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.

West side of Mendenhall Lake

a swan salute, a buried forest, and insects under the ice

Late October: to the amazement of most Juneau residents, we had a week or more of clear skies, bright sun, and very nippy temperatures (nighttime temperatures of eleven degrees at my house!). On one of these fine days two friends and I sauntered along the beach on the west side of Mendenhall Lake. The cold had hit the upper elevations a few weeks earlier, so water levels in the lake were low and the little streams that come into the west side of the lake were tiny riffles, easy to hop over.

Partway up the beach, we happened to turn around and saw five swans flying over our route. A splashy ruckus farther back down the beach demarcated the take-off point for seven more swans. These caught up with the first group, and all twelve circled up over the glacier and back downstream. A day later, and we couldn’t have seen them here, because ice then covered even the shallows of the lake. So we counted ourselves lucky.

Along the beach we noted several ancient-looking logs and stumps, embedded in the sand. These are trees that were flattened by the Mendenhall Glacier when it expanded during the Little Ice Age glaciation. According to local experts, some old timbers near the glacier terminus have been estimated to be twelve hundred to two thousand years old. Between the Pleistocene glaciation and the Little Ice Age, forests could grow in this area. But the advancing glacier destroyed that forest, and buried the dead trees in outwash sands as it retreated (which it began to do about two hundred and fifty years ago). How many times have I walked past those old trees and never noticed them! Shame!

Our destination was the rocky bench on the south side of the rock peninsula across from the visitor center. As on most of our best little explorations, we had no particular objective, except simply to see what we could find. Some small ponds on the rocky bench provided entertainment, although most were covered by a film of ice.

In the shallows, in the narrow strip of open water between the shore and the ice, we captured a very small larva, maybe that of a cranefly. Cranefly larva can grow to be nice, big, fat, juicy bird food, but this one had quite a way to go. The long-legged, flying adults are bird food too.

We also captured a small larva of a predaceous diving beetle. These larvae grab their prey with mighty pincers, and they eat almost anything that moves. Our captured larva was less than an inch long, but these beetle larvae can eventually reach lengths of several inches. That’s big enough to be worth catching by a kingfisher, and big enough for the pincers to be felt sharply by a human captor!

Predaceous diving beetles have a weird life history. Both larva and adult are aquatic, but adult females lay eggs on land or inside of plants. The larvae go into the water, but when they mature, they move back onto land to pupate, while they transform into adults. It’s not unusual for species with aquatic larvae to have terrestrial adults, but it is odd for an aquatic insect to use land twice in its life history.

Scooting around under the ice were water boatmen. They swim by using their hind legs as oars. Like the diving beetles and several other aquatic insects, they are air-breathers. So, in this way too, these insects have not entirely left the land.

At the side of a small waterfall we watched a pair of little flies, possibly chironomid midges, engaged (apparently) in the preliminaries to mating. They took a long time about it, and we moved on before they accomplished it.

As we climbed back up the hill to the main west glacier trail, we noted old beaver works high on the slope. Several trees had, long ago, been chewed or cut down. At first thought, it seemed odd for beavers to clamber so far up a hill, when trees seemed to be available closer to shore. Then we recalled that a couple of years ago, a beaver lived for a time above the Eaglecrest lodge, building small dams and a house. So beavers do what they need to do, in order to survive.