Ice and quiet

exercises in active stillness

One day in early December, a friend and I set out to check part of the West Glacier trail and the route along the lakeshore. It was raining, of course, as it had been for days seemingly on end, but the fierce winds had abated. We thought the several creeks that flow across the beach might be flooding (as lots of other creeks were) and too deep to cross happily with just hiking boots on our feet. But the first couple of creeks were no problem; that was encouraging. We eventually got to a deep, wide creek that was too much for us, so we detoured up to the main trail, crossed a convenient bridge over that stream, and went right back down to the beach.

Walking along the cobbly beach allowed us to have what little light was available on that dark, dismal day. As we approached the north end of the beach, we began to see huge, thick plates of ice stacked up on the shore, perhaps the works of those terrific winds a few days earlier. In some places, the ice plates were stacked up four or five deep.  Some ice plates, maybe shoved by the slabs arriving behind them, had plowed into the gravelly beach, raising a berm about a foot high.

Photo by Kerry Howard

I know nothing about the physics of ice fracturing. Many of the slabs had well-defined corners; only a few were very rounded. It seemed that quite a few of those corners made a nearly perfect ninety-degree angle. That was probably  just a random happening; I’d need a big sample to find out!

Lunchtime at the end of the beach, before straggling up the muddy cut-off trail to the main West Glacier trail. It was very quiet out there—just the roar of Nugget Falls across the lake, the tapping of some rain drops on my cap, and an occasional clunk of one slab of ice lightly hitting another. We talked about what ‘quiet’ means.

Those of us who live in town often think of our places as quiet. There are sounds of traffic on the roads, airplanes overhead, boats on the channels, the garbage truck dumping the trash can, sometimes people talking while passing by, not to mention the ordinary sounds of the fridge or the furnace turning on. We learn to tune out the noises that are familiar and ignore the temporary intrusions. And we call that ‘quiet’.

Although almost no place in the real world is totally silent, I thought it might be interesting to find out what we can hear in places and times when all human-caused noises are absent and no tuning out is needed. Fortunately, here in Juneau, we can find suitable places and times for this exercise rather easily. So I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to do a little sampling. The ‘game’ was to find a place and time devoid of anthropogenic sounds and then spend four or five minutes just listening. To do this requires some (brief) concentration, allowing no potential mental distractions, such as an eagle flying high overhead or a mink running across a beach or any worries you may have brought with you.  

For the record, here are a few of the listening samples we obtained, in the middle daylight hours, in early winter.

–Eagle Beach: wind rushing through the tops of spruces while lower branches rustle more gently; rain drops plinking on the water surface and thudding on rocks, waves lapping the shore, a raven calling overhead, a red squirrel chattering in the woods.

–Boy Scout beach: distant call of a gull, faint sound of gull wings just offshore, wavelets coming onto the beach.

–Nugget Falls trail: roar of the falls, ravens calling from the slopes of Thunder Mountain, a gull’s call, sound of ice cracking on the lake surface.

–Basin Road: a flock of chickadees conversing in the trees, the creek rippling over rocks, a gentle breeze stirring spruce branches, raindrops on the observer’s hood.

–Auke Rec: surf, wind in the trees, rain hitting the rocks, raven calling, Barrow’s goldeneyes calling.

–Horse Tram Trail meadow (two observers): distant waterfall on Peterson Creek, distant water to north, ravens to west and north, unknown bird near the meadow, a crow, companion dog walking and breathing.

Not very exciting, eh?  It was about as quiet as it can be, out there. That’s part of the point. A poet called such a time of conscious attention an ‘active stillness’. The exercise is a little like a short meditation, with the focus directed outward, but I find that the peaceful effect is internalized—a little relief from other concerns and whatever tensions were building. A moment of calm that, for me, is similar to the peace that comes with some well-loved pieces of classical music, with the addition that there is a feeling of connectedness to the natural world.

It’s not an exercise for everyone, of course. You have to be ready for it.

Thanksgiving Week strolls

mallard perambulations, mustelid meanders, and enchanting ice

We had deep cold, then big snows, and then huge rain, and now the gray, foggy, misty rains seem to have settled in. But it’s no fun just staying home, so out we went, on a couple of leisurely strolls.

The home pond offered some interest, even before I left the house. Two mallard drakes had ventured up the creek to the frozen pond, where they scarfed up spilled bird seed. Their perambulations over the ice left muddy trails to and from the lower end of the pond. Red squirrels had made several visits to the spilled seed, leaving a fan of trails in several directions. And –oh,oh!—mama bear and two cubbies came by. The cubs romped over the ice, wrestling and chasing, while mom checked out the out-of-reach hanging feeders. I’m told that this family has been roaming our part of the Valley lately, well past the time they should be in bed.

An easy walk along Montana Creek began by discovering the new gate across the road, near the rifle range. The issue of placing this gate was discussed at least two years ago, and I had despaired of it ever happening. But here it was. Hallelujah! The gate will at least help the serious problem of dumping trash along the road; whole truckloads of junk used to be off-loaded on the roadside by irresponsible citizens. A nice set of ski tracks clung to one side of the road, and the several skiers made the skiing look good.

Near the bridge, a mink had come along the bank of the creek, then up and over the approach to the bridge, and back down to creek-side, apparently unwilling to get wet by going under the bridge. A weasel had meandered all over the place, looking in nooks and crannies for something to feed its voracious appetite. We finally spotted a dipper, busily nabbing small insects around the boulders in the creek.

Across the creek, we saw a long groove in the snow, way too loopy and curvy to be a simple crack in the shore-fast ice. It led from under a log, around a boulder, and finally over the ice edge to the gravel. The groove was too wide to have been made by a shrew, so presumably a mouse or a vole. Another traveler on the road had left baby-sized footprints with long claw marks: a small porcupine taking advantage of the shallower snow in the ruts between the deep stuff. It had really hustled along, with a stride length much greater than the more common shuffle we often see.

The next day, Parks and Rec walked the East Glacier Trail in mist and fog. There might as well have been no glacier, because the entire upper part of the lake was obscured by fog. We could just discern a dark, fuzzy shape across the way, where the rock peninsula is. A pavement of ice fragments marked the foot of Nugget Falls. The snow was sufficiently soft that walking was quite easy, and we were glad that the footprints of previous walkers had not frozen into lumps and bumps that make walking miserable.

Perhaps the biggest attraction along the trail was the ice, draped over boulders. Water still ran in thin sheets over the surface of the boulders, creating a lacework of frozen crystals that grew up from the ground into even finer filigree. Where ice had formed over bumps in the rock, the surface was decorated by beautiful, very fine traceries, creating what I would call vermiculations and reticulations. Of course, there were lots of icicles, of all sizes and shapes. There were all the usual spears of ice, but I was particularly enchanted by some of the complex joinings and separations among adjacent ice-spears, creating little networks of related icicles. (I would, in other circles, call these ‘anastomoses’; there’s another new word for some of you!).

There were signs that red squirrels or maybe some crossbills had been active, leaving scatterings of alder cone scales on the snow. Porcupines had waddled through deep snow, leaving characteristic trenches. The most fun was discovering a very young porcupine near the visitor center. It was intent upon eating grass and was not the least disturbed by the presence of several fascinated observers. This little guy was much smaller than expected for this time of year; it was about the size of those we had watched and followed last summer, four months ago. Good luck, small one!

Rambling in winter

owl wings, wolf tracks, otter sign, and ice formations

The short December days don’t allow for long explorations, but even short ones can be productive for a curious naturalist.

I took a little stroll on the wetlands on the north side of the Mendenhall River. At least four short-eared owls were coursing low over the grassy meadows, with their distinctive slow wingbeats. They were looking for voles, their favorite prey. Vole tunnels were evident under the thin and patchy snow, but I did not witness a capture, despite some serious watching. Short-eared owls often forage during the daylight hours, probably using visual clues to supplement acoustic ones. Like other owls, they have the ability of pinpoint a prey animal by using only their ears, but in daylight, their eyes are useful too.

short-eared-owl-by-Jack-Helle
Photo by Jack Helle

Plodding on snowshoes around some mid-elevation meadows, we noted lots of deer tracks, some not-recent porcupine trails, and several sets of hare and squirrel tracks. But the big excitement, in two widely separated sets of mid-elevation meadows on two different days, was finding clear, recent footprints of wolves; they wove in and out among the trees at the edges of the meadows. That was a high point of the rambles on those days!

A friend and I walked out toward Crow Point and the Boy Scout beach, but we soon forsook the trail for explorations right along the river. There was not a lot of bird activity—a little squad of Barrow’s goldeneyes and a few gulls, but on a little grassy rise above the sandy river-shore we did find something interesting. In the snow that covered some of the grass, we saw otter tracks leading up to the top of the rise. There we found three or four spots where the grass was torn up and heaped off to the side. What were the otters doing? Just playing? Scent marking (the grassy heaps smelled faintly sweet)?

Where the trail reaches the beach, recent heavy erosion had chopped off a good part of the dense stand of little spruces and carved a steep cliff in the sandy edge of the grassy bank. The most severe erosion was very localized. Just around the corner, where the beach extends southward, erosion was much less. We wondered if there had been a big northerly wind that coincided with a good high tide. Possibly the bank around the corner was somewhat protected from wind and wave by the broad, sandy flats that extend away from shore and are exposed at low tide.

We walked south on the beach, watching gulls at the water’s edge picking up and carrying black lumps that were probably little clumps of mussels. The gulls did not do much else with those lumps, at least while we were watching. Gulls tracks were everywhere. In the dry sand at the top of the beach were many tracks of another kind of bird—something small, smaller than a robin. But not a shorebird, because this bird had a well-developed hind toe, which shorebirds lack. The unusual thing about these small birds was the gait—lots of running, with intermittent hopping. Most of our small birds, such as sparrows, seldom run; they usually hop. So what bird could this be? I think the two most likely candidates are pipits and horned larks, but December is rather late for them to stay here.

Another stroll, just after a few days of freezing temperatures, yielded some of the most beautiful ice formations we’d ever seen. Dead twigs and fallen logs had absorbed water from fall rains; as the low temperatures froze the water, it expanded. The expanding ice was extruded from the wood in thin sheets of fine, almost silk-like strands. The most elegant sheets were up to five inches long, curving gracefully like a tousled head of wavy hair. Alas, no camera!