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.
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.