So quiet, I tell Aki. We are walking around an empty campground that offers occasional views of the glacier. Aki looks up at me with her, “Are you crazy?” stare. She is sampling the rich smells left by a summer’s worth of camping families. While I see empty space, she smells the ghosts of those who used the place before.
I wonder if the little dog can single out the smell of the moose that we are tracking. The big animals are rare on this side of the Juneau Icefield. One must have wandered down from the Antler River, drawn by the juicy willows that grown on the glacial moraine. This is an odd time of year for a moose to do a solo walk about. He or she should be sticking around other moose trying to mate. Are you a young male, driven off by the mature bulls or an oldster?
We follow the tracks to the river where the moose must have entered the water and crossed over to the moraine. I search the opposite shore but see only a thick wall of moose food.
The large cottonwood trees that screen the glacier have begun their slow autumnal striptease. Aki and I see evidence of their dance along the moraine trail—Valentine-shaped leaves, yellow and orange and green, plastered by rain to the gravel or floating on the many beaver ponds. But only the most patient voyeur could appreciate or even detect the trees’ languid movements.
Evidence of beaver work is everywhere. Their dams back up waters in the trailside ditches so they now flood over parts of the trail. A patient man or dog might spot ripe silver salmon moving up the swollen drains on their way to spawning grounds deeper in the moraine. But I am impatient this morning and Aki is too fixated on fresh beaver scent.
She has an attraction to beavers that would prove fatal if she ever managed to close on one. She rarely passes on an opportunity to roll in their scat, something that brings a look of pure bliss to her face. The little dog has many blissful moments this morning as we pass a trio of cottonwood logs that the beavers had floated together and then stripped bare of bark. I wonder how many it took to reduce the logs to glistening white in one night. Because they work the swing and graveyard shifts, the beavers are probably resting in their dens but I still keep a look out for them. More than once, Aki has followed a moraine beaver into the water, tail wagging, apparently hoping to play.
This morning I am a little overwhelmed by forest greens. Aki and I are walking through a protected old growth forest that is not surrendering to fall. All life has already drained from the line of cow parsnips that buffer the forest from the sea. Atop their dead-brown stalks, the plants’ large flowers have been replaced with circles of seeds. But under the forest canopy blue berry bushes still display fruit on their summer-green branches.
In a few weeks, scoters and ducks will work the waters just offshore from the beach. But now the sea is empty and only a brace of gulls walk the beach. Aki keeps her nose down, hunting for sign. But we only meet one dog on the walk.
Around False Outer Point and across Gastineau Channel a remnant of Lemon Glacier hangs above Costco and the state jail. On most days it looks no more remarkable than a snowfield. But there is something about today’s light that turns its ice a pastel blue. In the Alps or even the Canadian Rockies, there would be a good trail leading to the hanging glacier. But here, its just another sign of the warming earth.
This evening one of Aki’s other humans and I kayaked across Mendenhall Lake to the glacier’s face. Tourists in rented red kayaks meandered their way past us, struggling to get the boats back to the beach. I love being on lake on overcast evenings when the wind drops and the lake waters are gun metal gray.
The roar of Nugget Falls blends with the complaints of gulls that appear to yell at us from nurseries formed on rock recently revealed by the retreating glacier. We have no problem finding a landing place near the glacier’s face—another sign of the retreat. A well-trod gravel path leads to the mouth of an ice cave. Last winter we needed ice cleats to walk on the cave floor. Today, it is ice-free gravel. Last winter we could wander down at least two tunnels. Today, one has collapsed and we have to duck under a low roof in the main chamber.
The whole writing school changed venue for the day. A chartered bus delivered writers and professors to Hatcher Pass, an old mining zone a few miles north of Wasilla. We are above the tree zone in alpine pocked here and there by mining rubble. As if we are back in Aki’s rain forest, clouds fragment against sharp edged peaks.
The writers and staff soon spread out. Some poke around the remains of an old gold mine. Others go to ground along mountain streams. Me, I follow some writers up to Gold Line Lake, a tern filing the depression left by a melted glacier. The writers are gone by the time I reach the lake, disappeared as if raptured into the clouds. But a family, complete with beagle, infant, and chocolate guzzling pre-teen taking blocks the trail. The baby cries. The daddy promises to bring food as soon as he has messaged off his selfie. The pre-teen whines because there is only trail mix. But the beagle isn’t barking.
Information posted on a government sign made Aki and I cut short our planned visit to the moraine. It warned of the presence of a black bear sow with two cubs. The bear had lost its patience with dogs and their humans. No one had been hurt, but I didn’t want to put the bear in danger of assassination if it attacked my little dog or I. Instead we head over to the glacier visitor’s center and walk toward Nugget Falls. This turned out to be a good decision.
The glacier this time of year is usually a place to be avoided. Industrial tourism buses rumble to and fro, picking up and dropping off cruise ship tourists. Seasonable government employees work crowd control. You can still see the big river of ice but somehow it seems diminished when viewed from within a crowd. This morning it is too early for the buses or the government minders. Even the wind is absent. Without it to ruffle the water, Mendenhall Lake is a giant mirror. Arctic terns temporality shatter the glacier’s reflection when they slam into the lake’s surface after salmon smolt.
I’m surprised to see the sharp tailed birds. Last week a glacial dam broke, raising the lake to flood stage. In years past, similar floods have covered the tern’s sandy nesting area. But this morning, a half-a-dozen birds fish for young in the lake. The chitty conversation of the terns can be heard over the Nugget Falls’ roar, robin’s sweet song, and the off-key whistle of a territorial thrush.
It’s the last day of writer’s school in Skagway. Students and teachers, including Paul Theroux are in a White Pass narrow gauge railway carriage that rattles toward the Laughton Glacier trailhead. The conductor has stuffed all the writers into one carriage where the sound of thirty or forty conversations competes with the grumbles of the old carriage and the disembodied voice of a tour guide giving the railroad’s history.
Last night rain soaked the trailside forest but now we have to squint to the morning’s sunshine while disembarking. Conversations began on the train continue as teachers and students start up the trail, joined by a couple from Galway who decided to follow us to the glacier rather than continue on the train to it’s terminus at Fraiser, British Columbia.
I hang back, letting everyone pass, until all conversation is being drowned out by a glacial river in a hurry to reach saltwater. The river also blocks out all birdsong. If a raven is scolding me, I can’t hear it. The forest plants aren’t steaming in the sun. That time has passed. But fat raindrops still cling to plantain plants and dead-brown foliage of last year’s bracken glows.
After a mile the trail leaves the river and leads me up through wind-stunted spruce and cottonwood plants. Still alone, I follow it onto a flat valley formed by twin walls of naked moraine. Only tough plants grow here. Ahead the Laughton Glacier curves up into clouds that obscure a mountain ridge. The clouds also block my sun. Ahead one of the writers, in long skit and windblown hair, walks towards toward the glacier with the help of a tall trekking pole. She turns the scene into a black and white photo of a pilgrim approaching her ashram.
I’ll pass the pilgrim and climb onto the shrinking toe of the glacier. The sun will return. I will hold sharp edged rocks just being released from glacial ice that carried them from mountaintop to my feet. “Look at these rocks,” I will shout to a much younger writer wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. But magic will be in their history, not their appearance so she will probably thinks me weird. Higher up the toe, I will fall into a conversation about wolverines: whether the grumpy loners are magic or just thugs. “Magic” will become my favorite word for the day.