According to the calendar, winter started yesterday but it is spring in this beachside forest. It’s not a Wordsworth spring with its daffodil icons or even a Southeast Alaska spring marked by rising crocuses. This feels like a true northern spring when a hard nightly freeze follows each day of thaw. Like it would during an arctic spring, our snow pack has shrunken to an ice-crusted carpet that makes walking treacherous, even for Aki with her sharp nails.
The little dog and I walk in darkness but sunlight explodes off the mountains. Shaman and the other islands dotting Lynn Canal seem to be sun bathing. But there are few animals to enjoy the view. A cabal of gulls search the tidelands for chow but only four ducks, all local harlequins, fish the bay.
We are between lows, a time of busted weather that comes after the latest low has exhausted itself against our mountains. Soon, maybe tonight, a new storm will bring us snow and the return of winter.
Aki and I walk along the Mendenhall River where it slips into Fritz Cove. None of the local birds or animals show signs that they celebrate the Solstice. A harbor seal sulks in the river and we can hear but not see a trio of bald eagles. They complain from perches deep in the woods, sounding like hung over parents telling their kids to shut up. On the sand bar that forms the south border of the river mallard ducks waddle, stopping occasionally to belt out one of their maniac laughs. The gulls, being gulls, scream at each other. Solstice began early this morning. Maybe the birds and seals are partied out.
Aki looks edgy, keeping above the high-tide line. Confident that tomorrow the earth will turn its face back to the north, I enjoy the gray. I wish we still had snow but settle for the ice stalactites that decorate a sheltered cove. Soon even they will be gone unless winter returns.
Light is precious this close to the winter solstice. Even during last week’s stretch of clear weather, dusk settled over Juneau before 3 P.M. Now the clouds are back as is the rain. Aki and I move with caution down a Treadwell trail covered with sloppy snow and ice. When the marine layer shatters over Gastineau Channel to let in light, I understand why my Celtic ancestors honored the winter sun.
The forest that hides the old mining ruins still retains snow from the last storm. It brightens the reflection of the twisted alders growing along a shallow pond. One triangle of pond ice juts into the air but the rain is already eroding its sharp corners. Tiny waves, the concentric rings radiating out from each rain strike, crash against the ice—wing strikes on softening marble.
This morning the sun popped unencumbered by clouds from the waters of Gastineau Channel. In minutes the marine layer swallowed it. I watched from Chicken Ridge, smug in my modern-man knowledge that today’s winter solstice will end the time of diminishing light. Men without that knowledge once prayed to their pagan gods to stop the disappearance of light. On this day they’d be kneeling next to me in the snow. I can almost hear their beggar’s voices call down channel to the newly risen sun.
I call down channel with excited praise for the sunrise’s beauty. Later I take the little dog north of Juneau where fresh snow covers one of our favorite ski trails. We start skiing just after noon and find sunset colors already streaking clouds above the Eagle River. We don’t need sunshine to brighten the forest—the new fallen snow that covers the forest floor and weighs down the trees seems to radiate peace and mild light. Such peace in the forest almost makes you believe that there can be peace on earth.
What calms me has the opposite effect on the little poodle mix. Lacking the patience to trot by my side, Aki tears out and back, sometimes leaping so high that no feet touch the snow.
This morning, a light shower of snow brings beauty to the Gastineau Meadows. Like chalk in the hand of a charcoal sketch artist, the snow emphasizes the muscular curves of gnarled pine branches by settling into sharp white lines on the limb tops. We are the first man/dog pair to walk over the new snow. Aki dashes over the straight line made by a squirrel crossing the trail. The little poodle mix stops to sniff at some strange marks that could have been made by the stretching of a huge languorous house cat. I imagine a lynx, butt in the air, thrusting out its front paws and dragging them toward him through ice, snow, and frozen mud. Had to be a big cat. No canine could cut these deep little grooves down through snow and ice. This happened before the snow stopped, maybe while I drank morning coffee and read a chapter from Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth. It was her coyote story—the braided one where she writes like she is inside the animal’s head. I briefly fancy myself moving her story from desert to this snowy meadow before being distracted by the sky. The climbing winter sun shatters the monolith of gray that had hung over town for days. We don’t see direct sunshine but I settle for the pales pinks, yellows and whites that infuse the cloud crown settling above Mt. Juneau. This opal in the sky parts to reveal an irregular circle of blue. It’s a gift I can only share in words. My camera can’t capture its subtle beauty.
It’s not a natural place to seek solitude—this confusion of spruce thickets and meadows drained by winding streams. The wild animals are not the problem, it being the heat of the day. Silent now in sleep, the otters, weasels, and mice make their tracks at night. It’s the road that brought us here. More, it’s the telephone wires that cut across the place’s heart. I can almost hear the buzz of conversation they carry.
Away from the wires, there is enough quiet, between passing caravans, to allow contemplation of shapes made by the Halloween shadows of naked alders cast on mounded snow or by those same branches lifting up their children to the sun.
Even with the six extra seconds of daylight added this day after Winter Solstice, I have to strain in the faint light to make out a large, black back breaking the surface near Spuhn Island. I expected the flat heads of sea lions, who had been carrying on a conversation just before I heard something large exhale followed by their warning call and crash dives. The whale-like shape slips beneath the water then reappears farther into Favorite Passage after I hear another exhale.
I would have been happy with the white arc of this beach, its edge being refined by the incoming tide; the still bay reflecting a point thick with snow loaded spruce. It would have been enough that the rain stopped, that Aki and I found shallower snow to track along the water’s edge, that a small seal rises to watch our struggles from just offshore. We came to False Outer Point to confirm today’s gift of six seconds of extra light; accept the promise of 16 more seconds tomorrow, 25 the next, and 44 more on Christmas. The whale’s presence is a bonus.