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.
Aki porpoises through the five-inch layer of new snow covering Mendenhall Lake. She doesn’t smile, like some dogs, but her body language—ears flapping, front legs extended—conveys joy. Me too, I think. The lake extends for miles from Skater’s Cabin to the glacier. The handful of skiers already on the ice are lost in dissipating fog. I can almost believe that we are the first to use a new borne land.
Usually the weather or crowds punish us when we ski on the lake. Cold, often assisted by wind, numbs my hand and face, fogs my glasses. On sunny, windless days, the ski trails can fill up like ride lines at Disneyland. But, when we start today’s ski, it 32 degrees. No wind makes it feel colder or banishes the fog that glistens in morning sun. The temperature climbs as we approach the glacier. The snow starts clumping on my skis. The fog fades.
In an hour, after they have enjoyed a good Saturday sleep in and a fry up breakfast, Juneauites will fill up the parking spaces near the campground and skater’s cabin. There will be squeals and shouts of appreciation. There will be lots of selfies. None of them will capture my little dog flying over five inches of still-crisp snow.
I bring a digital recorder along on this walk to record descriptions of the sounds we hear while rounding the False Outer Point headland. But, the day’s calm, gray skies provide no wind to rattle the spruce boughs or drive surf onto the shore. Early on we pass an eagle but it never belts out its usual high-pitched cry of annoyance. Red Squirrels eat spruce seeds on the headland cliff without chitterling at Aki. Only discarded seed casings spiraling to the beach give evidence of their presence.
A scattering of scoters floating between us and Shaman Island mutter when we enter their privacy range but stop after they paddle ten meters further into Lynn Canal. The faint crow of a crow floats to us from the island where a raven is imitating a barking dog. Soon both fall into silence.
I waste the gifted silence by crunching through a midden of empty mussel shells and then a frozen drift of severed rockweed. Most of the steps the little dog and I take dislodge beach rocks or pebbles. They produce a bottom-of-the-well sound when they strike each other. When we stop walking, we can hear a stream flow down the headland bluff and over beach gravel to salt water. In the stream, ice has formed an inverted bass clef at the edge of a tiny waterfall. I’d like to ask the little dog why the sound of sparkling water rushing over gravel calms. Aki drinks the clear water and then calmly looks to me.
In fifteen minutes blasting will start at a nearby barrow site. I have to get Aki to the car before the first explosion. Otherwise the little dog will panic and hide herself in the thick woods on the ridge of False Outer Point. That would be a sad end to this walk of silence.
Aki and I leave Chicken Ridge early, before the scheduled start of the Women’s March. In a half-an-hour our escape route down Main Street will be blocked. The sun crowns above Pt. Salisbury, infusing wispy clouds above the channel with Easter-egg colors. It’s cold and windy but the little dog and I are dressed for it and the colder temperature we will have along the Eagle River.
The big meadow that feeds migratory birds Spring and Fall wears a new covering of snow, untracked except for those left by a cross country skier and a clutch of snowshoe hares. One bald eagle skulks near the meadows edge where it searches the riverbanks for food. Small lines of surf roll up river and the incoming tide lifts and cracks new ice. We have to take a long detour around the normally dry meadow channel because chucks of heavy ice now slosh against each other on tidal water.
This early (It’s sunrise) I expect solitude but we meet a group of young woman chattering and sliding over the new snow on skis. They fill the air with something like tropical bird song, a impression reinforced by the flash and color of their hi-tech clothes. Soon winter-quiet returns. The sun breaks over a forested hill to sparkle the new snow and the great blocks of river ice stranded on the meadow by the tide. In the forest I find a single high bush cranberry set to glowing by a streak of sunlight that managed to penetrate the old growth. Made sweet by the winter freeze, it tastes as good as it looks.
I wonder if Aki ever dreams of other climates when we walk down a rain forest trail on a hard day. I do. On this wet, windy transit of a north Douglas trail, I pretend that it will soon lead onto the south rim of the Grand Canyon just as the sun rises to set off the sunset colors of layered rock and sand. But the trail will never lead me out of this land of greens and browns so subtle that they could be shades of gray. It will take me to a beach exposed by an ebbing tide.
The rain stops when we reach the beach. A gang of surly looking gulls watch us as a formation of four harlequin ducks patrols offshore. Further out, white caps tromp across Lynn Canal and clouds from today’s storm obscure the mountains. Small, unexpected waves of contentment wash though me, keeping time with the ones dying on the shore. As fat drops of rain again soak her fur, Aki gives me a look that might be an accusation that I have lost my mind or a plea to book us both space on a jet to Arizona.
There’s rain in Downtown Juneau, brought by a curl of clouds that rode in last night on a Pacific low. But north of town, where the little dog and I walk along a Lynn Canal beach, it’s sunny. A few miles south, clouds push up against a weakening high-pressure ridge that reaches back to the Yukon Territory. Soon, gray clouds will blanket our sun, but not before we reach a little pocket cove where we’ve seen whales, sea lions, seals, and once an ocean-going beaver.
We work our way over rocks made slick by spray and moss to where the cove opens into the canal. I wait for the magic, for a brace of seals to round the headland or an eagle to pull something from the sea. It too late for whales but I strain to see one out in Lynn Canal. It is empty as is the sky and the trees surrounding us—empty of wild things but also of those made by man. All summer prop planes and helicopters flew over this place while fishing boats and whale watching rigs made noisy passages up the canal. Today, there is silence broken only by tiny waves strikes. Silence, and sun before the next storm.
We can’t escape the wind and rain, even in this beachside forest. But the trees take most of the gale and protect us from sideways rain. As often happens, the adverse weather conditions discouraged other hikers and have apparently grounded the helicopters and other machines of Juneau’s tourism industry. So instead of airplane noise, we hear the surf-like roar of wind through the old growth canopy and hollow pops of raindrops hitting broadleaf devil’s club and skunk cabbage. In between gusts, raven’s clucks carry over the forest.
Approaching the beach during a break in the windstorm, I look forward to a chance to do some bird watching—maybe spot an oystercatcher or one of the belted king fishers diving on a fish. But the bay is empty of birds and even waves. Rather than disappointment, I feel peace—the calm that only an empty, quiet, wild place can deliver.