Aki doesn’t want to be here. She lags behind as I try to lead her deeper into the Treadwell ruins. Each time I turn around she freezes and tries to stop me with a stare. Only when the invisible band that attaches us stretches too far does she slowly shorten the distance.
Maybe it’s the rain, which marks the end of a long, sunny stretch. It could be ghosts of those that lived and worked the mines before a cave in one hundred years ago shut everything down. If she is like me, she is displeased by the recent efforts with chainsaws to push the forest back from ruins that would otherwise crumble into earth.
The screech of a predator makes Aki jerk toward the noise. When two shotgun blasts follow, she looks to me for reassurance. We are on a wetlands trail near the airport. In minutes a morning flight to Seattle will fly over our heads. I want to tell Aki that the screech and bangs were meant to clear migratory birds from the runway.
The noisy show doesn’t stir a raft of American widgeons feeding on the nearby Mendenhall River. These migratory ducks are another sign of spring as is the daily shrinkage of night. Frost whitens the still dead stalks of grass that cover the wetlands. But tough shoots of green grass have already started their climb into summer.
Four minutes late, the southbound Alaska Airlines flight climbs off the runway and over our heads. Inside, one of Aki’s other humans looks down on familiar landmarks from an unfamiliar angle but we are too close to the flight path to be seen by any of the passengers.
In the forest canopy, a brace of eagles bicker like a music hall married couple. One of Aki’s other humans places her in the crotch of a destroyed spruce tree. The forces of decay have reduced it to a hulk of soft ochre-colored wood. Most of the forest is dusk dark but a shaft of morning light animates the spruce remnant and makes my little dog glow like a crowned saint.
The tree that forms Aki’s throne took hundreds of years to join the forest canopy and thicken to maturity. It bent to the fierce westerly winds and lived to offer roosting limbs to generations of eagles. Then one fall night, a wind with just the right strength and direction shattered the tree, reducing it to the stump that Aki now uses for a better view of the surrounding woods. She dislodges several chunks of softened tree flesh with her paws when she leaps to the ground.
Ah Aki, look what I’ve found for you. Until now the little dog has been a reluctant companion on this walk across the thawing Gastineau Meadows. She formed a statute of distain at the edge of the meadow when I first left the trail. Letting a strong wind whip about her ears and tail, she turned her face in the direction she clearly intended us to go. I wanted to tell her that that path will be open to us all summer. I wonder why she can’t sense that already the meadow moss softens in the spring heat. Soon each step we take will damage emerging plants and mosses.
Only when I move out of her sight line does the little dog trot after me. I needed snowshoes the last time we crossed the meadow. Today we pass almost without effort until reaching this spot where snow still covers the winter trail. Aki sounds a happy growl and charges up the trail, her paws digging deep into the corn snow. For a magic moment she circles up and back, often leaping, always running, sometimes barking. Then, apparently spent, having regained her dignity, she waits in silence at the top of the small hill.
Aki is stuck, high-centered a foot of new snow. Big, “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” flakes deepen the snow cover. Nearby, gulls and scoters bob in the three-foot swells about to slam onto a snow covered beach. The little dog gives me a patience look. She could be barking complaints about my trail selection. She could be whining. Instead she waits for the expected rescue.
I want to explain that I took special care to stomp down the trail. But her face tells me not to bother. She understands. I lift up the little dog and carry her up the trail and over a five-foot deep berm thrown up by a truck when it plowed out the trailhead parking lot. When released, she rolls her face in the snow and starts to chew off the snowballs now clinging to her legs. I want to tell her that thanks to this winter storm, she’d struggle on any trail we used today. A ten-year victim of our fickle weather, Aki doesn’t need such reassurance.
Finding a place where the wind can’t hit me, I pull off a heavy mitten and use the bared hand to frame a photograph of a beaver house reflected in pond ice. “Click.” I swing the camera toward a ridge of saw-toothed mountains rising above the forest at the north end of Cowee Meadows. “Click.” Hand cold, I return the mitten and search at my feet for Aki but find only snow and glare ice. As she has since lunch when our hiking partner gave her some tasty treats, my little dog is hard on his heals.
They are fifty meters out on the pond ice. Squinting out the glare, I think I see Aki looking back to make sure I am okay.
I’d forgive the dog if she asked. She’s earned it. For two hours she bounced in and out of our snowshoe tracks or leaned into a wind that has already scoured trail ice clean of snow. She joined our approach to a beach being hammered by forty-knot winds, winds so cold that I could only stand for minute to appreciate Lion and the other peaks surrounding a riling Berner’s Bay. Then she follows us to this beaver pond, her exposed rear chilled by the wind.
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?