete the apex of the track loop and turn my back to the glacier, can I yield to the meditative slide and slide rhythm of Nordic skiing. But I sense the glacier leering behind me, ready to strike a stunning pose if I turn around. On a rising north wind, I can almost hear the river of ice taunt, “I’ve calved more metaphors than your sad little subconscious will produce in your lifetime.”